Q & A | BlackBerry Co-Founder on legacy, innovation, and Canadian entrepreneurship

7 December 2016
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Mike Lazaridis, BlackBerry Co-Founder and the 2016 winner of the Adam Chowaniec Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by Wolf Blass Wines has a long-lasting legacy spanning decades. He’s a telecommunications pioneer who invented the smartphone as we know it, built Canada’s largest tech company and lead the global telecom market. Read our conversation on legacy, motivations and the next generation with the father of the modern-day smartphone.

Q: Mike, what do you believe has been your greatest legacy?

I don’t really think about legacies or things of that nature. That said, I am very proud of what we were able to achieve with BlackBerry. We basically invented the smartphone and created a new global industry. Also, at its largest, RIM (now BlackBerry) was Canada’s largest tech company, a pioneer, innovator and leader in the global telecommunications market.

Q: That’s a paramount achievement, Mike. What motivated you to enter the world of telecommunications and technology?

I am a big believer in the power of science as a means of advancing society and creating jobs and value creation. I also believe that if you bring together brilliant minds to collaborate on a specific area of focus, you can create transformative technologies that in turn lead to huge opportunities for innovation and value creation.

Q: What kind of transformative technologies inspired you to use science to advance society?

Historical examples include: the effort during World War II at Los Alamos, which resulted in the creation of the atomic bomb, and the effort at the RAD Lab at MIT, which resulted in the invention of radar. Another historical example is Bell Labs in New Jersey where they invented the transistor and countless other transformative technologies. We applied this model when we developed the Blackberry and used the same model in developing the Quantum Valley.

Q: The Quantum Valley – can you tell us more about that?

The Quantum Valley started in 1999 with the establishment of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (“PI”). Following PI, in 2002, the Institute for Quantum Computing (“IQC”) was launched at the University of Waterloo. Between PI and IQC, Waterloo is home to the world’s largest concentration of theorists and experimentalists working in quantum science.

Q: You’re a philanthropist – do you invest in the Quantum Valley?

In 2013, we established Quantum Valley Investments (“QVI”) with a commitment of $100 million in investment capital. QVI, which invests in new quantum technology business startups, has established itself as a quantum commercialization incubator with a view to helping develop the foundations of a commercialization ecosystem for the Quantum Valley.  

Earlier this year, we helped establish the Lazaridis Institute for the Management of Technology Enterprises at Wilfrid Laurier University which will help produce exceptional tech-savvy business managers that will help lead Canadian technology companies including those in the Quantum Valley… We believe that the Quantum Valley cluster will enable the Waterloo Region and Canada to be a global leader in the Second Quantum Revolution.

Q: How can we ensure Canadians have the right skills to contribute to an innovative, creative, and entrepreneurial Canada?

If we want to compete globally, I believe that we have to apply strategies that enable us to build high density in human capital in the sectors that we pursue… Places like Silicon Valley have been hugely successful in attracting a large number of such brilliant people. If we want to compete with these centres, we need to focus on strategies that enable us to create this level of density in Canada. I think that by focusing on fewer areas where Canadian companies can lead and by investing extensively but thoughtfully in those areas, you can create the necessary environment to attract and retain these brilliant people and thereby create this high density. I believe that our efforts at PI and IQC demonstrate that this is possible.

Q:  How can we make innovation and entrepreneurship more inclusive to all Canadians?

I strongly believe that no one culture or gender has a monopoly on brilliance. Thus, both as a country and as a society we must always endeavor to be more inclusive. I think that you start by accepting this as both good business and a societal truth. You then develop strategies that enable you to pursue this result in practice.

Q: What has been your single biggest lifelong lesson?

That there is no limit to the power of the human mind to understand the universe and to use that knowledge to create and invent. To help us solve problems and overcome challenges. To create new industries and new businesses and to advance humanity.      

Q: What is your personal mantra?

I only like to focus on things that I am passionate about. I always want to find the very best people with the best ideas and then enable them.    

Q: What advice would you give to your younger self?

Trust your instincts. Don’t forget to enjoy the journey.