Paul G. Allen: Cofounder of Microsoft, Visionary and Philanthropist

Paul G. Allen: Cofounder of Microsoft, Visionary and Philanthropist
Paul G. Allen. Photo by Kevin Cruff courtesy of Vulcan

By Dr. George B. Kauffman

Paul Gardner Allen died at the age of 65 on Oct. 15, 2018, after a nine-year battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Allen was born on Jan. 21, 1953, in Seattle, Wash., where his father was associate director of the University of Washington Libraries. His parents were Kenneth Sam Allen and Edna Faye Allen (née Gardner). He attended the public/private Lakeside School in Haller Lake Seattle, where Bill Gates was two years younger than he.

Often dressed in a blue shirt and dark pants, Allen did not stand out in appearance (Fig. 1). He was soft-spoken and reserved in conversation. With his insatiable curiosity, vision, breadth of knowledge and generosity, he focused on identifying problems and making a difference. He moved to push everyone out of their comfort zones and focus on scientific horizons appearing just beyond reach.

Allen and Gates were passionate about computing, which was done on the large mainframes that were seen as the future of the field. Allen took his perfect SAT score to Washington State University in Pullman for college, but he dropped out after two years and moved to Boston to work near Gates, who was attending Harvard University.

In 1974, the cover of an upcoming issue of Popular Electronics magazine showed the Altair8800, touted as the world’s first microcomputer. Allen showed this to Gates and quickly envisioned that this could lead to a computer on every desk. Struck by the potential opportunities, Bill dropped out of school as well.

Bill Gates. Photo courtesy of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Although most of the interest at the time was in improving the hardware, Allen and Gates saw the need for software that would democratize computing, making the computer accessible to everyone and allowing it to play a pervasive role in writing, communication and accounting. Together, they launched Microsoft in 1975. In 1981, IBM adapted their system for its new personal computer.

In 1983, when Allen was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, he retired from Microsoft. In 1986, he formed Vulcan, Inc., a privately held company that oversaw his wide swath of business and philanthropic activities that reflected his passions, including pop culture (Museum of Pop Culture, or MoPOP), music (Upstream Music Fest), art (Seattle Art Fair), sports (Seattle Seahawks, Portland Trail Blazers and Seattle Sounders FC), movies (Cinerama), film (Vulcan Productions), airplanes (Stratolaunch and Flying Heritage Collection), the environment, and climate and conservation. All of these endeavors were marked by Allen’s desire to do it differently and make a big impact.

Allen also funded numerous scientific initiatives, including the Allen Institute for Brain Science, the Allen Institute for Cell Science, the Allen Distinguished Investigators, the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence and the Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group, along with diverse workshops. All these focused on fundamental questions about the nature of computations and the inherent complexity of living systems. The guiding principles of these initiatives included team science and open science.

The Allen institutes diverged from the typical academic university or institute, practicing industrial-scale science with clearly specified objectives and timelines. For example, during the early 2000s, the Allen Institute for Brain Science introduced large-scale team science to create an atlas of gene expression in the mouse brain. The atlas was presented in an easily accessible and useful format, providing a unique resource for the neuroscience community.

Allen had a passion for science. If his life had evolved differently, he might have been a university professor. He was always pushing for “big ideas” and “ways in.” He was deeply interested in unlocking the mysteries of wildly complex processes, pressing us to address the “unsolved mysteries” and find the “codes” in biological sciences. His interests extended from brains to cells, evolution to artificial intelligence, and elephants to oceans, areas in which he took both an intellectual and personal interest.

Allen was most animated when a small group of colleagues was circling around a new idea, something that he had spurred as part of his uncanny ability to question dogma. A visit to his office often ended up at the whiteboard, which he would fill with diagrams of cellular processes. He was right there at the board with everyone, drawing ideas and pacing. On the windowsill sat elephant statues and awards for discoveries and films, reminding everyone of his great range of concerns for living things and for science.

Allen’s style was to engage small groups of experts in charrettes (multi day planning meetings), listening intently to the arguments for and against various ideas and approaches. Once a topic was chosen and a plan developed, it would be presented to Allen, who asked the hard questions about feasibility, strategic advantage, risks and alternative approaches.

Instead of simply recapitulating a plan, he went right to the few key ideas, asking for embellishment and clarity. He would ask “How will we know if we’re successful?” and “Is this the right time?” His approach drove a discipline of thought and focus spurring the success of his many endeavors. In these meetings, Allen showed his enormous intellectual breadth and creativity as he looked for new ways to think about the problem, conjoin disciplines and penetrate deeply into the topic.

Although everyone saw Allen only occasionally, he e-mailed often, at nearly any time of the day or night. He sent articles that he had read or asked about talks that he had heard. The e-mails came with questions about everyone’s thoughts, how they could make a difference, what the roadblocks would be or how much it would cost.

The things that Allen started will live on through the research and discovery enterprises that he fostered and through the people in whom he invested. He never shied away from pushing everyone to think big and attack unsolved mysteries in science. Allen always reminded everyone, as he wrote in his April 1, 2016, editorial in Science, that “all of us—philanthropists, governments, universities, and private companies alike—must invest much more in basic, fundamental science and in the intrepid scientists who are willing to pursue out-of-the-box approaches at the very edges of knowledge.”


George B. Kauffman, Ph.D., chemistry professor emeritus at Fresno State and a Guggenheim Fellow, is a recipient of the American Chemical Society’s George C. Pimentel Award in Chemical Education, the Helen M. Free Award for Public Outreach and the Award for Research at an Undergraduate Institution, and numerous domestic and international honors. In 2002 and 2011, he was appointed a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Chemical Society, respectively.


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