Crescent School alumnus Mike Yan ’05 is helping the green energy industry thrive and grow.
Mike Yan ’05 admits he has always been a tinkerer. In fact, it was that propensity that led his parents to enrol him at Crescent in Grade 7.
As Yan tells the story, one of his Grade 6 teachers told his parents that they didn’t know what to do with him and that Yan would be bored in public school. His family decided to check out Crescent, meeting with the Head of the Middle School, Pat Mills, and touring the campus. “He showed us what all the possibilities were,” Yan remembers. “I was really fortunate that my parents agreed to send me there.”
From the beginning, Yan’s passion for tinkering was encouraged at Crescent. He recalls building a mechanical toy in his Grade 8 science class as a time when he created something “technical rather than for the purpose of art.” In Grade 9, his science class built an electricity-generating wind turbine – an early hint at his future career in the renewable energy sector. Yan also joined Team 610, Crescent’s keenly competitive robotics team. “The school offered us an opportunity to try new things safely,” he says. “Crescent expected a lot from us, but we didn’t have to be right the first time.”
Now an entrepreneur in the solar power market, Yan recognizes just how valuable that experience was.
After Crescent, Yan completed an undergraduate degree in applied mathematics and a Masters in Mechanical Engineering, both at Queen’s University. Along the way, he worked for several engineering companies and banks. “That helped me understand that I wouldn’t thrive in an environment that was too structured and had a lot of rules!”
His first full-time job was with Taplytics, a firm started by four Crescent alumni: Aaron Glazer ’02, Cobi Druxerman ’02, Andrew Norris ’03 and Jonathan Norris ’07. Taplytics helps clients optimize digital marketing and online customer experience. Yan moved with Taplytics to Silicon Valley in 2013, where they worked with Y Combinator, the legendary high-tech incubator.
When Yan moved back to Canada in 2014, he connected with Rob Andrews, a friend from Queen’s. While doing his PhD in solar modelling, Andrews had identified a gap in the market. The data available from existing monitoring systems at solar farms was too high-level to pinpoint issues with individual panels – a problem when the largest solar farms can house millions of panels.
Yan and Andrews developed a platform that maps solar farms from the air, using energy lost as heat to identify problems and analyse the root cause. With personal funds and government grants, they developed a prototype and made their first sales. Heliolytics was launched.
“We’re able to create a treasure map for our clients, with a mark on every single panel where we find some sort of fault or anomaly,” says Yan. “And we can do more than tell the customer that something’s wrong: we can tell them why.”
Sometimes the solution is as simple as sending out a cleaning crew; other times, it requires a team of engineers. Whatever the solution, Heliolytics helps its customers increase the productivity of their farms. Since 2014, Toronto-based Heliolytics has scanned roughly 25% of the North American solar market. And it’s a market that’s expanding globally at a rate of 25% per year.
Yan is thriving in his role at Chief Technology Officer. “From a very technical standpoint, there are a million interesting problems to solve,” he says. “And what I like most is that they’re meaningful problems. We see ourselves as part of the process of ensuring that renewable energy makes sense.”
Two other Crescent alumni – Scott Innes ’07 and Gord Smith ’05 – now work at Heliolytics. And Yan hasn’t forgotten where it all started. Every year, he and other Team 610 alumni assist the current team as it prepares for the FIRST Robotics world championships. Another annual event for Yan is the Ride to Conquer Cancer. He and a group of Crescent alumni have participated every year since it was launched.
The future for Heliolytics looks bright, Yan says. “It’s a balance between making sure that we own our market and staying curious about where else we can move,” says Yan. “That’s why I’m so lucky – we’re always trying new things and learning a lot.”