Push­ing for Space

From tech­nol­ogy to fun­da­men­tal science and outer space, Ten­cent’s Pony Ma al­ways has his sights set on new fron­tiers. Rachel Duf­fell looks at his me­te­oric rise and what the fu­ture might hold

Philippine Tatler - - OCTOBER -

After mak­ing a name in tech­nol­ogy, Ten­cent Hold­ings CEO and Chair­man Ma Hu­ateng is de­voted to pur­sue his child­hood in­ter­est in outer space

When Ma Hu­ateng was young, he was ob­sessed with space and its ce­les­tial phenom­ena, and wanted to be an as­tronomer. It was, how­ever, much later in life that Ma would re­turn to this early in­ter­est. First, he would make his name in tech­nol­ogy.

Ma, who has be­come known as Pony Ma, an ap­pel­la­tion pur­port­edly de­rived from the English trans­la­tion of the Chi­nese char­ac­ter ma, which means ‘horse,’ was born in 1971 in Shan­tou, Guang­dong. Rel­a­tively lit­tle is known about his early years, save that in 1989 he en­rolled to study com­puter science at Shen­zhen Univer­sity. From there, his star has risen steadily. He is now CEO and chair­man of Chi­nese in­ter­net be­he­moth Ten­cent Hold­ings, the par­ent com­pany of the WeChat mes­sag­ing and on­line pay­ment app. This year, just 25 years after grad­u­at­ing, Forbes de­clared Ma the rich­est man in China with an es­ti­mated net worth of around US$45 bil­lion.

It all be­gan by back­ing just one horse—Ten­cent. In 1998, sev­eral years after leav­ing univer­sity, Ma founded Ten­cent, whose name plays on the Chi­nese char­ac­ters teng and xun, which to­gether can mean “gal­lop­ing mes­sage.” It ref­er­enced the com­pany’s first prod­uct, an in­stant mes­sag­ing ser­vice widely seen as a replica of the Is­raeli-cre­ated ICQ. De­spite be­ing la­belled a copy­cat, the prod­uct Ma had tweaked to suit the Chi­nese mar­ket, which he named QQ, met with in­stant suc­cess. In 2004, Ten­cent went pub­lic on the Hong Kong stock ex­change. How­ever, it was not un­til 2011, when Weixin was born, that peo­ple re­ally started to take no­tice. It be­came a phe­nom­e­non. In one year it had reached 100 mil­lion users and was re­branded WeChat. Orig­i­nally used sim­ply for tex­ting, it was given new fea­tures rapidly, first voice mes­sages, then video call­ing, un­til it be­came an amal­ga­ma­tion of the func­tions of some of the world’s most-used tech­nol­ogy apps, in­clud­ing What­sApp, Face­book, Uber, De­liv­eroo, Ap­ple Pay, and Spo­tify, with the ad­di­tion of gam­ing and read­ing on­line. By 2018, the su­per app had hit more than one bil­lion users, with the dig­i­tal wal­let func­tion, WeChat Pay, now con­sid­ered one of the only pay­ment means with the po­ten­tial to ri­val Visa, Mastercard, and Amer­i­can Ex­press.

Through­out this growth and suc­cess—in 2017 Ten­cent be­came more valu­able than Face­book—the gal­lop­ing horse’s jockey re­mained some­thing of an enigma. Fa­mously me­di­ashy, Ma kept a low pro­file, only giv­ing his fi rst in­ter­view to a for­eign jour­nal­ist in 2011. The re­sult­ing ar­ti­cle, pub­lished by Amer­i­can busi­ness mag­a­zine Fast Com­pany, called Ma the “least known multi­bil­lion­aire in the tech world.” He re­mains that way to an ex­tent, though his ac­tions are closely mon­i­tored, from his in­vest­ments—he has stakes in Tesla, Snap (Snapchat’s par­ent com­pany), and Spo­tify, to name a few—to the way he runs his busi­ness, and even to the houses he buys (he has prop­er­ties in Hong Kong’s Repulse Bay and Shek O).

In 2016 and 2017, Ten­cent in­vested in three star­tups in­volved in space ex­plo­ration, show­ing a re­turn for Ma to early in­ter­ests. The com­pa­nies are Moon Ex­press, which aims to put drones on the moon; Ar­gentina-based Satel­logic, which spe­cialises in satel­lite im­agery; and Plan­e­tary Re­sources, with in­ter­ests in as­ter­oid min­ing.

Ten­cent’s chief ex­plo­ration of­fi­cer, David Waller­stein, told Bloomberg, “We’re open to the un­ex­pected. We’d like to see how far humanity can push the fron­tier and there’s th­ese open ques­tions, what can we do be­yond Earth?”

It seemed like Ma was look­ing back to that child­hood fas­ci­na­tion with space. He was also di­ver­si­fy­ing. In De­cem­ber 2017, Ma showed that science—and not just the science re­lated to com­put­ers—was an­other area of in­ter­est when he be­came a found­ing spon­sor of the Break­through Prize. In this move he joined other big-name co-spon­sors— Sergey Brin (Google), Anne Wo­j­ci­cki (23andMe), Yuri Mil­ner (DST Global) and Ju­lia Mil­ner, and Mark Zucker­berg (Face­book) and Priscilla Chan (the Chan Zucker­berg Ini­tia­tive)—in sup­port­ing the largest in­di­vid­ual mone­tary prize in science.

“Fun­da­men­tal science is the be­drock of tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance­ment,” said Ma of his move. “I be­lieve the Break­through Prize can re­in­force the bridge within the global com­mu­nity of re­searchers and math­e­ma­ti­cians, fa­cil­i­tat­ing mu­tual shar­ing be­tween the East and West. In physics, life sciences or math­e­mat­ics, the in­ter­na­tional science com­mu­nity is bring­ing the world closer to­gether.” There are hopes that Ma’s in­volve­ment will en­cour­age more nom­i­na­tions from Chi­nese sci­en­tists and give the prize greater ex­po­sure in China and to Chi­nese sci­en­tists.

The par­tic­i­pa­tion of Ma in such an ini­tia­tive speaks to the Chi­nese busi­ness mag­nate’s far-sight­ed­ness. Ma may have started as a copy­cat, but he has al­ways been an in­no­va­tor and a vi­sion­ary. With in­volve­ment and in­vest­ment in ar­eas such as the Break­through Prize, which strives to push the bound­aries of science, we see that Ma’s vi­sion ex­tends well into the fu­ture and to the edges of the uni­verse.

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