Highlighting the excellence from: The Economist: intelligent life, Alex Renton
He was the physicist who went to Microsoft and made his fortune. These days he’s a tycoon, philanthropist, dino-hunter, bestselling author and barbecue champion, who has discovered the most scientific way to enjoy claret. Alex Renton profiles him
EVERY YEAR A list of the world’s 100 greatest thinkers appears in Foreign Policy magazine, and most years Nathan Myhrvold is on it. An inventor, scientist, patent tycoon and Bill Gates’s “second brain” in Microsoft’s tiger years, Myhrvold is not well known outside geekdom and the arcane world of intellectual property. But he may be more useful than most great thinkers. When did Stephen Hawking or Pope Francis actually do something that might improve your daily life? Myhrvold, who had a post-doctoral fellowship under Hawking, achieves that quite frequently.
FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, a month short of his 40th birthday, Myhrvold quit his job at Microsoft. During his time as head of research and chief technology officer it had become the world’s most successful company. In 1999 his fortune included $275m in Microsoft stock, built up over 13 years at Bill Gates’s side. He had been Gates’s chief strategist for much of that time, rising to run a $2 billion research-and-development budget—the largest in corporate history. Gates, still a close friend and business partner, has said: “I know no one smarter than Nathan.”
As many of us would if we were faced with more-than-comfy early retirement, Myhrvold decided to pursue his hobbies—photography, cooking, travelling, fly-fishing and dinosaur-hunting—and spend more time with his family. He and his wife Rosemarie bought a boat, took their ten-year-old twin boys out of school and set off on a two-year educational grand tour. They began in the Mediterranean, guided by Homer, Plutarch and Thucydides. “Troy, Scylla and Charybdis, the Cave of the Cyclops. Then we went to Africa. Everyone says, ‘spend time with your kids!’ I really did.”
The twins are now 25 and both are scientists. Conor Myhrvold, who works in data analysis for the worldwide taxi-sharing company Uber, told me he had enjoyed the wandering, home-schooling years very much. I wondered what it was like having Nathan for a father. “Pretty cool.” What did the brothers get from their mother? “One obvious thing is language—she’s a romance-languages specialist, so she taught us those. And she’s kind of, more, how do you interact with people, social awareness, things like that…”
Even before his semi-retirement, Myhrvold had started a new business, though it also looked like another way to pursue those hobbies. Intellectual Ventures (IV) is primarily an inventing house, operating on a huge scale. In its 10 year life, it has filed more than 3,000 patents for its own inventors’ work, and acquired 70,000 more, putting it ahead of the likes of Google, Toyota and Boeing. “What venture capital did for startups,” Myhrvold says, “we want to do for inventions.” He adds, with his customary éclat, that innovation is being starved by two things—declining government spending on research and corporations driven by impatient, short-termist shareholders.
Underlying this novel idea was the notion of creating a capital market in patents, both to reward inventors properly and provide new ideas to fill the R&D vacuum left by traditional industry. “The resulting virtuous cycle”, he has said, “will surely transform the world.”
IV’s acquisition of other people’s patents has been controversial. Critics see the company not as a fairy godfather to invention, but a “patent troll”, using the courts to extort money from technology companies, and so stifling innovation. Myhrvold and Microsoft are rank hypocrites, one inventor who has sold patents to them told me. (He declined to be named.) His point was that Microsoft in its tiger years complained about the dead hand of intellectual-property law, and the costly enforcement process, but now it acquires and exploits patents to protect its monopolies.
Myhrvold rejects the charges, most forcefully in a thundering 2010 essay for Harvard Business Review. But his boast then, that IV had never gone to court over a patent infringement, no longer holds. Several high-profile cases have been fought recently. He says those are a simple matter of defending rightful ownership of ideas and with it the ability of inventors to make a living. “Show me the easy-going side of intellectual-property law enforcement!” he says, with rare acid.
