Eric Lefkofsky and the Cancer Moonshot

Eric Lefkofsky

Eric Lefkofsky was born just after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. His generation grew up thinking of things like space travel, pocket-computers, and artificial intelligence as the stuff of science, not fiction. For the co-founder of Groupon, Echo Global Logistics, and Innerworkings, “The challenge of our time is to end cancer as we know it.” As a means to that end, Mr. Lefkofsky has co-founded Tempus, in order to take advantage of the recent advances made in human genome sequencing, science and technology. As do his other ventures, Tempus will use “big data” to solve a problem.


Mr. Lefkofsky grew up and attended college in Michigan. He received his Juris Doctor from the University of Michigan, but that may not have been his most valuable training. While attending college in Ann Arbor, he was also selling carpet. One can gain a lot of useful habits, skills, and knowledge at a major university, but there is only one way to learn how to sell. When he left law school, he walked into the birth year of the Internet.


Tempus and his other ventures were conceived, Mr. Lefkofsky says, out of “trying to solve real problems.” Whether finding and selling promotional goods and services, connecting producers with shippers, or managing corporate printing services, his companies have applied techniques of gathering, sorting, filing and accessing large amounts of information. There may be no greater source of information than human DNA. There are approximately 22,300 protein-coding genes in human beings, and every human being has a unique code on every cell.


There are more than 100 types of cancer. For each type of cancer, there are multiple treatments, as well as many patients who have used each treatment with varying degrees of success. Results of treatment for each of those patients are collected, filed and stored where the patient was treated, inaccessible to anyone but the patient’s personal healthcare provider. Imagine all the dog-eared manila folders in all the drawers and racks in just one hospital. Now multiply that by the number of hospitals, clinics, and offices of general practitioners.


The problem is data, a growing expanse of doctors’ notes, lab test results, diagnoses, remissions and exacerbations. Tempus gathers electronic healthcare records from major medical institutions like the University of Michigan, Northwestern, the Mayo Clinic, and the Cleveland Clinic and essentially cleanses them and makes sense of them. Tempus also collects samples from patients for DNA and RNA sequencing.


Beyond collection and storage are the problems of accessing, analyzing and making use of that data in order to help an individual patient, presenting a unique human genome sequence and a distinct medical history.


From this swelling pie chart of data, Eric Lefkofsky has cut the cancer slice. “Why do some patients respond well to a cancer therapy while others do not?” he asks on his blog. Which treatment works on which patient with which type of cancer? The answers are in the data, just as the fish are in the ocean. But someone first needs to chart the ocean and indicate where fish have been found. Now the challenge for Tempus is to leverage their position in data collection and analysis in order to benefit the individual patient. Cancer treatments that have shown progress on individual cases must be compared so that patients and treatments can be paired in terms of expected effectiveness. It is a challenge of proportions comparable to putting a man on the moon, but for innovators like Eric Lefkofsky, that is why the moon is there.