Microsoft alum laments inventor's dilemma

Speaking at MIT's Emerging Technology Conference, ex-Microsoft R&D chief Nathan Myhrvold derided the lack of corporate support for invention. And although startups have appeared to drive the technology world for the last 20 years, he says the real drivers
Written by David Berlind, Inactive
If you believe what ex-Microsoft research and development chief Nathan Myhrvold had to say to an MIT auditorium packed with Emerging Technology Conference 2003 attendees, we are stuck on a treadmill of incremental rather than paradigm-changing innovation.

According to Myhrvold, back in the 1800's, most significant inventions were created by unaffiliated individuals. Today, not much has changed. With the exception of academia having jumped on the invention (and patent) bandwagon, innovation is somewhat stifled by a lack of endorsement from venture capitalists and established businesses--the very organizations that have the resources necessary to spawn innovation.

"Most big companies don't invent," said Myhrvold. "Even the ones with R&D don't invent. When there's a conflict between mission and invention, mission wins. Microsoft's mission was writing software, not inventing."

Saying that Inventions are usually required for startups to start up, Myhrvold discussed the history of some of the world's largest intellectual property portfolios at companies like IBM, Lucent, Bell Labs, Xerox and GE, and how all of them were startups founded on the basis of a paradigm-changing invention. Beyond the initial invention that resulted in a startup's launch, Myhrvold complains that the majority of inventions that come out of big companies are incremental to the originating technology as opposed to paradigm-changing. Myhrvold chided IBM, describing that the company's mission as focusing on its "near-term health" and calling that mission a "disastrously stupid thing to do."

Given Myhrvold's derision of corporate support for true invention, his assessment that startups have been driving innovation in the technology world for the last 20 years should come as no surprise. But, just like in the 1800's, it has often germinated from an individual's work. Myhrvold cited the zipper, the radio, the television, Velcro, and the machine gun as examples. More recent inventions such as the computer, the atomic bomb, and certain drugs had their roots in academia.

In terms of the history of invention, academia is the newcomer on the block. Florida A&M University Office of Technology Transfer associate director Reginald Parker attributes academia's recent contribution to the invention train to the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980.

"The Bayh-Dole Act made it possible for universities to maintain patent portfolios derived from government sponsored research," says Parker. The result, according to Parker, incentivized universities, which are always starving for money, to create an environment that was invention-friendly. Gatorade, which was invented at the University of Florida, and a cancer treatment agent called Taxol that was invented at Florida State University, are examples of inventions that bring those universities millions of dollars, according to Parker.

"Typically, a university will have a technology transfer office that does a lot of the legwork that goes with an invention. It helps to secure the intellectual property by getting the patent, and then the university brokers the technology with companies interested in using it or incubating new businesses from it," said Parker. "Then the original inventor such as a professor or graduate student gets a percentage of the royalties."

However, most universities have a long way to go before invention becomes a part of their culture. "Only a handful of universities promote invention in earnest," Parker told me. "MIT, Harvard, Georgia Tech, Stanford and a few others are the only ones that make invention a factor in professors achieving tenure--an idea that I'm evangelizing at Florida A&M."

Dr. Paul Judge, CTO of e-mail security solution provider Ciphertrust Inc., agrees that more invention incentive needs to be built into the academic culture. Judge, who is one of the 100 honorees at this year's Emerging Technology Conference, has eight patents under his belt. He earned one as a graduate student at Georgia Tech and seven others as an employee of Ciphertrust. "The patent I received while at Georgia Tech didn't go much further. It wasn't the basis of a startup," Judge says.

Parker's assessment of the overall environment for invention in the United States is bleaker than Myhrvold's. "Look at where we stand in the world. In terms of invention, we're moving along at 10 miles per hour, while the rest of the world is moving along at 1 mile per hour. Meanwhile, if the environments in academia and corporate America were ripe for invention, we could be moving at 100 miles per hour. The problem is that we're comparing ourselves to other countries instead of comparing ourselves to our potential. At the rate things are going, China will rival us in five years."

According to Myhrvold, one reason that major companies don't make invention a part of their culture is that "invention introduces risks and unknowns that most companies aren't comfortable with. Many startups go on to fail because they invent too much."

Myhrvold characterizes paradigm-changing invention as the sort of process that often starts with nothing more than a person with an inventor's mindset--an inefficient one spent mostly brainstorming before actually having a feasible idea. "At every company, there is some guy, a crazy inventor who is strange and weird and mostly ignored, and he usually operates at a low efficiency. The best inventors are not supported." Further lamenting that lack of support, Myhrvold joked, "Try going to a venture capitalist to get funding but then tell them, 'I just don't have the idea yet.' We don't put enough focus and effort into invention."

Myhrvold's perspective on the future of invention isn't completely bleak. The invention march will continue, but not as fast as it could. Myhrvold, who is managing director of Intellectual Ventures, a private entrepreneurial firm based in Bellevue, Wash., is most excited about inventions that start "exponentially growing landslides" where the performance of the technology as a function of its cost keeps improving at a dramatic rate. He gave Moore's Law as an example and says that there are other technologies in the works such as genomics and nanotech that are either poised for exponential growth or already there.

Do big corporations need to do more to encourage inventors to do what they do best? Share your thoughts and ideas with your fellow readers using ZDNet's Use TalkBack. Or write to me at david.berlind@cnet.com. If you're looking for my commentaries on other IT topics, check the archives.

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