Larry’s Lab­o­ra­tory

- By An­gel Au-Ye­ung

The fifth-rich­est per­son in the world has been qui­etly turn­ing an en­tire Hawai­ian is­land into a well­ness ex­per­i­ment. Now Or­a­cle founder Larry El­li­son has been drafted into the fight against the coro­n­avirus, a crit­i­cal test of whether data can in­deed save us.

The fifth-rich­est per­son in the world has been qui­etly turn­ing an en­tire Hawai­ian is­land into a well­ness ex­per­i­ment. Now Or­a­cle founder LARRY EL­LI­SON has been drafted into the fight against the coro­n­avirus, a crit­i­cal test of whether data can in­deed save us.


There is a new move­ment in watches. One where legacy is pre­served while ex­pertly pre­pared for the fu­ture. All of our watch­mak­ers, like Travis, take metic­u­lous care of the de­tails, en­sur­ing each watch is ready for your next great en­deavor.

As Larry El­li­son sits in one of sev­eral idyl­lic bub­bles he has cre­ated for him­self, a lush 249-acre es­tate in Ran­cho Mi­rage, Cal­i­for­nia, the play­ground of the pow­er­ful near Palm Springs, the world be­gins to fall apart. It’s Black Thurs­day, March 12: The U.S. stock mar­ket has suf­fered its great­est sin­gle-day per­cent­age fall since the 1987 crash, Pres­i­dent Trump or­dered a ban on vis­i­tors trav­el­ing from Eu­rope, the NBA’s sea­son was sus­pended, Dis­ney de­cided to close its theme parks and Amer­ica’s dad, Tom Hanks, an­nounced that he had the coro­n­avirus, the scourge caus­ing all these things.

And no, not even a desert oa­sis can of­fer pro­tec­tion from the del­uge. The founder of Or­a­cle has al­ready seen his com­pany’s stock drop 11% this day, and now tor­rents of rain pour down as if on cue. “Last week?” says El­li­son, 75, who has been pre­par­ing to host 450,000 ten­nis fans for a tour­na­ment that will no longer be. “That was a year ago.”

El­li­son has built a $59 bil­lion for­tune, the world’s fifth­largest, by har­ness­ing data. No sur­prise that he’s al­ready taken pre­emp­tive virus mea­sures. Staffers greet guests at his es­tate with a no-con­tact ther­mome­ter just out­side the gates. Those deemed suf­fi­ciently tem­per­ate pass by bot­tles of Purell, al­ready a scarce com­mod­ity, neatly ar­ranged on a cof­fee ta­ble. Clean­ers are ev­ery­where; as we talk in the es­tate’s ten­nis pavil­ion, with both clay and hard­court sur­faces, ad­ja­cent to his per­sonal 18-hole golf course, work­ers in wa­ter­proof black at­tire in­ter­mit­tently squeegee the win­dow­panes.

From a cor­po­rate per­spec­tive, El­li­son had sim­i­larly tried to inoc­u­late Or­a­cle two hours ear­lier on the com­pany’s quar­terly earn­ings call. Although he stepped down as CEO in 2014, he re­mains chief tech­nol­ogy of­fi­cer, and more than in name only. “He’s re­ally one of the best en­gi­neers I’ve met,” says Elon Musk, a close friend. “When we en­gage on a tech­ni­cal sub­ject, he un­der­stands it very quickly, even when it’s out of his nor­mal arena, not soft­ware.” El­li­son joined CEO Safra Catz on the call; the pair re­ported fig­ures that beat Wall Street’s es­ti­mates, with El­li­son ral­ly­ing lis­ten­ers with up­dates on the com­pany’s au­tonomous-data­base ef­forts. “There is no hu­man la­bor,” he told an­a­lysts. “There­fore, there is no hu­man er­ror.” In af­ter-hours trad­ing, Or­a­cle stock be­gan re­cov­er­ing.

Now, un­der the dark sky, El­li­son turns his thoughts to the larger world. Over the past eight years, he’s spent at least half a bil­lion dol­lars on a Hawai­ian is­land, Lanai, that he has turned 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. He named his well­ness com­pany Sen­sei, the Japanese word for mas­ter, and the sen­sei in Sen­sei, ac­cord­ing to El­li­son, is (you guessed it) data.

His plans for Lanai and Sen­sei had orig­i­nally re­volved around cre­at­ing a data-driven health utopia, pow­ered by clean en­ergy, that could serve as a global pro­to­type. But as with the rest of the world, the coro­n­avirus was prompt­ing a dra­matic real-time shift. Within days, El­li­son and Pres­i­dent Trump were on the phone. Nei­ther side will say who ini­ti­ated the con­ver­sa­tion.

