AIB Featured Business Leader – Mike Lazaridis
Mihal (Mike) Lazaridis is the quintessential inventor, a man who spent his childhood reading about science, tinkering with inventions and went on to found the modern smartphone with the invention of the BlackBerry. Since selling the company in 2012, he’s gone on to champion scientific thinking and education throughout the world, as well as filing a number of patents for innovations in wireless technology and software. Lazaridis holds two honorary doctorates amongst numerous other awards, and was awarded an Order of Canada in 2006.
Mike Lazaridis was born in Istanbul in Turkey on 14 March 1961, moving to Ontario in Canada with his parents at the age of five. Right from the beginning, Lazaridis showed a penchant for science. He claims his first invention as a toy record player, made out of Lego when he was four. At the age of 12 he won an award for reading every science book in the Windsor Public Library, and spent his days building rockets and radios in his suburban basement. His high school education balanced theoretical science classes with practical ‘shop’ course that taught him to tinker with tangible objects.
In 1979, he went to the University of Waterloo in Ontario to study electrical engineering. While there, he set up Research in Motion (RIM), the company that would later launch BlackBerry, in conjunction with two friends. The three of them envisioned the company as a consulting business which would focus on wireless technology for transmitting data, such as email and text messages. In 1984, just two months prior to his final exams, Lazaridis and his colleagues were offered a $600,000 contract by General Motors to develop an electronic display system. They accepted the contract, and Lazaridis dropped out of his degree.
With the money from General Motors, as well as a small government grant and family financing, the three were able to establish Research in Motion as a working business. Their first achievement was the development of barcode technology for film, and they ploughed the profits into new research. In 1992, Jim Basillie came on board as co-CEO, and his business acumen proved the perfect foil for Lazaridis’ scientific rigour. Throughout the mid-1990s, a series of interactive pagers were developed by the company. In 1999, an email function was added to the pager, and the device was renamed and launched as the BlackBerry 850.
The technology ushered in a new era of communication. For the first time, people could check and send email on the move, meaning that employees could be contacted remotely and work responsibilities could be responded to around the clock. Modern corporate life was changed, and Lazaridis was passionate about it.
From the initial success of the first BlackBerry came its successors: subsequent models added video, browser functionality, instant messaging and touch screens, all of which were in place by 2003. As the technology improved, the market grew. In 2007, BlackBerry had a 70% market share in the US. BlackBerry rode the wave, peaking at 80 million accounts. But hard on its heels were BlackBerry’s competitors. Apple had launched the iPhone along with a plethora of Android offerings, all of which were cheaper than the BlackBerry’s service, and by the end of 2011, those offerings had eclipsed BlackBerry for the first time.
At the beginning of 2012, Lazaridis and Basillie stepped down as CEOs of RIM. Lazaridis stayed on as chair of the innovation committee until 2013, when he announced his retirement from the company. But while some people welcome retirement as a time to relax and narrow their focus to their family, Lazaridis took the opportunity to think big. What could be bigger than revolutionising the corporate communications industry? Quantum technology, no less.
Lazaridis’ new holding company is called the Infinite Potential Group, which he means literally. The company funds a venture capital firm called Quantum Valley Investments, a $100 million venture-capital firm that invests only in start-ups which use quantum technology. Quantum technology is an as-yet untested technological field, where every new breakthrough has immediate practical application but very little is known of the potential. Lazaridis is working on the edge.
As well as his venture capital firm, Lazaridis has been active in philanthropic works that promote the role of science. From 2003 to 2009, he was the Chancellor of the University of Waterloo, after receiving an honorary doctorate from the institution in 1999. A large donation from Lazaridis established the Perimeter Institute for Research in Theoretical Physics, and another one to the University of Waterloo established the Institute for Quantum Computing. One more honorary doctorate came his way in 2005, this time from McMaster University. He was also named to the Order of Ontario in 2005, and appointed as an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2006. The Royal Society (London) made him a Member in 2014.
In 2013, he and his wife Ophelia built a home that doubles as a place that welcomes scientific minds and provides facilities for people to experiment. Spread along the shores of Lake Huron, it’s a fitting testament to a great career – a home to showcase an innovative mind and nurture the next great thing.
This article was written by Tanya Ashworth-Keppel on behalf of the Australian Institute of Business. All opinions are that of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of AIB. The following sources were used to compile this article: The Canadian Encyclopedia, The Guardian, Wikipedia, eMarketer, Macleans and Globe and Mail.