BioPharma, Diagnostics

Why Groupon’s cofounder is diving head first into healthcare

After a career spent in tech, Eric Lefkofsky’s mission took an unexpected twist when his wife was diagnosed with cancer: “I was just amazed at how little technology had permeated her care and I became infatuated with trying to understand why,” he said.

Tempus founder Eric Lefkofsky

Very few people (myself included) can convincingly use the term “paradigm shift.”

Eric Lefkofsky is one of the few who can. In 2017, he’s throwing the term on the table as he describes the data-enabled precision medicine revolution that is now underway in healthcare.

“It’s an amazing time,” he said in a recent phone interview. “We’ve seen several of these kinds of technology paradigm shifts evolve and what they can mean. From my perspective, what we’re about to see in biotech and genomics may be the biggest of them all.”

Not one to sit on the sidelines, Lefkofsky is making his own play in the space with Tempus. Founded just under two years ago, its ambitious aim is “to build the world’s largest database of clinical and molecular data” and to make it widely accessible.

Along with Tempus, Lefkofsky is co-founder and chairman of Groupon, co-founder of Echo Global Logistics (ECHO), InnerWorkings (INWK), Mediaocean, and most recently Uptake — a unicorn data analytics company now valued at over $2 billion. With longtime business partner Brad Keywell, he also co-founded a Chicago-based venture capital firm, dubbed Lightbank.

According to Forbes, Lefkofsky’s net worth is close to $1.8 billion.

“I’ve been in technology for about 20 years,” he stated. “I’ve spent most of my career basically helping structure, and cleanse, and make sense of data in industries where there’s not a lot of technology.”

He never expected to venture into healthcare, but fate intervened just over three years ago. Lefkofsky’s wife was diagnosed with breast cancer and he found himself spending long hours by her side in cancer clinics. That’s where the seeds for Tempus were planted.

“I was just amazed at how little technology had permeated her care and I became infatuated with trying to understand why,” he recalled.


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Over the course of the next year, Lefkofsky visited many top NCI cancer centers and spoke with leaders in the space to understand where the information breakdown was occurring.

It became apparent that a seemingly basic marriage of data wasn’t happening. Clinical data about patients, the therapies they took, and how they responded, wasn’t being coupled with their molecular data in a reliable and actionable way, he said. That meant individual insights were being lost and a collective understanding of disease mechanisms wasn’t being gained.

“We became convinced that the underlying data infrastructure in cancer care, and ultimately in healthcare, was just not adequate,” Lefkofsky said.

Here’s the really interesting part: Tempus was founded as an end-to-end solution to these challenges. Technology is a big component of the company, but so too is genomic sequencing. It has its own CLIA-certified lab, which generates high-quality data for processing, interpretation, and delivery.

The rationale for doing it all is two-fold. Firstly, Tempus was looking for low-cost, high-quality clinical and molecular data, Lefkofsky said. Many players operate in this field, but no one was able to meet the cost and quality requirements Tempus would need to scale as intended.

The second factor may speak to the early success of the company in signing high profile healthcare partners. An end-to-end solution appeals to physicians and providers who would otherwise have to juggle multiple companies and piecemeal offerings.

“People say to us all the time; we can replicate what Tempus does, we just have to partner with three or four different companies. And then you have all those issues,” he said. “We believe the only winning answer is to have all this unified on one platform.”

It’s a bold move for a healthcare outsider. But he has put his own money on the line to invest in top talent and resources and it’s already paying off.

“It’s just been an amazing couple of years,” Lefkofsky shared. “We had hoped maybe one or two top medical centers would want to work with us and we’ve just been overwhelmed with how many top NCI cancer centers are adopting our technology.”

It’s important to note that Tempus also works with community hospitals and local providers as well. In fact, they have signed more community partnerships than they have with academic medical centers — the latter just happens to get the press.

“We want this technology to be available everywhere,” Lefkofsky stressed.

Along with the sequencing, Tempus does some heavy tech lifting to uncover phenotypic data about patients, their outcomes, and how they responded to different treatments. The kind of information you would expect to find in medical records.

Unfortunately, as noted by other experts in the field, electronic health records (EHRs) weren’t designed with medical research in mind. “They’re large bill pay systems,” as Lefkofsky puts it. Moreover, many were designed before the human genome had even been sequenced. They’re not equipped to deal with the universe of data that now exists.

Most of the information is caught up in physician notes (aka progress notes), a series of free text fields. Tempus uses optical character recognition and natural language processing technology to turn that text into structured data — what its founder does best.

Put together, the science and technology solution “has really struck a nerve,” Lefkofsky said, with major leaders in oncology. They’re acutely aware of the potential this data holds, but the field hasn’t been able to harness it in a rapid, scalable, and cost-effective fashion.

When it does become routine, actionable, and progressive, a new era in healthcare will emerge.

“The technology paradigm shifts are hard to spot,” he reflected. “We’re certainly in the middle of one, I think, as it relates to biotech. For the first time ever you can, at a reasonably low cost, look inside the human body and begin to map what is going wrong when a patient is diseased.”

Photo: Tempus

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