Nathan Myhrvold

Scientists and researchers working with Intellectual Ventures have come up with lots of wild ideas over the years. Some of them have the potential to help the world, ranging from a laser to zap mosquitoes to a container for preserving vaccines for long periods of time.

And now Nathan Myhrvold, the former Microsoft chief technology officer who founded Intellectual Ventures, wants to see those ideas rolled out and made available to the developing world.

That’s the story behind Intellectual Ventures’ decision to seek a new vice president to lead its “Global Good” initiative. Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Asset Trust, the project’s goal is to “solve challenging problems facing the developing world by using first world invention, product development, and business development techniques,” according to the job posting.

His push for “Global Good” notwithstanding, Myhrvold’s patent holdings have given him a very different reputation in parts of the tech world. After discovering the job posting, GigaOm’s Jeff John Roberts published this post earlier this week. He wrote, “The future ‘VP of Global Good’ will be hard-pressed then to carry out enough good works to offset the colossal harm or his or her employer. Unless, of course, they choose to close the company and reform the patent system.”

GeekWire spoke with Myhrvold to find out more about the initiative. He talked about the goals of the program, and also responded — in no uncertain terms — to the criticism. Continue reading for excerpts from the interview.

Why did you decide to create this position?

Myhrvold: The background of this is that the technology industry makes tools or toys for rich people. By rich people, I don’t necessarily mean rich in the U.S. context, but in the global context, absolutely. If you make software or computers or smartphones, you are going for people in the developed world,  especially on a global scale, who are tremendously wealthy. It’s wonderful that technology has transformed our lives so much. But frankly, our lives didn’t need transforming. It’s fun, it’s profitable. But it’s not like we were going to die if we didn’t have it. Whereas there’s lots of folks in the developing world who are in exactly that situation. Their circumstances are very desperate. So shouldn’t we try to use technology to try to transform the lives of the poorest people on Earth, rather than just the richest.

That was our basic idea. We started five or six years ago to start using some of the great inventors that we have, and technologists that we have here at IV to explore these problems of the developing world. We’ve got our laser device that shoots mosquitoes out of the sky, and we have the world’s best malaria model, and polio model and HIV model — computer models that help predict diseases. We have half a dozen other projects that are all aimed at trying to use interesting technological approaches to try and solve problems that are super important to the poorest people on Earth.

For five years or so we’ve been doing that. It’s gotten to be quite successful technically. But the time has come for us to take it from the lab out into the world. So we’ve opened up a position that is about trying to do the business development work to take the stuff from the lab and figure out how to get field trials, how to get manufacturing partners, how to get it really effectively deployed in the field in Africa and other parts of the world that really need it.

I’m sure you’ve seen that there’s some skepticism about the name of this position.

Myhrvold: Well, we’ve had that name for a long time. I think we do a whole lot more good for the world than GigaOm does. How big is their malaria research project? How much effort do they put into polio? I’m quite curious! What on Earth have they done that is —

You know, I was at a conference recently where someone said, “Well, do you feel good about what you’re doing?” I turned to this person who is an entrepreneur at a prominent social networking website, and I said, “OK, fine. You’re about people sending little messages to each other and having fun on a social network. How big is your malaria project?”

It turns out it’s very easy if you have a technology-centric mindset to think, Ah yes, Zynga, they’re doing — I don’t mean to call Zynga out in a negative way, but is Zynga doing God’s work? Is Facebook doing God’s work? Even setting aside what God’s work means, I think it’s pretty easy to say, those companies are doing wonderful things, but they are for-profit ventures. It’s either tools or toys for the rich. There really is a role in taking great technological ideas and trying to harness them for the poorest people on Earth.

Will you be doing this for profit?

Myhrvold: Well, fat chance of that. Technically speaking, we’ve arranged this project as a for-profit venture, because we want the flexibility to try to use partnerships in the rich world to try to fund and finance some of this. Several of our projects have the property that they will have a rich-world application and a poor-world application. We like that because the rich world can afford to pay more for the stuff, particularly when it’s in its early adopter stage, when it is more expensive. But we don’t view this as an effort that is going to make us any money.

Do you know which projects you’ll start with?

Myhrvold: We’ve got six or seven projects right now and many of those are projects we’ve talked about publicly for some time. At TED a couple years ago (above) I talked about our vaccine container. I talked about our malaria modeling; I talked about our shooting mosquitos out of the sky with lasers. So those are some of the projects. We have a bunch more. And some of those projects have multiple offshoots. So we’ve got a good variety of things to try to do, which is why it’s important that we find somebody great for this.

