"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.")
It sounds crazy at first, a business built on simply thinking up new things. But the model Myhrvold sees is not unlike a company that develops software and licenses it, crossed with a venture capital firm. Except IV is all about developing ideas and garnering capital to fund them, like the $300 million Myhrvold says he's given to inventors. Investors receive their payout when an idea moves from thought bubble to invention to patent, and, eventually, to product. In the 10 years that IV's been in existence, though, nothing's evolved into the product phase. Yet. But you'd be sorely mistaken if thought IV was merely a "patent holding firm" or "patent foundry," as it's often described.
When I arrive 30 minutes early to the little Bellevue, WA, office park that houses Intellectual Ventures' main lab, the sky is a flat, pale gray that would be emotionless if it didn't threaten to pee all over me at any given moment. I pace outside the door, checking Twitter and email in a repetitious loop. I cannot imagine a more nondescript time or place to try to change the world. But I suppose Willy Wonka's factory didn't look so amazing from the outside, either.
The front room is a long hall that reminds me of my high school science lab, from the fluorescent lighting to the standard checkered tile—though it's about 50 feet longer. Rows of tables are studded with microscopes, run-of-the-mill-looking laboratory equipment and computers that scream science, not LAN party. It's, um, boring. But this is where Ben Wilson and Mike Hegg, who seem like the graduate assistants you wish you had in college, are seated, assembling and testing an incredibly cheap malaria detector, a simple gadget that will make people's lives better.
Cheap gadgets are part of the ethos of IV. Nearly every piece of equipment is purchased used and then refurbished, allowing the in-house wizards to fully stock its shop with all the gear necessary to rapidly prototype just about anything. But at a cut rate. In the electronics room, the most expensive gadget is a $3500 oscilloscope, which they bought for two grand.
This is The Room. It's where the ideas, like, happen. Intellectual Ventures regularly convenes experts, geniuses and inventors to dream up new inventions. Sometimes, they start with an issue, like global health—which occupies about 50 percent of the 20 or so ongoing projects in the lab—and look for solutions. Sometimes they imagine answers, and have to look for a problem. Mics hang from the ceiling to capture every utterance of eureka, while specially trained lawyers sit in the back, deciding what constitutes a new idea or invention. What comes out of these big braintrust meetings?
Blowout preventers for oil wells were invented by Harry Cameron in 1922. The company he founded still makes the most of them, and the basic mechanics of how they work have gone virtually unchanged since then. "True story," Myhrvold says, "we did a couple sessions in the oil industry," and one of the ideas was a new kind of blowout prevention, particularly for deepwater wells. "We ran this by a bunch of people who told us not to bother, that it was a solved problem." Very solved, if you ask residents along the Gulf Coast.
Nathan Myhrvold himself
It's worth noting that sequence of events: Intellectual Ventures had sessions, an idea, and took it to people in the appropriate industry. What's fascinating about the way IV works is that staff scientists and researchers working on projects at IV are very often not working in their direct field of expertise, or are, at minimum, simultaneously reaching into a field they weren't originally an expert in. There's a built-in culture that venerates hackers, or as IV likes to euphemistically put it, "makers," because everybody there is effectively a kind of hacker. Ben and Mike, for instance, are optics and electrical engineering geeks, not biologists or virologists—but they're looking at methods for detecting malaria. Pablos, who you might originally know from hacking RFID-enabled credit cards, says "We're hardly ever working on something we know a lot about. You know, I'm a computer hacker trying to solve brain surgery and cancer."
Might sound like a recipe for disaster, but it's actually "part of the trick to how we invent stuff," he says. By having a diverse variety of intellects working on a single problem—instead of a cabinet of single-minded specialists—the team at IV can achieve an outside perspective that attacks problems from completely new angles. Given what they want to accomplish, where the difference between wild success and failure is just an idea, it might be the only way Intellectual Ventures could work, really.
Eureka is our week-long meditation on the wonders of invention, inventors and genius.
Videos by Mike Short.