Adriane Brown is president and chief operating officer of Intellectual Ventures, the Bellevue, Wash.-based intellectual property and tech company best known for its giant patent portfolio and big ideas from its co-founder, former Microsoft CTO Nathan Myhrvold.
In July, Brown will also become board chair of Pacific Science Center, succeeding Barbara Hulit in the position and working with the organization’s president and CEO, Will Daugherty, to help guide the future of the nonprofit science museum at Seattle Center.
Brown spoke with GeekWire this week about what’s next for Pacific Science Center and Intellectual Ventures, after she interviewed Amazon Web Services CEO Andy Jassy at the 14th Annual Foundations of Science Breakfast. As part of the interview, she addressed changes at Intellectual Ventures and said IV will be spinning off companies faster.
Continue reading for edited excerpts.
What specifically would you like to change at Pacific Science Center, and how should the community get involved with that?
Adriane Brown: Science is so important right now. If you look at the energy and the excitement and growth in our region, we should be reflective of the vibrancy of our community. The concept the Pacific Science Center, what is delivered, has been great. It can be so much more. One of the things that our CEO says constantly is, how can the Pacific Science Center best serve the community? So we’re specifically speaking with companies and entrepreneurs and startups. Think about AR and VR. It’s a vibrant part of what’s happening in our region. Why aren’t we doing cutting-edge displays and exhibits in Pacific Science Center so that when people come through, they’re getting not just the technology that we know and we’re comfortable with, but what’s happening in the future, that next edgy thing that’s happening that’s going to come in so fast. Because that’s one of the things we see: the pace of change and innovation happening so fast. How can we help make that more accessible to everyday visitors, so they can say, well, how does that work?
I think about my parents’ generation when computers got started. Some adapted very well, others didn’t. Well, possibly it was because they just didn’t have the exposure to it. Imagine grandparents coming in with their grandkids and learning about something and say, hey I now get why AR is important or how it’s going to change our lives, or how it’s going to enable us to be more efficient or effective or more able or more capable.
From the Pacific Science Center to Intellectual Ventures, you have a unique outlook on invention and science. Tell me more about that perspective. What do you see in those dual roles that others might not?
Adriane Brown: When intellectual Ventures comes up with an idea and decides that they think it is game-changing and wants to pursue a patent, it’s nice to get that validation that this is something novel and this is something different. But what really matters is when that idea comes to life. So at IV, we have invented since 2003, and what we have now is a portfolio of companies that we’ve already spun out, whether it’s Terra Power, or Kymeta, which is transforming satellite antennas and Echodyne, which is new radar technology using metamaterials. So we have all of these things that we have done. We’ve created 400 jobs from our spinouts already in the region. We have a portfolio and now we’re going to try create these spinouts faster, and we’re looking for talented entrepreneurs, executives and chief technology officers where there is a match between these ideas that we believed are now ready to turn into companies, to get them out there in the world.
In our labs, when we’re testing these ideas, when we’re taking these inventions and turning them into real products, I know the caliber of talent that we have available today, which we love. But if we’re not training people to be curious, are we going to have enough? When Andy Jassy says there are 25,000 Amazon jobs that are yet unfilled, why are we not doing what’s necessary to convert more and more of these young minds into minds that can do these kinds of things because they’re exposed, they see why it works, they’re excited about it. Not fearful of it. And that’s what Pacific Science Center does.
Enabling science to come to life — whether it be in a display or an exhibit or in a company or in a concept or idea that’s going solve a big problem; whether it’s our Global Good Fund, our Invention Science fund or the next concept that we bring to the world at Pacific Science Center — it is all connected.
You said you’re accelerating spinoffs at Intellectual Ventures. Is that a new strategy?
Adriane Brown: It is. It comes from the fact that we’ve been pretty darn successful so far, and I would say if we had a few failures along the way I’d feel better in some regard, because I’d know we hadn’t over-selected. We’ve been very careful and thoughtful in getting these companies set up and spun out. I think we just have the confidence now, and I think our portfolio just matured to the point where we saw, let’s take a slightly different approach. We’ve done it well, now how can we do it faster? Time matters, speed matters so let’s get these great ideas out into the marketplace.
A lot of the spinoffs have been based on metamaterials. Will the future ones continue to mine that vein or do you have other technologies in the works.
Adriane Brown: I am so glad you asked. Stay tuned because another metamaterials spinout is in the making.
Adriane Brown: I’m not going to say another word — let me just say, soon. Pivotal also recently spun out from us. When you think about our portfolio metamaterials is a core area but we have other broad areas of technology in our Invention Science Fund incubator that are now available and ready to go.
How much of Intellectual Ventures’ focus today is on acquiring and licensing patents versus doing your own startups and has that shifted over the last few years?
Adriane Brown: When we started the funds, when we bought those patents that were already in existence, of course they had a faster monetization cycle than would a portfolio that was just starting with the idea. So it’s actually a natural process. The licensing part has hit a peak and has flattened. It feels like it’s a big shift, but now those companies that we have been developing are now taking up more attention and energy and effort because they are now ready to do so. So it’s not as if this wasn’t unpredictable — that we would be at a point where should be able to catalog these inventions and see how do they get to come to life. Whether we license them, whether we create a spinout or startup, so it is a shift if you look at it kind of in a holistic perspective, but it also is a natural life cycle that we’re following.
How much is left at IV itself now that you’ve spun off all these other companies?
Adriane Brown: We’re still around 500 people, and with the Global Good Fund, Invention Science Fund and the Invention Investment Fund we still have a vibrant way to play in various parts of the whole invention ecosystem.
Some of the big tech companies declined to invest in your latest patent funds. Did that play into the strategy, as well, in terms of shifting more toward working on your own spinoffs vs. amassing and licensing patents?
Adriane Brown: Well, I think one of the things any responsible business does on behalf of its shareholders or its investors is to pay attention to what’s happened to the market and try to get the best possible results out of the business that you can. So we’ve had to pivot given what’s happened legislatively and judicially with regard to the world of intellectual property and patents, but that doesn’t in any way deter our belief in the invention ecosystem — what it takes what we can do and what’s possible through the power of invention.
We want to always ensure that we have a healthy patent system, which means we have to ensure that our USPTO has people who can actually do these evaluations. They need to be bringing in top talent and paying them competitively so that they can work with inventors and make really good decisions up front about the validity of an idea, and is it patentable or not. We need to continue to drive the adjustments that are necessary. With the Alice case, you need to be smart about how you actually write a software patent. It doesn’t mean that all software patents are gone forever but you need to be thoughtful. If you have an innovation in software how is it novel in today’s context? And that is what we try to be, is responsive to changes and thoughtful but never stop inventing.
Last two questions: What’s the craziest idea Nathan Myhrvold has ever brought to you, and what’s the craziest thing he’s ever cooked for you?
When I was interviewing, the book came out (Superfreakonomics), you know, global cooling, the air hose into the stratosphere. I think that is one crazy idea. And today when you see what’s happening, that crazy idea of an air hose to the sky to prompt global cooling, mimicking a volcano, doesn’t seem crazy, but honestly in 2009 when I read that book I thought they were out of their minds.
It still seems crazy to me.
Adriane Brown: But the problem may be big enough that you’re going to need to be bold. Just like Andy Jassy says, sometimes you’ve got to go and do something totally outrageous and really understand and think, but it’s technically possible.
And the craziest thing he ever cooked? I would say the thing that caught my attention more than anything is a Nathan Myhrvold french fry. It is unbelievable.
What does it taste like?
Adriane Brown: A french fry, but the best french fry you’ve ever had.