Intellectual Ventures CEO Nathan Myhrvold is one of the most controversial figures in the technology industry — a lightning rod for criticism of the patent system thanks to his company’s large intellectual property holdings. But does he really care what people think of him? Not really, as it turns out.
The former Microsoft chief technology officer joined us at the GeekWire Summit this week to talk about the process of invention at Intellectual Ventures, the startups the Bellevue, Wash.-based company has spun out, his thoughts on the Pacific Northwest tech scene, the future of patents and, yes, his reputation in the broader tech industry.
“It’s very popular to say, we’re going to be risk-takers, and entrepreneurs are risk-takers,” he said. “Turns out, one of those risks is, people are not going to like what you do, and they’re going to say bad things about you. It’s a risk. If you obsess about that too much, you’re never going to do anything that actually changes the world.”
Watch the full video above, listen for highlights on this week’s GeekWire radio show and podcast (starting in the second segment below), and continue reading for a partial transcript of the conversation.
Todd Bishop: The idea, as you explain it, is to invent systematically, developing a process to generate ideas that turn into technologies that provide a foundation for companies and inventions. Tell us about this system that you’ve developed at Intellectual Ventures.
Nathan Myhrvold: Well, for most things in life, if you focus on them to the exclusion of all else, you can get better at them than other folks that do it as a sideline. That’s why we have ad agencies and accounting firms, and law firms, and so forth, where people say, “Well, anyone could come up with the ad,” and some companies do come up with their own ads, but advertising agencies, or movie studios, or whatever, they will focus on a thing. Well, invention is something that is super important. I wrote the foreword to a book on invention. It was for Harvard University Press and I said that, “Invention is to technology as conception is to reproduction.” They sent back this letter, and they said, “Well, this is much too racy for Harvard University Press.” I said, “You know how long it took me to come up with conception as a euphemism?”
I don’t think that we should have those things only focused, to say, “Well, you can only be an inventor if you also are a development engineer, if you’re also the CEO, if you’re also a this.” You ought to be able to invent no matter who you are. A lot of the people who are great at inventing, you don’t want to have them actually manage things. That’s both not what they’re best at, and there’s other people who are really good. One of the problems, persistent problem with the tech industry, is there’s more execution and there’s more funding than there are good ideas, which is why for almost any idea you can think of where there’s a tech company, there isn’t one — there’s four or five. Maybe a slightly different twist. I think that we’re living in an age where it’s never been easier to create a company. That’s great. I want to make it easier to create new inventions.
Todd Bishop: One common thread in many of these companies is something called metamaterials, which are artificial materials that can do basically incredible things with electromagnetic waves. One is the Evolv security scanning technology, the Kymeta satellite broadband, and Echodyne, which is doing radar technology that’s being applied in self-driving cars. Tell us, walk us through the process of the metamaterials’ origination, the conception, if you will.
Alan Boyle: It started with invisibility shields, right?
Nathan Myhrvold: No, it started even before that. I’m a physicist and I don’t work full time as physicist but once you’re a physicist you kind of always are, and in the 1990s a couple of people, two guys in particular, proposed a couple of ideas that suggested maybe you could do things that people thought were heretofore impossible with electromagnetic waves. Now, mostly the way we deal with electromagnetic waves is we build lenses, like my glasses or a camera lens. That works for visible light. In other parts of the spectrum we build special antennas. We’re very constrained in that. The glasses have to be made out of only certain materials. The idea of metamaterials is you fundamentally design an artificial material that has exactly the properties that you want.
This idea came out in the physics journals and it was widely panned. A very famous theoretical physicist wrote an article saying it was completely impossible, but I got really intrigued with it because it really looked like it would work. Then it started getting some experimental backing and we started inventing in that area. We signed up both of the two original guys that came up with it as inventors and we have done tons of inventing and, boy, we are not done yet, because what this allows you to do is really design a material. Now, the dream of nanotech was to do that, and the trouble with most nanotech dreams is that they are still dreams. Most of the general purpose assembler ideas that Eric Drexler and others has haven’t been as easy to implement as we hoped, but metamaterials are.
One of our companies, Kymeta, has a flat panel antenna. The working part of it is only two millimeters thick. It’s cheap to make. It uses the same technology that’s used to make displays, actually, like TVs or computer displays. It will electronically steer to look to get satellite bandwidth.
Todd Bishop: It replaces those giant dishes.
Alan Boyle: You don’t need to be turning something like this.
Nathan Myhrvold: Yes. The problem, if you want high bandwidth, you have short wavelength. If you have short wavelength it acts like light, so it’s point to point, and the only way we can focus the short wavelength stuff is with a dish. Then you have to point that dish at a satellite. That works for DirecTV. It doesn’t work if you’re moving. One of the reasons that it’s expensive to provision internet on boats and airplanes is you have some dish with all these gimbals and every time the boat rocks it’s like steering and it’s kind of an absurd system. This lets you do it super cheaply and all electronically, no moving parts.
