Tianqiao Chen, at the Frontier of Supporting Fundamental Research through Philanthropy

An interview with Xinhua News Agency


On July 26, 2021, Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute (TCCI®) donated 50 million yuan and signed an agreement with Shanghai Mental Health Center (SMHC) to jointly establish a new Chen Frontier Lab. This is the second lab TCCI® has set up in China and also an integral part of Tianqiao Chen’s first-phase plan of supporting brain science in China with a 500 million yuan commitment.


Announcing his intention in 2016 to invest US $1 billion to support advances in brain science, Tianqiao Chen, the founder of Shanda Group, has now been focused on this arena for five years. His work happens to be aligned with China’s 14th Five-year national plan for scientific and technological innovation, specifically the goal to encourage society to invest in fundamental research through various channels including donations and investment. With this back drop, what roles can entrepreneurs and society in filling the gaps? Tianqiao Chen has shares with us his learning, reflections and expectations after five years of exploration.


Diverse investment


The cutting edge treatment which is “Digital Medicine” will help the elderly people with cognitive disorders to slow cognitive decline. In the TCCI® Frontier Lab for Brain Research, situated on the Huashan Hospital Hongqiao Campus near Shanghai, Mao Ying, Director of Huashan Hospital, has put his “wild ideas” into action.


The Lab was jointly established by TCCI® and Huashan Hospital and serves as an important conduit for TCCI’s brain science research, a field in urgent need of breakthroughs.


Fundamental research is the foundation for scientific innovation. During the 13th 5-year plan, China doubled its investment in fundamental research, accounting for an unprecedented 6% of the total expenditure on research and development. It’s expected that during the 14th Five-year plan, such investment will reach 8% of the total. According to the Ministry of Science and Technology, the central government will continuously increase its investment in order to attract businesses and society to invest more in fundamental research.


“Fundamental research requires a huge investment and takes a long time to yield any returns,” Chen explains. “However, successful research accomplishments have far-reaching benefits for society and industry alike. That’s why governments will usually take the lead in relevant investment. It’s both reasonable and normal.” Investment in fundamental research reflects a country’s sense of responsibility and China currently ranks second in the world in terms of total investment in research and development.


Chen thinks that China still has a lot of room for improvement when it comes to optimizing the structure of its R&D investment.


In 2016, Tianqiao Chen announced a commitment to invest $US 1 billion in support of brain science – an innovative initiative. There were two questions around this investment: first, why should entrepreneurs focus on fundamental instead of applied research; second, although a huge amount of money, an investment like this is still just a drop in the bucket and it can take a very long time to yield results in scientific research.


Five years have passed and Chen has some early answers to these two questions. For the first question, he feels businesses should take responsibility for addressing social issues such as education and poverty. He supports investment in fundamental research because it benefits all of mankind. “Although private investment is comparatively insufficient, it is very important to supplement funding for fundamental research.”


For the second question, he believes the flexibility of private capital will improve the efficiency of fundamental research. “I probably won’t witness any achievements in my lifetime by supporting brain science research, but hopefully my kids will.”


Highlighting support for young scientists devoted to fundamental research


During COVID-19 last year, cross-border travel and academic exchanges experienced many hardships. To address these difficulties, an online seminar called NeuroChat was born, serving as a platform for thousands of young scientists to communicate and collaborate online.


Chen has always been interested in innovating around how scientists communicate and this year, TCCI® fully supported the NeuroChat cognitive science seminar for young scientists of Chinese origin around the world. The event attracted nearly 3,000 attendees and after the fact, the conversation continued online because passionate young scientists still had many questions they were eager to ask famous scholars.


Tianqiao Chen, who was once the richest man in China at the age of 31, has been keeping a close eye on the development of young scientists throughout the past five years. In his opinion, young scientists are the future and they will lead human exploration of the unknown.


But how can we support young scientists? Chen resorts to Internet. “When it comes to funding allocations, young scientists won’t have access to a large proportion of the academic expenditure. They will have to work with or for famous experts to obtain funding. We have negotiated donations with many universities and most of the time, we only meet with presidents, deans, or directors. They allocate the funding we donate and herein lies the problem. Science is all about challenging the status quo. If young scientists have to work under these famous academic individuals, how do they also challenge these authorities?”


Chen envisions building a network, a platform that enables social capital to connect directly toyoung scientists because if entrepreneurship can be supported by crowdfunding, why can’t scientific research and development? He believes we can take market-oriented measures to kindle young scientist’s enthusiasm by changing the way they’re treated.


A part of the platform TCCI® is developing is a product called “ZNext” which will innovate how the science community gathers.


“In the field of science, good questions propel good research and this generates good results. Today’s academic conferences may leave time for questions and answers after each presentation, but this time is limited. Imagine if you take that conversation online and you are able to seek answers for hotly discussed questions from scientists around the world. Those who have tried the ZNext model felt very excited about it.” said Chen.


Turn the isolated example of academician Wang Jian into a mechanism


How should the government engage private capital for fundamental research? According to the 14th Five-year plan, the government will implement preferential tax policies for relevant businesses and expand investment channels to encourage companies to invest.


From the perspective of Tianqiao Chen, apart from preferential tax policies, it is even more important to treat private institutes the same way state-owned institutes are treated.


“We have discovered many practical problems in the process of exploration but will the title of a scientist working for a private institute be acknowledged by the scientific field? Many scientists want to work at private scientific institutes but are afraid their titles will not be acknowledged so they return to state-owned institutes.” Chen thinks if problems like this remain unsolved, scientists won’t be able to choose their career paths freely, and private institutes won’t remain vigorous.


Chen believes a reliable mechanism is crucial to supporting fundamental research with private capital. In 2019, Wang Jian, the Chairman of the Technical Committee of Alibaba and the Founder of Alicloud, made headline news when he was elected an Academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering. Chen hopes this will not be just an isolated case but the beginning of an ongoing mechanism. Only when there are more people like “Wang Jian” will private capital become an integral part of a country’s scientific and technological power.