One thing I’ll say, I’ve got an attitude about the kind of person we’re looking for, for this project. I want to find someone who’s really good at business. There are some projects that are aimed at, for want of a better term, the third world, or they’re aimed at the NGO, there’s lots of euphemisms you can use. They’re basically full of people who are from that world. And that’s great, and I love that they’re doing all of that wonderful work, but when it comes time to figure out how to harness these technological ideas, we’re going to have to cut deals with for-profit technology companies. We’re going to have to find who’s the best company in China to manufacture our malaria diagnostic device. What are the logistics involved in getting our vaccine container to Africa and how do we enlist, and how do we enlist the vaccine makers and everything else. What we’re looking for is someone who’s a dynamic business executive who’s got a lot of experience in the capitalist, for-profit business world, but who’s interested in making this leap.

Intellectual Ventures’ Vaccine Cold Chain Dewar can preserve vaccines for extended periods without electricity.

It’s a different way of looking at it than most people do. I think it’s important because we’re really trying to harness the best of the technology world, which is 99 percent trying to be a for-profit business.

What about something we’ve talked about in the past, Stratoshield? (A plan to counter global warming by putting sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere.) Will that be included in this type of initiative?

Myhrvold: The answer is, maybe. That’s certainly one that we don’t have any profit expectations from, and we did it for the good of the world. Those are the reasons that we took the efforts that we did on the Stratoshield project. That said, it’s not a project that’s very easy to deploy for regulatory reasons, for a zillion reasons. That’s one that right now, we pretty much have on the back burner, awaiting someone else’s interest. We’d be happy to partner with a university or a government research lab or an organization like NASA or NOAA. It’s outfits like that that really need to take the lead, and we’re happy to supply our part to it.

I contrast that with something like our vaccine container, which we think could do a tremendous amount of good right now. We just have to figure out how to finalize the design, get it manufactured and get it distributed to the places it needs to be in Africa. Because there are lives hanging in the balance on that right now today. Somewhere in Africa there’s some vaccine going bad right now because the refrigerator is on the fritz or the power is out. And there’s some kid who is going to get some disease because they don’t get the vaccination. That’s a problem that I think has greater urgency at the moment, because we can sort of see our way clear to how it would get deployed. That’s greater urgency for us than one that’s about climate change, which ultimately, if you took a 50 to 100 year time frame, you could argue that’s just as important or even more important in terms of human suffering. It’s not likely that that’s true in the next 18 months.

What about the people who would say, Nathan Myhrvold could do a lot better for the world by reforming or figuring out how to abandon the patent system?

Myhrvold: Well, I think that position is absurd. First of all, the patent system was just reformed. There’s something called the America Invents Act. It was signed by President Obama a year and a half ago, roughly. The first thing I would say is, those of you who say that, what are you doing to help the world. If what you’re doing to help the world is you’re working for a Internet company that is a non-profit in the sense that it makes no profit but has a multi-billion-dollar market cap or is trying to, and you’re infringing lots of patents and so you have this attitude about patents, what on Earth are you doing that’s good for the world?

I don’t want it to sound like I’m attacking but it’s a very strange point of view. First of all, Silicon Valley has a strange point of view about how sometimes it’s perfectly OK for people to steal other peoples’ ideas. There’s a strange idea that the patent system is screwed up or broken, for which I’ve never seen any objective evidence. People will stories and say, oh, it’s all screwed up. Or there’s tons of bad patents out there. But OK, list them! Count them! What percentage are bad? By the way, why do you think they’re bad? You think they’re bad just because you might have to pay something? It’s a little bit like when people say that taxes are bad. Well, you could make a lot of arguments about taxes, but we all use some services from the government, and certainly some level of taxation has to happen. You could argue on the margin, this one’s unfair, that one’s unfair, but hey, it’s the law.

In the case of patents, if you think patents are bad, well, for example, how are biotech companies ever going to come up with cures for new diseases if they can’t protect their ideas? No one has come up with a strategy to make that work. And then people say, well, OK, you’re right about biotech, but not about Internet companies. And then I say, well, why do you believe that Internet companies have some special right that they should get to copy people’s ideas and make billions, but other people not?

And by the way, if you think that technical ideas that engineers come up with are not worth anything, why should programmers — Larry, Sergey, Mark, pick your programmer — why should they get to be billionaires? All of those guys have fabulous ideas. I’m not questioning that, but in the context of a company it’s OK for them to get rich, but it’s not OK for somebody at a university or a small company that didn’t do well for other reasons, for their equally good idea not to get any money at all? What’s up with that?

