How did Mike Lazaridis make our Power List?

Paul Wells explains after his visit to the Quantum Valley

Defining power is almost as hard as acquiring and keeping it.

Being able to command the spotlight is often an attribute of the powerful, but so too is a knack for operating from the shadows. We tend to closely associate wealth and power, but it would be foolish—and boring—to ignore the clout of those whose paycheques wouldn’t be all that impressive, whether public servant or priest, creative thinker or cultural arbiter. Presiding over the pinnacle of a hierarchy might seem like the common condition of the powerful, until someone inevitably mentions one of those intriguingly influential loners, iconoclasts or introverts. Keeping all these intriguing contradictions and counterbalances in mind, writers and editors at Maclean’s who cover the Canadian scene compiled the Power List with three broad concepts in mind: institutional clout, capacity for innovation and timeliness. You’ll find the complete list in the current issue of Maclean’s, which just hit stands. Watch for it on our website early next week.

For now though, Maclean’s Political Editor Paul Wells explains why Mike Lazaridis is No. 10 on our list: 

(Photo by Jaime Hogge)

These days Mike Lazaridis keeps an office in a three-storey building in the University of Waterloo’s sprawling and non-descript industrial research park. The deposed BlackBerry founder’s business card carries the name of his holding company: “Infinite Potential Group.” The name sounds designed to be meaningless until you realize Lazaridis means it at face value. The group he is assembling really does have infinite potential.

To get an interview with Lazaridis I pestered him for three months through intermediaries who made me promise I would ask no question about BlackBerry, the company he co-founded, lost and is, reportedly, trying to buy back. I didn’t mind. BlackBerry is hardly the only thing on his plate now. Lazaridis is on the hunt for vastly bigger game than smartphones.

“What a few of us are saying is, there’s a potential here for a new paradigm, the next quantum revolution,” Lazaridis said.

Around Waterloo, Ont., Lazaridis and a few associates have started calling the region west of Toronto the “Quantum Valley,” a conscious echo of Silicon Valley in northern California. There, beginning in 1957, a few refugees from Bell Labs launched the global semiconductor industry, whose total value half a century later is measured in trillions of dollars. Lazaridis has been moving aggressively to launch and lead a comparable revolution: the era of quantum technology.

In March, with BlackBerry co-founder Doug Fregin, Lazaridis announced the creation of Quantum Valley Investments (QVI), a $100-million venture capital firm that will invest only in businesses that want to exploit quantum technology. There is only one other like it in the world, Quantum Wave, launched last year in Atlanta with Russian money. But QVI builds on more than a decade of expertise Lazaridis has been gathering in Waterloo.

His first move was the creation of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in 1999 to explore fundamental questions in physics, such as the nature of space and gravity, the composition of the atom, and so forth. Perimeter makes nothing but theories. Its standard work tool is chalk on chalkboards. In 2002, Lazaridis launched his project’s experimental phase, the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC). Spilling across three buildings including the year-old, state-of-the-art 280,000-sq.-foot Quantum Nano Centre, IQC is home to 200 scientists trying to turn theory into working prototypes for a new technology.

And that’s where Lazaridis originally planned to leave things, because he didn’t think there would be workable quantum technology in his lifetime. “I was going to leave it to other people to do.”

Quantum technology depends on the peculiar properties of matter at the smallest scale, the scale of atoms. Classical information technology, the stuff we use every day, is built from tiny switches, or “bits,” that can either be on or off. But at the atomic scale, things get so weird it is a challenge even to describe them. An individual atom in its new role as a quantum bit can be on, off—or both at the same time. Quantum particles can become “entangled” so that a change in one particle is reflected by an identical change in the other—instantly, across any distance. These properties are so close to magic that it’s perhaps appropriate that they only happen out of sight: as soon as humans attempt to measure what’s going on in a quantum system, it loses its “quantum-ness.”

But the potential payoff from this strangeness is vast. The “superposition” of quantum bits—their ability to be on, off and both at the same time—means that quantum computing power increases geometrically. Two quantum bits, or “qubits,” can hold as much information as four classical bits, three as much as eight—and 500 could hold and process far more information than the largest computer yet built.

The trick is to make them. The state of the art is rudimentary. When Lazaridis hired a soft-spoken, Quebec-born student of Stephen Hawking’s named Raymond Laflamme to be the director of the Institute for Quantum Computing in 2002, Laflamme had built a five-qubit “computer,” an incredibly finicky tinker toy. Laflamme is up to a dozen qubits now; he hopes to have machines with 50 to 100 qubits in the next five years. To get this far, Lazaridis has paid $200 million of his own money, an amount roughly matched by a series of investments over 13 years by the Ontario and federal governments.

But four or five years ago, Laflamme started to report to Lazaridis that progress toward quantum computers is faster than expected, and the road is not empty of landmarks. It will take an unimaginable string of breakthroughs to get to workable quantum computers—but because the field is so new, every single breakthrough along the way has an immediate practical application. Each discovery Laflamme and his colleagues makes has provided something that could go on the market for profit.

Laflamme showed me sheets of factory-made diamond with precisely inserted impurities, individual atoms poked into the carbon lattice with microscopic accuracy. The resulting material has quantum properties. He showed me a sensor made of silicon and etched aluminum. An IQC researcher, Adrian Lupascu, had an insight: If quantum states are incredibly delicate and prone to break down, their very fragility can make them useful for sensors. “These are the best magnetometers there are, the size of microns . . . an order of magnitude more sensitive than anything else.” They’ll have applications in medical imaging, manufacturing and microscopy.

