Family, friends bid fond farewell to tech giant Adam Chowaniec

Renowned entrepreneur Adam Chowaniec had a simple approach to life: “Always look forward, never look back.”

But the Ottawa business giant probably would have been willing to grant an exception on Wednesday night.

Hundreds of Mr. Chowaniec’s friends, colleagues and business acquaintances gathered at the Canadian Museum of Nature to pay tribute to the tech visionary, who died in February at age 64 after a battle with cancer.

“Adam was not only a great entrepreneur, he was a wonderful human being who persevered, was deeply engaged and never stopped wanting to contribute to making Canada a more entrepreneurial and innovative nation,” said Startup Canada co-founder Victoria Lennox, who recruited Mr. Chowaniec to be the founding chairman of the organization.

“This is how Adam has united us all, and this is his call to action to all of us tonight.”

Mr. Chowaniec’s widow, Claudia, said her husband leaves a legacy as a tireless champion for entrepreneurs of all stripes in Canada. Among the many companies he led or helped build were Tundra Semiconductor, Liquid Computing and Zarlink.

“He always said we don’t do enough to recognize the little steps forward, the small business wins as well as our major corporate triumphs,” said Ms. Chowaniec, who was flanked by the couple’s daughters, Alex and Christina.

“And then he’d expect us to get right back to the business at hand, to stay focused on our passions, to act to get done whatever needs to get done. Let’s continue Adam’s dream. Let’s act to help build a Canada for entrepreneurs,” she added to rousing applause.

Wednesday’s ceremony at a place near and dear to Mr. Chowaniec’s heart – he and Claudia co-chaired a major national fundraising campaign for the museum – showcased his myriad of contributions to Ottawa’s tech sector and the community at large.

Exhibits featured items such as one of the antique radios he loved to collect as well as a Commodore Amiga, the groundbreaking personal computer Mr. Chowaniec helped pioneer in the mid-1980s that earned him a place on the California Computer Museum’s list of the industry’s founding fathers.

The Amiga was so far ahead of its time, longtime friend and former colleague Garry Heidinger told the crowd, that even Apple’s Macintosh couldn’t compete with it. When the Amiga was unveiled at New York City’s Lincoln Centre in July 1985, he said, celebrity artist Andy Warhol was on hand to illustrate its graphics capabilities by drawing Blondie frontwoman Debbie Harry.

“Steve Jobs was trying to get Andy Warhol to play with MacPaint on the Mac at the time, but the Mac only displayed video in greyscale,” Mr. Heidinger noted, while the Amiga could display more than 4,000 colours.

When Mr. Chowaniec returned to Ottawa in 1985 to head up Calmos Semiconductor, his commitment kept the company going through lean times, he added.

Mr. Heidinger, then a young engineer at the firm, recalled seeing his boss in the lab late one night chiselling the lids off of ceramic semiconductor packages.

The lids contained trace amounts of gold, he later found out, and Mr. Chowaniec was selling the precious metal to help fund the firm’s operations.

“It turned out that without that, the company was not going to make payroll,” Mr. Heidinger said. “It was that commitment that kept Calmos going. Adam was always there when you needed him, and he would do whatever was necessary to move the company ahead.”

Longtime family friend Steve Gallant, who acknowledged his pal’s affection for beer and fine red wine with a toast, said Mr. Chowaniec was a true renaissance man who could be counted on for valuable input on everything from high technology to home renovation projects.

“He always gave me great advice,” Mr. Gallant said with a smile. “He was the quintessential calm, cool and collected guy.”

Mr. Gallant fondly recalled their many dinners at fine dining spots such as Hy’s and Giovanni’s, where the two friends would sip wine and chat about work, politics and, above all, family.

A man of dry wit who always thought before he spoke, Mr. Chowaniec was immensely proud of his wife and daughters and revelled in their accomplishments, he said.

“He was such a frontier guy and out there with technology, but he also was such a traditional guy,” Mr. Gallant said.

During the ceremony, Export Development Canada announced it was partnering with Startup Canada to create an annual award in Mr. Chowaniec’s name to support entrepreneur-led initiatives across the country that grow businesses in global markets. EDC will provide funding of $12,500 a year for the next five years.

Mr. Chowaniec served on the organization’s board for many years, and his “deep wisdom” and conviction will be missed, said fellow board member Jennifer Brooy, a vice-president at EDC.

“He knew the art of mentorship, and he mentored people selflessly,” she said.

Ms. Lennox told the audience that Carleton University will be launching the Adam Chowaniec Scholarship in disruptive engineering and entrepreneurship this fall. The scholarship will be awarded to a student entering the final year of his or her program who has demonstrated entrepreneurial talent and excellence.

Startup Canada also announced it is renaming its lifetime achievement award after Mr. Chowaniec. The honour is bestowed each year on a Canadian who has demonstrated the greatest impact in advancing startup communities over his or her lifetime.