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SURF Incubator founder Seaton Gras speaks on stage with Intellectual Ventures’ VP of Engineering Geoff Deane last night. IV is partnering with SURF to help educate startups about patent law. Photo courtesy of IV’s Nathon Sims.

Intellectual Ventures can be a lightning rod for controversy in the technology industry, but the company has found a receptive audience among the startups at a Seattle-based technology incubator.

Intellectual-VenturesThe patent-holding firm, led by former Microsoft CTO Nathan Myhrvold, is teaming up with SURF Incubator in downtown Seattle, which largely serves as a community-supported place for budding startups. The goal of the partnership is to educate the 60 companies inside SURF about patents — something that IV certainly knows well.

Although employees of the 13-year-old company have been engaged individually with the startup community through a variety of groups and initiatives, this is the first time Intellectual Ventures is making a company-wide effort to help entrepreneurs in the Seattle area.

At SURF, founder Seaton Gras and director Neil Bergquist try to bring in expert individuals and companies — whether it’s in law, accounting, fundraising, etc. — to help their entrepreneurs with topics they might otherwise not be well versed in.

Bill Thomas, Intellectual Ventures' VP of channel licensing and business development, speaks on stage with SURF director Neil Bergquist. Photo courtesy of IV's Nathon Sims.
Bill Thomas, Intellectual Ventures’ VP of channel licensing and business development, speaks on stage with SURF director Neil Bergquist. Photo courtesy of IV’s Nathon Sims.

A survey of the SURF membership indicated that there was a lot of uncertainty and lack of knowledge with patents and the laws surrounding them.

“We wanted to bring in the people who we can all agree are really good at the patent business,” Bergquist said. “We’re really happy to have them here.”

Bergquist said that IV, along with the other expert advisors, pay a “nominal amount” to SURF, which uses those funds to support the program.

“These community partners not only help cover overhead, but also give our entrepreneurs skills and expertise they need to scale their companies and reduce risk,” he said.

The plan is for people like Bill Thomas, IV’s vice president of channel licensing and business development, to spend time at SURF educating people about everything there is to know about the patent business in regard to their startups.

“IV is in a really good position to relay that market knowledge,” Bergquist said. “Its industry expertise is really valuable.”

Speaking at a happy hour event at SURF Thursday evening in front of about 150 people, IV’s VP of Engineering Geoff Deane talked about some of the work going on inside the company’s scientific research lab including its passive vaccine storage device and Institute for Disease Modeling.

Deane, formerly a CTO for a medical device manufacturer called Inogen, also touched on the similarities between inventors and entrepreneurs.

“I love to work with people who think differently about the world,” said Deane, who outlined parts of his talk in this blog post. “Both entrepreneurs and inventors are people who just see the world differently enough that they can make good things happen.”

Unsurprisingly, someone in the crowd asked Deane about the idea that patents stifle innovation. It’s a fair question for IV, the subject of much controversy in the tech industry, including a scathing series of reports by This American Life.

surfincubatorDeane responded by recounting his experience pitching to a venture capital firm while at Inogen.

“They grilled me on intellectual property for nearly two hours,” he said. “The fact is, as a CTO at a tech startup, we have to be well-versed in this. It’s part of our business and it’s something we have to learn in order to operate. It is hard, challenging and sometimes it is something that’s scary. But I tell you — knowing more about it and making patents work for you, it can be done and it’s something we’re here to help with.”

Though many in the tech industry have pinned IV as a “patent troll,” it seems as though the entrepreneurs at SURF are thus far receptive of their new resource. Patent law is tricky and complicated — but, as Deane said, is extremely important to know as a startup.

Bergquist noted that while it’s possible for IV to gain new business opportunities from companies in SURF, he says that’s not why the company is involved.

“They want to help build that startup community with us,” he said. “This is a global patent company and they want to help their neighbors.”

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