The torch is passed: Perimeter Institute names a new Board Chair
One evening in the early '80s, a brilliant undergrad sat in a seminar and was stunned to learn about an experiment that showed particles of light doing things that should be impossible.
That undergrad, Mike Lazaridis, went on to invent the BlackBerry, creating a worldwide smartphone industry. It was an amazing achievement — it transformed how we communicate, work, and live. But Lazaridis knew that what he had done was principally bring together scientific discoveries from decades or even a century before. He was haunted by that strange experiment and by an inspiring question: What is the next big breakthrough, the one that will transform the lives of our grandchildren's grandchildren?
He realized the people who'd made those discoveries hadn't been trying to make useful new devices. They'd been trying to understand how nature works at a fundamental level. Powerful technologies were the inevitable, eventual result.
Armed with this insight, he set out to realize a simple, clear, and audacious vision: an institute devoted solely to theoretical physics. It would gather brilliant minds, remove the typical constraints of academia, and seek nothing less than breakthroughs. He donated a third of his personal wealth to help found it. Federal, provincial, and local governments backed the idea, other partners joined in, and Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics was born.
In the two decades since, Lazaridis has devoted thousands of hours of his energy and wisdom as Perimeter's founder and Board Chair. Today, Perimeter can comfortably claim to be among the best centres for theoretical physics in the world.
Now, Mike Lazaridis has passed the torch to Mike Serbinis, a global technology leader and entrepreneur who has built transformative technology and platforms across several industries. Serbinis will become the new Chair of the Board of Directors. Lazaridis will remain involved with Perimeter as Founding Chair Emeritus.
Perimeter Director Robert Myers reflects, “The simplicity, clarity, and audacity of Mike's founding vision were what drew me to Perimeter twenty years ago. That vision has guided us ever since. We’ve gone from an idea to one of the top research centres in the world, with landmark discoveries that have advanced our understanding of the universe. Mike created a remarkable new resource for the entire world.”
Mike Serbinis's journey to becoming Chair of the Board of Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics also started in the '80s. The young Serbinis was at an ice rink when news broke of the space shuttle Challenger disaster. Already a space enthusiast, Serbinis heard the late Nobel laureate Richard Feynman's explanation of the engineering failure and was inspired to pursue an education in engineering physics.
Serbinis would go on to high school and invent a new propulsion system design using superconductor motors for application in the shuttle program. His work culminated with a big win at the International Science and Engineering Fair and awards from Rockwell Aerospace and NASA. Upon graduating university, Serbinis worked alongside Elon Musk at Zip2 and went on to co-found and build Kobo, Critical Path, DocSpace, and now League.
“In 1996 I found myself in Palo Alto,” he says. “It's the birthplace of so many transformational technologies, all rooted at some level in theoretical physics. The theoretical physics research that led to the transistor is in fact connected to the mobile internet we know and love today. After a decade in the Valley, founding multiple companies, I saw firsthand the very real, long-tail benefits of investment in basic scientific research.”
“Years later I met Mike Lazaridis,” he recalls. Serbinis had recently sold DocSpace to the world's largest email platform company, Critical Path, and Lazaridis was scaling up the BlackBerry. The two tech entrepreneurs got to talking about how theoretical physics is at the root of technology. “Lazaridis said to me: ‘There will be a Quantum Valley one day – a new place where new breakthrough ideas create new technologies.’ I remember thinking, ‘Yes, 100%, that will happen.’”
According to Lazaridis, “When I founded Perimeter, I believed that there was a unique opportunity for Canada to play a leadership role in advancing society's fundamental understanding of the world around us. By doing so, I hoped that we could help drive the development of new ideas and new technologies that would have profound societal benefit and that would allow Canadians to play a leadership role in a new global industry. The success that has been realized by Perimeter and the other members of the Quantum Valley ecosystem over the past two decades exceeds even my expectations. In Mike Serbinis, I believe that we have found someone that shares my passion for science and technology entrepreneurship. With Mike as PI's Chair and with Rob Myers as PI's Director, I have no doubt that Perimeter will continue to drive breakthroughs that will benefit Canada and the world. An amazing future awaits!”
Serbinis agrees. “Perimeter's success is remarkable. There's no question: Perimeter is at the forefront of the world's most innovative work in theoretical physics ... and if Breakthrough Foundation prizes are any indication, the international community is taking notice.”
And, he says, Perimeter is just getting started. The time scale of great scientific invention and technological revolution is often long: 50 years separate the dawn of quantum mechanics from the dawn of quantum-driven technologies like semiconductors. Seventy years passed between Faraday's work on electromagnetic fields permeating the air and the invention of radio. More than 200 years separate Newton's laws of motion from the age of rockets.
Serbinis thinks of Perimeter as a 100-year project. “Perimeter is a long-term investment that will pay off exponentially. The work we do here will yield profound results – not only for the future of technology, but for the future of Canada and all of humanity.”
Robert Myers likes this ambition. “Mike Serbinis is the best of Canada's young tech vanguard,” he says. “He's a builder steeped in science, and brings the energy and daring Perimeter needs to build a brighter future.”
“I feel incredibly honoured,” says Serbinis, of being asked to succeed Lazaridis as Perimeter's Board Chair. Serbinis is founder and CEO of the Canadian digital health tech darling League, and dedicates his time to organizations that are putting Canada on the map globally — including the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence, the MaRS Discovery District, C100, and Creative Destruction Lab.
“There is a world-class team at Perimeter,” he says. “Out of pure excitement and passion for the work that our scientists are doing, I am honoured to be a part of it.”
In addition to Mike Serbinis assuming the role of Perimeter Institute Board Chair, Jane Kinney, BMath, FCPA, FCA, has assumed the role of Board Vice Chair.
Perimeter Institute is the world’s largest research hub devoted to theoretical physics. The independent Institute was founded in 1999 to foster breakthroughs in the fundamental understanding of our universe, from the smallest particles to the entire cosmos. Research at Perimeter is motivated by the understanding that fundamental science advances human knowledge and catalyzes innovation, and that today’s theoretical physics is tomorrow’s technology. Located in the Region of Waterloo, the not-for-profit Institute is a unique public-private endeavour, including the Governments of Ontario and Canada, that enables cutting-edge research, trains the next generation of scientific pioneers, and shares the power of physics through award-winning educational outreach and public engagement.