“I can’t see why he’s seen as Dr Evil, wanting to take over the world,” one of Myhrvold’s scientists tells me. But it is true that many in Silicon Valley revile him. Myhrvold, tired of the vitriol, is damning of what he sees as the greed-driven libertarianism of America’s budding hi-technocrats, typified by their single-minded pursuit of “tools or toys for rich people”. They feel threatened by IV, he says. “Silicon Valley is a very aspirational place. Everyone’s aspiring for their Nirvana or heaven, which is to become super-fucking-rich and powerful very young. ‘Oh my God, I’ve got this god-given right to go out and take any idea I want and become a billionaire at age 30.’ Very few get that, but that doesn’t stop them idealising it. It’s kind of a secular religion, and what we do, rewarding people who originate ideas, is apostasy to them because it’s not their algorithm.” Intellectual property is in its Old West period, with the techies warring as the ranchers who wanted to drive their cattle across the open range once did with those who were putting up fences and making farms.
THERE IS ONE stereotype of the Great American Tech Businessman that can’t be applied to Myhrvold. He is no college drop-out. By the time he joined Microsoft in 1986, he had five degrees and doctorates, including a bachelor’s in maths and master’s degrees in geophysics, space physics and economics. He completed his PhDs in theoretical and mathematical physics at Princeton, beginning at the age of 19, and there he also met his wife, Rosemarie Havranek, who was studying romance languages, as their son said. He was doing post-doctoral studies in cosmology and quantum-field theory under Stephen Hawking at Cambridge at the age of 24. “I’ve had three bosses: Stephen Hawking, Steve Ballmer [a future CEO of Microsoft] and Bill Gates. The clear pattern is decreasing level of formal education, increasing level of net worth. Now I’m stuck!”
I ask him what it meant to grow up poor and fatherless. “I’ve only lived my life,” he replies, “I haven’t lived alternative ways.” He ponders this for a moment before plunging into an analogy, likening fatherlessness to being unaware of the blind spot in your eye, then moving on to the problem of not being able to A/B test versions of your own life, and thence to an anecdote about driving with his brother, as a teenager, and passing a “Jesus Saves” billboard in a California town. “It had this wonderful message: ‘One good wife is better than a thousand sexually voracious whores’…My brother says, ‘Nathan, wait, we’re scientists, we’ve got to put this to the test. But we need a control group. Nathan, you get married!’ ”
This slalom sums up Myhrvold’s conversation. He is a master metaphoriser, a great anecdotalist, and a neat dodger of questions. I try again.
“I grew up without a dad. There are people who grow up without a dad for whom this is some giant black hole in their lives. Who knows what I might have been—I might have been somebody!—but I did grow up very fast. I think I was nine when I started doing my mom’s income-tax form. I did all the business side, and it’s also the time when I started cooking. I was really good at school, I was skipping all these grades and I graduated high school and went to college at 14. I didn’t go to a fancy college, but I went to UCLA when I was 17. Malcolm Gladwell, who is a friend of mine, has this whole thing in ‘Outliers’ that maybe you shouldn’t go to a really good college because you might get your ass kicked. Who knows, maybe I’d have become a middling nothing if I’d got my ass kicked early.”
“I was totally aware of being poor…But I only wanted one thing when I was young, wealth-wise. I wanted to be able to buy any book I wanted. We lived two doors from the library in Santa Monica and I read every book, long before I went to school. Many years transpire and I’m at Microsoft and I’m buying books whenever I want [he has estimated his Amazon book habit at nearly $200,000 a year]. I realise that this is like wishing for eternal life and forgetting to ask for eternal youth, because I had tons of money but absolutely no time to read all the books.” The books now fill two warehouses.
AS MICROSOFT GREW in the 1980s, Bill Gates had a policy of “buying smarts”. Myhrvold, and a group of young men including his brother Cameron, had a software startup, which had produced an operating system that was interesting IBM. Microsoft bought the company, dropped the system and kept the brains. Within two years Nathan was working directly for Gates, who used to introduce him as “astrophysicist, programmer, entrepreneur” and, now as then, seems delighted with his acquisition.
In the many accounts of Microsoft in the late 1980s and 1990s, Myhrvold tends to be painted as a Puck, a mercurial genius and a clown, but far-sighted, determined to parse the future and find profit in it. Early on he was one of the designers of Microsoft’s radical sales model—if they sold software, to the industry’s incredulity, they wanted to be paid per use. “The world is hugely better off,” he has said about this, because it rewarded innovation properly.
A strategy devised by Myhrvold the salesman was just as significant. He laid it out in a memo to Gates in 1992: “Regular upgrades are important for both revenue and loyalty…A feeling of progress and improvement is necessary to keep users loyal…and an important way to produce revenue. Upgrades are the closest thing we have to an annual fee or subscription.” Within two years, Microsoft’s Windows had 25m licensed, upgrading users, 80% of all PCs ran it and the company’s revenues were approaching $5 billion. Myhrvold became head of research, with that R&D budget of $2 billion.
