(Yicai Global) May 2 -- Chen Tianqiao, co-founder of investment company Shanda Group, has revealed his long-term plans for funding brain science research after he caused a stir at the end of last year by donating USD115 million to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) for the organization of a neuroscience research initiative.
Some people applauded Chen's philanthropy when the news broke, while others said he should not donate to Americans as China needs funding to develop its sciences. In a two-story office building in Singapore's Central Business District, Chen told Yicai Global about how he chose Caltech and about his future intentions.
"I don't want to have any labels for myself, and I don't care whether others consider me an entrepreneur or a philanthropist," Chen said. "I just do what feels right. Now, that is the research of brain science, which could reveal the most essential secrets of human nature. I'd like to donate all my money to this, because in this process, I can feel unprecedented happiness and sense of accomplishment."
As a member of the national committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, Chen put three proposals forward at the National People's Congress and the CPPCC in March. He suggested that several massive basic brain science research centers and overseas research bases be set up. He advocated for the recruitment of top global researchers and indicated that he plans to invest about USD100 million on brain science research every year.
Chen didn't specify if the USD100 million would go to China or abroad, and emphasized that he would "pass the ball to whoever is closest to the goal."
Chen said that before donating to the California Institute of Technology, he contacted many universities in the US. Recently, he has received research plans from several Chinese universities. "Every year we will donate USD100 million, but we will take at least one year to consider proposals," he said.
"The most important standard is the unique position occupied by the university in brain science, and the one we invest in must be closest to the goal with the best position and the strongest ability to shoot. We prefer to pass the ball to such an institute," Chen said.
"We can't say, we won't pass the ball to a foreign player standing near the goal," Chen said. "Don't tell me there are Chinese players 30 meters from the goal. You must understand that, all of mankind will benefit from it once the ball is shot."
"My first dialogue with the California Institute of Technology came from a video I saw from the internet -- an implanted chip enabled a quadriplegic patient to control his machine arm independently and to take a cup and drink beer. So, I found the professor of neurology, Richard Anderson, who was responsible for this project. He told me at that time, the cost used on a single quadriplegic is as high as USD1 million. Moreover, the test can be only conducted on quadriplegics."
Chen said he does not back research in hopes of developing a brain-machine interface company. He says he wants to help humans understand the brain's structure and treat diseases. "We just support the basic research, which is different from investment."
"Regarding culture, Caltech is the university that is the closest to us in that it achieves perfection in one field," he said. "Many universities that are good in nervi cerebrales are easily fixed in one management pattern, but Caltech has never set foot on this field before. So, making an investment in this institute could make us the founder of the Institute of Brain Science. And this brain science institute is under direct management of Caltech."
Chen said that the money he put up was a donation and he does not have a capital cooperation with Caltech. "We must take board seats, keep track of the project, and share our opinions on these technologies as businessmen. We will stick to this whether donations go to Caltech or to China."
China has been working on a medical neuroscience project for three to four years. It will be operational soon. "This project could not only absorb social capital but also wisdom." Chen said. "My wife Luo Qianqian often asks me how I can contribute my wisdom if I am not a man of technology. I reply that I can't drive, but it doesn't mean that I have no idea about the road. Businessmen can always promote technology development in their own way."
Chen has always declined to comment on why he didn't make an agreement with Chinese universities. "You cannot blame me for the fact that Chinese sciences lack money! We have seriously considered cooperating with them," he said.
Chen introduced his 40-year brain science project. For the first three years, he will donate USD100 million to a university every year. After that he will donate money to young scientists directly so that those scientists can become alumni of the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute.
"When it comes to brain science, humans shall be united as a team, because breakthroughs in basic science could benefit all humankind," Chen said. "Since China has become the second largest economy in the world, it could contribute its own knowledge and findings. We are enjoying intellectual property technologies in such areas as antibiotics and nuclear magnetic resonance, and we also need to work extensively on innovations."
China has the most medical cases and data, and it is in a unique position to make breakthroughs in neuroscience, Chen said. "There are many restrictions on doing experiments on primates in other parts of the world, but China has the green light for this, giving it advantages," Chen said. "But presently we (the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute) still lack the ability to identify excellent scientists, and our reputation and capability can't provide enough support for individual scientists. For this reason, we still have to focus on institutes like the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Zhejiang University, Fudan University, Tsinghua University, and research institutes."
