The billionaire owners of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets are out to up the performance of the world’s top athletes—and the rest of us, too.
Today Joe and Clara Tsai debuted the Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance, a foundation to take the latest in technology and biotech off the bench and put it on the playing field.
“There have been huge advances in body imaging, bioengineering and AI, but none of it has been applied to sports and athletic performance,” says Clara Wu Tsai, the founder of the alliance. “Being close to athletes, we noticed there hadn’t been much innovation in areas around healing and training—that’s because most funding by government agencies is focused on diseases.”
The couple, who have amassed an $11 billion fortune from their stake in tech titan Alibaba, has pledged $220 million to the foundation that will fund teams of experts and academics from Stanford University, the University of Kansas, the University of Oregon, UC San Diego, Boston Children’s Hospital and the Salk Institute. “You can get breakthroughs when you cross-pollinate ideas among people that don’t usually get together,” says Wu Tsai, “These are top clinicians, athletes and practitioners working together with the deep scientists.”
Wu Tsai is clear that although she owns one of the hottest teams in the NBA, the new nonprofit’s goal is to make significant advances in physical performance that will ultimately combat the effects of a disease, injuries and aging. “It’s not a Nets thing. It’s a science thing. It’s about intense research and translating it into the real world—creating regimes, wearables and actual products that will improve everyday life.”
Wu Tsai’s husband, Joseph Tsai, a former corporate lawyer, cofounded Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba in 1999. Today Alibaba’s market cap tops $550 billion. The Tsais used $1 billion of their windfall to buy 49% of the Brooklyn Nets in 2017. In 2019, Tsai purchased the rest of the team from Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov—plus operating rights of the Barclay’s Center—in a deal valued around $3.3 billion at the time. Tsai is also owns the WNBA’s New York Liberty and a professional lacrosse team, The San Diego Seals.
Off the court, the Tsai’s have given lavishly to philanthropies supporting brain research and social justice. In August of 2020, they pledged $50 million to create a social justice fund aimed at fighting systemic racism and promoting economic mobility in Brooklyn.
“I grew up in Kansas as the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants. They came to the US for economic opportunity and the ideals of democracy,” says Wu Tsai, who went on to earn degrees from Stanford University and Harvard Business School. “But the inequities of the country have become exposed, and democracy doesn’t treat everyone the same.”
The Tsai’s Social Justice Fund has launched pilot programs around the Nets’ home court with the hopes to scale successful models across the country. One of the first experiments was a $2.5 million interest-free loan program for black-owned businesses struggling to stay open during the pandemic shutdown. “I did a lot of listening to understand the gaps and see how we could address the community’s most urgent needs,” says Wu Tsai. “We learned the biggest problem was access to capital, and we seized on it. We didn’t want to waste time designing a complex program, but to start something that could make an impact quickly.”
Wu Tsai says they are currently building metrics to study the impact of the loans and planning on a similar test program for Brooklyn start-ups. Says Wu Tsai: “You want to leverage your platform and find where you can bring unique value or unique insights. It goes hand in hand with why we’ve chosen the areas to focus our giving.”