The Chinese Buddhist Billionaire Who Wants to Fix Your Brain
China’s first internet titan is throwing billions at the mysteries of our gray matter
Chen Tianqiao could easily be mistaken for someone enjoying retirement. It’s not just his attire: a short-sleeved white shirt with a floral pattern down the middle, relaxed blue trousers, a pair of camo sneakers. Chen, who founded the online gaming company Shanda in 1999 and piloted it to an IPO in 2004, could enjoy an early retirement if he wanted. As China’s first true internet tycoon, he was a billionaire by age 30. And then he disappeared.
In 2010, Chen moved to Singapore with his family and took Shanda private while selling off what shares he still owned in its subsidiary companies. He wouldn’t have been the first dotcom billionaire to get out of the game young and spend the rest of his life enjoying his money. But that’s not why Chen stepped away from the business world. In the mid-2000s, when Shanda was at its peak, he began suffering intense, debilitating anxiety attacks that were compounded by a cancer scare. “I remember some nights, I wake up, and my heart is going boom, boom, boom,” Chen says. “I realized something terrible was happening to me.” The only way to survive was to leave the company he had created.
After spending several years in Singapore researching his next act, Chen decided on philanthropy with a very specific focus: the brain. Chen has set aside $1 billion to fund research on neuroscience, including $115 million to create the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech). Altogether it’s one of the biggest gifts ever devoted to foundational scientific research, and Chen and his wife have since moved to Silicon Valley to oversee their giving.
Chen, now 45, wants to help people who suffer as he once did. “When we decided to choose a second chapter and give our money, we focused on how to relieve this pain and suffering,” he says. But Chen is also fascinated by the scientific mysteries that could be unlocked by better understanding the brain — as well as the business opportunities that could arise as a result. (His investment firm has backed dozens of advanced technology…