With Intellectual Ventures, Nathan Myhrvold Out to Create “Invention Capital” Industry—and Reinvent Invention in the Process (Part 1)
This time last week, Nathan Myhrvold was sitting down with Bill Gates. Gates had just returned from the Olympics, where he had watched some high-profile ping-pong matches—a very hot ticket in China. The two former Microsoft colleagues were catching up, and their discussion turned to racquet sports, and the various technical differences between them.
“Bill was telling me that badminton is also insanely popular there,” says Myhrvold. “So then I asked him to compare, ‘OK, you’ve got three implementations of what’s fundamentally the same game—tennis, badminton, and ping-pong. How do they differ?’ So we started discussing the parameters of it.” They made a list of important factors: serve speed, number of shots per rally, average rally time, size of the court, and so forth. “A naïve guy like me watching these expert ping-pong guys,” Myhrvold goes on, “there’s this blur of the white ball, but man the rally’s lasting forever! Versus tennis, I’ve watched a few times, the guy goes ka-whap with his blinding serve, and that’s it. If you can break his serve, you’re there. Bill says badminton is kind of in the middle.”
And why is that? “I bet you could figure that out,” Myhrvold says. “I bet it’s part physics, and part rules. With badminton, you can’t do anything like those serves, because the thing, the shuttlecock, resists going fast. Probably there’s a Reynolds number effect that’s the same thing in ping pong—although it goes fast, the coverage of the table is such that it’d be like tennis if either the ball was really slow or you could run really fast, because you can actually move your paddle—I’ve only played it a couple times in my life—but it’s only this far that you’re moving it. So it’s probably something like the ratio of the ball speed to lining up on it, and then, if that’s true, you’d expect that doubles might be different because each player has a more limited field, so you’ve cut their angle down, so something can come cross-wise in ways you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. But that’s just a guess…It’d be fun to see if someone has looked into this. You’d like to get some stats, like from the Olympics.”
Welcome to Myhrvold’s world. Given the rules of any game, you can figure out the underlying mechanisms and make predictions—and then start testing them with different scenarios and real-world data. It’s the way Myhrvold has always been—intensely curious and analytical—from his years working on quantum cosmology with Stephen Hawking through his time as Microsoft CTO and founder of Microsoft Research. And it’s no different at his current home, Intellectual Ventures, the private company he co-founded in 2000, which has been described by some as an “invention factory.” Its goal is to create a new marketplace for inventions—both by developing its own patents and buying up those of others around the world. Intellectual Ventures is tight-lipped about its funding, but it is rumored to have raised—or be in the process of raising—several billion dollars from big companies and investors.
I had a chance to visit with Myhrvold (he’s an Xconomist) last week at the Intellectual Ventures laboratory, a recent addition to the company located in an unmarked industrial building in Bellevue, WA. First, I got a tour of the lab from Geoff Deane, VP of engineering (see photo; he’s on the right talking with Myhrvold), who was tapped to run the facility five months ago. It is a giant work in progress—17,000 square feet—that started up 14 months ago, and has about 30 people working there so far.
The most striking thing about the lab is how much equipment is scattered throughout. And how many different types of scientific instruments there are. To explain the look of the lab, Deane quotes Thomas Edison: “To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.” He says the approach is to buy old equipment “for pennies” and then restore it, or mix and match parts to make high-quality working instruments: oscilloscopes, spectrometers, lathes, mills, lasers, a water-jet cutter, you name it. These tools of the invention trade are distributed amongst an almost comically wide variety of lab stations: a kitchen lab full of Willy-Wonka-like contraptions (Myhrvold is working on a cooking-science textbook), a full-service machine shop, an electronics shop, a photonics lab, even a mosquito-growing chamber to study malaria interventions. And that’s just what they chose to show me. I half-expected to see Morgan Freeman and the Batmobile hiding behind a screen.
Regarding the role of the lab in Intellectual Ventures’ business, Deane makes an analogy that he admits is simplified, but gets the point across. “Imagine a swimming pool that’s infinitely long and wide, but only an inch deep,” says Deane. The idea is to be able to dip a toe into any spot in the pool, he says, and see if the water’s promising there. If it is, they can get the further tools and resources to investigate whether an invention can come of it. But first they have to be able to do basic experiments across a very wide range of technical fields.
Which is a good lead-in to what Intellectual Ventures is all about. I sat down with Myhrvold for a far-ranging interview that began with the topic of theoretical physics—and could easily have stayed there for hours. (With next month’s opening of the Large Hadron Collider, the most eagerly anticipated particle accelerator in history, Myhrvold was full of ideas on what they might or might not discover there. He also thinks there’s been nothing revolutionary in physics since Einstein, is unimpressed by string theory, and notes that, for all the efforts to find top talent around the world, “there’s never been an Einstein from America!”)
But I also found out that the lab isn’t the only new facility brewing at Intellectual Ventures. The company will be rolling out new offices in five Asian countries this fall—part of a new strategy to provide tech transfer services around the world, and also to partner with existing technology licensing organizations at universities and research institutions in those nations.
I didn’t even get a chance to ask about Myhrvold’s almost-legendary “outside” exploits in cooking, photography, or paleontology. But his answers, starting today and concluding tomorrow and covering ideas from inventing a new type of nuclear reactor to stopping hurricanes, give a pretty complete picture of what Intellectual Ventures is really trying to do—and its current progress in supporting what he sees as the most precious of commodities: inventions.
Xconomy: Before we talk about Intellectual Ventures, can you say a few words about the Seattle area as an innovation cluster?
Nathan Myhrvold: This is a very innovative area. Seven or eight years ago, I wrote for National Geographic Traveler about the city. I wrote that, all of a sudden, Seattle in the 1990s became a center of cultural innovation in almost every way you could imagine. Starbucks Coffee is here, Microsoft is here, strangely Nintendo is here. Even more strangely … Next Page »