With Intellectual Ventures, Nathan Myhrvold Out to Create “Invention Capital” Industry—and Stop Hurricanes, Malaria, and Global Warming in the Process (Part 2)

Yesterday, we ran the first half of a sit-down interview with Nathan Myhrvold, cofounder and CEO of Intellectual Ventures, the Bellevue, WA-based invention laboratory and investment firm. Myhrvold, the former CTO of Microsoft (and an Xconomist), placed his current company’s goals in the context of venture capital and private equity, arguing that there is a real need to create what he calls an “invention capital” industry.

In what follows, Myhrvold talks about the lessons he learned in forming Microsoft Research, the differences between research and invention, some ambitious and far-out projects from Intellectual Ventures (e.g., invisibility, geo-engineering), and the motivation behind his firm’s upcoming expansion into five Asian countries.

Xconomy: Before we get into specific projects and inventions, what all did you learn from Microsoft Research that’s applicable to Intellectual Ventures?

Nathan Myhrvold: I have a theory that R&D is a great investment, a fundamentally good business. Using the human mind to go from nothing to something is a hell of a trick. And there’s nothing fair about it. A guy like Einstein can come up with all these things, but so can people who aren’t actually all that smart! There are people dumber than Einstein who’ve made amazing contributions.

So I believe you can make money with research, or invention. But you need a certain scale factor. Let’s say I have this idea called life insurance. If I just insured your life, it wouldn’t be worth it to either one of us. Insurance is fundamentally a risky bet, and to make it reasonable, what you’re buying and selling is variance. You need to have a large end limit to shrink the variance down. With Microsoft Research, I came to the conclusion that research could have been enormously profitable for Bell Labs, IBM, and others. It was profitable, but it could have been even more profitable. Xerox PARC could have made Xerox one of the most valuable companies on Earth. But most people screwed it up.

Intellectual Ventures Lab signAnd after screwing it up, the lesson was mislearned that it’s impossible to be successful in this way. Most of Silicon Valley turned away from the notion of trying to do anything new. The implicit attitude was, hey, that’s why Stanford exists, somehow they’ll come up with new ideas. We’ll wait until that occurs. And then when companies got bigger, the size of Oracle or Sun or Apple, they said, “Well, keep doing that. Screw it, we’re not actually going to do anything really exciting.” And I thought, no that’s the wrong thing to do. If you have the scale at which you can afford to wait 5 to 10 years for a result, that was the key thing. If I say, invent something or do valuable research tomorrow, that’s an impossible task. But if I say, support 100 really smart people working really hard for 5 years, something great will come of it.

X: That’s what you had at Microsoft, because of its size.

NM: At Microsoft, we had the resources to do that. So I talked Bill [Gates] into starting Microsoft Research. It’s been hugely successful; they would say it’s one of the best investments they ever made, enormous customer value and shareholder value…To sum up, Microsoft Research is based on a similar idea [as Intellectual Ventures], with one twist. There, all I had to do was convince one man, and we could go ahead. After I retired from Microsoft, I wanted to keep going. I no longer had the one man to convince to do the whole thing. If you think about how to replicate the model, even if I’d gotten Bill to give me more money to do something else, that wouldn’t be the replicable model. So that’s where I came back and said OK, how could you do this on an even broader scale?

It turns out the way the world does this on a broad scale isn’t by saying this will be done by a government agency or by Bell Labs, a research lab funded by a monopoly business. In fact, the modern way to do it is to create one of these marketplaces where large investors are willing to put a small fraction of their income towards really risky things. And so … Next Page »

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Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Editor in chief. E-mail him at gthuang [at] xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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