From working at big bad Microsoft to founding a patent-focused lab, you seem like an ideal person to answer a question I've had for a while: What's it like working in companies that are constantly under attack from those who try to claim a moral high ground?
To clarify, I don't mean to imply that you are evil, or that Microsoft or Intellectual Ventures are harming society, but rather I recognize that such accusations are common, regardless of truth. On the one hand, I don't assume that the FOSS fanatics (including myself at times) are always right about how bad Microsoft is, or the free-IP crowd is always right about how patents are crushing us, but at the same time I find it hard to believe they're always wrong, too. I'm curious what kind of moral dilemmas you encounter in this respect, if any, and what insight you might be able to provide as to life on the receiving end of the activists' assaults.
NATHAN: First, thanks for implying I may not be evil. I appreciate it. Most people think I’m crazy for entering this lion’s den. But look, if I wanted to be popular, I would have gone to a chef’s convention!
The fact is that I have more in common with you guys on /. than you might think. This is a community populated by engineers and technologists, not Luddites. You love great ideas. So do I. We may differ on the *economic value* of those great ideas, but I think this group debates innovation with the same passion and rigor that I do.
Here is an analogy – which isn’t perfect, but I think it captures the flavor of your question – it’s like being American and hearing international criticism.
When you turn on the news it’s certainly not uncommon to see demonstrations by people burning flags and declaring their hatred of America. North Korea is the most recent example, but it happens all the time. Analogous demonstrations occur all over the world – even in prosperous western democracies like France.
While people calling for your death is concerning, it doesn’t automatically follow that I should take it personally as an American citizen. More often than not these are manifestations of ideological struggles. It is more about what America symbolizes than anything. Most of their angst is directed against the political idea of “America” and what it means in the world rather than tangible acts by individual Americans.
At Microsoft, we were on the receiving end of this as well. Obviously I was aware of that, but it was hard to take all of the hatred seriously for the same reason that it is hard to take all of the criticism of America personally.
If you’re a “superpower,” a market leader or disruptive agent of change you’re going to catch some shit. Some of it may be due to legitimate complaints about certain things said “superpower” does. Microsoft wasn’t (and isn’t) infallible. Nor is the US government. But a lot of it is going to be reacting to the abstract idea that Microsoft is a “superpower”.
Even if you disagree about the source of the criticism, your question was how does it *feel* to be in a company that is hated. Well, I think that the feeling is very similar to how I feel about being an American when my country is hated. I was (and remain) very proud of what I did at Microsoft. The other people there were great, and on the whole did great work.
The same goes for Intellectual Ventures. When the critical remarks become too shrill or over the top, it is just hard to take it seriously as anything approaching constructive criticism.
Also, I’m willing to take on that personal risk of negative attention and stay on the pointy edge of these debates because I know very well that what I’m doing is risky. A) I’m creating a capital market for invention that has never existed before and B) I’m investing in inventions! Inventions take decades to bear fruit and let’s face it, history says they are more likely to fail than they are to succeed. But that’s the thrill of it. Gambling on those great ideas and watching which ones win. Kymeta is one I’m particularly proud of. They just signed up their first customer.
Is the Patent System broken?
Many readers of Slashdot (myself included) feel that the patent system is broken. I haven't heard any criticisms from you or Intellectual Ventures so I'm interested in hearing what you have to say about the patent system. Is it fundamentally broken? Only a little broken? Working flawlessly and exactly as it was intended to work??
NATHAN: No, I do not think the U.S. patent system is broken.
That is taken for granted by a lot of people, but frankly there isn’t any evidence that on a wide spread basis that it is “broken”.
People may “feel” that way (as you put it) but in my view that is mostly based on a couple of things:
1. Recounting anecdotes about a specific bad patent. There are lots of stories about patents that never should have been granted. These are used to imply that all patents are bad. Well, of course there are a few patents that should not have been granted, but isolated anecdotes don’t indict a whole system. Indeed you can always find an anecdote to support virtually any proposition. Statistics matter, and you can’t use rare cases to draw sweeping conclusions.
2. Plus, many of the stories about bad patents don’t actually tell the real story. While there are some bad patents out there, it turns out that many of the specific cases that are used to illustrate how “broken” the patent system are not told correctly. Some stories turn out to be factually wrong; some are fabricated entirely. In other cases the story that is told is true as far as it is told, but the whole story isn’t out there. A complete understanding of the story often leads to a different conclusion.
