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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Creating Canada’s ‘Quantum Valley’

Showing how quickly an esoteric technology can become mainstream, Mike Lazaridis and Doug Fregin, who together founded BlackBerry, are establishing a $100 million venture fund for technologies that employ practical applications of quantum physics.

The fund is based in Ontario, Canada, which they hope to make into a powerhouse for the next great trend in high technology. Though the area is flat, Mr. Lazaridis referred to it as “Canada’s ‘Quantum Valley.’”

Financing a version of Silicon Valley based on quantum science, where subatomic particles can interact across different universes, at least makes for some decent nerd humor: If you build it, they will appear in several places at once â€" some of them profitable.

Mr. Lazaridis, something of an advanced science buff himself, certainly thinks he can make money in his location.

Over the last several years, Mr. Lazaridis, who as a child won an award for reading science books, has been a key backer of research into practical applications of quantum physics.

He said he had contributed about 270 million Canadian dollars of the 650 million dollars in financing received by the Institute for Quantum Computing, the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, and the Waterloo Institute for Nano Technology, which are all based in Waterloo, Ontario.

Researchers at these institutions have made unexpected breakthroughs, he said, and are now interested in starting companies that use their technology. “They came to us,” Mr. Lazaridis said. “They’ve proposed some applications that are really intriguing.”

“Doug and I have the engineering experience, we have the business experience” to make practical businesses that use discoveries in quantum physics, he said. “Nothing has prepared you for what we are about to see.”

Mr. Lazaridis and Mr. Fregin founded BlackBerry in 1984 as Research in Motion. In 1999, RIM introduced what became for a time one of the world’s most popular communications devices, called the BlackBerry, which initially incorporated a pager and e-mail, then later phone calls and Internet browsing.

They left the company in January 2012, after Apple gained dominance in the smartphone market and RIM’s stock price collapsed. Both men are still extremely wealthy.

If successful, the new fund, called the Quantum Valley Investment Fund, could help create some exciting products. Quantum physics is concerned with the often peculiar-seeming behavior of nature at a subatomic level. It is named for discrete units of energy, which seem able to affect one another without physical contact and can exist in different energy states at the same time.

Researchers in Waterloo and elsewhere have sought to understand and exploit these properties, with an eye to building machines that could be exponentially faster and more sensitive than traditional computers and sensors.

Mr. Lazaridis said the fund would initially focus on building things like sensors and actuators (a type of small motor), as well as new algorithms that could be used by others. Applications are likely in both health care and energy, among other fields, he said.

Noting that there is a big prize being offered to build a medical tricorder like the one in “Star Trek,” he said, “It’s not possible to do this without the sensitivity that a quantum sensor would have.”

Mr. Lazaridis did not announce any investments, but indicated that such announcements would soon come. Investment in a quantum computer, which he called “the holy grail” of applied quantum research, is not planned soon, but he did not rule out other breakthroughs.

“This is happening much faster than we thought,” he said. “The buzz is here.”