Microsoft’s other mogul Paul Allen is now trying to map the brain

It is a sign of Allen’s foresight that others have followed his path

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.

Read more: Mysteries of the human brain revealed

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Manager - Kent - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager / Training Manager (L&D /...

HR Manager - Edgware, London - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - Edgware, Lon...

HR Manager - London - £40,000 + bonus

£32000 - £40000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Talent Manager / HR Manager - central London - £50,000

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Talent / Learning & Development Mana...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam