Ronald Cleveland Mullin

Ronald Cleveland Mullin

Dr. Ron Mullin

Distinguished Emeritus Professor, University of Waterloo 

Co-founder, Certicom 

A humble, dedicated professor and mathematician who is modest about his successes, Dr. Ron Mullin has made invaluable contributions to combinatorics, academia and cryptography. His career has spanned over 50 years with notable successes in both commercial and academic ventures. Along with Scott Vanstone and Gord Agnew, Ron Mullin co-founded Certicom, a leading cryptography company whose technology was licensed by the US National Security Agency (NSA), among many others, and later sold to Research In Motion (RIM), now known as  BlackBerry. Mullin was also Professor and Chair of Combinatorics and Optimization at the University of Waterloo and boasts one of the largest lineages in the Mathematics Genealogy project, with 20 PhD students and 180 descendants. 

“Teaching as a whole and getting good students and working with them, it’s a wonderful thing,” said Mullin. 

Even as a student, Mullin’s impact was profound. He was the first ever University of Waterloo graduate to receive an MA in mathematics in 1960. A bright and promising young mathematician and cryptology student, Mullin was recruited by the University of Waterloo to lecture while he completed his graduate studies. His skills were so impressive that the University’s head of mathematics used Mullin as bait to lure world class mathematician, who later was acknowledged as the World War II codebreaker and cryptography expert, William Tutte to the university with the intention of building out the department and recruiting top-tier talent. 

“It was quite an honour,” Mullin reflected, when asked about his role in attracting Tutte to the university. 

After completing his PhD under Tutte, Mullin went on to pursue a career as a professor at the University of Waterloo until 1996, rising the ranks from lecturer to distinguished professor emeritus and adjunct professor. Described by two of his former students as brilliant, encouraging and easy going, Mullin always left a lasting impression on those he taught, as well as his colleagues. 

“Ron taught my first computer science class,” said Alfred Menezes, one of Mullin’s academic grandchildren and professor in the Department of Combinatorics and Optimization at the University of Waterloo. “To him, the little details didn’t matter. He thinks about the big stuff – the important stuff…he realized the value of ideas.” 

One of those ideas became the foundation for Mullin’s commercial venture – Certicom, a leading supplier of wireless security solutions. Mullin was heavily involved in the company’s patent program. Certicom’s signature product was Elliptic Curve Cryptography, which speeds up the encryption process, utilizing shorter encryption keys without loss of security. This technology played a crucial role in the advancement of smartphone and other mobile devices and accelerated the growth of a number of companies including RIM. 

“One good thing about it – it’s fast and secure for certain kinds of encryption processes. And these turned out to be the ones that are very helpful in smartphones,” said Hugh Williams, retired computer science professor and Mullin’s academic son. “So in a sense, Scott, Gord and Ron realized this was a coming thing and they were quite skillful in introducing this company.”

After retiring from the University of Waterloo as a Distinguished Professor Emeritus and stepping away from his commercial ventures, Mullin went on to enjoy a second career at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. He established a Cryptography Group at the university, a position he held until his “second retirement”, at the age of 75. Mullin also became the first recipient of the Stanton Medal, which is awarded by the Institute for Combinatorics and its Applications to honour significant lifetime contributions promoting the discipline of combinatorics through advocacy, outreach, service, teaching and/or mentoring. In addition, Mullin was awarded a doctor rerum naturalium honoris causa (Honorary Doctorate Degree) from the University of Rostock in Germany. 

While Mullin’s professional accomplishments are impressive, his legacy cannot be fully understood without including his mathematics genealogy. A number of graduate students that studied under Mullin became very prominent in cryptography and computer science including: Hugh Williams, who was instrumental in establishing one of Canada’s leading research centres in cryptography and information security; Scott Vanstone, world-renowned cryptography and co-founder of Certicom; Douglas Wiedemann, who designed an algorithm for linear systems of equations before joining the NSA; Bimal Roy, head of R C Bose Centre for Cryptology and Security in India; and Evi Nemeth, engineer, author and teacher who played a prominent role in the development of the Unix computer operating system.  

“He has had many students and ultimately, for an academic, that’s your impact – your students. What they end up doing and how they add to what it was that you did,” said Williams.

You can view some of Dr. Mullins’ accomplishments in the images below:

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Impact Stories: Scott Vanstone

The Impact Stories series highlights individuals in our global community who are making, or who have made, a profound impact on inspiring collaborative solutions to the challenges faced by our world today.

Ron Mullin, William Tutte, Scott Vanstone, Alfred Menezes

Scott Vanstone — Pioneer, Visionary and Mentor

When Scott Vanstone first learned about Elliptic Curve Cryptography (ECC) in 1985, he recognized it had the power to change the world. Today, ECC is one of the most powerful types of cryptography securing most of the devices we use every day. Its success is due in large part to Scott’s vision, research and perseverance and to those he mentored and trained during his career as a researcher, professor and entrepreneur.

Scott’s journey from PhD student to world-renowned researcher and company co-founder can be traced back to Bletchley Park, Britain’s secret facility set up in World War II and staffed with young mathematicians to break Nazi codes.

When the Department of Mathematics was founded in 1960 at the newly-established University of Waterloo, its chairman, Ralph Stanton, had the foresight to recruit influential faculty members — including William Tutte, the founder of graph theory and Bletchley Park alum.  In addition to teaching and research, Waterloo offered Tutte the opportunity to mentor graduate students in the emerging field of cryptography.  Ron Mullin was one of those students.

Ron Mullin arrived in Waterloo in 1959 to finish his graduate work and became first-ever UW graduate, receiving an MA in mathematics in 1960.  

Scott Vanstone graduated with his PhD in Mathematics from the University of Waterloo in 1974, working under Ron Mullin’s supervision.  Scott established his career as an assistant professor of Mathematics in the Department of Combinatorics and Optimization (C&O) and, during the early part of his career, concentrated on pure mathematics. However, he quickly became intrigued with cryptography and its potential for real-world applications. 

In 1985, he co-founded Certicom Corp with Professors Ron Mullin and Gord Agnew to commercialize a new mathematical method and chip architecture the team had discovered. 

In addition to his work as a researcher and entrepreneur, Scott was also known for his ability to collaborate with others and bring out the best in his students. He had a unique ability to identify talent immediately and worked with his students to help them achieve their Masters or PhDs and encouraged them to push themselves.

Although Scott passed away in 2014, he continues to have an impact on the future of cryptography. 

Alfred Menezes, now a professor in the C&O Department at UW, was one of those students. Scott visited Menezes’ Brampton high school to encourage him to attend the University of Waterloo. Menezes went on to receive his PhD in 1992 and his thesis was published as the first book on ECC. Today, Menezes is recognized as a leading expert in cryptography. 

Michele Mosca, also a professor in the Waterloo C&O Department, is researching the new generation of cryptography that will be needed with the advancement in quantum computing. As Mosca works on advancing quantum computing and building a stronger cyber immune system, he has looked to Scott’s early work in building Certicom’s contribution to ECC as a playbook. 

Spanning more than 80 years, from breaking Nazi codes to building quantum computers, Scott Vanstone’s distinguished academic heritage and ground-breaking legacy are testament to the profound impact of connections and collaborations.

Scott Vanstone’s Academic Ancestry (click images for larger)