Patent firm woos big-name inventors

Inventors or litigants? One thing is for certain: Intellectual Ventures is allied with blue-chip engineering figures.

Patent firm Intellectual Ventures wasn't kidding when it claimed to be linked with prominent inventors.

The company, which earns revenue from patent royalties, is developing ideas that could turn into commercially viable patents. It is working with MIT's Germeshausen Professor of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering, Robert Langer, as well as Applied Minds, a Southern California company that designs consumer products and equipment for the military.

In the past year or so, Intellectual Ventures has emerged as one of the more controversial companies in the tech industry. The company is filing patents, but also buying patents from defunct companies, independent inventors and others. It has amassed a portfolio of over 3,000 patents, according to some sources--an extremely large number for a company with only a handful of employees.

Many in the IT industry worry that the patent portfolio will become a vehicle for patent suits.

Not so, said Nathan Myhrvold, founder and CEO of Intellectual Ventures. Although lawsuits may result, the company primarily exists to devise inventions that can generate new markets.

Alliances with figures such as Langer tend to bolster that argument. Langer helped invent microspheres, tiny polymer globules in aerosols and medicines for transporting chemicals through environments where they might get dispersed. He's also invented techniques for treating alcoholism and cancer. Approximately 15 companies have been founded based on his research, and another 150 or so companies have based products around his patents. He's won a number of scientific awards and published over 800 articles. An ambulance chaser he isn't.

"He (Langer) has more patents than any other professor at MIT. He is one of the few people who could walk into any venture capital firm in the world and say 'I'd like some money. I don't have an idea yet, but I'd like some money,' and they'd probably give it to him," Myhrvold told CNET News.com.

In a brief interview, Langer discounted the lawsuit-factory theory about Intellectual Ventures. "I don't think that's the idea," he said. Still, Langer indirectly indicated that the company is trying to develop the broad type of patents that spook established companies the most.

"They are more concept type of patents. It is a very blue sky kind of thing," Langer said of the patents that Intellectual Ventures is trying to develop. By contrast, the type of patents that Langer continues to file on his own are typically based on several years of lab research and targeted at very specific ideas, he said.

Other researchers working with the firm include Eric Leuthardt, a neurosurgeon with St. Louis' Washington University, and Muriel Ishikawa, a physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Applied Minds is something of a tinkerer's haven. Founded by former Disney engineer Bran Ferrin and supercomputer architect Danny Hillis, the company comes up with product prototypes. Some make it to market: A box that scrambles conversations to foil eavesdroppers is being sold as the Babble by Sonare Technologies. The company also does work under military contracts, said sources close to Applied. Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Millennium Ventures have invested in Applied. Myhrvold, Hillis and Ferrin have been friends for years.

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