‘Missing’ Chinese Billionaire Reappears, Drops $1 Billion to Build New University

Before Jack Ma’s Alibaba and Pony Ma’s Tencent became the titans in China’s tech industry, there was Chen Tianqiao’s Shanda.

PImage via Wikimedia Commons / Comms88  (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Chen, who became a billionaire at 30, founded the gaming company in 1999 — a time when Chinese entrepreneurs rushed to build their own internet portals akin to then-popular Yahoo!.

With his wife Chrissy and younger brother, Chen shelled out $60,000 to launch Shanda, which eventually developed its own games. By May 2004, the company raised $152 million in a Nasdaq IPO.

However, things didn’t always go smoothly for Shanda as a public company; unfortunately, Chen saw its shares soar only to later plummet. He was under so much pressure that in the same year, he found himself hospitalized for a panic attack. At the time, he thought of never doing business again.

Yet Chen recovered and returned to work; this time, however, would be different — he envisioned Shanda in home entertainment, allowing TV viewers to go online to play its games. Unfortunately, the model did not receive support from the Chinese government, which wanted absolute control over TV screens.

It was in 2009 when Chen suffered another panic attack. The episode was worse than the last.

“When you are lying down, you cannot sit down. When you are sitting down, you cannot get up. You cannot breathe,” he told Bloomberg.

Chen and his family relocated to Singapore the following year. Soon, they offered to take Shanda private for $2.3 billion. Eventually, Chen resigned from the company’s board.

After three years of thinking about their next step, Chen and his wife finally found their next business opportunity — the human brain. Chen’s mental struggles, as well as his Buddhist beliefs in transcending suffering, became the catalyst for such decision.

Chen, now 44, has prepared $1 billion for brain research. The amount covers the $115 million he and his wife gave to the California Institute of Technology to establish the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience, which aims to “promote a holistic approach to better understand the brain and how we experience the world.”

Image via Wikimedia Commons / Canon.vs.nikon (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The rest of the generous donation will be used to fund scientists and build his own university, aptly named Chen University. The institution aims to gather academics in several fields, particularly of neuroscience, biology, psychiatry, philosophy, and divinity studies, to encourage interdisciplinary work.

The university will be located in the United States. Details are short at present, but, as Chen put it, it will be something prospective students will not want to miss.

“This will be a university whose mission is to try to answer who we are and where we come from. For thousands of years, we improved our happiness through changing the physical world. We now have to solve this problem by exploring inward.”

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