Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Inventing the Future

In May '08 we linked to a New Yorker story on Nathan Myhrvold's Intellectual Ventures; I was intrigued as all get out:
...“We have thirty guys working on it,” he went on. “I have more people doing cutting-edge nuclear work than General Electric. We’re looking for someone to partner with us, because this is a huge undertaking. We took out an ad in Nuclear News, which is the big trade journal. It looks like something from The Onion: ‘Intellectual Ventures interested in nuclear-core designer and fission specialist.’ And, no, the F.B.I. hasn’t come knocking.”...
Last week there was some blog buzz, here's greentech media:

Ex-Microsoft Scientist Crafts Nuclear Reactor Startup
Intellectual Ventures, the high-level think tank created by ex-Microsoft chief scientist Nathan Myhrvold, is going nuclear.

The firm is getting prepared to spin out a company called TerraPower that will develop nuclear reactors that run primarily on natural or depleted uranium, rather than enriched uranium. With un-enriched fuel, the reactors could be loaded up with fuel and sealed for 30 to 60 years.

Switching from enriched fuel would reduce risks associated with nuclear proliferation and transportation as well as reduce the amount of nuclear waste primarily because the stockpile of uranium would go farther. Depleted uranium is a waste product in the enrichment process. TerraPower's reactor needs some enriched uranium, but only at the beginning to initiate a reaction....MORE

Yesterday, I remembered why we keep the Washington Post's Joel Achenbach's blog in one of the feedreaders:

That Seattle trip I took a while back: It was to write this piece for my alumni magazine, on Nathan Myhrvold, the former Microsoft executive who has started an outfit called Intellectual Ventures. Here's the top of the piece:

Nathan Myhrvold *83 has one of the premier résumés of the digital age. He didn't merely work in software; he founded Microsoft Research and spent 13 years as an all-purpose sage and eccentric genius at the side of Bill Gates.

He didn't merely study physics and math; he studied them at Princeton, where the physics and math faculties are among the best in the world -- and then he flew off to Cambridge for some tutelage at the feet of Stephen Hawking.

He doesn't merely like to cook: He's a master chef (and has worked in one of Seattle's best restaurants) who once won a barbecue contest in Memphis. He doesn't just take pictures: He's an award-winning wildlife photographer. As for his well-known interest in paleontology, he's no ordinary bone collector. He has enough fossils to stock a small museum. Put it this way: He has a T. rex -- the whole thing! -- in his living room. It's 17 feet tall and 45 feet long. ("It gets your attention," he says. "My kids grew up thinking it was normal.")

Myhrvold, 49, is such a Renaissance Man that he might as well stencil those words on his business card. He's someone who, if his cash flow got dicey, probably could make a pile of money just letting people listen to him brainstorm about the future of technology. He granted PAW an interview that lasted an hour and 45 minutes and barely skimmed the surface of his many ideas and interests.

But it's a bit tricky pinpointing precisely who and what Myhrvold is. Most adults have jobs that don't require elaboration explication. Not so Myhrvold. What would he put on a form under "Occupation"?

"For a long time I didn't know what to call myself," he says. "For a long time I would say 'physicist.' These days I put 'inventor.' "

He actually is something more complicated than that. He's an innovation maestro, an inventor slash promoter slash entrepreneur. Among his most important inventions, he says, is the business model of the company he founded, Intellectual Ventures, or IV, an investment fund that's similar to a venture-capital outfit -- except that, rather than investing in startup companies, it buys patents.

A standard venture capitalist gives money to people who've already demonstrated a marketable concept. Myhrvold is jumping one step ahead of that game, snapping up ideas fresh from someone's mind. Some of them will prove commercially viable, others won't. Intellectual Ventures owns 20,000 patents and patent-related assets, having paid out, according to a company spokeswoman, $300 million to inventors so far. The company then leases the patents, sometimes in bundles, to other companies. So far, IV has pulled in $1 billion in licensing fees, the spokeswoman said. The fund has $5 billion under management, with investors who include some of the world's best-known tech tycoons -- Bill Gates among them. Gates and others have engaged in IV-sponsored meetings in which everyone takes turns tossing inspirations against the wall to see what sticks....MORE

Good writer, eh?