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Originally published Wednesday, August 17, 2011 at 9:45 AM

Jeff Bezos gives $10 million, MOHAI's biggest gift ever

The Museum of History & Industry will use a $10 million gift from Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Seattle-based Amazon.com, to establish a "Center for Innovation" at the new MOHAI building on South Lake Union.

Seattle Times business reporter

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Jeff Bezos, the self-made billionaire who started Amazon.com out of a Bellevue garage and built it into the world's dominant online retailer over the past two decades, has given $10 million to the Museum of History & Industry to establish a "Center for Innovation" at MOHAI's new location on South Lake Union.

The gift is the largest in the museum's 59-year history. It also is the most visible sign yet of personal giving by Bezos, who is better known for spending money on space exploration and other business investments than on local philanthropic activities.

"Look at the disproportionate number of extraordinary organizations founded in Seattle — Microsoft, Costco, Boeing, Fred Hutch, PACCAR — even UPS was founded here," Bezos said in a statement. "These companies and their innovations have had a big impact on Seattle, the country and the world."

An Amazon spokesman said Bezos was unavailable for additional comment Wednesday.

Leonard Garfield, executive director of MOHAI, said the new center will teach young people about the many innovative companies that have started in the Puget Sound region, with the hope of encouraging them to become innovators.

MOHAI soon will move from the Montlake neighborhood to the old Naval Reserve Building at Lake Union Park, just blocks from Amazon's new South Lake Union campus. MOHAI plans to open there in November 2012.

Although details are still being worked out, the Center for Innovation will include hands-on exhibits, interactive displays and public programs, such as in-person visits by local innovators, Garfield said.

"This is about the sweep of Seattle's history in innovation," he said, emphasizing that it will not "be about any particular business or individual."

"It's about the community we've created that has nurtured innovation for over a century," he said. "Mr. Bezos obviously is an important part of that history, but that history has been going on for many, many years."

Bezos, 47, left a well-paying job with a New York City hedge fund and moved to Bellevue to create an online bookstore in 1994. Amazon eventually expanded beyond books to dozens of product categories, topping $34 billion in worldwide sales last year. Bezos remains its chairman, chief executive and president.

Forbes magazine ranked him America's 18th richest person in 2010, with the vast majority of his wealth coming from Amazon stock. Bezos owns 88 million Amazon shares, worth about $17.3 billion.

Recently, he announced plans to spend more than $40 million on a large clock designed to last 10,000 years, in partnership with the Long Now Foundation of San Francisco. The clock, which Bezos hopes will foster long-term thinking, is being built on property he owns in west Texas, near a rocket-launch site he also oversees.

Separately, the Bezos Family Foundation, a Seattle-based nonprofit formed and run by his parents, Miguel and Jackie Bezos, gave $10 million to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in 2009.

Amy Martinez: 206-464-2923 or amartinez@seattletimes.com. Seattle Times staff reporter Susan Gilmore contributed to this story.

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