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Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis, Nation Builders of the Decade for Innovation
Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis, Nation Builders of the Decade for Innovation

Nation Builder: Innovation

Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis Add to ...

Jim Balsillie

Birthplace: Seaforth, Ont.

Age: 48

Mr. Balsillie is best known as one of the two men behind tech giant Research In Motion Ltd. He has donated millions of dollars to charities, think tanks and other institutions. He also generated headlines across the continent for his attempt to move a National Hockey League team from the U.S. to Canada.

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Mike Lazaridis

Birthplace: Istanbul

Age: 48

Besides helping to design the original BlackBerry that made Research In Motion one of the most successful companies in the world, Mr. Lazaridis has become one of the most important benefactors for the Canadian scientific community. Using hundreds of millions of his own dollars, he has funded some of the leading institutions in the world in theoretical physics and quantum computing.

Research In Motion may be considered Canada's success story of the decade, but to put its achievement in its proper context you need to think more expansively.

RIM has outgrown parochialism - it is a global success story. Fortune magazine didn't recently name RIM the fastest-growing Canadian company - it named it the fastest-growing company anywhere, period. Indeed, of the non-Canadian customers who have used the 75 million or so BlackBerrys RIM has shipped so far, it's likely many can't even point out Waterloo, Ont., on a map.

In a country where the business landscape is populated by oil sands oligarchies and failing forestry empires, Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis gave rise to a rarity: a Canadian corporate behemoth that isn't bound to Canada by geographic necessity. Theirs is a technology firm that would have fit right in with the giants of Silicon Valley; instead, they set up shop in an Ontario city of 115,000 people.

In the process, the two men altered the culture of business and showcased a near-unprecedented audacity in everything they did - be it luring the world's most famous scientist or taking on the National Hockey League.

Mr. Balsillie and Mr. Lazaridis will be remembered first and foremost for the BlackBerry itself - the device that helped transform a fledgling pager firm into a $42-billion company and, for good or bad, made the workplace mobile. There's a reason the gadget is nicknamed the Crackberry: Almost anyone who has ever used it - including the president of the United States - can't seem to live without it.

But at the heart of the two men's claim to Nation Builders of the Decade is the varied ecosystem they created with the fruits of the BlackBerry's success. Take the Perimeter Institute, the theoretical physics hub founded by Mr. Lazaridis. Ten years on, it is the largest post-doctoral studies program in the world in theoretical physics, and has managed to attract Stephen Hawking, the world-renowned researcher in that field.

What Mr. Lazaridis has done for the sciences, Mr. Balsillie has tried to recreate in the field of public policy. In addition to the Toronto-based foreign policy think tank the Canadian International Council, he has spent upward of $100-million on a network of policy research stations anchored by the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo.

Undoubtedly, taxpayer money went into many, if not all of these ventures, and their levels of success have not been equal. But the end result has been the transformation of Waterloo from a place where companies went looking for smart engineering students into the centre of a reverse brain-drain phenomenon. Google has set up shop there, as have many of Canada's most promising technology startups - more than a few of which are the product of former RIM employees. Smart Canadians who once flocked to Silicon Valley are slowly coming home.

Some of the two men's ideas really shouldn't work - planting a public-policy hub in Waterloo, trying to drag an NHL team to Hamilton, re-branding the BlackBerry from a business gadget to a consumer one. And some of their ventures have or likely will fail to meet their creators' ambitious expectations. But it's frequently noted by current and former employees that among RIM's top brass, there's no such thing as "just business"- everything is personal. And so it seems every day the men behind the BlackBerry undertake some new challenge of mind-boggling audacity.

Canada is home to this fast-growing company today because Mr. Balsillie and Mr. Lazaridis are not afraid to fight for what they believe in.

Omar El Akkad is The Globe's technology reporter.

Follow on Twitter: @omarelakkad

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