In what is believed to be the biggest private donation in Canadian history, Waterloo high-tech entrepreneur Mike Lazaridis is giving $100-million to launch a world-class research institute for the study of theoretical physics.
Similar to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N. J., which provided physicist Albert Einstein with a home for unfettered research from 1933 to 1955, the Waterloo-based Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics will be an independent study centre.
Mr. Lazaridis, the founder of wireless firm Research In Motion Ltd., has already donated $20-million in company stock to the project and plans to give the remaining $80-million in stock over the coming year.
Two other RIM executives, co-chief executive Jim Balsillie and vice-president of operations Douglas Fregin, are contributing $10-million each for a total $120-million.
Mr. Lazaridis owns nearly nine million shares of RIM, making him worth $1.7-billion on paper.
The Perimeter Institute will be an independent organization built on the site of Waterloo's old Memorial Arena.
The institute is expected to open in the fall of 2001 with an initial 10 to 15 researchers. That number will increase to 40 within five years, said Howard Burton, the institute's 35-year-old executive director.
The institute, which has been quietly organizing for 18 months, has received numerous applications from leading scientists from around the world, said Mr. Burton, a Toronto native who recently completed a PhD in physics at the University of Waterloo.
Although it will be close to the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University, Perimeter will have no formal ties to either institution. Nor will it be beholden to RIM or any other corporation, Mr. Lazaridis said.
The 39-year-old entrepreneur made his money and reputation in the field of wireless communications. His company is best known for a portable e-mail device called the BlackBerry.
As a student at the University of Waterloo in the early 1980s, Mr. Lazaridis said he was torn between studying physics and engineering. He chose the latter but always dreamed of creating a centre for the study of pure physics.
"This is something that I have always had a passion for, and God has given me the opportunity to support it in a way that I never imagined," he said.
"The pursuit of theoretical physics gave rise to virtually all the technological advances of present-day society. From lasers to computers, cellphones to MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging machines), the road to today's technological advancements was based on Monday's ground-breaking theoretical physicists."
News of Mr. Lazaridis's donation and the creation of a world-class research institute was greeted with joy and astonishment.
"The most remarkable thing about this gift is that it is directed at fundamental research," said David Johnston, president of the University of Waterloo. "There's no question that by funding ideas and innovation this gift will continue to create wealth well into the future."
Mr. Johnston said the two universities in Waterloo, as well as the nearby University of Guelph, will benefit by simply having world-renowned physicists living and working in the community.
"Talented people attract talented people," he said, noting that Boston attracts some of the brightest minds in the world because of leading institutions like Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Representatives of both the federal and provincial governments said they are considering providing public money to the Perimeter Institute.
Canadian philanthropy experts said Mr. Lazaridis's donation is one for the record books.
"I believe this is the largest private donation in Canadian history," said Gordon Floyd, vice-president of public affairs for the Canadian Centre for Philanthropy in Toronto.
Asked what it feels like to give away $100-million, Lazaridis - who dislikes questions about his wealth - turned cool.
"It's got absolutely nothing to do with the money. It has everything to do with the motive. There are few things in your life that you feel absolutely certain about. And there are two things I feel absolutely certain about, and that is RIM, and about my donation to theoretical physics."
The next-largest known donations are:
• A $64-million donation in May to McGill University from Richard Tomlinson, a 76-year-old alumnus who taught at McMaster University and made his fortune investing in Gennum Corp.
• A $50-million gift in 1998 to the University of British Columbia from diamond prospector Stewart Blusson.
Last February, former RIM employees Louise MacCallum and Michael Barnstijn of Kitchener donated $12-million to a local community foundation and $1-million to a new children's museum.