Pablos Holman: “You get new superpowers every day”
When asked where he’s from, Pablos Holman has been known to simply answer “the future.” That’s probably not too far from the truth for a guy whose two job titles are inventor and hacker. While his first foray into patented inventions was an ill-fated effort to create cell phone thigh holsters for women, he’s now built an entire career on inventing ways to use computers in places never before possible. When he’s not at IV Lab or participating in an invention session for IV’s Invention Science Fund, you can find him traveling the world discussing the importance of invention and how to push the bounds of technology.
“There’s not really an inventor career track, so there was a long period of my life where I didn’t self-identify as an inventor even though inventing was a part of my job.”
Like most inventors, Pablos didn’t set out to become the next Edison or Tesla. Jobs researching space travel and creating futuristic fashion accessories kept the inventive juices flowing, but not always with the means to patent his inventions. “Patents weren’t the primary output of my work,” he says. “A lot of that is that the patent system is pretty inaccessible to individual inventors.” As a result, he saw some of his earliest ideas fall by the wayside without capturing them or realizing their full value. Even now, Pablos says missed opportunities like these due to constraints of time or resources are one of the hardest parts of being an inventor.
“Inventors need to be heretical and they need to be fearless”
It wasn’t until he joined Intellectual Ventures in 2006 that his big ideas were paired with the legal expertise and company support needed to turn inventing into a full time gig. Pablos is the first to acknowledge that this level of support is a luxury most inventors don’t have, but he cautions to not underestimate the importance of finding a work environment that encourages inventive thinking. Many technology companies will help cover the cost of patent filings if they’re pertinent to the business. Equally important, though, Pablos says a certain culture is needed to accept the high risk of failure inherent to inventing. “I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by people who will still love me after I’ve thrown out a bunch of stupid ideas that don’t turn out to be any good,” he says. “For inventors, they have to get to that point one way or another.”
“I’ve spent my life filling my head with technical problems that I know need solving and with new science and technology that are coming down the road. Now I’m in the middle of gluing those two things together.”
Aside from a general sense of fearlessness, Pablos says there isn’t a one-size-fits-all personality profile for inventors. As a result, each inventor should identify how they work best and build their skillsets to match. Given that most inventors don’t have the luxury of pursuing invention full-time, this often starts with focusing on the skills and expertise needed to understand the problems in their field. Pablos, on the other hand, takes a slightly different approach: “I’m fueled by distraction. To be good at inventing, I specifically don’t develop certain aspects of my personality—like the aspect that would be methodical and plan-oriented and good at working on budgets and Gantt charts.” Regardless of whether you’re methodical or distracted, Pablos emphasizes that inventors should constantly be learning and considering how advances in science or technology can be applied to solve problems in new ways.
“That’s why technology is exciting, and that’s why inventing in technology is really exciting. It never ends. You get new superpowers every day.”
Pablos credits his passion for computers as a major influence on his inventiveness. “They’re a bottomless pit of intrigue, so there was nothing slowing me down as a kid,” he says. This ability to find an area of interest that allows you to learn at an accelerated pace is an important factor for inventors at any age. In Pablos’ experience, he says most inventors that he has encountered have deep expertise in an area, but also a breadth of knowledge so they can function as generalists and collaborate with experts in other fields. In each case, though, it’s rooted in an initial passion for learning that’s fueled by an interest that isn’t mandated by work or school.
“I’m not really trying to invent for what’s possible this year or next year. I’m working on what’s possible in five or 10 years because it takes us that long to get a patent and it takes years after that to develop it and commercialize it.”
When it comes to inventing, timing is everything and patience pays off. Not only do you have to consider what your competitors are focusing on, but you also have to factor in the time it takes for a patent to be granted and the rate of change in society and technology. Invent something ahead of its time and it will never be fully appreciated. On the other hand, if you don’t look far enough into the future, then you run into increased competition. This is particularly true in an age dominated by product iterations and pressure for companies to release new technology every year. As a result, fewer and fewer inventors are focused on the long term. This opens the door for inventors with the forethought and patience to invent technology that won’t reach its full market potential for years to come.