We have a company that is in a spin-out phases that’s looking at using it for terrestrial wireless. The long-term goal is to say, “Let’s beam a spotlight,” so what is today is a cell site could be 100 or even more minicells, which takes the total bandwidth up by a factor of 100. Then we’re looking at lots of other areas. Anything that you could use light or radio waves or microwaves to do, we potentially have a way of doing it with some unique properties with metamaterials. Medical imaging. Used medical therapeutics. There’s all kinds of areas where we use light or radio waves in some way and we’re very constrained by the limited materials and the limited ways we can build them.
We have a unit of our company called Global Good where we try to focus on using high tech to help the poorest people on Earth. I love the tech industry, but the tech industry is about making tools and toys for rich people. By rich people I don’t mean rich within the United States, I mean all of the people in the United States, Europe, Japan are rich. Everyone who has an iPhone on Earth is rich by this standard because, hey, they can afford an iPhone. Meanwhile there’s 2 billion people that live on two dollars a day or less. It’s very misleading when you say two dollars a day. It’s sort of like, “Oh yes, they get their regular paycheck of two dollars a day.” No. That’s some economist’s projection. Means some days they do really well and other days they starve.
Now, there’s the tech industry that makes the tools and toys. It’s transformed all of our lives. Everybody in this room has all kinds of digital gadgets on them. GeekWire, the entire point of GeekWire is talking about that. We didn’t actually need our lives transformed. It was fun and I love it and I made those things when I was at Microsoft, but it’s not life or death for us to get the next version of the iPhone. There are people who will disagree with that, I’m sure. Whereas for these 2 billion people living on a couple dollars a day or less, if we could use technology to improve their lives, that could be life or death.
IDM is our Institute for Disease Modeling. There we try to build the world’s best computer models of infectious disease. The analogy I like to use here is it would be very hard to run a business without Excel because you do spreadsheets to project what you’re going to make next year, what you’re making now. You analyze your business. Once upon a time they didn’t have spreadsheets, believe it or not. They had these things called columnar pads, which were paper spreadsheets and people would do all those same calculations, just way much —
Alan Boyle: Tell me about this, grandpa?
Nathan Myhrvold: Yeah, exactly. This is the theme.
Alan Boyle: That’s the unifying thread.
Nathan Myhrvold: It’s really hard to try to eliminate a disease if you don’t have a way of predicting what the hell it’s going to do. What it does is very non-linear. It’s very dependent on a bunch of factors. Some of those factors are in your control. Some, like the weather, are outside your control. IDM goes to say, “Let’s make this super accurate model and then let’s use that model to try to eliminate diseases.” If you’re trying to get rid of malaria, sleeping under a bed net helps but it isn’t enough. Spraying for mosquitoes helps, but it isn’t enough. What combination would be enough? That’s what we try to answer in IDM.
Todd Bishop: You actually are not from Seattle originally. You’re from-
Nathan Myhrvold: Actually, I am from Seattle originally.
Todd Bishop: Originally, so you were born here but you grew up in California?
Nathan Myhrvold: I was born here, yes. I’m like a salmon. I came back to the home stream to spawn. I didn’t spawn ’till I die, though. I was more Atlantic in that sense.
Todd Bishop: You went to UCLA, then Cambridge and then after that you came back to Seattle and of course went to work for Microsoft, founding and running Microsoft Research. Of course you’ve stayed here with IV, so what’s your perspective on the Pacific Northwest and the Seattle tech scene? What works and what needs to be fixed?
Nathan Myhrvold: I think one thing that is true of Seattle is that I think we’re much better at things than tooting our own horn. University of Washington Medical School is second only to Harvard Medical School in it’s NIH grants and other research funding. Nobody seems to know that. I mentioned IDM and trying to save the world, basically, with our Global Goods project. Seattle is absolutely the Silicon Valley of saving the world. There’s the Gates Foundation. There’s the Hutchinson Center. There’s Path. We made a list and there’s like a dozen entities in Seattle that are doing fantastic work to help the developing world, but who knows that?
I think when it comes to tech in Seattle, tech in Seattle of course is fantastic with some of the more famous companies. Microsoft, obviously, or Amazon, but it’s way broader than that. Again, I don’t think we get a lot of recognition of that. I think it’s not in the Seattle nature for us to be beating the drum and saying how fabulous it is. Instead we kind of have the mentality of, “Well those other places are like the real things but we’re going to sit here and do our work and maybe they’ll notice us.” I don’t mean to suggest something negative about Seattle. Seattle area is just fantastic in all these different walks of life. It’s amazing.
Alan Boyle: We need a better PR agent or …?
Nathan Myhrvold: Yes, maybe, but it’s not just a question of PR. It’s a question of companies that are involved at every level, at least on the tech side, being a little more vocal about it. It’s you Alan-
Alan Boyle: Yeah, it is. Yeah. I’m the problem.
Nathan Myhrvold: … and you Todd. You got some ‘splainin to do. Why have you not made us more famous?
