Paul Allen's Latest Big Move: A Major Campus Gift to Build a Science Powerhouse

As far as the Microsoft mega-donors are concerned, Paul Allen may not be as ubiquitous as Bill Gates, but he certainly likes to give and think big.

Allen zeroed in on brain research long before this area was red hot, and has now given hundreds of millions of dollars to the Allen Institute for Brain Science, established in 2003. 

Back in 2014, he launched the Tackle Ebola campaign, committing $100 million to the cause—far more than any other philanthropist. And last March, he unveiled the next big thing in his growing suite of science philanthropy initiatives—the Paul G. Allen Frontiers group to support organizations engaged in creative and risky research.  

Now comes word of a $50 million endowment gift to establish the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington (UW). The endowment comes in the form of $40 million from Allen, enhanced by a gift of $10 million from Microsoft Corporation in Allen’s honor.

UW has been in the news quite a bit recently due its startling success in raising money to pay for the construction of a second $100 million Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) building to meet surging student demand. Google, Amazon, Zillow and Microsoft have all chipped in.

That Allen stepped forward with an eight-figure gift here is not surprising for several reasons, including one we've mentioned before: This Giving Pledge signatory has a long way to go when it comes to moving enough money out the door to make a dent in a fortune that currently stands at $20 billion. At the age of 64, with no heirs, Allen has a lot of work to do—even though he's already given away some $2 billion.

Allen's endowment gift reflects the CSE program's big plans. "By naming the school after Allen," its press release said, "the UW is linking in perpetuity its top-tier computer science program with a visionary renowned for game-changing innovation."

Indeed, the school has risen to national prominence through its work in many Allen-friendly fields, including mobile health, neural engineering, artificial intelligence, and next-generation data storage. In the short term, the endowment will provide the Allen School with $2 million a year in seed money for outfitting labs for new faculty members, providing fellowships and scholarships for outstanding students, and supporting early-stage research.

A corresponding piece in GeekWire dives a bit deeper into UW's more practical ambitions, and in doing so provides useful—albeit somewhat presumptive—window into Allen's thinking. Allen, after all, is a tech guy focused on outcomes. Where does the UW program see itself in five, 10 years? What does "success" look like?

For a pragmatic answer, we turn to Ed Lazowska, who holds the university’s Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science and Engineering and has been raising funds for the new CSE building. "The goal here is, instead of there being a top four program, to be a top five program, and for us to be the fifth," he said in a modest, Allen-esque sort of way. "And we’re very close to that."

Lazowska regards MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford and Berkeley as the top four that are in competition with UW for faculty firepower and top-drawer students.

Allen's giving to the school now stands at over $100 million. (Remember: Along with Gates, Allen was one of the initial signatories of the Giving Pledge.) His latest gift comes in the midst of the University’s “Be Boundless—For Washington, For the World" campaign. It seeks to raise $5 billion by 2020. 

It's worth noting that not a cent of Allen's will go toward the CSE building's construction. That said, once completed, the new building will stand directly across the street from the Paul G. Allen Center.