Long before Google (GOOG) bought YouTube and iTunes began hawking Grey's Anatomy episodes, Silicon Valley was trading secret handshakes with Hollywood at an exclusive gathering on the California coast. Beginning in 1984, high-rolling techies mixed with entertainers and others to trade big ideas at the TED (technology, entertainment, and design) conference, held in recent years in Monterey. The Apple (AAPL) Macintosh was first unveiled during TED. Wired magazine received its first seed money there. And last year Google used the occasion to appoint Larry Brilliant head of its billion-dollar charitable arm, Google.org.
But lately, feeding off the second Internet boom, TED has climbed into the celebrity-circuit stratosphere. The demand to get in rivals such gatherings as the Allen & Company Sun Valley conference, the World Economic Forum in Davos, and the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City. Nearly 1,000 TEDsters paid $4,400 to attend this year's three-and-a-half-day, invitation-only festivities, which begin on Mar. 7. And openings for next year's conference sold out in mid-February, just 10 days after registration opened, even after the price of entry was bumped to $6,000.
Author/technologist Chris Anderson, 50, who used his charitable foundation to buy the conference in 2000, is harnessing this momentum to turn TED into a global brand. TED has launched a $100,000 humanitarian prize and now runs a biannual global conference as well, which will take place in Arusha, Tanzania. This summer, Anderson started free Webcasts of past sessions, called TED Talks.
What draws the A-list to TED, of course, is the chance to rub elbows with and be considered part of an eclectic crowd of thinkers. In one session of this year's conference named "I Have a Dream," war photographer James Nachtwey, biologist E.O. Wilson, former President Bill Clinton, and singer Paul Simon will each deliver 18-minute presentations on topics of their choosing. In another, entitled "Exploration and Awe," musical group They Might Be Giants is lined up with Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, cave explorer Bill Stone, and neurologist Vilayanur Ramachandran.
TED is a place where "you meet people who are smarter than you are," explains Max Levchin, who founded the PayPal Web-payment service at 23. Levchin's highlight came three years ago when he bumped into Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, while sipping free Starbucks (SBUX) at the conference. "I would have said, this is the greatest moment of my life," Levchin says. "But then I turned around and immediately met Craig Venter," mapper of the human genome.
In recent years, the conference has added a strong humanitarian focus. This will mark the third year for the TED Prizes, which grant money and resources to three social entrepreneurs to realize a dream of their choosing. Past winners have included Bono, who used the platform to build a community of North American activists for Africa. Clinton won this year, along with Nachtwey and Wilson. As in the past, when winners announce their plans, checkbooks will open to augment the gift and people will stand to volunteer their services.
All this do-goodism is a stretch from the conference's roots. Some original TEDsters find it a bit disingenuous and a few prominent tech geeks have stopped coming in recent years. "I don't think the 'we are the world' line is relevant to the discussion of good ideas," says Michael Schrage, co-director of the MIT Media Lab, who no longer attends. "It started to feel like they were trying to get Angelina Jolie to schedule it in on her way back from Davos."
By Jessi Hempel