Next Up for This Billionaire: Breaking New Ground in Cell Science

When the first round of Allen Distinguished Investigators was announced last spring, we reported that the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation seemed to be subtly shifting toward an interest in cell biology. We sat up and took notice that the three first-round awardees were all addressing questions of cell differentiation and engineering. Suddenly, the PGA Family Foundation was setting off on a somewhat parallel path to Paul Allen Institute for Brain Science, which aims to unlock the secrets of the brain. 

“All [the projects] center neatly on the question of human cell lineage—the dazzlingly complex process of differentiation and “cell fate” that occurs as an embryo grows from one cell to 100 trillion,” we wrote in April. “Single-cell tracking technologies—including actual barcoding of cells—is just the kind of engineering-based approach the Institute would support.”

Related: Look at the Cutting Edge Cell Work the Allen Family Foundation Just Got Behind

Fast forward eight months, and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation has made headlines repeatedly, mostly for science or health-based grantmaking. His support of the Ebola crisis is huge, and surprising. In September, he said that he was interested in opening an Allen Institute for cell biology. And the surprises just keep coming. Now he’s announcing the establishment of aforementioned institute, to be called the Paul Allen Institute for Cell Science.

As I write this, in fact, he is engaged in a press conference laying out the specifics of the organization. “Scientists have learned a great deal about many of the 50 trillion cells in our bodies over the last decades, but creating a comprehensive, predictive model of the cell will require a different approach,” Allen said in a statement. “We conceived of the Allen Institute for Cell Science as a catalyzing force to integrate technologies and approaches at a large scale in order to provide an exceptional resource for the entire scientific community. It is our hope that this effort will bring forward the treatment of different diseases.”

Allen’s putting in an initial $100 million—y’know, no biggie for a guy with billions—and its first project will be the Allen Cell Observatory, which is being designed to generate a visual database filled with real-time animated models of cell parts in action. It’ll bring together information from across the cellular and molecular sciences.

The real advantage is the institute’s ability to integrate: to house scientists, engineers, data, and cutting-edge technology together, facilitating the transfer of ideas among brilliant minds. “Generating an integrated view of the cell with predictive power is an enormous task, and the Allen Institute for Cell Science will have the advantage of housing its large-scale efforts all under one roof,” executive director Rick Horwitz said in a statement. “This singular effort will make the integration of technology, models and data both more straightforward and more powerful.”

The institute is set to open next fall inside the new Allen Institute building in South Lake Union. The building will also house the Allen Institute for Brain Science. 

Of course, Paul Allen is not alone in wanting to learn more about human cells. Just as many funders have been hoping that basic brain research will lead to a range of benefits—from conquering Alzheimer's to better teaching toddlers—so, too, are more funders fascinated by the potential that breakthroughs in cell science could have many positive spinoffs. 

It's been said that if the 20th century was all about humans mastering the external world, the 21st century will be all about harnessing the full potential of humans to understand themselves and thrive in healthy ways. Paul Allen is one funder investing big in that future. 

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