Usually what those comments come from is someone who has a highly politicized, not very fact-driven perspective of both the patent system and they have polarized that 100 percent negative and vilified it, but without any objective evidence. Meanwhile they have a strong sense of positive and entitlement-oriented stuff around the technology industry. I don’t get it. Now if there was a cogently reasoned argument, I’d be happy to entertain it, but otherwise, it’s pretty silly. By the way, any problem I would solve for rich technologists in America is probably less important on the humanitarian scale than me solving the problems we’re trying to solve for these poor people in Africa. It’s like, oh, yes, I should spend more of my career working for the wealthiest, most successful people on Earth, as opposed to working on behalf of the least successful. I don’t get that, either.

Hey, I’m still in a technology company. Intellectual Ventures is a technology company. And we are 90 percent, 95 percent, 99 percent a for-profit company. So I’m not telling you any of those things are bad, I’m enthusiastically doing it. However, we have set aside part of the time of our very best people to invent solutions to these important problems and we’re now  looking for a business leader for that set of activities.

What about just being more transparent about your different dealings with patents and all the holding companies and actually making sure that if you have a patent, it’s being used for an actual product and not just squatting on something?

Myhrvold: (Laughs.) Well, it’s another question that is like, “When are you going to stop beating your wife, Todd? That’s what we all really want to know.” … Many, many companies that are involved with patents have very good business reason to structure their things through a series of patent holding companies, including virtually any technology company you could name does things entirely analagous to what we do. 100 percent. In terms of transparency, all patents are transparent. What you’re really supposed to do is see if you’re infringing anybody’s patent. So what somebody says, why don’t you tell me which patents you have, Nathan, so I can avoid them, you’re supposed to be avoiding all of them! You’re saying, Nathan, I’d like to be honest with you but cheat everybody else. What’s up with that?

The truth of the matter is that big technology companies use patents as a strategic tool. You see Microsoft and Apple and Samsung and Yahoo and Facebook, you name it, they are using patents as a strategic tool. And they use every trick in the book when it comes to doing that for themselves. But there’s a set of folks, including some of those same companies, that quite hypocritically don’t want other people collecting any money from them on patents. It’s this very funny thing, “My patents are holy and great, and all of the ways I structure and hide my patents, that’s wonderfulness. But Intellectual Ventures, we’re upset with them because they might actually make us pay for some of the inventions we’ve made billions of dollars on without paying. Gosh it sure is more fun to get ’em for free!” …

If you were to look three to five years out, what are your hopes for this new role and this new (Global Good) unit?

Myhrvold: Well,  I would hope that three to five years from now, we could point to a whole bunch of successful projects that were actually being deployed out in the field, where we would say, yeah, we invented a new technology. More kids got vaccinated. Malaria incidents went down. Researchers understood something they’d never understood before. That three to five years out, we would point to some really tangible ways that we had changed the world for the better. In ways that are really life or death issues for the people involved.

Why is this important to you?

Myhrvold: There’s a whole philosophy about philanthropy and volunteerism. We decided that the most highly leveraged thing for us to do was to try to use our brainpower. Maybe we’re flattering ourselves, but we think we’re good at inventing things. The people that we can bring around the table have literally hundreds or even thousands of patents to their name. They’re people who have been very, very successful in inventing things in the context of the technology world. I think it’s a really cool idea to take some of that brainpower and harness it on these problems that otherwise have been intractable. If it was easy to solve poverty and hunger and disease in these countries, we wouldn’t have to do it. But people tried, and there’s a bunch of these problems that are incredibly difficult, and they cause the illness or death of literally millions of people per year.

If kids in Seattle or Palo Alto were dying at the rate they are in some of these countries, people would be up in arms. But because it happens in the third world, it’s very easy to ignore it. So we thought it was a good idea. It’s been hugely popular with our inventors. They love the idea of using some of their brainpower. For the people involved, it’s way better for them to volunteer in this way than to take part in a food bank or one of those projects where everybody picks up a hammer and builds low-income housing, or something else. Those are great for what they do. But if you can take a brilliant inventor and get them fascinated with a intellectual problem that is causing the deaths of millions of people per year, and they can make some traction it’s exciting for them, and so it’s exciting for me to help make that happen.

I realized I was in a position because of the company that I had and the set of inventors we had, and to give him full credit, because Bill is a partner of ours in all of this, that really gave us the opportunity to use technological smarts in a way that we just didn’t see being applied otherwise.

