With Intellectual Ventures, Nathan Myhrvold Out to Create “Invention Capital” Industry—and Stop Hurricanes, Malaria, and Global Warming in the Process (Part 2)
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is for relatively low cost—millions, not billions of dollars. Some activists hate geo-engineering because they say, look, people will use this as an excuse to keep polluting. I see that as a bit like saying, “Don’t stock defibrillators, I want people to have an incentive to stop eating glazed donuts.” People are going to eat the damned glazed donuts no matter what; if you have defibrillators around, you can save some lives. You ought to have that emergency response. Within a short timeframe, you can take the climate and dial it back to whatever you want.
X: If you’re talking about low costs, I take it you’re not into the idea of building a giant sunshade in outer space, or something on that scale.
NM: No, not the big sunshade. That’s geo-engineering, but it requires 23rd-century technology. There’s nearly trivial things I can convince you would work. Even if there are some “gotchas,” the gotchas are way easier than dealing with the Gulf Stream shutting off. So if you ever got remotely close to one of these disaster scenarios, this is what you ought to do. They’re all very simple physics, all things I think pretty much have to work. But hey, they’re not that expensive to test, so don’t take my word for it on whether they work! This is the kind of thing where the world ought to say, you know, let’s get some stuff out there and test them…It’s unclear what business model there is for us or our investors, but they’re kind of fun to think about
X: OK, so those are some pretty far-out projects. What are the more down-to-earth inventions you’re working on?
NM: The stuff we have that is here and now is lots of interesting surgical inventions. One of our inventors came to an invention session and said, suppose you have a tumor releasing metastatic cancer cells. How many times do they circulate [in the blood]? Turns out about a million times to circulate before settling down. You have lots of opportunity for intervention, six months to a year. There’s a finite amount of time, so it makes sense to intercept [the cancer cells]. And you don’t have to intercept every cell. If it were a short time, you couldn’t come up with effective way to get rid of them. But circulating a million times, if I take any vein, that cell will come by here pretty often. You’d like to have something that says, I can go put something in an IV in someone’s arm and have a good shot at intercepting. You should have a routine thing: as soon as someone suspects [cancer], put this catheter into a blood vessel that has the cancer detection mechanism. In the meantime, work out a surgery date and start on chemo, but if you can actually prevent metastasis from this day forward, it’d be a fantastic therapy to have. Our malaria work is similar to this. There it’s not about detecting—your red blood cells are infested with these things. We have ways of determining which red blood cells are infected. Eventually we could have a therapy based on mechanically getting rid of those cells.
X: Switching gears, I wanted to ask about your upcoming expansion of Intellectual Ventures into Asia, this fall. What are your plans there?
NM: The basic idea is a third way to come at the same idea of investing in invention. Most inventing organizations like universities and nonprofits have a tech transfer office or a technology licensing office. Most institutions in Asia don’t. Our goal is to create an entity to do two things. First, be an outsourced tech transfer agent for inventing institutions that don’t have one. We can provide the same functionality that you’d get from a technology licensing office. We evaluate ideas, we pay for them to be patented, we provide a little bit of funding for them, and then we license them. There’s no reason that smart people in Asia shouldn’t be able to get the same traction that Stanford provides.
The second thing, which ironically looks like there’s just as much opportunity, is we’ll also partner with tech transfer offices here [in America]. We’ve already done deals with some major universities in the U.S. where they say we already have a tech licensing office, but we wouldn’t mind partnering. It’s a bit like the way many venture capital firms will partner in a deal. They won’t go in alone, but they’ll come in with a friend. Or two private equity firms will get together to do a big deal. They have ambitious projects that they’d like to do, but they’d like to have an investment partner alongside. That’s what that deal is about. The difficulty is that we have to go open up offices all over the world. But we’re gearing up to do exactly that.
X: So the new offices will be in five countries in Asia, starting in late September. Where exactly are they, and how big will they be?
NM: They’re in China (Beijing), Japan, India, [South] Korea, and Singapore. That’s a good start—it’s enough for this year! We’ll find out how big, we’re doing 7 to 10-person offices right now. You always have this tension when you start up a new thing. We’re still feeling our way and figuring out what to do. I don’t want to pretend that we’ve got it all figured out. If we started with 100 in each office, I think our probability of failure would be close to 1. We’ll do an announcement at the end of September.
X: Why Asia, and what did you see in the invention market there?
NM: If you look at the biggest change in technology, the level of technology education and development in Asia is growing incredibly rapidly. One approach to that is to go start a venture firm in China. Everyone and his brother is doing that—including my brother [Cameron Myhrvold] at Ignition Partners, they have a Chinese fund that they’re affiliated with. If I was a venture firm, I’d probably do that too. I’m not a venture firm. The simplest, best way for us to participate in the growth of technology in Asia is to say, how can we help inventors there? The single best way for us to do that right now is to try to partner with inventing organizations, as opposed to trying to partner with individual inventors.
The model where we bring people into this room and brainstorm is great, but that’s for a relatively small number of elite inventors we can bring here. That isn’t going to help 1,000 professors of engineering in China. The way to help with that issue is to find a way they can get more traction and we can help. Because we understand the American legal system and patents and licensing way better than they do. On the other hand, they’re pretty smart people in their own technical domains.
X: You’ll be traveling to Asia to give some big keynote talks. How receptive have governments and universities been to the idea of partnering with you? Are they really interested?
NM: It’s a work in progress, but so far, yes, they’ve been very interested. They understand they’re not part of the technology economy. It’s unclear why they’d want to do it themselves. In terms of tech transfer offices here, some are very successful…but it’s like, do you do your own ads, or do you use an agency? Do you have your own lawyers, or use a law firm?
X: And will you eventually be nurturing individual inventors in Asia, and around the world?
NM: Not as intensively as this [in Seattle]. I’m here more than half the time; we fly them all here, we all speak the same language. It’s very intensive work with an elite group of inventors. You couldn’t generalize that to 1,000 engineering professors in China. So you want to nurture them, you want to support them in a bunch of ways, but you have to create something far more scaleable.
We’ll encourage people to come up with ideas. When you have an idea, you bring it to [a technology licensing office] and they say “that’s a great idea but someone already had it,” or “that’s a good idea but we don’t think it’s commercially interesting,” or “that’s a really interesting one, we’ll pay to get that all funded and get the patent written, and we’ll license it and we’ll send some money back.” A technology licensing office effectively vets ideas and handles the hard part—so that’s what we’ll wind up doing.