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Nathan Myhrvold, patent troll? Check out his nuclear reactor

Founder of Intellectual Ventures, speaking at D10, deflects the usual accusations that his business is harming innovation.

Rafe Needleman Former Editor at Large
Rafe Needleman reviews mobile apps and products for fun, and picks startups apart when he gets bored. He has evaluated thousands of new companies, most of which have since gone out of business.
Rafe Needleman
2 min read

PALOS VERDES, Calif. -- Nathan Myhrvold, founder and CEO of Intellectual Ventures, took the arrows of a hostile audience over his business of buying and licensing patents. His defense: intellectual property is a form of capital, and he's investing in it.

He acknowledged the barbs coming from the audience. "You want to have animosity, go ahead. 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 [referring to his cookbook]. Things that are important aren't always popular at first."

He said, "I think what I'm doing is really, really good for innovation in the long run."

Nathan Myhrvold Rafe Needleman/CNET

Myhrvold pointed out that the big companies, especially mobile powerhouses Apple, Google, and Samsung, are engaged now in exactly what he is doing. He said the rancor over patents is indicative of the immaturity of the industry. In biotech, he points out, littler research companies couldn't exist without the patent system.

Myhrvold also says that his company does do its own inventions. He says that Intellectual Ventures spun out the nuclear power company TerraPower, and that researchers at I.V. have invented a new broadband antenna system using metamaterials. "Two of our inventors will almost certainly get the Nobel Prize," he said.

Myhrvold prizes pure research. He launched a lab at Microsoft when he worked there, and he bemoans the lack of pure research among modern technology companies. He acknowledged that Google, for example, does research and development, but not pure research, he says. "They have R&D, but no R."

Getting back to his patent business, he referred back to Tim Cook several times, and Cook's statement that the people who "paint the paintings" should get the royalties. "The set of incentives that go around patents, that's part of how the system works. Inventors should get rich. We should have more inventors. It's good for everybody."

In sum, accusations, veiled from interviewer Walt Mossberg and overt from audience members, did little to dissuade Myhrvold that his company was performing a valuable service for technology.