Intellectual Ventures was founded 10 years ago by a group including Nathan Myhrvold, the brilliant billionaire former chief technology officer of Microsoft, and Edward Jung, the software giant’s highly respected chief architect, to create and invest in inventions. Most famous for the vaunting ambition of some of its projects (such the development of a novel design for a traveling-wave nuclear reactor) and the seeming playfulness of other inventions (like a laser that zaps malarial mosquitoes from the sky), the company is, in reality, unlike any other research lab or investor. It is incomparably rich and uniquely avid for patents. It has more than $5 billion in assets under management and a portfolio of more than 35,000 patents, including more than 3,000 it developed itself or with its network of independent inventors. In all, the company has spent $1.5 billion purchasing patents, which have generated more than $2 billion in licensing revenue.
This is an extraordinary treasure chest of intellectual property, and an accompanying willingness to defend the chest’s contents has made Intellectual Ventures unpopular in some circles: it is often derided as a “patent troll” that buys up intellectual property and prosecutes violators of patents without much intention of developing the technology. But Edward Jung, the company’s CTO, believes that Intellectual Ventures’ structure will allow it to perform an unusual function in the world: by creating inventions in its own lab, working with its network of inventors, investing in startups, and partnering with governments, the company can act as a kind of master-planning architect, coördinating innovations that seek to solve the kinds of big global problems that governments no longer have the means or confidence to address. Edward Jung spoke to Jason Pontin, Technology Review’s editor in chief, from his offices in Seattle, Washington.
TR: Why do you believe the world requires a new model for innovation? Why won’t the model of innovation that worked so well in the 20th century produce the solutions the new century demands?
Jung: It’s a matter of scale. A lot of the problems we’re looking at now vastly exceed the abilities of single companies. In the past, every now and then a government would step in and try to align lots of companies around big problems. Most often it was around some kind of military or quasimilitary endeavor. If you wanted to build the first jet airplane, or a rocket, or send somebody to the moon, it required a government to really pull together thousands of companies into a concerted effort. It took a government to get all the innovation done in a way that allowed those companies to safely take risks. But by and large, governments are kind of out of that business now. It’s true that as companies scale up they may get involved in large projects of their own, but it’s very hard for them to get into very large integrative projects. So there is an invention gap.
You’re talking about civilizational-scale problems beyond the scope of any one company, where a market-based solution is probably required, but where there is no market mechanism to encourage individual companies to collaborate.
The world has gotten very good at building smaller solutions. The startup economy solves targeted problems very ably. And we’ve seen programs like X Prize and other kinds of prize-based schemes try to solve problems at a somewhat larger scale. But even more open-ended large-scale programs, like those introduced by the Gates Foundation, are just a part of the answer.
Wait a moment. The Gates Foundation has surely been quite successful in tackling big problems. For instance, they encouraged the biotech company Amyris to develop a synthetic artemesinin, a powerful antimalarial drug. The foundation effectively created a market where none had existed; in 2013, Amyris’s drug will be widely available. Are you saying that malaria is so big a problem it’s even beyond the scale of individual charities like the Gates Foundation and startups like Amyris?
That’s correct. One of our roles in working with the Gates Foundation on malaria was to help them develop kind of a schema to involve lots of different groups that would otherwise never even talk to each other. The mosquito laser [which Nathan Myhrvold introduced at TED 2010] was part of that effort, and it got some press, but it wasn’t the important thing. The important thing was that we were able to get people who think about lasers and tracking systems to even think about malaria. Ordinarily, no matter what kind of call to action you might put out, it would be very unlikely that those guys would show up and try to contribute to the problem.