The very cool world of Nathan Myhrvold *83

 "For a long time I didn't know what to call myself," Nathan Myhrvold *83 says. "These days I put 'inventor.' "
"For a long time I didn't know what to call myself," Nathan Myhrvold *83 says. "These days I put 'inventor.' "
Asa Mathat (asamathat.com)

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 at home, where his many collections illustrate his wide range of interests.
Myhrvold at home, where his many collections illustrate his wide range of interests.
Gregg Segal

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.  

Myhrvold sees his fund as providing liquidity in the world of innovation. I suggest to him that his role is akin to that of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which buy up mortgages and provide liquidity in the housing market. He does not warm to that comparison.

This is a controversial business. Critics call Myhrvold a “patent troll,” which, as you can imagine, is not a compliment. Although IV has never sued anyone for patent infringement, that possibility hovers over the business model.  

Myhrvold notes that IV has its own laboratory, and is actively inventing things as we speak — like blood filters, lasers, and a new way to create nuclear power — in addition to patrolling the broader world for ideas up for grabs. He has dozens of patents in his own name — check the patent office Web site and you’ll see such Myhrvold creations as “Plasmon switch,” “Photonic diode,” and the inscrutable “Intensity detector circuitry having plural gain elements in a cascade with plural threshold values.”

Invention has long been something people do as a hobby, but for Myhrvold it is a billion-dollar business, not to mention a means for changing the world. He’s taking risks, and indulging flights of imagination, but he’s also making a plausible bet that his portfolio of inventions will alter the way we live, and that, as he put it when accepting Princeton’s James Madison Medal in 2005: “The economies of the 21st century are going to be driven by the magic of invention.”

Whatever the future turns out to be, Myhrvold intends to own a piece of it.

Myhrvold’s firm operates in a pleasant, utterly bland office park in the Seattle suburb of Bellevue. No one parking in the lot would think that the future is being invented anywhere nearby. But step inside the reception area and you immediately sense yourself in the presence of a curious mind, someone who is both CEO and eccentric-in-chief.

Display cases hold vintage scientific instruments, old-fashioned typewriters, and various carefully preserved beetles on stickpins (bringing to mind the remark by biologist J.B.S. Haldane that God must have an “inordinate fondness” for beetles). On one wall is a mounted cast of two articulated dinosaur fossils from Mongolia. Glance down a hallway and you’ll be staring at a strangely familiar, synthetic T. rex head, which turns out to be one used in the movie Jurassic Park.

Myhrvold can be found in a corner office jammed with more dinosaur artifacts. Dominating one wall is a large crocodilian.

“It’s a fish-eating croc. Fish-eating crocs always have long, skinny noses so they can slice through the water to catch fish,” he says — perhaps unconsciously paying homage to anatomical innovation.

Lording over the room is the skull of a fanged marine monster of the genus Dunkleosteus. A grown man could fit in its gaping maw. The affinity for dinosaurs and paleontology really is a love of stuff that’s really cool. Myhrvold has the perfect, well-practiced answer when asked why he’s a dinosaur nut: “You were interested in dinosaurs too when you were 5. The question is, why did you grow up and I didn’t?”

Now look again at that Dunkleosteus: Those fangs aren’t really fangs. They’re not teeth. They’re sharpened jawbones. Teeth didn’t yet exist on the planet Earth when this creature roamed the seas.

“It’s convergent evolution,” Myhrvold says, and traces with his finger the sharp edges of the proto-teeth. “Notice the bevel is different on each side so they would self-sharpen.”  

He adds, “After this, teeth were invented.”

But they were not actually invented, he quickly adds. They evolved. They emerged. There was no one drawing up blueprints for teeth. The market existed for sharp mouth accoutrements; nature innovated to fill that niche.

All of which raises a rather profound question: Were teeth inevitable? And what about the innovations in our own world — are they the result of carefully orchestrated projects, schemes, and hard work, or do they tend to bubble up from a million accidents and casual inspirations?  

“Broadly, overall, the way society works is emergent, and it is built on progress — it generally runs downhill toward something better,” Myhrvold says as we get deep into the philosophical weeds on all this stuff. The world is a better place now than it was 500 years ago, he declares. Driving that improvement is, he believes, technology. He’s an unabashed technophile. And he seems to have a strong libertarian streak.

