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LifeOmic founder & CEO Donald Brown shares with 7investing founder Simon Erickson the fundamental changes taking place in healthcare.
June 30, 2020 – By Simon Erickson
Healthcare in America is evolving, in the best possible way.
The way the industry has traditionally functioned could be more appropriately described as “sickcare”. Patients would go to the hospital only after they were already showing symptoms. Doctors would subjectively assess what was wrong, then write prescription drugs to get them feeling better (and back to work) as quickly as possible.
But that wasn’t necessarily keeping people healthy. And in today’s modern information age, there’s a ton of health-related data available to draw insights. That ranges from DNA sequences at our birth to medical records tracking our appointments throughout our life to FitBits continually monitoring our heartrate. There are now thousands of patient-specific data points that should proactively keep us out of the hospital and living healthier.
Donald Brown founded LifeOmic for exactly that purpose.
Already a successful entrepreneur who previously ran a publicly-traded, cloud-based company called Interactive Intelligence, Don believes that knowledge is power in healthcare. LifeOmic is combining artificial intelligence, cloud computing, medical records, and genomic sequencing all together to provide doctors with a more comprehensive look at the patients they are treating. More data allows for better decisions. And better decisions lead to better patient outcomes.
In our fifteenth official podcast, Don describes some of the biggest changes taking place today in healthcare, including why the current system of electronic health records has remained largely ineffective. He explains how doctors’ time with patients is limited, so a cloud platform that accurately pulls together information is extremely valuable to them.
And in our final segment, he shares some of the most exciting and promising new technologies that forward-thinking investors should be aware of.
0:10 – Introduction: The biggest changes taking place in healthcare
2:45 – LifeOmic’s Precision Health Cloud: Who are the new ‘customers’ in healthcare, and what are they paying to accomplish?
6:46 – How data can be most useful and actionable for doctors
10:39 – Blending innovation: How to use artificial intelligence, genomic sequencing, and cloud computing to improve patient outcomes
13:36 – Big Tech’s interest in healthcare and addressing data privacy
17:01 – Digital tools that could help with the COVID-19 pandemic
23:54 – A change in healthcare: From reactive treatment to proactive prevention
27:50 – Healthcare trends investors should be watching: Protein degradation, immunotherapy, and DNA sequencing
We hope you enjoy our 7investing podcast! Please send your ideas and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or submit them here!
Publicly-traded companies mentioned in this interview include Alphabet and Apple. 7investing’s advisors and/or guests may have positions in the companies that are mentioned.
This interview was originally recorded on June 16, 2020 and was first published on June 29, 2020.
[00:00] Simon Erickson: Hi everyone! I’m 7investing founder Simon Erickson, and we are continuing our interview series here this morning. We’re going to be talking about healthcare, which is an industry that is going through some very large changes right now. I’m excited to welcome Donald Brown. He is the founder and CEO of LifeOmic. LifeOmic is a company that’s running a cloud based platform to improve the health and the health outcomes of individuals and organizations. Don, thanks very much for joining 7investing here this morning.
Don Brown: Nice to be with you.
Simon Erickson: Don, we’ll talk a little bit more about LifeOmic’s business and the specific technologies that you’re using a little later on. But maybe, let’s start at the 10,000 foot level. You founded the company about five years ago and you’ve seen some big changes taking place in healthcare.
Can you tell us about some of the biggest changes you see in healthcare right now? And also what inspired you to found LifeOmic?
Don Brown: Well, yeah, I think it’s the same answer to both questions. And it’s really the way that healthcare is becoming an Information Science.
I went through medical school back in the 80s. And medicine was very much an art as much as a science. AI is really predicated on having a physician who could memorize vast amounts of information and then look at you as an individual and quickly assess what was going on and come up with a diagnosis. And physicians really prided themselves that we’re trained to deal with as little data as possible.
