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The Interview: Mike Lazaridis on Canada's next computing revolution

BlackBerry co-founder, Mike Lazaridis, photographed at the Institute for Quantum Computing in Waterloo on March 28, 2013.


Thirty years ago, armed with a small contract from General Motors, a student venture grant from the provincial government and a loan from his parents, Mike Lazaridis and his colleagues at the University of Waterloo in Ontario founded Research In Motion–a company that would go on to spark the smartphone revolution and become a global symbol of Canadian smarts. Today, of course, RIM–now BlackBerry–has fallen on harder times. But Lazaridis is not looking backward. Instead, his focus is firmly on the future.

You believe Canada is poised to capitalize on the next tech cycle–the next quantum revolution, as it's been called.
As a country, we largely sat out the first quantum revolution, which is referred to as the Silicon Age or the Age of Information. But now we know that there is so much that can be done if you have a sustained investment and you bring the best and brightest together. In 2000, when we introduced the Institute for Quantum Computing, the idea was almost completely unheard of. Today, no one is saying that quantum computing is impossible. Canada has now intercepted another major research and tech cycle, and I think if you look at the support the institutes have got from both the federal and provincial governments over the last decade, that's a reassuring sign that Canada has the commitment to participate in this next revolution, which will be more significant than the first.

Would you say the founding of RIM was a similar inflection point?
I think it was for this region [Waterloo]. We've had tech cycles across the country, but there have been only a few of them. The important thing here is scale. Canada had maybe a dozen companies over a period of 30 or 40 years that could be defined as silicon companies. The U.S. had thousands–tens of thousands–because they invested massively in infrastructure and R&D on a scale that made the rest of the world pale by comparison. And so it's very important to be in these cycles early and to amass both the intellectual and physical capital to be able to participate. And I think it's happening again here, now.

What are the lessons of the RIM story?
We have to look at it holistically. The first thing is, we were able to attract the best and brightest from around the world to come to Waterloo. And I think that is the most important lesson–that we can do that in Canada. The other big lesson is that this is a very rare thing in Canada. We're a tenth the size of the U.S., and they probably have 10 times as many high-tech companies per capita as we do. That's a formidable inequality. We've had so few companies. The good news is that they've been able to redefine the industry, become global phenomena, and provide so much value for the country and the world.

Is that high-tech inequality just a function of size?
It's a combination of two things. We have an aversion to focusing our investments in a region. It's a good personality trait to aspire to equality across the country, but when you're competing with countries like the United States, you really need to focus your efforts and provide meaningful capability and a competitive dynamic. The other thing that was very difficult in Canada was our culture in the past–we didn't aspire to become global success stories. What's changed is that we've seen it happen enough times now, and with products we can physically touch. The BlackBerry inspired a whole generation of Canadians.

When did your interest in quantum computing begin?
When I was a student at the University of Waterloo, we had an amazing physics teacher by the name of Lynn Watt. He was showing us fundamental experimental research being done by Alain Aspect in France. What quantum mechanics was showing us was a completely alien world, a world where a particle could be in two places at the same time. So my interest started in university.

Will a commercial quantum computer be built in your lifetime?
When we started the Perimeter Institute, I thought it was 30 to 50 years out. I would lose credibility–anyone would–if I had said it was going to happen in five to 10 years. It's kind of like the early days of RIM. We had no idea we were going to become a global corporation and define the smartphone revolution. But I think things have proven themselves to the point now where nobody is questioning whether we're going to have a quantum computer–it's just a matter of when. And there are all these spinoffs that are resulting from the investment and research. The very first example of that is a magnetic sensor that is made from a quantum device that is a million times more sensitive than any other sensor. These sensors can be used for all kinds of things, from mineral exploration on up.

When you say "Quantum Valley" to people, do they know what you're talking about?
When we introduced it, there might have been a little bit of a question. But it captured the imagination of the region. There's nothing wrong with that name, because we've created a leadership position for Canada in this new industrial cycle. At this point, as long as we're able to continue investing and building and growing this, it's going to mean a lot to Canada's future prosperity.

This interview has been condensed.

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