Patrick Soon-Shiong Biography
A Billionaire’s Story
Net Worth: $6.6 Billion
Wealth Origin: Pharmaceuticals
Place of Birth: Port Elizabeth, South Africa
Education: Bachelor of Arts/Science, University of Witwatersrand; Medical Doctor, University of Witwatersrand; Master of Science, University of British Columbia
“Growing up in apartheid South Africa, we were always the underdogs. My black friends were always the underdogs. It gave me insight into the dignity and strength of the underdog.” – Patrick Soon-Shiong
50% Less Pay
Being Chinese in apartheid South Africa, young Patrick Soon-Shiong found himself born into a peculiar position; he wasn’t considered colored or black and if only one thing was for sure, he wasn’t white. “I was basically a man without a country,” he says. “Couldn’t own property, couldn’t vote, couldn’t go to a white school, couldn’t go to a white hospital, had to carry an identity card but could get on a white bus, could go to a white movie, I couldn’t go on the train – well, I had to go to the back of the train.”
When asked by Giselle Fernandez of Spectrum News if this kind of treatment made him feel less than the whites or like a second class citizen, Mr. Soon-Shiong responded, “you know, interestingly enough, I grew up in a city called Port Elizabeth where my environment was this poor neighborhood of coloreds and I began to understand the dignity of living everyday life. But funnily enough, everybody was happy! It wasn’t an issue of ‘this is painful;’ It was just life.”
After graduating from med school at the top of his class, Patrick was eager to begin interning at South Africa’s most advanced hospital alongside his peers. Of course, this hospital was for whites only and had never employed a person of Asian descent before; no clinic in the country had done such a thing.
“They had to get permission from the South African government and I was told I’d have to take 50 percent of the regular salary,” he says. “My peers wanted to go on strike over that, but I said, no, I’d be glad to take the lower salary just so I could learn from the best.”
Truthfully, as humble as Patrick is, regardless of his race, he was one of the most brilliant young medical practitioners in the country at the time – maybe even the world, as we’ll find out shortly in his story. One early indicator of his incredible capabilities was when his first patient, an Afrikaner (a term used for descendants of early European settlers in the area or “white people”), refused to be examined by him on the basis of his being Chinese.
The man had been in the hospital for three weeks already, suffering from an infection of unknown origin and was experiencing recurring fevers. “He said, no I don’t want you to touch me,” remembers Patrick. Then, after a higher ranking doctor told the patient that he’d have to leave the hospital if he couldn’t be seen by Patrick, the man begrudgingly agreed.
Mr. Soon-Shiong describes what happened next, “I figured out what was the problem and got his temperature down. After that, that man would walk around the hospital saying, ‘That Chinaman, make sure he examines you!'”
Making half the amount of money as his white colleagues because of his ethnicity was undoubtedly frustrating for Patrick, yet he pressed on as financial incentives had very little to do with why he originally chose to forge a career in the medical field. In all honesty, his motivations weren’t at all correlated with breaking down racial barriers either, although that was the outcome of his endeavors and he certainly was a vehement activist against South Africa’s apartheid government.
Patrick’s mom and dad fled China after the Japanese invasion of the mainland during World War II; one thing led to another and their new home would be South Africa. His parents opened up a general store as they looked to begin a new life. Owning the shop was by no means glamorous, Pat recalls they’d often make just enough revenue to keep the business running, additionally, on some occasions, he’d have to go out and sell newspapers on his own to help make more money for the desperate operation.
He says he learned a lot of what he knows about business at that store. When he wasn’t helping out his parents, he built a makeshift basketball hoop to practice his game with; basketball, to this day, is Dr. Soon-Shiong’s only pacifying escape from the rigors of life. But of all his childhood pleasures, what truly piqued his interest was the odd side-gig his father had going on.
“My father was an herbalist in China, so in South Africa he was also a Hakka Association doctor, and every two months a metal biscuit can would arrive from China filled with foul smelling weeds,” Patrick says in an interview with the Smithsonian museum. “If anybody had a fever, a cough, or a boil, there would be a knock on the door, they’d walk into the house, and he would concoct something.”