The trick of selling consumers a software product over and over again, like a washing powder, worked, partly because Microsoft quickly ensured that—apart from Apple—there were no feasible alternatives for the ordinary PC user. Myhrvold was also behind the policy of using Microsoft’s enormous pile of cash to swallow potential competition and expand into telecoms, entertainment, publishing: all media that would eventually be, as he wrote in a 1994 memo, “part of the food chain of the new digital world”. As Ken Auletta of the New Yorker put it, Microsoft then constructed “a web of communications companies to partner with and gain leverage over…Gates did not just invest; like a female spider after mating, sometimes he devoured his partner.” In five years from 1994, Microsoft bought into, or bought up, 130 companies.
But sales and expansion strategy was far from his main suit. Myhrvold scoured the growing hive of the tech industry for talent. He invented, he futurologised, he foresaw the convergence of TV and computers, and helped push Microsoft into punts on futures like set-top boxes, the information super-highway, and the high bandwidth that would allow television to be streamed to computers. He predicted universal connectivity, the “virtual Walmart” that the “friction-free capitalism” of the internet would enable, and the cloud: he warned in 1994 that the internet would be a platform in itself, overtaking the PC. He has kept the memos to prove it.
It’s a measure of his chutzpah that he will hold your gaze, flash a big grin, blue eyes alight behind his spectacles, and make fabulous claims. “I invented the iPhone…in 1991.” Next day a copy of the memo arrives in which he does seem to have foreseen a multi-functional hand-held device, to be priced between $500 and $1,000. Inventing is not producing, as he would swiftly admit. But Myhrvold clearly had a supply of the “secret sauce” that Gates prized. As Myhrvold likes to say, “perspective is worth 30 IQ points.” He brought both a generalist’s perspective and the acuity of a hard scientist to Microsoft.
His memos were famous at Microsoft. They could be 20 or 30 pages long, and they had snappy titles like “Roadkill on the information superhighway”. (In that one Myhrvold warned Microsoft of its own mortality.) Many Microsoft techies resented his way of doing business. He wrote up to 100 e-mails a day, and they could be an irritant. “Just because someone has a licence to step on your toes, doesn’t mean you’ll be excited by it,” said one Microsoft vice-president, Rick Rashid, a distinguished academic scientist—recruited by Myhrvold himself.
“Talking to Myhrvold was a little like smoking dope,” said one chronicler of the time, when early versions of Windows were being rolled out. “It could give you insights, but in the light of day [they] didn’t make any sense.” Executives would leave his office “reeling, dizzy and looking for food” according to one account—and asking why Gates had put a cosmologist into R&D. “I do not think he usually does a good job of connecting the world of the possible to the world of the actual,” a fellow executive told Auletta, anonymously. The things Myhrvold predicted didn’t always happen.
“I love Nathan’s memos,” Gates told Auletta in the mid-1990s. “He can explain quantum gravity, why we shouldn’t do a new-media effort, why the Hummer is a great car, what algorithm we should use for encryption, how he hired some amazing people, and the crazy food he plans to cook that night.”
“Wealth reveals people,” says Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor who is another of Myhrvold’s friends. Like so many tycoons as they wonder how the world might remember them, the Myhrvold-Gates collaboration has turned largely to philanthropy. They are partners in Global Good, which is housed at Intellectual Ventures and invents things for humanitarian use, and in TerraPower, a company with an idea for building safe, cheap nuclear reactors. They are neighbours, in Seattle’s lakeland suburbs, and they still hang out. Myhrvold was the friend who, when Bill married Melinda French on the island of Lanai in Hawaii in 1994, had an idea for thwarting the paparazzi who were itching to capture the wedding of the world’s richest man. It was simple: rent out all the helicopters in Hawaii for the day.
IF THE WORLD beyond hi-tech invention and intellectual-property law knows of Myhrvold, it is largely because of the “crazy food” Gates mentions. When Nathan was nine, his mother turned over the Thanksgiving meal to him. He used books from the library to learn how to cook, and started to question the validity of the lore that was in them.
