The University of Newcastle has received the biggest donation in its history – US$20 million (AUD$26.4 million) – from one of the world’s richest men.

Jack Ma, founder of ecommerce giant Alibaba – essentially, the Chinese version of Amazon – was in Australia this week to announce the opening of the company’s Australian office in Melbourne, as well as the monetary gift to the university.

The money will be used to establish a scholarship program.

Ma said the philanthropic gift was a form of thanks for the Morleys, a Newcastle family he befriended in China when he was a youngster.

The Morleys later invited Ma to visit them in Newcastle. It was Ma’s first trip away from his home city of Hangzhou.

“My trip to Australia really changed me,” Ma said, according to the Herald Sun. “I stayed in Newcastle, New Lambton, for 29 days. That 29 days was really so critical in my life.”

The family’s patriarch, Ken Morley, and Ma, remained close friends until Morley’s death in 2004.

Ma announced the ‘The Ma and Morley Scholarship Program’ was to honour “the experience and the special relationship I formed with the Morley family”.

The money will be used to fund a program that will “inspire, educate and cultivate tomorrow’s leaders,” said Ma. “Alibaba was built by young people and we are committed to lifting up and empowering students so they can reach their dreams and ambitions.”

The Ma and Morley Scholarship program will support 30 scholarships in its initial year, building up to 90 students per year. The first intake will be advertised in mid-2017 for students commencing undergraduate degrees in 2018.

Ma’s worth has been estimated by Forbes to be almost US$30 billion.