Intellectual Ventures, a think tank based in Bellevue, Washington, may be best known for owning more
than 30,000 patents, placing it as one of the largest patent owners in the U.S.But it’s also becoming known as a dedicated and passionate incubator for world-class ideas.
Four years ago the company launched a research and
prototyping lab, Intellectual Ventures Lab (or IV Lab), where more than 150 scientists work in-house developing
solutions to the most perplexing problems facing our world. Their inventions cover an extraordinarily wide range, from finding a dozen ways to eradicate mosquitos that spread malaria to creating a powerful satellite antenna as small and mobile as a laptop.
While critics note that no products have reached market yet, IV Lab has
spun off three companies that promise to significantly impact our daily lives: Kymeta plans to make broadband instantly accessible anywhere in the world; TerraPower is investigating a new way to build nuclear reactors that could safely generate electricity for 10 billion people for a million years; and the latest spinout is Evolv Technologies, a company working on a new form of security imaging for use at airports.
Currently IV Lab has more than 50 projects in the pipeline
and managing the process is a formidable task. We spoke with Geoff Deane, Vice
President of IV Lab, and the person who supervises and inspires all development. We asked him to
describe some of his favorite ideas in the hopper and to explain the
difference between an inventor and an innovator. We also questioned him
about IV's reputation as a “patent troll,” a company that only exists to
own and license patents and then sue companies that violate its
SmartPlanet: You manage 150-plus inventors. Can you give us a sense of the scope of the projects you have in
Geoff Deane: We work across huge a diversity of science. So
we have people who work in chemistry, biology, material science, computer science,
optical physics, nanotechnology, nuclear energy, epidemiology, food science.
The list goes on.
What is one project you are particularly excited about?
A year ago we spun out a company called Kymeta which is
an application of a new field called metamaterials to satellite
communications. Sometimes inventions start off with a problem looking for a solution,
and sometimes they start off with a solution which you then try to figure out
what the problem is. And Kymeta was a really exciting example of a solution, using a
new field of physics.
So you needed a problem for this new field of physics to
Right. One of
the big problems that we have now is in how to speak to satellites efficiently
and effectively. So Kymeta’s
metamaterials antenna allows us to speak to satellites energy-efficiently, cost-efficiently and at a
much smaller footprint than we’ve previously been able to do. It has
all kinds of interesting applications like onboard aircraft, or onboard planes,
or trains, or cars. It has military applications, it has commercial applications.
It will bring communications to parts of the world where you
can’t connect to today.
How much cheaper or efficient are we talking about?
A lot of satellites are big, heavy, and
expensive. And often you have to design the whole vehicle around the communication
piece that will be attached to it. If instead I can take a satellite dish and replace it with something
that looks like a sheet of paper -- maybe it’s the size of an 11x17 sheet of paper -- and imagine if
you only need the same amount of energy that it would take to operateasimple
This is a technology that could be put into something that
would effectively look like a laptop computer and fold out and become an antenna that could work anywhere. It could be deployed in disaster relief where you go
into areas where communication has been completely knocked out.
What else are you working on?
We are also working on a breakthrough in vaccine
development. Many vaccines are designed to be held within a very narrow
temperature range. If they get too warm they spoil. Keeping vaccines cold as they travel long distances is a huge logistics
challenge that we take for granted in the United States. In many parts
of the world it’s a significant issue.
We've developed an insulated container. It’s a bottle or
metal container that contains ice. And that ice will stay cold for over a month
with zero electricity or active refrigeration. We can put vaccines in the
device and come back over a month later, reach in and still have vaccines be
Also in the health realm, I understand you’re working on
a dozen different ways to stop mosquitos from spreading malaria?
With this we were given a problem and needed to find a solution. And in this case is we
have partner, Bill Gates, who is dedicated to reducing death due to malaria.
This particular project is a good example of how we work: First our scientists study the problem. It turns out that even though the world’s experts are
working on solving these huge problems, it’s the actual problem itself that is often not
understood well enough to begin with.
If you have clarity in how you’re thinking about
the problem, what that leads to is the ability to create an accurate measurement for success. So when you put scientists in a room and you give them that rule set, the inventions are directed and people start
to invent with intent.