While El­li­son de­clined to delve into the specifics of the call, his team con­firmed the gen­eral de­tails. Trump and El­li­son had been pub­licly linked in Fe­bru­ary, for a fundraiser at the Ran­cho Mi­rage com­pound that caused em­ploy­ees at the gen­er­ally apo­lit­i­cal Or­a­cle to walk out in protest. “Be ab­so­lutely pre­cise,” El­li­son now says. “I said Pres­i­dent Trump could use the prop­erty. I was not here.” El­li­son says he has never given money to Trump but will sup­port any pres­i­dent cur­rently hold­ing the of­fice. “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.”

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. (The White House de­clined to dis­cuss the El­li­son part­ner­ship.)

“Larry said, ‘I will build you a sys­tem so doc­tors and pa­tients can en­ter in­for­ma­tion, so we can know what’s hap­pen­ing,’” says David Agus, a can­cer doc­tor who leads the Lawrence J. El­li­son In­sti­tute for Trans­for­ma­tive Medicine at the Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia and is co­founder of Sen­sei. “The pres­i­dent said, ‘How much?’ And Larry said, ‘For free.’ ”

Within a week, El­li­son en­listed an undis­closed num­ber of Or­a­cle en­gi­neers to work with Agus, the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion, the Na­tional In­sti­tutes of Health and other fed­eral agen­cies to cre­ate a data­base for the coun­try’s coro­n­avirus cases. Doc­tors will reg­is­ter ev­ery COVID-19 case be­ing treated with a med­i­ca­tion on the Or­a­cle-built web­site. The sys­tem will then send daily emails, to the doc­tor or the pa­tient, to ask for a progress re­port on symp­toms. As of press time, the team was work­ing to get over le­gal hur­dles and was hope­ful the project would launch im­mi­nently.

El­li­son’s best-known pro­tégé, Marc Be­nioff, an Or­a­cle ex­ec­u­tive be­fore he founded the cloud­soft­ware firm Sales­force, says he’s not sur­prised by this ini­tia­tive, given that El­li­son “has ad­vised many pres­i­dents of the United States over the past 39 years on the strate­gic di­rec­tion of our coun­try.”

More con­cretely, ac­cord­ing to Be­nioff, a fel­low Hawaii buff, if you want a sense of El­li­son’s pre­science—and thus a glimpse into how this coro­n­avirus ini­tia­tive may play out—you need to look west, to Lanai.

El­li­son was born about as re­moved from Lanai, or Ran­cho Mi­rage, as pos­si­ble: to a sin­gle mother in the Bronx. She even­tu­ally left him with her aunt in Chicago; El­li­son at­tended the Univer­sity of Illi­nois and, briefly, the Univer­sity of Chicago, grad­u­at­ing from nei­ther. His dis­taste for au­thor­ity likely had some­thing to do with that. “A Latin teacher once told me that the F she gave me would ruin my life,” El­li­son told Forbes in 2006. “I didn’t be­lieve it and told her so.”

He moved to Berke­ley, Cal­i­for­nia, when he was 21, right in the midst of the mid-1960s coun­ter­cul­ture and civil rights move­ments. His pas­sion at the time was the Sierra Ne­vada moun­tains, where he would spend days work­ing as a river guide and rock-climb­ing in­struc­tor. That’s when he first heard about Lanai, then a pineap­ple plan­ta­tion owned by the Dole Cor­po­ra­tion. “I looked up how much it would cost to buy Dole, and it was way more than the $1,200 I had in my bank,” El­li­son says. “But I thought about it: wow. Own­ing Lanai, own­ing par­adise.”

To try to but­tress that $1,200, El­li­son, who picked up pro­gram­ming dur­ing his short stints in col­lege, started work­ing a few days a week at tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies. For 11 years, he worked his way up the lad­der pro­gram­ming at tech star­tups. In 1977, two years af­ter Bill Gates co­founded Mi­crosoft and a year af­ter Steve Jobs launched Ap­ple, El­li­son, with fel­low pro­gram­mers Robert Miner and Ed­ward Oates, launched Or­a­cle, named af­ter a data­base project that El­li­son had been work­ing on for the Cen­tral In­tel­li­gence Agency.

