As private wealth based in China has grown, so has the country’s philanthropy. The number of billionaires is on the rise, including people like Jack Ma, the Alibaba founder who has collaborated with top donors like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Yuri Milner.
The latest big names to cross over into U.S. philanthropy are Tianqiao Chen and Chrissy Luo, a couple currently based in Singapore whose wealth comes from Shanda Interactive Entertainment Limited, which became China’s largest online games company before expanding into global investment, with holdings in U.S. companies like LendingClub and Sotheby’s.
Chen and Luo have been giving in China and Mongolia toward medical programs, education, and disaster relief for a long time now, but as they embark on stateside giving for the first time, they have one big interest—the brain.
No great surprise there, since unlocking the brain's mysteries has lately captured the fascination of a great many wealthy donors. The allure of neuroscience is both practical and metaphysical. Neurodegenerative diseases threaten to inflict a massive economic and human toll on an aging world in coming decades (including on China, by the way). On the flip side, cognitive breakthroughs that make us smarter or link up with artificial intelligence could yield great dividends for humanity. Meanwhile, if you're wondering why we humans became the way we are, all roads lead back to exploring the brain. In focusing on this area, Chen and Luo are joining the likes of Paul Allen, Jim Simons, Patrick Soon-Shiong and Jeff Bezos, who are hot in pursuit of a better understanding of the brain.
And they're getting in big.
The couple says they are dedicating an initial $1 billion to the cause as part of a new giving initiative focused on brain discovery, treatment, and development. The first move is happening at Caltech, where $115 million will establish the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience.
The gift will fund a new $200 million facility, plus an endowment for future support to be used at Caltech’s discretion. The university is covering most of the construction costs and supplying operating funds, and the new institute will research everything from cellular neuroscience to brain imaging.
Caltech is not a newcomer to neuroscience, or to large philanthropic gifts. In fact, it was the school’s work on the brain-machine interface allowing a quadriplegic to control a robotic arm with his thoughts that caught the couple’s attention. Caltech is a huge magnet for private research support, notably from alumnus Gordon Moore, who, with wife Betty, has given more than $700 million over the years.
The recent gift from Chen and Luo actually builds on a previous gift from the Moores, which established the influential Caltech Brain Imaging Center in 2003. The new donation will attempt to replicate that success by creating four similar centers, each with its own focus, that will form the core of the institute.
This is a huge commitment in a bustling field, where federal agencies and private sources alike are pumping in funds and trying to take advantage of new developments in computing, imaging, and other disciplines that offer promise for advancing our understanding of how the brain works. One of our concerns is that this field is getting too crowded and fragmented, with too many big donors shooting off in their own directions instead of building on the knowledge being created elsewhere.
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On the other hand, Caltech tends to be keen on linking up multiple departments to develop new insight, often with backing from interdisciplinary private donations. Caltech’s president highlighted new tools and computing breakthroughs that allow them to cross academic boundaries. Caltech is a very small school, and one of the big reasons donors like Gordon Moore appreciate it so much is the ease of cross-pollination between researchers.
Chen and Luo seem to have a few motivations for supporting brain science, both practical and metaphysical, like other donors in this space. For one, the couple has expressed more abstract interests in helping humans understand and accept our mortality, as well as questions about life’s origin, purpose, and ending.
But they also have some more concrete reasons, such as developing new technology in areas like artificial intelligence, robotics, and virtual reality. They also appear to be budding Omidyarists, with investment interests in tech that interfaces computers and people, which they say dovetails nicely with their huge philanthropy to come.