The Co-Inventor of BlackBerry Is Building Canada’s Quantum Brain Trust
It’s early days for #quantumcomputers, the still mostly theoretical #subatomicprocessors so powerful they can make our fastest #supercomputer look like an abacus. @Mike Lazaridis, the co-inventor of the @BlackBerry, says that when it comes to #quantumtechnology, he’s learned his lesson. He won’t be #iPhoned again.
After years of watching his brand wither during the iPhone era, Lazaridis stepped down as the company’s co-chief executive officer in 2012 and devoted most of his energy to researching quantum technologies, including computers, sensors, and a wide range of other gear. With former BlackBerry colleague Doug Fregin, he’s poured more than $450 million into quantum projects over the past two decades and now spends much of his time running the $80 million venture company Quantum Valley Investments from his office in Waterloo, Ont., where BlackBerry Ltd. got its start.
“You have to build an industry,” Lazaridis says. “You have to be very nimble, and you have to be connected to your customers, and that can’t be done with just one company.” In addition to funding a quantum computing effort, a goal being chased elsewhere by the likes of Google and International Business Machines Corp., Quantum Valley directly funds narrower projects that Lazaridis says could be commercialized within the next few years.
Classical computers interpret bits of data as either a 0 or 1, but data in quantum computing can exist as 0 and 1 at the same time, enabling a level of multitasking unimaginable by today’s standards. The quantum computers that exist now are too small and unstable for those kinds of results—they become error-prone after mere fractions of a second—and researchers say that perfecting them could take decades.
With Fregin’s help, plus an additional C$1 billion ($800 million) or so from Canadian government coffers, Lazaridis has led recruitment and development at three research organizations: the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, the Institute for Quantum Computing, and the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology. Those efforts have attracted prominent physicists (MIT’s David Cory, Stephen Hawking acolyte Raymond Laflamme) and made Canada an outsize force in the field, which the U.S. and China typically dominate. “Everybody in the field has gone through Waterloo,” says Seth Lloyd, an MIT professor of quantum mechanical engineering.
Several of Lazaridis’s investments have come to market or are getting close. Isara Corp., which is pitching security software it says can block quantum hacks, has sold $1.6 million in software and expects that to double in fiscal 2018. High Q Technologies LP says that by the end of the year it will be selling quantum sensors 100,000 times more sensitive than the tools pharma companies use to develop drugs. The sensors will be able to determine which compounds will bind properly to the desired proteins rather than “trying many drugs and seeing if something works,” says Cory, who founded High Q.
Lazaridis traces his fascination with quantum research to a college physics class, and his recruiting has benefited from his history with several of the people behind his investments. Isara CEO Scott Totzke oversaw BlackBerry’s famously secure encryption software for more than a decade. Lazaridis has also teamed with former BlackBerry employees who run Cognitive Systems Corp. to connect quantum computers with conventional models, making the quantum advantages accessible to a wider audience. Such efforts, of course, will still have to prove themselves as viable businesses.
Canada’s researchers will also have to work hard to keep pace with the U.S. and China on longer-term goals, says Elsa Kania, an adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank. “The race to construct a usable, scalable quantum computer will be more of a marathon that will play out over decades to come,” she wrote in an email.