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Paul Allen at the Allen Institute for Brain Science.

Paul Allen at the Allen Institute for Brain Science.

Kevin Cruff

Microsoft pioneer invests big, again, in bioscience

Paul G. Allen, who built a fortune as co-founder of Microsoft, is showering science once more with his money. The philanthropist behind the 13-year-old Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, Washington, and several other science efforts today announced the creation of a new bioscience research initiative funded with an initial investment of $100 million over the next 10 years.

The newly created Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group has selected four initial researchers—Jennifer Doudna of the University of California (UC), Berkeley, Ethan Bier of UC San Diego, James Collins of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, and Bassem Hassan of the Brain and Spine Institute in Paris—to receive $1.5 million each to study topics ranging from novel techniques for gene editing, how shapes and forms arise over the course of evolution, and how synthetic biology can create microbes that trap and kill dangerous bacteria. Allen will also fund two new $30 million research centers at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, and Tufts University in Boston; Stanford researchers will model how bacteria interact with immune cells, whereas the Tufts group will seek to crack the biological code that determines how tissues are created. To determine which investigators would receive the Frontier Group’s first grants, “we asked everyone the same question: What is the dark matter of bioscience?” says its executive director, biomedical engineer Tom Skalak in Seattle. That includes fundamental questions about organisms’ growth, development, and regeneration, such as how the epigenetic code works to control tissue function, he says.

Awardees such as Doudna, who helped to invent the revolutionary gene-editing tool CRISPR, are already well-funded by public and private grantors such as the National Institutes of Health and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. But Skalak says Allen intends to fund such established scientists’ work in “wholly new” areas: Doudna, for example, will explore a new mechanism to edit cellular function by targeting RNA. “It’s a bet on a proven artist [to fund] their next masterpiece,” Skalak says.


It’s a bet on a proven artist [to fund] their next masterpiece.

Tom Skalak


Expect more such bets to be placed by the group in the coming years. The program is a departure from Allen’s previous approach to science funding, which has largely focused on amassing large, descriptive data sets, such as the Mouse Brain Atlas at the Allen Institute. The “new vision,” Skalak says, is to identify areas in bioscience that are ripe for a major breakthrough, then fund specific investigators to pursue advances in areas ranging from heart disease to food production and agriculture. “Our plan is to keep listening and remain agile, because the boundaries of knowledge keep getting pushed out and reshaped.”