Forget The Death-Star Anti-Mosquito Lasers, Here's How Nathan Myhrvold Can Help Tackle Malaria — And Improve His Image

from the really-doing-good dept

Nathan Myhrvold is trying to rustle up a little positive PR for Intellectual Ventures (IV) by appointing a VP of Global Good (although it’s hard to see how anyone lumbered with such a daft job title is going to be taken seriously anywhere.) You can gauge just how touchy Myhrvold is on this topic by his rather waspish response to some commentary on that move.

As Techdirt reported, Myhrvold came up with what he obviously thinks is a winning riposte whenever people criticize IV’s business model based on industrial-scale patent trollery. He asks them: “How big is your malaria project?” His point being that IV does does have a malaria project, so this somehow makes up for all the bad stuff it does. There’s only one slight problem: that project offers little more than fantasy solutions. For example, here are some details from Intellectual Ventures Lab’s malaria page about a cool-sounding “photonic fence” designed to keep out mosquitoes:

The system would create a virtual fence made out of light — we call it a “Photonic Fence”. Light Emitting Diode (LED) lamps on each fence post would beam infrared light at adjacent fence posts up to 100 feet (30 meters) away; the light would then hit strips of retroreflective material (similar to that used on highway signs) and bounce straight back toward the illuminator. A camera on each fence post monitors the reflected light for shadows cast by a hapless insect flying through the vertical plane of light.

When an invading insect is detected, our software identifies it by training a nonlethal laser beam on the bug and using that illumination to estimate the insect’s size and also to measure how fast its wings are beating. Using this method, the system can not only distinguish among mosquitoes, butterflies, and bumblebees, but it can even determine whether a mosquito is male or female! (Females are significantly larger than males and have slower wingbeats.) This is useful because only female mosquitoes bite humans.

However impressive all that technology might be, there’s the obvious problem that mosquitoes could just fly over these “photonic fences”. Perhaps conscious of this flaw, the page describes several other equally ingenious — and equally impractical — approaches to tackling malaria including the use of magnets to make mosquitoes explode and an “engineered blood substitute” to draw them away from humans (also useful for regions plagued by vampires, presumably.)

This impracticality rather undermines Myhrvold’s taunting of lesser mortals that don’t have their own malaria project, since his lab projects seem unlikely to make any significant contribution to combatting malaria in the short term, if ever. Clearly, to tackle malaria in real-life situations, what is needed is not some super high-tech approach that looks good in TED talks, but something rather more simple and effective — something like this, perhaps:

The University of Cape Town’s Science Department believes that it has found a single dose cure for Malaria.

This was announced by researchers that have been working on this compound, from the aminopyridine class, for several years. Unlike conventional multidrug malaria treatments that the malaria parasite has become resistant to, Professor Kelly Chibale and his colleagues now believe that they have discovered a drug that over 18 months of trials “killed these resistant parasites instantly”.

Unlike potentially blinding lasers, the new compound is claimed to be safe, with no adverse side effects. Of course, lots of clinical tests still need to be run to establish that and its efficacity. Then, a way to manufacture and distribute the drug to malaria victims will need to be found. The worry has to be that traditional drug companies won’t be interested in helping here, since the drug must be sold cheaply if it is to reach the millions of people most affected by malaria, and that means few if any profits — not something pharma companies are happy with.

So here’s a suggestion. If Myhrvold really wants to burnish the image of Intellectual Ventures through philanthropic activities, he should forget about appointing his VP of Global Good, and drop his fun but useless malaria program. Instead, he and his company should offer to pay all the costs for carrying out the clinical tests of this new anti-malarial drug, and for setting up a large-scale manufacturing program sufficient to treat everyone in the world that has the disease, or is at risk from it. Helping to circumvent problems caused by drug companies’ obsession with patents and exorbitant profits would be a truly fitting way to atone for the sins of Intellectual Ventures.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and on Google+

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Comments on “Forget The Death-Star Anti-Mosquito Lasers, Here's How Nathan Myhrvold Can Help Tackle Malaria — And Improve His Image”

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36 Comments
BentFranklin (profile) says:

When the government takes money and donates it to causes, conservatives are up in arms because they don’t like their money going to those causes and they claim they are charitable enough in their own right. But when medical insurance companies, patent trolls, and other gatekeepers, middlemen, and economic parasites take some of their rents and “give back” to the community, somehow those conservatives don’t mind at all. The net effect is the same: you paid for charity by others. But somehow because it is private enterprise and not government everything’s just fine!

