The CEO of a $2 billion startup says there’s a fundamental reason this company is the most successful one he’s built

Nat Turner, left gives a presentation to his Flatiron Health team. Flatiron Health/Facebook
  • Nat Turner is the cofounder and CEO of Flatiron Health, recently sold to Roche for $US1.9 billion.
  • Flatiron creates software that is changing the way oncologists and researchers track and study cancer treatments.
  • Turner, 32, is a serial entrepreneur, but said this is the first time he’s passionate about his company’s purpose.
  • He said this mission not only has a societal benefit, but attracts better employees and investors, and inspires everyone to work harder.
  • This post is part of Business Insider’s ongoing series on Better Capitalism.

Nat Turner was only 24 years old when he sold his first company for $US80 million, eight years ago.

It was a deal with Google that got him and his cofounder Zach Weinberg some capital and a management job at Google New York office in exchange for their ad platform, Invite Media. But it took all of one day for them to feel bored and unsatisfied.

“And we always say, our obituary one day, when we die: We don’t want to say we optimised banner ads online,” Turner told us during an episode of Business Insider’s podcast “Success! How I Did It.”

Inspiration struck when Turner considered a question from his cousin, whose seven-year-old son was still fighting a battle with leukemia that he’d eventually win. Turner’s cousin couldn’t figure out why it was so difficult to find data on childhood leukemia treatments, considering that it seemed like a problem that could easily be solved by tech.

Turner and Weinberg decided to create the software that would do that, and more, which led to the creation of Flatiron Health in 2012. Today the company is valued at over $US2 billion, and Turner can’t imagine ever leading a company that doesn’t have a purpose beyond making money.

“I feel more rewarded about Flatiron, beyond the money potentially everyone could make over time, because of the fact that we’re actually making a difference in cancer,” he said. “That’s what matters most.”

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Turner is, at his heart, an entrepreneur, and he has been since he was a kid (he had a thriving snake breeding business when he was 13). As he explained to us, Flatiron is the first team he’s felt intimately connected to one of his companies, and he believes that’s why it’s been so successful.

Instead of pursuing a way to optimise ads, for example, he and his team are creating software that improves the way oncologists monitor their patients’ health, and creates new channels of sharing data with researchers. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) partnered with Flatiron in 2016 because it is hopeful that one day this channel of real-world data can lead to breakthroughs in treatment that clinical trials may not accomplish alone.

Turner explained that the company’s mission isn’t just pushing him and Weinberg to work harder. “Everything’s easier,” he said. When you have passion for what you’re doing, he explained, top talent and investors are drawn to your company.

It was a passion he and Weinberg exuded from the beginning, and something they never had with their earlier projects. As Google employees, they would constantly be making road trips to meet oncologists and researchers to discuss their nascent idea. “I remember, like, you don’t often get so obsessed about something where you drop everything and drive to Boston and meet with people for 14 hours, taking notes, losing your voice, with no idea just to learn,” he said.

The Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche announced in February it was buying Flatiron Health for $US1.9 billion. But unlike his last deal, he’s not looking to see what’s next.

He said that he already considers Flatiron his “life’s work,” and the deal is just “validation that the work we did and are doing is important. It gives us resources to continue the mission.” And as part of the deal, Roche is letting Turner run the company the way he wants to.

He said that he had to reassure his employees after the announcement that the company was remaining independent, which he knew was only possible because of its purpose.

“It’s very important to people that it’s still Flatiron,” he said. “Which just makes me so proud.”