3. Not knowing how to read a patent. Say you aren’t a programmer and you try to read some code – say in C – you could probably sort of understand some of it because “if”, “else” and similar constructs can be interpreted a bit using their English language meaning. But you can’t really understand the code that way. Well, a patent is similar. The language used to write patent claims is basically English, but the specific interpretation is couched in patent law. When a technical person who isn’t familiar with patent law reads a patent they often come away with a misunderstanding of what the patent actually covers – usually thinking that it is much broader than it actually is. This gives the impression that the patent covers things it doesn’t, and then leads to the impression that it is overly broad, obvious and shouldn’t have been granted.
4. An axe to grind. Many of the people claiming that the patent system is broken feel that way because they have an agenda. As one example, many large technology companies have taken other people’s inventions and used them to make billions. They don’t want to pay. So they have an agenda to attack the patent system – that is both easier and cheaper than to pay what they owe. Open source advocates have a similar agenda – they fear that their favorite open source project may be threatened by patents. Once you have an agenda to minimize or marginalize patents, it is easy to see the system as broken.
5. Revisionist history. One of the funny arguments that people make is that patents are supposed to be there to help product-making companies. The U.S. Constitution predated the Industrial Revolution and the creation of the US patent system in 1787 was designed to protect the inventor, not corporations (or practicing entities as the IP industry is fond of calling them now). The idea of patents is to give incentive to inventors.
6. Ideology. Some people have an intellectual or ideological problem with intangible intellectual property. For example, some people hate copyright. Well, there are some that hate patents also.
These are just some of the pitfalls in the “patents are broken” argument as it is typically presented.
Is the system perfect? No, it isn’t.
The patent office has had funding issues. In recent years Congress has raided the patent office fees and taken them to spend elsewhere rather than let them be used to improve the patent office.
In some industries – say biotech and pharmaceuticals – the system works reasonably well in its main point, which is to give economic motivation to people inventing new things. No pharma company would invest in a new drug, especially the huge cost of clinical trials, without having some exclusivity.
Millions of people are alive today because of the patented medical innovations created by this incentive system. While it may not be perfect (what is?), it is has been remarkably successful. The majority of people reading this post have had their lives or those of a close family member saved by a patented medicine.
Within computer technology, the system of granting patents works reasonably well. The system of getting an inventor paid isn’t that great because historically speaking giant technology companies steal a lot of inventions and don’t pay for them.
This is changing somewhat because big tech companies like Microsoft and Apple are now enforcing patents as a part of their business strategy, but there is still a strong segment of the tech industry that doesn’t want to pay inventors.
The ideal system would be a meritocracy where inventors would get paid for their work. That is what makes the incentive system work. Failing to pay hurts the effectiveness of the system overall.
Re:what are the differences from the past?
Those patents were for making things and scope was well defined. First, the newer set of patents tend to be for ideas and business processes and are not well defined and tend to be broad. I forget the details, but somebody has a patent for transmitting images over a network which in theory covers almost every moving image on the internet – and this was not for a specific method, code, or algorithm of doing so – just the general idea. Second, devices are getting more complex and interrelated. A cell phone needs patents covering data transmission, networking protocols, digital camera, OS, etc. Throw on top of that design patents (look and feel) and it is a real mess.
NATHAN: This may be a bit controversial, but the reality is that the patent system was the world’s first experiment with open source.
The idea of the patent system is that after a period of time (typically 20 years) the invention passes into the public domain. The inventor must share enough information in the patent to allow somebody to recreate the invention. Indeed, the word “patent” originates from the Latin “patere,” which means "to lay open".
The 20 year exclusive period acts as an economic incentive for the inventor to share the information. The incentive is necessary because otherwise an inventor could keep an invention secret. The incentive is reasonable because invention is expensive and risky. It often takes a lot of failure before you get it right. Patents are a way to simultaneously protect and distribute the ideas for usage, assuming the original inventor gets compensated for their work. There’s the rub. What’s so wrong with making sure the inventor gets compensated for their hard work? Why is that such a problem?
We have plenty of tech companies now that offer free massages, lunch, dry-cleaning and a myriad of other things to their employees. Have you seen their margins? Do you really think they can’t afford to pay an inventor for their work? I’m not talking about huge percentages either. Licensing patents represent only a *fraction* of a product’s overall costs, when you tally up development, materials, production, marketing, distribution, and so forth. But the fact of the matter remains, these companies are standing on the shoulders of those who came before without proper compensation even though their work is being used in a product by thousands or even millions of people.
Calling patents a system similar to open source may seem odd, because most current open source software has no period of exclusivity. Open source software as typically practiced is a private system that people willingly enter into. If they don’t want to ask for benefit other that participation and recognition that is great – but their CHOICE to do what they want with their creative output is fully consistent with copyright law.
