By Rick Rojas
Los Angeles Times
SEATTLE — They have shelled out millions of dollars on dreams of sending private citizens into space, exploring the ocean floor and installing a giant clock, designed to tick for 10,000 years, inside a Texas mountain.
So a storied American newspaper struggling for financial survival? There are harder things.
The announcement Monday that billionaire Amazon.com founder Jeffrey Bezos would buy the Washington Post — a Pulitzer Prize-winning publication owned for eight decades by the Graham family — struck many in the media world by surprise. But it was just the latest move by an elite cadre of Seattle-area entrepreneurs armed with loads of money and a willingness to use it on ventures that are bold, unconventional and sometimes more than a little quixotic.
“Jeff Bezos is always surprising me,” said John Cook, co-founder of GeekWire, an online tech publication in Seattle. “So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.”
Bezos, the 49-year-old credited with revolutionizing the retail world with what began as a book-selling website, is part of a cluster of businessmen, mostly in tech, known for big ideas and even larger ambition that made them billionaires. Among them are Bill Gates and Paul Allen of Microsoft, sunglass-and-apparel baron James Jannard, and cellphone pioneer Craig McCaw.
“As a group, they tend to be transformative and imaginative,” said O. Casey Corr, a longtime Seattle journalist and author. “They have ideas that match their wealth.”
Now that they’ve made their fortunes, they have been using that money for philanthropy or investments with motivations that go beyond profit.
Some of it might seem like nostalgia for boyhood dreams. But they’re applying their ambition to take on monumental challenges — diving into intractable problems in health and education and pushing the boundaries of human exploration.
Bezos has put his money into such ventures as Blue Origin, which aims to find ways to explore space cheaply and reliably, and the Long Now Foundation as it builds a clock in California and Seattle to be installed under a limestone mountain in West Texas, standing hundreds of feet tall and keeping time for 10 millenniums.
He also led an exploration team that recovered from the floor of the Atlantic the rockets that pushed Apollo 11 into the atmosphere.
“He has wild ideas,” Cook said, “and can execute them.”
In the South Lake Union area of Seattle, Bezos’ work with Amazon.com has intersected that of Allen, the Microsoft co-founder. Amazon relocated its headquarters to the area, where Allen has leveraged his money to transform a once-neglected area of the city into a gleaming new center of entrepreneurial enterprise (and good restaurants). Amazon hopes to include in its proposed three-block-long headquarters there a giant, three-sphered biodome, five stories high, filled with mature trees and mini-ecosystems from around the globe.
Allen, who called himself the “Idea Man” in his 2012 memoir, turned his love for rock ‘n’ roll into a world-class music museum near Seattle’s Space Needle, the Experience Music Project, and then set his sights on more cosmic pursuits. An $11.5-million Allen grant funded the initial construction of an array of 42 telescopes and satellite dishes near Redding, Calif., devoted to a search for intelligent life in the universe. (Should researchers discover something, he says, he’ll be among the first people they alert.) He also launched with a $100-million grant an effort to create three-dimensional atlases of the brain, which will provide tools for the study of such conditions as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and autism.
“I ask myself: What are the great questions in science — the knowledge that we are just scratching the surface of?” Allen told Discover magazine. “The chance that we are going to pick up the phone and an alien is going to be on the other end is small, but it is certainly worth — on a modest scale, for me — seeing if we can enable some of that research.”
Gates — who has described himself as an “impatient optimist” — has taken on issues with solutions seemingly as elusive as extraterrestrials, in the hope that his immense wealth could help surmount stubborn problems that have thwarted many before him — dilemmas even more intractable than the decline of newspapers.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is aiming at no less than eradicating polio and malaria and reducing hunger and poverty through agriculture programs in the developing world. Closer to home, the foundation has invested millions in an effort to “reinvent” public schools and higher education, pushing charter schools, teacher competence and better student performance in science and technology.
“You’ve got to take risks,” Gates said in a PBS interview with Bill Moyers. “I mean that’s one of the things a philanthropist can do that governments aren’t as well-suited to do. A politician doesn’t want to allocate money if it’s a one out of three chance of doing something really good, because, you know, then two out of three they’ll have to stand up and say it was a waste. Whereas a philanthropist can say, ‘OK. But we will take that risk.’ Because the payoff would be there.”
Matt McIlwain, managing director of Madrona Venture Group, a Seattle-based venture capital firm, says it is primarily curiosity that drives Seattle’s wide-ranging billionaires — that and a desire to “leave something that’s lasting and significant.”
“Seattle is one of those can-do cities,” he said. “I could say it’s the pioneering spirit of the West, but I tend to think it’s more [a spirit] of curiosity … a hallmark of Seattle.”