Charles River VC, a $300M Investor in Intellectual Ventures, Says Patents Are Huge Market, Not a “Dirty World”

5/4/11Follow @gthuang

Quick, which Boston- and San Francisco-area venture firm has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into the burgeoning—and controversial—market of intellectual property and patent protection over the past five years?

If you said Charles River Ventures, you are correct. In fact, CRV is the only big venture investor behind Intellectual Ventures, the Bellevue, WA-based firm known for its unique (and often criticized) approach to the business of invention. Charles River says that, together with its limited partners, it has poured some $300 million into the company since 2006.

That’s an astounding figure, and it shows that Charles River is betting on intellectual property in a huge way—perhaps more so than anything else in its portfolio. Besides Intellectual Ventures, the VC firm is also invested in RPX, a San Francisco-based defensive patent aggregation firm, which filed for an IPO in January and plans to go public today—more on that coming in a separate story. (Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Index Ventures are also investors in RPX, which was co-founded by two former employees of Intellectual Ventures.) Yet most venture firms still treat the field of intellectual property as a bit of a scourge—or, at best, a fringe area—even though it has great ramifications for VCs and their startups. So why did CRV decide to take the plunge?

The story goes back to 2001, the year after Intellectual Ventures was formed, when Nathan Myhrvold, the company’s polymath, founder, and CEO (and Microsoft’s former chief technology officer), came to Boston and met with Izhar Armony, a partner at Charles River Ventures. After some intensive Myhrvold-speak—for example, “invention is the essence of innovation”—he drilled down to his main point. Venture firms, Myhrvold argued, spend almost all their money on things that are essentially commodities—engineers, business people, infrastructure for startups—but what’s actually unique, and arguably most valuable, is invention.

Many would disagree—people and execution are pretty essential to businesses, after all—but the seed was planted. “Nathan helped open my eyes to the notion that IP [intellectual property] is a very important market—it’s actually a very big market in tech,” Armony says. He adds that there’s a $50 billion-plus market in IP rights and licensing, versus a $6 billion litigation market based on legal fees.

So in 2003 he led CRV’s investment in Intellectual Ventures’ “invention science fund,” which aimed to create new inventions across a wide range of fields, in part by bringing together renowned scientists and inventors and brainstorming ideas in a structured way. Such “invention sessions” have led to major projects and spinouts such as TerraPower, the Bellevue, WA-based nuclear-reactor firm (in which CRV also became an investor). In total, CRV committed $39 million to the invention science fund, co-investing with the likes of Bill Gates and Microsoft.

But the really big business opportunity came along in 2006, when CRV and its limited partners decided to commit an additional $300 million—I’ll say it again, $300 million—to Intellectual Ventures’ … Next Page »

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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