In fact, that is a very instructive case. Not so long ago many people now associated with the open source software community hated copyright. They wanted to copy code, and thought it was terrible that software could be protected by copyright. Richard Stallman in particular argued strongly against copyright.
Then, a funny thing happened. People in the open source community figured out that by cleverly adopting a copyright license they could actually protect the openness of the code. Suddenly copyright went from something that was hated to something that is an essential part of the legal framework that lets open source work.
I believe that something like that is possible with patents too. At the moment many people in the open source movement disapprove of patents. I believe that this is an echo of the anti-copyright sentiment. But ultimately I think that it is just as misguided – that far from being a problem for open source, patents could make a net-positive contribution.
Can you present examples of how IV has helped individual inventors to get revenue from their inventions?
Please include specific names, specific inventions, approximate revenue seen by the inventor, and current status of the invention-related product(s) and ownership of the patent(s).
NATHAN: Intellectual Ventures has paid out $400 million to individual inventors to date, where our business model involves purchasing either A) a patent application to prosecute (note that “prosecuting” a patent means applying to the patent office to get a patent granted – people think that it means litigation, but that’s not the way the term is used); or B) a patent outright.
Here are some examples:
Rebecca Taylor, an inventor from Austin, received her first patent for an embedded software translation machine that streamlines data sharing and eliminates code bloat to create efficient communication between devices. When a deal fell through to sell this invention to another big tech company, a chance meeting with me brought her to Intellectual Ventures instead. She sold her patent to us and fund both her son’s college education and her own graduate studies in public policy. Taylor is currently serving as senior adviser for innovation and entrepreneurship in the U.S. Department of State’s Office of the Science & Technology Adviser to the Secretary.
Lev Bolotin, an inventor & entrepreneur based near us in Seattle, and Matthew Whitten, an inventor and software engineer from Maine, both chose Intellectual Ventures because it was the only company that could both monetize and build up a significant IP portfolio for their startups. Both have used the cash from these deals to finance their ventures. In Bolotin’s words: “Intellectual Ventures proved to the business community that IP can be trusted as an asset. It can be bought and sold. IV has established a value reference for IP—and that is priceless!”
There are other great examples of the individual inventors we work with here.
I’ll also take this opportunity to point out that the most important inventors we work with are Intellectual Ventures employees. We have nuclear physicists, rocket scientists, neurosurgeons, chemists, and mathematicians roaming our halls. Many have hundreds of patents worldwide to their name. Many more have PhDs.
What products have Intellectual Ventures developed and brought to market?
NATHAN: Intellectual Ventures is focused on invention, not making products itself.
In terms of new inventions filed before the patent office in 2012, we were the 4th company in the US, and 16th worldwide.
Some of those inventions are suitable for starting new companies. We have created two spin out companies so far, Kymeta, which makes a radical new metamaterial antenna that will revolutionize mobile bandwidth, and TerraPower, which is commercializing our invention of a new type of clean and safe nuclear power plant.
Most inventions, even great ones, are not suitable for founding a company. In those cases we license the patents, typically on a non-exclusive basis, to dozens of companies. Most market-leading technology products contain inventions that Intellectual Ventures has licensed.
Some people don’t like the idea of invention without making products. I don’t really see why. By specializing in invention, and investing in invention, we can be better at it than companies that focus on the commercialization.
Another weird aspect of this is that very few US-based companies actually *make* products. Apple doesn’t make iPhones. They design them, and then they contract for others to make them. The actual MAKING is done by companies in China.
As another example, a venture capital company does not make products. Neither does a mutual fund company. They simply invest in others.
So, if a mutual fund like Fidelity owns stock in Apple, Intel, Microsoft and others, people don’t seem to have a problem with it. Their investment enables those companies to make their products (or contract for them to be made).
If a venture firm like Benchmark or Kleiner Perkins invests in tech startups, nobody has a problem. Again, the investment enables them.
Well, we license patents to Apple, Intel, Microsoft and others. That enables them too. And we start new companies, enabling them to make products.
Relationship to Oasis Research and Lodsys?
One of my favorite radio shows called "This American Life" covered Intellectual Ventures extensively about two years ago in an episode called "When Patents Attack!" They tried to visit Oasis Research offices at 104 East Houston Street, Suite 190 in Marshall, Texas but found them largely vacant. What is IV's relationship with Oasis Research and Lodsys and why are these empty offices in Marshall, Texas? What sort of partners are Lodsys and Oasis Research? Customers? Licensees?
NATHAN: We routinely sell our patents either individually or in full portfolios. These are called divestitures in the asset management world and we consider our patent holdings our assets. We sold patents to Oasis and Lodsys.
