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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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