Allan Jones, the Force Behind Paul Allen’s Vision for Brain Science

7/26/12Follow @xconomy

Nowhere along his life journey did Allan Jones appear destined to do big things as a biotech CEO. He was born into a family of musicians, not scientists. He passed on a chance to go to the Ivy League, thinking it too stuffy. He doesn’t seek attention. He deflects credit to others. He’s short. When he walks into a room, no one thinks “here comes the Alpha Dog.”

Most improbably, when he started nine years ago as employee No. 2 at Paul Allen’s then-vague brain science project, he had experience as a biologist and project manager, but no training in neuroscience.

Yet Jones, 43, has emerged as the key behind-the-scenes operator who has taken Allen’s vision much further than most scientists thought possible when it started in 2003. The Seattle-based Allen Institute for Brain Science started revving up for even bigger things in March when Allen said he was committing another $300 million over the next four years to the nonprofit effort to push the frontiers of neuroscience.

The institute has now secured $500 million in support since the beginning, and is doubling in size to about 350 employees. It has recruited star talents in the past year from Caltech, Stanford University, and Harvard Medical School, who were drawn to the institute’s new initiatives to ask some tough questions about cognition, vision, and perception. It’s all part of the next step in the Allen Institute’s ongoing mission to accelerate scientists’ understanding of how the brain works.

Already, the Allen Institute has created functional maps of the wiring in the adult mouse brain, the developing mouse brain, spinal cords of mice and humans, and the human brain. All of those maps are out in the public domain for scientists to use freely. And while scientists were deeply skeptical about the value of such a resource in the early years, or whether it could really be built, the Allen Institute now gets 50,000 unique visitors a month who use it to study things like how the brain goes awry in diseases like schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s.

Paul Allen (left) with Allan Jones at a March press conference

“Allan has done a remarkable job of staying the course on a very long project,” says Stephen Friend, the founder and former CEO of Rosetta Inpharmatics, where Jones worked previously. “It’s about having staying power, being able to justify ways to keep it continuing, and allowing it to ripen so that it gained value that’s way beyond what people thought it might have.”

Marc Tessier-Lavigne, a member of the Allen Institute’s scientific advisory board and the president of Rockefeller University in New York, says Jones’ ability to see the big picture strategy and also follow through on tactical details has been essential to the institute’s growth. The low-key personal style also has played a part, in helping him recruit a team with myriad skills needed to create such a brain map.

“The great thing about Allan is he’s entirely focused on getting the job done,” Tessier-Lavigne says. “He has no need to be in the limelight, he just wants to get the smartest people together to think things through, to identify the best ideas, and then execute on them. He doesn’t care if ideas are his or someone else’s.”

Jones started on his journey in Wichita, KS. He grew up there the younger of two sons in a family of musicians. His dad was a professor at Wichita State University, his mother taught music in the public schools, and both played in the local symphony. Jones started playing … Next Page »

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