Patrick Soon-Shiong: the doctor tackling fake news

Patrick Soon-Shiong © Alamy
Patrick Soon-Shiong: learning from missionary teachers

Patrick Soon-Shiong made a $9bn fortune in biotechnology. Now he wants to spend it curing a very different kind of disease – the spread of bad journalism. Jane Lewis reports.

The campaign to rid the world of fake news has gained a new recruit. Having spent decades trying to cure cancer, while simultaneously amassing a biotech fortune, America’s most distinctive doctor-turned-tycoon, Patrick Soon-Shiong, now wants to root out what he calls “the cancer of our time”. To that end, he has just bought the Los Angeles Times and a handful of other Californian titles for $500m – vaulting him into an exclusive club of trophy newspaper proprietors.

The South African-born medic paid twice as much for the Los Angeles Times as Jeff Bezos did for The Washington Post in 2013. But then he’s got cash to spare. With a fortune put at around $9bn, he is probably, as Forbes once noted, “the richest doctor in the history of the world” – and he has big aspirations for the newspaper. The future belongs to quality journalism, he says. “Fake news, superficial news, clickbait news, shrill, shouty, polarising news….” – Soon-Shiong plans to tackle all these ailments.

A warm but wary welcome

Some Angelinos are saddened by his decision to transplant the paper from its “historic art-deco tower downtown” to “a custom-made campus near the coastal tech hub of Silicon Beach”. But Soon-Shiong – “a trim, dapper, figure” with “a bright restless mind” – grandiosely envisages the site becoming an “institutional public trust in a private setting” akin to Harvard or Stanford. “I’m looking at a 100-year plan.” Staff at the paper have given the deep-pocketed doctor “a warm but wary welcome”, says The Guardian. Yet he trails controversy, as well as plaudits, in his wake. Soon-Shiong is “widely seen as brilliant and at times bombastic, with promises outstripping reality”.

His Chan Soon-Shiong NantHealth philanthropic foundation has come under the spotlight, says Fast Company: an investigation by Politico last year uncovered a tendency “to funnel tax-exempt money into health-tech projects run by his own companies”. And if “intertwining business interests” is “a hallmark of his management style”, so too is leveraging big contacts.

In his drive to become the public face of new cancer treatments and healthcare reform, he chummed up with the Clintons and Obamas – forging close links with the former vice-president, Joe Biden, whose son died of brain cancer. Yet those old alliances “don’t seem to have hurt” his “relationship with the new boss”: Soon-Shiong has also met with Trump to discuss medical innovations.

Lessons from religion

Born in 1952 in apartheid-era South Africa, to Chinese parents of humble means, Soon-Shiong grew up in Port Elizabeth and claims to have had his first lesson in making profits from his Catholic missionary teachers: “no money, no mission”, the nuns told him. After graduating in medicine from the University of Witwatersrand, he emigrated to Canada in the 1970s and worked as a surgeon, later cementing “his reputation for innovation and buzz at UCLA”, says Politico.

He pioneered the anti-cancer drug Abraxane, which he sold to the drug giant Celgene in 2010 for around $3bn. The $4.6bn sale of another generic drug-maker, American Pharmaceutical Partners, added to his fortune. As well as the Los Angeles Times, he now owns the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team –  but buying and selling flashy assets isn’t his real passion. What he’s really after is influence. Given his “political connections, a professional agenda to remake healthcare delivery, and ownership of a major newspaper”, says Fast Company, he could wield quite a lot of that in the next elections.