“Creating new technology through invention is the single biggest value driver that our society has,” he says. “Humans grabbed the tiger by the tail when we invented agriculture, and it was one of the best and one of the worst things we ever did.”

Best, because we could feed a larger population and soon had urban centers, specialized laborers, surplus commodities, and various other things that made civilization possible and necessary. Worst, because in leaving behind the simple, nomadic existence we created a million cascading problems, the ultimate outcome of which is that the most forward-thinking people today spend a lot of time wondering how we can avoid destroying ourselves.

Many of the visionaries today talk of building a “sustainable” society, a word that seems to rile Myhrvold. “The most sustainable thing about human society is that we innovate,” he says. Later, he elaborates in an e-mail: “The answer is not to pine for a past golden age when things were better (there was no such place or time), but rather to ask how we can use more technology and innovation.” Change, he thinks, is intrinsic to our nature. The future will be different. Survival will not involve preservation of things as they existed before: It will require their creative destruction and replacement.  

Because this is what we do, as surely as that crocodilian on the wall snapped up fish.

Myhrvold, born in Seattle, was 14 years old and living in Santa Monica when he began attending college at UCLA. He rode his bike to his college classes. By the age of 19 he had a bachelor’s in mathematics and a master’s in geophysics and space physics, and had arrived at Princeton, living in the Graduate College, studying under physicist Ed Witten and others as a student in the Program in Applied Mathematics. He’d never lived away from home before, nor been surrounded by so many smart people.

“It was a fast crowd. But I also learned to live in it. They didn’t seem to be embarrassed to talk to me. That is one of the important things that happens to you when you go to a place like Princeton. You wind up discovering that you might have been a big fish in the smaller pond you were in before, but it’s a little different now. You’re in a big pond with a whole lot bigger fish, intellectually. Some degree of comeuppance occurs with everyone who goes to Princeton.”

At Princeton he received a master’s and a doctorate in applied mathmatics, doing a dissertation in theoretical and mathematical physics. He also met his future wife, Romance languages student Rosemarie Havranek *81 (their twin boys, Conor and Cameron, are sophomores at Princeton).  

In the midst of the academic life he pursued his natural entrepreneurial interests, recalls his roommate, Peter Woit *85, now a senior lecturer in mathematics at Columbia. “The one thing about Nathan is he always had these other interests besides the academic work. He always had ideas about starting a business or making money. Some of them seemed kind of outlandish.”  

Woit recalls some kind of scheme to extract energy from trash — not the typical project for a math and physics grad student (Myhrvold points out that such ideas are now all the rage). And there was a plan to make money in real estate in Reno.

Instead, Myhrvold wound up — after a year with Hawking in Cambridge — in Northern California, running a startup software firm called Dynamical Systems Inc. The business struggled, Myhrvold recalls. He and his colleagues, some of whom he had known at Princeton, had a grand plan to develop a software tool to make mathematics easier. In the meantime, just on the side, they were going to create a Windows-like operating system. That minor project ate up all their time. They decided to create an efficient clone of the IBM operating system called Top View. But they’d bet on the wrong horse: It would have been smarter, he says, to have cloned Microsoft’s DOS program, which came to dominate the market.  

“But, oh well,” Myhrvold says.

Nevertheless, Microsoft swooped in and bought up the firm, the main asset of which was the programming talent of Myhrvold & Co.  

Myhrvold recalls an early conversation with Gates in which he noted that Gates and several other Microsoft executives had been college dropouts. “You know, guys, I’ve got two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. — is that a career-limiting thing here?” he says. “He said no, he’d make an exception for me.”  

Myhrvold adds: “That’s also why those guys are richer than me — they had a couple of years’ head start.”

A delicate question for anyone on the Myhrvold beat: Even with his many accomplishments, has he fully reached his potential as a thinker and entrepreneur? Yes, he’s done a million and one things, but you could make the case that this is the guy who should have invented the Web, rather than Tim Berners-Lee. He should have invented the simple citation-based search engine of Google, rather than Brin and Page. He should have invented the iPhone, not the guys at Apple.  

