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Monday, February 4, 2013

Once BlackBerry Focused, a Campus Widens Its View

Once BlackBerry Focused, a Campus Widens Its View

Ian Willms for The New York Times

Mike McCauley, left, and Steven Woods of Google in Kitchener, a city adjoining Waterloo. Mr. McCauley co-founded BufferBox.

WATERLOO, Ontario â€" The University of Waterloo, in a city that people outside Canada would struggle to find on a map, is one of the world’s best technology schools.

Ivan Lukianchuk, a graduate of the University of Waterloo, started a gaming site. As a student, he worked for BlackBerry.

BlackBerry, the company formerly called Research in Motion, grew out of a student project there, and for years the school served as a reliable pipeline of stellar engineering talent straight into the nearby offices of the smartphone maker. In 2007, when BlackBerrys still defined smartphones, about 400 students were on paid internships with the company, positions that more often than not led to full-time jobs.

But after years of being a first-choice destination for University of Waterloo graduates and interns, BlackBerry is now a last resort. In its place, American technology giants including Google, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft have more than filled the hiring void.

Increasingly, graduates are following the lead of Mike Lazaridis, who nearly 30 years ago helped found BlackBerry, and creating start-ups of their own like Pebble, the smartwatch company founded by a University of Waterloo grad, and BufferBox, a parcel delivery system recently acquired by Google.

Because of that, the consequences of the recent layoffs of 5,000 employees at BlackBerry are nearly invisible here in the company’s home city or its immediate neighbor, Kitchener.

The local unemployment rate of 6.2 percent in December was stable from a year earlier and well below the national rate of 7.1 percent. Out on the main street in a cafe and whiskey bar called Death Valley’s Little Brother that appears to have been dropped in from a fashionable part of Brooklyn, seats are scarce despite prices that could make a New Yorker wince.

Google’s logo on a former leather tannery in Kitchener, a relic from the region’s past as Canada’s shoemaking capital, provides a vivid illustration of the way that, when a company starts to slip, the best talent goes elsewhere. BlackBerry aims to reverse its fortunes with radically new smartphones and equally innovative software that runs them. It introduced the phones to the public last week to strong reviews.

Steven Woods, the director of engineering for Google in Kitchener, said that the search engine company established an operation here about eight years ago and expanded into the tannery building in 2011 as part of a broad plan to absorb foreign talent and sensibilities.

Most of the company’s other new operations were put in major metropolitan centers, including New York, London and Tokyo.

“Waterloo is different,” Mr. Woods said, sitting in a scaled-down version of Google’s Silicon Valley office, down to a gourmet, no-charge cafeteria. “It’s got this amazing university which has long been one of our top three recruiting universities for Google as a whole, worldwide,” said Mr. Woods, who earned a doctorate at Waterloo.

“Waterloo grads do well at Google, they do very well.”

The University of Waterloo did not achieve its exalted status by being venerable. It received its first students, who were initially taught in temporary buildings plopped into a corn field north of town, only in 1957.

Nor did it buy its way to the top. Its alumni, particularly Mr. Lazaridis, the former co-chief executive and current vice chairman of BlackBerry, have been generous, with $121 million in personal donations to date. Mr. Lazaridis, who also donated $150 million to establish an independent school of theoretical physics in Waterloo, developed what became Research in Motion’s first product while still an undergraduate student, and dropped out weeks before finishing his studies to found the company in 1984.

But like most universities in Canada, Waterloo is a public institution with relatively low tuition subsidized by Canadian taxpayers. In 2011, the federal and provincial governments provided $243 million, or 42 percent, of its operating budget. Its endowment is only $261 million, a fraction of the $16.5 billion Stanford holds or the $10.3 billion of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, two of America’s top engineering universities.

Different approaches, rather than money, have instead enabled it to attract prominent faculty members from around the world as well as Canada’s top engineering and computer science students.

A version of this article appeared in print on February 4, 2013, on page B1 of the New York edition with the headline: Once BlackBerry Focused, a Campus Widens Its View.