Seattle billionaire Paul Allen added another venture to his philanthropic portfolio today with the creation of the Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group, a $100 million program to support research on the frontiers of bioscience.
The effort aims to establish Allen Discovery Centers at research institutions around the world, and provide millions of dollars to Allen Distinguished Investigators for cutting-edge biological and medical research. Bioengineer Tom Skalak, the Frontiers Group’s founding executive director, said the support should “create entire new fields in some cases.”
Allen unveiled the program at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., amid endorsements from the presidents of the national academies of science, engineering and medicine. He said the goal of the Frontiers Group, which will be headquartered in Seattle, is to fund “out-of-the-box approaches at the very edges of knowledge.”
“This of course entails a risk of setbacks and failures,” he said. “But without risk, there is rarely significant reward, and unless we try truly novel approaches, we may never find the answers we seek.”
Allen said the concept grew out of his other research initiatives – which include Seattle-based institutes for brain science, cell science and artificial intelligence, as well as projects focused on global health and the fight against the Ebola virus. The discoveries that are brought to light by the Frontiers Group are likely to feed into existing initiatives, he said.
“We hope there’s cross-pollination,” he told GeekWire.
Allen first made his fortune as one of the founders of Microsoft, and his current net worth is estimated at $17.8 billion.
Bioscience has been a big interest of his, but it’s by no means the only interest: His business properties include Vulcan Aerospace for spaceflight and Vulcan Productions for film and TV, plus the Portland Trail Blazers and the Seattle Seahawks in the sports world. He’s the keeper of some of Seattle’s cultural jewels, such as the EMP Museum and the Cinerama Theater. His philanthropic activities extend to elephant conservation, ocean health and much more.
Allen said he saw researchers in the biological sciences as pioneers for a new frontier that will be as transformative as the computer revolution has been. “We must invest in these scientists,” he said.
The first batch of centers and investigators helps illustrate what the Frontiers Group is all about.
Allen Discovery Centers will conduct research in partnership with major research institutions and universities. The Frontiers Group will typically provide $20 million over the course of eight years, with another $10 million provided by partners. Two centers already have been established:
- Stanford University’s center will focus on creating computer models for large systems of whole cells, and how they interact with their environments. The first challenge will be to study how Salmonella bacteria interact with the immune system, and how drug resistance arises in bacterial populations. The center’s leader is Stanford’s Markus Covert. The team will include researchers from Stanford and the University of Virginia, as well as former Google software engineers.
- Tufts University’s center will study and manipulate the biological code that determines anatomical structure and function during embryonic development, regeneration and tumor suppression. Such work could lead to crucial links between evolutionary theory and cancer biology. Tufts University’s Michael Levin will lead the center, and researchers will be drawn from Tufts, Harvard, Princeton and other universities.
Allen Distinguished Investigators will typically pursue early-stage research with the potential to reinvent entire fields of biological science. The first four investigators will receive $1.5 million each:
- Ethan Bier of the University of California at San Diego will try to uncover the design principles used in evolution to make large-scale physical changes across species. The approach, known as “active genetics,” could be applied to medicine, agriculture and environmental remediation. Last year, Bier and his colleagues pioneered a genetic speed-up strategy called mutagenic chain reaction.
- James Collins of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will use the principles of synthetic biology to engineer safe, frequently consumed bacteria to detect and kill dangerous bacteria, such as those that cause drug-resistant MRSA infections in hospitals. Last year, Collins and his colleagues used genetically engineered organisms known as “phagemids” to target specific types of bacteria with toxins.
- Jennifer Doudna of the University of California at Berkeley, one of the inventors of the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology, will work on new strategies to edit parts of the genome that are currently inaccessible to CRISPR. She’ll also focus on RNA-based strategies that could provide a way to control cell behaviors without targeting the genome directly.
- Bassem Hassan of France’s Institut du Cerveau et de la Moelle Epiniere will study how “molecular noise” during maturation and development leads to wide variations in the details of neural circuits. The neural circuitry of fruit flies will serve as Hassan’s testing ground. In January, Hassan and his colleagues reported the discovery of a previously unknown mechanism by which proteins regulate brain development.