He came close!  

“I wrote a memo in 1991 about a personal communication device,” he says, and then relates how the drawing of this hypothetical gadget, when recently unearthed from his files, showed something amazingly similar to an iPhone. He quickly adds, “I’m not saying I invented the iPhone. I didn’t.”

Myhrvold saw the quirky, wildcatting quality of the innovation business up close at Microsoft, where he was chief technology officer. The digital revolution has been marked by sure-bet gushers that turned into dry holes. Meanwhile, some of the most astonishing successes have exploded onto the scene with minimal hype or warning. Perhaps the biggest thing of all, the Internet, caught even the most visionary people by surprise. Myhrvold took flak in the mid-1990s for a memo in which he seemed to question how long the Internet would be lucrative; he says he was bullish long-term and merely was questioning short-term business models.

“I don’t think anyone in the early days realized how big it would be,” he says.

Sure, great ideas go bust. But the good ones can change society.  

“Microsoft had a bunch of failures and a bunch of successes. You can’t know which ones will pan out,” he says. “But when it really hits, it hits big.”  

The strange thing about inventions is that sometimes they   seem modest at first. Look at the vintage typewriters on display in Myhrvold’s office: The designs are quirky, ungainly, and many of the machines weren’t good for much more than making a label. The earliest had separate keys for uppercase and lowercase letters. Then someone came up with an amazing concept: the shift key.

“The shift key was an invention. A very important invention! You got to go from having the alphabet twice to having the alphabet once,” Myhrvold says.

Or how about the variation of the slide rule that he has in another cabinet, near the front door: It’s a cylinder, of 19th-century vintage. By cylinderizing the slide rule, it takes a two-dimensional calculating tool into the third dimension and multiplies its power some 50-fold. Myhrvold calls it the supercomputer of slide rules.  

He believes that an inventor is someone who is not afraid of looking stupid. “Our best inventors have a different way of looking at the world. You have given yourself permission to look at the world in a different way,” he says. “If you worry too much about blurting out a stupid idea, then you don’t blurt out any idea at all. Some ideas that may seem stupid at first turn out to work.”

Question: Why does civilization need someone like Myhrvold to invest in innovation when it already has, for example, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and various other government agencies that dole out billions in grants for research and development?  

“In terms of total dollars, they can beat me! They can beat me!” he laughs. But he adds, “The more they try to channel it and govern it, the worse they do.”

The government, he feels, bureaucratizes inspiration. It is famous for funding research for which the answer is already known, or at least highly anticipated. The best work is done in the margins, on the side, where no one’s looking, or at least that’s what the innovators believe. At one point I suggest to him, just as a hypothetical, innovations that make better coffee and innovations that filter the blood of harmful pathogens. He says he’s working on both those ideas as we speak.  

We burst into laughter at the thought of combining the two.

The future will be better than the past. This is an essential element of the Myhrvold philosophy, because he’s a believer in Progress with a capital P.  

“Can humans innovate ourselves out of inevitable extinction — re-engineering the rules such that we somehow stick around just about forever?” I ask him by e-mail.

Myhrvold: “I sure hope so! If there is a huge meteorite like the KT one [the big rock that may have wiped out the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period] headed toward us and it strikes by next Thursday, then no, we won’t. However, with more time, I think that we can innovate our way out of just about any problem.”

But there is nothing inevitable about any particular step, no sure bets, and you can make some unwanted detours, go down some blind alleys, find yourself spending years trying to unmake a mistake.

For example, nuclear power: Myhrvold is a believer in its potential, and his company is trying to develop a prototype of a cheap, safe, easy-to-build nuclear reactor that runs on a radioactive fuel called thorium. He thinks the United States got the willies about nuclear power in the late 1970s, in large part because of environmental concerns. Lo and behold, he says, that led to a surge in construction of coal-fired power plants, which kill more people (through air pollution and coal-mining accidents) than nuclear power plants, and have the additional unsavory feature of contributing greatly to global warming.  

