Xconomy Q&A: Intellectual Ventures Co-founder and CTO Edward Jung
Edward Jung, co-founder and chief technology officer, of Intellectual Ventures, has been out talking about how his company—which was recently described as among Silicon Valley’s most hated—is playing a long game to attack the big problems confronting the world today.
On the sidelines of the Boao Forum for Asia in Seattle last week, Jung sat down with Xconomy to talk about how he handles the fire hose of ideas he encounters each day, Asia’s trapped innovators, and where the company, based in Bellevue, WA, is headed now. It recently cut its staff of 700 by about 20 percent.
Jung had just come from a panel discussion at the event focused on U.S.-China relations featuring Bill Gates; Nathan Myhrvold, one of Jung’s IV co-founders; former U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson; and China’s former ambassador to the United States, Zhou Wenzhong. Their conversation highlighted the kind of huge, intractable global problems that governments—run by officials concerned with the next election, not the next generation—are ill suited to solve, such as climate change. Zhou at one point noted that China will need to import one billion tons of coal over the next 20 years, which left me wondering whether all the energy innovation espoused (and funded) by Gates and Myhrvold would make a lick of difference.
I asked Jung for his reaction, and much more. The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Edward Jung: I’m very optimistic about the world. The world today is full of optimists. The question is how can you unite them well. And, I think all the basic fundamentals—the innovation happening, the kind of funding that’s available—are acknowledgement of the problems. How you actually weave it together into something that’s actually likely to work, that’s much less clear.
Over the last 40 years what we’ve gotten really good at—your journal covers this quite well—is that if there’s a problem that could be solved by a well-funded company or maybe a small ecosystem of them, we’re really good at doing that now. Compared to about 40 or 50 years ago, you just couldn’t do that.
Now it’s been so mastered, and now it’s trying to be replicated all over the world. Everyone wants to build a Silicon Valley. That model’s well-known.
But now we also recognize that it can’t solve all the problems. So we now are challenged as a species to step up to the next set of things.
There were several times that the panelists were alluding to this notion that the problems are hard. That’s because the easy ones we’ve figured out. When you do that, the only ones that are left are the hard ones. So we shouldn’t be surprised that they’re the ones that government is not adapted to, and that companies aren’t adapted to, and the funding environment is not adapted to, because all the ones those were adapted to, we’ve knocked them down.
Xconomy: You have such a unique job and I’m sure you have a different day every day, travelling around the world. But what does a typical day look like for you, and particularly given what I assume is a massive flow of ideas that you are constantly encountering, what are some of the tools you use to keep yourself in mind of what innovation truly looks like?
EJ: Maybe I’m hoping—but also fearing—[for] the day when I do have a typical day.
One of the things that’s been fascinating about the whole experience with Intellectual Ventures is we’re making a lot of stuff up as we go along. The very business model and trying to approach it at the scale we do and in the manner we do it—there is no textbook to read about it. There’s no course at Wharton that says here’s the case studies that show you how to do this. You’re out there at the front. You’re the explorer. Explorers often get eaten. So you have to be a little careful as you go there, but we’re constantly taking risks and trying new things and learning.
My daily life is looking at the things we’ve done, analyzing how well they’re working, and then figuring out what we need to change. It’s a bit different than if you were in a manufacturing company where you optimize and analyze the stuff you’re doing, but you don’t sit there and keep fundamentally changing it. That would be very disruptive. And it’s a little bit different than say when you’re doing a movie production, where you have a year or two and you’re doing your movie, and then you’re done, and you could do it totally differently the next time if you wanted to. We’re somewhere in between. And I think that’s kind of fun. We have the context of doing it over a long period of time, because our funds are long-dated, and that gives us the flexibility to try these experiments, whereas if we were a typical startup and had to go raise money again every year, it’d be very difficult to change directions that way.
How do you manage it? I haven’t found any tools that are really good at it. Obviously, search is really helpful, and search over your own stuff now. But at the end of the day, I think a lot of it is just processing it in your head. And sticky notes.
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