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Billionaires: Larry Ellison's big data battle plan to fight Covid-19

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

Published: Jul 9, 2020 11:58:21 AM IST
Updated: Jul 9, 2020 12:13:28 PM IST

Billionaires: Larry Ellison's big data battle plan to fight Covid-19Oracle founder Larry Ellison has built a $59 billion fortune by harnessing data
Image: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

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 US 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 percent 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 fifth-largest, 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 labour,” 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.

Billionaires: Larry Ellison's big data battle plan to fight Covid-19Ellison has spent nearly $200 million sprucing up Lanai since he purchased it in 2012. The 98 percent of the island he owns excludes the beaches, which are public

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 co-founder 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.
Ellison’s best-known protégé, Marc Benioff, an Oracle executive before he founded the cloud-software 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.”

Billionaires: Larry Ellison's big data battle plan to fight Covid-19Guests at Ellison’s spa on Lanai are tracked for sleep quality, nutrition and blood flow

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 co-founded 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, revolutionising the way corporations stored and analysed 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 realised 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 percent of the island that Ellison doesn’t own—a group that includes the harbour 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 sea-swept 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 co-founded 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 neighbouring 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 percent 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 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.

“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 mid-March 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 randomised 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.”

(This story appears in the 17 July, 2020 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)