Nat Turner (W’08) doesn’t stand still. As a sophomore at Wharton in 2007, Nat started Invite Media, the ad technology startup that birthed the concept behind what is now known in the industry as Demand Side Platforms (DSPs). With his 3 other co-founders from UPenn, Nat grew Invite Media to a hefty $80M exit to Google within 3 years. Not bad for a 24-year-old. But Nat isn’t quite done yet.
After spending 2 years with Google’s Doubleclick division post-acquisition, Nat is once again on the move. Along with Invite Media co-founder Zach Weinberg (also W’08), Nat is taking on a grand mission to use big data to transform an entirely different industry: healthcare. FlatIron Health, his new startup, builds data analysis tools to provide hospitals, physicians and patients the critical insights needed to make informed medical care decisions – beginning with oncology. While still in early stages, FlatIron Health has already received backing from big names including Google Ventures, First Round Capital (also an Invite Media investor) and LabCorp.
This week, we sat down with Nat to learn about the Invite Media story, his vision for FlatIron Health, and his very diverse interests and hobbies – from snakes and sports cards to Southern barbecues.
Wharton Journal: Invite Media is one of Wharton’s most talked-about success stories. But what not many people know is that the first website you’ve ever built was a site about… snakes. How did that come about?
Nat Turner: I grew up in the south, starting in Louisiana and then Texas. I don’t remember when, but at some point while going to middle school in Louisiana I became infatuated with reptiles and amphibians. So a couple of years into it I started trying to reproduce the snakes that I had captured in the wild. After I got okay at that, I began partnering with other reptile breeders to sell their offspring as well. Around that time a community of breeders had started a website with forums that they discussed tips and news with, and ultimately I saw an opportunity to showcase our inventory to this community. So, after a few months of teaching myself web design from scratch, I threw together a website for my business (Snake Productions). From there, a bunch of other breeders noticed it and started asking me to make their websites, so I created another company that specialized in web design and development.
WJ: Not every entrepreneur gets to win big, especially in the middle of an economic downturn. What do you think you did right with Invite Media to get it to an $80m exit that other first-time entrepreneurs at Wharton can learn from?
NT: We never really built the company to sell it, we were just trying to create a company that could sustain on its own and had revenue and a technology codebase that was highly unique and differentiated. The exit was really a product of the market recognizing that the technology we had built was pretty well-aligned with the trends occurring in the industry moving to programmatic ad buying and self-service. My biggest piece of advice would be to focus on building a company with a clear path to revenue that has “stickiness.” We used to talk about the latter word all of the time, which basically meant we wanted our platform to be difficult to unseat once it was adopted. Of course we had to add value, but a lot of other people in ad tech could as well. It’s really not that hard to buy and sell advertising online and get some revenue, but it’s really hard to hang on to it over time with so many competitors being out there and then scale it. So to me, that means focus on enterprise problems where technology can make a difference, particularly where there are large incumbent players that are old and slow and ripe for disruption.
WJ: You and Zach recently started Flatiron Health, an oncology data platform. What was the inspiration behind Flatiron Health, and how do you see the startup evolving in the next few years?
NT: First, Zach and I needed to commit to starting another company, which was a big decision to make given how much dedication that takes. Once we made that mental commitment, we wanted to work on an idea that actually made a difference and that we cared about. Online advertising didn’t meet either of those measures in our book. On the other hand, healthcare and in particular oncology was at the top of the list for both of us. For me, the primary inspiration was one of my cousins named Brennan Simkins who was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) at a young age. He’s thankfully doing great now, but watching the entire process and seeing him and his family navigate the healthcare system and battle cancer was extremely eye opening.
In terms of where it’s going, we see Flatiron being a very important platform in the oncology industry that (1) furthers research in new and existing drugs and (2) providing real-world intelligence and data to physicians, researchers and potentially patients to empower them to make better, more informed decisions.
WJ: Last year, you wrote about how government regulation in healthcare presents both challenges and opportunities for startups. What specific opportunities are you most pumped about in healthcare today?
NT: Primarily how data will change how we provide care. Today, especially in cancer care, physicians largely make their decisions anecdotally. In other words, the only data they can leverage to make decisions for the patient sitting in front of them are the experiences they’ve had in isolation. In the future, physicians and other care providers (as well as patients) will be able to leverage the experiences of anonymous patients across the nation or world, allowing for knowledge walls to be taken down and care innovations to spread faster than ever.
WJ: Apart from being a serial entrepreneur and an angel investor, you’ve also recently added restaurant owner / investor to your name with Delaney Barbeque. Is there anything else about you and your very diverse passions that you’d care to share?
NT: I’m probably no different than most southern guys. I’m very into barbecue, golf, and fishing. I do continue to have a rather extreme interest in sports cards and animals, although as I’ve chosen New York City as my home and gotten married, I’ve been relegated to pet fish.
WJ: Any parting thoughts / advice for entrepreneurs at Wharton?
NT: Just get started. Too many students and hopeful entrepreneurs do a lot of planning and pontificating without actually doing anything. Give up that fancy internship and try and build something or quit your job and try and build something. Jump off the cliff so to speak. And if you are to do that, find a co-founder to do it with who you trust and you compliment each other. It’s very rare to see a single founder succeed (although there are plenty of examples) and a lot easier and rewarding to build a company together.