Eric Lefkofsky and Tempus: Improving Cancer Care Decision Making on a Data Level

Eric Lefkofsky

Eric Lefkofsky is one of Chicago’s most influential innovators. He is the former co-founder of ventures such as Groupon, Echo Global Logistics, and InnerWorkings. With his current entrepreneurial venture, Tempus, he is battling cancer care by using “big data” analytics. Tempus is only two years young, and it has already raised $130 million in venture capital and is being considered among Chicago’s top ten tech companies. Tempus takes advantage of the recent human genome sequencing, science and technology advances to facilitate cancer treatment. When asked about Tempus, Lefkofsky states that the company’s goal is to improve the way decisions are made. “We simply focus on how can we bring technology to the hands of physicians and make their days easier.”


“The challenge we have in cancer care is that that basic data infrastructure just doesn’t exist – it’s completely non-existent” according to Lefkofsky, who recently participated in a keynote conversation with Carleen Hawn, CEO of Healthspottr focused on enlisting technology in the war against cancer. The discussion was part of the “Healthcare of Tomorrow” Conference.


Cancer is defined as uncontrollable cell growth that results in an accumulation of abnormal cells, also called a tumor. It is an umbrella term for over 100 different cancer types, each characterized uniquely depending on factors such as tumor location, patient gender and age and severity, to name a few. Depending on its location as well as the speed of growth, or metastasis, cancer can either be severely debilitating or deadly. In addition to its aggressive nature, it is difficult to impossible to treat as it is the body’s own mechanisms that have failed, and as such the body is not equipped with an optimal defense system against the disease. This also makes cancer one of the most difficult diseases to treat and thereby one of the most widespread, as well. Cancer is also inherently genetic – meaning that malfunctions in cellular processes that ultimately lead to cancer are fundamentally due to malfunctions in genes that regulate them.


The current approaches to cancer treatment are often lacking as they are based on the presumption that every cancer can be grouped based on the organ where it originates from (e.g. breast cancer, lung cancer). Yet every cancer patient’s situation is inherently unique and must be considered on an individual basis. Personalized medicine relies on the description of mutated genes to characterize each patient’s unique composition of therapeutic targets, and as such it takes into consideration the uniqueness of each cancer patient’s tumor. The first step in this process is molecular profiling of a tumor, or simply tumor profiling.


Adding to the inherent complexity of cancer and the suboptimal approaches to treating it is the way patient treatment data are handled. They are typically stored in the form of doctors’ notes, lab test results, diagnoses, remissions and exacerbations. And while the advancement of electronic records has fueled much progress in the health care industry, the system is not optimized. In fact, there is a disconnect between the collected data and how it is used in the development of effective customized treatment paradigms. In efforts to bridge that gap, Tempus is based on a software platform that relies on optical character recognition and natural language processing that gathers electronic healthcare records from several medical institutions and transforms them into structured data.


For the first time in the history of cancer care, Tempus enables data to permeate cancer therapy and thereby unlocks the vast amounts of data that has thus far been “locked inside a large medical system.” According to Lefkofsky “In order to really understand what is going on at the patient level, you have to combine that data with molecular data.” And this is the biggest problem that needs to be addressed in order to make personalized medicine a reality in cancer therapy.


According to Lefkofsky, the ultimate goal is to “Get clinical data and structure it, combine it with molecular data and if you do both those things you can begin to see patterns that are relevant.” This is at the heart of what Tempus aims to do, namely provide physicians with solutions to treating patients and thereby lower their burden of looking at several pieces of disjointed data.


When asked about what success looks like for Tempus, Lefkofsky commented that he will remain singularly focused on getting a vast data library built that will encompass “half a million to a million exomes of clinically annotated data.” This, according to him will result in a situation whereby “you begin an era of insight, where you’ll begin to see all of these patterns emerge that were simply invisible but for scale and those patterns will alter decision support in clinic and they’ll alter the research we do.”


About Eric Lefkofsky

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.


Both Lefkofsky and his wife are avid philanthropists. In 2006, he and his wife established the Lefkofsky Family Foundation, whose primary aim is to advance high-impact initiatives in education, fundamental human rights, medicine, art and culture that enhance lives in the communities that are served. The two are also members of The Giving Pledge. Lefkofsky is also 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 also serves as the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company that is based in Chicago.


Lefkofsky’s also held teaching positions at the Kellstadt Graduate School of Business at DePaul University as well as at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. He is currently an adjunct professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. He also authored the book Accelerated Disruption: Understanding the True Speed of Innovation.