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  • seandr

    I don’t understand why a man with hundreds of millions of dollars feels the need to make even more money as a patent troll. Looking at this pathetic second act, Myhrvold comes off as a man who rode Bill Gates’ coattails to success, and who is incapable of doing anything useful or innovative on his own.

    • pj

      How can you possibly not understand why he’s doing it? He’s said why numerous times. He’s trying to make a new market for patents – IP – that is efficient. If accomplished this would reward the inventors – and allow good and prolific inventors to afford to be just productive sources of new inventions for society – and lower the cost to corporations. And – maybe most importantly – get rid of most of the lawyers that most people hate. The vast majority of IV’s licensing has been done without lawsuits.

      That may be a great idea or a dumb one. That market may never exist. But – regardless – IV and Myhrvold have been *very* clear and spoken loudly and with great earnest about this being their motivation.

      What I don’t understand is why people are so critical of the company with so little effort put into educating themselves about it. But this is the internet where everybody is free to pop off without any basis for their views.

      • J

        I think what you meant to say was “Hi, I work for IV.” As someone working in the field, I know these guys are universally reviled.

        • pj

          Actually I quit IV years ago. I don’t think they have much chance of ever making a return. I note that you didn’t respond to anything I said.

          What field are you referring to? NPEs? Patent litigation in general? Or technology? Lots of technologist hate them – there is plenty of evidence here. But most of the Internet complaints are from people who exhibit no evidence that they’ve ever read a patent – know how to read a claim – or understand how IP business has worked in the past and works now. They just know the Internet propaganda. Hopefully you aren’t one of that crew – but so far all you’ve done is impune my character not my comments.

    • zato

      “I don’t understand why a man with hundreds of millions of dollars feels the need to make even more money as a patent troll.”

      IV is mainly about keeping the tech world under the thumb of Microsoft and maintaining the Microsoft monopoly forever.

      • pj

        If that were true then there would not be so many MS competitors holding hands with IV and Gates. Its a bit more complicated than that Zato.

      • Guest

        Then it appears to not be working very well.

        • Matt Vegas

          when i bought an htc running android, htc had to fork over $5 for the unit to msft due to IP. it might be working better than you think.

          • jp

            … and what exactly does that have to do with IV? And why is it so bad for HTC to pay Microsoft royalties, but it’s okay for nearly every device manufacturer to pay Qualcomm 3% to 4% per device?

  • Peter H

    His request to name bad patents is ridiculous – there are hundreds of thousands of them, and he knows it.
    My favorite is the one that delayed my new HTC phone in customs earlier this year – a patent on the idea of if you click on a phone number in an app, the phone dials the phone number. Tell me that’s not obvious.
    The problem with the patent system is also clear: the patent office has abdicated on the question of obviousness. The RSA cryptography patent, for instance, is a truly novel idea that deserves a patent. The idea of dialing a phone number that you tap on, on the other hand, is completely obvious and should not be patented.
    There are 40,000 software patents issued per year. These are for the most part not truly novel ideas that require research, as in the medication example Myhrvold gave. Instead, most of these are fundamentally basic ideas claimed in a land grab of “I better patent any idea I can think of b/c everyone else is doign the same thing.”
    The idea that Myhrvold doesn’t understand that the crtiical infection of the patent system with obvious ideas is a true threat to startups is ludicrous. He gets it, he’s just avoiding the question.

    • pj

      Of course its ridiculous to have people name bad patents. We all know they are out there. We don’t have to know what they are.

      I’ll tell you the patent you refer to isn’t obvious Peter because a judge – reviewing all of the evidence – with lots of money trying to prove that it was obvious at the time of invention (obvious today doesn’t matter – but you knew that I assume) – concluded that. I doubt you have read the patent.

      Many truly innovative ideas – those that have a low intellectual bar when one is presented with an explanation – appear obvious after the fact. Fortunately that is not the legal standard. RSA does not suffer from this discrimination amont the popular press and public because its based on math that most people don’t understand.

      I’ll echo Nathan’s question here – how do you know the 40k software patents are not novel? How many have you looked at? I’ll bet none – or less than 20. Am I wrong? Patents are expensive – about $20k. Nobody “patents any idea I can think of”. Not even IV – I know. Thats a path to the poor house.

      Until recently the attack on startups via patents was nil – it still is very low – that dog just don’t hunt. People assert patents for money – startups don’t have money.

