Inside Paul Allen’s Quest to Understand the Brain

It’s always nice to meet a mega billionaire who’s essentially shoveling money into philanthropy, isn’t it? And especially nice when that funder happens to be working in your field. So it may be if you’re a brain scientist, and you read about Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen. With an estimated net worth of $15.8 billion, Allen runs dabble-sized grantmaking programs in global science and technology, business innovation, and local issues in and around the Pacific Northwest through the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, which hands out a few million each year (see IP's profile of Paul Allen). But his biggest investment has been to the Allen Institute for Brain Science, to which he’s handed $500 million in just its first ten years.

An encouraging trend, that. And with the assets he’s got (Forbes ranks him #53 on the global billionaire scale) his coffers aren’t likely to run dry anytime soon. So, you know he’s big, and you know he’s sticking around, but the real question is—what makes him tick? Why has he gotten himself involved in the brain game at all? Solving riddles like that one can be the key to getting in the door with big funders like this one, so let’s get analytical.

Like some of the other funders in the brain research grant space, Allen has a personal history with neurological illness—his mother has Alzheimer’s disease. “As someone who has been touched by the impact of a neurodegenerative disease,” Allen told the New York Times in March, 2012, “there’s both a fascination in basic research and the hope that we can move things forward.” And though for Catherine Ivy, and for Frederick and Susan Sontag, personal history is the primary motivating factor for their own giving, reading through Allen’s life history and getting a feel for the way his mind works, you get the sense that he’d be invested in the brain with or without the family connection.

Obviously, Allen is a computer guy. He may just be the most computery guy on the planet. He approaches everything from a computing perspective, including his methodical collection of rock n’ roll artifacts, and the establishment of museums to display them in; his ownership of the Seattle Seahawks; the development of Stratolaunch, a privately funded space transport system.

To Allen, the world is just one big playground of intriguing puzzles, modules to be designed and codes to be cracked. “We hope to foment breakthroughs in neuroscience and unlock great unsolved mysteries of how the brain works," he said when announcing his latest, and largest contribution to the Allen Institute for Brain Science. "To understand this complex organ, we're starting with individual cells, to better understand how they develop, integrate information, and make decisions. In parallel, we are studying how collections of brain cells act together to form circuits, and how information is input, transformed, and processed in those circuits."