Sen. Maria Cantwell and Nathan Myhrvold Talk Statewide Innovation at Intellectual Ventures Lab Ceremony

5/26/09Follow @gthuang

It’s not every day you get to watch a U.S. senator swallow a swirling ball of liquid nitrogen-cooled foam (yuzu-flavored, no less). Talk about a palate cleanser.

That was just one stop along a rather surreal press tour and ribbon-cutting ceremony this morning at the Intellectual Ventures Laboratory in Bellevue, WA, as Sen. Maria Cantwell got a personal tour of the lab from company co-founder and chief executive Nathan Myhrvold. “The point of the lab is to do prototyping and do research around our inventions,” Myhrvold said. “We never know exactly what we’ll need, so we have to have a lot of capabilities.”

(Among these is a unique way of doing ribbon-cutting, as you’ll see on the next page. All photos courtesy of McKenzie Funk.)

The wide range of capabilities at Intellectual Ventures was on display in a series of lab demos. The tour included glimpses of an expansive cooking-science station (site of the palate cleanser) and setups for doing epidemiological computer modeling of malaria outbreaks; diagnosing malaria by laser light (instead of a blood sample); designing electricity-free vaccine containers that can withstand 105 °F exposure in Africa for six months; and photographing mosquito wingbeats at ultra-high speed (27,000 frames per second). Then came the coup de grace—bug-zapping lasers that work as a “photonic fence” against mosquitoes and agricultural pests (the live-demo lasers were non-lethal and just for show, shooting 50 bugs per second). OK, maybe not the most practical technology yet, but it’s certainly a striking demo.

The lab hasn’t changed much since I saw it last summer; it still has about 30 full-time employees. But overall, Intellectual Ventures has grown to more than 500 staff members, up from 400-some employees earlier this year. The company has also leased space across the street from the lab for a new supercomputing center, presumably to help its researchers perform large computer simulations for epidemiology studies and other complex problems.

Sen. Cantwell, a Democrat who’s midway through her second term for Washington state, asked Myhrvold what Intellectual Ventures is doing for this state’s economy. “We’re going to try to keep this region on the cutting edge,” Myhrvold replied. “We have great people from all around the world to invent here. And then the ideas we have get worked on in the rest of the company and, hopefully, will go on to stimulate the economy here and elsewhere.”

“We’re involved in the very earliest stages of technology,” Myhrvold said. “Invention is to technology what conception is to reproduction. By having that early-stage research here, we hope to create technology follow-ons that will bubble through the whole rest of the economy. It’s a much earlier stage than most folks work. There’s a lot of risk associated with it, there’s a long time scale associated with it, but we think if you don’t plant those fundamental investments, you don’t get all those other benefits downstream.”

After the tour, Sen. Cantwell remarked to a roomful of press, “It’s incredible to have this resource in Washington state, particularly in the Bellevue area. We know the future is innovation, and to have this model of trying to break through and patent great technology is a smart business plan. For us in Washington state, it means we are going to continue to innovate, and that, I believe, is going to create jobs.”

She continued, “We live in an information age. Unique business models based on capitalizing on innovation, new information, and new ways of doing business is where job creation happens. It’s going to be where investment happens. So this is just further evidence of positioning this region of the country very well for that advent of more and more technology breakthroughs.”

Cantwell and Myhrvold know each other from back in 1993, when they worked together to oppose the U.S. government’s use of a technology known as the Clipper chip, which was based on a secret encryption scheme that could be used for wiretapping. (“He took on the Clinton administration at a time when they had just appointed him to the White House Council on Technology,” Cantwell said of Myhrvold.)

At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, I spotted many familiar faces from the Seattle-area innovation community, from University of Washington leaders like Linden Rhoads and Matt O’Donnell to top technology investors like Bob Nelsen and Geoff Entress (all Xconomists, I might add).

Ribbon "cutting" at IV Laboratory (Courtesy of McKenzie Funk)Of course, this being Intellectual Ventures, they had to cook up something special in the ribbon cutting itself. Instead of using a big pair of scissors, Sen. Cantwell pushed what looked like a detonator, or maybe a laser switch, as staff members in flame-resistant gloves stood nearby holding fire extinguishers at the ready. The gigantic red ribbon then burst into flames and fell in two parts, to a hearty cheer from the audience.

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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  • ryan

    Intellectual Ventures are patent trolls and Maria Cantwell is their shill. Take a look at what she did with section 18 of the recent patent reform bill. What a disgrace. I’m a Democrat and she lost my vote. Intellectual Ventures doesn’t even make anything.