Mike Lazaridis, inventor of the BlackBerry smartphone, is starting a C$100 million quantum technology fund aiming to turn devices like the medical tricorder from Star Trek into reality.
The fund, called Quantum Valley Investments, is being financed exclusively by Lazaridis and Doug Fregin, an old friend and co-founder of Research In Motion (RIM), the company behind BlackBerry.
The goal is to commercialise technologies from a cluster of research labs that have been bankrolled by Lazaridis.
At least one start-up has signed up with the fund and the first products may emerge in the next two to three years, he said.
"What we're excited about is these little gems coming out," said Lazaridis. "The medical tricorder would be astounding, the whole idea of blood tests, MRIs - imagine if you could do that with a single device. That may be possible and possible only because of the sensitivity, selectivity and resolution we can get from quantum sensors made with these quantum breakthroughs."
Lazaridis, who stepped down as RIM's co-chief executive officer 14 months ago, is putting his time and fortune into quantum computing and nanotechnology - sometimes referred to as the "science of the small" - which uses atomic-sized technology in fields ranging from medicine to cryptography.
He opened the Mike & Ophelia Lazaridis Quantum-Nano Centre in his hometown of Waterloo, Ontario, last September, financing the effort with a C$100 million donation.
That lab complements the Institute for Quantum Computing and the more-than-decade-old Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, both founded with more than US$250 million of Lazaridis's own money and additional funds he helped raise.
The Quantum Valley fund will probably focus on one to two dozen companies, he said. It may take a few years to make the investments, said Lazaridis, who declined to name the start-ups under consideration.
"We're being very strategic with the funds," he said. "This is not a venture capital fund that we're all used to."
Non-invasive medical-testing equipment - the real-life versions of the scanning devices used by Star Trek medics - will probably be a focus of the fund.
"You're using fundamental physics to measure things and you're doing it in a way that is so sensitive that you don't need to actually have physical contact," Lazaridis said. "That opens up a whole new capability, whole new way of treating patients."
Other areas of investment could include quantum cryptography, which is already being used by European banks to make financial transfers more secure. The technology could soon become commercially used in North America, he said.
Lazaridis remains a board member at RIM - now known simply as BlackBerry - and runs its innovation committee. Still, his new fund won't necessarily overlap with what's cooking in BlackBerry's labs, he said.
"They're very different and this is an independent venture," he said. Quantum technology is "so unique in how it works, it has far more reaching consequences than just the smartphone industry".
Lazaridis remains BlackBerry's second-largest investor, with a stake worth about US$450 million. The company's stock has more than doubled since September on rising optimism that the new BlackBerry 10 operating system can help reverse three years of market share declines. The new flagship Z10 phone goes on sale in the US later this week, and Australia shortly thereafter.
"People that have used it for a while really start to appreciate it - they start to see its real potential" he said. "It's a very powerful operating platform."