An explosive tweet posted by compulsive innovator/investor Chris Dixon made the highlights of hip weblog TechCrunch last week and stirred a heated debate in the IP community. The co-founder of decision-making website Hunch found out in a report published by the University of Texas Management Company (PDF here) listing all of its private investments in venture funds and private equity funds and their results, that Intellectual Ventures – known by many as “IV” and considered by most to be the godfather of all patent trolls – has been severely underperforming notably with a negative internal rate of return (IRR) of 73% of their Invention Development Fund I and a negative IRR of their Invention Investment Fund II of 10%. As TechCrunch pointed out, this negative IRR does not necessary reflect the reality of the situation but it might suggest that the activity of patent trolling is not as lucrative as it appears to be. It also contradicts IV founder Nathan Myhrvold’s claim that his company, whose main goal is to build a large patent portfolio rather than developing new systems, is “turbocharging” the innovation process, especially when the performance of the two IV funds are compared with the ones of more traditional venture funds.
Joff Wild of IAM magazine, which has been posting regularly about IV and now certainly has a good understanding of the company’s business model, moderated the significance of Techcrunch’s claim in a recent blog entry:
"Before you can make any definitive statement on such a thing you have to know how old the funds are and what they are setting out to do. Acquired patents are rarely going to give you a quick return - they are slow boilers. So if you spend a lot of cash upfront on buying up portfolios, you may have to wait a few years before they start to pay dividends. Alternatively, if you are buying up "inventions" that have not yet even been patented - which is also something that IV does - then you have an even longer lead-in until potential monetisation can take place"
His point of view concurs with the answer of IV’s VP Finance Larry Froeber, who highlighted in a reply to Wild’s blog post that the method used by the University of Texas Management Company does not capture the true value of their business, as spending is the driving growth of IV.
I tended to agree with this view till I went through the comments of this blog entry (items posted on the IAM blog always generate a handful of insightful comments) and read what Tom Grew of Yu & Partners had to say:
"Interesting that, in current times as businesses focus more on delivering quarterly results and as a consequence reduce IP spend (and increase divestitures), we are allowed to say: It's ok, IV has a long term business model.
Will investors buy this though? Why should IV be special?
It's been running now for what, 10 years? Wouldn't you expect a ROI in that time - plenty of time to get a patent granted, and many of its investments have been already granted patents in any case. And isn't there a statistic that most patents take about 3-5 years to commercialize? This should be prime time."
In my opinion Tom Grew has a point here. A successful business strategy in the short term is a necessity to survive on capital markets and very few are the companies that managed to stand up after taking a heavy blow upfront. However it does not seem that IV lost the confidence of its investors, so does patent trolling pay and if it does when should investors expect a ROI? I guess we will only find out about it in a few years time.