Friends, colleagues pay tribute to tech pioneer Adam Chowaniec

In the early days of the personal computer, Adam Chowaniec made such an impact on Silicon Valley he was ultimately hailed as one of the founding fathers of the industry.

Yet for all his technological acumen, Mr. Chowaniec was equally renowned as a mentor to a whole new generation of entrepreneurs in his adopted home of Ottawa.

Tributes continued to pour in this week for the tech pioneer, who died last week at age 64 after a battle with cancer. Friends and colleagues say he was a man of towering intellect who was as passionate about the place in which he lived as he was about his work.

“What was very unique about Adam is how much he believed in the importance of building a sustainable tech community headquartered here in Canada and particularly Ottawa,” says Solantro Semiconductor Corp. CEO Antoine Paquin, who recruited Mr. Chowaniec to lead the chip-making company’s board. “It’s a very big loss for Ottawa.”

Born in England, Mr. Chowaniec studied engineering at the University of Sheffield and at Queen’s University in Kingston. Like many other titans of Ottawa’s tech community, he got his start in the industry at Bell Northern Research, the same training ground that produced the likes of Terry Matthews and Mike Cowpland.

He then headed south to join Commodore, where he helped develop the Amiga computer. Introduced in 1985, the Amiga was “so far ahead of its time that almost nobody – including Commodore’s marketing department – could fully articulate what it was all about,” Byte magazine wrote years later.

In 2010, the California Computer Museum recognized Mr. Chowaniec’s achievement, naming him one of the founding fathers of the computer industry.

“He’s a legend in the computer archives of North America,” says Mr. Paquin. “There’s still groupies for that computer platform, so obviously he did a couple things right.”

Mr. Chowaniec soon returned to Ottawa to become president of Calmos Semiconductor, which was founded by another legend in the local tech sector, John Roberts.

“To me, they were like what I wanted to be when I grew up,” says Mr. Paquin, who first met Mr. Roberts when he was a student at Carleton University.

“They’re still what I want to be when I grow up,” he adds with an affectionate chuckle.

Gifted with a razor-sharp mind, Mr. Chowaniec was an astute problem-solver who also possessed an equally impressive talent for inspiring others, associates say. He went on to play key roles at a number of prominent tech enterprises, including Tundra Semiconductor, Liquid Computing and Zarlink.

Jim Roche, who helped launch Tundra with Mr. Chowaniec in 1995, remembers his longtime friend as a “very affable fellow” with uncommon wisdom and foresight.

“I really grew up as a person working for Adam,” says Mr. Roche, who went on to found his own consulting firm, Stratford Managers. “He had an incredibly accurate intuition. He would often sit me down and say, ‘Jim, I’m concerned about this.’ He wouldn’t necessarily have any specific data to point to that led to that concern – it was an instinct that he had. After a while, I came to realize that the vast majority of times, he was bang on.”

Along the way, Mr. Chowaniec never stopped trying to build a more innovative community, working with organizations such as the former Ottawa Economic Development Corp. and Startup Canada, an Ottawa-based group dedicated to fostering a stronger culture of entrepreneurship.

“When we started Startup Canada and we were looking for our founding chairman, we did meet a lot of great Canadian leaders,” says Victoria Lennox, the organization’s co-founder and CEO. “What set Adam apart bar none was his commitment to persevering beyond all of the frustrations of trying to create a different culture, a different mindset for innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Unlike many serial entrepreneurs who quickly get frustrated when their mentorship efforts don’t bear immediate fruit, Mr. Chowaniec was in it for the long haul, she says.

“He was not only a great entrepreneur, but he also was patient, he persevered, he was engaged and he never stopped wanting to contribute to making Canada a more entrepreneurial and innovative nation,” Ms. Lennox says.

“He was very passionate about that. I once asked him when I was just starting Startup Canada, ‘If you don’t see change, how do you know to keep going?’ His response continues to be something that I’m very passionate about: ‘You can never stop beating that drum, because change, especially social change, happens over time.’ Even when he was ill, he came across Canada with us on our national tour. He spoke at events across Canada from Vancouver to Halifax.”

Mr. Chowaniec and his wife Claudia, a well-known businesswoman and a former head of the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce, raised two daughters in the capital – Alex, who is now an artist and designer in New York City, and Christina, who runs a tourism company in Vancouver.

Ms. Lennox says Startup Canada is working with the family to organize a public memorial this spring at the Canadian Museum of Nature, a place near to Mr. Chowaniec’s heart.

To ensure his legacy lives on, the organization is creating an award in his name to recognize outstanding achievement in advancing entrepreneurship and is launching a catalyst fund to invest in grassroots entrepreneurial activities across Canada that will also bear his name.

“Adam left his mark on this organization,” Ms. Lennox says. “He’ll always be the heart of it.”