Chuck Norris' Enemy (deceased) (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I’m trying to see your angle here. The government is the problem in both cases. They take your money and give to charities you don’t support or they take your money (or special favors via tax breaks, land grants, etc.) and give it to their buddy corporations who then give it to charities you don’t support.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Call me a cynic but...

Actually, I really hope he does.

Think about it, he’s always trying to cover up the parasitic nature of his company by telling everyone how they’re ‘doing their best to combat and beat malaria!’, I can’t even begin to imagine the fallout that would occur if it went public that he was trying to stop a cure for malaria.

In one single, glorious move, it would suddenly become blindingly clear to even the dullest that he and his company don’t care in the slightest about fighting/curing malaria, but instead only care about profits.

nospacesorspecialcharacters (profile) says:

Ideas... prototypes... but no product?

When I read the page and the press articles, one thing I find lacking is any intent to actually mass produce and sell these things.

It almost seems like they’re coming up with a bunch of ideas (however workable or valid), making a working prototype or mock-up then saying, look what we did.

Oh wait, I know, why not just make the idea credible enough (look – prototype, look – Wired, TED) for someone to license and do the hard work of bringing it to end users (assuming that it’s going to work as a mass market product).

Great ideas, yes – it’s good to come up with ideas. But not really fair to come up with ideas, do nothing but sit on them and then wait for someone else to come up with something similar; let them spend money and work hard to make it ready for mass market, then ask for a cut.

teka (profile) says:

Re: Ideas... prototypes... but no product?

This is exactly Intellectual Ventures’ business plan.

Well, they also buy up vague patents in bulk from failing companies and shuffle them around in an enormous maze of shell companies and cross-licensing arrangements.

IV is a mosquito, draining the economic lifeblood of companies that actually innovate and bring things to market and infecting them with parasitic IP-licensing malaria.

sheenyglass (profile) says:

Is Myhrvold a vampire stooge figuratively AND literally?

“an “engineered blood substitute” to draw them away from humans (also useful for regions plagued by vampires, presumably.)”

Actually, if Daybreakers, Blade: Trinity the BBC miniseries Ultraviolet are any clue, the lack of this blood substitute is the only thing standing between us and the vampires who would kill us all if only they didn’t need something to eat.

So really maybe we should encourage Myhrvold to do even more patent trolling, if only to distract him from initiating the vampire apocalypse.

Monarch818 (profile) says:

OMG True Blood

“Perhaps conscious of this flaw, the page describes several other equally ingenious — and equally impractical — approaches to tackling malaria including the use of magnets to make mosquitoes explode and an “engineered blood substitute” to draw them away from humans (also useful for regions plagued by vampires, presumably.)”

OMG, IV’s invented True Blood! Will we have vampires going mainstream now? And if they do, can we use Myhrvold’s photonic fence to see if they sparkle? And, if they do sparkle, let’s hope his death ray laser will get strong enough to burn the vamps to dust! On a side note, it would be cool, kind of a vanity bottle, to see IV’s True Blood come in IV bags!

aerilus says:

Re: Fucking magnets, how do they work?

my whole problem was that Africa is not necessarily know for its top of the line electrical infrastructure and the lack of black/brown outs. why are you trying to go high tech when the area you are trying to is inherently low tech the last thing africa needs is us selling it more shit that they cant maintain, can’t service, can’t setup, and probably cant even turn on so that we can sell them a service contract for millions of dollars for western engineers to come in and fix it when it breaks

MD says:

The Heck With Malaria

Who cares about malaria. Look how many dollars people spend on repellant coils, DEET, etc.

Just build and sell a starwars anti-mosquito defence here for the average abck yard barbeque season. People will pay a fortune for those, and they will have the power source to pulf it into (unlike the third world).

Heck, make it programmable so I can take out wasps, houseflies, even fruit flies.

This is NOT a dumb idea. There’s a vast market if they can make it practical; just set up a ring of reflective posts about 10 or 12 feet high and let the lasers go at it.

Combine this with a slow-leak CO2 can, so that anything attracted to the CO2 (mosquitos) will venture into the path of the death rays.

(Dr. Evil voice) “Laaaa…sers”

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