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Q&A: Geoff Deane of Intellectual Ventures Lab on ideas that solve the world's biggest problems

Q&A: Geoff Deane of Intellectual Ventures Lab on ideas that solve the world's biggest problems

Posting in Science | From Issue 03 December 2, 2013

The research lab of Intellectual Ventures may eradicate malaria-carrying mosquitos and extend the life of vaccines. And it might just save the company from long-term controversy.

Intellectual Ventures, a think tank based in Bellevue, Washington, may be best known for owning more than 30,000 patents, placing it as one of the largest patent owners in the U.S. But it’s also becoming known as a dedicated and passionate incubator for world-class ideas

Four years ago the company launched a research and prototyping lab, Intellectual Ventures Lab (or IV Lab), where more than 150 scientists work in-house developing solutions to the most perplexing problems facing our world. Their inventions cover an extraordinarily wide range, from finding a dozen ways to eradicate mosquitos that spread malaria to creating a powerful satellite antenna as small and mobile as a laptop.

While critics note that no products have reached market yet, IV Lab has spun off three companies that promise to significantly impact our daily lives: Kymeta plans to make broadband instantly accessible anywhere in the world; TerraPower is investigating a new way to build nuclear reactors that could safely generate electricity for 10 billion people for a million years; and the latest spinout is Evolv Technologies, a company working on a new form of security imaging for use at airports.

Currently IV Lab has more than 50 projects in the pipeline and managing the process is a formidable task. We spoke with Geoff Deane, Vice President of IV Lab, and the person who supervises and inspires all development. We asked him to describe some of his favorite ideas in the hopper and to explain the difference between an inventor and an innovator. We also questioned him about IV's reputation as a “patent troll,” a company that only exists to own and license patents and then sue companies that violate its intellectual property.

SmartPlanet: You manage 150-plus inventors. Can you give us a sense of the scope of the projects you have in production?

Geoff Deane: We work across huge a diversity of science. So we have people who work in chemistry, biology, material science, computer science, optical physics, nanotechnology, nuclear energy, epidemiology, food science. The list goes on.

What is one project you are particularly excited about?

A year ago we spun out a company called Kymeta which is an application of a new field called metamaterials to satellite communications. Sometimes inventions start off with a problem looking for a solution, and sometimes they start off with a solution which you then try to figure out what the problem is. And Kymeta was a really exciting example of a solution, using a new field of physics.

So you needed a problem for this new field of physics to solve?

Right. One of the big problems that we have now is in how to speak to satellites efficiently and effectively.  So Kymeta’s metamaterials antenna allows us to speak to satellites energy-efficiently, cost-efficiently and at a much smaller footprint than we’ve previously been able to do. It has all kinds of interesting applications like onboard aircraft, or onboard planes, or trains, or cars. It has military applications, it has commercial applications. It will bring communications to parts of the world where you can’t connect to today.

How much cheaper or efficient are we talking about?

A lot of satellites are big, heavy, and expensive. And often you have to design the whole vehicle around the communication piece that will be attached to it. If instead I can take a satellite dish and replace it with something that looks like a sheet of paper -- maybe it’s the size of an 11x17 sheet of paper -- and imagine if you only need the same amount of energy that it would take to operate a simple electronic device.

This is a technology that could be put into something that would effectively look like a laptop computer and fold out and become an antenna that could work anywhere. It could be deployed in disaster relief where you go into areas where communication has been completely knocked out.

What else are you working on?

We are also working on a breakthrough in vaccine development. Many vaccines are designed to be held within a very narrow temperature range. If they get too warm they spoil. Keeping vaccines cold as they travel long distances is a huge logistics challenge that we take for granted in the United States. In many parts of the world it’s a significant issue.

We've developed an insulated container. It’s a bottle or metal container that contains ice. And that ice will stay cold for over a month with zero electricity or active refrigeration. We can put vaccines in the device and come back over a month later, reach in and still have vaccines be cold.

Also in the health realm, I understand you’re working on a dozen different ways to stop mosquitos from spreading malaria?

With this we were given a problem and needed to find a solution. And in this case is we have partner, Bill Gates, who is dedicated to reducing death due to malaria.

This particular project is a good example of how we work: First our scientists study the problem. It turns out that even though the world’s experts are working on solving these huge problems, it’s the actual problem itself that is often not understood well enough to begin with.

If you have clarity in how you’re thinking about the problem, what that leads to is the ability to create an accurate measurement for success. So when you put scientists in a room and you give them that rule set, the inventions are directed and people start to invent with intent.

