Sensei Lanai a Four Seasons Resort, is the product of an unusual collaboration between two friends with influence in health and technology: Larry Ellison, the billionaire co-founder of the Silicon Valley tech company Oracle, who owns most of the Hawaiian island of Lanai (where Sensei opened last year), and David Agus, a medical doctor who is perhaps best known for treating Steve Jobs. In their new venture, the partners have created a getaway that focuses on longevity—something both have been passionate about for years—as well as agriculture. The 24-acre resort has a hydroponic farm that’s capable of producing millions of pounds of produce each year. The two sat down to discuss their vision for the future of wellness, and what they plan to do with all that food.
Q: How did the idea for Sensei start?
LARRY ELLISON: When I bought the island of Lanai, I went to the restaurant at the hotel. My wife and I ordered three different things, and the food was inedible. I mean, we couldn’t eat it. We had to drive to the grocery store in town and buy Snickers bars and Cokes. We decided that this is ridiculous—we need to grow our own food.
DAVID AGUS: I remember sitting with you talking about the agriculture and a resort and you saying, “Do you want a little project?”
Q: Some people might think it’s odd to ask a doctor if he wants to start an agriculture project.
DA: Why go to a doctor about health and food? I think it’s core to medicine and humanity, our food and health and wellness. And this was a vehicle where we could do it in a scientific, data-driven way.
LE: It’s a hotel, but it’s really a botanical garden. You see nothing but nature. All of these things from our evolutionary environment are profoundly reassuring to us. When you go to Sensei and you spend the day in the garden, that evening you sleep better.
DA: The human brain is 56 percent visual, about 11 percent auditory, 6 percent smell, and 4 percent taste. The notion that every aspect of that is brought into the [Sensei] experience is powerful. We’ve been able to incorporate the things that we believe in. We spent two years with Chef Nobu [Matsuhisa] going over the food so every ingredient is thought through on a holistic basis. The resort has a fine art collection. It’s wholistic with a W because we really want to focus on the whole.
Q: What role does medicine play at the resort?
DA: When guests arrive, we have them sit down with guides. They develop a program that is based on data. When you go for your massage, we first do thermography on your body. We see where there’s inflammation. We look at how you respond to the food. We measure your sleep so, in the morning, we can tell you about your night’s sleep. You can note when you exercise, here’s what it does to your sleep, and when you have three glasses of wine, here’s what it does to your sleep. A big goal of Sensei is to have these across the globe and in cities so this could be a new lifestyle.
Q: Is the farm also data-driven?
LE: Sensei has two arms. It has the wellness retreats, but it also has a high-tech agriculture business. We are growing in vertical farms in greenhouses, where we use one-tenth to one-100th of the amount of water that you use when you’re growing outside. We’d like to grow the food closer to the people who consume it and deliver it fresh every day. In greenhouses, you control the environment so you can tune the food. If we want slightly sweeter tomatoes, we know how to make tomatoes slightly sweeter.
DA: You just hit on a point that is so key: We’re optimizing human nutrition. We have built the tools now with data to make food so it’s not just calories per acre; it’s nutritious too. We can optimize for the human condition, not just optimize to grow.
LE: And it tastes way better too.
Q: Does that mean you’re envisioning Sensei greenhouses around the world?
LE: This isn’t something that we’re simply going to put in Scandinavia for very wealthy people. We’re also building greenhouses with appropriate technology for Africa. The world is going to come under pressure as the population grows, and Africa is going to be the most populous continent. I believe in the future, Africa will almost leapfrog the rest of the world. They’ll go from subsistence farming right into modern greenhouse farming, where they’ll be able to develop a much more nutritious food supply. And because the greenhouses deliver a higher return than open fields, they will improve their nutrition, reduce hunger, and make money while they’re doing it. That, to me, is the definition of sustainable.