It’s kind of odd in healthcare. There’s been this love-hate relationship with data in other disciplines in the software industry. The more data the better. That doesn’t have to be clean. “Just give us the data, and we’ll figure it out.” And I think Google proved that to all of us.
But with the advent of the Human Genome Project, with the rapidly decreasing costs of DNA sequencing, lots of other technologies. Now we’re coming to a point where healthcare has tremendous amounts of data that it can use to act in a more scientifically rigorous way than has been the case in the past.
[02:35] Simon Erickson: Well I went on the App Store last night. I downloaded the LifeExtend app, which is a free app to help the lifestyle and the eating habits. I’m excited about it. My wife is very excited about that too.
But that’s just a very small part of your business, right? That’s the free app, which is great. But LifeOmic is such a more complex organization than that. And I know your flagship product is really the Precision Health Cloud, a cloud based app, that’s more for professionals. Can you talk a little bit about who your customers are, and what they’re paying LifeOmic to accomplish?
Don Brown: Well, you know, as I mentioned, healthcare is becoming more and more about data. There’s just this explosion of really interesting and valuable data. Starting with the DNA sequence, the genome sequence you were born with, and you know, kind of going right on up the line.
So what we did early on at LifeOmic was to build a cloud based platform that could aggregate all that data. Because one of the big problems in healthcare is that there are fundamentally different categories of data. There’s the old school electronic medical records that frankly is just a mess. Data in lots of different formats. But it’s useful data. Your laboratory values, blood tests, measurements, physiological measurements, the medications you’re on, the sorts of procedures you’ve had. So it’s really valuable information.
But then it needs to be combined with this very different genomic information. Each of us walks around with about 3 billion base pairs worth of information in each of our cells. And we’re realizing that’s tremendously valuable in assessing our risk for different sorts of diseases.
And then, there’s this explosion of wearable data. We’re all walking around and increasingly with telemetry, fitness trackers, rings, and all sorts of things that can provide moment by moment insight into what’s going on with our physiology.
So what we did was to build a cloud platform that could aggregate all that information. And then build visualizations so that physicians and other healthcare professionals can quickly sift through that information and use it to guide treatment.
The first use case for that, the most maybe extreme, is cancer. And cancer is increasingly, thankfully, data driven. What we’ve come to realize is that if one of us develops cancer, it’s there. There are mutations that have happened to that genome sequence we were born with. And it’s tremendously important to understand those mutations and figure out which ones are driving the cancer, because some of those mutations are more important than others.
Increasingly, we’re finding that once we identify the driving mutations, we’ve got effective treatments that are already available out there. And so our initial collaboration has been with my alma mater, the Indiana University School of Medicine. Some of their cancer teams that are using our platform to aggregate this information and then to identify the driving factors behind cancers. And then ultimately to treat patients and help them live longer.
[06:36] Simon Erickson: Sure. And Don, it sounds like healthcare is not a siloed thing, right? Healthcare is a very comprehensive way of looking at a human being. But traditionally, a lot of those systems were siloed, right? They were just looking at medical records. They were just looking at the genome. They were just looking at a specific facet without looking at the entire human being. Is that a fair assessment?
Don Brown: Oh, it’s a very fair assessment. A lot of doctors have been kind of caught flat footed by the advances in DNA sequencing and genomics. Medical schools, you know, you learn a little bit of cell biology, a little bit about DNA and everything. But if you went to your physician and said, “Here’s a flash drive with my whole genome sequence. Can you look at this and give me some guidance?” They would just look at you like you landed from another planet. [Simon laughs]. You know, “you’re going to hand me 100 gigs worth of information and you expect me to do something with it?”
And so clearly, the answer is automation. Computers are great at sifting through large volumes of information and teasing out relevant factors.
So that’s what we’re trying to do. Help doctors who may only have 15 minutes or so to spend with you. So it’s wonderful that we have this proliferation of data. But now we’ve got to provide ways to help clinicians use that data effectively. Because, just as they say, throwing gigabytes of information at your physician: they don’t have time. They don’t have the expertise to deal with it. And so software tools become critical.
