BlackBerry Town

It has been a while since I have written about what I have been reading. So here is a book review on one that may not be on your radar, but would make a good read if you are interested in tech and telecom and innovation in Canada.

I previously reviewed the story of Research in Motion (RIM) called Losing the Signal, by Globe journalists Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff here . This book is different as it explores the wider Waterloo Region tech community that gave rise to BlackBerry and many other great tech companies. I got my copy at the Communitech Annual General Meeting (AGM) this fall. AurorA has been a member of Communitech, our local high tech association dating back to 1998.

The stories in this book were personal to me as I lived through this history; many of the names, events and people mentioned are very familiar to me. After graduating Engineering at the University of Waterloo in 1983 I had lived and worked in telecom all across Ontario before starting AurorA in international telecommunications and then moving back to Waterloo in 1996. Just when the fun was really starting.

What Chuck Howitt, a retired reporter from the Waterloo Record, describes in this book is that there was a lot going on before the emergence of RIM (BlackBerry) and there is still a lot going on in Waterloo after the fall from grace of the company that invented the modern smartphone. This area has always had an entrepreneurial spirit that was reflected in companies that excelled in many industries ; originally rubber, whiskey, electronics. (BF Goodrich, Uniroyal, Seagrams, Electrohome etc). The K/W region was home to people with a strong work ethic informed by the Mennonite “barn raising” ethos that fostered co-operation. The practical leaders of those industries set about founding a new institution, the University of Waterloo.

The University of Waterloo was different from the ivy covered campuses that historically were prevalent in Upper Canada like Queens and the University of Toronto. Its focus was more practical, technological and pragmatic. UW became a worldwide leader in mathematics, computer technology, engineering and Co-op Education. It also had a very novel Intellectual Property policy, that let entrepreneurs retain ownership of their ideas. All of these traits led to many spinoff companies in the area by graduates and even professors.

Between 1996 and 1998, six local tech firms went public (when that was still the preferred way to raise money, don’t get me started on private equity and unicorns). They were OpenText, MKS, Descartes, ComDev, Dalsa and RIM. All of a sudden, the world took notice of what was happening in Kitchener/Waterloo. Outside of the San Francisco Bay area, this was the place to be in tech.

There are many great stories in the book about the evolution of this tech ecosystem, about Communitech, about the two founders of RIM, Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, and about the meteoric rise of BlackBerry. Some superb local stories about the growth and dealing with the growing pains. The other organizations that the RIM co-founders fostered like CIGI, The Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and the Institute for Quantum Computing. And of course he describes the fall from grace of Blackberry.

Some people thought the demise of BlackBerry after the competitive threats from Apple, Samsung and Google’s Android would spell the death of Waterloo Region. But this book also describes the resilience of the area, the diversity and depth of the talent and the rise of other generations of tech firms; Kik, Sandvine, Desire2Learn and others like North ,Vidyard, Auvik, Miovision, ClearPath Robotics. Waterloo Region remains the highest density of start-ups outside of Silicon Valley. And it is still the epicentre of tech in Canada.

So if you are interested at all in tech and telecom and innovation, I highly recommend that you pick up and read this book.

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