      • Peter H

        Not sure you know what you’re talking about.
        I’m a VP of Engineering of a startup, and I am motivated by my board and by increased future acquisition value to get as many patents as possible.
        Attorney cost of filing a patent is around $3k. Your $20k must be a corporate number – we scrappy startups can get it done for $3k.
        Given every acquisition review looks at your patent portfolio – we are absolutely incented to patent anything we can think of.

        • pj

          I’m a named inventor on more than 20 patents with more than a hundred filed applications. I know very well what I’m talking about. $20K is not a “corporate” number but rather filing plus attorney time plus drafting. The attorneys are what make up the bulk of the cost – not PTO charges. If you want to prosecute your patent pro-se then its sweat equity and you need to calculate in the hourly cost of a VP of engineering. There is zero chance that the real total cost of your patents through to issuance is $3k. None. Nada.

          • Peter H

            Your point was startups don’t file patents because they process is too expensive and they don’t have cash. There are many many counterexamples to your point.

          • pj

            No – that was not my point at all. My point was that startups are not the targets of patent suits because they have no money – there are very few counter examples and they are mostly new. That could become a trend – and may not – we shall see. Separately I countered the argument that “people patent every idea they have” by saying the cost of patents prohibits that. The two observations were not linked. Sorry if something in how I wrote that suggested that they were.

        • pj

          Here is a good overview of the costs to *file* a patent which ignores the prosecution costs:

  • Jack

    Todd, do you ever get the feeling that this stuff IV does is actually deliberately engineered to generate press? If so what will it take for you to stop posting about IV?

    Nathan, it is hard to see your malaria “research project” (killing mosquitoes with lasers, right? Is there anything else?) as anything more than yet another in a long line of PR stunts IV has pulled over the years. Do you have any of these things killing mosquitoes yet? Oh right, you just do the “idea” part!

    Prediction: this position will not be so much a VP of Global Good as it will be a VP of PR Stunts & Taking Gates Money, but I’d be happy to be proven wrong.

    • pj

      Sure there is other stuff related to malaria. There is the cold chain dewar – pictured above. There are very different approaches listed on their web page – that took me 20 seconds to find (I timed it). There are many other vastly different approaches addressing malaria disclosed in published patent applications and issued patents. That took me 3 minutes but I use the USPTO web interface quite a bit – it might have taken you longer Jack. If you were really interested in knowing – from the tone of your post I’m skeptical.

      The position may end up being mostly PR or it may not. My prediction is that you would claim it is just PR regardless – based on the posting here. But I’d be happy to be proven wrong.

      • Jack

        The cold chain dewar: is anyone using it? If someone is… why doesn’t IV let us know? I’m guessing it’s too expensive.

        Looking forward to IV snagging credit for stuff like this (cold chain) that other organizations, e.g. PATH, actually improves.

        • pj

          The entire point of the article is related to a new opening for a person to go out and get people to use stuff like this. Its new – and there is nobody in that role yet – and they haven’t bragged about it being used (I agree I’m sure they will if/when its used).

          They invented it. Its not a trivial modification on whats been done before. If somebody else uses this idea – builds upon it – and makes a product thats good for everybody. And IV should take credit for coming up with a novel useful new idea – even if somebody else does a better job of bringing it to the market. What could possibly be wrong with that?

  • Darren Vengroff

    I have been a critic of IV in the past and I suspect I will be in the future. But I am willing to put that aside for a moment and say that I am cautiously optimistic about this new Global Good program.

    It will take a few years to see how things pan out, but if the right person approaches this in the right way, they have a real chance to make a world of difference in the lives of a couple of billion people.

    I don’t say this casually. I say it based on years of experience.

    I have been involved in development projects in poor countries since I was a teenager. Indeed I contracted malaria at 17 as a result. But I’ve seen people debilitated by far worse, and far more preventable diseases.

    I’ve also worked in technology for many years, and believe fervently that when correctly applied it can vastly improve the lives of the poorest two billion on the planet. Aside from successfully pursuing our core strategy, including patenting much of what we do, my company and its employees are currently involved in several development projects in Africa and Asia.

    So here is how I see things: Much of what IV has done has been about compensating inventors for their inventions in a new way. Meanwhile, much of the criticism they have received has focused on their lack of execution and delivery of products and services based on the inventions they either created or licensed. But the creation of this new position is a very explicit acknowledgement that the execution gap has to be closed to make a difference to the poor. That is an incredibly positive step.

    If I could offer any advice to whoever fills this new role, I’d tell them that a lot of what’s in the job description—things like finding manufacturing partners, managing product pipelines, giving inventors feedback on features—are the incredibly easy parts of the job. In today’s lean global manufacturing and distribution environment, a high-performing mid-level product manager can get those things done.

