Paul Allen Is No Second Act

UPDATED: January 28, 2009
PUBLISHED: January 28, 2009

Paul Allen wears a big beard in the old photo. Bill Gates looks like he’s 15. Standing behind them are nine colleagues dressed in tieless plaid shirts or other informal attire in an era when Brooks Brothers suits signified business success. “Microsoft 1978,” the caption says, adding, “Would you have invested?”

That little company, of course, would become one of the biggest corporations of all time. The old photo went viral and is loaded with symbolism: The self-taught techies proved that young people could launch behemoth businesses and ultimately change the world. And Allen—the son of a schoolteacher and university librarian who scrimped to send him to the private school where he met kindred-spirit Gates—became one of the richest people in the world.

Only a few years earlier, Allen and Gates were dreaming about an entrepreneurial future. It was the early ’70s and Allen was a college dropout who lived in a lousy apartment and drove an oil-burning 1964 Chrysler New Yorker. He asked Gates how big the company could be if everything went right. “I think we could get it up to 35 programmers,” Gates replied. “That sounded really ambitious to me,” Allen recalls thinking.

In a rare interview from his sprawling waterfront estate in the affluent Seattle suburb of Mercer Island, Allen speaks about what it takes to be an entrepreneur. Fearlessness tops the list, says Allen, who is surrounded as always by technology including a laptop, an iPad and a smartphone. “You’ve got to be fearless and willing to try something new that most times is unproven in the particular way you’re trying to do it. So you have to have that fearlessness and conviction that you can pull it off, and you have to have the skill set to pull it off. And you’ve got to have people who you can team up with to pull it off. I was very fortunate that at Microsoft, I had some ideas, I had a great partner in Bill to help manifest those ideas, and it all came together.”

Allen, who turns 59 in January, took some chances early on, quitting what he considered a dead-end job at Honeywell in Massachusetts to go off and start Micro-Soft (later Microsoft). “The guys at Honeywell thought I was crazy to leave Honeywell to go out to Albuquerque by myself to work for what they viewed as a fly-by-night computer company,” he chuckles. “But it worked out.”

This much you may already know about Allen. But it’s what he did with his Microsoft billions after leaving the tech giant in 1983 that may prove even more significant. Last April, his $100 million investment to create the Allen Institute for Brain Science resulted in a computerized atlas of the human brain. The atlas, available on the Internet at no charge to users, is a powerful tool to help scientists understand where and how genes are at work in the brain, potentially providing clues to conditions including Alzheimer’s disease, autism and schizophrenia.

Researchers applauded the achievement. “The Allen atlas tells you where a gene is turned on in the brain, and that’s why it’s important,” neurologist and epilepsy researcher Jeffrey L. Noebels told The Wall Street Journal. “The location of where these genes are active is at the very center of understanding how brain diseases work.”

Named to Time magazine’s list of 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2007 and 2008, Allen says he’s always been fascinated by the brain. “Most neuroscience researchers are highly specialized, pursuing their questions in discrete areas of the brain as though they’re drilling into an orange with a needle. I wanted to cover the entire rind and help scientists locate the most promising spots to drill, to get them probing faster and deeper that much sooner,” he writes in his 2011 memoir, Paul Allen: Idea Man. So, he invited 21 scientists to help figure out how to do that during a three-day brainstorming session in 2002 aboard his 300-foot yacht, Tatoosh. At the conclusion of their meeting, the scientists agreed that a brain atlas was worthwhile as the institute’s inaugural project.

Institute scientists previously mapped the mouse brain and created a spinal cord atlas, and they continually update online resources to make it easier for the thousands of researchers worldwide who use the data.

Sometimes viewed as the forgotten Microsoft co-founder, Allen, like Gates, has pledged to give away half of his fortune. He already has given away more than $1 billion. His family foundation has made grants primarily in the Northwest benefiting science and technology, the arts, community development, education, libraries and emergency relief.

Of course, he’s had fun with his fortune, too. He indulged his interests in sports through ownership of the Seattle Seahawks and Portland Trail Blazers and co-ownership of the Seattle Sounders soccer team. He created a science-fiction museum, an assemblage of restored World War II aircraft and the interactive Experience Music Project in Seattle. He provided financial backing for the first private manned spaceflight, SpaceShipOne. His Vulcan Productions independent film company has produced numerous PBS series. And as an amateur guitarist, Allen was dubbed the “coolest billionaire in the world” by Business Insider for hiring famous musicians to jam with him at will.

Amazingly, almost all of Allen’s accomplishments occurred after he became seriously ill with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1982. Although the disease caused him to scale back activities with Microsoft, he fought the illness, became cancer-free and kept pursuing new ideas. “In many ways, it’s a very exciting story, just that part of it. He didn’t withdraw. He’s continued as a great philanthropist,” says Paul Levinson, a Fordham University communications professor and author of New New Media, published in 2009.

