Make a list of common boyhood dreams and Paul Allen will very likely havelived most of them. Start your own company and make a gazilliondollars? Check. Own two professional sports teams? Check. Play leadguitar in rock band? Check. Build a rocket to fly people into space?Check. Make giant telescope to search for aliens? Check. Crack themystery of the human brain? Well, he’s working on it.
The seminal moment in the life of one of the world’s wealthiest menis often pegged as the time, in 1975, when he persuaded his high schoolfriend Bill Gates to drop out of Harvard University and cofound acompany called Microsoft. But since leaving the software giant in 1983after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma—and then facing down thedisease—Allen has lived a dizzying array of second lives. Drawing onhis Microsoft-stock fortune, today estimated at $22 billion, he hasfunded dozens of companies in the software, cable, and Web industries,bought the Portland Trail Blazers and Seattle Seahawks, and builtSeattle’s Experience Music Project, the rock-and-roll history museum.Along the way, Allen has also become a leading patron of the sciences,whose influence can rival that of huge government agencies.
(Courtesy of Brian Smale)
Back when he was a high school guitar player obsessed with software,Allen was mesmerized by movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and JacquesCousteau’s The Silent World. Thirty years later, he started steeringhis fortune toward projects that could easily belong in those movies.In 2001 his $11.5 million investment helped jump-start the SETIprogram, a methodical search for radio signals from intelligent life.(The new Allen Telescope Array will start sweeping the sky for aliensthis year.) His love of rockets spurred a $30 million gamble onSpaceShipOne, which won the X Prize as the first manned craft insuborbital space. In 2003 Allen doled out $100 million to found theAllen Institute for Brain Science, with the ambitious goal of mappingall gene expression in the mammalian brain. Last September theinstitute released a complete genomic map of the mouse brain—a free,searchable, three-dimensional analysis of 21,000 genes (including 85million images) that will help neuroscientists understand how differentregions of the brain operate and interact. Now Allen plans to move onto the big prize: mapping the human neocortex.
In his Seattle office—with a glass-encased replica of his 416-footyacht, the Octopus, in front of him and the Seahawks’ stadium visiblefrom the window—Allen spoke with DISCOVER about funding priorities,Microsoft memories, and which childhood dream he plans to check offnext.
Do you ever wonder what the world would be like today if Microsoft had never existed?
Whoa. If Microsoft had never existed. . . . The industry wouldprobably be very fragmented. But there are so many new models that havesprung up—things like the iPod, Google, YouTube, eBay, and Amazon. Soit’s like asking, “What if there wasn’t an Amazon?” Well, there wouldprobably be other people online selling books, but would it have theimpact of an Amazon? Probably not. Or what if there were five companiesdoing online auctions and not just eBay? For users, there may be abigger variety of things to choose from, but whenever you have scale,obviously you have more of a chance to make it a better product. Thebigger you get, the more inertia you have, which is good. On the otherhand, you don’t want to get so big that you struggle to get releasesout. So there is always that tension.
Has your experience with Microsoft shaped the kinds of scientific projects you are supporting today?
In a way. In the computer industry, you’ve got an interdisciplinaryteam of people who can come together, attack the problem, and work in acollaborative style. You knock down one problem after another, cobblethings together, and then hopefully turn the crank at some point. Thisis what we did with the mouse brain project.
“The human brain works in a completely different fashion from a computer and does some things so much better. . . . How can that be?"
Your interest in the workings of the brain seems like a logical step for someone who started out writing software.
Yeah, if you are involved in computers, at some point you end upbeing fascinated by the idea of the human brain. The human brain worksin a completely different fashion from a computer and does some thingsso much better than a computer, and this may remain true for the next100, 200 years. How can that be? So I brought a bunch ofneuroscientists together and asked, “What can I do that would beinteresting and different that would potentially help the field ofneuroscience move forward?” The answer was a genetic database of themouse brain.