He refers often to “well-meaning people” who have bad ideas. It’s not Myhrvold’s style to rant and rage about anything — he has an almost elfin jocularity — but I imagine that he does not have much patience with people he deems naïve. At one point he says, “Totally well-meaning people — and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring — killed a lot of people through malaria.” (I’m guessing there aren’t many people in Seattle who would take so direct a shot at the iconic 1962 book that spawned the modern environmental movement.)  

Let us grant that being “well-meaning” is not necessarily the paramount virtue in a complicated world full of suffering people. But one could imagine that there is a parallel hazard — we could create a world without meaning at all, one shaped by technology without regard for its human consequences. I ask Myhrvold whether technologists have inordinate power to craft the future, with romantics and artists and poets left by the wayside. He sharply disagrees and cites Edison: The genius who invented the phonograph and the movie camera did not then go on to make music and films. The artists took over from there. In the Myhrvold scenario, technology creates tools and platforms, but technologists hardly run the world.

There’s a broader question: Is the future something we create through a deliberate process, or do we stumble forward, buffeted by random and chaotic forces over which we have no control?

“It’s a mixture,” Myhrvold answers. Look at the financial crisis, he says. It’s entirely of our own making. Yet we can’t simply end it by force of will and commandments from Washing-ton. To some degree, he says, you just have to ride it out.

Myhrvold is too smart to make bold, confident predictions about what the future will be like, because he knows that civilization does not develop deterministically. Even prophecies that come true often carry an asterisk, such as Arthur C. Clarke’s prediction in 1945 that someday the Earth would be orbited by communications satellites. Clarke’s satellites had to be staffed by astronauts in order to service the gigantic computers necessary for their operation.

But Myhrvold says he can see general shapes in the murk ahead: “There are very broad patterns that are predictable.”

Such as?

“People like to be empowered.”

Thus the BlackBerry, an empowering device for people on the go. And the car, a century old and still cruising. And cellphones. And the personal computer.  

And ... [fill in the blank and make a lot of money].

Myhrvold makes an extremely safe prediction: In the future we will have much more bandwidth.  

“I think the Internet is poised to change again — and change with almost as much shock and awe and surprise as the Internet explosion of the late 1990s,” he predicts. Every Web site will have high-definition video, for example. Television as we know it will disappear.

“At the moment the Internet is at a strange state of awkward immaturity,” he says. He adds that it’s not so much a toddler as a teenager with zits.

The Internet is an innovation accelerator, because ideas can move around the world so quickly, with all the synergistic possibilities therein. Some of those ideas are, of course, crackpot. To be a famous visionary like Myhrvold is to receive a lot of questionable missives full of indecipherable equations and theories. Lots of people out there think they’ve figured out perpetual motion or some such marvel.  

When these letters from the fringe arrive at IV, he says, “I always insist that someone read them. Because of Srinivasa Ramanujan.”

Who?

Oh, that Srinivasa Ramanujan: the self-taught Indian who revolutionized number theory. Back in 1912–1913 he sent some letters detailing his theorems to three professors at Cambridge, but only one recognized that this fellow really knew his numbers. So the Ramanujan rule means you can send a letter to Nathan Myhrvold entirely in Crayon and someone will give it a read.

Myhrvold doesn’t know what innovations will pan out, so he hedges his bet by owning as many of them as possible. It’s a good business strategy and perhaps, for all of us, a good lesson in success: You don’t always have to know which idea is best, so long as you’re open to many ideas and prepared to capitalize on the ones that click. It’s the buckshot approach to getting what you want.

Myhrvold’s latest patents, he said, involve plasmons.  

What?

He describes a plasmon as a form of light trapped on the surface of a conductor. He received a patent recently, for example, for a “plasmon multiplexer,” which he says is potentially useful in optics.

“There’s very cool things you can do with it,” he says.

Very cool things! That’s the Myhrvold mantra in a nutshell. He has very cool dinosaurs, very cool vintage microscopes, a very cool Dunkleosteus, and a very cool idea for a plasmon multiplexer.  

And perhaps in a world of innovation and magic, he who has the most very cool things wins. 

Joel Achenbach ’82, the chairman of PAW’s advisory board, is a staff writer for The Washington Post. His science writing appears regularly in National Geographic. His most recent book is The Grand Idea: George Washington’s Potomac and the Race to the West.