Nathan Myhrvold: How a Geek Grills a Burger
Credit: Photograph by Chris Buck
Myhrvold was raised in Los Angeles by his mother, a Jantzen swimsuit model and schoolteacher. He announced his intention to become a scientist when he was two years old and soon leaped ahead of his peers, graduating from high school at 14 and ending up at Princeton soon after. Myhrvold describes himself as a precocious, even insufferable child. "I would stand up and correct the teacher, if the teacher said something wrong," he recounts. "I remember I was in fourth grade, but I was very young, and they were talking about bears hibernating. I said, 'Bears don't hibernate.' There are some animals that hibernate. Turns out bears aren't one of them." In hindsight, he's proud of it, even if it alienated him from others. "It took a lot of courage," he says. "I was a shy little kid. I was so much younger than everybody else. But I thought it was OK to say that."

If the child is father of the man, then the grade-school Myhrvold still animates the adult. He can be arrogant and knowier-than-thou, and he's interested in the comedy of bodily functions as a matter of course, especially if they involve dinosaurs. In the 1990s, he became fascinated with what he called "the biomechanical issues associated with reproductive behavior" in dinosaurs, he once told a reporter. "Or, put more plainly, how did they fuck?"

His latest research paper is similarly jejune. "It is the definitive treatise on dinosaur vomit," he says. "The study of fossil shit has been important to all kinds of things, but – strangely! – fossil vomit was left to me to name. Not only is it the best paper on fossil vomit, it is, by God, the first paper on fossil vomit!"

His restless curiosity and elastic attention span can lead him from wormhole to wormhole. When I met him, he'd begun his day logging data on a dinosaur study he was writing up but was soon on his hands and knees for two hours with the pool man, investigating a mysterious leak. "I often get very hands-on with things like that, which is a little bit weird," he says. "Most people in my zip code don't."

He likes his expensive toys, of course. When I ask him what kind of car he drives to work, he says, "It's just a boring Lexus. My PR people will kill me for saying this, but once you've got boats and planes, cars aren't that interesting, anyway."

But what Myhrvold seems to enjoy most of all is simply showing off his pyrotechnic mind and vast collection of novel experiences, from driving M1A2 tanks for sport to four-wheeling through the Utah wilderness to test out high-powered panoramic cameras for the weekend. Sometimes his Buckaroo Banzai résumé can all seem like material for the ongoing story of Nathan Myhrvold – a story he clearly savors telling in interview after interview, speech after speech, TED Conference after TED Conference.

"There's an element of performance, an element of storytelling," says Bran Ferren, the former tech guru at Disney and Myhrvold's best friend. "And Nathan's a good storyteller. You have to compel people to understand your path and direction. Just as in performance, you want to touch them or move them or persuade them. It's the same with Nathan."

For the past 12 years, Myhrvold has been trying to sell the world on what he considers his biggest and best idea of all, an incubator of new inventions. It's a kind of for-profit think tank featuring Myhrvold and a rotating cast of brilliant thinkers, his buddies, from a cross section of sciences. It's exactly what you'd imagine: They sit around a room together, dreaming up new ideas for inventions that might become lucrative patents – while a team of lawyers records the freewheeling conversations to document every iota of potential intellectual property.

Since Intellectual Ventures started, in 2000, the company has licensed more than 35,000 new patents in the U.S. and has thousands of applications under submission. "Invention is about as close to magic as we get here," Myhrvold explains. "That's what we're trying to do, create a business model for a liquid capital market for invention."

It's an attractive and possibly ingenious vision, but patenting novel new inventions is only a small part of Myhrvold's plan. The real business of Intellectual Ventures has little to do with magic and everything to do with teams of lawyers collecting fees for patents Myhrvold had nothing to do with.

For all his childlike wonder and marvelous powers as a raconteur, there's a glint of steel in Myhrvold's eye. He wants to see the world in as clear and crystalline a way as possible, which, in the Microsoftian culture where he grew up, means ruthlessly.

In the late 1990s, he was among the first to see that patents were as much the future of technology as inventions themselves, that they would be the land grab of future megaliths like Google and Apple, and he wanted to win that game under his own name. So as hundreds of start-ups went under during the implosion of the dot-com boom, Myhrvold and his investors began snatching up the patents from failed companies, bundles of patents for small and medium technologies that might yield profits in the future internet. A portfolio of these patents, the thinking went, amounted to tens of thousands of tollbooths through which other companies would have to pass as they tried to develop new applications.

Last year, Myhrvold was the subject of a scathing story on 'This American Life,' the NPR program hosted by Ira Glass, which told the story of a young software company that received a bluntly worded cease-and-desist letter from a patent troll. Though the letter didn't come from Intellectual Ventures, the story cast Myhrvold as a greedy villain, with Chris Sacca, a former Google executive, quoted as saying Myhrvold's company can "literally obliterate start-ups."

The patent wars have ramped up with Motorola, Google, Apple, and Microsoft battling for giant patent portfolios that will allow them to compete with as little financial and technological friction as possible, virtually blotting out smaller innovators.

Myhrvold, of course, saw it all coming. "Once upon a time," he says, "the West had no barbed wire, and there were no land rights. One set of people wanted to drive their cattle willy-nilly; the other said fences and cattle. In some cases, there was literally a shooting war. But guess what? The property guys won, because ultimately you do need private property. The tech companies and internet companies came out to a green-field situation like the Wild West, and they said, 'All right, let's go out there, and party on!' If you look at all the high-stakes litigation we've had in the last six months, I'm more right every day."

The more we talk about the patent issue, the more defensive Myhrvold seems to become. He's learned to see attacks on him as sour grapes, or just part of a larger power struggle that he happens to be winning.

"People called Microsoft a bunch of names, but I'm proud of what I did at Microsoft. The only great research lab in the last generation was the one I made! But people pilloried us in the press all the time."

For all his forward-thinking futurism, Myhrvold remains culturally Microsoftian. He prefers a BlackBerry over the iPhone, still uses a Hotmail email address, and isn't on Twitter or Facebook. His worldview is libertarian. He recently wrote a column for 'Bloomberg News' ("I'm a columnist now! For God's sake!"), arguing that hydrofracking, the controversial technique for extracting natural gas that can have devastating environmental consequences, is so effective it will stall the green-energy revolution for years to come.

"If the conventional energy is cheap, it cuts the legs out from under the alternative energy," he says. "It's just a damned fact!" It's a zero-sum worldview that, while great for a wealthy swashbuckler like Myhrvold and lucrative for Intellectual Ventures, doesn't always endear him to the little people. "I think Nathan is one of those guys who doesn't really get the fact that he's extraordinarily gifted and everybody can't do what he does," says a person who knows him from culinary circles. "He has very little social conscience because he thinks everybody should take care of themselves."