Sir Richard Branson, the billionaire businessman and adventurer, urged thousands attending a biotech convention Tuesday in San Diego to save the world from the effects of climate change.

Jim Greenwood, with his tie cut off by Sir Richard Branson, took part in a question-and-answer chat at the San Diego Convention Center. Photo by Ken Stone

He called on “as many companies in this room [as possible] to get into this space,” while plugging his Virgin Earth Challenge, whose $25 million prize would go to someone who found an environmentally sustainable and economically viable way to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

“We’ve had 10,000 submissions so far,” Branson said in a keynote chat at this week’s BIO International Convention at the San Diego Convention Center. “No breakthrough winner yet. … I actually think this is a prize that can be won.”

In a vast second-floor ballroom with 2,020 attendees from dozens of countries, Branson gave good entertainment value in an hour-long chat with BIO CEO Jim Greenwood, a former GOP congressman from Pennsylvania.

Wearing jeans, loafers and his usual open-to-the-chest white dress shirt, Branson sat down in a light-brown easy chair and remarked “Why are all the ties here?” Then he took a scissors and snipped off Greenwood’s red-and-blue-striped tie.

Greenwood got even minutes later after getting Branson to confirm details of his record-setting cross-ocean exploits by boat and balloon. Greenwood asked: “Ever [start] a biotech company?”

When Branson said, “I don’t think so,” Greenwood shot back: “Never had the guts?”

Which led Branson to playfully pour some bottled water on Greenwood. The hijinks were witnessed by nearly 3,700 people — 2,020 in the ballroom and 1,630 in adjoining overflow flooms, said a BIO spokesman. More than 15,000 are attending the convention, which runs through Thursday.

Branson showed three promotional videos during his appearance — including a 3-minute clip about his Virgin Galactic space tours [at $250,000 a ticket], which he hopes will launch this year.

Sir Richard Branson displays part of Jim Greenwood’s tie he snipped off after remarking that he had spent his life avoiding ties. Image via Flickr and BIO

“How many people in this room would like to go into space?” Branson said, with hundreds of hands shooting up. “I am going. I hope you will join us.”

He said giving people “a taste of space” would help advance the cause of getting more people to protect and treasure the planet.

Branson noted his own efforts to create a biofuel to replace fossil fuels, since “we’re going to run out of oil anyway.”

He addressed questions about how he overcame challenges, including his own dyslexia. (He encouraged parents to encourage such sufferers to focus on things they are good at.) He celebrated the benefits of delegation. (Hire good people and “stand back.”)

And in reply to a woman’s question about wireless technology in medicine, Branson said: “There’s always ways of doing things better. Ten years from now, [you] won’t be going to see a doctor or nurse.”

Asked by Greenwood why he does the things he does, a bottled-Coke-sipping Branson said: “I love to live life to the fullest. I don’t want to waste a minute of it.”

The Englishman ranged through other topics as well, quoting a recent study he supported that labeled the drug war “an abject failure,” bemoaning the loss of species (more than 1,000 elephants killed last year) and telling stories of a naked Keith Richards (and wife) crossing his path while watching Rolling Stones mate Mick Jagger try to get out of an extramarital jam.

He took a question from 12-year-old Thomas Edwards of Arizona, a leukemia survivor sponsored by the Make-A-Wish Foundation: “What do you value most in life, and why?” Branson: “Good health. … In the end, health is everything.”

He urged a “slight change of [corporate] attitude” toward social awareness to aim for a business that’s “more than a money-maker.” He said he tries to hire managers “who are better than me,” and looks for leaders who motivate and praise others, and “genuinely care about other people.”

He told the well-dressed audience he would donate his speaking fee (not made public) to one of his many charities.

Branson, who turned a record company into a multifaceted corporate behemoth with revenues of $24 billion a year, was asked what guided him — personal or business interests.

“Go into a business if you can make a real positive difference,” he said. “Enjoy it.”

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