Riding the wave of invention

R.S. July 1 2000

Riding the wave of invention

R.S. July 1 2000

Riding the wave of invention


The Leadership Forum

Hatim Zaghloul

Age: 43

Occupation: CEO and chairman, Wi-LAN Inc. Defining characteristics:

energy, invention,

“a paradoxical look at life”

He is an unlikely romantic: a short, rubber ball of a man with the pent-up energy of a human microwave. But Hatim Zaghloul, the founder of Calgary’s WiLAN Inc.-one of Canada’s, hottest high-tech start-ups—is that rare mix, a serious scientist with an undying affection for aging film stars.

As a young engineer in his native Egypt and then in Europe, Zaghloul had heard the story of Hedy Lamarr, how the glamourous 1940s Hollywood screen star had invented a system of random radio signals to disrupt enemy detection during the Second World War. This is Zaghloul’s field as well. He is the co-inventor, with childhood friend Michel Fattouche of the University of Calgary, of two wireless technologies and he holds nine other patents. So shortly after he founded Wi-LAN in 1992, Zaghloul ran a check on Lamarr and found the story was true.

In 1942, the 29-year-old actress patented an idea for broadband radio transmission with military application. It didn’t go anywhere at the time, buta later version was implemented and Zaghloul’s invention takes it into another realm: of massive amounts of

data being transmitted by radio signal from computer to computer, or from cellphone to a home information centre, eliminating the need for cable or telephone lines.

Zaghloul contacted Lamarr, who was then in her 80s (she died in January at 86), struck up a telephone friendship and gave her a stake in Wi-LAN. “It was mostly for the public relations value,” he says, “and her name opened a lot of doors for us. We didn’t have to give her any shares-her patent had long expired. But I liked her on a personal level and it was like the industry today honouring one of its pioneers.”

Zaghloul also sees himself as an industry pioneer. Wi-LAN is one of those next-generation companies. Its technology may well become the base for what some call the coming wireless revolution: the ability to e-mail, surf the Net, adjust the lights in your home and order theatre tickets from a cellphone or hand-held computer. But honour is important too. A spiritual man, a practising Muslim with an extracurricular interest in Zen Buddhism -and a black PorscheZaghloul has built a company that mirrors some of these paradoxes.

The original plan was to build a prototype and sell his technology to the highest bidder. But then life took a funny twist. Friends, family members and friends of his partner, Fattouche, put their money in Wi-

A start-ups dilemma: ‘I couldn’t walk away anymore. These people were investing in me!

LAN. Some remortgaged their homes to do it. “I couldn’t walk away anymore,” says Zaghloul. “They didn’t have a clue what they were investing in. They were investing in me.” And what an intriguing investment that was. His backers were buying into a young engineer from the University of Cairo who graduated at the top of his class, an intense academic who plays chess to relax and who zipped through a masters and

PhD in physics at the University of Calgary in near record time. They were buying into a man who has always had a foot in two cultures-growing up, he spent summers in London with his father, a BBC radio producer, the school year in conservative Giza. And they were latching on to a newly devoted Canadian who stopped over in 1983 to visit a brother and wait for a visa to the Orient to study Buddhism-and then

stayed on after meeting his future wife at a Calgary roller rink. A life of academic pursuit had suddenly turned into a life of responsibility. Wi-LAN took root in a modest Calgary industrial park.

Its stock rode the high-tech wave, its products are sold in more than 50 countries. But its offices are no-frills and almost ascetic. The only thing that stands out: the Hedy Lamarr boardroom, with a framed pinup of the glamour girl in all her russet glory.