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Eric Lefkofsky in the lab of Chicago-based Tempus. 138

The diagnosis that set Eric Lefkofsky on a new course in big data

December 6th, 2016

There was a time when Eric Lefkofsky’s legacy might have been Groupon–the $2.2 billion e-commerce company that connects customers with merchants.

That changed a few year’s ago when his wife, Liz, a prominent Chicago arts patron and collector, was diagnosed with breast cancer. The experience sent the couple into a tail spin and Lefkofsky on a new course.

Like so many families confronted with a cancer diagnosis, the Lefkofskys scrambled for information.

“It’s terrifying,” Lefkofsky says during an interview in his office. “Unfortunately doctors can’t say ‘You’re going to be OK,’ which is frustrating.”

It was the perfect storm for the entrepreneur driven by building businesses using data. “You start a company when you believe you’ve identified a big problem–a problem painful enough that you want to spend time fixing it.”

Tempus was born.

The company has developed an operating system for cancer– a technology platform that connects anatomic and molecular data with clinical data from medical systems all over the country, explains Lefkofsky, CEO of Tempus. All that information compiled in one place allows doctors to come up with better informed–and more personalized–treatments.

For example, maybe a combination of chemo and radiation would be adjusted for a patient based on historic results from patients with similar medical backgrounds across the country, all based upon both their genetic make-up and the various drugs they took.

Lefkofsky, who’s been listed on the Forbes billionaire list and could have spent the rest of his life coasting on the success of Groupon, instead immersed himself in understanding health care. He read a lot and talked to doctors to get up to speed.

Kevin White, president of Tempus and founding director of the Institute for Genomics and Systems Biology at the University of Chicago, calls Lefkofsky a quick study.

A geneticist by training, White says he and Lefkofsky come from different backgrounds but are on the same page in wanting  “to take cancer treatment to the next level using modern technology.”

White adds: “I look at the scientific steps that need to be taken to have a successful product and Eric brings a ton of experience building successful businesses that are aggregating large amounts of data and mining them to figure out insights that can advance the state of any given industry.”

Tempus allows partnering doctors to utilize their analytics system to learn more about their patients.

University of Pennsylvania’s Ambramson Cancer Center is the latest health center to collaborate with Tempus. Local hospitals teaming with Tempus: Northwestern University’s Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center, Rush University Medical Center and a clinical trial group at University of Chicago.

Lefkofsky doesn’t expect quick results. “This will be a long journey,” he says. “It’s an exciting journey, trying to bring technology to cancer and ultimately bring technology to health care.”

Tempus is privately held, which means Lefkofsky isn’t tethered to the “day-to-day and quarter-to-quarter” pressures that come with answering to shareholders of a public company.

The business is personal, aligning every part of his life–family, business and philanthropy. Where once all those interests were disconnected, now there’s “perfect symmetry,” Lefkofsky says.

Nearly 600,000 people die a year from cancer, “and it hasn’t changed much in 25 years,” he says, imagining that additional information could have changed treatment decisions and kept even as many as 10 percent more people alive. “That’s real motivation.” And, surely, a legacy.

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