n the day of Bill Gates' October 2005 visit to Canada's University of Waterloo, David Johnston, president of the institution sometimes referred to as the MIT of the North, was slightly nervous. As he waited to introduce the Microsoft chief to Research In Motion co-founder, President and CEO Mike Lazaridis, who is also chancellor of the university, Johnston hoped the two executives' intensifying rivalry in mobile computing wouldn't cast a shadow over the event.
Johnston needn't have worried. Lazaridis, who has donated more than $100 million to educational research initiatives in the Waterloo, Ontario, region, and Gates, whose philanthropy has focused on improving health care and education in developing countries, spent their time eagerly discussing each other's work in channeling the fruits of their business success into building stronger societies.
"Watching these individuals shedding their business concerns to discuss their respective philanthropy efforts was a powerful experience," Johnston recalls.
Maybe Lazaridis' boundless scientific curiosity has given him money to fund these efforts. Born in Turkey of Greek origin, his family migrated to Canada in 1966, settling in Windsor, Ontario. A voracious reader from an early age, Lazaridis won a prize at the Windsor Public Library at age 12 for reading every single science book in the library, Johnston says. "It's clear that Mike was a very inventive and curious student."
Lazaridis dropped out of the University of Waterloo in 1984, a few credits shy of a degree in electrical engineering, and founded Research In Motion (RIM) later that year along with his childhood friend Doug Fregin. Since then, RIM's BlackBerry handheld devices have become a wildly popular platform for companies seeking to provide their mobile workforces with secure access to corporate e-mail. More recently, a whole new crop of solution providers has sprouted up to extend applications such as CRM and ERP to the Black-Berry and other mobile platforms. The actual device can be traced to the early 1990s, when RIM began working on a BlackBerry predecessor that operated on Mobitex, a narrowband wireless data network developed by Ericsson and operated by BellSouth in the United States.
Richard Donnelly, vice president of network operations at Velocita Wireless (formerly a division of BellSouth), recalls how Lazaridis worked tirelessly in those days to optimize the network performance of the early BlackBerry, which was extremely large and cumbersome by today's standards. "I've always thought of Mike as a compulsive, relentless innovator; his technical mind seems to run day and night," Donnelly says.
In 1997, Lazaridis' efforts finally paid off in the form of a smaller, more efficient BlackBerry that quickly became a huge commercial success. Lazaridis insists that the BlackBerry's popularity—RIM counts some 3.65 million BlackBerry users today—stems from its simplicity and the fact that RIM has focused on secure wireless access to corporate e-mail instead of bombarding users with functionality they don't need.
"Mike has a passion for excellence that is driven by a deep understanding of science and engineering and grounded by his own pragmatism," says Mark Guibert, vice president of corporate marketing at Waterloo-based RIM. "He wants RIM designing products for the real world—it can't just sound good on paper."
Along the way, Lazaridis has accumulated more than 30 patents, some for wireless functions of the BlackBerry, others for inventions such as wireless PC cards and industrial display systems. Lazaridis also holds a patent for DigiSync, a bar-code reader used in production of motion pictures that earned him an Emmy and an Academy Award in 1999. His diverse body of work led the University of Waterloo to name him an honorary Doctor of Engineering in 2000.
Investments in basic research at the university level will fuel the economies of the next century, according to Lazaridis, who finds inspiration in the ideas of Vannevar Bush, a leading government research scientist in the late 1940s who helped draw the connection between basic research and job creation. "We're seeing the results of that today in the success of the technology industry," Lazaridis says.
But the success of the industry has perhaps led some to take technology for granted, and Lazaridis cringes when he hears questions about why leading-edge scientific disciplines such as quantum physics are important. "The biggest source of personal frustration for me is that we ask these questions because everything that we take for granted today—computers, air travel—is the technological end result of discoveries in physics made over the past century," Lazaridis says.
With a goal of putting the framework in place for innovations of the next century, his $100 million-plus donations have created the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and funded the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo. The Perimeter Institute works with Canadian universities to develop research in theoretical physics by attracting top professors and researchers. Howard Burton, executive director of the Perimeter Institute, says the focus is on undirected research aimed at uncovering the laws of nature and understanding them more deeply. "If you want to have interesting technologies in the future, you'd better start thinking about fundamental physics today," Burton says. "Historically, when you address fundamental questions, they eventually do have ramifications in the physical world."
Burton says Lazaridis has tremendous respect for scientists and for people who dedicate themselves to fundamental research. "Mike is not a physicist—he'll be the first one to admit that—but he has a deep knowledge of the importance and impact of science," Burton says. "He doesn't consider himself a peer, but more like a fan, and that's a great position for a researcher to be in."
The importance of undirected research is a point Lazaridis often makes: He feels universities should strive to create a stimulating environment where students are infused with innovative ideas from the best professors and researchers. Afterward, when students take what they've learned into the world to form the next wave of companies, commercialization that leads to economic growth will be realized, according to Lazaridis.
"What you quickly realize about Mike's philanthropic efforts is that he's trying to give back to the research community because he realizes that much of RIM's success has been built on the scientific discoveries of 50 to 100 years ago," says Michele Mosca, deputy director at the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo and a researcher at the Perimeter Institute.
Johnston and Lazaridis were part of a delegation of officials and students who traveled to New York in late November for the opening of the Waterloo Institute for Computer Research Manhattan, which is the university's first international office. The students were invited to ring the bell at the opening of the New York Stock Exchange, and Johnston recalls seeing Lazaridis' face light up as he watched the proceedings.
"Mike's not a guy who shows pride, but he appeared very satisfied to see the University of Waterloo's research efforts recognized on the stage of Wall Street," Johnston says. "I think it would also bring Mike great satisfaction to know that he has been successful in engaging Canadians in understanding the importance of education."