Paul Allen likes ideas and there is no bigger idea than to figure out a way of understanding the human brain. The American multi-billionaire – often described as the other mogul behind Microsoft alongside Bill Gates – is committed to spending half a billion dollars on scientific research aimed at mapping the brain, which this week produced the first functional atlas of the developing foetal brain.
Allen, 61, sees himself as a thinker. Indeed, Idea Man was the title of his 2011 autobiography in which he detailed the events that led to the rise and rise of Microsoft, a name he coined himself, and his personal battles with cancer and also with Gates. He parted company with Microsoft in 1983, but wisely hung on to 36 per cent of the firm, making him one of the richest men in the world, currently valued at about $15bn.
The Allen Institute for Brain Science in his home town of Seattle is just one of many organisations he has generously funded over the years, but it is arguably the one closest to his heart – if you ignore the basketball and American football teams he also owns. Having made his fortune from writing computer code, Allen understands the formidable challenges posed by trying to understand the most complex structure in the known universe with its 100 billion nerve cells, 100 trillion nerve connections and its baffling multiplicity of chemical neuro-transmitters.
“The brain is quite unlike a computer,” Allen told The Economist magazine last year. “Instead of memory and a few calculating elements, evolution designed every little bit of it to be hideously complex. And then when you start studying every little bit of it, you find there’s even additional complexity. Understanding how the brain works is a fiendishly challenging problem.”
It is perhaps fitting for a man who spent much of his early childhood in the 1950s buried in books on science and science fiction that he has turned his attention to the brain, the biological seat of human ingenuity and imagination. When he was an eight-year-old, at the start of the space race in early 1960s, Allen dreamed of being an astronaut. Now he gets to explore the final frontier of the human mind with his very own research centre.
Having constructed the first functional atlas of the mouse brain, where gene activity within the cells and tissues of the organ is meticulously mapped in three dimensions, the institute is now in the midst of doing something similar for the far more complex structure of the human brain. It is a sign of Allen’s foresight that others have followed in his path, notably Barack Obama, who has pledged a further $200m to the US government’s own initiative in brain research.
The idea for the Allen Institute for Brain Research came out of a brainstorming session he arranged with a couple of dozen scientists more than 10 years ago. It quickly became clear to Allen that mapping the functional elements of the mammalian brain – starting with the mouse – would produce the kind of big, open database of information that could be the catalyst for other research projects, similar to the data-mining revolution opened up by the deciphering of the human genome. “These databases can really kick-start development in many areas,” he says. “That’s what I wanted to do.”
Allen’s father was a senior librarian, so he knows about the importance of databases. A childhood spent reading books gave him an appetite for intellectual adventure. Meeting Gates, who is nearly three years his junior, at the same private Lakeside school in Seattle proved a winning combination in terms of generating ideas, specifically the invention of the software to control the hardware of microprocessors.
In his autobiography, Allen writes with candour about how their relationship blossomed into a highly successful business partnership, which rather abruptly ended soon after Allen was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He felt at the time that he couldn’t continue to battle both his cancer and his increasingly tense relationship with Gates – who famously reduced Allen’s expected equal share in Microsoft to 64:36 in Gates’s favour.
Since leaving Microsoft in 1983, Allen has been busy with a smorgasbord of business and philanthropic adventures, many of which have cost him a small fortune, including an $8bn loss on a failed venture in fibre-optic cable TV. Others, however, have shown that he still had the golden touch when it came to business.
But it is his non-profit, philanthropic enterprises that probably give him the biggest thrill. He has set up museums of computing, aviation and pop culture in Washington state and he has made it clear that the beloved Pacific Northwest will receive much of his fortune in one way or another. He has already lavished money on local sports teams, more in a spirit of community than out of financial acumen. He says that one of the reasons for buying the Portland Trail Blazers in 1988 was that he owed the basketball team a big favour for distracting him during his months of gruelling radiotherapy in the early 1980s.
He has also spent large sums on personal pet projects and (there is no other way to describe it) the biggest boys’ toys in town. Allen, who was brought up on classic rock music, has his own band and by all accounts plays a mean blues guitar. He owns the white Fender Stratocaster plucked by his hero Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock and has jammed with, among others, Dave Stewart, Mick Jagger and Bono. He often strums at parties held on his 400ft super-yacht Octopus, one of his three large yachts, equipped with two helicopters, two submarines, a swimming pool, a top‑grade music studio and, as you might expect, a basketball court.
From the other side of his ample cheque book come the funds for his many scientific endeavours. Apart from the brain institute there is the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence and the Allen Telescope Array. There is also talk of a new institute dedicated to research into cell biology and cancer. This has added personal resonance for Allen as he was diagnosed with a second form of lymphoma cancer five years ago, but has responded well to treatment.
His relationship with Gates is now said to be convivial, although Gates put out a statement in 2011 saying that he did not recognise some of the events that Allen describes in his autobiography. Gates visited Allen a few times – after the autobiography had come out – while Allen was recovering from cancer chemotherapy, a sign that there are no lasting hard feelings between the two one-time business partners. “I really appreciated it,” Allen says.
What seems to keep Allen going is ideas, and what better way than to generate more and more of them by funding scientific research. Allen has pledged to give his fortune away to good causes, and science can expect to be a major beneficiary. “Some people are motivated by a need for recognition, some by money and some by a broad social goal,” he says. “I start from a different place – from the love of ideas and the urge to put them into motion and see where they might lead. I’ll always be on the hunt for the next big idea.”
Life In Brief
Born: 21 January, 1951, in Seattle, Washington.
Family: His father was Kenneth Samuel Allen, an associate director of the University of Washington libraries, his mother Edna Faye Allen.
Education: Attended the exclusive Lakeside School in Seattle, where he met Bill Gates. Dropped out of Washington University after two years.
Career: Helped to establish Microsoft with Gates and gave the name to the company. Stepped aside in 1983.