At the time we bought those assets, anybody else could have bought them. At the time we sold them, the same thing is true. Before selling them we had licensed a number of companies to these patents. Those companies, or others, could have bought the patents to use them strategically, or simply to hold them as a service to their developer communities.
It happens that Lodsys and Oasis bought them, and they chose to pursue patent assertion, and also litigation. I have no control over what they would do with the patents.
In a perfect world we could make money without any side effects, and the buyers of our patents would not cause as much controversy as those sales have done. Here on planet earth things are far from perfect, and that is not what happened. I re-learned an important management lesson from This American Life: I cannot control every outcome, but I certainly take responsibility for it.
On one hand, I don’t feel a bit ashamed that Intellectual Ventures could make a return on those investments for us and for our investors. We bought the assets originally, we licensed them, and then we sold them. That is how the market works.
On the other hand, I feel that even though I don’t control them, I do take responsibility for the backlash it created. As CEO, it’s my job to determine whether that’s the best business practice moving forward. We will most definitely continue to divest assets since there is market demand, but the company will be looking more closely at the *how* we do it and under what terms.
The Photonic Fence project was proposed with much fanfare about six years ago, to rid Africa is disease-carrying mosquitoes. Rumor has it that the Gates Foundation has cut funding. The project appears to have developed nothing of practical use, although the project leaders responsible appear to still be in control. Is there going to be a serious forensic analysis of how the project went south?
NATHAN: Actually, we have many anti-malaria projects, and the photonic fence is just one of them. We have been successful in proving the basic concept – that you can identify, track and kill a mosquito using lasers – in a lab setting, so now we’re looking at the best way to apply the technology.
There are some significant hurdles to deploying something like this in developing countries, so it might end up that the technology is used more for research purposes to understand mosquitoes.
We’re still figuring that out and talking with potential commercial partners, but one of the important things about the photonic fence is that we got people thinking and talking about malaria prevention in new ways. That’s one of the values of inventing. It’s an inherently risky activity, but even inventions that don’t ultimately work out as you expected challenge people to think about problems in new ways and open up new possibilities to explore.
It is important to remember that not every project will work out! We are still working on the photonic fence, but it may be an idea that is flawed, or maybe it will work in the future but it is ahead of its time. When you invent you take that sort of risk.
As you've already made your fortune, I'm curious as to why you choose to get involved in controversial patent licensing, rather than, say, Bill Gates style philanthropic work?
NATHAN: First, I think that what we are doing at Intellectual Ventures is a very important and beneficial thing for the world. If we can establish what I like to call the “invention capital” market and get more funding to inventors, it would have an impact similar to the creation of the venture capital market.
So, far from this being simply a way to make money, I think that establishing invention capital is a very important contribution. I’ve written an article in Harvard Business Review about this: [http://www.intellectualventures.com/index.php/news/media-coverage/funding-eureka]. That doesn’t mean that it is the same as Bill’s philanthropy, but I think it is still a very worthy thing to do.
Bill is one of my closest friends, a mentor and also an investor in many of our projects. I admire the work he is doing with his Foundation. So much so in fact, that we decided to partner a few years ago to tackle some of the biggest problems Bill and Melinda want to solve. So we have a project called Global Good that focuses specifically on the inventions required to save lives in developing countries.
Frankly we think we serve the developing world better by focusing our expertise than via traditional philanthropy. So far, we have done work on the photonic fence (which I described in my response to Skewray), cold-chain storage technology for vaccines and modeling software for infectious diseases.
Traveling wave reactors vs (and) thorium
Mr. Myhrvold: I know you are sold on traveling wave reactors, and I hope they prove their worth. But, I was wondering; have you given up on thorium-powered reactors? I saw an article in Forbes not too long ago where the author actually argued that, because it would turn thorium from an expensive-to-dispose-of-waste-product into a valuable resource, building thorium reactors could make electronics cheaper. This is because thorium is usually present in rare earth metals used for electronics and often have to be removed prior to processing. Have you considered running a similar kind of reactor to traveling wave on a thorium-uranium mixture (that would also deal with the problem of thorium being "fertile" as opposed to "fissile")? If thorium-powered reactors reduced the price of manufacturing electric vehicles, you would have the added benefit of cheaper EVs. This would not only reduce carbon emissions even further and faster; it would put more demand on the electricity grid as more people switched over to EVs from internal combustion powered cars. This would mean we w’ould need even more electricity generation and less fossil fuels; we could build more of both the thorium reactors like LFTRs and traveling wave reactors to meet the demand. Finally, as everyone knows, thorium is far more common in the earth's crust than uranium. It seems to me using thorium-powered reactors to compliment your reactor concepts like traveling wave reactors would speed up the process you are trying to create, namely, the decarbonization of first the United States first, and then the world. I see no reason why both uranium and thorium reactors are not necessary. What are your thoughts? And is Intellectual Ventures pursuing R&D on thorium, as well?
