Brain scan: Microsoft’s other mogul

“THE brain is quite unlike a computer. Instead of memory and a few calculating elements, evolution designed every little bit of it to be hideously complex,” says Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft and main benefactor of the Allen Institute for Brain Science. “And then when you start studying every little bit of it, you find there’s even additional complexity. Understanding how the brain works is a fiendishly challenging problem.”

It is a problem that Mr Allen is doing his best to solve. For the past decade, his institute, based in Seattle, has been mapping the grey matter of mice, primates and humans on an industrial scale. Thin slices of tissue are analysed to pinpoint the three-dimensional locations in the brain where individual genes—20,000 in mice alone—have a biological effect. Laboratory robots and automated cameras feed this cellular-level data into vast databases that in turn populate online multimedia brain “atlases”, freely accessible to all.

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“There’s a wave of enthusiasm and recognition for open data which started with the Human Genome Project,” says Mr Allen. “These databases can really kick-start development in many areas. That’s what I wanted to do.” There are signs he might be succeeding. Since the institute’s mouse-brain atlas was completed in 2006, it has helped identify genes that may play roles in obesity, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s and other diseases. The human-brain atlas launched in 2010.

Mr Allen’s enthusiasm for openness is perhaps surprising. Microsoft, the software giant he co-founded in 1975 with his schoolmate Bill Gates, enjoyed years of dominance with its proprietary Windows operating systems. Its current boss, Steve Ballmer, once likened open-source software, whose code is made available to all online, to cancer. Mr Allen sees no contradiction, however. “For me, there’s a difference between science and technology,” he says. “If you’re trying to lift all scientific boats around the world, you need to have open systems. If you’re developing technologies for commercial projects, that’s a whole different perspective.”

In the 1970s Mr Allen helped write the software that would make Microsoft a household name. He used a mainframe computer to devise simulations of the microprocessors that powered the very first personal computers. This allowed him and Mr Gates to develop software extremely quickly—on at least one occasion, before the machine it was intended to run on even existed.

“Through a lot of hard work and being early, it all fell into place,” remembers Mr Allen. “We worked crazy hours and ate a lot of pizza.” They also inspired stories that have since echoed through computing, such as hacking into a local company’s files to secure free access to its mainframes or selling an operating system to IBM that they had only licensed the day before. “Working with Bill was one of those partnerships where one plus one equals much more than either of us could have accomplished individually,” he says.

A walk in the PARC

As early as 1977, Mr Allen envisaged a future in which home computers linked by high-speed fibre-optic cables would allow people to order groceries or sell their cars. A visit to Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC) in 1980 showed him how such a system might operate. There, Mr Allen saw for the first time the graphical user interface and mouse that Microsoft’s Windows software would later rely on, as well as prototypes of Ethernet networking and laser printers.

But Mr Allen’s time running Microsoft was nearly over. Fighting Hodgkin’s lymphoma cancer, and frustrated by his co-founder’s confrontational management style, Mr Allen withdrew from day-to-day operations in 1982 and retired from Microsoft the following year. But his 36% stake in the growing company made him fabulously wealthy when the company went public in 1986 (Wired magazine dubbed him the “accidental zillionaire”).

Mr Allen immediately ploughed some of his new-found wealth (currently estimated at $15 billion) into local projects. He owns several sports teams in the Pacific Northwest and has showered Seattle with tourist landmarks, including an elaborate cinema, a music and science-fiction museum housed in a striking Frank Gehry building, a collection of rare military aircraft and a Living Computer Museum that restores vintage computers.

Yet despite his taste for nostalgia, Mr Allen’s primary focus remained the creation of a fully digitised society. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, he invested in more than 100 internet, media and communications firms as part of a strategy he called “wired world”. A few paid off handsomely, such as his timely investment in America Online, then an early internet-service provider. Others were less successful. SkyPix, the world’s first digital-satellite broadcaster, went bankrupt without selling a single dish. Metricom, a broadband mobile data provider, followed suit after it struggled to attract customers.

“I’ve been too early a number of times,” admits Mr Allen. “But I’d rather be early than too late. A lot of things have to line up to have a successful start-up. You learn some very expensive lessons as life goes on.” Lessons do not come much pricier than Mr Allen’s unfortunate forays into fibre-optic cable TV, which eventually cost him a staggering $8 billion.

Perhaps Mr Allen’s most ambitious effort to realise his vision of a connected world was the founding of Interval Research in 1992. Intended to reproduce the innovative dynamism of Xerox PARC, Interval was home to leading researchers from Stanford, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Bell Labs and PARC itself, as well as artists, journalists and a parapsychologist. The lab cooked up some fascinating ideas, but none of the seven start-ups it spun off made any money, and Mr Allen closed Interval Research in 2000.