    So what’s the hard part? It’s actually the part that some of the companies that Nathan is so critical of in the interview are really good at. The hard part is understanding exactly what drives viral adoption or social rejection of a new product and building an organizational culture of constant testing, measurement, feedback, and product evolution around driving adoption. Why does this matter in delivering vaccine or eliminating disease-carrying insects? We’re not talking about virtual cows here; we’re talking about life and death behavioral changes that surely anyone would want to make.

    For a counterexample we need only look to Marin County, an area that is off-the-charts wealthy and well-educated by world standards. And yet it has high rates of entirely preventable pertussis because the notion that vaccination against it could have undesirable side effects has taken hold.

    In poor countries, I’ve seen batteries go missing from solar powered water pumps because they were also useful for powering radios. I’ve seen newly introduced and highly nutritious crops rejected because traditional local cooking methods destroyed their flavor (and nutrition for what it’s worth). I have seen a microfinance program fail to gain traction in a village because it did not support the base-5 number system that the village elders and their ancestors before them had used for several centuries.

    Nobody in Bellevue, or Seattle or Washington, DC, London, Paris, or anywhere else in the rich parts of the world is going to recognize all of the cards stacked against their best intentions before the game even starts. The only way I know around this is to build an adoption-focused culture that can quickly measure outcomes, identify incentives and blockers, and pivot on a dime.

    Solving the adoption problem—adapting and pivoting to conditions on the ground to provide clear and immediate incentives for people not only to take advantage of whatever life-changing inventions IV manages to create but also to encourage their families and friends to do so—that is what is going to make or break this program.

    Whatever criticisms I or anyone else might have of what IV does, I can’t possibly criticize their intent here. Well, I could if I was cynical, but I’ve made it through a really long comment with being cynical, so I won’t ruin it here. I just hope that Nathan and Bill and Melinda and their new VP of Global Good recognizes the true nature of the challenges they face and build the kind of team that can meet them. I certainly wish them well.

    • pj

      Well said. There is very valid questioning of how much of this effort – and the much bigger Gates foundation – is PR driven. Years ago when that project was announced I immediately concluded it was PR.

      So? Who cares? If they do Good – and part of their motivation was self-interest – they still did Good. And while it shames me to admit it – I agree with Rand to some degree in that people act out of self interest. Sometimes its just because they feel good – and get an ego boost and a personal high – doing something that helps others. Should we hold that against a person? I don’t think so. Maybe Gates and Myhrvold are totally driven to improve their PR. In the end – if they come up with good programs that help poor people – I say God bless them. And by that I mean whatever God – if any – they think of. Not just Christ.

      Darren – also for what its worth I don’t think Nathan was being critical of those companies. As I mentioned before he just said he didn’t see them doing “God’s work” – whatever that is. They are in business to be a success. Great! But that doesn’t make their efforts purer than somebody else on their own merits. Thats not criticism – he isn’t saying they do the Devil’s work – just that Companies are Companies – and almost always driven by the same fundamental goal – to be a success. I love Ben and Jerry’s ice cream – and I love their philosophy of how to run a business. Same for Costco. But more than their philosophy or goal to do Good they are focused on being a business.

      • ff

        Ben & Jerry’s was acquired by Uniliver on the same day that it purchased Weight Watchers (one of my favorite corporate hedges ever). And if you actually dealt with the execs there now, you may experience instantaneous disenchantment with their perceived company image. Goes to show that corporations’ nature is to always do for themselves, sometimes they do good (like Nathan is doing here and now) but almost exclusively when and because it is self serving, like BP’s green energy division, MicroSoft’s $100M investment to help Steve Jobs restart Apple….

  • liverdonor

    I don’t argue with the patent process – it’s not perfect, but it’s a reasonable idea.
    I don’t argue with philanthropy – if you have more to give, you should give more.
    I do find it disingenuous for one to say “look how great we are for doing all this good” when the majority of what one does is buy up other people’s great work for pennies on the dollar, and then spend most of one’s time litigating one’s way to wealth. Sure, it’s legal – but so was what the banks did in the early ‘naughts with mortgage-backed derivatives. It doesn’t make it any less harmful nor immoral.
    IV has made some cool stuff. But they are definitely not an invention-house – they are clearly the “middle-man” in the patent wars.

    • pj

      LD – I would argue that they are clearly both. Most of what they appear to do involves buying patents – and fits the middle-man model – or worse the arms dealer model. But they actually do a *ton* of invention. Its a different part of the business – with less dollars behind it – but actually still a pretty substantial amount of money and intellectual capital. Look at the US pto and search for patents with Nathan or Edward Jung listed.

