Soon-Shiong's NantKwest is spending more on stock buybacks than R&D

Patrick Soon-Shiong

NantKwest ($NK), an oncology biotech in Patrick Soon-Shiong's constellation of companies, made headlines over the summer when it pulled off a $200 million IPO that valued it at more than $2.5 billion. But the company's share value has slipped by nearly a third in the ensuing months, and instead of pouring money into developing its self-described breakthrough medicines, management has taken the uncommon tack of laying out $50 million to buy back stock.

NantKwest's "growth prospects and long-term strategy are not reflected in the company's current stock price," Soon-Shiong said in a statement, and its buyback program "demonstrates our confidence in the strength of our business, our strong conviction in our long-term growth prospects and our commitment to delivering shareholder value."

The move is an unusual one for loss-taking, research-focused biotech companies, which generally use their IPO proceeds to invest in R&D in hopes of coming up with clinical data that might boost their market value. That $50 million figure well outstrips the $3.9 million NantKwest spent on research in the third quarter. Cellectis ($CLLS), which has a similar market cap, spends nearly three times that per quarter, as does Adaptimmune ($ADAP), a U.K. oncology biotech with a valuation about half the size of NantKwest's.

But Soon-Shiong has never been much for biotech convention. The entrepreneur, who made a fortune selling Abraxis Bioscience to Celgene ($CELG) for $2.9 billion, operates more than about a dozen companies under his NantWorks umbrella. Most are focused on oncology, and each deals almost exclusively with its sibling companies.

NantCell, developing a once-failed Amgen ($AMGN) treatment for cancer, has raised more than $175 million and teamed up with frequent Soon-Shiong partner Sorrento Therapeutics ($SRNE) in immuno-oncology. Then there's NantiBody, a joint venture with Sorrento; NantPharma, at work on a next-generation version of Celgene's Abraxane; NantBioScience, developing nanoparticle cancer treatments; and NantHealth, a tech firm offering what Soon-Shiong calls "the Google of genome mapping."

- read the statement