One of Chicago’s most influential entrepreneurs and tech figures, Eric Lefkofsky, is the founder and co-founder of Groupon and his latest venture is Tempus, a technology startup whose aim is to establish an infrastructure to advance cancer treatment.
Having recently secured $70 million in funding, Tempus helped Chicago exceed its full-year funding totals for both 2015 and 2016. Only founded in 2015, Tempus has since grown to a 200-person company and has made it to the top ten of Chicago’s tech startups. Tempus shares the ranking with companies such as Avant, a private Chicago-based company in the financial technology industry, Outcome Health, another healthcare tech, SMS Assist, a cloud-based technology platform that helps clients reduce property maintenance costs, IRI, a market research company that provides clients with consumer, shopper and retail market intelligence and analysis, Raise, a Chicago-based gift card buyback company, Relativity, an e-discovery data platform, SpringCM, a cloud infrastructure platform that helps manage sales contracts and all types of documents across desktop, mobile and partner applications, Signal, a global leader in real-time, cross-channel marketing technology, and Analyte Health, a diagnostic triage company helping patients acquire and understand healthcare diagnostic information as conveniently, confidentially and cost effectively as possible.
In order to understand fully what Tempus does and how it helps personalize cancer care, one must first look at cancer and its current standards of care.
Cancer is not just one disease; rather, it is an umbrella term that refers to group of different diseases, every one of which is the result of the body’s inability to recognize a faulty cellular mechanism and as such prevent further damage. Each cancer results from an uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells that amass into tumors. These tumors have the potential to spread, or metastasize, to other areas of the body, cause further damage and potentially even lead to death. Since tumors are fundamentally masses of the body’s very own cells, the body is unable to differentiate them from otherwise healthy cells and does not shut them down. While our knowledge of cancer is still lacking, it has been found that it is a genetic disease. This means that it fundamentally results from dysfunctions in genes that regulate cellular function, especially their growth and division.
Cancer’s societal burden has become vast enough so that almost everyone either knows, knows of or is related to someone who has suffered from the disease. As such, any advancements in treatment and cure efforts are crucial. Further, cancer patient treatment data is not stored optimally. Typically saved in the form of doctors’ notes, lab test results, diagnoses, remissions and exacerbations, there is a disconnect between the collected data and how it is used in the development of effective customized treatments.
Tempus has developed a software data platform that analyzes large volumes of molecular and clinical data. It is working with hospital systems such as Northwestern, the Mayo Clinic, the University of Michigan, the Cleveland Clinic, Duke University School of Medicine and the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center. Lefkofsky states that “You realize if you’ve been a patient or know someone who’s been a patient that technology has not permeated health care and certainly oncology the way it has permeated other industries.” “At some of the top cancer centers in the country, you find really interesting research initiatives where they’re sequencing patients, looking for patterns,” he says. “It’s not happening at scale.” However, at the same time, physicians can be overwhelmed. “They’re caught in this paradox: You can collect lots of data, but you can’t necessarily analyze all the data.”
According to Lefkofsy, Tempus is unique as it is an end-to-end solution. His hope is to collect massive amounts of data through its partnerships with hospitals and academic institutions. Its services are twofold in that it provides patients with gene-sequencing tests from a laboratory at its River North headquarters, and it offers physicians software-based solutions that enable rapid comparison of a patient’s genetic profile to its database of other cancer patients. This, in turn, allows doctors to access clinical trials as well as determine which treatments have been most effective.
Lefkofsky comments that “We don’t start companies thinking about the industry or big problems, or hey, let’s take a big swing because we can.” “When you have five successful companies, it’s not like, ‘I just really want to start a sixth.’” He states that their motivation for starting companies is very personal, “We come across some problem, and you have this lightbulb that goes off that says, ‘I have this solution.’”
Michael Liang, a Chicago-based partner at Baird Capital venture fund is eager to see how Tempus’ story will evolve. “The biggest question is reimbursement” he states, “How do you get paid for these tests and differentiate your tests?” Yet Lefkofsky is up for the challenge, “I’m confident that in five or 10 years, the average oncologist will be connected to a system like Tempus. Whether or not it’s Tempus, it’s too soon to say.”
In addition to Tempus, Lefkofsky’s other entrepreneurial ventures include Lightbank, a venture fund that focuses its investments on disruptive technologies, Groupon, a global e-commerce marketplace, Uptake Technologies, an analytics platform for the world’s largest industries, Mediaocean, an integrated media procurement technologies provider, Echo Global Logistics, a technology-enabled transportation and logistics outsourcing firm and InnerWorkings, whose focus is on providing managed print and promotional solutions globally.
An avid philanthropist, Lefkofsky, together with his wife Liz established the Lefkofsky Family Foundation in 2006, through which they advance high-impact initiatives in education, fundamental human rights, medicine, art and culture that enhance lives in the communities that are served. Both are also members of The Giving Pledge, where membership includes their commitment to contribute nearly half their wealth to philanthropic causes. Lefkofsky also serves on the board of trustees of the Lurie’s Children’s Hospital of Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago, The Museum of Science and Industry and World Business Chicago. He is also Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company that is based in Chicago.