The billionaire surgeon-entrepreneur discusses the inspirations behind his four-decade career.
This article appears in the July/August 2020 edition of HealthLeaders magazine.
Simply, Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong could be one of the most accomplished individuals in healthcare. Soon-Shiong, a surgeon and entrepreneur, is CEO of NantWorks, a health technology company based in Culver City, California.
Earlier this year, Soon-Shiong bought St. Vincent Medical Center in Los Angeles in a private sale with the purpose of using the campus as a surge hospital for patients infected with coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) as well as researching the progression of the disease.
Soon-Shiong taught at the UCLA School of Medicine before inventing Abraxane, a cancer treatment drug, which he sold to Celgene Corp. in a deal worth a reported $3 billion.
He also owns both the Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune, as well as a minority stake in the Los Angeles Lakers.
Below are highlights from Soon-Shiong's conversation with HealthLeaders about his trailblazing healthcare career and interests outside of healthcare.
"I trained as a physician in South Africa and was always fascinated by the science and biology of the human body and how you can translate that into some impactful treatment."
"If you would describe what I do, I'm a sort of systems engineer of the human body trying to understand it. I'm trying to make sense of it and how we can then create treatments that affect life-threatening diseases."
"[What's important is] understanding the first principles of basic science, being driven by what biology tells us [and] by what the data tells us; not by any other perspective, ego, money, or naysayers. If the science at first principles are fundamental, like mathematics, and they pan out every time you do another experiment, there's almost an imperative to follow."
"There'll be few people that will have the perseverance and stomach to take on challenges, and I would just encourage them to do so. By the way, that's what makes this country great, because there's an ability to find resources through both the private sector as well as the public sector that allow innovation to prosper."
"There was a fellow by the name of Alan Rembaum who was a physicist at both Caltech and Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). At that time, I was an assistant professor of surgery at the [Department of] Veterans Administration (VA) and he took me under his wing. I would drive from the VA all the way to Caltech and JPL just to sit with him. [Rembaum] had prostate cancer, and he took me to his home and pulled out a bunch of boxes. His wife said, 'I want you to have these; these are [his] thoughts and writings.' Alan shared with me that he didn't know how long he had on this planet, but he would like me to have it all. That was incredibly inspiring, as if a baton were being handed down to this young, awe-inspired surgeon.
"I went back to the VA, continued my work in diabetes, and met with Lee Iacocca, who was chairman of Chrysler [Corporation]. [Iacocca] sat me down and said, 'Patrick, you will never survive in the university.' I said, 'Well, all I want to be is the chairman of the department of surgery,' and he said, 'No, you will never survive because you are too innovative in a bureaucracy; let me create a company for you.' I said, 'I don't know what a company is.' He said, 'I'll call my venture capital friends, I'll sit on the board, and I'll create your first company.' That was insight into how the private sector can accelerate some of the work."
"The third person [who inspired me] was Leonard Shapiro, whose son had died of diabetes in Los Angeles. Before that, when his son was alive and wanted a transplant, [Shapiro] brought all the contractors that did air conditioning, plumbing, and everything else to my lab at the VA and over multiple weekends made it into a lab that I could develop transplants for patients, which I then took to the Daughters of Charity in downtown Los Angeles and St. Vincent's Medical Center."
"If you look at these people, they all inspired and believed in the passion. I think that was all part of this inspiration to me."
"The people I'm inspired by are sort of different; for example, I'm inspired by Burt Bacharach. That's a wonderful man who is in his 90s and just made [a song] called 'Bells of St. Augustine.' He sent me the first cut and it's incredibly touching, meaning that he has followed his passion throughout."
"I'm inspired by people like Bob Gallo, who persisted throughout the time when he worked on HIV to continue to develop innovations in infectious diseases. It's not about the business of trying to make money or be a successful businessman; it's about the business of making an impact on this planet."
"I'm a basketball fan, I'm a basketball nut, and I still played full court basketball until COVID-19, believe it or not."
"When the opportunity [to own part of the Lakers] arose, it was completely out of the blue. Magic Johnson gave us a call and asked if I could meet him. The proposal was would I buy his share and I said, 'Oh my God, absolutely.' Not only that, I wanted to make sure that I could contribute, so I met with [Lakers owner] Dr. Jerry Buss and it was an opportunity of a lifetime."
"The only time where I say my mind turns off from all the science and these troubles of the world is either sitting on the floor watching these amazing athletes play or while I'm on the court myself at home. That's why this is a gift for me."
“If you would describe what I do, I'm a sort of systems engineer of the human body trying to understand it. I'm trying to make sense of it and how we can then create treatments that affect life-threatening diseases”
Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong
Jack O'Brien is the Content Team Lead and Finance Editor at HealthLeaders, an HCPro brand.
Photo credit: Caroline Harrison