Paul Allen's Latest Huge Science Initiative Targets Bold Research on the Horizon

Paul Allen has unveiled the next big thing in his growing suite of science philanthropy initiatives, with an initial $100 million going toward edgy bioscience research. Initial grantees are leaders in exciting new areas of research like CRISPR gene editing technology and synthetic biology. 

The initial seed funding from the Microsoft billionaire will launch the Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group, which will support investigators and research centers doing work that is particularly creative and risky, but could potentially reshape entire fields of work. It’s not unlike the approach of funding high-risk work that we see among other science funders like Keck and Moore foundations, and is a new tack for Allen, known mostly for huge efforts more narrowly defined by subject. 

The grantees of the Frontiers Group will instead be united by the potential to make “transformational” advances, with an emphasis on shaping a better world through potential applications in medicine, agriculture, and environment, for example.

As a result, the initial names involved are a who’s who of researchers celebrated for pioneering work in recent years. Perhaps most notable is Jennifer Doudna of UC Berkeley, one of the developers of groundbreaking gene editing technique CRISPR-Cas9. The technology, described in a Wired cover story as “The Genesis Engine,” has reverberated throughout the research world and prompted ethical debate surrounding genetically altering species.

Doudna, along with three other esteemed researchers, will receive $1.5 million each in investigator awards, and the Frontiers Group is also establishing two Allen Discovery Centers affiliated with Stanford and Tufts in collaboration with other researchers. The initial funding is part of a 10-year plan to build out the initiative through both open competitions and grants identified by the team.

It’s the latest move in Paul Allen’s growing philanthropic profile, including timely investments in response to deadly outbreaks like Ebola and the Zika virus. Allen joined the Giving Pledge in 2010, and his net worth is currently close to $18 billion. 

The Frontiers Group follows a familiar MO we’ve seen with Allen’s other large science initiatives. He started the Allen Institute for Brain Science in 2003 with $100 million in seed money, and then the Allen Institute for Cell Science in 2014 with a similar model and investment. Both emphasize open science in hopes of benefitting research outside of the institutes, and Allen has always put a premium on using technology and innovation to better the world. 

The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation has run a related, ongoing program since 2010, the Allen Distinguished Investigators, which will now continue under the umbrella of the Frontiers Group tied to its mission of funding creative research with potential for big downstream impacts.

What’s significant about the Frontiers Group is that it will back work across the landscape of bioscience and spanning various disciplines, apparently with some latitude regarding topic, so long as the work is pushing envelopes. 

This is reminiscent of some other approaches we see in private science funding—the Keck Foundation has a similar pursuit of “high-risk/high-impact work,” and the Moore Foundation’s science program also seeks high-impact technologies that involve cross-discipline collaboration. And of course, HHMI is the current kingpin when it comes to private biomedical funding, focusing on long-view support for researchers instead of projects. 

But this will take Paul Allen’s science funding up yet another notch, and the Frontiers Group has some all-stars on board right out of the gate.  

To name a few, Doudna will build on her CRISPR research to pursue new ways to edit cell behavior through RNA. Another investigator James Collins of MIT is one of the founders of the relatively new field of synthetic biology, and an influential researcher in antibiotic resistance. His work under the Frontiers Group will pursue “design-based medicine,” engineering safe bacteria that can seek out and kill other dangerous bacteria like MRSA. Grantee Ethan Bier of UC San Diego and his team made headlines by using CRISPR-Cas9 to create a “gene drive,” that could have applications like engineering malaria-resistant mosquitos. 

The two Discovery Centers are another interesting twist, providing funding equivalent to $30 million over eight years to establish institutes, one at Stanford and another at Tufts, that rely on top researchers to guide exploration into emerging areas. The former center will focus on modeling thousands of cells to better understand infections and drug resistance, and the latter will explore how complex organ systems are created and repaired. 

Just as interesting as the level of funding committed here is the openness to new ideas and allowing researchers to lead the way in these rapidly developing methods. That’s crucial in the case of technologies like CRISPR and synthetic biology, where things are happening astonishingly fast, and researchers will want to go where the action is. 

But seeking out the next topics will be another hallmark of the program, with events like learning tours and symposia intended to find “untapped areas.” So while the current hypeworthy topics Allen is funding out of the gate are impressive, the program’s true value could manifest based on how skilled the team is at hunting down whatever’s next.