Chen Tianqiao: the billionaire funding brain research

Chen Tianqiao © Getty Imaåges

“A dozen years ago, the largest internet firm in China wasn’t Alibaba or Tencent, but the game developer Shanda Interactive Entertainment,” says Bloomberg. Co-founder Chen Tianqiao, who had become a billionaire at 30, was “more prominent than Alibaba’s Jack Ma” – then he simply “disappeared”, leaving China and “dropping out of view completely” before taking the Nasdaq-listed company private in 2012.

Now 44 and living in Singapore, Chen, who once proclaimed he wanted to become “the Disney of China”, says he gave it all up for the sake of his health. He had begun suffering panic attacks soon after Shanda floated in 2004 and they continued, on and off, for years. At first he went to Singapore just for a break. “As he watched Tencent, Alibaba and Baidu filling the void he left behind, he planned to return,” but his wife and Shanda co-founder, Chrissy Luo, cautioned against it, “telling him there were different opportunities ahead.” She was right, says the Financial Times. Chen and Luo first transformed Shanda into an investment group, which says it has $8bn under management – but are now turning to philanthropy.

Last year the couple donated $115m to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) for research into improving human emotional wellbeing, particularly when it comes to managing pain and fear of death. Chen – a Buddhist – has pledged to spend $1bn of an estimated $2.4bn fortune “translating scientific insights into the brain” into a “deeper understanding” of the human condition. “For thousands of years we improved our happiness through changing the physical world,” he says. “We now have to solve this problem by exploring inward.”

Born in Zhejiang, south of Shanghai, in 1973, Chen grew up “as the country began to embrace capitalism in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution”, says Bloomberg. After graduating with a degree in economics, he began work at a securities firm, where he met Luo. They quit the company to form Shanda in 1999, using about $60,000 in savings as seed money. Their first big break came from buying the distribution rights to the role-playing game The Legend of Mir 2. That brought in enough revenue to
begin developing their own games in time to ride the growing “craze among China’s teenagers”.

In 2003, Chen was voted the leading “Rising Business Star” by China Central TV. But since leaving for Singapore he has encountered some hostility from his home country, particularly in relation to his “unpatriotic” philanthropy. “Chinese netizens,” some of whom have branded him a “traitor”, are angry that the money isn’t being directed toward domestic concerns,” says China Daily. Still, even if he’s no longer in favour at home, Chen can always fall back on his research “obsession” – and it appears to have rubbed off on his daughters, who now talk about growing up to become neuroscientists. “I have brainwashed them,” he says.