If the past is any indication of what's to come, science in Seattle could get a boost as billionaire Paul Allen makes good on his pledge to give away most of his wealth.
If the past is any indication of what’s to come, science in Seattle could get a boost as billionaire Paul Allen makes good on his pledge to give away most of his wealth.
The Microsoft co-founder has already established a cutting-edge brain-science institute in his hometown, helped build a computer-science center at the University of Washington, and funded local research on tuberculosis drugs.
Allen, whose charitable giving reflects his wide-ranging interests, announced Thursday that he intends to leave the bulk of his $13.5 billion estate to philanthropic causes. He singled out scientific research as a major focus and the Allen Institute for Brain Science as a model of the type of project he wants to emulate.
“His past investments have been significant both for the Seattle area and for science as a whole,” said Ed Lazowska, UW professor of computer science and engineering. “His future investments will be dramatically greater and dramatically higher impact.”
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Allen’s old friends Bill and Melinda Gates, along with investor Warren Buffett, recently challenged America’s uber-rich to pledge at least half their wealth to charitable pursuits. Allen, 57, said he has planned to do that for many years but had not gone public with his intentions until now.
“He and Bill have talked about this and he thinks it’s a good idea to let people know,” said David Postman, a spokesman for Allen at his corporation, Vulcan. “He hopes that maybe it spurs other people to give and he’s hoping there will be good things that come of it.”
Phil Buchanan, president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, praised Allen’s move.
“It’s terrific that somebody is stepping up in this way, and I hope it will … affect decisions at the kitchen tables of other multibillionaires.”
Allen picked Thursday for his announcement because it was the 20th anniversary of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.
Established in 1990 with his sister Jo Lynn Allen, the foundation has given 3,000 grants totaling about $400 million to a wide range of cultural, educational, scientific and philanthropic organizations. Allen has separately funded $600 million in projects.
Allen said he wanted to make it clear that his philanthropic efforts “will continue after my lifetime,” he said in a statement. “As our philanthropy continues in the years ahead, we will look for new opportunities to make a difference in the lives of future generations.”
This year, Forbes ranked Allen as the world’s 37th richest person. His total giving over the years has reached about $1 billion, reflecting eclectic interests including the founding of Experience Music Project and The Science Fiction Museum. He and Vulcan also own the Seattle Seahawks and Portland Trailblazers and have invested heavily in developing the South Lake Union neighborhood of Seattle.
While Gates’ charity has become global in size and ambition, Allen’s has remained mostly local and personal.
“Since the beginning, our philanthropy has been focused in the Pacific Northwest, where I live and work,” Allen said. “I’m proud to have helped fund great work done by nonprofit groups throughout the region. But there’s always more to do.”
Roughly 30 percent of Allen’s donations have gone to science- and engineering-related projects. They span a gamut from development of a private spaceship to the search for extraterrestrial life and analyses of cheetah and lion urine that may lead to scent “fences” to keep the endangered predators out of harm’s way.
“You can look at what he gives and get an idea of who he is and what he’s interested in,” Postman said.
While Allen hasn’t said when he will accelerate his philanthropic efforts, he’s starting to shop around.
“He is asking a lot of questions now and having people do a lot of research about needs in the region and around the world,” Postman said.
Allen seems to be interested in projects with a big scientific payoff, said Ken Stuart, director of Seattle BioMed. The private research lab received $5 million from Allen to accelerate the quest for tuberculosis drugs.
Stuart points out that Allen’s brain institute took on an “excruciatingly complex” scientific problem that traditional research-funding agencies would never have tackled: mapping gene activity across all regions of the mouse and human brain.
It’s not as sexy as rocket ships but creates a freely accessible storehouse of information that researchers around the world have come to rely on as they study brain function. “It’s an unfilled niche,” Stuart said.
As he sets his future science priorities, Allen will be looking for more of these “game-changing” types of projects, Postman said. “It’s a very practical kind of science.”
Stuart said, “He has a deep, intellectual curiosity. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s thinking about what is really going to make the most constructive, long-term impact.”
Science and engineering education are also high on Allen’s agenda. Locally, he sponsors programs to nurture young scholars. He also recently funded a girls school in Afghanistan.
Allen has battled non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma since his diagnosis last fall. He has finished chemotherapy treatments and has been doing well, Postman said. Allen traveled to Africa recently.
The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation also announced $3.9 million in funding to 41 nonprofit organizations in the Pacific Northwest, focused largely on arts and culture.
The foundation gave Anniversary grants of $20,000 each to five individual founders of nonprofits, recognized as “change agents who created organizations that continue to deliver high impact programs for local communities.”
The recipients are Rachel Bristol, founder and CEO of Oregon Food Bank; Bridget Cooke, founder and executive director of Adelante Mujeres in Forest Grove, Ore.; Jeanne Harmon, founder and executive director of the Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession in Tacoma; Myra Platt and Jane Jones, founders of Book-It Repertory Theatre in Seattle; and Stuart.
“It brought us to tears, it was incredibly moving,” Book-It’s Platt said of receiving the grant. “It’s such an honor to be recognized by the Allen Foundation, because they’ve been by our side for so many years now supporting us.”