Feb. 8, 2007 — -- As Microsoft's somber Bill Gates expands his $29 billion foundation for global health and education, the company's more exuberant co-founder has been spending his own fortune -- now about $16 billion -- like a kid in a candy store.
In the family of Microsoft, Paul Gardner Allen is the quirky twin of his boyhood friend William Henry Gates III, whose $53 billion net worth and public persona tower over Allen's.
Both Seattle boys dropped out of college to create the software giant Microsoft, but Allen, a private man with flamboyant interests, left the company in 1983 when he was diagnosed with cancer that was later cured.
Allen is the sixth-richest man in the world and owns an array of toys that would make any brother jealous. His 416-foot yacht "Octopus, with its permanent crew of 60, two helicopters, a submarine and a remote-controlled vehicle for crawling the ocean floor, cost him $200 million in 2003.
Though Allen supports scientific causes, he also owns two professional sports teams and a pop culture museum devoted to rock and roll and science fiction -- a flashier face of Microsoft than Gates' battle against AIDS in Africa.
Allen's philanthropy reflects a growing trend among the rich of speading the wealth around to multiple charities and doing it before they die. But critics say that given his wealth, Allen should be more generous.
In 2006 Allen donated a modest $50 million -- about 5 percent of his total wealth, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. In contrast, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation spent about 35 percent of their net worth on charitable causes.
Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University, said the "super rich" should spend less on extravagant lifestyles and put their money "to work to make the world a better place.
"Gates has made a very significant commitment to reducing human suffering, and we should applaud him for that, even if he still has far more money and a much more lavish home than anyone can possibly need," said Singer.
"But Allen falls below any standard for a minimally decent level of philanthropy," Singer continued.. "And look at the things he spends his money on -- sports teams that are losing tens of millions of dollars a year, and a yacht that is the fourth-longest in the world. Really, is that what the world most needs right now?"
Still, Allen's largesse makes the Chronicle's list of "America's Most Generous Donors," which will be published this month." He falls somewhere around 40," said the Chronicle's editor, Stacy Palmer.
"He combines old philanthropy with a new style," said Palmer. "With Bill Gates you don't get a sense of what motivates him as a person. Paul Allen is somebody who shows his passions through his giving. But he's very private about it and not self-aggrandizing."
Allen was not available for an interview because he was on a pleasure trip, but he told the Oregonian in February that he was motivated to give to scientific research because of his own experience with cancer.
"You look at what Paul has done since Microsoft -- specifically in the Northwest -- and his actions speak for themselves," said Michael Nank, spokesman for Vulcan Inc., which oversees Allen's various business and charitable ventures.
Allen built a $240 million popular culture museum in Seattle that has a huge collection of Jimi Hendrix memorabilia. The Experience Music Project was designed in the shape of a broken guitar by renowned architect Frank Gehry.
Allen's Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame includes a ray gun collection, a model from the first episode of the TV series "Lost in Space" and Darth Vader's light saber.
Allen owns two professional sports teams -- the NFL Sea Hawks and the NBA Trailblazers -- and this week bought back Portland's Rose Garden just to keep the team in town.
Allen's philanthropic gifts -- $800 million to predominantly American causes -- are just as eclectic.
He gave $250,000 to the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians to help bridge the "digital divide." With $100 million he established the Allen Institute for Brain Science and donated $13.5 million to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.
His personal life is equally offbeat. Still single at 54, Allen has been linked to actresses and to tennis pro Monica Seles. He continues to live in his hometown in a compound on Mercer Island with his mother and sister. He plays guitar in an amateur rock band and has a recording studio aboard his yacht.
Allen cannot escape comparisons to his friend Gates. Born in Seattle, they attended the private Lakeside School, where they first shared a passion for computers. Allen dropped out of Washington State University after two years to work at Honeywell in Boston, then convinced Gates to drop out of Harvard to create Microsoft.
In 1983, Allen left Microsoft to battle Hodgkin's disease. In 1985, his company shares were worth $150 million the day they listed on the stock exchange. Within a year, Gates was a billionaire and Allen soon followed, investing in technology and entertainment companies.
Allen resigned from Microsoft's board of directors in 2000. Today, his Vulcan Inc. includes real estate holdings and more than 40 companies, most of them in the Northwest.
Seattle views rich and eccentric Allen with mixed emotions.
"Some of the business ventures look like self-indulgent hobbies, like a 15-year-old boy with an unlimited allowance," reported the Seattle Post Intelligencer. "But this has been of great advantage for his hometown. Sometimes, he has been Seattle's sugar daddy."
Allen has been lambasted for buying up real estate for condos in former industrial areas like South Lake Union. There is even talk of buying a city trolley to serve what locals fear will be yet another "yuppie haven," according to Robert Shaffer, a local news producer.
"The thing about Paul Allen is that everybody's heard of him, but nobody knows what he's doing," said Shaffer. "He has been sort of controversial here, but when he bought the Sea Hawks, then brought them to the Super Bowl last year. It rehabilitated his image."
Beyond Seattle, it is Allen's embrace of imaginative technology -- rather than public policy -- that has set him apart from Gates. He recruited aviation pioneer Burt Ratan to build and launch SpaceShipOne, a venture with Virgin Atlantic's Richard Branson to one day offer commercial, suborbital space flights to the public.
Ratan said Allen is a passionate visionary, although somewhat reclusive.
"He's different from Richard Branson, who I can call at home at night," said Ratan. "Paul is far more difficult to communicate with. It takes weeks to get on his calendar to have a meeting. He doesn't say a lot, but when he says something it's well thought out and important. When he speaks, everyone listens."
In 2001, he established Seattle's Allen Institute for Brain Science. The nonprofit research organization has produced a "brain atlas" that is already revolutionizing the field of neuroscience. The brain map, available online for free, pinpoints the cellular workings of the brain.
The Web site is getting about 850 hits a day from biotech and pharmaceutical companies, as well as scientists and major research universities around the globe.
"We have united genomics, computer science and neuroscience in a multidisciplinary package that would not have been feasible in government or academia," said research manager Kelly Overly.
Allen's latest project is based in the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque. Last year, he donated $5 million for the STARTUP microcomputer exhibit. The gallery features one-of-a-kind artifacts, video and interactive displays.
"Paul wanted to give back to the community where Microsoft started," said his spokesman Nank.
Despite their differences, Microsoft's two brilliant surrogate brothers maintain a close relationship and support many of the same causes.
"Paul has an incredible mind and looks past the horizon to see how he can make the biggest difference in the long run -- not the short term," said Nank. "He's the biggest thinker out there."