Simon Erickson: We need to make it more relevant, for the physicians that are seeing the patients and with limited time on their hands.
Don Brown: Yeah, exactly. The analogy I use, I’ve had the pleasure of becoming a private pilot the last 15 years or so. And in airplanes, they’ve gotten really good at creating very simple what are called synoptic displays. If I’m flying along at 20,000 feet and something goes wrong, I don’t have a whole lot of time to dig out manuals or do a lot of diagnosis. What I need is something that, you know, a flashing light, ideally with some sort of graphical display that says “this valve right here is malfunctioning and here’s maybe even a suggested workaround for it.”
That’s exactly what doctors need. So we’re working on that sort of synoptic overview display.
You know, “Simon’s cardiovascular system is great. He’s a runner, his resting heart rate is low, don’t worry about his heart, his ticker is fine. But Simon’s kidney function, you know, based upon what we’re seeing is a little bit sketchy, you know? And so you might want to pay attention to this aspect of Simon. Here’s some tests you might run, here are some medications that Simon is taking that might be affecting his kidney function.”
And so that’s sort of sifting through. Still relying on the expertise of the physician, but guiding them through this sea of data to figure out what’s relevant.
[10:23] Simon Erickson: Sure. Don, I’m going to be talking about to my doctor very quickly about those kidney tests. Great idea. [laughs]
Let’s double click a bit on the technology that you just mentioned there. Because as growth style investors, we like to look at artificial intelligence, we like to look at cloud computing, we’re really interested in genetic sequencing, genomic sequencing. And your company, I’m so excited to talk to you this morning, because you’ve kind of merged all of those together.
And if I can just read this directly from your website. Because I don’t want to mess it up or screw this up, I want to read it directly.
It says: The LifeOmic Precision Health Cloud was created to break down the silos that exist between current systems. It can integrate genomic, EHR, imaging, demographic, and any other data set, indexing it so that you can effortlessly combine and visualize it in explorations.
Just like you mentioned in the last answer to my question, I do want to ask about interoperability. Because this is something that Electronic Health Records have tried to crack for decades now. It was flooding information onto the system. But it seemed like it was more provider-friendly rather than patient-friendly, right?
Is there something that you’re doing differently than those traditional EHR platforms?
Don Brown: Yes. And first, you’re exactly right. Unfortunately, EHRs have largely been for reimbursement. More for the financial side of the business, the financial side of healthcare than actual delivery of care.
But there has been a lot of work the last few years to develop some standards. One is called FHIR, “F-H-I-R”. Which I think is fast health interoperability resource or something like that. But it’s a way of structuring that information from electronic medical records so that it’s standardized, normalized. So that, if we were physicians looking at blood pressure or lipid levels or whatever, that there’s some sort of common underlying coding system for us to use. And in terms of coding systems, there are others like LOINC and SNOWMED. Some taxonomies that have been developed to try to standardize this information.
So we’ve been able to take advantage of those. We use those standards to encode all our information. We use other modern standards for storing that genomic information. And then, the magic is putting all that into a common index so that a medical researcher can in the same query, ask about your DNA sequence, along with your medication history, and your blood test. And that really hasn’t been possible before now.
[13:26] Simon Erickson: We’ve seen big tech companies very interested in health care recently, right? Google now has a life sciences division, Verily. Apple’s got HealthKits, where they’re trying to build a platform for consumers to give data to them.
But we’ve also seen a hesitation from a lot of people giving information to those big tech companies. Do you think it’s an advantage being a smaller independent company here? And then also, how are you approaching the data privacy issue?
Don Brown: I absolutely believe it’s a tremendous advantage. I think there’s a lot of distrust of the Big Tech companies. And so it’s kind of funny, but it does work out to our advantage that as a smaller company, especially when closely aligned with respected academic medical institutions. The IU School of Medicine is actually a shareholder in LifeOmic. They own a minority position that we gave them in exchange for wide access to intellectual property.
