Alumni Interviews: Tech entrepreneur and musician
Ken Yang combines his passions
Ken Yang (HBSc 2011 Life Sciences, Psychology, Humanities, Music Performance; MBA 2015; JD 2015) is an award-winning concert pianist and tech entrepreneur who hails from the land of corporate law. He has performed in major concert venues around the world and his eclectic mix of musical talent and business skills have inspired him to create some successful and forward-thinking companies.
As an entrepreneur, Yang builds companies that, through technology, attempt to better understand the world. He is co-founder and CEO of Lucent Industries that develops technologies used in welding, vision aids, robotics, and other industrial applications. He is also CEO and co-founder of Splashtones, a company that sells innovative musical technologies like the hydraulophone, the world’s first aquatic architectural installation (that is also a musical instrument). The hydraulophone can be found in theme parks and other landmarks around the world. Arts & Science spoke with Ken prior to his participation in the Next Steps Conference.
What was the university experience like for you?
The most important academic experiences came from studying with true visionaries like Professor Ajay Agrawal, founder of the Creative Destruction Lab, and Professor Jordan B. Peterson, creator of the acclaimed Maps of Meaning course. I felt most compelled learning from professors who were trailblazers in their fields. Outside of class, I studied piano with the Dean of the Glenn Gould School, James Anagnoson, performed at concert venues such as the Roy Thompson Hall and Lincoln Center in NYC, ran a music studio, built a failed technology company, and conducted research in cognitive psychology.
Did you have a career path in mind while at U of T?
I was to become a concert pianist, until I recognized the opportunities as a researcher, lawyer, and entrepreneur as well. It’s impossible to know what a job entails until you do it yourself or really get to know somebody who does. Most students have their “dream jobs” without really understanding the good and bad parts. I chose carefully until I found a career that made me want to wake up every morning.
How did your university education prepare you for a career in entrepreneurship?
I was accepted into the Creative Destruction Lab (CDL) startup accelerator at the Rotman School of Management as an MBA student. I got the opportunity to work with world-class entrepreneurs and investors who had built successful technology businesses, and in the process built a personal network of influencers. The CDL teaches you something that money cannot buy: business judgment. The program gave me the resources and skills to choose the business ideas and partners that would make us the absolute best at what we do.
Not many people can call themselves a tech entrepreneur and a musician. How did you find a way to combine your passions?
I believe entrepreneurs are artists at heart. They seek beauty in creation and find their own avenues of expression in life. Being a musician gave me an identity, both on and off stage, beyond being just another corporate lawyer or employee. It gave me the skills to effectively communicate to my audiences in the boardroom and in the concert hall.
Tell us about the companies you have founded out of the Humanistic Intelligence Lab.
The Human Intelligence Lab is an organization at U of T that is pushing the frontiers in wearable computing, augmented reality, brain-computer interfaces, musical innovations, and fundamental physics. The HI Lab was founded by Professor Steve Mann, a pioneer in wearable computing, and our members have built companies around the world including Meta, InteraXon, Lucent Industries, Splashtones, and Transpod Hyperloop.
Lucent Industries develops technologies that help us see beyond human vision. Our technology is being used in welding, seeing aids, robotics, and other industrial applications. Splashtones sells innovative musical technologies such as the hydraulophone, the world’s first aquatic architectural installation that is also a musical instrument. You can play hydraulophones at Stanford University, Ontario Science Centre, Legoland California, and theme parks and other landmarks around the world.
Tell us about some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced — and the biggest opportunities — as an entrepreneur?
The biggest challenge is the emotional roller coaster of building a business. The highs are exhilarating and the lows are devastating. The biggest opportunities are in lifestyle design and social and economic impact. It’s rare to find a job with the potential influence and economic upside of a well-executed business, and I’m happy to say that I can choose my own hours, build my own teams, and still perform regularly.
What advice do you have for students, especially for those who are just about to graduate?
What matters even more than your GPA is the value you create outside of class. Now is the time to take risks, and “later” usually means “never.” Be known as somebody who consistently delivers more than you’re asked to and take ownership of everything that you do. Most importantly, enjoy your time here at the university and cherish the connections you’ve made.
Don’t miss out on two days of discussions, workshops and inspiration to help you kick-start the rest of your life. Register now to attend the Next Steps Conference, which takes place April 28-29, 2017.