From Three-Month Ice to Fast Broadband Everywhere: Some Projects You Might Not Know About From Intellectual Ventures Lab

4/21/11Follow @curtwoodward

There are two sides to Intellectual Ventures, the Bellevue, WA-based “invention capital” company started by former Microsoft CTO Nathan Myhrvold. The revenue-generating side of the business is a stockpile of more than 30,000 patents, which Intellectual Ventures licenses and sells to other firms, including tech companies large and small looking to defend themselves in lawsuits. IV also isn’t shy about suing to defend its patent portfolio.

On the other hand—and in a different set of buildings, actually—is the invention lab. Tucked into nondescript space in outer Bellevue, the lab is stocked with a huge amount of equipment, from sophisticated laser arrays to really big band saws, sometimes purchased at fire-sale prices. This is the epicenter of the “make side” of Intellectual Ventures, which also includes a network of affiliated individual inventors who work on their own. That side of the business files about 500 patents per year on inventions that are cooked up in-house, not acquired from somewhere else.

You’ve probably heard of some of the biggest creations to emerge from the lab, including the TerraPower next-generation nuclear reactor, the “photonic fence” of lasers designed to keep malarial mosquitos at bay and “Modernist Cuisine,” a nearly 50-pound food-geek compendium that that is redefining the term “cookbook.”

But the lab staff also is working on plenty of projects you might not have heard of, including some interesting stuff in the arena of global health. Some of this work, no surprise, is being financed by Myhrvold’s old boss, Bill Gates.

On a recent visit to the workshop, I got a look at some of the interesting but under-the-radar things that the Intellectual Ventures crew is working on. Here’s a quick look, with details from Geoff Deane, the company’s VP of engineering and head of the lab:

Malaria diagnosis. One of the problems in treating malaria in the developing world is finding an effective way to diagnose people.Today, blood tests might have to be strapped to the back of a motorcycle and driven 100 miles to the nearest health facility, making the economics of diagnosis not much better than the actual production of malaria drugs. So frequently, the path is just to medicate almost everyone, Deane says—and routine overuse of medication can eventually lead to drug-resistant strains.

The Intellectual Ventures team set out to build a quick, portable, durable screening system. There is a reliable marker in something called hemozoin, a blood byproduct that the malaria parasite excretes. So, the IV team set out to detect it, and wound up with a method that involved a complex-looking … Next Page »

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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