Ideas in the air  MAY 12 2008

In last week's New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell talked about inventions, scientific discovery, and how it's possible to "manufacture" ideas.

In 1999, when Nathan Myhrvold left Microsoft and struck out on his own, he set himself an unusual goal. He wanted to see whether the kind of insight that leads to invention could be engineered. He formed a company called Intellectual Ventures. He raised hundreds of millions of dollars. He hired the smartest people he knew. It was not a venture-capital firm. Venture capitalists fund insights -- that is, they let the magical process that generates new ideas take its course, and then they jump in. Myhrvold wanted to make insights -- to come up with ideas, patent them, and then license them to interested companies.

Myhrvold believes that scientific discovery is largely "in the air" and inevitable, not the product of individual genius. Given the thesis of the piece, as Kevin Kelly notes, it's odd that Gladwell tells the story of this new idea as not one that was "in the air" but as stories like these are traditionally told, through the insight of one man, Nathan Myhrvold.

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