Thursday, May 08, 2008

Gladwell amongst the patent trolls

Malcolm Gladwell writes about Nathan Myhrvold's company Intellectual Ventures in the recent New Yorker. (Myhrvold is the former cosmologist who left physics and eventually became consigliere to Bill Gates, founding Microsoft Research and charting Microsoft's blue sky research direction. He famously missed the importance of the Internet until the mid 90's.) If you read this blog often, you know my opinion about Gladwell: he has a good nose for interesting topics, but not enough brainpower or common sense for reliable analysis. The same is true here: he produces an interesting profile of Myhrvold (although see here for a much better one from 1997 by Ken Auletta) and friends, but seems to entirely miss a number of important points. Intellectual Ventures is not about real inventions, but about patenting around ideas so that they have a future claim on the ones that turn out the be useful. In other words, they are patent trolls. Gladwell does not seem to realize the difference between rampant speculation and true invention: the hours of painstaking work in the lab required to convert an idea into reality.

Here's an excerpt about how the "invention" process works -- get some smart guys in a room and let them talk (every theory group lounge is a fount of commercializable ideas ;-). Yes! if your inventors are smart enough, they can produce 36 new inventions at dinner! Is this a statement about real innovation, or about what a patent attorney might manage to get the understaffed, overburdened USPTO to approve? It makes a mockery of what real inventors and innovators do. Why start a company and hire engineers to build a prototype? Just get a few lawyers and patent everything in sight...

How useful is it to have a group of really smart people brainstorm for a day? When Myhrvold started out, his expectations were modest. Although he wanted insights like Alexander Graham Bell’s, Bell was clearly one in a million, a genius who went on to have ideas in an extraordinary number of areas—sound recording, flight, lasers, tetrahedral construction, and hydrofoil boats, to name a few. ...

But then, in August of 2003, I.V. held its first invention session, and it was a revelation. “Afterward, Nathan kept saying, ‘There are so many inventions,’ ” Wood recalled. “He thought if we came up with a half-dozen good ideas it would be great, and we came up with somewhere between fifty and a hundred. I said to him, ‘But you had eight people in that room who are seasoned inventors. Weren’t you expecting a multiplier effect?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, but it was more than multiplicity.’ Not even Nathan had any idea of what it was going to be like.”

The original expectation was that I.V. would file a hundred patents a year. Currently, it’s filing five hundred a year. It has a backlog of three thousand ideas. Wood said that he once attended a two-day invention session presided over by Jung, and after the first day the group went out to dinner. “So Edward took his people out, plus me,” Wood said. “And the eight of us sat down at a table and the attorney said, ‘Do you mind if I record the evening?’ And we all said no, of course not. We sat there. It was a long dinner. I thought we were lightly chewing the rag. But the next day the attorney comes up with eight single-spaced pages flagging thirty-six different inventions from dinner. Dinner.”

For the cognoscenti out there, yes, the Wood mentioned in the article is none other than Star Warrior Lowell Wood, former head of the zany (useless?) O Group (NYTimes 1984) at Livermore. Wood is perfect for Myhrvold's purposes -- for decades his group bamboozled the US defense establishment with wild ideas that cost taxpayers billions of dollars. Follow the link to the Times article and tell me how many of the ideas mentioned turned into something useful, now almost a quarter century later.

Rather than leave you with a completely negative impression of the article, I include the following excerpt, which has Wood noticing something about cancer cells in the bloodstream that seems to have eluded biologists and medical researchers for some time. It is true that there are great ideas out there just waiting to be discovered, but lots of people can have the same idea. The hard part is making the idea into a practical, commercially viable reality.

...Last March, Myhrvold decided to do an invention session with Eric Leuthardt and several other physicians in St. Louis. Rod Hyde came, along with a scientist from M.I.T. named Ed Boyden. Wood was there as well.

“Lowell came in looking like the Cheshire Cat,” Myhrvold recalled. “He said, ‘I have a question for everyone. You have a tumor, and the tumor becomes metastatic, and it sheds metastatic cancer cells. How long do those circulate in the bloodstream before they land?’ And we all said, ‘We don’t know. Ten times?’ ‘No,’ he said. ‘As many as a million times.’ Isn’t that amazing? If you had no time, you’d be screwed. But it turns out that these cells are in your blood for as long as a year before they land somewhere. What that says is that you’ve got a chance to intercept them.”

How did Wood come to this conclusion? He had run across a stray fact in a recent issue of The New England Journal of Medicine. “It was an article that talked about, at one point, the number of cancer cells per millilitre of blood,” he said. “And I looked at that figure and said, ‘Something’s wrong here. That can’t possibly be true.’ The number was incredibly high. Too high. It has to be one cell in a hundred litres, not what they were saying—one cell in a millilitre. Yet they spoke of it so confidently. I clicked through to the references. It was a commonplace. There really were that many cancer cells.”

Wood did some arithmetic. He knew that human beings have only about five litres of blood. He knew that the heart pumps close to a hundred millilitres of blood per beat, which means that all of our blood circulates through our bloodstream in a matter of minutes. The New England Journal article was about metastatic breast cancer, and it seemed to Wood that when women die of metastatic breast cancer they don’t die with thousands of tumors. The vast majority of circulating cancer cells don’t do anything.