In November 2009, Allen was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. While treatable, the disease already reached stage IV and spread beyond the lymph nodes, making the odds of a cure less than 50 percent. His sister, Jody Allen, told the Seattle Times: “This is tough news for Paul and the family,” but “he is optimistic he can beat this.”

Just as his first illness prompted him to rethink the course of his life, Allen says his more recent diagnosis provided “a big impetus” to dive in and work on his memoir. “Certainly when you have any sort of life-threatening illness, you take stock of what you’ve been doing and you think about what’s really important to you,” Allen says, adding that his cancer is in remission. “If your remaining time is limited, what do you want to spend your time doing? You think about all those things in a very focused way.” Working on the book “actually helped me. It was a good daily focus as I was going through chemo.

“One thing I realized is there’s no point in being pessimistic and depressed,” says Allen, who was visited regularly by his sister and Gates during the difficult period, which included six rounds of chemotherapy. “You’re going to feel that to some degree, but if you just let that overtake the other things you’re thinking about or wanting to accomplish even while you’re being challenged, then you’re not going to be productive in whatever the challenging situation is. You have to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and use the help of friends and family to get through those challenging personal situations.”

Taking stock of lessons he’s learned through the years, Allen says his biggest ideas all began with a stage-setting development. Example: Intel’s evolution of more powerful computer chips in the early ’70s. That prompted Allen to pursue a few questions, which he applies to all of his big ideas: Where is the leading edge of discovery headed? What should exist but doesn’t yet? How can I create something to help meet the need? Who can I enlist to help?

In running through these questions early on, it occurred to him that if an affordable, powerful minicomputer ever got on the market, he and Gates could write an operating system for it, making it possible for ordinary people to buy computers for their offices and homes for the first time. His big idea was mating two things never before associated with each other—in this case, a minicomputer and software powerful enough to make it work like those big computers in universities.

Famously, he stopped at Out of Town News in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass., on a cold December day in 1974 and was riveted by the cover of Popular Electronics. It announced the Altair 8800, the world’s first minicomputer kit to rival commercial models at a cost of $397. “The era of the computer in every home—a favorite topic among science-fiction writers—has arrived,” the article stated. Allen hurried to Gates’ dorm, and the two a decided to contact the Altair maker to say they could provide software to make it usable for hobbyists. Yet they hadn’t written the first line of code. “We were young and green enough to believe that we just might pull it off,” recalls Allen. Despite some challenges (they didn’t even own an Altair, so couldn’t check whether their product worked until the actual high-pressure meeting), they succeded.

Allen says pulling off a big idea requires people with complementary talents. “There are relatively few ideas that you can do just by yourself,” Allen says. He feels lucky to have had partners like Gates, Burt Rutan of SpaceShipOne and Allan Jones of the brain institute.

Hard work and being philosophical about setbacks are also important, he says. “You have to be vigilant about other competitive products or other competitive ideas coming down the pike. You’ve got to be sure that once those emerge, learn from those, make your product better. Each time you do one of these things, you’re going to have setbacks and reversals. Some key piece of code isn’t going to be written where it needed to be. Or somebody could quit. There’s going to be reversals. You have to be ready, to be philosophical about that. Say: ‘OK, we’ve had a reversal, something is late. By the time we overcome that, how do we improve the schedule, how do we hang in financially before we can get our product out in the market?’ ”

Finding the next big idea also requires knowledge of the latest advances in your field, as well as challenges in the world, Allen says. Then you have to ask: What can I do to meet those needs or solve problems? When you find something that’s promising, you still need to make sure nothing like it exists. “That’s what I call the ‘go where they’re not’—you want to go where other people aren’t doing something already,” Allen says.

After the Altair success, computer behemoth IBM began shipping out personal computers with the operating system Allen helped write. “It struck me that the code I helped to write would fundamentally change the way people worked, played and communicated,” Allen reflects in his memoir. “Having that kind of impact forever changes your sense of purpose in life. It’s a feeling you’ll always want to find again.”

Nowadays, Allen’s role often involves weighing ideas he hears from smart people and recognizing when they may be onto the next big idea. He then tries to translate that idea into something more powerful, as his team did by holding the neuroscience brainstorming that led to the Allen Institute’s brain atlas.

Looking back, Allen says that if there’s any irony to his life, it’s that his eight hard-driven years at Microsoft represented an unusually one-dimensional time of his life. The son of parents who gave him freedom to explore, he spent his childhood playing with chemistry sets and sketching rocket ships and figuring out the inner workings of machines. Leaving Microsoft freed him to explore wide-ranging passions—descending into ocean depths in his own submarine launched from one of his mega-yachts, playing guitar with Dan Aykroyd and other celebs, pursuing ways to supply clean water to Africa, and restoring vintage warplanes, as inspired by his dad’s World War II service as a lieutenant with the 501st Quartermaster Railhead Company in France and Germany.

“Over the last 27 years,” Allen writes, “I’ve been able to do things I once only imagined. I have now lived half my life post-Microsoft. What we achieved there will always be a source of pride. But my second act, in all its range and variety, is truer to my nature.”