Tola Marts has a fascinating resume: inventor, engineer, politician, and even rocket scientist (kind of). He works at the Bellevue invention think-tank Intellectual Ventures as a principal investigator, where he develops new technologies to save lives around the world. He’s also an Issaquah City Council member. He’s known as the “data guy,” and believes if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it, and that covers everything from global warming to city budgets.
Marts discussed the groundbreaking company he works for, his role in how it’s changing the world, and how it’s still possible to do good and make a profit at the same time.
What is Intellectual Ventures?
We’re in the invention business. We do a lot of things. The company helps people who are creating inventions, as well as helping companies access invention technologies. But the area that I’m in is really technology for the developing world. Technology for low- and medium-income countries. We have two major areas that we work in: Global Health Technologies (GHT), which is global front-line healthcare technologies for low- and medium-income countries, and then Global Development Technologies (GDT), which are for economic development, but we have a very specific focus, which is almost exclusively with small holder farmers.
What do you do as a principal investigator?
There are several teams of PIs that report to senior management, and each team has a focus. Mine is electro-mechanical devices, so I have a team of electrical and mechanical engineers. The GHT and GDT folks are basically our internal customers, and we, as PIs, develop technologies for them that they feel will have the greatest impacts on their respective missions.
Let’s take a recent GDT challenge as an example. If you try to suck water out of the ground, you can bring water up from about seven meters down. Anything beyond that, there isn’t enough vacuum in the world to make it happen, so you need something at the bottom of the well pushing the water up. This was a problem that our GDT folks looked at and came to us to find a solution to. They needed low-cost solutions that can bring water up from between 7 and 20 meters, because it turns out there are a hundred million farmers in sub-Saharan Africa who could benefit from that. So, that’s something my team is working on.
The Intellectual Ventures business model is a bit different. Describe it for me.
Intellectual Ventures is basically two parts: Invention Science Fund and Global Good. Invention Science Fund invents for the commercial world. Think new energy or new communications technology for the developed world. Then on the Global Good side, which is pretty much funded by Bill Gates, it’s all about the impact. What’s unique about Global Good is that when we partner with commercialization partners who take our inventions out to the poorest parts of the world, we give the invention license to those companies for free, and then they, in turn, use their own market savvy to first get the product out to the poorest parts of the world. But then they can turn around and make products off the IP for the developed world, the rich world, and make money off of that. In Global Good, we definitely have the opportunity to make money, as well, but that’s certainly not the prime objective.
Are projects brought to you based on their altruistic value or their financial value?
Both. We use what’s called a DALY score to determine the impact a disease has on the world. DALY stands for Disability-Adjusted-Life-Year. If you have a disease that kills a million infants a year, and those infants would have lived 70 years each, it would have a DALY score of 70 million. But if you have a disease that kills 10 million senior citizens, and they each would have lived on average five years, then you have a DALY score of 50 million. So, the one that kills a smaller number of infants has a larger impact than the one that kills a larger number of older people. This gets at why we spend so much time on malaria. It has an incredibly high DALY score because so many people around the world of every age can die from it — most of them children.
So, an invention that satisfies a great need also has the potential to be very profitable?
It can be. The Global Good business model is unique in that we use the profit motive to help leverage the roll-out of the invention or product to market. For one product we invented, we found a corporate partner and we said, “We’ll license you this technology for North America and Europe for free if you build us units for sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia for cost plus some small percent.” They said absolutely, because they can prospectively make tons of money in North America and Europe with this technology, and it gives them a competitive advantage. It was good for them, and they were incentivized to make lots of units for us.
Basically, my job is to invent a product and then Global Good finds a partner who can sell it. For instance, we learned that people were using poor containers to transport milk in East Africa: vegetable oil containers, gasoline cans, just things you don’t want to transport milk with. So we came up with a milk container called Mazzi, and we partnered with a company in Kenya to manufacture those. In an interesting turn of events, we recently learned that people are now selling knock-offs of the product. While we certainly want to preserve our partners’ intellectual property rights, we thought it was exciting that somebody else thought it was enough of a market that they wanted to steal our idea.
Where does Intellectual Ventures get its funding?
For Global Good, we get our funding from Bill Gates. We don’t work on everything the Gates Foundation is working on, but we certainly know what’s important to it. For Intellectual Ventures as a whole, we have a number of revenue streams. One of them is licensing for patents and another one is investors in our Invention Science Fund, for those projects in ISF that are commercially driven. The ISF’s primary job is to invent technology and spin out companies — Kymeta, Echodyne, Terrapower, Pivotal Communications. These make up the for-profit side of Intellectual Ventures.
What’s the story with you being a rocket scientist?
I built rockets for a living for a decade. Rocket scientists, technically speaking, are the folks that develop propulsion systems. My background is in structural engineering, so I did all the mechanical stuff around the early rockets that Blue Origin did.
I have to ask: How many times have you actually said to somebody, “It’s not rocket science!”?
I say it all the time! I try to throw down the rocket-science card every chance I get. For example, climate change is not rocket science. All the things you need to know about the thermal properties of what’s in the air, you can test in a lab, so that’s not rocket science. Balancing a budget, that’s addition and subtraction; that’s not rocket science.