The Allen Brain Atlas is, at heart, a massive data-archiving project. Is this type of research a trend in science?
It’s kind of industrial-scale science, where the output, theproduct, is a database. I think we are already seeing some efforts todo genetic databases of cancer; I believe there is a Harvard effortunder way. Craig Venter has his project where he collects seawater [inan effort to catalog ocean life]. But we are probably only talkingabout dozens of these kinds of databases at this point. That may end upbeing naive a few decades from now.
What’s next at the Allen Institute for Brain Science?
There are still parts of the mouse brain that we need to explore:the developmental mouse brain, the female brain differences. Then weare starting to scale up to the human brain. It’s so much bigger thanthe mouse brain, which is kind of an almond-size thing. You need biggerslides, more digital capacity. And of course there is no uniformstrain—thank goodness—of human beings, like there is of mice. But Ithink trying to parse out the detailed genetics and structure of thebrain will go a long way to understanding how it works.
What do you think are the chances of SETI’s succeeding—in other words, of finding intelligent life beyond our world?
The scientists are optimistic because they think that if they havebetter instruments that look deeper or on more frequencies, thereshould be civilizations out there broadcasting. I think everybody wouldadmit it’s a long shot, but if that long shot comes in... wow.
If they do get the signal, will you be the first person they call?
Actually, first they call the White House. At one point they told meI was third or fourth on the list. So I guess that’s one of thebenefits of funding the project. But the phone hasn’t rung yet.
What would that kind of discovery mean to you?
That would be such a life-changing thing, for us all to know thatthere are other beings out there who we could potentially communicatewith, or maybe we are listening to a signal that they transmittedhundreds of millennia ago. And then we’d say, “Well, what was in themessage? Can we decode the message, and can we communicate back? Whatare they really like? Are they oxygen-breathing bipeds, or are they agas cloud on some gas-giant planet?”
You’ve also supported the more practical aspects of spaceexploration, funding SpaceShipOne. What was it like to watchSpaceShipOne take off?
I just remember being so nervous when that thing flew, hopingeverything was going to be OK. I had never done anything to putanyone’s life at risk. When you are debugging a program, if it blowsup, OK, you get an error message on the screen. If something goes wrongwith a rocket, it’s usually... bad. Very bad.
What do you think of Richard Branson and Burt Rutan’s effort to turn SpaceShipOne into a commercial venture?
Burt Rutan is a genius of aeronautic design; I remember himscribbling some designs for the first version of SpaceShipOne thatweren’t that far from how it ended up. If you are going to do somethinglike that, he’s one of the few people in the world who could pull itoff. Branson’s proposed SpaceShipTwo is still using the fundamentaltechnology from the SpaceShipOne project, just of much bigger breadth.I think it’s going to be great if people can buy a ticket to fly up andsee black sky and the stars. I’d like to do it myself—but probablyafter it has flown a serious number of times first!
Do you support NASA’s plans to send humans back to the moon and on to Mars?
You have to make an argument—which I think people do make with somepersuasiveness—that this is about having an aspirational vision. Don’twe get the same data back if we have a little track vehicle runningaround Mars with a TV camera? I think there is actually a difference,having a human being out there. But I’m always fascinated by technicalchallenges. Human beings are fragile things, and for the period of timeit takes to get them to Mars and back you have dangerous radiation fromthe sun and the galaxy. We have to think about issues like that. As aspecies, we’ve always been discoverers and adventurers, and space andthe deep ocean are some of the last frontiers. I’m less certain thatsomeone is going to be selling beachfront property on the Martian sea.
"The chance that we aregoing to pick up the phone and an alien is going to be on the other endis small, but it is certainly worth it."
The projects you have funded so far cover a wide range of fields. What are the criteria you look for?