So we bring in inventors, sit them around tables, and come up with dozens of ideas. You find out in very short order that some of the ideas were as crazy as they sounded. But others aren’t as crazy as you thought. That’s when it starts to get exciting. We put the puzzle together and we start to “de-risk” an idea, basically removing the reasons why it will fail.

So back to the mosquito problem.

Right. We’ve approached mosquito abatement in a variety of ways. One way involves finding mosquitos, tracking them, and shooting them out of the air with laser beams. Sounds crazy, but the components aren’t all that expensive and the technology is feasible. We’ve also looked at ways of raising mosquitos because mosquito research is very expensive. We may find ways of rearing mosquitos in captivity that might then lead to feeding the mosquitos in the wild where we could introduce pathogens into the mosquito population efficiently.

So you go after the problem at a number of different levels and locations.

Right. We also work with malaria researchers and ask them what makes their jobs hard. And then we try to solve the problems they have with their research labs that makes them less effective.

You've claimed that there is a distinct difference between an entrepreneur and an inventor. Can you elaborate on that difference?

Entrepreneurs take an idea and with incredible focus and drive bring it to market. Inventors approach an idea with the same passion, but they’re focused more on the problem. They are not attached to any one solution. They’re attached to generating lots of solutions to the problem. It’s really the front end of what an entrepreneur takes and runs with. 

Can you talk about the difference between invention and innovation? What is the definition of invention?

Innovation in my mind is taking an idea and bringing it to the world. It’s all of those things that has to happen to make an idea a product, a service, and offering that people have access to. I like to describe an invention, or an inventor, as someone who directs their creativity productively.

Innovators live in the reality of bringing that idea to market where the inventors live in possibility.

Presumably then the invention life-cycle has to include an inventor and an innovator? Most often they’re two separate types of personalities?

What we find is there is a large number of people who are really good at inventing but aren’t very good at innovating.

How does the structure of the IV Lab work? Are the scientists all in-house?

Around the world we have a network of 4,000 people who invent with us in a crowd-sourced business where we come up with problems and ideas and we pass it off to those inventors. We have people who’ve already come up with ideas and are looking for ways to commercialize them. They’ll sell us their ideas, their inventions. Then we have a group of people who are in house and come together and work in teams.

How many projects do you have right now, in house?

At any point in time here in the lab, we’ll have 30 ideas that are actively being investigated. Some of them will be just coming off the inventing process and some of them will be where we have a contract with an external partner and we’re finishing our drawings and our hand-off documents. At the moment, we have two projects that are in what we would call technical hand-offs.

What are those?

One of them is about increasing the cleanliness and safety of milk transportation in the developing world. The other is the vaccine transport I mentioned earlier.

Intellectual Ventures holds 30,000 patents, whereas IV Lab has approximately 1,000 patents. Many have criticized IV for being a "patent troll." How do you justify what the IV Lab is doing and how does it not feed into this long-held idea that Intellectual Ventures is a patent troll?

I believe in the spirit of invention. I also believe that the world does not adequately recognize the talent and input of inventors. I believe Intellectual Ventures creates markets for inventors to realize the value of their ideas.

How are those markets created by Intellectual Ventures?

Ideas have value. There’s an effort today to divest ideas and put the value in other parts of the development cycle. There are businesses out there who do very well on giving away ideas as part of what they produce. They’re not as concerned with where the ideas come from, they’re much more concerned with how they bring those ideas to market and how the ideas get used. I think that a lot of the discussion that’s happening right now is really just a question of what is the value that you put on unique thinking.

People argue that patents destroy innovation. Can you describe that argument?

I think it’s an argument that people use who don’t value inventions or patents. If you feel you should be able to use anyone’s idea at any time without paying for it that’s the kind of argument that you come back out with.

Having sat in a boardroom with investors and saying we want this company to have advantages, we want this company to have the freedom to operate, we want this company to have space in which to go succeed, then intellectual property is a critical part of the business's strategy.


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Christie Nicholson

Contributing Writer

Christie Nicholson produces and hosts Scientific American's podcasts 60-Second Mind and 60-Second Science and is an on-air contributor for Slate, Babelgum, Scientific American, Discovery Channel and Science Channel. She has spoken at MIT/Stanford VLAB, SXSW Interactive, the National Science Foundation, the National Research Council, the Space Studies Board and Brookhaven National Laboratory. She holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Dalhousie University in Canada. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure