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What do a Nobel Prize-winning economist, a poverty specialist, a professional skeptic, and a ukulele virtuoso have in common? Aside from, you know, "nothing?" Respectively, Daniel Kahneman, Esther Duflo, Michael Shermer, and Jake Shimabukuro together comprise the opening day lineup of the 2010 TED conference, which kicks off in Long Beach, Calif., Wednesday morning and runs through Feb. 13.
Willful diversity lies at the heart of TED, the eclectic conference that has been drawing an A-list crowd since its inception 25 years ago. As other conferences have focused on targeting ever-narrower niches to attract tailored audiences that know exactly what they're getting, TED's curators deliberately took the opposite direction. In recent years the conference's focus has broadened beyond even the "Technology, Entertainment and Design" of its acronym to include presentations on green energy, humanitarian design, and global social issues.
"The last thing people want from TED is to hear more of the 'same old, same old' that they hear all year," says TED curator Chris Anderson, a former magazine publishing executive who bought the conference from its founder Richard Saul Wurman in 2001 and now runs it as a nonprofit. "What is really driving our future is innovation, imagination, ideas, invention, science, entrepreneurship. These are the stories that often aren't told very convincingly in media. So that's what we want to focus on."
To date the strategy has paid off. The 1,500 tickets for this year's main conference sold out within 10 days (at $6,000 a pop) while some 500 people have paid $3,750 each to attend a simulcast event in Palm Springs, Calif. This year, more than 40 sponsors, including Google (GOOG), GE (GE), AT&T (T) and Walmart (WMT), are paying from $50,000 to $250,000 to take part in the proceedings. That, says Anderson, is a delicate balance. "It's not Corporation X marketing to TED attendees," he says firmly. "The benefit for the corporations comes from building long-standing relationships with influential people."
Much of the action at TED isn't on stage, but in hallways, lunches, and dinners through the week. Most major dot-com founders are regular attendees, as are political figures such as Al Gore and such Silicon Valley venture capitalists as Vinod Khosla and John Doerr. Despite the conference's "no selling" policy, there's a barely concealed crackle of anticipation that a big deal might go down.
Serial entrepreneur and co-founder of Idealab Bill Gross credits a chance encounter at TED in 1998 for providing the impetus behind online search engine GoTo.com, later sold to Yahoo! (YHOO). He had just presented his concept on stage when he bumped into Amazon (AMZN) founder Jeff Bezos in the elevator. Bezos had been in the audience, liked the idea, and wanted in. "It was a turning point," says Gross. "That moved the idea from controversial to mainstream and a year later the idea was on fire."
Sometimes TED wields a more philosophical effect. Seth Godin, a branding-and-marketing author and consultant, has taken the TED stage twice, in 2003 and 2009. "Speaking at TED changed my life,"he says. "In a very profound way, it forced me to raise my game. There I was, surrounded by people who are literally changing the world, almost all for the better. And that forces you to say to yourself: 'Am I here to figure out how to make the Internet faster so people can watch more Paris Hilton videos?' It's pushed me in all the decisions that I make."
Not everyone is doe-eyed over the conference. Last year critics sniped that the programming felt out of touch with the recession-challenged times, even for TED, and there's still work to be done before the conference finishes settling into its new, larger venue. (It left Monterey, Calif., for Long Beach in 2009.) With attendees now spread across multiple hotels, the chances of bumping into Bezos are much slimmer. Others carp at the lengthy application process for tickets. Or they argue that such an event couldn't possibly include true disruptive innovators, but serves merely as an elitist event for inside shmoozers.
Anderson—notably open to hearing and acting on criticism—says he understands the accusations. "It's a tough situation," he says. "One of the big things TED has done is to open itself up. We've made all our content free to the world. But at the live event you want to pull together as good an audience as you can. Everyone you sit down next to has to be really interesting. That's the engine that drives the rest of the success of TED."
Success is not in question. TED Talks—high-quality videos of all presentations that are streamed online for free (sometimes within minutes of their having been delivered on stage)—have been viewed online more than 200 million times. Last year a new program was launched, allowing anyone anywhere to hold a TED-branded event. In 2009, 230 of these so-called TEDx events were held in 80 countries, and more than 350 are scheduled for this year. All in all, Anderson and his team have built a sizable media empire. Not bad for a man who thought he was leaving publishing behind.
To follow real-time coverage of this year's TED conference in Long Beach, follow @helenwalters on Twitter or check regular updates at businessweek.com/innovate/next