  • onyd

    Wow, Nathan really comes off terribly in this interview. He sounds like the kind of guy who if he were beating his wife (not saying he is – he brought it up) would vigorously defend his right to do so, and in fact insist he was doing a public good by clearly setting boundaries and helping her realize the importance of cooking dinner on time.

    He also sounds like a wealthy individual who doesn’t get told “no” a lot and his worldview and approach to other people seems to have evolved accordingly. The repeated taunts of “Where’s YOUR malaria research project?” to his imagined rivals make him sound like he’s doing this for the moral high ground rather than any actual urge to help people. He in fact sounds dangerously disconnected from reality, which isn’t so much a problem until you realize he’s a very powerful guy.

    As for this Gatesian “Global Good” approach that seems to have worked for Bill G. (hey, maybe Bill should have patented it), I’ll just take Nathan’s assertion “I would hope that three to five years from now, we could point to a
    whole bunch of successful projects that were actually being deployed out
    in the field, where we would say, yeah, we invented a new technology.
    More kids got vaccinated. Malaria incidents went down.”

    And then suggest that in three to five years we check.

    • Anne_Ominous

      That first paragraph is VERY well said. I hope you don’t mind: I’m going to remember it and repeat it.

  • Anne_Ominous

    Well… this has to be said. It just has to.

    When his benefactor, Bill Gates, was in charge of Microsoft, HE wasn’t doing “God’s work” either. He was too Goddamned busy making a $20 Billion personal fortune.

    ‘Scuse me, but I don’t think “Exploit your fellow man so you can give some of it back later” is actually a traditional Christian value. (Although I know plenty of Christians who think it is.)

    Myhrvold, your ethical stance comes out as “Think you are walking on water when it’s actually a pile of manure.”

    Go suck eggs. No… wait. You’re already doing that.

    • pj

      Anne – well – *this* just has to be said.

      First, Myhrvold suggested that other companies are not doing “Gods work”. He hardly suggested that his company – or MS – were or had been doing thus.

      And second – he never said anything about “Christian”. “God” is not actually a synonym for “Christ”.

  • albert

    Nathan should stick to writing cookbooks; he’d have fewer credibility problems. Of course he supports software patents, patent trolls couldn’t exist without them.

    • pj

      Albert – from my experience most patent trolls do not rely on software patents. Many do. But not most. They certainly could exist without software patents.

  • Hugh Dame

    I realize that this is not primarily about malaria, but as a physician, I. Must point out that the most effective control of this deadly disease (which I, incidentally contracted 60 years ago in Korea) was within reach until the horribly. Mistaken book by Rachel Carson

  • Marc

    Nathan, the world’s greatest nations have poured untold riches into Africa. Why do you can transform the 3rd world? I say let them work it out. Invest in your own community and you’ll get a rewarding result instead of crushing disappointment.

  • Marc

    Nathan, the world’s greatest nations have poured untold riches into
    Africa. Why do you think you can transform the 3rd world? I say let them work it
    out. Invest in your own community and you’ll get a rewarding result
    instead of crushing disappointment.

  • Paul

    Nathan makes so many logical fallacies here this could be used as an example for study in a university, including his repeated use of “Look Malaria!” to distract from the tremendous amount of harm he has done to the world. Malaria is apparently the new “It’s for the children!”/”Terrorists are out to get us!”, and until he makes some kind of material progress (a lab-only laser fantasy system doesn’t count) in the field he has absolutely no business parading it out as some kind of shield. Quite frankly it’s exploitive of those suffering from malaria.

  • Paul

    Nathan makes so many logical fallacies here this could be used as an example for study in a university, including his repeated use of “Look Malaria!” to distract from the tremendous amount of harm he has done to the world. Malaria is apparently the new “It’s for the children!”/”Terrorists are out to get us!”, and until he makes some kind of material progress (a lab-only laser fantasy system doesn’t count) in the field he has absolutely no business parading it out as some kind of shield. Quite frankly it’s exploitive of those suffering from malaria.

  • GravatarInvadesPrivacy

    Nathan makes so many logical fallacies here this could be used as an example for study in a university, including his repeated use of “Look Malaria!” to distract from the tremendous amount of harm he has done to the world. Malaria is apparently the new “It’s for the children!”/”Terrorists are out to get us!”, and until he makes some kind of material progress (a lab-only laser fantasy system doesn’t count) in the field he has absolutely no business parading it out as some kind of shield. Quite frankly it’s exploitive of those suffering from malaria.