Todd Bishop: Let’s talk about intellectual property just a little bit here. Six years ago you wrote in Harvard Business Review that Intellectual Ventures is misunderstood as a patent troll. You said what you’re really trying to do is create a capital market for inventions akin to the venture capital market that supports startups and the private equity market that revitalizes inefficient companies. Six years later, what are your aspirations for reaching that goal? What is at stake and do you still hope to see this market come to fruition?
Nathan Myhrvold: In some ways the market has come to fruition. In other ways, not. In that intervening time my company has invested in patents that folks have and my favorite statistic there is for individual inventors. This is some individual has come up with some great idea. We’ve given more than $500 million to individual inventors. Now, the annals of history can say whether I was a fool or that was a great move in retrospect, but prospectively I don’t know anyone who has given $500 million to individual inventors. The venture capital industry has given many times that amount of money, many hundreds of billions of dollars per year, to entrepreneurs starting companies, but it’s a different thing.
When you’re starting a company, the idea is to have a plan and a team to go make a business. If you’ve got a great plan and a great team you’ll probably get funded. If you’re weak on one of those two you might get funded; but if you go to a venture capitalist and say, “Look, I don’t have any ideas but I’m sure I’m gonna have some.” They say, “No, no, no. You don’t understand. The waiting room is full with other people that have plans and ideas.” In my lifetime, venture capital has gone from nothing to this enormous force and it’s created tens of thousands of companies, most of which have failed by the way, but that’s fine. You don’t count the failures. You have to count the successes.
I want someone to do that for invention. We’re nowhere near the growth of venture capital in that, so if you say, “Where are we now?” Nowhere near that, but venture capital took a long time to develop too.
Todd Bishop: Some of the largest tech companies have stopped investing in IV’s funds, and you went through a period of cutbacks at the company. What’s the current state of IV’s business and how have industry and political opposition to the business model impacted what you’re doing?
Nathan Myhrvold: I was at Microsoft for 14 years and I realized very early on that we faced huge potential patent liability because we kept putting more features into our products and those features were sometimes whole industries, previously. One of the things I was involved with was putting scalable fonts in Windows. This makes me sound like your grandfather. “Back in my day, Windows didn’t have any fonts, you know.” We did, but typography and typesetting had lots of intellectual property in it.
I remember a few years ago when Nokia became the largest camera company in the world. Of course, by now there’s some people in the audience saying, “Who is Nokia?” Some tech companies have embraced the idea of invention. They’ve embraced the idea of having a business based on that. Qualcomm is a great example, but even Microsoft to a large extent now is that way. There are other tech companies who said, “Hey, let’s weaken the patent system because we’re the winner who took most in our market. No one else can dislodge us from our market, but it’s really annoying that these other folks can come and ask us for money. We ought to be able to steal it fair and square.” Of course they don’t say it that way. It’s put other ways.
In the last several years there’s been a huge set of changes in patents. Partially that was implementation of a law called The America Invents Act. Partially that was a Supreme Court decision called Alice. I would say right now today the situation around patents is very much up in the air. On one hand there are a lot of people in the patent world who say, “Hey, patents are over,” and when we talk about licensing patents they say, “Why should I license a patent? Patents are over.” What’s particularly funny is people will say, “Well, there was this Alice decision by the Supreme Court so I don’t think we need to do anything about patents.” We’ll say, “You’re a semiconductor company. We’re talking about semiconductor patents. Alice is about software.” What the f**k? Then they’ll say, “Well, well, well, whatever.”
It is an uncertain time for patents. I wasn’t here yesterday but I understand there was a lot of talk about that here yesterday. It always sounds great,”Let’s get stuff for free,” but the problem with let’s get stuff for free is you need actually channel some money back to the folks who make it or you won’t get as much of it made. Both on a basic fairness thing and on a fundamental economics thing I think the idea of companies taking risky bets on research is a good thing and we should support it with intellectual property laws.
Todd Bishop: Do you care what the people in the technology industry think about you?
Alan Boyle: Does it bother you when people say, “Oh, that patent troll Nathan Myhrvold, he’s the evil one”?
Nathan Myhrvold: Again, I’ll sound like your grandpa, “Back in my day …” Being the geek in class was not the most popular position. I fear that is also still true today but somewhat lessened, maybe. I started college at 14, so I had all of that squared or cubed or something.
Todd Bishop: It was just preparing you for your future then.
Nathan Myhrvold: Then I worked at Microsoft, and Microsoft got called lots of names when I thought we did fantastic stuff. There was a whole period of time when I would get on … If all of this had existed 15 or 20 years ago I would have been speaking as a Microsoft guy and you would’ve been asking me the same name calling question. It’s very popular to say, “Oh, well we’re going to be risk takers and entrepreneurs are risk takers.” Turns out one of those risks is people are not going to like what you do and they’re going to say bad things about you. It’s a risk. If you obsess about that too much, you’re never going to do anything that actually changes the world, because it’s always someone who … I gave a talk on malaria because we have a big malaria program and afterwards somebody came up to me and they said, “You know, you don’t seem-” I said something about eliminating mosquitoes and they said, “You don’t seem to have enough concerns about mosquitoes.” I’d say, “Um, yeah that’s right.”