My Canada, 64/150: The fruits of technology

It’s hard to picture what Waterloo Region would be like if BlackBerry never happened.

I’d argue there would still be a thriving tech hub in the community: companies such as Open Text and Dalsa (now Teledyne Dalsa) grew from University of Waterloo professors’ research and other tech powerhouses such as Christie Digital (now Christie) evolved from existing industry – Christie Digital was built on the remnant foundations of Electrohome, a Kitchener-based business that built televisions, projection systems and owned TV stations.

But the emergence of Research In Motion, whose most-famous product was the game-changing BlackBerry, took things to a whole new level.

The 2015 book, Losing the Signal: The Spectacular Rise and Fall of BlackBerry by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff, chronicles in detail how Research In Motion rose from its 1984 beginning as an electronics and computer science consulting company founded by University of Waterloo engineering student Mike Lazaridis and his hometown pal, University of Windsor engineering student Doug Fregin.

The company grew slowly, to a dozen employees in the first years. CEO Lazaridis saw he needed someone to steer the business ship while he focused on invention: Jim Balsillie, a Canadian with a Harvard MBA, joined as co-CEO in 1992.

RIM, in its first decade in Waterloo, created significant technological inventions, including the DigiSync film barcode reader that revolutionized the film editing process and earned RIM a 1994 Emmy Award and an Academy Award in 1998.

Twelve years after the company’s founding, it introduced Inter@ctive Pager, the first two-way messaging pager, whose technology presaged 1998’s RIM 950 Wireless Handheld and the first branded “BlackBerry”, the 850, in 1999.

And so began the incredible climb: A decade later, the company had $2 billion in revenues as the world’s biggest seller of smartphones.

I’ll leave it to McNish and Silcoff to explain how, from this peak, the company’s profits  tanked and business unravelled as iPhone and Androids started gulping smartphone market share with their games-friendly touch screens. RIM, renamed BlackBerry in 2013, continues as a company, albeit under different leadership and refocused on software, including for self-driving vehicles. It no longer makes phones, licensing out its existing brand line to other manufacturers.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the market crisis: the people who were earning all these buckets of money from BlackBerry’s rise decided to share with the community they loved.

Mike Lazaridis became University of Waterloo’s chancellor from 2003 to 2009. He and his wife Ophelia, a Waterloo graduate, donated more than $100 million to establish the university’s Institute for Quantum Computing and the building of the Mike & Ophelia Lazaridis Quantum-Nano Centre. 

They’ve given other donations to the university, too, including $21 million in 2012 to support science research. Wilfrid Laurier University, also in Waterloo, received $20 million to establish the Lazaridis School of Business and Economics.

Lazaridis’s biggest legacy is the Perimeter Institute, devoted to foundational theoretical physics. He laid out another $100 million to build the first phase of the institute in downtown Waterloo in 2004; in 2006, the building designed by Saucier + Perrotte won the Governor General’s Medal for Architecture. The institute’s capacity doubled in 2011, now with space for 250 researchers, with the addition of the Stephen Hawking Centre.

Co-CEO Jim Balsillie also invested in his community. In 2001, he donated $50 million to found the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), an independent think tank which then partnered with the universities to create the Balsillie School of International Affairs. In 2011, across the road from the Perimeter Institute in downtown Waterloo, the CIGI Campus (funded mostly through government money) was designed by KPMB Architects to house CIGI and the Balsillie School; that building won its own Governor General’s Medal for Architecture in 2014.

Others enriched by BlackBerry’s success also have made Waterloo Region a better place to live. For example, couple Michael Barnstijn and Louise MacCallum, former RIM employees, formed the Musagetes Foundation. They have made some larger donations, such as $2.5 million for the library at Waterloo’s School of Architecture, but the Foundation also provides ongoing support for arts and cultural projects, including the Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery, the Galt Horticultural Society, the Kitchener-Waterloo Philharmonic Choir, and the K-W Multicultural Centre.

Someday in the not-too-distant future, there may be no more BlackBerrys in use; in the first part of 2017, so few sold compared to other smartphones that its market share is now statistically “zero.” I still have one because I’m a writer who can’t stand typing on a touch screen and BlackBerry is the only smart phone out there still with a physical keyboard. But even if BlackBerrys are no more, the community-invested profit from their earlier global success will bear fruit for years to come.

Main photo of the Perimeter Institute courtesy of DINO2411, CC BY-SA 3.0,


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