Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft ($MSFT), has committed $100 million to create The Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group, an early-stage bioscience fund. And, in keeping with Allen's background and other forays into bioscience, the fund's initial investments in macrophage modeling and other fields have a computational slant.
The macrophage modeling initiative is one of two projects designated as an Allen Discovery Center, a status that will typically entitle a research team to $20 million from the fund over 8 years. Allen foresees the Centers raising a further $10 million in partner leverage, giving them access to a funding source of sufficient size and duration to pull off significant early-stage research programs. A team at Stanford University led by Markus Covert is running the macrophage modeling program, in which the collaborators plan to create computer models of the interactions within and between cells.
Tom Skalak, founding executive director of The Frontiers Group, sees the growth in computational capabilities enabling such work. "We're in a new era now, where computational power is great enough to actually address the massive complexity that's in bioscience," Skalak told Forbes. The idea is to build upon work in recent decades to identify the working parts of biology--such as the linking of genes to the proteins they express--by using computing to figure out how these components fit together. "We need to take the working parts that we now have and put them together," he said.
This overarching concept, which is reminiscent of some of the work done at Allen's existing cell and brain science institutes, is evident in the Stanford macrophage project and the other Allen Discovery Center unveiled to date. The second Center is at Tufts University, where a team led by Michael Levin is aiming to understand the biology behind the creation and maintenance of organ systems. Levin sees the work having implications for our ability to regenerate damaged organs and keep cancer in check, but, given the early-stage, speculative nature of the project, finding funding has been tough.
"A lot of funding agencies are very risk-averse, so it's extremely difficult to get funding for projects if you don't know exactly what kinds of things you're going to find. It really holds back innovation," Levin said. Allen, whose philanthropy is defined by a willingness to back risky, early bioscience, has given Levin the means to get the program up and running. "We know there's something important here, but we don't know what we're going to find. Paul's involvement is exactly what we need to make real breakthroughs."