Founded in 2000, Intellectual Ventures "has earned a special brand of hatred in the business world as the ultimate patent troll. It doesn't delay your flight like United, buffer your movie stream like Comcast, or shellac your shrimp with oil like BP. Rather, it hoards ideas." It "goes around to companies and says: 'Hey, you want to protect yourself from lawsuits? We own tons of patents. Make a deal with us. Our patents will not only cover everything you're doing in your business, no one will dare sue you." "It then wields this intellectual-property portfolio—the world's largest—like a weapon. Companies can either pay up or face a lawsuit."
Co-founders Nathan Myhrvold and Edward Jung "formerly served in high-level positions at Microsoft. Peter Detkin also played a key management role in developing Intellectual Ventures. In one of patent law's great ironies, Detkin coined the derogatory term 'patent troll' during his tenure" as the vice president and assistant general counsel at Intel. Myhrvold, who was once "the 'chief gastronomic officer' of Zagat Survey, the company that publishes the eponymous restaurant guides," is "the kind of guy the press loves to profile."
"Intellectual Ventures has become a boogieman for aspiring entrepreneurs and big tech companies alike." "They have the potential to literally obliterate startups." What's more, the Intellectual Ventures Lab—a subsidiary of IV where researchers are designing the malaria Autoscope—"is a tiny fraction of what the company does. Intellectual Ventures has received a little over 1,000 patents on stuff they've come up with here, which pales in comparison to the more than 30,000 patents they've bought from other people." (Editor's Note: IV representatives note that they've both received and bought more patents since the original story was published.)
Jung believes that IV has "built an engine that can solve big problems." Myhrvold, for his part, has said that, "in the U.S., a disregard for patents is deeply ingrained in parts of certain industries ... most notably software, computing, and other Internet-related sectors. These 'winner takes most' industries impose extreme competitive pressure on young firms to increase their market share by any means necessary, even copying the ideas of others." Jung adds: "If someone from Google or wherever wants to give us a hard time, I'd ask them, 'How many of your inventions have saved 10,000 lives?' If there are talented people out there who can solve these big problems, we should let them solve the goddamn problems."
Myhrvold and Jung say many of the claims against the company are "ridiculous and offensive, colorful and dramatic, and some [are] just absurd." The case for IV? "Inventors should get rich. We should have more inventors. It's good for everybody," Myhrvold said at a conference in San Francisco. IV, he said, is "a disruptive company that's providing a way for patent holders to recognize value ... no amount of name-calling changes the fact that ideas have value." And he's added, at another venue: "There's a strange idea that the patent system is screwed up or broken, for which I've never seen any objective evidence." His bottom line: "I wasn't a popular kid in school and I guess I'm not here. If I want popularity, I go to a chef's convention."
A version of this story originally appeared in the August/September 2017 issue of Pacific Standard as a sidebar to "Engineering the End of Malaria."