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
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.