“It turns out that some small per cent of tumor cells are actually the deadly ones,” he went on. “Tumor stem cells are what really initiate metastases. And isn’t it astonishing that they have to turn over at least ten thousand times before they can find a happy home? You na├»vely think it’s once or twice or three times. Maybe five times at most. It isn’t. In other words, metastatic cancer—the brand of cancer that kills us—is an amazingly hard thing to initiate. Which strongly suggests that if you tip things just a little bit you essentially turn off the process.”

That was the idea that Wood presented to the room in St. Louis. From there, the discussion raced ahead. Myhrvold and his inventors had already done a lot of thinking about using tiny optical filters capable of identifying and zapping microscopic particles. They also knew that finding cancer cells in blood is not hard. They’re often the wrong size or the wrong shape. So what if you slid a tiny filter into a blood vessel of a cancer patient? “You don’t have to intercept very much of the blood for it to work,” Wood went on. “Maybe one ten-thousandth of it. The filter could be put in a little tiny vein in the back of the hand, because that’s all you need. Or maybe I intercept all of the blood, but then it doesn’t have to be a particularly efficient filter.”

Wood was a physicist, not a doctor, but that wasn’t necessarily a liability, at this stage. “People in biology and medicine don’t do arithmetic,” he said. He wasn’t being critical of biologists and physicians: this was, after all, a man who read medical journals for fun. He meant that the traditions of medicine encouraged qualitative observation and interpretation. But what physicists do—out of sheer force of habit and training—is measure things and compare measurements, and do the math to put measurements in context. At that moment, while reading The New England Journal, Wood had the advantages of someone looking at a familiar fact with a fresh perspective.

That was also why Myhrvold had wanted to take his crew to St. Louis to meet with the surgeons. He likes to say that the only time a physicist and a brain surgeon meet is when the physicist is about to be cut open—and to his mind that made no sense. Surgeons had all kinds of problems that they didn’t realize had solutions, and physicists had all kinds of solutions to things that they didn’t realize were problems. At one point, Myhrvold asked the surgeons what, in a perfect world, would make their lives easier, and they said that they wanted an X-ray that went only skin deep. They wanted to know, before they made their first incision, what was just below the surface. When the Intellectual Ventures crew heard that, their response was amazement. “That’s your dream? A subcutaneous X-ray? We can do that.”

Let me close with my usual observation (specifically aimed at venture capitalists, research lab directors and university administrators) concerning an asymmetry in cognitive depth: yes, physicists can casually read the New England Journal of Medicine and come up with interesting insights, but, no, biologists and medical doctors cannot read Physical Review.


Anonymous said...

This is interesting. At one point, I thought about becoming a patent attorney [for the money].

As I've been cruising along, thinking about the world, and business, and technology, it dawned on me that ideas really aren't that economically valuable. They are important for sure, because you can't get anywhere without one. But, you generate a lot more value by designing, developing, and testing an 'invention' based on your idea. Those are declarations of utility [especially things that are otherwise non-tangible, like software]. Showing the upside and mitigating the downside.

I work for a large, ahem, technology company that is very focused on UML. My coworkers think that when they construct a general model that can be applied in a lot of places, that they have done something of value. It's exactly the opposite. They've isolated the valuable parts [the non-general things] from the non-valuable parts [the general things, which anyone should be able to realize].

Patent trolls are annoying to no end. I wonder what it would take to reformulate the patent law.

Anonymous said...

Cancer biologists do know that not every cancer cell in the bloodstream is going to form a metastasis. What they don't know is which ones, which is what you'd need if you want to filter them out. When you consider that metastatic cancer cells specifically express adhesion proteins that non-metastatic cells do not, and different cancers preferentially form tumors in different tissues, you can see that a tiny filter in a random capillary isn't likely to do anything, even all the blood in the body eventually passes through it.

I wouldn't expect the PTO examiners to necessarily know this, however.

notevenwrong said...

Hi Steve,

Nathan is an old friend of mine, and I've been hearing from him about the "Invention Company" since he started it several years ago. I may thus be biased, but I think the description of him as a "patent troll" is quite uncalled for.

One thing to keep in mind is that the "Invention Company" part of his business is separate from the intellectual property business. This second business has been acquiring huge numbers of patents from other people, and thus generated fears that it will become a patent troll operation. I've never talked with Nathan about how he's planning to make money on these patents, but I've seen zero evidence that it is by patent trolling. Quite the opposite, I've read speculation that he's being funded by some large companies specifically for the purpose of buying up patents that could get into the hands of patent trolls, stopping them from being used for this purpose.

While I don't know what his business model is, I do know Nathan quite well and have a very good idea of what motivates him. He is and always has been an incredible enthusiast for new technology and new inventions, and this is central to his life. He's just not at all someone who would think it a good idea to try and make more money for himself (he's got plenty...) by obstructing development of a technology, demanding to be paid.

