Nathan Myhrvold has an idea to stop malaria: a laser device that would zap disease-carrying mosquitoes before they had a chance to bite. Like an arsenal of other out-of-left-field ideas that Myhrvold's firm, Intellectual Ventures, is working on to combat the disease, the concept sounded more like Star Wars than a development project. But Myhrvold -- whose prior experience includes 14 years as Bill Gates's ideas guru at Microsoft -- and his colleagues built it out of ordinary electronic devices they bought on eBay.
A theoretical physicist and computer geek might seem like an odd candidate to take on a disease that for years has mostly been fought with bed nets and anti-malarial drugs. But that's exactly the point: Myhrvold and his band of outsiders, working through what they call "invention sessions," are bringing fresh eyes to a problem that has confounded decades of development work. In an interview with FP's Elizabeth Dickinson on the occasion of World Malaria Day, Myhrvold explains why out-of-the-box ideas might be exactly what's needed to tackle the scourges of the developing world.
Foreign Policy: How did you first get involved in malaria research -- and why malaria?
Nathan Myhrvold: Most of what technologists do is to push technology forward, which is a wonderful thing, but it's about making toys for rich people. We wanted to do some stuff that would really have impact in the developing world.
Malaria is interesting because it is truly a disease of the developing world -- even more than HIV is. Because HIV occurs in the rich world and it's a popular cause, it gets an enormous amount of research and development dollars. Malaria doesn't. We thought there might be more opportunity there, and boy were we right. Once you start getting good at stuff on it, you say, "Look, we can do this too -- oh my God, we can do this!"
Depending on who you believe, there are 300 to 500 million cases of malaria a year and at least 1 million deaths -- most of those are children under age 5. So if we could make some leeway there, it would be really important.
FP: Take me back to that first brainstorming session on malaria.
NM: The Gates Foundation ran a conference on malaria, and Bill asked if I could come. I wound up sitting in a bunch of the technical talks, and I was struck there by how much computing could play a role in really understanding malaria. I decided that there was a new technical approach [to take] called Monte Carlo modeling. It's [a modeling system] used on Wall Street and in physics research, but it's not used very much in epidemiology. Using enormous computers, supercomputers, with thousands of processors, [we can] simulate malaria more accurately than it had ever been done before.
[Then] we said, we should look at other ways in directly intervening. There's two ways you intervene: One is with mosquitoes; the other is with malaria parasite. The malaria parasite is a much more complicated beast in many ways than a virus or bacteria. One of the wonderful things about it from our perspective is that it has a material called hemozoin, which is a very interesting crystalline substance, and it's totally essential to the malaria parasite's living. Using that molecule, there happened to be a way in [through which] physicists and optics people could do some very cool work. The most dramatic one is that we've built this machine that tracks mosquitoes in the sky and shoots them with lasers, which sort of sounds like a science-fiction fantasy. We thought it was initially, but -- damn! -- we built the thing and it works.