• December 25, 2014

Young tech moguls try to change world with pet projects

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Posted: Thursday, August 15, 2013 4:30 am

Google’s Sergey Brin puts his money where his meat is, funding the world’s first test-tube hamburger in a bid to change the way the world eats. Tesla’s Elon Musk pushes space tourism as a down payment on ensuring our intergalactic salvation. And Amazon’s Jeff Bezos buys the Washington Post because, well, he hasn’t said.

Driven by bravado, benevolence, boredom or perhaps equal measures of each, deep-pocketed and increasingly young CEOs in Silicon Valley and beyond are taking their money, power and fame and using it to plant flags in all kinds of surprising places.

And unlike in the valley’s olden days, when successful tech pioneers quietly assembled philanthropic powerhouses or lobbied to protect open space, there’s now a land rush by tech’s young titans to leave their mark on the world — and maybe save it in the process, one newspaper or in-vitro burger at a time.

“This trend is driven by some weird amalgam of guilt and ego and a desire to help the planet, but it’s like everybody wants to be Bono now,” said author Michael S. Malone, long a keen observer of valley culture. “They want to do good, but they also want to make themselves look good in the process. It’s really just another form of one-upmanship.”

Either way, the stampede is on. Whether it’s Bezos with the “10,000 Year Clock” he’s helping build inside a West Texas limestone mountain and his Blue Origin spaceflight startup, or Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million campaign to jump-start public education, the new moguls of online commerce and social media are fanning out with outsize dreams and a ton of cash. Brin, in particular, is one busy paradigm-shifter, pushing wind power and driverless cars, even as he sports Google Glass eyewear while hawking humane hamburgers.

Some of these executive endeavors are simply hobbies or personal statements writ large. Oracle’s Larry Ellison buys tennis tournaments, Asian art and exotic cars. Yahoo chief Marissa Mayer created a spreadsheet of ingredients for cupcake recipes. And Zuckerberg, acting on his passion for hunting and killing his own food, shot a bison and had the head mounted on a wall at Facebook headquarters.

While some of these activities may conjure up memories of the late billionaire Howard Hughes and his plywood-clad Spruce Goose, futurist Paul Saffo cautions that “quirky” may be the wrong adjective. “Silicon Valley,” he said, “is full of ideas that seemed silly until they took off like a rocket and changed the world. And while Musk and Bezos with their space efforts may have personal goals that raise eyebrows, this is important stuff — opening up space for commercial ventures may eventually get us out of the gravity well of Earth.”

Regis McKenna, a Silicon Valley veteran and Apple’s first marketing guru, describes a long local legacy of techies converting their professional success into global good will, but added that “they didn’t brag about it and a lot of the philanthropic work was done under the radar.”

“At one point,” McKenna said, “Silicon Valley was known as the private foundation capital of the world, but today these sorts of things have become much more visible.”

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