NATHAN: Thoughtful question, thank you. We did explore thorium in the conceptual designs for the travelling wave reactor at TerraPower.
The neutronics of a thorium reaction are not quite the same as for uranium, and as a result it is a lot more challenging to engineer a thorium based system. That said, we have invented what we believe is the best thorium based reactor out there, and would love to pursue it at some point.
The nuclear power community is quite conservative – and rightly so – so we have tried to make the best design we can get into service quickly, and that is a uranium based system.
Also, while Th is much more common than U in the crust as you point out, our TerraPower reactor can use depleted uranium, and even use spent fuel rods as a source. As a result there is PLENTY of fuel for our reactors for the foreseeable future. Eventually, we would like to see both U and Th systems out there.
Sense of Accomplishment
As a software engineer, I produce solutions to different problems every day which are then implemented and used by people. If my resulting software was not used by anyone, I would not gain much fulfillment in my work. Considering that much of the work done by Intellectual Ventures does not result in actual tangible products, do you still get a sense of accomplishment? Are you prouder of the ideas which actually get implemented? Or are you satisfied with the ideas that are developed, independent of whether they result in viable products or not?
NATHAN: Excellent question. I absolutely do get a sense of accomplishment. But it’s a more delayed sense of accomplishment. This brings up a really important distinction I think that needs to be made. I firmly believe that ideas are ends in and of themselves. Sure they might go on to live their lives as part of a product down the road, but even if it doesn’t make it into a product it is not deprived of its intrinsic value. No idea = no product in the first place. Intellectual exploration doesn’t require the validation a product does.
While there are many VCs out there expecting returns in just a handful of years, we work on a much longer timeline. So the stepping stones and ideas that might not seem relevant or directly applicable now may be 20 years from now—we aren’t entirely sure about that. I have to be satisfied with that. Even though an idea doesn’t make it into a product this year or next isn’t automatic failure to me.
As an inventor and as someone in the business of ideas, you have to be satisfied with failure. And in a weird way, that has to be part of your sense of accomplishment. Knowing that each failure means you’re one step closer to getting it right.
Also, there’s great satisfaction in taking the journey in the first place. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Take the scientific research community for example. A lot of the glory in research comes from being first to get your idea published in a peer-reviewed journal. It’s a race. And ideas are the same way. I want to win, but I don’t always. But it’s good to at least be part of the race.
Science of cooking food
One of the TV news magazines showed some of the things you learned about new, scientific ways of cooking food. What was the most amazing thing, in your opinion, that you discovered?
NATHAN: I’ll be honest, I can’t pick one thing - I learned so much as I worked on Modernist Cuisine. But I’m betting this crowd will like these two:
1. Try decanting your wine with an ordinary kitchen blender. It’s pretty amazing. I just pour the wine in, frappé away at the highest power setting for 30 to 60 seconds, and then allow the froth to subside (which happens quickly) before serving. We call it “hyperdecanting.” One reason to do is to improve the taste of a young red wine, but the other big benefit is the looks on people’s faces! People are so conservative about wine – they treat it with this odd reverence – that when you put in a blender a lot of folks just freak out.
2. Perhaps you have an ultrasonic bath lying around? (Finally! I’ve been waiting for an audience that might actually apply to!) Try using it to make French fries. Unbelievably delicious.
One inventor question:
where's our f@!&# flying cars?
NATHAN: Seriously. Where the f@!&# are they? I want one too!
The serious answer to the question is that flying is really hard to do. Look at driving a car. It is easy enough that everybody does it, but also hard enough that we kill ~30,000 people a year on the road. We take this for granted, but it is a huge problem.
Flying is much safer because the FAA went nuts on safety, and on qualifications. Flying in a commercial jet is much safer than driving your own car. In a perfect world, you would spend some of the effort made to make airplanes safe to make our cars safer.
FAA regulations make it virtually impossible for anybody to make a flying car that is a realistic consumer product. It’s also hard to do intrinsically – flight is very challenging.
Even though flying is much safer, it is still hard to do – most accidents are pilot error. The same thing is true for cars. The problem is leaving the human in the loop.
I am very excited by self-driving cars pioneered by the DARPA Grand Challenge, and now experimented with by Google and others.
The next big step in safer cars is going to be making them drive themselves.
Airplanes, and especially helicopters, need this approach too.
Maybe once that technology is mature we can get a flying car.