Bill Gates Invests in Boston’s Evolv, an Intellectual Ventures Spinout

When Boston startup Evolv Technologies surfaced earlier this month with an $11.8 million fundraising round, nobody tied to the company would talk about what it’s doing. Today, the secrecy is lifting.

Evolv is developing advanced imaging products—think airport security scanners—that could be much smaller and more efficient thanks to the wave-bending properties of a technology known as metamaterials.

And the young company has a famous supporter: Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is one of the investors in Evolv’s financing round, joined by General Catalyst, Lux Capital, and Osage University Partners.

Why is Gates involved? Evolv is a spinout from Intellectual Ventures, the controversial patent licensing firm founded by former Microsoft CTO Nathan Myhrvold.

Besides being buddies with Myhrvold, Gates has strong ties to Bellevue, WA-based Intellectual Ventures—he’s invested in two other spinout companies from Intellectual Ventures, and works with its invention lab on global health ideas.

The new spinout comes at a critical time for Intellectual Ventures. Founded in 2000, the company has come under increasing criticism for buying up patents and licensing them out to others, suing if it can’t strike a deal. It’s made some $3 billion in patent licensing fees over the years, and is reported to be seeking another $3 billion in investment cash for more patent acquisitions.

Extracting patent licensing fees for technology you’re not actually using in your own products is a pretty classic definition of a “patent troll,” despised in the technology industry in particular. Public officials have taken notice: President Obama has proposed new steps to tamp down on patent middlemen like Intellectual Ventures, including forcing disclosure of the patent owners, often hidden behind shell companies.

For its part, Intellectual Ventures says “frivolous” lawsuits are the real problem in patent litigation, not particular business models or secret patent ownership. The company has begun setting up a lobbying office in Washington, D.C. to help deal with federal officials.

Spinning out companies is a good way for Intellectual Ventures to counter its critics by showing that it does use patents to create new companies that are trying to produce products, instead of just lawsuits.

It’s also no coincidence that Evolv is tackling metamaterials. Intellectual Ventures says it has a bunch of patents in this area, and has even set up a special commercialization center focusing on the technology, hiring Duke University professor David R. Smith to direct those efforts.

One of Intellectual Ventures’ other spinouts, satellite antenna company Kymeta, also employs metamaterials technology.

Metamaterials can be made from metal, glass, or other substances, and “printed” on a flat surface like traditional semiconductors. What makes them “meta” is the way they affect radiation—metamaterials can bend waves in ways that natural materials don’t.

That leads to all kinds of interesting possibilities.

The idea most often talked about is an invisibility shield, which could theoretically bend light around an object, making it invisible. Other uses, like the one Kymeta is after, would be able to “steer” broadband communications signals so they’re in contact with moving objects like airplanes.

There aren’t many details yet on what Evolv is planning to build, exactly. But you can get some clues by looking at the recent research of Smith, the professor hired to head up Intellectual Ventures’ metamaterials spinouts.

Early this year, Smith’s research group published findings about a project that could scan people to find metal or other objects being hidden under their clothes, in a much smaller size than the big airport scanning booths currently being used.

Evolv is led by Mike Ellenbogen, a security and imaging industry veteran who previously was co-founder and CEO of Reveal Imaging Technologies.

“We have a long history of success working with Mike Ellenbogen and, combined with this new metamaterials technology, Evolv has all of the ingredients needed to reshape the security imaging industry,” General Catalyst co-founder Joel Cutler said in a press release.

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