The position of “Vice President of Global Good” at Intellectual Ventures made news even before it was filled. The Bellevue company, with its massive patent holdings and controversial licensing practices, is a lightning rod in the tech industry. The very title of the job was viewed as highly dubious or at least ironic by the company’s many critics.
That resulted in a feisty response from IV chief Nathan Myhrvold, defending what he described as his aspirations to roll out life-changing technologies in the developing world, in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Asset Trust.
So who got the job? It has been filled by Maurizio Vecchione, a veteran entrepreneur and inventor with experience ranging from telemedicine to nanotechnology. A native of Switzerland who grew up in Italy before coming to the U.S., Vecchione has been involved in nine startups and some 50 product launches over the past three decades. He relocated from California to take the Global Good position.
And why did he take it? Vecchione says the collaboration between Gates and Myhrvold is in a unique position to apply market forces and technology innovation to bring about meaningful improvements in the developing world.
“It’s unlike any startup opportunity that I’ve had,” he said in a recent interview.
Like most people in a new startup role, he says he is heads-down leading his new team, and getting the initiative off the ground. He’s not interested in engaging in a war of words with Intellectual Ventures’ critics.
“Time will dissuade the skeptics as we deliver some of these results,” Vecchione said. “I don’t have any magic response to overcome skepticism. It’s not my style to defend our strategies. It’s my style to deliver on the goal.”
One of the Global Good initiative’s first projects is piloting a “cold chain” device that can transport and store vaccines for extended periods of time, preserving them at low temperatures without electricity. The project recently completed its first set of field trials in Senegal, with promising results, Vecchione said. After further trials, the goal is to hand off the technology to a commercial partner to bring it to market in 2014.
Gates discussed the project recently during the Global Vaccine Summit in Abu Dhabi. “It does such a good job of retaining the cold that, without any energy, the vaccines stay at the very low temperature that’s required,” Gates said.
Partners working on the trials included the Seattle-based PATH nonprofit and local agencies in Senegal.
Intellectual Ventures says it won’t profit from any applications of the Global Good projects in the developing world. It will, however, hand over its work to commercial partners who will be able to make money from the initiatives.
That application of market forces is an important principle and one of the reasons that the Global Good campaign is unique, Vecchione said. He noted that the agreements with those partners will be structured to ensure affordable prices in developing nations.
“A partner runs with some risk,” Vecchione said. “In the process they have to be able to make money.”
And yes, Vecchione said, he believes patents have a role to play in the developing world. For commercial partners, he said, the “risk-reward equation is tricky if you are making the assumption that technology can’t be protected.” He noted, “We are just at the beginning of understanding how IP can play a role in the developing world in a positive way.”
Intellectual Ventures says it could make money if the technologies advanced by the Global Good initiative eventually find applications in developed nations, but Vecchione said that isn’t the ultimate goal the Global Good group.
He and his team are taking a variety of projects developed in the IV labs and rolling them out to the developing world. Other projects are under way in areas including disease modeling and diagnosis, malaria prevention and food safety.
“There’s been a tremendous amount of work done by the team and the rest of Intellectual Ventures preceding me,” he said. “My key challenge is to take that pipeline and begin that translation.”
[Editor’s Note: Intellectual Ventures is one of the category sponsors of the GeekWire Awards.]