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5 big ideas from Microsoft’s original ‘mad scientist’

Nathan Myhrvold
Intellectual Ventures CEO Nathan Myhrvold takes questions during a Hacker News meetup at Atlas WorkBase in Seattle. The T-shirt reads: “Science: Ruining Everything Since 1543.” (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Do a search on “Nathan Myhrvold” and “mad scientist,” and you’ll get nearly 2,000 hits, including profiles from the likes of The New YorkerEsquire and Men’s Journal.

Myhrvold, however, would probably prefer the title of “polymath”: Over the course of his career, the 60-year-old tech wizard has been a postdoc physicist under Stephen Hawking’s wing, Microsoft’s first chief technology officer, founder of Intellectual Ventures, author of Modernist Cuisine and other high-tech cookbooks, and a researcher into topics ranging from dinosaur tails to near-Earth asteroids.

The polymath held forth for more than an hour on such matters and more, without slides or notes, during a Seattle meet-up presented on Aug. 7 by the area’s Hacker News fan group and Cofounders Connect. Is Myhrvold truly mad? Check out these five big ideas from the talk, and then you tell me.

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EarthNow satellite video venture draws big backers

Airbus satellite
A graphic shows the preliminary design for satellites that Airbus is manufacturing for OneWeb. EarthNow plans to use a modified version of the same platform to beam real-time video down to Earth. (C3 Creative Code and Content GmbH Photo via Airbus)

The latest spinout from Intellectual Ventures, EarthNow, says it’s coming out of stealth mode with backing from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and other high-profile investors.

Bellevue, Wash.-based EarthNow aims to operate a fleet of small satellites that will send continuous real-time video views of our planet from Earth orbit. The satellites will be modified versions of the spacecraft that Airbus is building for the OneWeb broadband internet satellite constellation.

In addition to Gates, EarthNow’s investors include Airbus, OneWeb founder and executive chairman Greg Wyler and Japan’s SoftBank Group, the startup said today in a news release. The amount of funding was undisclosed, but for what it’s worth, SoftBank made a billion-dollar investment in OneWeb back in 2016.

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AI-powered microscope goes commercial in China

For years, the Global Good Fund has been working on a malaria-hunting microscope powered by artificial intelligence, and now China-based Motic is taking advantage of the technology to create EasyScan GO. The partnership was announced this week at the Medica 2017 conference in Germany.

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Malaria-hunting AI microscope is ready for debut

Microscopic view of malaria
A microscopic view of a blood sample shows the telltale signs of malaria as purple dots. (Intellectual Ventures Photo)

SAN FRANCISCO — Can artificial intelligence help battle malaria and other infectious diseases? Intellectual Ventures CEO Nathan Myhrvold says it’s time for his company’s AI-enabled microscope to join the fray.

“We’ve gotten to the stage where the machine learning system is better than humans,” Myhrvold said last weekend here at the World Conference of Science Journalists.

He said Intellectual Ventures will announce a partnership with a Chinese company later this month to commercialize the Autoscope technology, which has been under development for years at IV’s lab in Bellevue, Wash.

Myhrvold declined to name the company or provide details about the deal, but he held it up as an example of how technology can further the cause of global health and development.

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Business is booming at two idea factories

Startup panel
AI2’s Jacob Colker gestures while Intellectual Ventures’ Azam Khan and Seven Peaks Ventures’ Dave Parker look on during a Seattle Startup Week session titled “Founders Wanted.” (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Less than two months after Intellectual Ventures and the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence put out the call for entrepreneurs, business is booming.

“We might be sitting here in a year telling you something very different, but right now, it’s like, ‘Come one, come all,’” Azam Khan, Intellectual Ventures’ director of new ventures, told a roomful of entrepreneurs at the University of Washington’s CoMotion Labs.

Jacob Colker, entrepreneur in residence at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, was similarly bullish. “I’m constantly looking for brilliant entrepreneurs, ideally some folks who have some scars on their back,” he said.

After the Oct. 5 talk, audience members swarmed around the two speakers as well as moderator Dave Parker, a venture partner at Seven Peaks Ventures. But what else would you expect at a Seattle Startup Week session titled “Founders Wanted”?

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Metamaterials harnessed for beaming power

Russell Hannigan
Intellectual Ventures’ Russell Hannigan explains how a metamaterials-based reflector array antenna can focus a microwave beam on a power receiver. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

BELLEVUE, Wash. – Wireless power transmission has been a dream since the days of Nikola Tesla, but Intellectual Ventures is adding a twist to make it so, and make it profitable.

