Physics Research

Mike Lazaridis has had a lifelong love of technology. As a child growing up in Windsor, Ont., he tinkered endlessly with radios, stereos and computers until he understood the math and physics behind them. Now 39, Lazaridis has turned his youthful passion into a remarkable career.

Physics Research

Mike Lazaridis has had a lifelong love of technology. As a child growing up in Windsor, Ont., he tinkered endlessly with radios, stereos and computers until he understood the math and physics behind them. Now 39, Lazaridis has turned his youthful passion into a remarkable career. Founder of the Waterloo, Ont.-based Research in Motion Ltd. (RIM), Lazaridis is the inventor of the BlackBerry, a two-way e-mail pager that is enshrined at Washington's Smithsonian Institution in the permanent research collection of information technology. Last week, in dramatic style, the soft-spoken, affable Lazaridis demonstrated his belief in science, announcing the creation of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. The tech genius is donating $100 million, a significant chunk of his personal fortune, to create an independent centre where researchers can explore the essential mysteries of the natural world. "We need to plant the seeds for new innovations," says Lazaridis. "These things require investment, patience and focus."

The institute, which will begin operating in leased quarters next fall while a permanent home is built in downtown Waterloo, is being conceived as a place of study and reflection for up to 40 physicists and mathematicians, as well as a small number of visiting scholars. They will examine abstract questions about the origins of the universe and the nature of laws governing all physical matter. Such work, says Lazaridis, rarely produces short-term benefits, but has led to the development of lasers and wireless communication, and may eventually produce new forms of energy, communication or manufacturing. Overseeing the institute will be executive director Howard Burton, 35, who completed a PhD in theoretical physics at the University of Waterloo two years ago. Says Burton: "Many advances in physics, initially thought to be irrelevant, have become part and parcel of the high-tech age."

The announcement drew immediate applause from the academic and scientific communities. Given the primary focus on applied research, such an investment in basic research should enhance Canada's profile. "It shows extraordinary foresight," says Robert Prince, dean of pure and applied science at Toronto's York University. "By their very nature, the areas of research to be addressed by the Perimeter Institute will require the prolonged efforts of the world's best minds."

For Lazaridis, the son of Greek immigrants who came to Canada in 1967, creating such a centre has been a long-held dream. The extraordinary success of RIM-a company he founded in the mid-1980s while studying electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Waterloo-has made that dream possible. RIM currently has 800 employees, and counts as customers some of the biggest computer and telecommunications companies on the continent, including Nortel Networks Inc., Intel Corp. and America Online. Investors like the company as well. Earlier this year, they drove share prices to $260 from $35, making Lazaridis and chairman Jim Balsillie, who own about 24 per cent of the stock, worth a combined $4 billion. Within three months, the stock tumbled to just under $50, but closed last week at $152.

The major question being asked last week was: why did Lazaridis not make his donation to his alma mater? He maintains that the academic community at University of Waterloo, which includes one of the largest math faculties in North America and some much sought-after computer science students, will be an integral part of the institute. But he was determined to create an independent organization, partly to maintain control. He also wants the institute to develop working relationships with researchers at other universities in Ontario and across the country.

In the future, Lazaridis hopes that other private donors will supplement his contribution, and the combined $20 million that Balsillie and Doug Fregin, RIM co-founder and vice-president of operations, have put on the table. "What we're doing today is based on laws discovered many years ago," says Lazaridis. "New discoveries will allow us to make further innovations. And making things work faster and more efficiently always bears fruit."

Maclean's November 6, 2000