A Who’s Who of Geeking Out at Nathan Myhrvold’s Intellectual Ventures

9/3/08Follow @gthuang

When I visited Nathan Myhrvold last month at the Intellectual Ventures lab in Bellevue, WA, I didn’t get a chance to meet one of the lab’s most distinguished residents, science-fiction novelist Neal Stephenson. Myhrvold mentioned him during our meeting, but it was too early in the day to find him in the building. Stephenson, best known for his cyberpunk novel Snow Crash and mind-blowing historical fiction like Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle volumes, joined Intellectual Ventures part-time last year and usually comes into the lab in the afternoons, after his morning writing sessions at his Seattle home.

In the past couple of weeks, Wired and the Seattle Times have run interesting profiles of Stephenson—timed to the release of his latest novel, Anathem, which is due out on September 9. Both articles delve into the author’s ideas and activities—everything from sword fighting to serving as an advisor to Jeff Bezos’s local spaceflight startup Blue Origin (until 2006)—but I was most interested in how he’s actually contributing to inventions at Myhrvold’s company. Could he help design something like the interactive nanotech “Primer” book in The Diamond Age? Or the data goggles and virtual-reality interfaces from Snow Crash?

Not just yet, it seems. In the Wired piece, Steven Levy reports that at Intellectual Ventures, Stephenson and two partners are “helping refine some mechanical aspects of a new tool, a helical needle for operating on brain tumors.” This is a bit vague, but Myhrvold did stress to me that some of the most tangible inventions coming out of his lab are improved surgical tools. And I could certainly see Stephenson, who has his own underground machine shop at home in which he makes armor and other implements, tinkering with mechanical designs at a computer or workbench in the vast IV lab.

Meanwhile, Brier Dudley of the Times explores, among other things, Stephenson’s thoughts on “geeking out.” This refers not just to high-tech innovation but to the pursuit of knowing everything about a particular area. He quotes Stephenson as saying, “I think geeks geeking out is gradually replacing older institutions as a way that knowledge is preserved and developed in this society.” Dudley also quotes former Microsoft exec (and Xconomist) Linda Stone talking about Stephenson’s unique gifts: “Neal is absolutely, profoundly inspiring… He’s a builder, he’s a creator, he’s part engineer, part scientist and he has this splendid imagination.”

But Stephenson isn’t the only notable recent addition to Intellectual Ventures’ geeked-out crew. Here’s a short list of others who are stars in their fields, cutting across the disciplines of nuclear physics, software, venture capital, and intellectual property:

Patrick Ennis, former managing director at Seattle-based Arch Venture Partners, now leads IV’s global expansion, starting in Asia.

John Gilleland, co-founder of Archimedes Technology Group and former U.S. managing director of the International Thermonuclear Reactor Program (ITER), now heads up IV’s nuclear reactor program.

Vincent Pluvinage, former CEO of ipValue and AT&T Bell Labs researcher, now manages strategic alliances and private equity at IV.

Sanjay Prasad, former chief patent counsel at Oracle, now heads up IV’s efforts in enterprise software licensing.

They sound like strong additions to a diverse staff that is not just dreaming up big ideas to change the world, but is also trying to corner the market on practical inventions. Now can’t they just invent a nanotech e-book reader that’s better than the Amazon Kindle?

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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