How To Invent: Tips from Patrick Ennis of Intellectual Ventures (Part 2)

Yesterday, I gave a few highlights from a lunchtime discussion with Intellectual Ventures’ global head of technology, Patrick Ennis. The Bellevue, WA-based firm, founded by Nathan Myhrvold and Edward Jung, is sometimes called an “invention company.” It has gotten a lot of attention—and stirred controversy—for buying up large numbers of technology patents worldwide. So I wanted to hear Ennis’s thoughts on intellectual property, patent reform, and venture capital, among other things. (He’s a physicist by training, and a former VC from Arch Venture Partners.)

But first, Ennis gave me a little taste of how invention sessions work at the firm. He was fiddling with the Saran Wrap on his sandwich, wondering about its material properties and how they might relate to thin-film coatings for medical stents, say. “Inventors see inventions everywhere,” he says. “Invention is not taught, except for kids. When you’re a little kid on the playground, you’re allowed to do this. But as an adult, this would be viewed as weird—‘this person is not focused.’ But that’s what inventors do.”

He ran through a hypothetical thought process with his sandwich. “Before we go to bed, we’d know if there are opportunities to invent a better film for food. I suspect we’d find the only opportunities are to reduce a little bit of cost, and maybe to change the marketing of it. A lot of the times at IV [Intellectual Ventures], we look at things like this and it turns out—because it was boring, or viewed as pedantic or mundane—people missed something obvious,” Ennis says. “You want to do a realistic market study. If it turns out there’s only 5 million a year of this sold around the world, it’s not worth your time to invent it. We’d quickly get a number for how much Saran Wrap is sold around the world….Then, someone will raise a hand. ‘You’re just talking about food preparation. These thin films are used for insulation to cover houses.’ Hmm, that’s 100 times bigger than a hamburger…That’s how invention sessions go.”

OK, on to the other highlights from Ennis:

On patent rights and reform: “Everyone’s whining about there’s too many patent lawsuits, which isn’t true if you look at the numbers,” he says. “You can make a case that stealing someone’s intellectual property is a really bad thing. A lot of patents, people didn’t know they were infringing. Part of the reason they don’t know they were infringing is they’re told not to look. When I was at AT&T in the old days, you were taught as an engineer not to look. Because if you looked, and then it turned out you were … Next Page »

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Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] Follow @gthuang

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