"Did airplanes come from the R&D department of a train company or a steamship company?" Nathan Myhrvold asks, rhetorically, his voice cracking. He's explaining how his company, Intellectual Ventures, is going to reinvent the way things are invented.
Nathan Myhrvold doesn't resemble anybody I've ever met before, so much as he does the mental image in my brain of the wizard Merlin, dressed down in 21st-century duds. His life is appropriately mythical: The former CTO of Microsoft and founder of Microsoft Research, he started college when he was 14, worked with Stephen Hawking, dug up dinosaur bones and became an insane chef, winning world barbecue championships and preparing a six-volume, 2400-page cooking tome, Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, which will drop onto kitchen counters like an atomic bomb later this year.
The sense that he's smarter than you fills the room, almost palpably. He answers questions in the form of earnest essays, a flurry of anecdotes and statistics and dreams, his voice rising to a squeal when he manages to excite himself about whatever he's talking about. So when he tells you, "It's not insane to have an invention company that doesn't produce products, because we think invention is a different kind of an activity from making a product," you believe it as much as he does.
So, Intellectual Ventures isn't in the business of making things. Or selling things, for that matter. It's in the business of inventing things. The "business" of invention for Intellectual Ventures has two sides, really: It invents and develops things in house or with a wide network of thousands of inventors around the world—you're probably familiar with the a laser that kills mosquitoes developed at IV's labs—patents them, and tries to find a partner to turn it into a product. IV's been busy building a massive portfolio of patents for other companies to license or straight-up buy. Like one of IV's project leads, Pablos "Hurricane Killer" Holman told me, "Our product is a patent." (Though Geoff Deane, IV's VP of Engineering, seen in the top video, is quick to say that the "business is ideas, not patents.")