Watching his father heal people from their community was fascinating to Pat and at a very early age, inspired him to take on a similar vocation.
He breezed through high school, graduating at just 16 years old, and not just that, he got accepted to medical school as well. While a student at the University of Witwatersrand, Patrick participated in protests against South Africa’s apartheid government, even being taken to jail on once for rather comical behavior. He was driving in a car when he got stopped by the police; the officer subsequently asked him, “where’s your I.D.?” To which, Pat condescendingly replied, “Where’s yours?”
You see what makes his question particularly stand-offish is that Afrikaners (presumably this police officer) weren’t required to carry forms of identification with them. According to History, as early as the 18th century, these laws had required members of the black majority, and other people of color, to carry identification papers at all times and restricted their movement in certain areas. They were also used to control black settlement, forcing black people to reside in places where their labor would benefit white settlers.
Needless to say, this officer wasn’t going to take the young man’s lip. He arrested Patrick on the spot and took him to jail, where he’d be held for about nine hours.
In 1976, the South African government announced that black and colored grade-school students would have to start learning in Afrikaans; the language of their dutch colonizers. Imagine already struggling in mathematics or history class as it is, and now you have to start being taught that course in a language you don’t even understand. At the time, English was the common dialect among natives – a result of mass British immigration to the colony during the 1800s.
Troubled by the law, students of all ages organized a protest in their neighborhood; over 20,000 children are estimated to have shown up! That morning, as the kids chanted joyfully with their signs, excited to be actively bringing about some positive change in the world, officers hawked teargas into the crowd, causing it to disperse.
Several students regrouped, and started singing the banned liberation anthem, “Nkosi Sikelel’iAfrika,” or “Lord Bless Africa.” This is about the moment that officers began opening fire on the children – by days end, at least 176 would be killed; some believe the death toll to be much higher.
Only in his late teenage years himself, Patrick volunteered at a hospital to help treat these kids, many of whom were shot or brutally beaten. “As a medical student, the black people I would treat during the anti-apartheid riots were inspiring because they took their hardship with incredible dignity,” he said in an LA Business Journal interview. “They didn’t back down, didn’t give up.”
Falling in Love
He met the love of his life, Michele Chan, in his second year of medical school while playing a pick-up game of basketball. She was blazing trails in her own right, having received permission from the government to attend drama school at the University of the Witwatersrand; Side note, Pat actually studied drama before going to med school.
“At the time, Patrick and I were going through very similar things, which created this very unusual bond,” says Michele. “He was the first Chinese intern to actually work in a white hospital. I was the first Chinese student in a drama school. It’s given us an appreciation for how hard you have to fight for what you want, and it has made us a family of risk-takers.”
Michele would soon face racial barriers in her acting career as she finished school. “They refused to put my wife on South African television when we lived there,” says Patrick. “But after we came to L.A. and she got a role in a series called “Danger Bay,” of course South African TV bought that show and aired it.”
Following his year-long internship at the hospital that paid him 50% less than his peers, he was offered a full-time position there; Mr. Soon-Shiong respectfully declined. Instead, he took on work at a tuberculosis clinic for blacks for six months. Immersed in the trials of TB and finding himself moved to eradicate the disease, he decided he’d have to move to England in order to get to work with the most cutting edge technology.
After nearly winning a grant proposal he sent to an institution in London, he received two offers, one in Vancouver and another in British Columbia. “I looked at the map and selected the warmest place. I became a resident in surgery at Vancouver General Hospital with the University of British Columbia,” he says.
In the evenings, Patrick would work on a master’s of science degree while teaming up with a well-known researcher in pancreatic cancer. The pair’s work won many awards which led to him being recruited by UCLA in 1980.
Having been tapped as the youngest professor of surgery in the university’s history, he then proceeded to accomplish a west coast milestone when performing the coastal region’s first successful pancreas transplant at UCLA Medical Center. At the time, only about 900 pancreas transplants had been performed worldwide, additionally, only four pancreas transplant centers were operating in the United States, and this accomplishment made UCLA the only center on the West Coast performing the procedure.
