Allen said his commitment grew out of a realization that the biological sciences are at a critical point in history, with technology now able to take the field in a more quantitative direction than ever before. New tools can manipulate DNA; next-generation microscopes can measure and create images of the tiniest parts of living systems; and super-powerful computers are able to make sense of massive amounts of data.
“What I believe is that this is potentially a game-changer for our understanding of complex biological systems,” Allen said.
His goal is to help facilitate a more interdisciplinary approach by giving scientists with outside-the-box ideas the equipment, staff and connections to counterparts in math, engineering, physical sciences and computer science — so their work can reach its full potential, he explained.
The Microsoft co-founder, who is estimated to be worth $17.7 billion, has become one of the world’s most influential philanthropists in the sciences in recent years, and not just because of the huge sums he has given away. Allen approaches the issues from the perspective of a computer scientist and entrepreneur. To him, questions about intelligence and possibly even life itself are potentially solvable through data — but only if scientists take big risks and aren't afraid of failure.
In explaining his newest philanthropic venture, for instance, Allen described biology as “unbelievably complex, almost fractally complex” and said he aims to “defeat” this complexity.
The new effort will be housed within an entity called the Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group and run by Tom Skalak, a longtime vice president of research at the University of Virginia whom Allen handpicked to serve as executive director. Skalak, whose own research is in bioengineering, said the group hopes to ramp up its grantmaking quickly and aims to fund up to 10 partner centers and 25 scientists at any given time. Both young and experienced investigators will be included.
“What we are looking for is pioneers willing to head in the opposite direction than some of the established lines of inquiry,” he said.
Skalak said the research that went into the Frontiers Group took more than a year and involved a listening tour and meetings with more than 1,000 researchers, university administrators, futurists and others. At each meeting, Skalak said, he told everyone that the goal was try to understand “dark matter of bioscience.”
“What are the undiscovered frontiers you would like to throw some light on?” Skalak asked.
While the total money involved represents only a tiny fraction of the roughly $15 billion the National Institutes of Health has given out in recent years for biomedical research, the individual Allen awards will be unusually large and unrestricted. Each Frontiers Group partner university will receive up to $30 million, and researchers will receive $1 million to $1.5 million. Allen and Skalak said the selection process will target research areas that may be too early, too radical or too “high risk” to make it through the government's often conservative grantmaking process.
Allen cited the work of Stanford's Markus Covert — a professor in systems biology who will head the newly funded center there — as being particularly influential to his thinking. Covert has become well known for his mesmerizingly beautiful and detailed cell modeling, an area that overlaps with Allen’s own computer science background.
“I came to think that, as it scales up from simple organisms to eventually mammalian organisms, it holds tremendous promise,” Allen noted. Covert will use the Frontiers award to focus on macrophages, cells that scientists think are fundamental to understanding how the human immune system works.
James Collins, a bioengineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will use his grant to try to engineer artificial organisms that could help to trap and kill bacteria resistant to traditional antibiotics. “What we know about what antibiotics do to the body is remarkably incomplete,” Collins explained in an interview.
Allen is just one of the growing number of tech-industry pioneers deploying their fortunes to advance science. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google’s Sergey Brin and others have teamed up to create the Breakthrough Prizes, which are awarded each year to scientists in various fields and have become known as Silicon Valley’s Nobels. Napster’s Sean Parker has funded an institute that aims to cure allergies, eBay’s Pierre Omidyar is backing research on resilience and PayPal’s Peter Thiel has targeted “breakout” ideas in science.
Allen jumped into science in a big way in 2003 with an initial $100 million investment to map the mouse brain. That first project was initially met with skepticism by critics who questioned the science and raised questions about whether a businessman such as Allen might have other motives. But over time his approach has been borne out and now serves as the basis of hundreds of other projects, as documented by citations in journal articles. In 2014, Allen Institute for Brain Science researchers achieved an unusual distinction: being featured twice on the cover of the prestigious journal Nature.
Allen’s other gifts, which total $1.5 billion, include ones with far-out goals — institutes focused on artificial intelligence and cell biology that aim to understand fundamental aspects of life and intelligence — and those with more practical, immediate impact – to help stop Ebola by setting up labs and other critical infrastructure, for example, and to investigate the longer-term impact of traumatic brain injury in athletes, soldiers and others.
“I’ve been really fortunate to be able to engage in biological research even though it’s not an area I started out doing,” Allen said. “I found people that were so helpful, fantastic researchers, to help attack some of these new areas.”
Allen also hinted that he’s just getting going with his philanthropy and is considering more possible models for jump-starting other directions for bioscience research. “I’m going to be doing more of this in the future,” he said.
You can learn more about some of the newly funded researchers in this video:
For more health news, you can sign up for our weekly newsletter here.