Or­a­cle be­gan sell­ing its data­base-man­age­ment soft­ware, rev­o­lu­tion­iz­ing the way cor­po­ra­tions stored and an­a­lyzed busi­ness in­sights, from per­son­nel data to bal­ance sheets. In the 1980s, El­li­son earned a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing ag­gres­sive and

cocky, build­ing a com­pany that took af­ter his per­son­al­ity. Then, in 1990, Or­a­cle faced an ac­count­ing scan­dal when Wall Street re­al­ized the com­pany was in­flat­ing its num­bers by re­port­ing sales of un­fin­ished prod­ucts on its books. Its mar­ket cap fell from $3.7 bil­lion to $700 mil­lion. Cus­tomers and bankers asked El­li­son to step down. He re­fused, and Or­a­cle re­bounded as he be­gan gob­bling up com­peti­tors to con­sol­i­date the soft­ware in­dus­try and ex­pand its data­base-man­age­ment of­fer­ings. To date, the com­pany has spent more than $80 bil­lion on 140 buy­outs, in­clud­ing two mas­sive hos­tile takeovers: of Peo­pleSoft in 2005 for $10.3 bil­lion and BEA Sys­tems in 2008 for $8.5 bil­lion. “He is a fe­ro­cious com­peti­tor,” says Thomas Siebel, who saw El­li­son in­vest in Siebel Sys­tems, de­vote 3,000 em­ploy­ees to try to take it down—and then fi­nally buy him out.

As the scale of his Ran­cho Mi­rage es­tate shows, El­li­son com­petes sim­i­larly with his toys. In 2010 he spent a re­ported $100 mil­lion to cap­ture sail­ing’s pres­ti­gious Amer­ica’s Cup, the old­est tro­phy in in­ter­na­tional sports. Then, in 2012, the bounty of a life­time ap­peared. Lanai, the is­land he had dreamed of buy­ing when he was 22, was sud­denly up for sale. “Can you imag­ine some­one look­ing at a Monet when Claude had just fin­ished, and put it up for sale and it was only $400?” El­li­son says. “It was just [worth] way more than what it was [be­ing sold for].” He hap­pily plunked down $300 mil­lion and be­gan plotting his new utopia.

There are two ways to get to Lanai: a one-hour ferry ride from Maui, or by small plane from an­other Hawai­ian is­land. The Manele Har­bor and Lanai Air­port are part of the 2% of the is­land that El­li­son doesn’t own—a group that in­cludes the har­bor where the is­land’s food and other es­sen­tial goods come in, the barge that brings it all and the pri­vate homes of the 3,000 peo­ple who live on the is­land.

The rest of Lanai’s 141 square miles—the seaswept cliffs, the red-dirt land­scape where the lo­cals go off-road­ing and hunt, the Cook pines along the pub­lic paved road lead­ing up to the plan­ta­tion-style town square—all be­long to El­li­son.

Pretty much ev­ery­one on the is­land seems to be on El­li­son’s pay­roll. “I think the guy’s name is Don El­li­son,” says elec­tri­cian Nathan Sparks of his boss Larry. “Heard he’s pretty down-to-earth. He’s build­ing a bunch of farms that need elec­tri­cal wiring. I’ve never seen so many toma­toes in my life.”

Since he bought Lanai, it 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.

He co­founded Sen­sei with his close friend Agus in 2018 and is tack­ling three sets of com­plex is­sues on the is­land: the global food-sup­ply chain, nu­tri­tion and the tran­si­tion from fos­sil fuels to sus­tain­able en­ergy sources. Sen­sei so far has a $3,000-a-night spa called Sen­sei Re­treat and so­lar-pow­ered hy­dro­ponic green­houses called Sen­sei Farms. While these both sound deca­dently anachro­nis­tic in a pe­riod of ven­ti­la­tor short­ages and un­em­ploy­ment surges, it’s crit­i­cal to look at the data that un­der­pin them both.

Upon ar­rival at the re­treat, which opened in De­cem­ber but is now tem­po­rar­ily closed amid the coro­n­avirus cri­sis, guests (early adopters in­cluded Ari­anna Huff­in­g­ton) are given a “per­sonal as­sess­ment quiz” in or­der to set men­tal and phys­i­cal goals for their stay. From that point, the staff at the lux­ury spa track guests’ sleep qual­ity, nu­tri­tion and blood flow.

Mean­while, the neigh­bor­ing Sen­sei Farms has two ac­tive green­houses, with four more on the way. Each is 20,000 square feet, far less space than a tra­di­tional farm. They’re equipped with sen­sors and cam­eras to col­lect data on wa­ter us­age, air­flow rates and more to cal­cu­late the op­ti­mal en­vi­ron­ment for dif­fer­ent crops. The green­houses, which will use 90% less wa­ter than nor­mal farm­ing tech­niques, are also pow­ered by 1,600 so­lar pan­els made by Tesla, on whose board El­li­son sits. For now it serves its heir­loom toma­toes and ar­ti­san cu­cum­bers only to the Sen­sei Re­treat’s Nobu out­post. But at scale, these six green­houses are slated to pro­duce over a mil­lion pounds of food per year, in a con­trolled en­vi­ron­ment he hopes he can repli­cate around the world.

