Bellevue lab is an inventor’s real dream

Nathan Myrvold is the founder of Intellectual Ventures.

Nathan Myhrvold is the founder of Intellectual Ventures.

After Norwegian-American Nathan Myhrvold left Microsoft in 2000, he created something that would make the British Royal Society drool — a vast laboratory and intellectual salon where some of the smartest and richest people in the world get together and invent stuff.


By Brier Dudley
Seattle Times

Some retirees set up a shop to tinker in the garage.

After Nathan Myhrvold left Microsoft in 2000, he created something that would make the British Royal Society drool — a vast laboratory and intellectual salon where some of the smartest and richest people in the world get together and invent stuff.

Amazing, mind-boggling stuff like a photon laser to zap malarial mosquitoes, high-performance nuclear reactors and devices to help doctors operating on aneurysms.

Or how about a liquid nitrogen system that instantly freezes juice into an effervescent popsicle that’s like a crunchy Ping-Pong ball filling your mouth with fruity vapors?

“We’re going to try to keep this region on the cutting edge,” Myhrvold said Tuesday during the first public showing of the “invention laboratory” — his $5 billion startup, Intellectual Ventures, created in Bellevue.

Since the company was started in 2000, it has become one of the top 25 research institutions in the country and the top 50 in the world, based on its annual output of 500 to 600 patents, Myhrvold said.

Yet inventing stuff is only part of the business.

Intellectual Ventures was created to amass and license intellectual property: inventions, but more specifically, patents that can be used to collect royalties from companies that use the patented concepts in their products.

In some ways, Myhrvold is applying business lessons learned at Microsoft, where he was chief technology officer and a founder of its advanced research group.

Microsoft advanced the notion that software is intellectual property that can be licensed and rented, similar to the way a real-estate developer builds, sells and leases physical property.

Royalty revenue

Intellectual Ventures is doing the same thing with all sorts of intellectual property. It makes money from royalties it receives when other companies use patented ideas that Intellectual Ventures has acquired, brokered or leased.

So far it’s built a portfolio of about 27,000 patents, the bulk of which it has accumulated by acquiring them from other companies or individuals.

The acquired patents have produced about $1 billion in licensing revenue. Patents that Intellectual Ventures has won for its own work have produced about $80 million.

Besides the patent work, Myhrvold also hopes to create two or more spinoff companies every year, such as TerraPower, a 35-employee Bellevue company commercializing Intellectual Ventures’ nuclear-reactor technology.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., a longtime acquaintance of Myhrvold’s, was the guest of honor during Tuesday’s tour.

The Cantwell connection may be helpful as the Senate proceeds with a massive overhaul of the federal patent system this year.

Object of concern

Intellectual Ventures is a factor in the debate, with concerns raised about the role of licensing entities that collect royalties from patents they hold without actually creating anything.

Publicity about the labs seems aimed partly at rebutting the criticism.

Myhrvold was asked about complaints that Intellectual Ventures is a middleman, adding a new layer between inventors and producers.

“I think the people that complain about that are folks who are afraid we’re going to ask them to pay for inventions they’re using for free,” he said.

“They say, ‘Oh, [Intellectual Ventures is] going to sue everybody,’ ” he went on. “So far we’ve collected more than $1 billion without suing anybody.”

Cantwell apparently agrees with Intellectual Ventures’ approach. “I think it’s incredible to have this resource in Washington,” she said, shortly before cutting a ceremonial ribbon Tuesday.

Actually, Cantwell torched the ribbon by triggering a remotely controlled incendiary device, while researchers stood by with fire extinguishers and a crowd of investors and inventors raised Champagne glasses and nibbled salmon and asparagus.

In a deceptively schlumpy warehouse in Bellevue, the 27,500-square-foot lab includes biochemistry, photonics and electronics facilities, plus a computerized machine shop. Intellectual Ventures spent the past two years outfitting the lab.

Despite backing from Myhrvold and investors (including Bill Gates) who put $5 billion into the business, Intellectual Ventures scavenged a lot of the equipment. Even the conference room furniture is from a bankruptcy auction.

Across the street, a former design store is being converted into a supercomputer lab.

Then there’s a building for the nuclear-reactor spinoff, plus a warehouse in Kent for tools and other things.

Staffing the lab are about 20 full-time researchers, including recent graduates of Princeton and the University of Washington. They’re supplemented by visiting researchers, consultants and students at the lab.

Contingent staff includes Myhrvold’s son Conor, a 20-year-old sophomore at Princeton, whose inventions at the lab include a sort of air bag for the elderly he created a few years ago.

He said the idea was to cushion older people’s falls, but it was tricky figuring out a way to detonate the bags without causing an injury.

Altogether, Intellectual Ventures employs about 560 people in Bellevue and at satellite offices across the country and world.

Myhrvold said his personal legacy includes creating Microsoft Research, “one of the great research labs in the world in computer science.”

With Intellectual Ventures, he hopes to advance the notion of “invention capital,” a concept that can be traced back to Thomas Edison.

“I would like someday my legacy to be, yes, we got invention capital going, and billions of dollars got handed to people having crazy new ideas — 98 percent of which would fail. But that 2 percent will change the world,” he said.

Edison also contributed a quote on a large poster that visitors see in the lab’s lobby:

“To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.”

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