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Former RIM executive Dennis Kavelman says Desire2Learn 'is going to be the next big thing' to come out of the Waterloo region’s crowded tech space. (Rainer Leipscher/The Canadian Press/Rainer Leipscher/The Canadian Press)
Former RIM executive Dennis Kavelman says Desire2Learn 'is going to be the next big thing' to come out of the Waterloo region’s crowded tech space. (Rainer Leipscher/The Canadian Press/Rainer Leipscher/The Canadian Press)

Former RIM executive joins tech startup Desire2Learn Add to ...

Dennis Kavelman joined Research In Motion Ltd. when it was virtually unknown, with just 20 employees and roughly $2-million in revenue.

Over the next 15 years, the Waterloo, Ont..-based smartphone maker grew to more than 15,000 employees and sales of $15-billion. Mr. Kavelman had a front-row seat for the company’s explosion from startup to global player: As chief financial officer and then chief operating officer, he was one of the most senior RIM executives not named Lazaridis or Balsillie.

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Now, he’s looking to try again.

After a year of looking into venture capital opportunities and other positions, the prominent technology executive has decided to join Desire2Learn Inc. , a fast-growing e-learning company he says “is going to be the next big thing” to come out of the Waterloo region’s crowded tech space.

“One of the exciting things about my previous world was that you were doing something beyond just shipping products. We were changing the way the world communicates,” Mr. Kavelman said in an interview in Desire2Learn’s office, which is on the fourth floor of a refurbished Kitchener tannery that also houses Google Inc.’s local office. “Here, we’re changing the way the world learns.”

Desire2Learn develops e-learning platforms for universities, school boards and corporations, with mobile apps for smartphones and additional analytics to help educators improve their students’ performances. Mr. Kavelman is coming aboard as the company seeks to deepen its international footprint, tapping educational opportunities in emerging markets such as Latin America and Asia, as well as Europe.

The company already has offices in London, Australia, Baltimore and Singapore. In 2009, it had about 100 employees, grew to 200 employees by the end 2010, and has grown to just under 400 employees currently, with plans to grow to at least 480 this year.

At RIM, Mr. Kavelman moved from chief operating officer to a senior advisory role as the company pushed further overseas with its BlackBerry smartphone – a push that helped cement RIM as the smartphone brand of choice across much of Latin America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, just as the consumer use of mobile devices was picking up.

Before that, Mr. Kavelman helped take RIM public as CFO. He was also in that position during the company’s stock options backdating problems, and agreed, along with RIM co-CEOs Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, to pay financial penalties after a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission investigation.

The practice of backdating options was widespread in the technology industry at the time, and Mr. Kavelman says he thinks of the issue “as ancient history.”

Now, Mr. Kavelman says he is excited to jump back into a growth-oriented company. He is not the first former RIM executive to find fresh opportunities in the burgeoning technology scene in Kitchener-Waterloo. Adam Belsher, a former RIM vice-president, recently joined a local digital forensics software company called JADsoftware Inc. as president and chief operating officer.

Mr. Kavelman said he was introduced to Desire2Learn and its president and chief executive officer, John Baker, through another former RIM executive, Jeff McDowell. Over a game of golf, Mr. McDowell told Mr. Kavelman about Desire2Learn and said that he was joining up. Mr. Kavelman expressed interest.

“Dennis is one of the sharpest professionals I've ever met,” Mr. McDowell said.

After a meeting with Mr. Baker shortly before Christmas, Mr. Kavelman said he went home to his wife energized about the possibility of joining another company with a hopeful trajectory.

“I had a great adventure with two of the best,” he says, referring to Mr. Balsillie and Mr. Lazaridis. “When I met John, it was really a no-brainer.”

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