In 2011, partly thanks to Myhrvold’s protestations, the USDA lowered the recommended cooking temperature of whole cuts of pork to 145˚F, something of a triumph. (In fact, there’s no reason to cook pork differently from beef or lamb—130˚F for three minutes will kill salmonella, melt tendons and fat, and make a juicier, tastier steak.)
This self-publishing venture is one of Myhrvold’s unlikelier successes. It has won many awards, sold 180,000 copies (there’s now a one-volume version, “Modernist Cuisine at Home”, for £85) and by the end of 2013 had earned back some £19m ($30m). The “terribly nerdish approach” sells.
The scientists at Intellectual Ventures like to say they’ve got the best job of anyone they know. The key to that is the toy box. The labs, which occupy five suburban warehouses and employ over 140 people, are stuffed with amazing wonders, many of which Myhrvold picked up second-hand on eBay or the like. There’s the aforementioned centrifuge, a CT scanner, cameras, high-energy lasers, pressurised water lathes, power presses, robots and 3D printers. As we tour the warehouse, Pablos Holman, “inventor, futurist and hacker”, says: “The invention part is really important. I used to work in Silicon Valley and now it’s kind of sickening. It has lost its way, they’re largely just trying to make more fart apps for the iPad. Not really looking at what are the big problems and how do we use technology to solve them. Not first-world problems, not just that iPhone batteries don’t last long enough. What’s harder is someone else’s problems, real ones about life and health. Silicon Valley may steer back that way, it will take some time, but here we get to do it.”
Though IV has filed thousands of patents, not many of those inventions are in production, which is par for the course: only about 2% of patents filed ever see the light. But how many of them have actually solved problems of life and health? One Myhrvold-watcher—who, as usual, won’t be named—scoffs at his promises, just as rival Microsoft execs used to. “How many times has Nathan promised an interviewer that he’s invented clean nuclear power, or a cheap laser gun that will end malaria? So, where are they?”
What’s he like as a boss, I ask Pablos Holman? He grins. “I love Nathan. He has a great sense of humour, a great attitude, he’s really, really smart. Even in what you know about. I mean, I know a lot about computers, but I have trouble keeping up with him. I’ve seen him do that to biologists, palaeontologists, to oceanographers…With him, you see what’s possible when somebody doesn’t super-specialise. It’s one of the things that’s really sad about the scientific community, that you make yourself as a scientist by becoming the world’s greatest expert in the smallest possible field. Nathan not only became somebody who could work deeply across different fields of science, but also appreciate the experts. And he can round them up, people who would never consider talking to someone else about problems, and get them to co-operate.”
Myhrvold says he and many others at Intellectual Ventures have been working “night and day” on Ebola since early September. In mid-September Bill Gates, co-funder of the humanitarian work at the lab, put $50m into the fight against Ebola. As ever, Myhrvold’s involvement is across a number of disciplines, including assessing the viability of a range of possible vaccines and prophylactics. Four years ago, after the SARS and bird-flu viruses, Myhrvold’s and Gates’s Global Good lab came up with a cheap idea for treating virus outbreaks by extracting antibodies from the plasma of victims. No one acted on it.
Responding to a request from high in the American administration, the lab is busy trying to solve the problem of ineffective protection suits—“currently, big plastic bags”—for health workers, and get a cheap, smart one into production. The WHO Ebola guidelines ask nurses to change their suits up to eight times a day, and the one they’ve got patently does not work. Intellectual Ventures hopes to produce one a nurse can wear for three hours without being overcome by dehydration.
Myhrvold has also been digging into the statistics from west Africa, making computer models to give predictions more accurate than the WHO’s crude projections. What he has found is deeply worrying. The virus, he says, is mutating twice as fast as normal. Perhaps even more shockingly, even if Ebola is defeated this time, “there’s still no good strategy for a pandemic. People [in government] just don’t want to put expensive measures in place, for fear that if they don’t work, they might be criticised.” Myhrvold the professional optimist seems as scared as any of us.
It’s hard to get him to review his life—“write my autobiography? It would have to be a pretty slow week”—but he has this to say about polymathy. “The world tends to reward specialisation, more than generalism. There’s very few opportunities for generalists. Instead, it’s ‘get the best guy for the problem’. So was generalism a disability I’ve overcome? Or has it been an advantage? If someone had put the spurs in, maybe I could have stayed on the straight and narrow. Maybe I could have been somebody!”