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 laser setup. It fired light at bursts on the order of a trillionth of a second and the brightness of a nuclear explosion, and found hemozoin really well, Deane says. But it clearly wasn’t practical on a rural village scale.

“It worked beautifully, but it was very expensive, and we happened to discover along the way this other approach. And it just happened to be maybe 100 times less expensive, which we found interesting,” Deane says with a big laugh. “One could argue it might even be 1,000 times less expensive.”

That other approach is something that Intellectual Ventures is calling the Simple Scan, an advanced type of microscope encased in a rugged metal housing that can be distributed to perform field testing on blood samples. The prototypes built on-site—there are four, nicknamed after the Beatles—are nearly a foot tall and roughly six inches square on the base, although Deane says, “the final product on this could maybe be a third of the size of what we have now.”

The team actually had its bags packed about a month ago to field test the Simple Scan in Kenya, but got a last-minute cancellation. The team hopes to reschedule in June, Deane says.

Vaccine preservation. Another simple-sounding problem that is a huge conundrum in the developing world: How can you keep vaccines at the right temperature for a long period of time? Vaccines are delicate, and need to be held within a specific temperature range to preserve their punch—too cold or too hot and they’re no good at preventing infections. But where they’re needed most, there often isn’t any refrigeration to keep them at a steady, cool temperature.

“In areas where you don’t have electricity readily available, it becomes incredibly complex,” Deane says. “Not only am I moving these vaccines hundreds of miles by road and by foot and by bicycle, I’m also trying to hold the temperature constant in a place that doesn’t have any energy.”

Intellectual Ventures staffers actually encountered a sobering illustration of this problem—and the ingenuity to work around it—a couple of years ago on a trip to a vaccine distribution center in Uganda.

“They found this scene of a parking lot full of propane tanks, like you would put under your bar-b-que. The whole parking lot was full. It was stacked high,” Deane says. “It turns out that many of the regional vaccine distribution centers around the country have propane-based refrigeration. But the government hadn’t paid its propane bill in about four months.”

Intellectual Ventures’ solution was to modify a piece of equipment called a dewar, which is a heavy-duty insulated vessel used to keep things cold. If you’ve ever seen liquid nitrogen wheeled around at a doctor’s office, that’s the kind of squat metal container it comes in. With previous technology, Deane says, it was only possible to keep regular ice from melting for something like three days. Intellectual Ventures reworked the idea and now has something that can keep ice cold for about three months.

“What we built was an outstanding thermos bottle,” Deane says—and one that is seriously rugged. “You can put it in the corner of a mud hut in the middle of a heat wave, a flood, and a revolution, and you reach in three months later and the vaccine will come out cold,” he says. Intellectual Ventures plans to begin testing the dewar sometime in the next three months, and is currently looking for partner countries to host the experiments.

Wave-bending metamaterials. This project tackles the problem of expensive, intricate antennas needed to keep in contact with satellites above the Earth. Intellectual Ventures is developing an advanced antenna made of metamaterials—a circuitboard-like collection of extremely small structures that can bend energy waves in ways that natural materials can’t.

Cloaking devices are often mentioned as a possible use for these metamaterials, a fantastic-sounding but not entirely practical target. As Intellectual Ventures dryly notes on its blog, “the commercial implementation of such products are a ways off.”

But the metamaterials do show real promise in making a super-antenna that can steer communications beams with no external engines, very little energy use—and supremely small size.

So what’s that good for? Cheap, fast broadband speeds all the time, anywhere on the planet. Intellectual Ventures says its metamaterial surface antennas and the next generation of cheaper satellites will make this possible.

And by the way, hot tech startups aren’t the only businesses in the Seattle area hiring right now. Intellectual Ventures has grown to more than 700 employes worldwide and it’s continuing to add staff in the invention lab.

“We’re in a really exciting phase,” Deane says. “You go back a few years ago, we started the lab with a very small number of people—you can count them on one hand. Today, the number of people who are operating in the lab are around 80, and at the moment I think we have 25 openings.”

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

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