Mike Lazaridis, 49, is founder, president and co-CEO of Waterloo, Ont.-based Research In Motion Ltd., maker of the BlackBerry. William Downe, 48, is president and CEO of Bank of Montreal, based in Toronto.
Here, the two discuss the bank's donation of $4-million to create the BMO Sir Isaac Newton Chair at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, founded in Waterloo by Mr. Lazaridis. It is to be the first of five new chairs, aimed at attracting to the institute the brightest minds in the world.
Where did you get this passion for pure theoretical physics?
Lazaridis: I've known the power of physics all my life. You have to learn physics in electrical engineering. I went into solid-state physics, into computers and wireless communication. All these fields come from major breakthroughs in the unification of natural laws, which were once thought to be disparate. Once we had the nice mathematical relationship between these disparate effects, we were able to develop technology we now take for granted.
And that led to the creation
of the Perimeter Institute?
Lazaridis: I saw this incredible acceleration of communication lead to our success with the BlackBerry - this ability to shrink the world - but I realized that we had forgotten how we got here. It was a great opportunity for Canada to take a leadership role [in physics]but we had to be prepared to fund it properly and for long enough.
Downe: From Michael's engagement with theoretical science, fundamental physics translated into applications that generate huge economic value. I'm not just talking about the return on equity for shareholders of the company that manufactures the [BlackBerry]device. It's the efficiency of the entire system populated by people using those devices. It all rests on theoretical physics.
The great breakthroughs are a consequence of free, open collaboration that isn't constrained by a commercial objective. ... If this model used by the Perimeter Institute is sound, the science is going to generate "wake" [ripples of impact]that will create growth in Canada.
But will Mike Lazaridis see any return on the $170-million he has invested in the institute?
Lazaridis: I'm seeing some of it already, in pride in Canada and Ontario. You can see it in all those people who come to our lectures, in politicians who support us - and in the branding of Canada. It would have been unheard of 15 years ago to associate the top physics institute in the world with Canada.
How did the arm-twisting
for the donation happen?
Downe: If Michael were an arm-twister, he would actually be a pickpocket. He painted a very compelling picture of the evolution of human knowledge going back to the 1640s, when Isaac Newton was born, all the way through the thinking of Maxwell, Bohr and Einstein, all theoretical physicists.
Today, all the resources and funding in the world seem to be going to observation-based science. Yet the foundations of today's advances were written in theoretical science, which is the three-dimensional picture which takes place in your brain.
At PI [Perimeter Institute] we found an airy, open space conducive to interaction. There are blackboards to write down what occurs in your brain, but there aren't microscopes or oscilloscopes. There isn't a cyclotron or an accelerator. It's all in the heads, minds and imaginations of the scientists.
Does that mean the scientists don't need BlackBerrys?
Lazardis: They all have BlackBerrys, by the way. But it is true that the largest return on investment belongs to theoretical physics. Using this incredible tool called mathematics, and this amazing discipline of theoretical physics, we can, in our minds, see the interaction of invisible particles. We can provide mathematical explanations that we can duplicate and replicate, and can use to predict new effects.
In physics, there is a paradox that as you go smaller and smaller, you need bigger and bigger microscopes. ...But at PI, we have gone even further, visualizing things with size limits that, as a species, we may never be able to see physically.
Downe: For Canada to have created a place where that pursuit can take place will make us unique. It means spinoffs that are unimaginable - notions like clean unlimited energy that all of a sudden are within human grasp and where we don't have to dig up every tonne of ore in the world and burn it. And we won't have to extract every molecule of hydrocarbon from under the ocean to continue to heat people's homes.
Doesn't this swim against the tide of Canadian industry dominated by natural resources?
Lazaridis: What is Canada's greatest renewable resource? Our people and their education. We have a fabulous education system, available to every citizen and provided as a basic service.
We have been blessed with so much material under the ground - whether a meteorite full of nickel or hydrocarbon from a tropical forest of hundreds of millions of years ago. Yet the bottom line is those things will run out. We can simply take advantage of these resources, or invest some of that back into the next generation of value, which is intellectual capital. ...
The bottom line is when these discoveries are made by the global community, the country with the largest dedicated force to interpret, understand and disseminate that information will be the first to commercialize it. It might not happen for 20, 30 to 50 years - and I hope our industry will be ready to get involved.
Was there one event
that crystallized this decision?
Downe: About six months ago, we brought seven or eight CEOs from across Canada for a small dinner with Michael and Neil and we tried on the question: "What do you think about theoretical physics?" Everyone approached the dinner with deep trepidation. A number of guests were very nervous that they didn't know anything about it. "That is actually why we will have the dinner," I said.
How do you drive policy
around this thinking?
Downe: I remember in the 1980s being worried because the Japanese Ministry of Finance had drawn a map of the future in which Japan would [economically]crush the rest of the world. But it was so prescriptive that the voyage of discovery never happened. What Canada's government is doing well - going back a number of years, and it is part of our system - is creating opportunity, the consequence of which is brain gain.
Instead of fighting some defensive battle against brain drain - messing around with public policy and something else - you create a place where people want to come and work. If you have 300 scientists, and the number is constantly turning over, you're going to have 900 and then 9,000 scientists. Some will settle and stay in the system and we'll see a multiplier effect in the economy.
Lazaridis: We have to keep the borders open, we have to recognize that no country has a monopoly on genius, and we want these individuals to feel free and encouraged to come to Canada to pursue their studies in mathematics and physics.
This interview has been edited