“Innovation in anything is a peculiar thing,” says Mr Allen. “You can set the table, bring on great people and challenge them with great problems that need to be solved, but it’s unpredictable what’s going to come out.” Interval Research did manage to file around 300 patents, a few of which were later used to sue 11 technology companies including Apple, Google and Facebook—but not Microsoft. This led Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple, to remark in 2011 that “Paul Allen should be out there investing in companies that are making products, actually making a new future for the world, not getting in bed with lawyers to make money.”

Interval’s demise did not dampen Mr Allen’s enthusiasm for risky ventures. In 2000 he was approached by Burt Rutan, an aerospace engineer who was profiled in this column last year, with a design for a winged, carbon-fibre spacecraft. It would be launched from a jet-powered mother ship, fly to the edge of space using a rocket never before used for manned flight, transform into a “shuttlecock” configuration for re-entry and then turn back into a glider to land on a normal runway. Although Mr Rutan had made and flown dozens of advanced propeller and jet aircraft, he had never built anything powered by a rocket or capable of supersonic flight. Nevertheless, Mr Allen promised to fund the development of the world’s first private spaceship. “What Burt will draw on a napkin is pretty inspiring,” says Mr Allen. “I don’t think anyone else would have had the ability to pull that off.”

Just four years later, Mr Rutan’s SpaceShipOne made its successful maiden voyage. The entire project cost Mr Allen just $28m: less than one-tenth of the cost of a single Space Shuttle mission. Two years later he recouped his investment by licensing SpaceShipOne’s technology to Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, a space-tourism firm. Then in 2011 Mr Allen formed a company called Stratolaunch to scale up the air-launch system to send rockets into orbit. The carrier aircraft is currently being manufactured using parts from two second-hand Boeing 747s. When finished, probably in 2015, it will be the largest plane ever flown. “Stratolaunch will be unique in that it won’t need a launch pad. You can take off from a big airstrip, fly out over the ocean and rapidly do multiple launches,” says Mr Allen.

The Vulcan empire

Not all Mr Allen’s current business interests are quite so out of this world, however. The portfolio of Vulcan, his investment firm, includes energy companies, financial services, computer-chip technologies, film producers and web start-ups. He has a long-term research effort called Project Halo that aims to encapsulate artificial intelligence within digital textbooks, to help teach students in developing countries and assist researchers. Mr Allen says he is still rooting for Microsoft, in which he still owns a large stake, though he worries that the firm has grown big and sluggish. “There are a number of areas where Microsoft is playing catch up, trying to claw back market share from Apple, Google or others,” he says. “They have to jump on changes in technology or they’re in danger of being left behind.”

Although science is more forgiving than commerce, Mr Allen continues to spend freely to keep his Institute for Brain Science at the cutting edge. Last year he raised his financial commitment to half a billion dollars, dwarfing a $100m brain-imaging initiative announced by Barack Obama in April. “The Brain Institute started out doing data-gathering research. Now we’ve shifted gears to the really hard work of figuring how to work with this data and find out what it means,” he says. This will, he says, take “many decades”.

And Mr Allen now seems to be embarking on yet another grand mission. In August he invited scientists and experts in the field of cell biology to Seattle to brainstorm ideas around fighting cancer. The Allen Institute for Brain Science was born out of a similar workshop. But there are still some problems that daunt even a billionaire. “It’s important to get serious about climate change,” says Mr Allen. “I would differentiate between something that can be done for tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, like scientific research, and things that require trillions. Solving global warming is a many trillion-dollar problem, if it gets addressed at all.”

That’s not to say he isn’t trying. “Bill Gates and I still talk fairly frequently and we both see the importance of nuclear energy,” says Mr Allen. “Different forms of nuclear energy have to be part of the answer.” Mr Gates has invested in a pioneering reactor fuelled by nuclear waste, while Mr Allen has a stake in a firm working on nuclear fusion.

“I’m trying to be a catalyst in all these different areas, looking over the horizon to see where things are going and pushing them through to fruition,” he says. Like a catalyst, Mr Allen’s work in software, space travel and basic science has certainly accelerated the pace of change. But he confesses to having been altered in the process, most notably by his enduring relationship with Bill Gates. “Sometimes you have these partnerships that accomplish more than you or anyone expects,” says Mr Allen. “Although we’ve had our moments of disagreement, it’s been an amazingly productive relationship for both of us.”

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