Paul Allen’s Contributions, Far Beyond Microsoft, Touched the Brain, AI & More

Xconomy Seattle — 

Technology and life sciences leaders say they’ll remember Paul Allen, the Microsoft co-founder, philanthropist, and investor who passed away Monday at age 65, as an “inspiration” whose work will impact the fields he worked in for years to come.

Allen died from complications of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, according to a statement from Vulcan, the Seattle-based philanthropy and investment firm he led. Allen was in Seattle at the time of his passing, Vulcan said.

Allen and Bill Gates co-founded Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) in 1975. Allen spent eight years at the company, helping to lay the groundwork for Microsoft’s eventual emergence as one of the country’s dominant technology corporations. In 1986, three years after he resigned from Microsoft, Allen founded Vulcan. The organization oversees his business and philanthropic activities—everything from an institute supporting neuroscience research to the pro sports teams in the Pacific Northwest he owned.

“When I think about Paul, I remember a passionate man who held his family and friends dear,” Gates wrote in a remembrance of Allen. “I also remember a brilliant technologist and philanthropist who wanted to accomplish great things, and did.”

Allen was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1982, which precipitated his departure from Microsoft. He had a second brush with the disease more than two decades later. Then in 2012, he announced a $300 million commitment to support research at the Seattle-based nonprofit Allen Institute for Brain Science, which he founded in 2003. That brought his total investment in the institute to more than $500 million.

“Paul Allen truly had a commitment to addressing the big questions and getting results, tackling the moonshot-type questions,” says Robert Desimone, who directs the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT. “The idea of mapping the 86 billion neurons in the human brain is exactly such a goal … When I visited the Allen Institute, I was struck by the scale of the effort, the willingness to share and open up the data so that anybody could access it, and the scope of the results being obtained. Paul Allen was the inspiration behind this effort and drove it.”

Allen also made philanthropic gifts through the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. The foundation supported innovation in a range of areas, from artificial intelligence to vaccines for infectious diseases to housing the homeless in Seattle.

“Paul Allen was an inspiration, a mentor, and partner in posing the most fundamental question about intelligence,” Oren Etzioni, CEO of the Allen Institute for AI, wrote in a post on LinkedIn, the Microsoft-owned networking site. Etzioni wrote that he and his colleagues “plan to do everything over the coming years to continue to deliver against Paul’s vision and to help further his legacy.”

Ed Boyden, a professor in neurotechnology at MIT, says he first got to know Allen through an invention organization headed by former Microsoft chief technology officer Nathan Myhrvold.

After working with Allen on an idea for cancer detection, Boyden and some of his colleagues received funding from Allen’s foundation, which helped the researchers with a project related to “whole-brain observation,” Boyden says.

“I was impressed that Paul came to our progress report meetings where we discussed our ideas and data, and would scrutinize the slides and think about what we were doing,” Boyden says. “His enthusiasm was always intense … His impact on neuroscience has been enormous. The resources and tools his institute made will have [an] impact on the field of neuroscience for many years to come.”

Xconomy’s Corie Lok contributed to this report.