“When she saw that first meal, her eyes gleamed,” said Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, as he watched his patient marvel at a life of new possibilities. “She told me she had been waiting for that day for 20 years. That is what this operation is all about–improving the quality of life for patients with severe diabetes.”
He then went on to discuss the dangerous nature of such an operation with the Los Angeles Times. “The pancreas is an extremely delicate organ,” he said. “To harvest the organ from the donor requires a four- to five-hour operation. If the pancreas is damaged during the operation, it can secrete the digestive juices which, in effect, cause the pancreas to destroy itself.”
Despite being celebrated in the media for his efforts, Dr. Soon-Shiong’s opinion on the safety of the procedure began to shift. He went to UCLA chairmen and said, “You have to shut down the program for which I’m the director so I can do islet cell transplants.” His boss was quite confused, asking “what’s that?”
Takes a “Sabbatical”
Despite being celebrated in the media for his efforts, Dr. Soon-Shiong’s opinion on the safety of the procedure began to shift. He went to a UCLA chairman and said, “You have to shut down the program for which I’m the director so I can do islet cell transplants.” His boss was quite confused, asking “what’s that?”
“Well, I think I can extract these cells and make the islet cells and wrap them in a membrane. And can you give me a sabbatical?” Patrick said. “You don’t get a sabbatical. You just got here,” the chairmen replied. Then Patrick came up with the idea, “What if you give me six months without salary, and I go travel the world to learn how to do this?” To which, his boss reluctantly agreed.
As we all know, every man has one true boss of bosses to appease when they return home from work every evening, especially when putting the entirety of their personal financial income on hold: the beloved wife. Patrick found himself in good graces, as he remembers, “I went to Michele, and she was making much more money than I was, and she said, ‘Go do that.’ I came back after six months, and I did the first islet cell transplant at St. Vincent’s Medical Center.”
Developing a Diabetes Treatment
By 1991, Dr. Soon Shiong had left UCLA altogether. His brother Terrence, a London investor, put up $2.5 million to help him launch a drug development company called VivoRx – although, as legal proceedings eventually unfolded, Patrick would later claim that Terrence didn’t really contribute any money.
Regardless of any disputes the two men may have been having, they found some success when the FDA approved human trials of Soon-Shiong’s diabetes approach in 1993.
Forbes documents that Dr. Soon-Shiong’s first patient was a severe diabetic who had been injecting insulin for 30 years. Operating at St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Los Angeles, he’d cut a 2-inch slit in the patient’s abdomen and, over 30 minutes, literally pour in 10,000 alginate capsules. It worked. The patient was able to walk unassisted and, after being weaned off insulin for 9 months, went a full 30 days without an injection.
After the news got out, Patrick began making the rounds on national television programs outlining his method of fighting diabetes. The progress encouraged drugmaker Mylan Laboratories to invest $5 million in VivoRx for a 10% stake and to fund research costs of $200,000 a month.
As Dr. Soon-Shiong continued developing his diabetes treatment, he began to believe his approach could be used to fight cancer.
Eventually, his curiosity and testing led him to form a second company–VivoRx Pharmaceuticals, later renamed American Bioscience–to pursue cancer research. Before Patrick knew it, he’d be spending the majority of his time in the American Bioscience labs, rather than at VivoRx.
His brother, along with other investors in VivoRx, later fired then sued Patrick, believing that he was leading them on, consuming, for his own projects, resources that were meant for Vivo’s research specifically, and ultimately, the gist of their argument was that he screwed them over while focusing on the development of breakthrough cancer treatment at American Bioscience. It didn’t make the plaintiffs feel any better when they slowly began to realize that none of the diabetes treatments they had been working on would get FDA approved.
In early 1999 the case went to an arbitrator, who examined 17,000 pages of documents–and cleared Patrick Soon-Shiong of any wrongdoing.
