Patrick Soon-Shiong is best known as the owner of the Los Angeles Times, though his role in the region long predates his 2018 acquisition of the legacy publication. Before that, he made his name as a billionaire biotech businessman; his success provided him the wealth not only to purchase the paper (and the San Diego Union-Tribune), but back in 2010, to take a stake in the Los Angeles Lakers.
A sprawling story that hit the New Yorker website on Monday opens a much larger window into the world of Soon-Shiong. The fascinating, nearly 8,100-word read by Stephen Witt details his personal evolution and aggressive approach to business and innovation, while also revealing some of the lesser-known tangles he has endured over the decades.
“At the center of his fortune is a cancer treatment that costs more than a hundred times as much as another drug, available as a generic, that is prescribed for some of the same conditions,” Witt writes. “Soon-Shiong has been repeatedly accused of financial misrepresentation, self-dealing, price gouging, and fraud. He has been sued by former investors and business partners; he has been sued by other doctors; he has been sued by his own brother, twice; he has been sued by Cher.”
Witt notes that Soon-Shiong spoke with him for the story on Zoom, but would not meet with him in person. The deeply researched article features interviews with a bevy of business and medical experts, as well as three prominent Soon-Shiong friends: composer Burt Bacharach, Jerry Zucker, who produced the movie Airplane!, and Metta-Sandiford Artest, the former Laker previously known as Ron Artest and Metta World Peace.
The story details Soon-Shiong’s upbringing: the son of parents who were ethnically Hakka and moved to South Africa, where they raised 10 children. Soon-Shiong says he spoke Hakka Chinese and English as he grew up in the city of Port Elizabeth, and went to a school for Chinese students. He attended medical school, which, due to racial quotas, only allowed two Chinese students out of a class of 200. After graduation he asked to intern as a white hospital in Johannesburg. “His wish was granted, on the condition that he work for half pay,” the article states.
He and his wife Michele, who he met at a basketball game, moved to Canada in 1977, and Witt reports that Soon-Shiong was recruited to UCLA in 1983. The story opens by describing how in the 1980s, automotive executive Lee Iacocca visited Soon-Shiong to discuss the young surgeon’s work on treating patients in need of a pancreas transplant (Iacocca’s first wife had died of Type 1 diabetes). It explains how Iacocca agreed to fund his work, while also encouraging Soon-Shiong to commercialize it.
That would come, through a string of companies and a series of sales and stock price increases, and the story states that Soon-Shiong, 69, “is worth at least eight billion dollars.” It mentions 12 parcels in Brentwood he has acquired, and how the complex includes a bungalow where Soon-Shiong and his wife lived early on. Today the bungalow is a guest house.
The article details the underground basketball court, constructed to NBA standards and with natural light, that Soon-Shiong had built on the land. It says the late Kobe Bryant sometimes would play there. Artest describes the court as “insane,” with locker rooms and televisions. Artest also says Soon-Shiong can hold his own when balling.
“He can pull up left, pull up right, he has a one-dribble fade,” Artest states in the article. “He really knows how to play the game.”
For all of Soon-Shiong’s success, there have been travails. One passage digs into a start-up Soon-Shiong and his brother Terrence founded in 1991. The venture, VivoRx, secured a $5 million investment, but when Patrick Soon-Shiong started another company, dissension ensued. In 1998, the story said, Patrick Soon-Shiong was kicked off the company’s board and was being sued.
The article states, “Patrick persuaded Terrence to drop the lawsuit, but in 1999 VivoRx, now under Terrence’s control, sued Patrick again, this time alleging fraud. The second lawsuit accused him of ‘betrayal, arrogance, greed, and personal aggrandizement that resulted in corporate misconduct of enormous proportions.’ (Patrick says that there was no misconduct.)”
The New Yorker goes on to detail a settlement among the brothers, with a $24 million payment from Patrick’s companies to Terrence; Terrence received some patents and, Witt writes, “Patrick agreed not to conduct further diabetes research for five years. ‘That I would not work on diabetes for five years—now that, to me, was evil,’ Patrick told [the New Yorker].”
Soon-Shiong first gained a stake in the Los Angeles Times in 2015, and took full control, from an entity known as Tronc, three years later. Angelenos celebrated the sale and the potential for the publication to be back under local control, and with a promise of newsroom investment, following a disastrous decade-plus period of out-of-state ownership and cost-cutting.
The article says Soon-Shiong has invested $100 million in Times infrastructure and staff, and mentions the move of the headquarters from downtown to a property he owns in El Segundo. Former Editor Norman Pearlstine said Soon-Shiong never interfered in editorial coverage. Pearlstine was replaced by Kevin Merida, who started in June, though Merida said he and Soon-Shiong did not meet in person until September. When asked how often the two speak, Merida told Witt, “We don’t have a cadence.”
There are many surprising elements in the article, including how Soon-Shiong was in the locker room with Bryant after the Lakers star ruptured his Achilles tendon in 2013, and how Soon-Shiong advised him to have surgery immediately (often surgeons wait until swelling decreases). There are descriptions of his business dealings, including investing in Zoom in 2013 when it was worth $50 million (the company is now worth $7 billion, the article states). There have been political affiliations, as well.
“In late 2016, he and Michele gave a hundred thousand dollars to Hillary Clinton’s campaign; twelve days after the election, he had dinner with Donald Trump,” the New Yorker reports.
The close of the article looks at Soon-Shiong’s personal attempts to develop a new coronavirus vaccine, as well as his constellation of businesses in El Segundo that fall under the umbrella of NantWorks. It explains that the moniker comes from “Nantan,” a Navajo word for “he who speaks for the people.”
“Inside the NantWorks galaxy,” says the article, “there is NantHealth, which builds diagnostic medical software; NantCloud, which offers cloud-computing services; ImmunityBio, which develops immunotherapy treatments for cancer; and NantStudios, a movie soundstage and visual-effects studio. There are also NantMobile, NantBioScience, NantEnergy, NantOmics, and NantGames.”