Chen did not reveal details about possible substantive agreements with Chinese schools. "We need to understand each other," he said. "Recently I have exchanged views with presidents of Zhejiang University and Fudan University. But we cannot give a specific time about how quickly we could reach agreements. It took one and a half years to reach an agreement with Caltech."
"People would say, so what if you know the secrets about how two nerve cells are connected? What they say is true, but I am a man of curiosity," Chen said.
Chen hopes to understand the mysteries of the human brain in his lifetime. "This secret lies in us rather than in the Milky Way."
Since the beginning of his brain science project, Chen's home has always been filled with related fields' scholars. "Almost every week there would be heads of top US universities flying to Singapore. We would dine together and talk about cooperation. That is probably because few people are willing to invest money in basic science."
Their companionship makes Chen very happy and satisfied. "Previously a businessman came to my house and we sat for an hour talking about why it's the best time to buy shares in the Shanghai stock exchange at 4500 points. But it felt like a waste of time. Now, I have conversations with scientists and every time they talk to me I feel unprecedented happiness." Chen said. "They tell me about a different side of the world. And I am happy that I can invest money in fields that I'm interested in."
Chen visited almost all the top universities' nervi cerebrales labs and the school's presidents during a 40-day chartered flight tour last year. Stops included MD Anderson, Texas Medical Center, Stanford University, University of California, Berkeley, and Carnegie Mellon University.
Chen said he never got pleasure from being recognized as a 'rich man.' "I remember that the first time I was on Hurun's list, I was only 29 and ranked seventh place on the list. I asked a friend of mine in Hurun to delete my name." Chen said. Chen seldom makes media appearances. He accepted Yicai Global's interview invitation so he could share the pleasure he has gained from brain science.
Behind Chen's office there is a yard the size of a badminton court. Chen likes intense and competitive sports such as badminton and basketball "because there are surprises and results in a few minutes."
Chen likes challenges and enjoys working with unknown things. "Originality is me. I never copy others' business models, including Gewara, and we only make investments in fields that nobody else has pursued before. We are only interested in original things," said Chen. "I have always told people of Shanda that life is meaningful when rising above the routine."
Chen's employees say that he loves reading and has used his Kindle for the duration of long journeys. He even distributes Kindles to his employees. "I think Kindle is the greatest invention ever and I hope every employee craves knowledge and is curious. Curiosity is our great gene that is the culture and driving force for Shanda," he said.
Behind this big curiosity, Chen's ultimate goal is to establish a Chen University. "It must be more than just a slogan." Chen said. "I hope the Chen University can be the school that strives to discover human secrets and find out who we are. It would be a multidisciplinary university that covers philosophy, religion, psychology, neurology, biology, and chemistry. But all those disciplines shall have the same mission. In the context of fast growing technology, our education shall aim to make all of us happy."
Chen devoted over half of his time to the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute. "This is where my passion lies and is considered my second attempt to start a new business. I want to do charity using a businessman's thinking," Chen said. "Every year we spend almost every penny we earn. In addition to what is left for our children, we will basically donate it all."
"Sheer philanthropy is not sustainable," Chen said. "The source of funds is equally important. That reminds me of basic Buddhist wisdom and compassion. What would you do if you finally become penniless?"
Shanda delisted in 2013 and it sold all its assets and turned into an investment group specializing in direct investments in open markets, asset management, and innovative private equity and venture capital at the end of 2015.
The most immediate profit of these businesses comes from direct investments in markets, Chen said. By holding shares of Lending Club and Legg Mason, Shanda's American asset management company generated cash flow for the company. Chen also has invested in technology because he is optimistic about its future in the coming two decades. "As our neuroscience brand and reputation are gradually established, many young entrepreneurs will come to us, and make investments. They'll be willing to invest in our earlier and not-that-profitable projects, let alone more profitable projects."
Shanda has backed disruptive technology companies involved in virtual and augmented reality and supported The Void -- a major virtual reality theme park.
"Both VR and AR are extensions of brain science," Chen said. "When you are immersed in them, you get an illusion that it all is real. But there are still a lot of fundamental problems yet to be solved, which include user experience, and battery life. So, we are cautiously optimistic."
Chen Tianqiao used CNY500,000 to start Shanda Group in 1999. The firm expanded into online gaming in 2001. Shanda underwent a transformation in 2012 and now is a large investment holding group.