Developing a Cancer Treatment
Taking an excerpt from his Smithsonian profile, Dr. Soon-Shiong explains how he came up with his unconventional hypothesis that led to the development of a cancer treatment known as Abraxane:
There is a universal molecule called albumin that drives all cancer cells, so I decided if I could make a nanoparticle of albumin, I could trick the cancer to feed, not starve. So I invented that, and then went to the National Cancer Institute and said, “Here you have got to develop this.” They said, “Who are you?” I explained that I’m a surgeon doing diabetes and whole pancreas transplants; I’m a NASA scientist, and I think I have a treatment for all cancers. I have this letter to this day which said, “We tested this, it’s fantastic, but please go away. We can’t manufacture this.”
I began to see the incongruity of how we’ve been trained. That by giving maximum tolerant doses of chemotherapy, wiping out the immune system, you’re wiping out exactly what you’ve been God-given to protect your body. I decided after I launched Abraxane to sell everything and to go, so to speak, underground to prove to myself and to the world this hypothesis. If in so doing we will truly change not only cancer, but things like MS and diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis and infectious disease, because it’s all the same continuum of the same biology, which means we need to really interrogate the human body down to the peptide and protein level.
American Pharmaceutical Partners
Securing the Abraxane patents, Patrick continued his work at American Bioscience and later launched a spin-off company called American Pharmaceutical Partners. After all the litigation dust cleared, he found himself owning 80% of American Bioscience, which owned Abraxane along with 65% of American Pharmaceutical Partners (APP); Soon-Shiong was also the chief executive and largest shareholder of both companies.
Over time, he folded the Abraxane operation into APP and took the company public in 2001.
The FDA approved Abraxane in 2005. To this day, it is used as a treatment for certain cancers (including breast, lung, and pancreatic cancer). Due to the success of Abraxane, the value of his companies spiked. Then, in 2007, the stock soared again as the firm found itself the only maker of the blood-thinner heparin whose product did not have to be recalled because of contamination that killed 81 people.
According to Forbes, Soon-Shiong split and sold APP, saying it was “two unique businesses.” The generics business, including heparin, went to Fresenius in 2008 for $4.6 billion. In 2010 the drug business, Abraxis, was bought by biotech giant Celgene for $4.5 billion. Soon-Shiong owned some 80% of each.
In addition, the deal solidified him as the largest individual shareholder of Celgene. That company was eventually acquired by Bristol-Myers Squib in 2019 for a hefty $74 billion.
Following the sale of his two companies, Soon-Shiong became the richest doctor to ever live and, for some time, the wealthiest man in Los Angeles. Despite so many accomplishments, he refused to rest on his laurels and founded NantWorks, an ever-growing assemblage of startups aimed at transforming global health information and next-generation pharma development.
Fierce Biotech identifies the crown jewel of NantWorks as NantHealth. The firm aims to revolutionize almost every aspect of digital healthcare and the data it generates, including the use of genomic data in diagnosis and treatment; the connectivity and tracking of the patient at home and in the hospital; and the creation of true value-based healthcare with the integration of cost and outcomes data into medical practice.
Los Angeles Lakers
In 2011, the NBA put out a press release announcing that Los Angeles Lakers legend and part-owner Earvin “Magic” Johnson had sold his share of the team to Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong.
“After heavy deliberation and a weighing heart, I have decided to sell my share of the Lakers to Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong. Dr. Soon-Shiong is a super Lakers fan, an outstanding businessman, a dedicated philanthropist and one of the most active community leaders in Los Angeles,” said Johnson.
“It is an honor for me to be part of the Lakers family and the nation’s foremost basketball franchise,” said Soon-Shiong. “The Lakers’ leadership and spirit of community engendered by Dr. Jerry Buss and his family is an inspiration to us all. Our family looks forward to a future filled with the excitement this team brings to the city and the nation. Earvin Johnson is a shining example of excellence on and off the court, and it is a privilege to have acquired his ownership position.”
Over the years since then, Patrick fostered an intimate relationship with another Lakers legend, the late Kobe Bryant. He was devastated by the news of his death in January of 2020.
Los Angeles Times
In early February of 2018, Dr. Soon-Shiong purchased the Losa Angeles Times and its sister newspaper, the San Diego Tribune, for $500 million.
He discusses his vision for the publication, along with the ailing journalism industry as a whole, with Frank Buckley of KTLA 5 news.