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Originally published December 13, 2011 at 6:44 PM | Page modified December 13, 2011 at 6:44 PM

Bezos, wife donate $15M for Princeton brain center

Princeton University says $15 million will go toward Bezos Center for Neural Circuit Dynamics in its neuroscience institute.

Seattle Times business reporter

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Another Seattle tech tycoon appears to be joining the ranks of public philanthropists.

Four months after giving $10 million to Seattle's Museum of History & Industry, Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos has made a second large public donation, this one outside the Seattle area.

Princeton University said Tuesday that Bezos and his wife, MacKenzie, are giving $15 million to their alma mater to create a new center focused on understanding the brain.

Although Bezos, 47, has not always compared favorably with some of Seattle's other well-known tech tycoons for charitable contributions, his latest donation suggests an interest in devoting more money to philanthropy.

Princeton will use the $15 million to create the Bezos Center for Neural Circuit Dynamics in its neuroscience institute.

The center, expected to be open in summer 2013, will study how decisions are made or memories recalled, look for treatments for neurological disorders and investigate how children can learn more effectively. David Tank, co-director of the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, will lead it.

"Professor Tank and his colleagues are on an epic quest to unravel one of humankind's greatest challenges — understanding the brain," Bezos said in a statement. "MacKenzie and I are delighted and excited to support Princeton in their focus on fundamental neuroscience."

Amazon spokesman Andrew Herdener said Bezos was unavailable for additional comment Tuesday.

Bezos graduated from Princeton with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and computer science in 1986. MacKenzie Bezos, who studied English and creative writing at Princeton, graduated in 1992.

Until this year, Bezos had been known for spending money on space exploration and other business investments, but not philanthropy. Forbes lists him as worth $19.1 billion, the 13th-richest person in America, ahead of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer (19th) and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (23rd).

In June, Bezos told Wired magazine he planned to spend $42 million to develop a 10,000-year clock in west Texas to encourage long-term thinking.

And in August, Seattle's Museum of History & Industry announced it had received $10 million from Bezos to create a "Center for Innovation" on South Lake Union at the museum's future location, down the street from Amazon's headquarters.

Separately, his parents, Mike and Jackie Bezos, run the Bezos Family Foundation, a Seattle-based nonprofit that also supports brain research.

As for Bezos' latest donation, it's impossible to tell where it ranks among the largest personal gifts to Princeton, because many are kept private. Nevertheless, a quick online search turned up bigger donations, including $30 million in 2002 from Meg Whitman, then-CEO of eBay and another Princeton graduate.

Elizabeth Boluch Wood, vice president for development at Princeton, said Bezos also has devoted time to his alma mater, delivering its 2010 baccalaureate address. "He has supported the university in many ways," she added, "with his time, talent and through his financial support."

Amy Martinez: 206-464-2923 or amartinez@seattletimes.com

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