Donald Trump has hosted a lot of dignitaries in the past week. Only one is worth more than the president-elect.
Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, a biotech billionaire with a penchant for bluster, dined with Trump at a New Jersey country club over the weekend to discuss the future of medicine. It’s unclear how he might serve a Trump administration — but one possibility would be taking over the cancer moonshot initiative launched by Vice President Joe Biden.
Soon-Shiong advised Biden on that program last fall — and then promptly launched his own Cancer MoonShot 2020, which brings together several biopharma companies to develop new immunotherapy treatments for cancer. (The initiative also happens to advance several of Soon-Shiong’s business interests, as it uses his genetic testing technology to find patients to participate in clinical trials of his companies’ drugs.)
A surgeon by training, Soon-Shiong, 64, has grand ambitions: He has promised to “solve health care” once and for all — and, for good measure, to “win the war on cancer.”
Now, the brash entrepreneur could become a key voice in the president-elect’s ear.
“He certainly fits the unconventional model of the kind of people the Trump transition 2.0 is looking at across the board: business background, extremely successful, and no political experience or baggage,” Ramsey Baghdadi, cofounder of Washington analysis firm Prevision Policy, said in an email. “In that sense, he makes a perfect potential appointee or adviser in the new Trump world.”
If Trump decides to keep funding Biden’s moonshot, Soon-Shiong might be angling to take it over and align it with his own, Baghdadi said. Such a privatized approach to science might appeal to Trump’s view that government should be run more like a business.
How he ended up on Trump’s radar is anyone’s guess. A spokesperson for Soon-Shiong declined to comment, and Trump’s transition team said only that the pair “discussed innovation in the area of medicine and national medical priorities that need to be addressed in our country.”
In a tweet after the meeting, Soon-Shiong called it an “incredible honor” to dine with Trump, who “truly wants to advance health care for all.”
Politically, the two would seem to have little in common. Soon-Shiong’s political contributions have skewed heavily toward the Democratic Party, including $50,000 in donations to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and joint fundraising committee.
But, like Trump, Soon-Shiong is fond of laying out a sweeping vision, with little mention of the finer details. (He’s also fond of coining new phrases, like “quantumoncotherapeutics,” which he used describe his approach to cancer treatment, or “do tank,” his alternative to tanks of the thinking variety.)
Cancer doctors affiliated with Soon-Shiong’s companies call him a visionary with the potential to break down barriers in health care, and he has many fans in the investment community. He’s built an empire of interlocking enterprises that have raised hundreds of millions from investors around the world, including the Kuwait Investment Authority and Verizon Communications.
“The guy is one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met,” said Joseph Munda, an equities analyst who follows Soon-Shiong’s companies for First Analysis Securities. “His background running two pharmaceutical companies, I think it gives him incredible credibility when it comes to the treatment of cancer.”
But Soon-Shiong’s often brash public persona has raised eyebrows among outside researchers.
He’s “a hype merchant propping up a lucrative empire with almost no real substance,” Broad Institute geneticist Daniel MacArthur tweeted Monday.
“Every time I hear his name uttered by an academic oncologist, it’s with an eye roll,” said Dr. Vinay Prasad, an oncologist at Oregon Health and Science University. “If you asked a dozen oncologists what they think of him, his general reputation is that of a shameless self-promoter.”
Soon-Shiong made his fortune by founding and selling drug companies. Forbes once dubbed him “the richest doctor in the history of the world.” And Bloomberg estimates his fortune at $9 billion. His biotech empire starts with NantWorks, a wide-ranging umbrella company that has spawned more than 10 subsidiaries.
Soon-Shiong also holds a 4.5 percent stake in the Los Angeles Lakers (and is a frequent courtside guest at the Staples Center), and he owns roughly 13 percent of Tronc, a media company that counts the Los Angeles Times among its holdings.
NantKwest (NK), a Soon-Shiong project focused on cancer immunotherapy, set records in 2015 when it went public with the largest valuation in biotech history, making its founder’s 63 percent ownership stake worth nearly $1.3 billion on paper. When NantHealth, a diagnostics technology company, went public over the summer, Soon-Shiong owned 90 percent of the firm, creating another paper fortune.
Investor exuberance was short-lived, however. NantKwest’s share price has fallen by more than 75 percent since last year, and NantHealth has slipped 35 percent since its public debut in June. Short sellers seized on both companies after their initial public offerings, betting their shares would tumble.
One investor group mounted a lawsuit against NantKwest after the firm made some accounting errors related to Soon-Shiong’s compensation, which topped $147 million in cash and stock last year. Soon-Shiong has also been sued by a family member, a pair of ex-employees, and a well-regarded research institution.
And NantHealth’s core technology has been slow to catch on. Called GPS Cancer, the service promises to analyze patients’ tumors for unique mutations and give doctors actionable advice on how best to treat them, all within 21 days. But there’s plenty of skepticism in the health care IT space, where Soon-Shiong is “a controversial figure,” said Dr. John Halamka, chief information officer at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
“People in the field worry that he over-promises and under-delivers,” Halamka said in an email. “There has been great marketing but limited production use of [NantHealth’s] services.”
But Soon-Shiong, as ever, believes in his vision.
“The fact that there are doubters means it’s big and important,” he told the LA Times in January.