Laflamme has been recruiting world-class scientists at an accelerating pace: materials scientists, engineers, theorists. His biggest catch by far is David Cory, a nuclear engineer the University of Waterloo poached from the Massachussetts Institute of Technology in 2010 with a $10-million federal grant. Nobody in the world is better at understanding the odd language of quantum particles or in spotting their real-world applications. He came to Canada with three 18-wheelers full of lab equipment. That posed the sort of challenge Lazaridis likes to solve.

When the federal grant competition was announced, Laflamme said, “David was obviously a target. This building was not ready. The question was, how do you bring him here, but leave him with no room for a year or two?”

Lazaridis was at the table when Laflamme explained his dilemma: For the next two years he would have only temporary digs, and he needed Cory right now. “So Mike looked up and said, ‘Would another building like this work?’ I said yeah. He said, ‘I’ll get back to you.’ That was around 10 a.m. At around noon he said, ‘We have a deal. I talked to the president of the university, I have a partner.’ ” The IQC expanded to fill the building next door, and when the new building opened in 2012, the two other buildings stayed in service.

Cory, wild-haired and bearded like an aging California surfer, showed me room after room of laboratories, moving at a speed just short of a run. “Here we have NMR systems, so they’re big superconducting magnets,” he said at one point. “A 10 millikelvin vacuum can,” able to produce temperatures a fraction of a degree above absolute zero. “X-ray diffraction.”

Pieces of equipment the size of household refrigerators were connected in long chains, in a hodgepodge as cheerfully improvised as a high-school chemistry lab but with equipment thousands of times more delicate and powerful. “Every room should be a lab, in my view,” Cory said, peering into a cubicle the size of a graduate student’s office. “Here we grow diamonds,” he said in another room across the hall. “We can grow about a micron of diamond an hour.”

Cory has an unusually large team of graduate students and post-doctoral assistants from a wide variety of disciplines. The entire team meets every morning. Nobody is allowed to work on individual projects. They have found applications for their work in medical imaging and in deep-sea oil exploration. “We’ve started exploring with the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre” in Toronto, Cory said. “Just an open-ended discussion. How can quantum sensors make a difference? And there’ll be many ways. It’ll build on old work we did at the Dana-Farber cancer centre in Boston, using quantum sensors to set the edges of soft-tissue sarcomas.”

In September, IQC named its two latest recruits. Amir Yacoby comes from Harvard University and is a world leader in developing these exotic materials that can hang onto quantum characteristics. Steve MacLean is an astronaut: he served on the International Space Station in 2006 and was the president of the Canadian Space Agency from 2008-13. But MacLean is also a physicist who was setting up an elaborate experiment in his garage—he won’t discuss details—when he bumped into Lazaridis a few years ago at Cape Canaveral before a space shuttle launch. “We ended up talking for two hours about everything and nothing.” Soon MacLean had offices at Perimeter and at IQC. He also serves on the advisory board of the new venture-capital firm.

What are they doing? MacLean won’t say. “Um. I mean, I know the answer to that,” he said, when I asked him how many business plans QVI is adjudicating. “There are many non-disclosure agreements.”

All the research at Perimeter and IQC is public, as at any university. Just about everything to do with QVI is private. This is what happens when science moves into the fiercely competitive world of business.

“You know what I’m doing by doing that?” MacLean said in an attempt to explain his silence. “I’m protecting Canada in a way. I mean, this is a community effort that we’re doing here and we have certain leads in certain areas and I just would like you to focus on the fact that it’s unique.”

Only Lazaridis can talk about what goes on at QVI. He doesn’t say much either. But he reveals that the fund has made its first investment. “Actually, we only went public after we did our first investment.”

What’s the investment?

“I can’t tell you that.”

What’s the scale of the investment?

“It’s big.”

What field is it in? Is it in sensors? Cryptography?

“Those were already announced before we made our investment. Our investment is different.”

Will it lead to products on the market? Yes, Lazaridis said, perhaps in two or three years. Products for consumers? “I can’t really tell you.”

He finally said that the entrepreneur QVI just funded is “a guy from around here” and that when he wrote an equation on a blackboard, “I said, ‘We have to invest in this.’ This is not just an improvement, this is not just a new way of doing a classical thing that we’re all used to. This is something new.”

He is being coy. But he is not just being coy. Quantum technology is not just a new method of making computers, it is a vast new field of technologies that have never existed before. If Quantum Valley is the new Silicon Valley, this year may be the equivalent of 1957, and decades more work may lie ahead. When the founders of Fairchild Semiconductor were asked back then to explain what a transistor is for, one of them said it might make a better hearing aid. There was no way to imagine iPhones and GPS navigation and the trillion-dollar economy that followed.

A half-dozen countries are financing major quantum technology efforts, including China, the U.S. and the United Kingdom. It is easy for venture-capital firms to bet big on companies that flop. QVI may be just the latest in Mike Lazaridis’s 14-year-old, very expensive fascination with weird science. Or it may launch a new century of innovation. Of all the people in this Power List, Lazaridis’s potential clout will be felt, if at all, over the longest time span, with the highest risk of failure. But if it pans out, he and his associates will change the world.

“This is a new technology. How do you predict where you’re going to wind up? There is no classical counterpart. You can’t just go back and say, ‘This is a better version of that.’ And that’s the part that gets me excited.”

The cover of the Dec. 2 issue of Maclean’s.

For the record, here is the Top 10 on the Power List:

1.    Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada
2.    Naheed Nenshi, Mayor of Calgary
3.    Jerry Dias, President of Unifor
4.    Mark Wiseman, President and CEO of the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board
5.    France Charbonneau, Superior Court Judge
6.    Ray Novak, Stephen Harper’s Chief of Staff
7.    Galen Weston Jr., Executive chairman of Loblaws
8.    Justin Trudeau, Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada
9.    Julie Dickson, Superintendent of the office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions
10.  Mike Lazaridis, Co-founder of Blackberry