Nathan Myhrvold: Patent Troll, Inventor and now Global Do-Gooder

When folks talk about Nathan Myhrvold, they seldom use muted terms.

Nathan Myhrvold, speaking at Social Innovations Fast Pitch 2012

The former chief technologist for Microsoft is a close associate of Bill Gates and now CEO of a business, Intellectual Ventures, which some say holds more patents (about 40,000) than any other company in the United States.

I wanted to talk to Myhrvold about his recent ventures into philanthropy, into humanitarianism, which his firm has dubbed its “Global Good” project.

But first, I should disclose that I once worked for Nathan as one of a number of assisting writers on his mega-cookbook Modernist Cuisine. I helped write the meat chapter. (We sometimes argued over the words. He was difficult, I would say. He might say the same about me. But I think we’re all happy with the book.)

I should also note Myhrvold is frequently accused of being a patent troll — meaning he and his firm buy up patents and then use them to, uh, encourage (some use different words) other companies to pay them royalties or licensing fees. Here’s one such recent news post on GigaOm that talks about the Bellevue-based firm “bleeding billions from creative companies” using threats of litigation and disguised “shell companies.”

The writer goes on to say Myhrvold runs a ‘dark empire’ that stalks its victims! Is this Lord of the Rings or something? Like I said, he does tend to provoke strong feelings.

Myhrvold also provokes strong praise. He is frequently described as a master inventor in his own right, a brilliant polymath, an accomplished paleontologist (as this New Yorker profile noted) and, of course, a gourmet chef.

But the Nathan Myhrvold I’m most interested in is a fairly new one — Nathan the humanitarian technologist.

Geoff Deane, lab chief at Intellectual Ventures

So I paid a visit to the IV laboratory, which is based in Bellevue (a big warehouse that formerly repaired Harley Davidson choppers), and talked to lab chief Geoff Deane. Later, I talked with Nathan to find out how he allowed his dark empire to lose focus and get all warm and fuzzy (see Q&A below).

One of the most-celebrated inventions to come out of IV’s Global Good program is a laser-zapping mosquito apparatus aimed at fighting malaria, dengue or any of the other skeeter-borne infectious diseases that both kill and economically cripple so many communities in poor countries.

I started the interview by asking Deane to explain why this mosquito-zapping laser device (they call it the photonic fence) is not completely absurd.

“Wow, you’re setting me up right off the bat,” he said with a loud laugh. When the photonic fence idea was first proposed, Deane said, it was ridiculed by nearly everyone at the meeting.

But because the team at IV like to pride themselves on exploring even the craziest ideas, the engineers and physicists did the math anyway.

They discovered that it was technically feasible to detect a mosquito’s wings from 100 meters away, to determine if it was a male or female (since only females are the blood-suckers) and, once identified, to shoot the bugger out of the sky using a simple (and cheap) Blu-ray laser.

The components of the system are all pretty inexpensive and easily accessible, Deane said, adding that we all once would have reacted with incredulity to someone predicting 20 years ago what our cell phones are able to do today.

“We still don’t know if this idea will work since nine out of 10 ideas don’t,” Deane said. “But we are willing to consider these outlandish ideas to solve some of the world’s biggest problems of poverty and disease. We believe invention is a powerful way to find new solutions.”

The mosquito laser is the sexiest and most well-known project, Deane said, but IV’s Global Good initiative is looking at a lot of other projects that are perhaps less entertaining but more likely to have an early impact.

IV's vaccine cooler, in cross-section

One of the big problems in poor countries is preserving vaccines with constant refrigeration. Myrhvold’s lab took on this challenge, assuming it would be easy to create better coolers — but found it more difficult than anticipated.

“It turns out it matters how you build the container,” Deane said. After many iterations, he said, they figured out a strategy (at right) that can retain an ice chamber for nearly 100 days. It’s now being tested in Africa, he said.

“Most of what we do starts out as just an idea but we have to always test it in the field,” Deane said. The lab is also working on improving hospital sterilization techniques, using super-computers to do epidemiological modeling of malaria and trying to use a unique feature of malaria infection in humans to improve diagnosis.

“Malaria is often misdiagnosed in Africa, which leads to improper treatment (and drug resistance),” Deane said. When people are infected, the parasite eats up red blood cells and iron needs to be excreted. These malaria parasite excretions turn out to be crystalline structures — called hemozoin — that they discovered are easily identifiable in the blood using cheap LED lights.

“This could be a hell of a marker for malaria infection,” Deane said. If they can show it is accurate and feasible for poor countries, he said the next step is to see if some company wants to take it and run with it. “Most of these problems persist today because it’s hard to find solutions that are also a viable business prospect. That’s also something we want to help figure out.”

Nathan Myhrvold embraces the humanitarian cause

My Q&A with Nathan Myhrvold on his Global Good project (you can listen to the podcast at the top as well):

Q How’d you become a philanthropist, a Global Do-Gooder?

NM: Through my contact with Bill Gates over the years I’ve certainly become aware of the many, very challenging, problems the developing world faces. I just figured we could do something about them.

Q Isn’t the idea that rich-world (i.e., expensive) technology can be used to help the poorest of the poor sort of delusional?

NM: It’s true that most of the technology industry is focused on making tools and toys for the rich world. Typically, technologists ignore the bottom billion (poor people) of the world. And many of their problems are not technological; they’re political or social. But there are some problems technology can help solve, I think

Q Like laser mosquito zappers?

NM: That may not work, but it’s a fun idea. Look, we invent things and have fun doing it. We explore ideas. Most of them won’t work but they don’t all need to work. We have a number of projects out there that I would say stand a fair chance of improving the lives of many people.

Q Intellectual Ventures is a for-profit business and Global Good is part of it. Is it a business venture or a philanthropy?

NM: Well, I don’t think we’re going to make much money on most of these projects. We’ve organized it like a business and are open to the idea that a business-like approach is often the most effective. But I’d say it’s the closest we come to doing ‘pro bono’ work. We’re not expecting to make money on these projects.

Q How does Intellectual Ventures work with the Gates Foundation on these projects?

Bill is an investor but he doesn’t (directly) fund these projects. We work very closely with the Gates Foundation in a consulting relationship. We may have ideas but we’re not the experts. The Gates Foundation will bring in people to explain the problems and tell us what’s really happening in these communities, in Africa or elsewhere. That’s a really important contribution.

Q You’re big on patents and intellectual property. How do IP issues factor into the Global Good strategy?

NM: They’re not really relevant. When you’re living on a dollar a day, intellectual property is not very meaningful. Most of these countries’ economies are based on agriculture or resource industries like mining. It’s not an issue.

Q You’ve never been known to mince words or shy away from taking a position on a topic outside your normal realm. Do you have any thoughts on the raging debate within the aid and development community as to whether or not we need to move away from all ‘charitable’ approaches and instead focus solely on business and economic development?

NM: I’m no expert on that but I tend to think any broad-based ideological strategy — whether it favors charitable solutions or business solutions — won’t be very helpful. In the long term, we want to see economic development and sustainable improvements. But in the short term, I think there’s a strong moral case to be made that we need charity. People need help right now so, for now, we need a variety of intervention strategies.

Q Are we making headway in the global battle against poverty?

NM: Well, the only real solution for poverty is to make everyone rich. Of course it’s not so simple. But I do think we are seeing significant improvements in parts of the world. My mother used to tell me to eat my vegetables because of the starving kids in China. Now, as Tom Friedman says, parents tell their kids to study harder because of all the smart kids in China. They’re not starving anymore. They’re competing with us. I think that’s progress.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org, follow him on Twitter @tompaulson and/or send a comment below.