Invention Machine SOFTWARE FOR GENIUSES
(FORTUNE Magazine) – hq: boston founded: 1992 sales: $10 million (est.) employees: 111 stock: privately held web address: www.invention-machine.com
In Jurassic Park, Dr. Ian Malcolm complains of scientists who cheat by standing on the shoulders, the past achievements, of previous geniuses. Malcolm would hate Valery Tsourikov. The CEO of Invention Machine has created software aimed at giving scientists an electronic piggyback ride on the cumulative knowledge of millions of previous inventors and researchers.
Tsourikov--formerly a computer science professor in Minsk, now an entrepreneur in Boston--pored over many thousands of patent records in an effort to understand how humans invent. He distilled his findings into a canon of natural laws of discovery that he calls "effects," and then created software that applies those rules.
Here's how the program, TechOptimizer, works: Say an engineer wants to figure out an efficient way to retrieve underground oil for testing. From a pull-down menu, he picks his goal, "move," and its object, "liquid substances." The program tells him that there are 44 existing methods, ranging from boiling to the "ultrasonic capillary effect." Knowing that capillary effects work well underground, the engineer chooses that and gets a textbook-like video. If the capillary effect were more robust, he thinks, he might be able to use it. So he hits "control," and the software starts to consider related effects from other disciplines. It might, for example, tell the engineer to look at an effect involving the use of ultrasonic vibration to loosen sediment and force the liquid up. The result: innovation.
"You can show this list of effects to any scientist or researcher at MIT or Caltech or Cambridge University," says Tsourikov. "The most knowledgeable person would probably know 10% of them, because it's a huge area. Nobody knows all of them."
Invention Machine's clients include Motorola and Procter & Gamble. These sprawling companies bulk up the TechOptimizer by adding in their own research. For Invention Machine's software, service, and support for 20 employees, the first year's bill is $216,500.
Tsourikov saw the business potential of his work as far back as 1989. But few bureaucrats in Belarus then shared his enthusiasm for private enterprise. "They did resist like crazy," Tsourikov says. He mimics his critics: " 'What private company? Gorbachev is crazy. He sits in the Kremlin, and he doesn't know what he's doing.' " Some fledgling Soviet businesses scooped up early versions of the program, but Tsourikov decided he had to come to the U.S. to really get going. Angel capital helped get Invention Machine started in Boston, where the first person Tsourikov met in a grocery store was a fellow artificial-intelligence engineer. Today the company's headquarters has 60 workers, speaking Russian, Japanese, and English in their chin-high cubicles. Just to make sure things don't ever get too American, Tsourikov keeps a stable of 77 Ph.D.s on call--in Boston, Moscow, and Minsk--looking for new inventions his machine must have.