Nathan Myhrvold: tech hero or patent troll?

Nathan Myhrvold
Is Nathan Myhrvold using his talents for good?

Dinner with Nathan Myhrvold is a surreal experience, says Forbes. The legendary technologist has reinvented himself as the world’s most renowned food scientist and can claim the distinction of being the only person ever to study under both Stephen Hawking and French master chef, Anne Willan.

Myhrvold, whose other interests include palaeontology, doesn’t like the term molecular gastronomy, preferring to describe his output as ‘modernist cuisine’. His food is strangely delicious. It’s also highly profitable. When he self-published his first glossy cook book at $625 a pop, it was dismissed as a rich man’s vanity project. He has since sold $30m worth.

Some consider Myhrvold, who started Microsoft’s research division in the late-1980s and left in 1999 with hundreds of millions, an avuncular elder statesman of the tech industry, says Business Insider. With his pink cheeks, curly blond hair and jovial manner, he can seem almost cherubic. Yet not everyone views him as an angel. His firm, Intellectual Ventures, has been slammed as the most hated company in the technology sector.

Myhrvold considers himself a champion of innovation. But despite staging legendary brainstorming sessions, Intellectual Ventures doesn’t produce that much new technology of its own. The firm has around 1,000 patents, but has stockpiled 30,000 more bought from others. As early as 2006, Businessweek was reporting fears that it might use its vast hoard of patents to become the world’s biggest patent troll, with the power, at least in theory, to sue a vast swath of corporate America (see below), thereby smothering innovation. Myhrvold vigorously refutes the claim.

Gregarious and nerdy, Myhrvold is obsessed with aperiodic tile patterns (ones that never repeat), says The New Yorker. He has kitted out his vast house on the shores of Lake Washington outside Seattle with around 60 patterns on walls, floors and ceilings. His front garden is planted entirely with vegetation from the Mesozoic era. “If the Jurassic Park thing happens,” he says, “this is where dinosaurs will come to eat.”

Born in 1959, and brought up in Santa Monica, California, Myhrvold’s mathematical genius was spotted young and he was put on an academic fast-track that led him to study cosmology at Cambridge. Taking leave to help friends with a software project, in 1984 he headed start-up Dynamical Systems. Two years later it was acquired by Microsoft.

Some in the tech industry dismiss him as “an intellectual dandy”. Yet the barbs have done little to deflate him. Or, indeed, his energy, says Forbes. The pace set at his dinners is extreme. At one sitting, 17 courses were devoured in an hour and 40 minutes – or a tad under six minutes per course. Myhrvold likens the pace to fireworks or a symphony. “I’d rather rush people a little.”

Has he turned into a patent troll?

Is Nathan Myhrvold a tech hero or villain? wonders Erin Fuchs on BusinessInsider.com. It all depends on who you ask. Opponents view his Intellectual Ventures as a dangerous predator, “always on the prowl for patents while maintaining secrecy through shell companies and non-disclosure agreements”. No one knows how much his patent stash is worth or how much it yields each year. He may be the wealthiest man on Earth when all is said and done, Jonathan Schwartz, CEO of the health care start-up CareZone, told CNET. “Congratulations on arbitraging the patent system.”

Myhrvold is adamant that his company fills a big liquidity gap with its “invention capital”. The big tech companies who complain about trolls are hypocrites, he says. Microsoft, Apple, Facebook et al, “have all bought huge patent portfolios to further their strategic game. They’re doing what I’m doing!”

In truth, the relation between Intellectual Ventures and the big beasts of Silicon Valley has always been complicated, says Michael Orey in Businessweek. In the company’s early years, a whole roster of them invested, including Sony, Apple, Microsoft, eBay, Intel and Google. That’s because Myhrvold was selling what he called the Patent Defense Fund, or “troll repellent”.

Following a spate of ruinous litigations, tech companies were keen to protect their backs. The idea was that his firm would go out and buy up patents that were knocking around the market and then license the entire portfolio to investors, effectively inoculating them. Some viewed this as a greenmail pitch – the implicit threat being that if you don’t invest, you’re our number one target.

The Patent Defense Fund has long been dropped: these days Intellectual Ventures markets its funds at private investors. But Myhrvold hasn’t given up on in-house innovation. As Randall Lane notes in Forbes, Intellectual Venture’s latest invention, created for the Gates foundation, is “a machine that zaps the wings off malarial mosquitoes”.