Larry Page is hardly the first Silicon Valley chief with a case of intellectual wanderlust, but unlike most of his peers, he has invested far beyond his company’s core business and in many ways has made it a reflection of his personal fascinations.
Three years ago, Charles Chase, an engineer who manages Lockheed Martin’s nuclear-fusion program, was sitting on a white leather couch at Google’s Solve for X conference when a man he had never met knelt down to talk to him.
They spent 20 minutes discussing how much time, money and technology separated humanity from a sustainable fusion reaction — that is, how to produce clean energy by mimicking the sun’s power — before Chase thought to ask the man his name.
“I’m Larry Page,” the man said. He realized he had been talking to Google’s billionaire co-founder and chief executive.
Larry Page, CEO of Alphabet
Net worth: Approximately $40 billion
Current title: Chief executive of Alphabet, the holding company for Google and its many spinoff ventures
Key influence: His father, Carl V. Page, a computer-science professor at Michigan State University. “My dad was really interested in technology … He actually drove me and my family all the way across the country to go to a robotics conference.”
Source: The New York Times
“He didn’t have any sort of pretension like he shouldn’t be talking to me or ‘Don’t you know who you’re talking to?’ ” Chase said. “We just talked.”
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Larry Page is not a typical chief executive, and in many of the most visible ways, he is not a CEO at all. Corporate leaders tend to spend a good deal of time talking at investor conferences or introducing new products on auditorium stages.
Page, who is 42, has not been on an earnings call since 2013, and the best way to find him at Google I/O — an annual gathering where the company unveils new products — is to ignore the main stage and follow the scrum of fans and autograph seekers who mob him in the moments he steps outside closed doors.
But just because he has faded from public view does not mean he is a recluse. He is a regular at robotics conferences and intellectual gatherings like TED. Scientists say he is a good bet to attend Google’s various academic gatherings, like Solve for X and Sci Foo Camp, where he can be found having casual conversations about technology or giving advice to entrepreneurs.
Page is hardly the first Silicon Valley chief with a case of intellectual wanderlust, but unlike most of his peers, he has invested far beyond his company’s core business and in many ways has made it a reflection of his personal fascinations.
He intends to push even further with Alphabet, a holding company that separates Google’s various cash-rich advertising businesses from the list of speculative projects like self-driving cars that capture the imagination but do not make much money. Alphabet companies and investments span disciplines from biotechnology to energy generation to space travel to artificial intelligence to urban planning.
Investors will get a good look at the scope of those ambitions on Monday, Feb. 1, when the company, in its fourth-quarter earnings report, will disclose for the first time the costs and income of the collection of projects outside of Google’s core business.
As chief executive of Alphabet, Page is tasked with figuring how to spin Google’s billions in advertising profits into new companies and industries. When he announced the reorganization last summer, he said that he and Sergey Brin, Google’s other founder, would do this by finding new people and technologies to invest in, while at the same time slimming down Google — now called Google Inc., a subsidiary of Alphabet — so their leaders would have more autonomy.
Page’s new role is part talent scout and part technology visionary. He still has to find the chief executives of many of the other Alphabet businesses.
And he has said on several occasions that he spends a good deal of time researching new technologies, focusing on what kind of financial or logistic hurdles stand in the way of them being invented or carried out.
His presence at technology events, while just a sliver of his time, is indicative of a giant idea-scouting mission that has in some sense been going on for years but is now Page’s main job.
In the investor letter, he put it this way: “Sergey and I are seriously in the business of starting new things.”
Page has always had a wide range of interests. As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, he worked on solar cars and music synthesizers and once proposed that the school build a tram through campus.
He arrived at Stanford’s computer-science doctorate program in 1995, and had a list of initial research ideas, including self-driving cars and using the Web’s many hyperlinks to improve Internet search. His thesis adviser, Terry Winograd, steered him toward search.
“What makes something interesting for him is a big technical challenge. It’s not so much where it’s headed but what the ride is like,” Winograd said.
Inside Google, Page is known for asking a lot of questions about how people do their jobs and challenging their assumptions about why things are as they are.
Among the questions he likes to ask: “Why can’t this be bigger?”
But corporate success means corporate sprawl, and recently Google has seen a number of engineers and others leave for younger rivals like Facebook and startups like Uber. Page has made personal appeals to some of them, and, at least in a few recent cases, has said he is worried that the company has become a difficult place for entrepreneurs, according to people who have met with him.
Part of Page’s pitch included emphasizing how dedicated he was to “moonshots” like interplanetary travel, or offering employees time and money to pursue new projects of their own. By breaking Google into Alphabet, Page is hoping to make it a more welcoming home for employees to build new businesses, as well as for potential acquisition targets.
Financially speaking, Page is leaving his chief-executive job at Google at a time when things could not be better. The company’s revenue continues to grow about 20 percent a year, an impressive figure for any business, but particularly so for one that is on pace to generate approximately $60 billion this year.
His method is not overly technical. Instead, he tends to focus on how to make a sizable business out of whatever problem this or that technology might solve. Leslie Dewan, a nuclear engineer who founded a company that is trying to generate cheap electricity from nuclear waste, also had a brief conversation with Page at the Solve for X conference.
She said he questioned her on things like modular manufacturing and how to find the right employees.
“He doesn’t have a nuclear background, but he knew the right questions to ask,” said Dewan, chief executive of Transatomic Power. “They weren’t nuclear-physics questions, but they were extremely thoughtful ways to think about how we could structure the business.”
Dewan said Page even gave her an idea for a new market opportunity that she had not thought of. Asked to be more specific, she refused. The idea was too good to share.