The idea of the "Invention Company" may or not be a good one. Perhaps it really is true that the results of some smart people brainstorming just aren't that useful outside of the context of really developing something. Nathan has decided to try it, because he thinks it might lead to something truly great, and because he enjoys doing it. Time will tell.

But before dismissing him as a "patent troll", I think you need to come up with evidence of him using the patents he now controls to hold up people and stop them from developing new technology. My impression is that this is very far from his intention, which is to both come up with new ideas, and do everything he can to get them in the hands of people who can develop them.

Steve Hsu said...


Here's a WSJ article that has a bit more detail about IV's business model:

Gladwell is more interested in the process of invention and doesn't go into the business side in his article.

Let me make 2 comments:

1) They are reportedly raising $2B from investors, but *do not* have plans to actually launch startups based on the new ideas (i.e., they are not an incubator, research lab or venture fund). I doubt the investors can see a viable business model other than patent trolling that would supply a decent return on this investment. (You might argue that investors want IV to buy up existing patents to protect them from other patent trolls, but this would not require the practice of brainstorming to create *new*, very future-oriented patents.)

2) I think any entity that *only* files patents with no intention of realizing the ideas is really gaming the system -- capitalizing on a weakness of the legal system that grants protection based on a bare-bones outline of the idea without requiring the hard lab work.

If you want to foster *real* innovation (devil is in the *details*, not the facile idea), back a venture fund that will produce real products and businesses.

notevenwrong said...


I did see that WSJ article (which is mainly about the intellectual property part of his business) when it came out, and talked to Nathan around then about what he was doing. Lots of talk about buying up patents, about working with universities to help commercialize the work of their faculty, nothing at all about suing anyone, threatening anyone with a lawsuit, or any sort of activity that could be reasonably described as "patent trolling". The WSJ article and other similar ones contain lots of quotes from people worrying that he would start becoming a patent troll, not a shred of evidence that he has done anything of the sort. And knowing the guy, I'm telling you that I find it unlikely.

I don't know what his pitch to investors is, but I seriously doubt that it is an argument that he's going to make money for them by patent-trolling.

I think your skepticism about the value of the kind of brainstorming operation Nathan has set up is reasonable. Virtually all of the ideas they come up with are likely to be worthless, for the reasons you give. If they try and use such patents to extract money and interfere with people doing real development, yes that would be "gaming the system" and patent trolling. I've seen no evidence they are doing that or intend to do so. From my conversations with Nathan, it seems to me that his idea is that while 99% of what they do won't have real value, there's some chance of coming up with something dramatically new this way, something that could not have come out of currently existing research and development organizations.

Maybe he's wrong about this, he's an incurable optimist. Again, time will tell. But he's a guy in love with the idea of coming up with something dramatically new that will change the world, not with finding a way to game the intellectual property system.

Anonymous said...


Leadership at companies is ephemeral. However well-intentioned Mr. Mhyrvold is, he needs to stay in the good graces of his investors, or he will be gone, and someone, less inclined to do hard things may go the easy route and prosecute.

The blue sky innovation aspect of the business is a relatively new and minor part of their business. Moreover, it's not clear what role they are taking. Are they early stage VC, a la Y-Combinator? Are they GE (We'll help you just enough to get you there, then sue the crap out of you if it takes off)?

He doesn't even seem to have a business plan, or even any industrial sense. And absent either of those, there is simply too much game theory that suggests that they will end up sitting around waiting to screw, and not creating value themselves.

I don't think that anyone is saying that he's not an affable, interesting guy.

notevenwrong said...


The worry that the intellectual property being accumulated here may someday end up in the hands of patent trolls is a reasonable one. My point is just that the "patent troll" description doesn't agree with Nathan's behavior up to now, his motivations, or what I understand of his plans for the future.

And hey, both of you, it's not easy, but you should spell his name right (it's Myhrvold, not Mhyrvold...).

Steve Hsu said...


Thanks for the spelling correction :-)

Perhaps it is too harsh -- certainly premature -- to refer to IV as patent trolls. I guess my main complaint (which applies to Gladwell as well) is against overemphasis on idea over implementation.

I do suspect that the pitch offered to potential investors *does* highlight the future option of litigating based on the patent portfolio, probably mentioning things like the recent Blackberry capitulation :-) I can easily believe Myhrvold would prefer not to go in this direction, but not that he is unaware of it.

Anonymous said...

Steve- when I read this article, I got really excited about the possibilities and the amazing innovation and ideas that could be brainstormed from a roomful of interdisciplinary and creative people. It was only after the article had sunk in for a little while that I realized they weren't really *doing* anything with those ideas, and that is when I started worrying more about what exactly it was that they'd be doing... :( it would be great if they could connect something like that with the right obsessed visionaries, set them up with the ideas and then have other people actually working on the execution.

Steve Hsu said...


What you are describing is called "Idealab" -- located a few miles from Caltech :-)

Anyone who has experience with science/engineering/entrepreneurship knows that the devil is in the details. You can't capture innovation in a legal document.

Anonymous said...

Note that the article says:
After I.V. came up with its cancer-filter idea, it discovered that there was a company, based in Rochester, that was already developing a cancer filter.

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