Stop worrying – Larry Ellison and Prez Trump will have this whole coronavirus thing licked shortly with the power of data
Revealed: Oracle founder's plan for global wellness
Comment Larry Ellison is not one to let anything get him down, least of all gravity. Grave though the global COVID-19 pandemic may be, the Oracle founder, CTO and chairman is a man who produces. And, as intrepid Forbes reporter Angel Au-Yeung found out, the product is "wellness".
Last week's Forbes front cover is graced with the faces of five billionaire business leaders whose world-beating humility humbles them into leading the march of progress: "Agents of Change," it calls them.
Digging into the secrets of Ellison's success, Au-Yeung took a trip to Ellison's private $300m Hawaiian island to make a startling discovering. It's data. Not software licences, a ravenous sales team or proprietary software, but data.
It has to be because data brings us to the crux of the story. Through data, Ellison has partnered with US President Donald Trump and plans to rescue America from the wreckage of the COVID-19 outbreak.
We're told that as the disease caused by the novel coronavirus spread to the United States, Ellison generously put his plans for a "data-driven health utopia" on hold.
Within days, Ellison and President Trump were on the phone. Neither side will say who initiated the conversation…
Without a vaccine, doctors around the world are experimenting with medicines to treat COVID-19, from antimalarial drugs to an antiviral used to fight Ebola. Ellison asked Trump if a clearinghouse existed for real-time data about treatment efficacies and outcomes. Trump said no.
We then pick up the story with David Agus, a cancer doctor and co-founder of Ellison's wellness project Sensei.
"Larry said, 'I will build you a system so doctors and patients can enter information, so we can know what's happening. The president said, 'How much?' And Larry said, 'For free.'"
Ellison's obsession with health data brought about his acquisition of his Hawaiian island, Lanai, on which he has spent least half a billion dollars turning it into a "laboratory for health and wellness powered by data".
"Wellness is our product," says Ellison, speaking as if the secret to good health is achieved through processing bytes of raw data – which, for Ellison, it is.
Lanai... has become his petri dish of experimentation on health, wellness and sustainability, with data collection and feedback loops underpinning the entire operation. "It's a bit of a laboratory for advanced technology," Ellison says.
Health data is also at the heart of a Sensei.
He named his wellness company Sensei, the Japanese word for "master," and the sensei in Sensei, according to Ellison, is (you guessed it) data.
But that is not where his ambition ends. The Lanai lab will provide lessons for the world to follow.
To go from a luxury spa and heirloom tomatoes to tackling some of the world's hardest systemic problems sounds pretentious and lofty...
Yes, but go on...
... the provenance for his data-driven farm comes from studying agriculture in East Africa through a partnership with former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair's foundation. "Philanthropy is the definition of not sustainable," says Ellison. "Business is the definition of sustainable." His goal is to hone a greenhouse system that can produce food in any climate.
An enquiring mind might discover that Australia already grows 15 per cent of its tomato crop in an arid region using seawater greenhouses and solar power. But Forbes is in full flow by then.
As part of his holistic approach to building a utopia of sorts, Ellison is also in talks to buy the island's power plant and electric grid in order to make Lanai, which now runs on diesel fuel, sustainable and self-sufficient through solar power and batteries. He's already started the transition – his farms are off-grid, fully powered by solar. "It's cool; it's like a microcosm for the world," says Tesla's [Elon] Musk.
Oh, yes. We couldn't get through the story without dropping a name or three. Alongside Trump, Musk pops up to say Ellison is "really one of the best engineers I've met," which might say as much about the quality of engineers known to Musk as it does Ellison's mind.
Also on the cast list is, inevitably, Steve Jobs, Ellison's friend whose cancer treatment provided the link to doctor-cum-business partner David Agus.
"We wanted to take this passion for data, for science, for truth, and bring it to people," Agus says.
On the subject of truth, wouldn't Trump's tenuous relationship with it trouble Ellison, a man with a conscience as clean as his shirts, Forbes' scribe does get around to wondering.
After all, Trump "has in recent weeks defaulted to the position of quack-in-chief, touting unproven or half-baked solutions to the public. The fear: that Trump might use certain information to circumvent randomized clinical trials," she writes.
Don't worry, kids. Those fears? They are about to be allayed.
"I don't know how you could be against it," Agus says. "It's just about getting real-world evidence of things, and I think that is powerful and important." He and Ellison support clinical trials, he says – as well as using real-time data in conjunction with them. "We're not working for President Trump," Agus adds. "We're working for the people."
Epidemiologists the world over suddenly awaken in an epiphany: "If only we'd thought of things, and evidence of them," they cry.
And Ellison has assured us he has employed a sound rule of thumb when judging whether to associate himself with the four-bankruptcies-property-mogul-turned-TV-personality-turned-president.
"We only have one president at a time," he explains. "I don't think he's the devil – I support him and want him to do well."
If "not thinking someone is the devil" is the bar set for a trusted relationship with Ellison, we can all be assured he has not acquired a penny of his $59bn fortune by untoward means. And after all, he has a higher calling: health data.
... this exercise could prove to be another data set for Ellison's mission of utopia through information. For Ellison, a health nut who plays tennis daily and has given about $1 billion to medical research into cancer and aging, this would be the ultimate use of his case study. "I don't think it's about living forever, but..."
... he doesn't think Trump is the devil. That's the thing about data. It possesses a surprising ability to prove you wrong. ®