  • Steve

    All this is very well, but have you seen IV’s NDA for inventors? I did. You cant even discuss its disgusting terms. I did not sign.

  • Tohe

    Wow so that’s what a real life troll looks like.

  • R
  • Hacker

    I wish I could do something to help the world, but I can’t because I’ll get sued for infringing Intellectual Ventures patents. His company holds such marvels as “an online backup system”. Give me a fucking break.

    • pj

      The title of a patent are immaterial. When you read that patent (which number was it?) what did you think about the claims?

  • Guestorama

    What an ass. IV needs to realize that innovation takes place when you build actual companies that deliver products to customers. No one has ever done more harm to the innovation ecosystem in the world than Intellectual Ventures.

    • pj

      Your first statement is proven false by the most of human history. Companies are relatively new – yet innovation goes back through to the origin of man. I’m fond of the wheel personally – innovative, important, non-obvious and totally disconnected from any corporation. Thomas Edison also had quite a few important inventions that he did not commercialize through companies. Inventing – and productizing – are two totally distinct (though related) activities. Your argument is also a sound one for justifying corporate theft – all that matters is that MS steal your idea effectively enough to put you out of business. At that point your company is not delivering products to the market. This is a tried and true tactic of several large companies – see Burst and Microsoft.

      Your second point is an interesting one. I’d like to know the basis for it. What has IV done that you think has harmed “the innovation ecosystem”?

  • guest

    Another IV article and the predictable rush of trolls to vent about IV and condemn NM. Yawn.

  • delay

    When looking at the patent system the only thing that should matter is does it increase or decrease the rate of innovation. If it increases it we should keep it, if patents decrease it we should be do away with it. I would suggest that the rate of progress is decreased through the patent system.

    An idea is the first and easiest step in a long process to the creation of a product or business. Everyone has ideas, few people execute those ideas to completed products. Those that do are rewarded. The problem with patent trolls is it allows them to shortcut this process. They don’t have to go through the work or investment of actually creating the product. They just wait around for someone else’s success and then siphon off the success of the person that did the hard work of creating the product.

    All ideas are built upon the back of previous knowedge and ideas. I believe ideas come about as certain things develop. If one person doesn’t develop an idea, another person will. We have such similar educational backgrounds and experiences. The patent system rewards this idea creation as being somehow unique. I would venture that is rarely the case.

    I think this is why people have a problem with patents in general and even more so with patent trolls. They get rewarded for bypassing 99% of the process.

    I have created successful and failed businesses. The idea part is easy. I have 100’s of them. Making it into a finished product is where the work comes in.

    Nathan is about to find out how tough it is to take an idea through to a finished product. I wonder if he will have success. From the sound of it, I would guess he won’t. He is looking for one person to bring half a dozen highly complicated projects to market over the next three to five years. Good luck! Your going to need it….

    • jp

      I would argue that the patent system is vital to innovation. Large companies can duplicate any new idea very quickly and efficiently. If you do not have a patent, then you have no recourse when someone steals your idea and puts you out of business. Even if you have a patent, you need money to enforce your rights (watch the movie Flash of Genius sometime). Patent trolls do not get patent for free. They pay the inventors, and help enforce the inventor’s rights. Without patents, and trolls, there is no way to get paid for your good ideas, incentive to invent/innovate is reduced.

  • boece

    It should be noted that Myhrvold famously remarked (I’m paraphrasing) that search engines were not a business and that the vast majority of people would never use more than what was in their bookmarks. Of course that was in the mid-90s but his lack of insight remains breathtaking.

    • jp

      wow! thanks for your insightful comment! it clearly makes more sense to give more weight to an apparent mistake he made in predicting the future 20 years ago, than to his other accomplishments (

      • boece

        You *might* be taking this too personally.

        I suppose on the Internet one cannot make a simple historical observation.

        My first job in tech was working for a small dial-up ISP (mid-late ’90s) and I couldn’t fathom how real estate web sites could ever take off – who would take all those pictures and put them on the computer, I wondered?!? And I consider myself pretty tech savvy. Of course real estate web sites plodded on, scanned photos, and digital photography wasn’t far off as it turns out.

        Smart people make demonstrably stupid observations all the time. Really smart people like Thomas Watson and Ken Olsen (of IBM and Digital Equipment, respectively) imagined the world market for computers vastly smaller than it is today.

        That said, no matter how smart Myhrvold may be, he’s investing all that brain power into being a bloody patent troll.


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