As Dr. Yafan Huang completed his high school studies, the field of molecular genetics was still in its early days. But he was fascinated by genetics and could see the potential impact it would have in the future.
After completing both a bachelor’s and master’s degree at China’s Jinan University to deepen his knowledge on the subject, Yafan knew there was more to learn. He turned his attention to North America.
In 1989, Yafan received a scholarship to attend Mount Allison University in New Brunswick and completed a second master’s degree in plant biochemistry. Still, he wanted to learn more. He looked into the top university in Canada at the time for plant biology – Queen’s University.
“I wanted to continue to advance knowledge in plant metabolism and molecular biology and Queen’s University was leading the way at the time,” he said.
As his studies progressed, Yafan’s dedication and knowledge caught the attention of his professors. While Yafan and his wife, Dr. Jiangxin Wan, a fellow biology graduate of Queen’s University, were completing their post-doctoral training in Chicago, they received a call inviting them to join a new company.
“One of my biggest beliefs is that we must use what we learn to create products and technologies that can benefit people and society,” Yafan said of his decision to join Performance Plants. “I like to devote all my energy to making knowledge available.”
Performance Plants was founded in 1995 by four Queen’s University professors to leverage their research findings, which looked at increasing crop yields. The couple returned to Kingston and began with the company as senior scientist, where they contributed to 86 of Performance Plants’ patent applications. Before long, Yafan became the company’s Director of Research, then in 2010, its President and Chief Scientific Officer, and in 2022, it’s Chief Executive Officer.
“The company’s work has been building for a long time,” he said. “It takes years to develop strong products in our industry and I believe the next five years will be the most exciting. In the next five years, the products we have invented here in Kingston will be arriving in the hands of the farmers around the world.”
Yafan’s ascension was part of a push at Performance Plants to commercialize its technology and that decision has paid off. In 2014, Performance Plants received the Agrow Award for Best Industry Collaboration, recognizing its successful commercialization strategy. The company was also a finalist in the research and development pipeline in the international competition.
“We celebrated the awards the Performance Plants way – quietly!” Yafan said. “We’re like a big family, and we all share in the success.”
Staying in Kingston may not have been Yafan’s original plan but it provided the perfect atmosphere for his type of business – a quiet, supportive city with a lot of talent.
“If you are in the technology business, Kingston has this constant influx of talented people thanks to its post-secondary institutions,” he said. “Organizations like Kingston Economic Development Corporation have also been very supportive in helping us apply to grants and make connections.”
Yafan’s success and expertise has not gone unnoticed outside of Kingston. He served as the president of Canadian Association for Plant Biotechnology from 2014 to 2018 and he was Canada’s national correspondent with the International Association for Plant Biotechnology. Yafan has also served on the Board of Directors for the Kingston Economic Development Corporation since 2019.
The awards, accolades, and titles are nice to have but for Yafan, it comes back to the impact of the research.
“There’s an urgent need to increase food production and find new sources of energy,” he says. “If we can enhance crop yields under the increasing threat of global climate volatility, we can better secure our food. We can build on the plant’s genetic strengths and turn them into productive plants.”