Meet the Four Unsung Scientists Receiving $7.5 Million from Paul Allen's Foundation

Paul Allen simply doesn't like to be outdone, and that tendency apparently extends beyond the tech world and into his philanthropic pursuits. (Read Paul Allen's IP profile.) Just a few days after some of the tech industry's biggest names announced the creation of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, the guy who cofounded Microsoft with his old school buddy Bill Gates made an announcement of his own.

In a press release, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation announced that it had awarded $7.5 million in competitive grants as part of its Allen Distinguished Investigators grants series.

The program, which was initiated in 2010 with an original round of $9 million, is intended to support scientists who are conducting cutting-edge research in neuroscience and technology development. It is designed to reward scientists who have been working on what the foundation considers "pioneering research projects that aim to unlock fundamental questions in biology." The grants run for a three-year cycle, and recipients are chosen based on their ability to think outside the box — meaning they might have a difficult time getting support from traditional funding sources such as the National Institutes of Health (especially considering today's economic climate.)

In a statement, Allen said, "I've always been drawn to the big open questions of science. But the pioneering scientists working to answer them can't promise quick discoveries and often find it difficult to get funding from traditional sources. For us to make progress, we must take risks and invest now in this early-stage, cutting-edge research. Backing these scientists is essential to achieving world-changing breakthroughs."

The latest round of Allen Distinguished Investigators includes:

  • Jeff Gore, an assistant professor of physics at MIT, who will receive $1.5 million to study game theory and how it might provide insights into cellular decision making
  • Markus Covert, an assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford University, who will come away with $1.5 million to develop technology to provide models of whole cells in complex organisms, including humans
  • Suckjoon Jun, an assistant professor of physics and molecular biology at UC San Diego, who will get $1.6 million to work on long-term, single-cell-level directed evolution experiments
  • Hana El-Samad, an assistant professor of biochemistry and biophysics at UC San Francisco, who will receive $1.43 million to use algorithms to better understand how signals get encoded and decoded in cellular circuits

Another award of $1.44 million was given to a team of three scientists — Thierry Emonet and Steven Zucker of Yale and Thomas S. Shimizu of the FOM Institute for Atomic and Molecular Physics — who are using a combination of microbiology, physics, and applied math to understand how "the simplest biological systems, such as bacteria, to engage in coordinated behavior while exploiting, rather than suppressing, individuality." (Read Allen Family Foundation Senior Program Officer Kathy Richmond's IP profile.)

While Allen is better known in scientific circles for his support of the Allen Institute for Brain Sciences, he obviously is interested in a more well-rounded approach to biotech philanthropy as well.