Paul Allen Gives $7.5M to Little-Known Scientists Dreaming Big

2/28/13Follow @xconomy

Just a few days after tech moguls Mark Zuckerberg and Sergey Brin gave a bunch of prize money to some of biotech’s biggest stars, along comes Paul Allen doing his own thing, giving his money to some lesser-known scientists striving for all different kinds of breakthroughs.

The Seattle-based Paul G. Allen Family Foundation said today it is giving away $7.5 million to scientists at MIT, UC San Francisco, UC San Diego, Stanford University and Yale University who are working on what it calls “pioneering research projects that aim to unlock fundamental questions in biology.” The competitive grants are designed to run for a three-year cycle, and help propel far-out research that wouldn’t otherwise be able to get support from traditional, conservative funding sources like the National Institutes of Health.

“I’ve always been drawn to the big open questions of science. But the pioneering scientists working to answer them can’t promise quick discoveries and often find it difficult to get funding from traditional sources,” Allen said in a statement. “For us to make progress, we must take risks and invest now in this early-stage, cutting-edge research. Backing these scientists is essential to achieving world-changing breakthroughs.”

This month, another notable tech-meets-biotech story came when Facebook’s Zuckerberg, Google’s Brin, and billionaire Yuri Milner established a new award called the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. They gave $33 million in total to a group of 11 biology superstars that included MIT’s Eric Lander and Robert Weinberg, Kyoto University’s Shinya Yamanaka, and UC San Diego’s Napoleone Ferrara.

Critics of the prize argued that those big names don’t need more money, and that more support should go to lesser-known young scientists who are having a hard time getting established in a time of NIH budget cuts. Allen, as it turns out, has been directing his philanthropy in that direction for some time, as he established the Allen Distinguished Investigators program back in 2010 with an original round of $9 million in support for some edgy work in neuroscience and technology development. Bill Gates has also supported young scientists with far-out ideas, through his foundation’s Grand Challenges in Global Health program.

Here’s who won the latest round of grants from Allen.

• Jeff Gore, an assistant professor of physics at MIT, is getting $1.5 million to study how game theory might provide insights into cellular decision making of single-celled yeast.

• Markus Covert, an assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford University, got $1.5 million to work on technology to provide models of whole cells in complex organisms, including humans.

• Suckjoon Jun, an assistant professor of physics and molecular biology at UC San Diego, is getting $1.6 million to work on long-term directed evolution experiments at the single-cell level.

• Hana El-Samad, an assistant professor of biochemistry and biophysics at UC-San Francisco, won $1.43 million to use algorithms to better understand how signals get encoded and decoded in cellular circuits.

• A team of three scientists—Thierry Emonet of Yale University; Thomas S. Shimizu at the FOM Institute for Atomic and Molecular Physics, and Steven Zucker at Yale University—were awarded $1.44 million to use a combination of microbiology, physics, and applied math to understand how “even the simplest biological systems, such as bacteria, to engage in coordinated behavior while exploiting rather than suppressing individuality.”

Allen is better known in biotech circles for his support of the Seattle-based Allen Institute for Brain Sciences, but he apparently takes interest in this form of his philanthropy as well. The Seattle Times notes today in its story that Allen personally called Suckjoon Jun to tell him about his new award.

For more on the original batch of Allen Distinguished Investigators, see this story from November 2010.

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  • Aarthy Vallur

    I do hope someone will infuse oxygen in the form of awards for young scientists/ start- ups here in the ailing Seattle Biotech scene!