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After becoming fascinated with issues affecting the North, Sima Sharifi and Arnold Witzig decided to fund the Arctic Inspiration Prize.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

The Donors: Arnold Witzig and Sima Sharifi

The Gift: $1-million annually

The Cause:The Arctic Inspiration Prize

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The Reason:To finance research into issues affecting the Arctic

At first glance, Arnold Witzig and Sima Sharifi make an unlikely couple.

Mr. Witzig is a Swiss-born architect and businessman. Ms. Sharifi is a refugee from Iran who is pursuing a doctorate in linguistics.

They both ended up in Vancouver, Mr. Witzig in 1999 and Ms. Sharifi in 1986, and somehow found each other on the Internet. They soon began not only a loving partnership but a shared passion for improving the lives of others.

The couple spent much of the next decade travelling to Africa, Latin America, Nepal and elsewhere, working on a variety of social development and educational projects.

They also spent time in Alaska and Nunavut, where they became fascinated with issues affecting the North.

In 2011, they decided to focus their efforts on the Canadian North.

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"There are huge changes coming to the North, like climate change and the development of natural resources," Mr. Witzig said. "And these are challenges and opportunities."

At first the couple looked for projects to fund, but they soon came up with another idea. Why not create a kind of Nobel Prize for Arctic researchers?

They took the idea to ArcticNet, a collection of 145 researchers from more than 30 Canadian universities. That led to the creation of the Arctic Inspiration Prize, an annual $1-million award for northern research.

The couple are financing the prize from a charitable foundation they set up in 2008, thanks largely to the proceeds of the sale of Mr. Witzig's company in Switzerland. When asked how long they can keep financing the prize, Mr. Witzig replied: "Forever."

The first-prize winners were announced this week: four teams of researchers studying issues relating to food, literacy, culture and the environment.

"We are hoping to make the problems in the North known to people in the South," Ms. Sharifi said.

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