"A lot of people have said you're a self promoter, an egomaniac?" Kroft asked. "True? Partially true? Not true at all?"
"You know, if we hold a press conference it's considered self-promotion," Venter said. "But, somebody at a university, the university holds the press conference, and that's not self promotion."
"Overly ambitious?" Kroft asked.
"I'm sure I'm very guilty of that," Venter replied.
That wasn't always the case. He grew up in the suburbs of San Francisco as the prototypical surfer dude and a classic underachiever.
"I was a horrible student. I really hated school," he remembered.
Asked if he was good in math and science, Venter said, "I was not really good in anything, you know? I almost flunked out of high school."
He did get a college scholarship for swimming. "But I didn't take it," Venter said. "So at age 17, I moved to southern California to take up surfing."
In 1965 reality set in. He got drafted off his surfboard, joined the Navy as a medic, and was sent to Vietnam to work at a field hospital in Da Nang. The experience changed his life and motivated him to go back to school and pursue a career in medical research.
He became a rising star at the National Institutes of Health, and just as quickly grew frustrated with the politics and bureaucracy of government science. When the NIH declined to fund some of his unorthodox new ideas, he left and found private investors who would.
"I think we have a real problem with how science is funded and done in this country," Venter said. "I mean almost every breakthrough I've been associated with is from having independent money. And once they worked, we can get tons of government money to follow up on it. But, we could never get the money to do the initial experiment."
In 1998, a company that made cutting edge technology to analyze DNA hired him to take on the federal government in a race to identify all the genetic material in the human body. The federally funded human genome project had already been working on it for years.
Asked why he decided to challenge the government, Venter said, "The way it was being done just didn't make any sense. We ended up doing it in nine months instead of 15 years. That's a big difference."
When the competition produced bad blood and bad publicity in the scientific community, the Clinton administration arranged for the two sides to announce a truce and a tie, even though many believe Venter's company, Celera Genomics, was ahead. But for Venter the celebration was short-lived: the tension between making science and making money and personality conflicts with his corporate bosses got Venter sacked a year and a half later.
"You accomplished all this stuff. And you got fired by the company that brought you in to do this," Kroft remarked. "They locked the doors."
"They locked the doors and sent me away," Venter acknowledged.