It also gives us a measure of credibility. We work with these sorts of organizations, we take that very seriously. And so one of the things we did early on was to invest heavily in security. So as a relatively young small company, we got our HIPAA, HITRUST, SOC 2 certifications in record time. We invest heavily in intrusion detection, active hacker solicitation. We want to get, you know, white hat hackers out there pounding on our stuff, to hopefully spot problems before the bad guys do.
That’s worked out really, really well for us. We also took the stance, in terms of business model early on, that we don’t own the data. So we don’t monetize the data, we don’t sell the data. The data belongs ultimately to the patients. To the users. That’s certainly my philosophy.
And then to the extent it makes sense for the organization. So in the case of IU and assembling data sets for their cancer patients, that’s IU School of Medicine’s data. It’s not ours.
That has been really helped simplify things. That we were a platform provider. We develop the tools, we do a lot of machine learning visualizations, data analyses. That’s where we add value. That’s what we charge for.
It provides a very clear sort of separation of concerns. We don’t own the data, we don’t want to own the data. And that just makes life much simpler in general.
[16:30] Simon Erickson: I think that makes a lot of sense time. We just had Spencer Wells on a couple of weeks ago with Insitome. And he just talked about exactly what you mentioned. That it was a real challenge for the direct to consumer genomics industry – the 23andme’s, the ancestry’s – when you are the product and there’s other factors, that makes it a lot harder to get past that hurdle.
We’re unfortunately in the middle of a pandemic right now. COVID is a very serious situation out there, but I did want to get your perspective on, are their digital tools – whether LifeOmic or other platforms – that you think would be helpful right now to help contain the spread of this disease?
Don Brown: There are certainly lots of companies and other organizations out there working on contact tracing apps. Obviously lots of biotech companies working on vaccines and other therapies. We’re really not playing in those areas. We’re fairly focused on just assembling these data sets that allow us to understand a person’s health. And you mentioned our apps. And it’s very true. Our flagship is this enterprise grade, bulletproof cloud platform that can aggregate terabytes of information for clinical care or clinical research.
But along the way, kind of for fun, we developed a couple of mobile apps. I think as you know, I’m a big fan of intermittent fasting. I went through a master’s program in biotechnology at Johns Hopkins a few years ago and happened upon a paper by a researcher named Valter Longo at USC that kind of blew my mind as to the health benefits of intermittent fasting down at the molecular level. Which is where my interest lies.
If I understand the molecular mechanism, I can believe it. I can see. Otherwise it’s just kind of magic. If you just tell me, “Don, drink orange juice and you’ll be healthy.” That’s just not very satisfying. I want to know why. What’s the underlying mechanism.
And that became very clear for intermittent fasting. So I started practicing it myself and was very pleased with the results. Started recommending it to friends and family. And then ultimately, we decided to build a little mobile app.
Initially, it was a little fasting tracker that would use our cloud platform as the data storage. So it became a little bit of a load test. We figured maybe we would have five or 10,000 users sign up for it. We’ve now blown past 2 million downloads.
Starting with the fasting tracker, and then we followed up with a second app called LifeExtend. We did a lot of research. A lot of what was me, personally, trying to understand. There’s all this literature out there about what’s good for you. What’s bad for you. A lot of it’s contradictory. A lot of it’s confusing. But we spent about a year trying to distill out “What are the basic things that people can do? That we know. That are scientifically established to make a difference in the level of people’s health.”
I think most of them aren’t very surprising. Eating lots of healthy plants. You can still have your pizza and beer. Lord knows I do.
But get lots of healthy plants into your body every day. Get exercise. Try to reduce stress through mindfulness sorts of techniques. Get at least seven or eight hours of sleep a night. And then watch when you eat. Packing your calories into a confined window of roughly six to eight hours during the day, and then fasting the rest of the time is becoming very clear that has tremendously beneficial effect on health.