El­li­son bonded with Agus while dis­cussing disease, mor­tal­ity and death. The two met in 2006 when Agus was treat­ing El­li­son’s nephew, who had prostate can­cer. They grew even closer when Agus started treat­ing Steve Jobs that same year. “Larry was Steve’s best friend, so he was very in­volved,” Agus says. Since then, El­li­son and Agus have been in­volved in sev­eral projects to­gether, in­clud­ing med­i­cal data and drug de­sign com­pa­nies. Sen­sei, how­ever, is dif­fer­ent. “We wanted to work to­gether on some­thing that wasn’t can­cer,” Agus says.

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 Musk.

To go from a lux­ury spa and heir­loom toma­toes to tack­ling some of the world’s hard­est sys­temic prob­lems sounds pre­ten­tious and lofty. El­li­son says the prove­nance for his datadriven farm comes from study­ing agri­cul­ture in East Africa through a part­ner­ship with for­mer U.K. 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.

“We’d like to feed peo­ple in Stockholm, and we’d like to feed peo­ple in Nairobi,” he says. “We think the tech­nol­ogy can do both, and we can adapt [the green­houses] to the dif­fer­ent eco­nomic re­quire­ments of those two very dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­ments.” He hopes to place the farms close to ur­ban cen­ters to shorten the dis­tance from har­vest to gro­cery aisles, re­duc­ing emis­sions from trans­porta­tion and ex­tend­ing shelf life. Even­tu­ally, El­li­son wants to see Sen­sei-branded pro­duce in gro­cery stores world­wide.

“Most peo­ple are fo­cused on the tech­nol­ogy to solve one tiny prob­lem, be­cause that’s hon­estly how you best fundraise,” says Molly Stanek, se­nior vice pres­i­dent of Sen­sei Farms. “If you went to a VC and said ‘I want to change our whole food sys­tem’ . . . they’d look at you like you were crazy.” Stanek worked at Plenty, the SoftBank-backed hy­dro­ponic farm­ing startup, be­fore join­ing Sen­sei Farms in 2018. “Be­ing able to sit down with David and Larry . . . and have the con­ver­sa­tion about sus­tain­abil­ity—not just about so­lar pan­els or car­bon foot­print, but cre­at­ing a food sys­tem that can sus­tain it­self and a pop­u­la­tion within our econ­omy, that’s the kind of con­ver­sa­tion that needs to be hap­pen­ing.”

The tim­ing feels for­tu­itous. In a note to clients in midMarch on the po­ten­tial up­sides from the virus out­break, the an­a­lyst firm Jef­feries high­lighted well­ness as a sec­tor that could well ben­e­fit: “Never in our life­times has the im­por­tance of per­sonal health . . . been thrown into sharper re­lief.” It also called out clean en­ergy. “Trans­port grinds to a halt and in­dus­trial pro­duc­tion sub­sides. The smoke clears. We start to no­tice the en­vi­ron­ment is bet­ter on a large scale. . . . We never go back to driv­ing, fly­ing or pro­duc­ing the way we did be­fore.”

While El­li­son’s COVID-19 treat­ment data­base can’t come soon enough for in­for­ma­tion hun­gry health of­fi­cials, it has also sparked a fair amount of con­cern, most of it in­volv­ing the pres­i­dent him­self. Trump, who be­fore his elec­tion was prone to pro­mot­ing the dan­ger­ous vac­ci­na­tion causes-autism lie, 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.

“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.”

If he’s right—and pub­lic health de­mands that he is—then 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 . . . if you make it to 60, [you want to be] a fit 60 and en­joy your life and be able to do things,” he says. “I know peo­ple who are old at 40. They don’t take care of them­selves. They’re not fit. They get de­pressed.

“All of these things hap­pen,” he con­cludes, “and I’m sure that does not have to be the case.”

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 ??  ?? Par­adise Found El­li­son has spent nearly $200 mil­lion spruc­ing up Lanai since he pur­chased it in 2012. The 98% of the is­land he owns ex­cludes the beaches, which are pub­lic.
Par­adise Found El­li­son has spent nearly $200 mil­lion spruc­ing up Lanai since he pur­chased it in 2012. The 98% of the is­land he owns ex­cludes the beaches, which are pub­lic.
 ??  ?? Data Room Guests at El­li­son’s spa on Lanai are tracked for sleep qual­ity, nu­tri­tion and blood flow.
Data Room Guests at El­li­son’s spa on Lanai are tracked for sleep qual­ity, nu­tri­tion and blood flow.

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