Short-Circuiting Malaria

By Lyons, Daniel | Newsweek, April 19, 2010 | Go to article overview

Short-Circuiting Malaria


Lyons, Daniel, Newsweek


Byline: Daniel Lyons

The Silicon Valley startup Intellectual Ventures is using computers to eradicate malaria--one mosquito at a time. Plus: eight more cutting-edge companies to watch.

Philip Eckhoff and Karima Nigmatulina don't need to be working in this drab concrete building tucked away in an office park in Bellevue, Wash., a place where cloudy days outnumber sunny ones and where the only perks are the once-a-week pizza lunch and free snacks from Costco. In fact, they could probably be working anywhere. Nigmatulina is 25 years old and already has a Ph.D. from MIT in operations research. Eckhoff, 27, has a Ph.D. in math from Princeton and was a Hertz Foundation fellow, an honor bestowed on the nation's top graduate students in science and engineering. So why aren't they making big bucks on Wall Street or down in Silicon Valley, trying to get rich at some startup?

The answer sounds corny, but it isn't: they're here because they want to do something important. The company they work for, Intellectual Ventures, is trying to develop a computer model that could help eradicate malaria, a disease that afflicts 300 million to 500 million people

a year and kills 1 million of them, mostly children in Africa. When the company first reached out to Eckhoff in 2007, he didn't have to think twice. "This was my dream job," he says. Eckhoff grew up in Haiti, the son of two doctors. He had malaria 15 times as a kid. At university he excelled in math and engineering, but, he says, "I always wanted to work on Third World disease eradication." Nigmatulina grew up in Siberia, and knew by the age of 6 that she would do something with mathematics. "But I also wanted to work on projects that make a difference," she says. "I wanted to have that whole experience of having the lightbulb go off--that's cool--but what if that lightbulb can light an entire city? That's really amazing." In part because she suffered from tuberculosis as a child, she was drawn in graduate school toward epidemiology, developing software for modeling the spread of influenza. Like Eckhoff, when she got the call from Intellectual Ventures, she leaped at the chance.

Intellectual Ventures is one of those companies that aren't well known today but might be tomorrow, a place where people are working on the frontiers of technology and are not bothered in the least by the knowledge that whatever they're doing might not work out. It's one of the things I've always envied about tech pioneers like Eckhoff and Nigmatulina--they really seem to have no fear of failing. And, paradoxically, that fearlessness is what enables them to succeed. Cautious types like me find it intoxicating to be around them. Silicon Valley is crawling with these companies, many of them born during the recession (who says innovation is dead?) and all of them determined, in their own way, to do what Apple CEO Steve Jobs used to call "putting a dent in the universe." They're reinventing videogames, creating new billion-dollar markets out of things like "virtual goods" that didn't exist a few years ago; they're building programs for new platforms, like Apple's iPhone; they're inventing new ways for people to stay in contact over the Web and using the wisdom of crowds to build vast public databases of information.

What sets Intellectual Ventures apart is the size and significance of what its researchers are trying to do--their work could end up saving millions of lives. The company has been around since 2000 and is run by Nathan Myhrvold, the former chief technology officer at Microsoft. The malaria research hasn't yet resulted in a marketable product; much of the company's business involves buying up patents and using them to generate licensing fees. It's a practice that has made Myhrvold a hated man in some tech circles, where he's been derided as a "patent troll." (It's a description he disputes, saying that he merely helps inventors bring their creations to market. …

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