So anyways, we built that little app. We’ve made it easy for the users of that app to go and get inexpensive blood tests or genetic tests. Load those results up to us. And then ultimately, what we’re trying to do is what I described earlier, to give you that bird’s eye view, that cockpit sort of view, of here’s your cardiovascular system, your pulmonary system, your renal system, and so on. And kind of just “red light, green light, yellow light.” That your heart is great, but here’s another organ system that maybe because of genetic risk, you inherited. Or lifestyle factors that we’re seeing the the data reflecting some sort of risk, needs to be paid attention to in some way, shape, or form.
And so the underlying concept isn’t any rocket science. But I think we all know intuitively, it’s easier to stay healthy than to fix you once you’ve become unhealthy. Our bodies are unbelievable in terms of being able to maintain a healthy state. But if they fall out of tolerance, with diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s, any of these nasty diseases, it’s tough. It’s really hard to fix them.
So that’s one of my biggest misgivings about the health care system. That so little emphasis is put on prevention and way too much on treatment. And you know, none of us would operate our cars that way. We wouldn’t just drive without changing the oil or tires or anything until it breaks, and then go into the mechanic and say, “fix this.”
We put a lot of effort into prevention because we know that’s more cost effective in the long run.
So anyways, that’s part of what we’re trying to do at LifeOmic. That direction we’re going in addition to working with these big academic medical centers and hard problems like cancer and Alzheimer’s, we’re also taking the cloud platform and the mobile apps and using those to offer corporate wellness solutions. Even personal wellness subscriptions to people to help them lose weight and improve their health. All those things, hopefully, way in advance of cancer or serious disease.
[23:44] Simon Erickson: Don, this is revolutionary for healthcare. Everything you just described makes intuitive sense. But the system itself is still treating sick patients, right?
We’ve gotten used to insurance networks reimbursing for checkups, if you’re even doing checkups. More often, you go into the hospital because you’re already sick and showing symptoms.
If consumers are being empowered to be in charge of their health, which is fantastic, how proactive should they be for this? Is this something that you envision just continually having sensors that are diagnosing things and then putting up that red light that you need to go to the hospital? Or is it still a couple of times a year, you need to proactive checkup that informs this.
How does this work in your mind?
Don Brown: Ultimately, in my mind, it should be continuous monitoring of our health by intelligent software systems.
As we were talking about earlier, it’s just impossible for a human physician to absorb the massive data that we can generate about our health. And it’s tough enough. You’re just going in once a year for your annual physical. But that’s just not enough.
It’s increasingly possible now, with these sorts of cloud platforms and big data, machine learning algorithms and so on, systems can be monitoring our health every second of every day. And so there’s just no reason for me to wait a year for my next physical to go in and have something dealt with. If something indicates that my body is running out of tolerance, moving out of tolerance right now, then I want to know about it. Now. I would like to address it now, rather than wait a year.
Especially as these systems become more intelligent, they’re just able to spot a lot more problems much earlier than a human physician can.
So I think this is where we’re going ultimately. With some of the devices that Fitbits and oura rings and others that are available to us, we can have real time telemetry that’s watching us every minute of every day. And as I say, the Holy Grail is early diagnosis. Find a problem before it really is a problem. Let’s find it while it’s a trend. Maybe an unhealthy trend that hasn’t resulted in a disease or condition yet. And then it’s much much easier to reverse that trend and undo any mild damage that has been done to that point.
[26:39] Simon Erickson: That makes a lot of sense.
Before I get to my final question, I would like to say that LifeOmic is a private company. But if it were publicly traded, I would buy this company in a heartbeat. I really would.
Don Brown: I appreciate it!
Simon Erickson: I say that truthfully and objectively. Don, I think really you’re just such an incredible learner. You have such a wealth of knowledge you’ve built, that anyone listening to this interview can can quickly recognize.
