CEO Insider

How Mike Lazaridis plans to turn Waterloo into the Silicon Valley of quantum computing

Quantum Valley Investments head Mike Lazaridis (Photo: Aaron Harris/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Quantum Valley Investments head Mike Lazaridis (Photo: Aaron Harris/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Mike Lazaridis has been back in the BlackBerry saddle lately, as his interest in helping to revive the ailing smartphone maker recently came to light.

On a Thursday visit to Toronto, however, he was busy promoting a very different type of technology, appearing at the 11th annual Canadian Business Leadership Forum to discuss his venture into the strange new world of quantum computing.

In recent months, Lazaridis has been talking up the yet-to-be widely recognized science of quantum computing — a technology that uses the properties of quantum mechanics (physics at the atomic level), to solve problems faster than the computers we currently use.

Quantum computers use quantum bits, or “qubits,” which are more powerful than the regular bits that flow through our conventional computing devices every second. Conventional bits use binary code to represent all information as a series of ones and zeroes; because of the bizarre properties of quantum mechanics, qubits can be 1, or 0, or both — a state known as “superposition.” The resulting effect is an ability to handle exponentially more data than a classical computer. A quantum computer can theoretically make calculations at much faster rates, and find a far greater number of solutions to a given problem.

Lazaridis has reportedly spent over $250 million investing in quantum computer research efforts in Waterloo, Ont. He has endowed the university town’s Perimeter Institute, a world leader in theoretical physics, with millions of dollars, and has worked to raise about $750 million in total for quantum computing innovation from both investor and government sources of capital. One of the beneficiaries has been the University of Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computing.

His own venture capital fund, co-founded with fellow RIM alum Doug Fregin, is appropriately named Quantum Valley Investments—Lazaridis would like Waterloo to become the next great tech community, akin to California’s Silicon Valley, and for Canada as a whole to continue nurturing quantum computer research.

The culture of investing in Silicon Valley is something Canada has largely missed out on, Lazaridis said in his address on Thursday.

“In Canada, I don’t know what happened, we kind of sat out” in the 1980s, when personal computing started its commercializing boom.

In the opinion of Lazaridis and other quantum computing advocates, we’re now on the cusp of another technology revolution, and Canada needs to seize this opportunity to become a leader in quantum computer research.

Supporting Lazaridis’ argument is the individual who spoke directly after him at Thursday’s leadership forum. Vern Brownell is CEO of D-Wave Systems Inc., a Burnaby, B.C.-based company that has laid claim to selling the first commercial quantum computer system (D-Wave has faced criticism for this assertion in the past).

D-Wave has been selling their quantum computer models to major clients including Lockheed Martin, Google, and NASA (for around $10 million each). According to Brownell, Google is using the technology to research “machine learning,” whereby a computer uses an algorithm to teach itself to recognize certain images, for example. NASA, meanwhile, is using a D-Wave computer to search for new exoplanets with signs of life.

With 100 granted U.S. patents on the technology, D-Wave also has the largest body of quantum computing intellectual property in the world, said Brownell on Thursday.

“Canada is very much at the centre of quantum computing,” he stated.

“We need, as a country… to understand the relevance of this time,” said Lazaridis in his own address.

“The ingredients that made Silicon Valley singularly successful are becoming part of the Waterloo culture today – there’s a vibrant ecosystem of about 1000 companies in various stages, from start-up to pre-IPO… [We] have the foundation for seizing the next quantum revolution here in Canada.”

Google recently released this video explaining how it would put D-Wave’s quantum computer to work: