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Intellectual Ventures president talks career, patent business in on-campus discussion

At a recent Dean’s Innovative Leader Series talk, alumna Adriane Brown discussed stepping out of her comfort zone

November 21, 2014

Adriane Brown, SF ’91

Adriane Brown, SF ’91

Intellectual Ventures president Adriane Brown, SF ’91, has had a career of high-profile roles, including a stint as president and CEO of Honeywell Transportation Systems, a $5 billion business unit of the Fortune 100 conglomerate.

But speaking at the Dean’s Innovative Leader Series Nov. 17 on the MIT Sloan campus, Brown showed a black and white photo of herself as a smiling child in a gingham dress and ratty sneakers. “I didn’t come from wealth, but I came from love,” she said. “There was a lot of love and support in my family … I think that’s a sassy little girl there, who was about to take on the world,” she told the audience.

Brown said her father, who died recently at the age of 90, instilled discipline and values and offered guidance. When she told him she wanted to be a teacher like him he gently dissuaded her. Being a teacher was admirable, he said, but he told his daughter to “figure something else out.”

He also warned her that figuring it all out would be “uncomfortable.”

A pollution spill in a river in her Virginia hometown inspired her to get a bachelor’s degree in environmental health from Old Dominion University. Shortly after graduating, she took a job as a shift supervisor at a Corning electronics manufacturing plant. When questioned, she didn’t divulge her age, 22, to anyone, but treated subordinates with respect. It paid off.

“I was the nice supervisor, and it showed up in the numbers, because people felt good,” Brown said.

She went on to have a 19-year career at Corning, culminating in a role as a vice president and general manager. Along the way, she attended the MIT Sloan Fellows Program, and when she returned to Corning, she took a job in a division that was fraught with challenges. Fortunately, she had a great relationship with the vice president and general manager, and she worked with him to change the sometimes inhospitable atmosphere she faced.

“It takes courage, and it takes a little bit of your genius to understand when to push,” Brown said.

She asked for opportunities and support and continued to treat everyone with politeness. “Those soft skills, along with the power and the commitment to drive results for your business, is what ultimately makes the difference,” she said.

Brown left Corning and her comfort zone when she took a position running a $400 million business at AlliedSignal/Honeywell. She took on a “turnaround” aircraft-and-brakes division in South Bend, Ind., where she led a thousand-member team. After becoming CEO and president at Honeywell Transportation Systems, she thought she had reached the pinnacle of success. But she found a need to challenge herself again.

She joined Intellectual Ventures as president and chief operating officer in 2010. The private company is known for buying patents, and has a portfolio of nearly 40,000 high-tech patents.

“I came to Intellectual Ventures because of their vision, what it takes to create new things … and how invention leads to innovation. It takes innovation to allow our economy to thrive,” she said.

Brown fielded a few questions from students on patent reform and Intellectual Ventures’ sometimes controversial reputation. She welcomed the questions, even if they were “uncomfortable,” and explained the company’s business plan.

“We have $6 billion in committed capital,” Brown said. “That means investors have said, ‘We believe in your business model to buy patents, to create patents on your own, or to leverage your network of over 4,000 vetted inventors, in order to try to create this new market for invention.’”