Paul Allen, Microsoft co-founder and Seahawks owner, dies at 65


Rachel Lerman, The Seattle Times

Date Published

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Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft and a prominent leader of both business and philanthropy in the Seattle area, has died at age 65 from complications of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Allen died Monday afternoon, according to his multifaceted holding company Vulcan Inc., just two weeks after announcing he had restarted treatment for the cancer that he was first treated for in 2009.

Allen co-founded Redmond tech giant Microsoft with childhood friend Bill Gates in 1975. After leaving the company, he turned his focus to a wide range of other business and scientific pursuits, which including founding the Allen Institute for Brain Science, and the real estate arm of Vulcan, which went on to build much of Amazon’s campus.

In a statement Monday, Gates said he was “heartbroken by the passing of one of my oldest and dearest friends.” He added that personal computing would not have existed without Allen.

“But Paul wasn’t content with starting one company,” Gates said. “He channeled his intellect and compassion into a second act focused on improving people’s lives and strengthening communities in Seattle and around the world. He was fond of saying, ‘If it has the potential to do good, then we should do it.’ That’s the kind of person he was.”

Allen poured his resources into two of his passions: sports and music. He owned the Seattle Seahawks and the Portland Trail Blazers. As a longtime guitarist, he established the Experience Music Project, now called MoPOP, and supported local radio station KEXP.

A billionaire worth more than $20 billion, according to Forbes, he also gave generously to philanthropies. He had contributed more than $2 billion to philanthropies so far, and took the Giving Pledge – a commitment to give away the majority of his wealth – in 2010, the year it was created by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett.

“My brother was a remarkable individual on every level,” Allen’s sister, Jody Allen, said in a statement Monday. “While most knew Paul Allen as a technologist and philanthropist, for us he was a much loved brother and uncle, and an exceptional friend…At this time of loss and grief for us – and so many others – we are profoundly grateful for the care and concern he demonstrated every day.”

From Computers to Sports

As a soft-spoken son of a librarian, Allen pursued his passions – first music, then computers and later sports – down paths that made him one of the richest people on earth.

The story of Microsoft’s creation – and Seattle’s eventual transformation into a world center for software development – began with Allen and his pal Gates sneaking into the University of Washington computer science building to tinker with its enormous machine.

Later it was Allen who brought Gates a magazine article about one of the first personal computers, excited about the opportunity for them to create software for the nascent platform. They co-founded Microsoft in 1975, launching one of the most profitable businesses ever.

But Allen’s life wasn’t all good fortune. He left Microsoft early, in 1983, after a bout of cancer. Later it emerged through an autobiography that Allen chafed at perceived slights by Gates and his new right-hand man at the company, Steve Ballmer.

A mystique grew around Allen after he left the company and became a globetrotting socialite. Allen brought his enormous yacht, the Octopus, to the Cannes film festival and hosted parties attended by movie and rock stars. For time he dated tennis champion Monica Seles.

Yet you could hardly call him a playboy, as he continued to live with his mother at a sprawling compound on the west shore of Mercer Island.

His investments post Microsoft were guided by his vision for a “wired world” with fast connections delivering digital entertainment and other services.

The vision was ultimately correct, but he lost billions pursuing it with huge investments in Charter Communications, a Midwestern cable TV and broadband company. After a decade of losses and restructuring attempts, Charter filed for bankruptcy in 2009 with $21.7 billion in debt.

As he lost control of his largest investment in 2009, Allen fought heart disease and had a valve replaced. That preceded a recurrence of his non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in late 2009.

Yet Allen continued to hold an enormous fortune and to give generously to charities ranging from social-service agencies around Washington state to exotic philanthropies such as a group in California operating radio dishes to scan space for signs of alien life.

The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, begun in 1990 and now known as Paul G. Allen Philanthropies, was one of the main conduits for his giving. Allen, in a letter taking the Giving Pledge, described his belief that “our net worth is ultimately defined not by dollars but rather by how well we serve others.”

Three years ago, Allen was awarded the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy in recognition of his work on Ebola, human brain research, oceans and endangered species.

Later in his life, after his repeated struggles with cancer, Allen appeared to make a more concerted effort to solidify his legacy as an innovator and philanthropist. He released a memoir called “Idea Man” in 2011 and made major gifts to endow research institutes devoted to brain science and artificial intelligence.

Reshaping Seattle’s Skyline

In his later years, Allen was at the forefront of transforming Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood from a row of parking lots and strip malls into one of the world’s biggest economic powerhouses.

In the 1990s, Allen paid for 11.5 acres in the area in hopes of donating it for an urban park project called the Seattle Commons. But voters turned it down twice, most recently in 1996, so he spent the next decade gobbling up more land, totaling 60 acres, through his Vulcan development arm.

With Allen holding a rare, large swath of connected land in a major city, and Amazon looking to expand in an urban environment, they teamed on a building spree in the neighborhood. Vulcan built Amazon’s initial headquarters, announced in 2007, as well as many of its subsequent buildings, in what grew to become the biggest urban corporate campus in America.

Today, Vulcan Real Estate has developed more than 10.5 million square feet – the equivalent of about 15 skyscrapers – across 46 projects, recently including housing in South Seattle and offices in Bellevue. In addition to Amazon, it’s building the Seattle offices for Google and Facebook and built the Allen Institute, all in South Lake Union.

Allen’s second research institute in Seattle, the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2), is focused on finding ways to apply machine learning technology to education and health care, in order to advance those fields.

The CEO of AI2, Oren Etzioni, hailed Allen Monday as a “partner in posing the most fundamental question about intelligence.”

“My colleagues and I at Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence plan to do everything over the coming years to deliver against Paul’s vision,” Etzioni said. “Our fervent goal is to continue to build, further, and strengthen his legacy.”

An Ambitious Aerospace Vision

One of Allen’s boldest initiatives grew from his boyhood enthusiasm for science fiction and space exploration. To launch rockets into space from 35,000 feet, Allen paid for a team of engineers in Mojave to design and build an enormous airplane with the longest wingspan ever seen.

It hasn’t flown yet, but just last week it completed successful taxi tests in Mojave.

Known as Stratolaunch, the plane features twin fuselages, 95 feet apart, that are joined across the top by a massive wing longer than a football field including the end zones.

Powered by six used 747 engines, the plane is designed to carry rockets slung beneath the central part of the wing, between the two fuselages. After release, the rocket will then ignite and launch into space.

The first flight of the airplane has not been scheduled, and many in the aerospace world are skeptical that the business plan will pan out to justify Allen’s multi-million-dollar investment. Yet in August, Stratolaunch stretched its ambition further, when it announced a plan to develop a family of rockets and a space plane, all eventually to be launched via the giant airplane.

The venture drew comparison between Allen and eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes, who in 1947 flew his own giant plane, the Spruce Goose, which had the longest wingspan of any aircraft prior to Stratolaunch.

Allen also bought his own airplanes for personal travel. One of those, a Boeing 757, he sold in 2011 to Donald Trump, who used that jet during the 2016 election campaign.

Another of Allen’s aviation passions was old warplanes. At Paine Field in Everett, he built The Flying Heritage & Combat Armor Museum, a collection of vintage military aircraft, tanks and other military hardware from the U.S., Europe, Japan and Russia.