Paul Allen's Foundation Is Getting Edgier. Just Look at Those Investigator Awards

Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen’s two philanthropic commitments have been as different as chalk and cheese for most of their history, but that could be changing. Founded in 1988, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation was established mainly as a community improvement philanthropy, supporting business ventures, arts and culture, and education in and around the Pacific Northwest. But as the foundation has grown—and as Allen himself has evolved as a person—his interests have become more and more science-based. That was reflected in 2003 when he founded the Allen Institute for Brain Science with $100 million from his personal coffers (he’s since given the project another $400 million). It was also reflected in 2010 when the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation established the Allen Distinguished Investigator Awards, a competitive grant program that supports high-risk, high-reward ideas in science.

Now, the Family Foundation seems to be shifting subtly toward the more daring ideals of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, and building upon some of the connections it has made. It’s taking a step toward the Institute’s engineering and technology-based approach—one of their most visible and compelling features—and it’s starting right now, with the first 2014 round of Allen Distinguished Investigator (ADI) awards.

Last year, there were ten ADI recipients. Among them, Suckjoon Jun, an assistant professor at the University of California-San Diego, will use a device he helped invent to study how cells decide when they are large enough to divide. This year, there are three ADI awards in the first round, and they all 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. Single-cell tracking technologies—including actual barcoding of cells—is just the kind of engineering-based approach the Institute would support. And in fact, one of the three 2014 ADI recipients, Michael Elowitz, PhD, of CalTech, serves on the In Vitro Human Cell Types Advisory Council there.

He’s working with Dr. Long Cai to develop a platform to extract lineage and molecular event histories from cells developing into tissues, particularly in the brain. His two award co-recipients are doing similarly complex work. And round two of the ADIs, to be announced in the fall, will focus on artificial intelligence projects. While we don’t expect the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation to change course completely to brain studies, we’re beginning to see some changes with the foundation, and, with the pioneering course set by the Institute, there’s no telling where it could lead.