I ask myself: What are the great questions in science, the knowledgethat we are just scratching the surface of? The chance that we aregoing to pick up the phone and an alien is going to be on the other endis small, but it is certainly worth—on a modest scale, for me—seeing ifwe can enable some of that research. There are these greenfield areaslike the human brain, systems biology, understanding how cells workinternally, and how the proteins interact inside the cell. That’s anarea I’m thinking about. Then there are the global issues we havetoday: global warming, the environment, and disease. I don’t know thatI could make a difference in theoretical physics; that’s basically abunch of mathematical and theoretical geniuses at different places. I’mnot sure how anyone could make them work any faster than they are.
When you fund the Brain Atlas or SpaceShipOne, do you think of them as investments or philanthropy?
I think of them as philanthropy, but then the next thought is, Isthere a way to make this thing self-funding? In the case of biologicalresearch, it means that you are either going to have to carve out somepatents or try to create funding from other foundations or thegovernment. I think we are going to have success with the Brain Atlasbecause the capabilities that we have demonstrated are pretty unique.But with that project we haven’t taken the route of getting proprietaryintellectual property—not that I’m excluding it. Most of the thingsI’ve ever done, I try to capture some value and keep it going. And mygosh, look at Microsoft. In 1975 it was three guys, and now it’s 70,000.
When you and Gates started out, how ambitious were you?
We knew that microcomputers with software on them could have someimpact, and certainly they were cheap. A big part of the success ofMicrosoft was that every year, the chips our software ran on got fasterand cheaper. They doubled in capability every 18 months under Moore’slaw. Even to this day, every year they get better and the price doesn’tchange. It’s amazing, and that was a huge driver of our success. Whenwe were starting Microsoft, we were thinking if we were reallysuccessful we would have something like 35 employees. On the otherhand, in the back of our minds we were thinking, “Wow, if a lot ofpeople bought a cheap computer . . . ” We had glimmerings of it.
How did the collaboration between the two of you work in those early days?
We split the programming tasks. I was familiar with the softwarethat ran on mainframes and minicomputers that will let you emulatechips. And Bill bit off some of the really complicated stuff and did agreat job architecting the overall design of the Basic program. Billwas always very focused on the external relationships and the businessmanagement part of it, whereas I was more attracted toward seeing wherethe leading edge of the technology was going. So we were a goodcomplement to each other.
Do you guys reminisce about the old times?
Yes, we always have a laugh because it’s hard to explain theincredible level of fun we had. We talk about how Bill would sleep onthe carpet at the office. The secretary would come in and see Bill’sfeet sticking out of the door. We were very hard-core. Our onlyrecreational activity was going to the movies. And then we wouldprogram until two, three, four in the morning and then get up fairlylate, go back, and do it again. We just loved it. We had a great time.
In a weird way you and Gates still seem to follow parallel paths. Do you ever talk about entering a philanthropic collaboration?
We are always looking to find some areas of overlap in ourphilanthropic stuff. We’ve had so much success doing things before; itfeels good. Recently we’ve been talking about doing something togetheron the frontiers of energy.
What are the biggest questions on your mind right now?
The health of the planet, whether it’s ocean health or energy.Should nuclear energy make a comeback? We have an investment in afusion energy company that is quite interesting.
What kind of fusion research are you investing in?
The company is called Tri Alpha Energy [which finances aneutronicfusion, a process that emits protons rather than neutrons, potentiallymaking it much more efficient than current concepts]. Fusion has beenpredicted to be just over the horizon for decades now, so whenever yousee an interesting alternative approach, you think about it. There hasbeen a lot of discussion recently on fission reactors, and I have beeninvolved in doing some survey meetings recently. I think Bill isintrigued by that too. But it’s really speculative.
So you’ve got computers, sports, boats, space, science, rock and roll. Is there any childhood love you have left to get into?
When I was 7 or 8 I became fascinated with hot rods. I don’t ownone. But I’m not as fascinated by them as I am by many other things. Sono Model T with the super V-8 and the flames painted on the side. Inlife, you need to pick your spots.