Monday, June 26, 2006

BusinessWeek on Myhrvold of Intellectual Ventures

BW on Nathan Myrhvold: With his pink cheeks, curly blond hair, and jovial manner, he can seem almost cherubic. But not everybody views Myhrvold as an angel—far from it. That's because Intellectual Ventures is not just a think tank where big brains sit around dreaming up ideas. It also has a second business, one that is generating controversy: buying patents. In fact, that's a much larger part of the operation. Maintaining secrecy through shell companies and nondisclosure agreements, often swooping in aggressively to seal deals, it has scooped up thousands of patents and is on the prowl for many more. That has many people in the tech world worried.

What's so frightening about patents? Inscrutable documents with funny schematic drawings, patents reward inventors with an exclusive right to their inventions. They seem so all-American, evoking images of Thomas Edison and Eli Whitney. But lots of small companies, disparagingly called trolls, have gone into business solely to own a handful of patents. They then make money, sometimes lots of it, by going out and suing companies they think have ripped off the inventions. The case that has thrown the most fear into big companies is NTP Inc.'s lawsuit against BlackBerry maker Research in Motion Ltd., which RIM paid $612 million to settle in March.

**BW discusses brainstorming sessions at Intellectual Ventures:

A rocket scientist, a mathematician, a brain surgeon, and a lawyer walk into a room. It sounds like the beginning of a joke, but at Intellectual Ventures it's something more serious—a business model. IV traffics in a single product: invention. On June 17, 2006 it invited 10 of the most blindingly brilliant doctors and scientists in the country to a daylong brainstorming session at its headquarters in a nondescript office building next to a swamp in Bellevue, Wash. Assembling around a conference table, the diverse group, which included physicists from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, physicians from several major medical centers, and a Stanford University postdoctoral fellow in bioengineering, spent the day pondering a complex question: How can surgery be improved? The goal wasn't just incremental advances but multibillion-dollar lightning bolts that could change the world and, not incidentally, make all of the participants rich.

As the experts spoke, Intellectual Ventures' patent lawyers, many of them with doctorates in science themselves, monitored the highly technical interchange, taking notes, recording the conversation from two microphones hanging from the ceiling, and snapping pictures of whiteboard drawings. [IPBiz: snapping pictures? Isn't the whiteboard digital?]


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