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Rising solar stars

From left to right: Engineering professor Karin Hinzer, Patrick McVey White, Viktar Tatsiankou and Richard Beal. Photo: Peter Thornton

When University of Ottawa doctoral candidate Viktar Tatsiankou shows his two entrepreneurial colleagues a weathered, toaster-sized metal box with a protruding bug-eye lens on one side, he gets smiles and a guffaw.

The prototype, developed in 2014 as Tatsiankou’s master’s project in engineering, worked for only six weeks before water shorted its electronics. But that was long enough to demonstrate that the SolarSIM (Solar Spectral Irradiance Meter) could analyze the solar spectrum more simply and inexpensively than ever, a critical tool for improving solar energy technologies.

The SolarSIM has since evolved into a unique (and waterproof!) device that has reinvented the way scientists around the world measure sunlight and the atmosphere. It is the cornerstone of Spectrafy, a solar start-up founded by Tatsiankou, its chief technology officer, and CEO Richard Beal.

The duo and Spectrafy’s third employee, Patrick McVey White, are shining examples of how the University of Ottawa’s SUNLAB, one of Canada’s leading solar energy research labs, is spinning off both technology and talent to fuel the future of solar energy companies in Canada and beyond. Tatsiankou currently conducts research at the lab, while Beal is a former SUNLAB post-doc and McVey White recently completed his master’s degree there. “Without the SUNLAB facilities this device would never have been developed,” says Tatsiankou, a 28-year-old native of Belarus.

SUNLAB has enabled the entrepreneurs to develop and test SolarSIM with world-class equipment, including a solar panel test site atop a parking garage. It’s the culmination of a decade-long development for University of Ottawa engineering professor and Canada Research Chair Karin Hinzer, who founded SUNLAB in the summer of 2007 during the first glimmers of the present solar energy flowering.

“People take us seriously now,” says Hinzer. “Now the whole world is going solar. There’s a lot of room for students to start companies.”

For the Spectrafy team, it’s been both a technology and personal proving ground. The lab has also facilitated opportunities abroad. McVey White, a 25-year-old Montréal native, helped France’s renewable energy agency install their SolarSIM-D2 (the product’s second generation) during a four-month stint sponsored by SUNLAB.

Spectrafy is the second SUNLAB-sparked start-up for Beal, 34, a Rhodes scholar who grew up in New Zealand and earned a doctorate in materials science at Oxford. He is now leveraging his hard-won experience from his previous company, COFOVO, started in 2013.

With the SolarSIM-D2, the SUNLAB trio has developed an innovative product that is being bought by solar energy companies and national research labs around the world. The device enables users to accurately measure the solar spectrum and total radiant energy, while simultaneously gauging atmospheric levels of ozone, water and aerosols, for a fraction of the cost of previous methods.

Spectrafy is currently deploying a national network of SolarSIM sensors at seven federal government research sites across Canada — a contract worth over $500,000.

“As far as we know, no other measurement network in the world possesses such a broad array of measurement capabilities,” says Tatsiankou. “Our dream is to have a global network of these devices.”

This article was adapted with permission from the This link will take you to another Web site University of Ottawa. A longer version of this article was published in the Summer 2017 issue of Research Perspectives.

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