With Intellectual Ventures, Nathan Myhrvold Out to Create “Invention Capital” Industry—and Stop Hurricanes, Malaria, and Global Warming in the Process (Part 2)

8/26/08Follow @gthuang

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if you create the right model, the world’s pension funds have more money than Microsoft or any of these entities. So if you create that venture capital-like, private equity-like thing, you have an even bigger pot of money than I did at Microsoft Research. And a few other constraints perhaps, but this was something that was ultimately going to have even more leverage than what I could do there.

X: So, besides fundraising, how is Intellectual Ventures fundamentally different from a research lab?

NM: Research is a valuable thing, and pays off. But there’s a difference between research and invention. The typical researcher picks a problem, and works on it no matter what—the LHC [Large Hadron Collider] guys are going to work on it no matter what. There’s lots of stories of someone working for 25 years before they get their great breakthrough; there’s also people who work for 25 years and never get that breakthrough. That’s part of the game.

Invention is different. Invention is about the act of creating something useful. So you don’t work for 25 years, from my perspective. The goal is to invent something, not to work on a problem. We view invention as something distinct from research and distinct from engineering. It can be inspired by either one, but when we say “invent,” we literally set out to create inventions. At the end of the day, if we learned something but didn’t create an invention, that’s great, it’s OK—but that’s not invention. Just like you’re a journalist, and you can have interviews that result in you learning things, that’s great—but ultimately if you don’t produce written articles, someone’s going to say, “Hey!”

X: Can you talk a bit about the invention process? Have you figured out the best ways to vet ideas and produce inventions?

Cooking-science station at IV LabNM: We have a bunch of ideas about that, and it turns out the rest of the world does too. If you look on Amazon for “creative thinking” or “innovation” or “thinking outside the box,” there are people saying, “I have the recipe for how to develop more ideas.” Maybe they do. I’ve bought enough books like that to cover this table. I can’t say I’ve brought myself to complete most of them. I think there’s a lot of different ways to be creative. We try to get interdisciplinary groups together. We try to have a lot of homework done up front so we’re smart about the issue. We try to have unique points of view and different ways in. If we get stuck, we move on—we might come back and revisit. I’d rather invent something than just sit there and all be scratching our heads.

We have a lot of different methods. There’s the “answer in search of a question” method: we take something from [scientific journals] Physical Review Letters or Nature or Science and say, hey this is hot off the press, is this good for anything? We try to do radical new approaches to old problems. So if someone comes up with a new idea, does this have real implications? Sometimes you find something that does.

Another [approach] is “wouldn’t it be great if…?” We have a number of surgeons who are inventors. A practicing surgeon is focused primarily on the health of his or her patients. They know what’s available in the market, but they don’t know what’s really possible. So we get them to ask for things. Don’t worry if you don’t know how to do it, just ask for something. And we’ll see if it’s possible. So we’ve come up with some pretty amazing things that way.

X: OK, so let’s talk about some more specific invention projects. Earlier (see Part One from yesterday) you talked about a new kind of nuclear reactor. Can you give us some other examples?

NM: We’re working on a huge diversity of things. Lots of medical devices, we’ve been doing cooperative work with the Gates Foundation on looking at problems of global health and development around the world. So we have a bunch of malaria projects. Malaria is not a very lucrative disease because even if you’re in the tropics, affluent societies generally don’t have it. Nevertheless, we’ve done a bunch of work on it, we’re pretty excited about that. The patents there have not issued yet. When you file a patent, for 18 months nothing happens, and then the patent office publishes [the application], so we’ve got nearly 650 published applications. My guess is the malaria things we’re working on haven’t published yet. We really got onto malaria [just] last January in a really serious way.

In solid-state physics, we have this way of classifying things as a set of phenomena that are “Maxwell domain” [classical physics] and “Schrödinger domain” [quantum physics]. But can you do things with Schrödinger that you would have done with Maxwell, and vice versa? So as an example, most of the ways people generate or capture photons [light] are Schrödinger domain. They’re lasers, LEDs, hot wires. On the other hand, you can make little antennas for all these things. You can effectively use a [classical] approach. So we have a whole invention area around optical antennas.

And “metamaterials” [structures with weird, unique properties]—we learned of a fundamental breakthrough, … 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 or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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