Paul Allen, the Quiet Billionaire with Fingerprints All Over Seattle, Shows the Hometown Crowd a Bit of Himself

4/25/11Follow @xconomy

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Being surprised by the enormity of his custom-made mega-yacht, the Octopus.

“The biggest yacht that I have basically accommodates a submarine. And what these guys do, these captains, they’ll say, ‘Paul, we know you want to build a bigger boat. And here’s a model.’ It’s about this big,” he said, indicating about the size of a loaf of bread. “And the submarine goes in the back here. And it’s going to be pretty good-sized. And then they start building it, and you go to Germany and you see it, and you go, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s really big.’ No, no—it’s enormous.”

Perhaps Allen’s biggest applause of the night came when he described what it was like to dive in the ship’s submarine—a line that certainly appealed to his fellow children of the ’60s. “It turns out if you go 1,000 feet down in the ocean, it’s really dark. And the animals are really strange. But if you put on some Pink Floyd, it’s fantastic.”

Allen described himself several times as someone who likes to look ahead for what the future of computing will hold for the world. One of his key recent projects, the Allen Institute for Brain Science, furthers that goal by using the convergence of computing power and medical research to unlock secrets about the brain and find new treatments.

After helping to change the way modern life is conducted with Microsoft, it sounded like Allen is aiming for a second major mark on history with brain research—something close to home, as his mother suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.

“I remember, when the millionth PC shipped, I just thought, ‘There’s a million people out there maybe using my code.’ And it was such a rewarding feeling,” Allen said. “You just hope that [with] something like the Brain Institute, 20 to 50 years from now there’s earlier treatments for disease, we could really understand how the brain works. Some of these things are hugely interesting and rewarding to think about.”

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