r. Patrick Soon-Shiong has been called the world’s richest doctor. He might soon be among its most influential doctors, too, as sources tell STAT he is pitching himself to the Trump administration as a sort of health care czar.
If he gets the job, it will be just the latest line on his long, colorful resume. Here, seven things to know about the man who wants to remake the American health care system.
1. He likes the limelight
Soon-Shiong, 64, does not mince words when talking about how he plans to save the world. He has declared that he will “win the war on cancer.” He even used to tweet at the handle @SolveHealthCare.
And Soon-Shiong — who might be the wealthiest man in Los Angeles — has considerable star power: Several employee reviews on Glassdoor mention frequent celebrity sightings at his Los Angeles-area companies. He gets around on a private plane, where he sometimes conducts meetings at 30,000 feet, one former employee told STAT last year. Unlike most biopharma CEOs, he’s employed a personal bodyguard for years.
Soon-Shiong may be palling around with Trump these days, but this isn’t his first foray into the political sphere. He worked with the Obama administration to increase awareness about cancer. And last May, Soon-Shiong joined former Vice President Joe Biden — and the pope — at a star-studded conference on cancer and regenerative medicine.
Oh, and his wife used to be on “MacGyver.”
2. He can be divisive
Soon-Shiong started his career as a pioneering transplant surgeon. But he now has a reputation for talking more than doing. “Every time I hear his name uttered by an academic oncologist, it’s with an eye roll,” Dr. Vinay Prasad, an oncologist at Oregon Health and Science University, told STAT late last year. “If you asked a dozen oncologists what they think of him, his general reputation is that of a shameless self-promoter.”
Consider, also, his oft-cited claim that one of his companies could use supercomputers to analyze a genome in 47 seconds, far outstripping many other industry leaders. That is technically the average speed, but it doesn’t give the full picture: Forbes reporter Matthew Herper described the claim as “a little like expecting McDonald’s to give you 800 Happy Meals the moment you pull up to the drive-through because McDonald’s serves 800 burgers a second worldwide.”
Soon-Shiong is represented by an elaborate web of public relations professionals to control his image, but the messaging doesn’t always go to plan. The rollout of his much-touted “Cancer MoonShot 2020” last year was quite chaotic; the PR team even bungled the list of pharma companies that had signed up as partners. Either by accident or by design, the name itself was confusing, too: Biden announced a federal cancer moonshot right around the same time.
Adding an odd little twist to the story, it turns out that the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center has had its own cancer moonshot for years. It’s now suing Soon-Shiong and his businesses for having “willfully, intentionally, and/or knowingly infringed or otherwise violated the trademark.”
3. His business is … complicated
The core of Soon-Shiong’s enterprise is called NantWorks, from which at least 10 interconnected biotech companies have grown. Each has raised hundreds of millions of dollars, and each tends to make deals with other firms under Soon-Shiong’s umbrella.
But not one has successfully developed a drug, and investor enthusiasm has waned.
NantKwest, the first to go public, raised more than $200 million in a 2015 initial public offering, but its valuation has plummeted in the ensuing year. Soon-Shiong repeatedly delayed plans to take public NantHealth, which developed a diagnostic technology that appears to be the anchor of much of the Nant empire. The firm finally made its Wall Street debut last year, on a tight deadline — if it had waited a few weeks more, one of its biggest investors would have had the legal right to bail on the company. It has since lost more than 30 percent of its value.
But Soon-Shiong personally has done well. In 2015, NantKwest paid him more than $148 million in stock and options, and he still owns a roughly 50 percent share of the company. He also owns about 57 percent of NantHealth, according to a regulatory filing, a stake worth more than $500 million.
All told, Bloomberg estimates he’s worth $8.8 billion.
And Soon-Shiong says the Nant empire is still growing. In June, he promised two more IPOs, for NantBiosciences and NantOmics. Those offerings have yet to materialize.
4. He’s backed by some unusual investors
Most health care entrepreneurs have a hard enough time securing financing from specialist investors. But Soon-Shiong has the star power to attract funding from sources who usually don’t invest in health care companies.
Case in point: The sovereign wealth fund of Kuwait in 2014 poured a total of $250 million into NantHealth, securing at least 10 percent ownership of the company. The head of the country’s investment authority reportedly decided to invest after being impressed by Soon-Shiong during a meeting in California.
Another unconventional source of Soon-Shiong’s funding: the telecom industry. Verizon Communications invested in NantHealth in 2012, and BlackBerry bought a minority stake in 2014. Soon-Shiong has also partnered with Vodaphone and with AT&T on health technology projects.
5. His tastes are certainly diverse
Soon-Shiong’s interests stretch well beyond traditional health care and pharmaceuticals.
In the past year, he’s gained a substantial stake in the news business: Soon-Shiong now owns about 16 percent of the shares in tronc, the oddly named publisher of the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and other newspapers.
Soon-Shiong has grand plans for the news biz as well — saying that “it’s time to bring the legacy publishing business into the modern era.” He wants to incorporate technologies like machine learning and artificial intelligence into journalism.
He’s been a Lakers fan since the 1980s, and now holds a 4.5 percent stake in the NBA team. He’s often seen sitting courtside during games at the Staples Center.
Then there’s his take on more alternative medicines: He’s been an avid proponent of the medicinal qualities of cannabis — telling Larry King that “there’s great validity in medical marijuana.” Former Sony CEO Michael Lynton even corresponded with Soon-Shiong on the subject, as we know courtesy of WikiLeaks, which published emails indicating the two moguls set up a time to talk about Lynton’s idea for a device that could monitor “marijuana use while driving.”
As for politics, while he called it an “incredible honor” to dine with Trump shortly after the election, 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.
6. He was involved in one of the earliest drug pricing controversies
It seems a little quaint now: More than 10 years ago, Soon-Shiong’s signature cancer drug, Abraxane, came under fire for being too costly. The medical community was outraged at Abraxane’s $4,200 price tag, describing the drug as “old wine in a new bottle” because it’s an updated version of the long-used chemotherapy drug paclitaxel. Of course, considering the pricing of cancer drugs today, that’s practically a bargain.
Thanks to the commercial success of Abraxane, Celgene bought Soon-Shiong’s company, Abraxis, for a stunning $2.9 billion. That’s where he got most of his wealth.
7. He once claimed to have cured diabetes
In the early 1990s, Soon-Shiong claimed that he may have cured diabetes in a patient named Steven Craig by implanting cells that secrete insulin. The treatment worked, for a while — launching an outpouring of media attention for Soon-Shiong’s diabetes company, VivoRx. But he faced criticism in ensuing years, as the results were not reproducible.
“It’s far too early to view this as a cure, or even a therapy,” Dr. James Gavin, then-president of the American Diabetes Association, once said of Soon-Shiong’s therapy. “We don’t need this kind of inappropriate hype.”
Soon-Shiong’s woes with the field of diabetes continued — including a lawsuit from his older brother, Terrence.
Generic drugmaker Mylan had invested in VivoRx to support its diabetes work, but much of the money was actually used to support a separate company Soon-Shiong set up — VivoRx Pharmaceuticals, which researched cancer drugs instead. That resulted in a fraud lawsuit from Mylan and Terrence Soon-Shiong, Patrick’s business partner.
Patrick Soon-Shiong paid $32 million to settle the lawsuit.