Every once in a while, I’ll get ahold of a Mike Daisey or a DoJ and have a tough time letting go. I think I’m almost done with Nathan Myhrvold, but I wanted to do one more post. I still feel a little poison that needs to be got out.
In the July 2011 editon of Wired UK, there was an article that profiled Intellectual Ventures and its brain trust. Like all writing about IV, it followed a familiar narrative structure:
1. Look at all these universally beneficial world issues IV is tackling! Malaria! Cancer! Frickin’ global warming!
2. Some people don’t like that they’re funding their “brainstorming” by “exploiting the patent system”.
3. Myhrvold says they’re on the side of the little guy and only providing a perfectly legal way for people to profit from their innovations.
I’m going to take a few snippets of the piece to make my final point about Nathan Myhrvold and Intellectual Ventures.
Currently, Deane is busily testing a dozen ideas. “The challenge isn’t necessarily to find the golden nugget,” Deane explains. “The challenge is: don’t spend too much money on the ones that aren’t. You want to take the mentality of the venture capitalist: fail fast and fail cheap.”
Intellectual Ventures didn’t hold its first invention session until August 2003. By then it had gained several crucial insights about its business model. One was that most manufacturing companies have short-term goals because they need new product lines every couple of years; IV’s deep pockets leave it free, theoretically, from short-term pressures. Another advantage is that rivals in government and universities primarily fund research, so they experiment in pursuit of a single aim, rather than simply invent. A third is that brainstorming is not capital-intensive.
“Most companies have this model” — he assumes a mock-stern voice — “‘Failure is not an option.’ Well, not here! In this room where we invent, failure is always an option.”
“You have to be OK with it.” The average invention session produces ten to 20 patentable ideas. If the soul of IV resides in its philanthropic experiments, the patent system is its financial engine. The number of patents it files each year is now “in the high hundreds to low thousands”, says Eben Frankenberg, an executive vice president.
But Myhrvold sees nothing wrong in what Intellectual Ventures does. “The technology industry is primarily about making tools and toys for rich people,” he says, “whether they’re mobile phones or medical devices. But you also have two billion people on Earth that no one’s doing any of this stuff for and we have some very, very severe problems that conventional techniques have yet to solve and we feel we can help with.
Here’s the thing: Intellectual Ventures, cookbook aside, hasn’t released shit that would lend any credibility to their “changing the world” propaganda. What is does do extremely well is develop ideas to the point of patentability:
-brainstorming is not capital-intensive.
-IV’s deep pockets leave it free, theoretically, from short-term pressures.
-“You want to take the mentality of the venture capitalist: fail fast and fail cheap.”
-The average invention session produces ten to 20 patentable ideas.
But that’s where it ends, because anything more would lead to a rapidly diminishing return on their business model. Making things is hard, and it gets harder the closer you get to releasing that thing to the world. Sitting around and “brainstorming” ideas with a couple of other asshole brainiacs – while your patent sheister scribbles the meeting minutes – is doing precisely dick-point-oh for the world. Myhrvold’s disdain for the “VC mindset” of manufacturers who make “toys for rich people” is understandable because he’ll never ship. Why should he? It’s been almost 10 years since IV started amassing patents. Over 90% of them aren’t even theirs. Aside from the tens of thousands of weapons used to extort fees from other businesses using a deliberately convoluted network of shell corporations, what has IV given to the world? Just wait another 10 years. Take a long view. Keep looking to the horizon for that tsunami-busting Super Soaker while Myhrvold and Intellectual Ventures counts its money. They’ll continue to sit under their tens of thousands of bridges, putting up barriers between the real innovators – the people that fucking ship – and their bringing the products of their innovation into the real world.
I think I’m done now.