Nathan P. Myhrvold has no interest in competing with Microsoft-but he does mean to challenge the very method of innovation practiced at the company he left four years ago. The 44-year-old founder of Microsoft Research and former chief technology officer of the Seattle giant argues that virtually all big corporations, even wealthy ones, lack motivation to pump money into projects outside their existing product lines. In other words, they tend to discourage invention, the often subversive effort to isolate new problems and generate unexpected solutions. “Invention is a side effect [at corporate labs], not the focus,” Myhrvold says. “Most large organizations have a mission, and invention often takes you in another direction. When it comes to mission versus invention at most companies, mission wins.” Even small companies such as Silicon Valley startups, he notes, are often loath to support invention outside their core markets.
Yet this very reluctance has opened a world of opportunity, Myhrvold believes. “I can’t outdevelop Microsoft and Oracle in databases,” he says. “But I may be able to outinvent them.”
And that’s exactly what Myhrvold and former Microsoft chief software architect Edward Jung have set out to do at Bellevue, WA-based Invention Science, a hothouse of ideas where staff have free rein to cross-pollinate insights from information technology, biotechnology, and nanotechnology-three domains that Myhrvold feels are converging to make powerful new technologies possible. In recent months, the organization has quietly hired some two dozen inventors, along with the patent attorneys and licensing experts needed to support them and get their ideas to market. It’s the culmination of more than two years of travel, study, and planning by Myhrvold and Jung, who first set up an independent Bellevue research shop called Intellectual Ventures in 2000 (see “The Invention Factory,” TR May 2002). The company serves as the parent for Invention Science.
The new venture, Myhrvold says, has no mission other than to invent what the inventors believe should be-or can be-invented. “Invention is the secret sauce,” Myhrvold says. “It has the highest concentration of value compared with any task in a company. But because it’s so risky, it also has the lowest amount of focused effort.” Showing what can happen when that effort is intensified is Myhrvold’s main reason for creating the laboratory, which he is funding in part from his own Microsoft-made fortune.
Myhrvold isn’t the only one to see new value in cross-disciplinary collaborations where invention itself is the primary goal. In fact, more and more ventures dedicated solely to invention have been popping up in recent years-including Walker Digital, a business systems developer in Stamford, CT, and Invent Resources, a small Lexington, MA, consultancy whose slogan is “Invention on Demand” (see “Independent Inventors Incorporated,” bottom). And the mindset is spreading to the corporate world as well: at research-driven companies like brainstorming firm Generics Group of Cambridge, England, engineers are actually paid to spend a subset of their time on personal projects, stuff that typically has little or nothing to do with what their clients are doing-yet. Even young firms like Google, in Mountain View, CA, are getting into the act: the search engine leader encourages employees to devote 20 percent of their time to developing their own far-out ideas. The belief at such companies is that creative people are fueled by freedom to find problems that interest them. “Our employees are coming up with ideas anyway,” says Google cofounder Sergey Brin. “We just provide them with time to test whether those ideas work.”
This freedom to pursue invention for its own sake is the main hallmark of today’s climate. It’s been argued that moments of invention are little different from the rest of the research and development process-they are simply a matter of applying “normal problem solving to the right problem space,” says David N. Perkins, a principal investigator at Harvard University’s Project Zero, a 35-year effort to understand human creativity. But a close look at the process of invention reveals that some problems are so hard that they’re “unreasonable” to even consider during the normal R&D process-or worse, they’re completely hidden. Dedicated inventors “can recognize latent opportunities, problems that people don’t even know they have,” Perkins says.
No one personifies this mindset more than Myhrvold. As the affable, bearded physicist, photographer, and paleontologist flew around the world in his Gulfstream V jet attempting to get into the heads of inventors young and old, he became convinced that a new global flowering of invention is possible. For one thing, he says, the Web and other powerful information technologies make sharing knowledge easier than ever, enabling people with great ideas to attract capital and marketing firepower more readily. Meanwhile, the very pace of technological progress is picking up. Myhrvold foresees what he calls a new age of exponential growth, in which converging technologies will bring unpredictable but important changes-at a pace comparable to that of microchip miniaturization, famously described by Moore’s Law. But what inventors require to generate this kind of growth, he concluded, is focused, long-term support, like the access to patent and licensing experts he and Jung are providing to their staff.
Ultimately, Myhrvold and others funding pure invention are out to debunk the perception that research labs make sense only when they are part of an existing corporate structure-one that includes development, manufacturing, distribution, and marketing. Until the 1980s, Myhrvold points out, businesses had a similar attitude toward software, believing that it was only valuable when bundled along with hardware. Bill Gates and others thoroughly disproved that theory. In the same way, “We think invention can be valuable in and of itself,” says Myhrvold.
“Invention is the new software.”
Independent Inventors IncorporatedA sampling of companies and organizations that exist chiefly to incubate new inventions-often for hire
OrganizationOrigins Description Sample InventionsInvention Science
Bellevue, WA Started by former Microsoft executives Nathan Myhrvold and Edward Jung In-house inventors explore convergence of information technology, nanotechnology, biotechnology; 25 employees New types of lasers Walker Digital
Stamford, CT Launched in 1999 by Jay Walker, creator of priceline.com Develops and licenses business-related technologies; 40 employees USHomeGuard, a system of surveillance webcams and civilian spotters Invent Resources
Lexington, MA Formed in 1992 by former MIT physicist Richard Pavelle and electronics engineer Sol Aisenberg Consults with clients to test ideas and develop prototypes; four employees Electronic time stamp; advanced microwave ovens Generics Group
Cambridge, England Established in 1986 by electrical engineer Gordon Edge Brainstorms new products and consults with clients on development; more than 200 employees Advanced fuel cells; strong cardboard can for carbonated drinks Sarcos Research
Salt Lake City, UT Created in 1983 by roboticist Stephen Jacobsen Develops products for government and commercial clients; 50 employees Robotic arms and hands for industrial and prosthetic uses Deka Research and Development
Manchester, NH Launched in 1982 by independent inventor Dean Kamen Develops products to improve patient quality of life and increase mobility; 200 employees Home dialysis machine; stair-climbing wheelchair; Segway human transporter