Just to brag on you a little bit before I get to my final question. You have a bachelor’s in physics, a master’s in biotechnology and a master’s in computer science. A medical doctorate degree. You mentioned earlier, you’re a pilot now also. You also ran a company called Interactive Intelligence.
You’ve just assembled all of these pieces together into the ultimate company. I’m very impressed with everything you’re accomplishing. LifeOmic is definitely a company that’s on my radar. Let me know when you IPO so I can be the first in line!
Don Brown: [Laughs] We will make sure you know. We appreciate it.
[27:40] Simon Erickson: On top of that, since I have you here, I’d love to pick your brain about some of the other trends and technologies taking place out there. There is so much happening not just in healthcare, but in software and cloud computing and AI, artificial intelligence.
What are a couple trends, Don, that you’re really interested in, that you see developing out there right now?
Don Brown: Oh, there’s so many. It’s a wonderful time, especially for me as a guy who went through medical school back in the 80s. It’s just wild to see how much has been learned since then.
You know, I don’t feel like I’m that old. Or that I went through school that long ago. But I was able to go through that master’s program at Johns Hopkins just in the last few years. And it was just mind blowing to go through stem cells, what’s been learned about the immune system. Just the fundamentals of cancer and genomic analysis.
There are so many interesting things out there. I think last time, we talked about technologies like RNA interference. Which is really interesting. I’ve invested in a little company in Boston that’s doing really interesting work in protein degradation. Protein degradation, our bodies are protein factories, right? Our cells, that’s really the fundamental thing they do. They take a recipe that’s in the form of DNA and they use it to make proteins. Hemoglobin and collagen and enzymes and all these things.
But now we’re starting to realize that we can intervene at different points. One thing, just by selectively breaking down proteins. Initially, that whole area was considered kind of a useless scientific field. Because, you know, who cares how proteins are degraded? They just dissolve and they go away.
Well, now we’re realizing that there are active processes involved in the destruction of proteins, breaking them down. And we can now design, tailor-make drugs that can go into particular cells and break down particular proteins that may be in excess and causing a particular disease condition. A famous one is that amyloid protein in Alzheimers.
So it’s just a golden age. Our understanding of the immune system. For me, that’s one of the most fascinating areas. I donated some money to start an immunotherapy center at the IU School of Medicine. And immune therapy is really kind of at the frontlines of cancer. We’re realizing that we can activate our own immune systems. We don’t have to just take really toxic drugs to kill the cancer cells and inadvertently killed normal cells too. We can activate our immune system that is exquisitely tuned to identify particular threats. Whether it’s Coronavirus in the case of COVID, or cancer.
So just all these technologies. And they’ve all really been enabled by Moore’s Law and a similar phenomenon that we’re seeing in the cost of DNA sequencing. I think Paul Allen, owner of the Portland Trailblazers, paid something like 100 million bucks to have his genome sequenced in 2001. You or I could do that for a few hundred bucks today.
Those sorts of technologies are really changing everything. Just because of the insight they’re giving us into how our bodies work.
Simon Erickson: I think those insights are setting up for the Golden Age of medicine and healthcare in the next couple of years. It’s going to be a really fascinating time for your company and for the industry as a whole.
Don Brown: I think so, too. I think it’s a Golden Age of Medicine. And as I said at the outset, medicine is making that transition from an art to more of a data driven science. And for a guy like me, who’s kind of bridged that gap his whole life, it’s really exciting.
Simon Erickson: Absolutely.
Well once again, Donald Brown, the founder and CEO of LifeOmic, joining us this morning from out in Utah. Don, it’s always a pleasure. Thank you for spending the time with 7investing this morning.
Don Brown: My pleasure.
Simon Erickson: And once again, thank you for tuning in to this interview. We are here to empower you to invest in your future. We are 7investing!
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