The twist is a little something called metamaterials, a technology that has already spawned several spin-outs from the Bellevue-based company. Russell Hannigan, senior director of business development for Intellectual Ventures’ Invention Science Fund, says a decision on how to commercialize the technology is just “a few months away.”

Right now, the company is working with a proof-of-concept setup that beams about 8 watts’ worth of microwaves across a lab space to light up an array of LED lights. But researchers expect to scale up the system to power devices at distances of 160 feet (50 meters) or more.

“Our driving application – the one that’s the most lucrative – is drones,” Hannigan said.

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Xinova and Aetho join forces on AR and VR

Aetho Thrive
Aetho’s telepresence platform, known as Thrive, creates a virtual space in which participants can converse and share documents. (Aetho Illustration)

A Seattle-based invention factory called Xinova has made a deal to collaborate with Aetho, a San Francisco-based venture, on new technologies in augmented reality and virtual reaility.

The agreement, announced today, sets the stage for Aetho to license intellectual property from Xinova in support of its push into AR and VR products.

Xinova was spun off from Intellectual Ventures last year. It’s a standalone company that focuses on the co-development of innovations  by a network of 10,000 inventors in more than 30 countries.

Some of the intellectual property managed by Xinova is critical to Aetho’s plans.

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Invention network reinvents itself as Xinova

Michael Manion
Michael Manion, one of the thousands of inventors in Xinova’s network, shows off his Keon Research lab in Seattle. (GeekWire photo by Alan Boyle)

There’s a “new, new” name in the invention business: Xinova, a company that’s been spun out from Intellectual Ventures and is now in the midst of reinventing itself.

Xinova used to be known as the Intellectual Ventures Invention Development Fund. For the past decade, it’s played a key role in the company that technology pioneer Nathan Myhrvold founded to develop and manage intellectual property.

In May, IDF was transformed into an independent company, joining other IV spin-outs such as TerraPowerKymeta and Echodyne. Its CEO is Thomas Kang, formerly of Seoul Securities. The company is getting ready to move from its current digs in Bellevue, Wash., to downtown Seattle.  And today it was officially rechristened with a name that blends the Chinese word for “new” (xin, or 新) with the equivalent word in Latin (nova).

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Get a sneak peek at Intellectual Ventures’ lab

Image: Intellectual Ventures lab lobby
The hallway leading from the lobby to Intellectual Ventures’ lab has a ceiling dotted with lights that encode passages from Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica. (Credit: Intellectual Ventures)

BELLEVUE, Wash. – It’s tough enough to move a laboratory to new digs, but when you add in a world-class kitchen and a state-of-the-art machine shop, you get a sense of the challenge that Intellectual Ventures faced when it had to uproot its Bellevue lab to make way for a light-rail station.

The solution? Today, the invention factory started up by pioneering Microsoft researcher Nathan Myhrvold has its lab in a nondescript 87,000-square-foot building on Eastgate Way, just around the corner and down the street from the main corporate offices.

The exterior may look dull, but the interior is anything but. As the researchers at Intellectual Ventures’ lab make their rounds, they walk past a Rocketdyne H-1 rocket engine saved from the Apollo program … a Tesla coil that can shoot Frankenstein-like sparks in time with a soundtrack … and a working full-scale model of Charles Babbage’s 19th-century Difference Engine.

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Robo-tail shows how dinosaurs cracked the whip

Image: Sauropod tail
Researchers assembled a quarter-scale sauropod tail, using 3-D-printed vertebrae and a bullwhip popper, to show that dinosaurs could create sonic booms. (Credit: D. Sivam / P. Currie / N. Myhrvold)

Nathan Myhrvold, the Microsoft millionaire who went on to found Intellectual Ventures, is a huge dinosaur geek. But not just any dinosaur geek: He funds paleontological digs, gets heavily involved in research and keeps a life-size T. rex skeleton in his living room. Now he and other scientists have built a quarter-scale dinosaur tail to show that giant sauropods really could snap their tails at supersonic speeds.

Myhrvold and University of Alberta paleontologist Philip Currie first made that claim 18 years ago, based on computer modeling. But their hand-operated contraption – a 44-pound tail section that’s assembled from 3D-printed vertebrae and tipped with a bullwhip popper – provides an ear-splitting demonstration of the effect.

“Personally, I think one of the most interesting aspects of this is the process of using physical simulations to try to ascertain the behavior of extinct animals,” Dhileep Sivam, a bioinformatics specialist who works at Intellectual Ventures, said in an email.

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