LOS ANGELES — He was perhaps the least famous billionaire in a city brimming with wealthy celebrities.
But Patrick Soon-Shiong, 65, a doctor who turned a cancer drug into a multibillion-dollar biotech empire, emerged on Wednesday as a major figure in Los Angeles life with his surprise $500 million purchase of The Los Angeles Times and its sister newspaper, The San Diego Union-Tribune.
Dr. Soon-Shiong has a long — and sometimes checkered — history in the medical field going back to the 1990s, but has kept a relatively low profile in the political, cultural and philanthropic doings of the city. He now faces the challenge of stabilizing a newspaper engulfed by turmoil and diminished in resources.
His is an immigrant’s tale that captures the story of Los Angeles today: a Chinese doctor who was raised in South Africa before coming to Los Angeles to make his fortune. He is worth an estimated $8 billion, and has been called the richest man in Los Angeles. He is a part owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, having bought Magic Johnson’s 4.5 percent stake in the team in 2010 before setting his sights on what friends said he viewed as the ultimate prize of social cachet: the 136-year-old, award-winning newspaper that has long displayed the city’s ambitions to the world.
Dr. Soon-Shiong was already a major shareholder at the newspaper, joining the board of Tribune Publishing, which later became known as Tronc, in May 2016. In purchasing The Times, he has accomplished what eluded some of the most established business leaders here who have flirted for years with buying it — Eli Broad, David Geffen and Austin Beutner among them.
Unlike Mr. Broad, who can regularly be seen in the Founders Room at the Los Angeles Opera, or Mr. Beutner, a deputy mayor who ran briefly for mayor, or Mr. Geffen, who recently donated $150 million to rebuild the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Dr. Soon-Shiong has left a relatively light footprint on the city’s civic life.
Still, Dr. Soon-Shiong can be spotted in his courtside seats at Lakers games, and often invites players to his huge compound in Brentwood to shoot hoops in his underground gymnasium. “To this day, basketball is the thing that keeps me sane,” he said in an interview in 2016 for an oral history project at the Smithsonian.
He has a reputation among business leaders as being polite, charming, and brilliant, particularly when talking about the latest advances in cancer treatment. But he is also known as an aggressive self-promoter and an impulsive businessman.
The announcement of the purchase was met with relief in a newsroom that had come to believe any owner would be better than Tronc.
Late Wednesday, Dr. Soon-Shiong sent a note to the Times staff, calling his decision “deeply personal.” He added, “As someone who grew up in apartheid South Africa, I understand the role that journalism needs to play in a free society.”
The Times under Dr. Soon-Shiong will no longer be part of a public company, allowing the paper to avoid financial scrutiny as it tries to combat industrywide financial challenges. Dr. Soon-Shiong’s deep pockets could also help prop up a larger newsroom and more ambitious, far-reaching journalism.
As part of his deal for the paper, Dr. Soon-Shiong will assume $90 million in pension liabilities from Tronc.
Dr. Soon-Shiong also brings a new set of uncertainties to an already anxious newsroom. It is not clear if he will be a relatively hands-off owner, like Jeff Bezos at The Washington Post, or if he will be more meddlesome, like Sheldon Adelson at The Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Friends said that Dr. Soon-Shiong, who did not respond to a request for an interview, took note of what he saw as a vacancy in the halls of Los Angeles power when Mr. Broad announced at the end of the year that he was retiring, ending a career of high-profile philanthropy and civic involvement that helped define modern Los Angeles.
“I believe he cares deeply about Los Angeles and our community,” said Mr. Beutner, who lives next door to Dr. Soon-Shiong, “and understands the role The Los Angeles Times plays as a civic conscience.”
Dr. Soon-Shiong has been an active philanthropist, giving money to various medical causes and helping to reopen Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital, which serves south Los Angeles and had been closed because of poor performance.
Mark Ridley-Thomas, a member of the powerful county board of supervisors who has known Dr. Soon-Shiong for more than a decade, lauded the billionaire for his work with local hospitals.
Dr. Soon-Shiong’s career in medicine, however, has been shadowed by controversy. Just how much his business travails might affect him and The Los Angeles Times now that he is under a bigger spotlight remains to be seen.
The health news website STAT and Politico have reported that many of Dr. Soon-Shiong’s gifts go to hospitals or other organizations that then do business with his companies. For instance, his foundations gave $12 million to the University of Utah for a genetic study. The university then paid one of Dr. Soon-Shiong’s companies most of that money to do the genetic sequencing needed for the study. Dr. Soon-Shiong has vigorously disputed aspects of those articles.
Dr. Soon-Shiong was sued last year by Cher over allegations of stock fraud. In the case, the singer claimed she was persuaded to sell shares in the Florida-based pharmaceutical company Altor, as Dr. Soon-Shiong’s firm NantCell was acquiring the company, at a price well below what they were worth. The lawsuit, Dr. Soon-Shiong’s spokesman told The Los Angeles Times, “has no merit.”
Dr. Soon-Shiong made his fortune in the generic drug business and by developing a cancer drug, Abraxane, that has become a modest success. He has parlayed the billions of dollars he has made into a huge array of companies and nonprofit endeavors that he promises will transform health care.
Beyond that cancer drug, his accomplishments so far seem limited, according to some critics in the medical field who say he can promise more than he delivers.
In March 2016, in front of a packed auditorium of 700 scientists in La Jolla, Calif., Dr. Soon-Shiong spoke of curing cancer using a variety of means, including genetic sequencing and killer immune-system cells.
“The scientists thought: This guy is off his rocker. It’s totally unrealistic and hyperbolic,” said Dr. Eric Topol, executive vice president for the Scripps Research Institute, which hosted the gathering.
Dr. Soon-Shiong’s work with Abraxane has left some in the cancer field unimpressed. Dr. Vinay Prasad, a hematologist-oncologist and assistant professor of medicine at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, said the drug has proved to be little better than other drugs that preceded it.
In the field of cancer, “there is a huge opportunity for hype to exaggerate and overemphasize what has been done to date,” Dr. Prasad said.
Dr. Soon-Shiong, who was once a surgeon at the University of California, Los Angeles, first made headlines when he performed the first transplant of insulin-producing pancreatic cells into a patient with Type 1 diabetes. Dr. Soon-Shiong proclaimed the treatment a great success, but some diabetes experts said it was too soon to make such bold claims. A few years later, the patient shot himself to death — despondent, his widow said, over his poor health.
Dr. Soon-Shiong eventually entered the generic drug business, helped by a financial relationship his company had with Premier, an organization that acquired drugs for hospitals. Dr. Soon-Shiong became a billionaire when he sold the company in 2008. A couple of years later he made billions more selling the company that developed Abraxane.
His latest business focus is NantWorks, which owns many other companies working in areas from cancer drugs and diagnostic tests to artificial intelligence and high-speed computer networks.
Speaking of his upbringing, Dr. Soon-Shiong said that what he described as his risk-taking in business went back to his childhood as the son of Chinese immigrants in apartheid South Africa, where he studied drama before medical school.
“I was the first Chinese student in a drama school,” he said in the interview for the oral history project. “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.”
He added: “We were always the underdogs. My black friends were always the underdogs. It gave me the insight into the dignity and strength of the underdog.”
In a classic version of the California immigrant story, Dr. Soon-Shiong and his wife, Michele Chan, arrived in California looking for a place to be accepted. While he became a mogul, she became an actress, appearing in televisions shows — including “Danger Bay” and “MacGyver” — in the 1980s.
Their daughter, Nika, once interned at the newspaper her father now owns.
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