Future 50
A New Generation of Leaders Has Arrived

For iterating his way to ultra-flexible wearable tech with the power to save lives

"If we can detect diseases better, we can help stop them," says Naoji Matsuhisa. And figuring out precisely how to deliver on that deceptively difficult premise has been the focus for him and his team at the University of Tokyo’s Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology. They know one of the best ways to get the data is through wearable technology—but not in its current state. So, looking to the latest bleeding-edge materials in fashion for inspiration, they envision a whole new kind of wearable—one made of soft, stretchable electronic material that adheres to and bends with the human body.

Unlike today’s wearables that cover only small parts of the body and thus offer limited data, devices that use Matsuhisa’s material could provide a broader spectrum of monitoring. More consistent tracking of the electric signals in the heart and the brain, for instance, could one day improve detection of conditions like dementia. The sensors in his material are also designed to detect other biological signals, like temperature or strain.

To deliver that kind of innovation required Matsuhisa to lean into agile. Over the last decade, he’s completed more than 300 iterations of soft electronic materials. He then analyzes and summarizes the data and shares it with fellow researchers so they can determine which improvements to make.

“With this project, it’s very difficult to predict the results of each experiment because the system is so complicated,” Matsuhisa says. “So it’s important that we see the results of each iteration quickly, so that we can start working on the next one.”

The demand for continuous feedback has helped Matsuhisa sharpen his collaborative leadership and stakeholder management as he works with researchers from a variety of fields—such as chemists, electrical engineers and materials scientists—spread across locations. To keep everyone in sync, Matsuhisa maintains a two-way communication channel, listening to his team members while sharing his own experiences with them.

“I have to consider how the other researchers think and feel and how best to motivate them,” he says. “I always share my stories with the team and try to have fun with them.”

That combination of authentic engagement and boundless innovation is starting to pay off. With a robust library of various types of soft electronic materials, Matsuhisa and his colleagues are working to develop real-world applications. Next steps include determining how to power the devices, as well as capturing user experience data to adapt prototypes.

“I like research,” he says. “But in order to finish big projects, being a project manager is necessary.”

Q&A: Naoji Matsuhisa on experimenting with ChatGPT and creating new cyborg friends

What’s your project management superpower?

Knowing how to motivate my team.

How are young people changing the world of projects now?

They’re more passionate about environmental issues.

What are you obsessed with recommending right now?

I encourage my colleagues to play with ChatGPT. AI is a powerful tool that can change the future of project management.

What moonshot project would you most like to work on?

I’d love to work on a project to create human-friendly cyborgs.

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