So we bring in inventors, sit them around tables, and come up with dozens
of ideas. You find out in very short order that some of the ideas were as crazy
as they sounded. But others aren’t as crazy as you thought. That’s when it starts to get exciting. We put the puzzle
together and we start to “de-risk” an idea, basically removing the reasons why
it will fail.
So back to the mosquito problem.
Right. We’ve approached mosquito abatement in a variety of ways.
One way involves finding mosquitos, tracking them, and shooting them out of the air
with laser beams. Sounds crazy, but the components aren’t all that expensive
and the technology is feasible. We’ve also looked at ways of raising mosquitos
because mosquito research is very expensive. We may find ways of rearing
mosquitos in captivity that might then lead to feeding the mosquitos in the
wild where we could introduce pathogens into the mosquito population
So you go after the problem at a number of different levels
Right. We also work with malaria researchers and ask them
what makes their jobs hard. And then we try to solve the problems they have with
their research labs that makes them less effective.
You've claimed that there is a distinct difference between an entrepreneur
and an inventor. Can you elaborate on that difference?
Entrepreneurs take an idea and with incredible focus and
drive bring it to market. Inventors approach an idea with the same passion, but
they’re focused more on the problem. They are not attached to any one solution.
They’re attached to generating lots of solutions to the problem. It’s really the
front end of what an entrepreneur takes and runs with.
Can you talk about the difference between invention and
innovation? What is the definition of invention?
Innovation in my mind is taking an idea and bringing it to
the world. It’s all of those things that has to happen to make an idea a
product, a service, and offering that people have access to. I like to describe
an invention, or an inventor, as someone who directs their creativity
Innovators live in the reality of bringing that idea to
market where the inventors live in possibility.
Presumably then the invention life-cycle has to include an
inventor and an innovator? Most often they’re two separate types of
What we find is there is a large number of people
who are really good at inventing but aren’t very good at innovating.
How does the structure of the IV Lab work? Are the
scientists all in-house?
Around the world we have a network of 4,000 people who
invent with us in a crowd-sourced business where we come up with problems and
ideas and we pass it off to those inventors. We have people who’ve already come
up with ideas and are looking for ways to commercialize them. They’ll sell us
their ideas, their inventions. Then we have a group of people who are in house and come
together and work in teams.
How many projects do you have right now, in house?
At any point in time here in the lab, we’ll have 30 ideas
that are actively being investigated. Some of them will
be just coming off the inventing process and some of them will be where we have
a contract with an external partner and we’re finishing our drawings and our
hand-off documents. At the moment, we have two projects that are in what we
would call technical hand-offs.
What are those?
One of them is about increasing the cleanliness and safety
of milk transportation in the developing world. The other is the vaccine
transport I mentioned earlier.
Intellectual Ventures holds 30,000 patents, whereas IV Lab
has approximately 1,000 patents. Many have criticized IV for being a "patent troll." How do you
justify what the IV Lab is doing and how does it not feed into this long-held idea
that Intellectual Ventures is a patent troll?
I believe in the spirit of invention. I also believe that
the world does not adequately recognize the talent and input of inventors. I believe Intellectual Ventures creates
markets for inventors to realize the value of their ideas.
How are those markets created by
Ideas have value. There’s an effort today to divest ideas and put the value in other parts of the development
cycle. There are businesses out there who do very well on giving away ideas as
part of what they produce. They’re not as concerned with where the ideas come
from, they’re much more concerned with how they bring those ideas to market and
how the ideas get used. I think that a lot of the discussion that’s
happening right now is really just a question of what is the value that you put
on unique thinking.
People argue that patents destroy innovation. Can you
describe that argument?
I think it’s an argument that people use who don’t value
inventions or patents. If you feel you should be able to use anyone’s idea at
any time without paying for it that’s the kind of argument that you come back
Having sat in a boardroom with investors and saying
we want this company to have advantages, we want this company to have the
freedom to operate, we want this company to have space in which to go succeed, then intellectual
property is a critical part of the business's strategy.
This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com