BlackBerry cofounders eye tricorder with new fund

By Jonah Comstock
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mike-lazaridis-300x381Mike Lazaridis and Doug Fregin, cofounders of BlackBerry (formerly Research in Motion, Inc.) have a new initiative: a $100 million, highly selective investment fund called Quantum Valley Investments. The firm will be based in Waterloo, Ontario, the area Lazaridis hopes will become a "Quantum Valley," the next-generation answer to Silicon Valley, and will be focused on supporting "quantum breakthrough technologies," including noninvasive medical scanners similar to Star Trek's "tricorder."

Waterloo already harbors three quantum physics-focused labs heavily supported by investments from Lazaridis: the Mike and Ophelia Lazaridis Quantum-Nano Centre, which Lazaridis opened in September 2012 with a $100 million donation, the Institute for Quantum Computing, and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (where famed quantum physicist Steven Hawking holds a visiting chair). The new fund will support startups commercializing efforts from those labs, according to a report by Bloomberg News.

While the fund will support all kinds of quantum-based technologies, many media outlets have focused on Lazaridis's avowal that quantum sensing could enable a device similar to Star Trek's medical tricorder, the same fictional technology that inspired the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize.

"On our journey toward a full-scale quantum computer, which is our holy grail, what we're finding is some of the breakthroughs and some of the technologies that are necessary to build a quantum computer ... have spin-off technologies, and Doug and I have decided to invest in them formally," Lazaridis told Bloomberg News. "We see many of the devices and predictions of Star Trek come true, from the computer voice activation to communicators in today's smartphones, but the medical tricorder that was used by Bones [Dr. Leonard McCoy, the ship's doctor on the original Star Trek series] to diagnose and understand what was happening in the body without drawing blood, non-intrusively, we're seeing that might be possible."

Lazaridis isn't saying what, if any, startups are in consideration for the fund's support at present, or whether there will be any overlap with the more than 200 teams currently signed up for the X Prize. The fund is already accepting applicants on its website. Lazaridis told Bloomberg that the company isn't envisioning any set number of investments. "It could be five deals, it could be a dozen," he said.

Quantum Valley Investments might function to some extent like an incubator, as well. The website says "in addition to financial support, successful candidates will have access to the vast commercialization, science, financial and business experience and networks of the Managing Partners." This likely includes access to the three Waterloo research institutions, and possibly networking opportunities with BlackBerry, where Lazaridis still sits on the board.

Quantum Valley Investments also has a Scientific Advisory Committee that includes distinguished physicists like Neil Turok and Raymond LaFlamme, as well as former Canadian astronaut and Canadian Space Agency director Steve MacLean.

In his prior role as co-CEO at BlackBerry, Lazaridis demonstrated an awareness of the role mobile technology can play in healthcare, stressing medical information privacy as the company's reason for acquiring Certicom in 2009. With the BlackBerry 10 (under new CEO Thorsten Heins), the company has continued to focus on information security as a selling point for the healthcare market.

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