8 August 2018 Issue 24: Aug/Sep 2018

Portrait: Ali Parsa, founder of digital doctor company Babylon

Ali Parsa wants to make Babylon the Google of healthcare.

On a recent summer’s evening, a small, softly-spoken man with heavy glasses and no hair walked on to the stage at the Royal College of Physicians in London. To a room packed full of doctors and surgeons, he unveiled what the future of healthcare looks like – or his vision of it. 

The lights dimmed. A young woman started speaking to an app, Babylon, about how she had been feeling dizzy for months. Behind her, a large screen filled with webs of potential causes as the app asked her whether she had experienced other symptoms. 

With each answer, the diagnosis shifted. A few seconds later, the app had considered her medical history and delivered its diagnosis: she was suffering from Ménière’s disease. 

The lights went up and Ali Parsa, Babylon’s founder and CEO, retook the stage. For five years, his company has been building an AI capable of diagnosing medical conditions. This was the first time the inner workings of its ‘brain’ had been revealed – and time for its first big test. 

‘Can it ever be as accurate as a human doctor?’ asked Parsa, 53, who is more than adept at giving visionary speeches. ‘Can it pass the test that a doctor has to pass to become a doctor? Can it do some of the things that human doctors do, to relieve the pain and the pressure from the doctors so they can do the things machines can never do?’ 

The answer, of course, was yes. Tested on the diagnostic component of the MRCGP – the standard test GPs must sit to qualify – Babylon’s AI scored 81%. The average human doctor scores 72%. 

Like when Google’s AI beat the best player in the world at the notoriously difficult strategy game Go, defying millennia of basic human instinct, Parsa had finally demonstrated how smart his algorithms were. 

‘We have a machine that can tell you what’s wrong with you as well as any human doctor,’ Parsa tells Courier. ‘And it can be freely available to any mum or dad who has access to the internet. Why wouldn’t you shout about this?’ 

Yet the demonstration didn’t make the headlines Parsa was hoping for. The top technology story on the BBC that day was about Elon Musk’s spat with an artist who drew a farting unicorn on a mug. 

Parsa sighs. ‘Honestly.’ 

In the palm of his hand 

For now Babylon’s app – which has 1.4 million users, nearly half of them in the UK, and a further 30,000 patients signed up to its NHS-funded ‘GP at Hand’ service – doesn’t use the full extent of the company’s AI capabilities. The app consists of a symptom-checking chatbot and allows users to book a phone or video call with a GP at anytime of the day, every day of the year. One in nine times people are asked to follow up with a visit to one of Babylon’s surgeries. 

A new feature – being tested by 10,000 users – will mark Babylon’s first move into preventative health. Based on a person’s own and family medical history, along with data gathered from wearable tech, Babylon aims to predict what conditions they would be wise to look out for, and the impact certain life choices may have. ‘We haven’t released it yet, partly because the phones are not good enough,’ says Parsa. 

He has set himself no small task. ‘The existing model of healthcare delivery is a disaster: 50% of the world’s population has no access to healthcare, and five billion people have no access to surgery,’ he says. ‘That’s incredible, right?’ It is – and so is Parsa’s ambition to solve these problems. 

Babylon’s mission is ‘to put accessible and affordable health services into the hands of every person on Earth’. It’s almost become the company’s mantra: it’s there in almost every interview Parsa gives, and it’s there, standing several metres tall on the wall, as visitors enter the company’s lobby in South Kensington, west London. 

‘We don’t usually encounter folks in Europe with the ambitious, industry-transforming plans Ali has,’ says Hussein Kanji, a partner at Hoxton Ventures and an early investor in Babylon. ‘He had a very big vision, which hasn’t changed all that much. Everything he said he was going to do, he’s doing.’ 

The plan now is to take Babylon global. This year, several major licensing agreements have been announced: one with Samsung, another with Chinese internet giant Tencent, a third with the Saudi government. Babylon’s free diagnostic app is now installed on 77 million Samsung phones in the UK and the US, and available to a billion people through WeChat in China. More deals in North America and Asia will be announced soon. ‘Some of the world’s most dominant companies are approaching us,’ says Olly Finding, Babylon’s head of international.

Babylon has now raised two rounds of funding and, according to Parsa, doesn’t plan to raise any more. He hints that there’s plenty of cash in the bank from recent corporate deals. Buyers are coming calling too but Parsa, who no longer holds a deciding vote on the board, insists, ‘I would only say yes if I believed that, by selling, it would make healthcare more accessible, more affordable, and put it in the hands of more people. The price is almost irrelevant.’ 

‘Ali has deep conviction,’ says Kanji. ‘For him, it’s not about making a bunch of money. He wants to transform medicine for the betterment of society.’

In 2016, when Babylon was just three years old, Parsa provided the Rwandan Ministry of Health with a free healthcare service via an app called Babyl. It has been used by more than two million people – around 30% of the population. 

‘There was a lot of pushback from the board for Rwanda,’ says Kanji. ‘It was Ali who was a big proponent of doing it. This civic and social responsibility is a big part of who he is.’ 

Parsa fled Iran three years after the 1979 revolution and travelled alone across Europe until he reached the UK, where he was granted asylum. He was 16 and spoke no English. By the time he was offered a scholarship by University College London, to study engineering, he was heavily involved in student politics. By his late 20s he had completed a PhD in physics, sold a business and had become an investment banker. 

With Babylon, his socialist, capitalist and academic sensibilities all seem to have come together. Kanji says Parsa was somewhat reticent about pursuing deals with the NHS initially: ‘Ali was much more pragmatic and short-term results driven than we were. 

‘He wanted to post up revenue and show traction,’ Kanji continues. ‘We were always pretty convinced that if Babylon was going to make a big dent, it would have to win over the NHS.’ 

In fact, it’s not the first time Parsa has worked with the NHS. In 2004, he founded Circle, which went on to become the first private company to run an NHS hospital. 

Rocking the boat

It can seem like Parsa enjoys stirring things up. ‘He’s not trying to rile GPs,’ says Kanji. ‘Ali can see where this stuff is going, he can see where the pieces will fit together, and he pushes hard to connect them.’ 

Since launching in 2013, Babylon has had a tumultuous relationship with the media – lauded by many tech publications, slammed by medical journals. In July, news that the incoming UK health secretary Matt Hancock is a user of Babylon’s GP at Hand service led to a swarm of complaints from GPs. 

The most common criticism levelled against GP at Hand is that it is ‘cherry picking’ patients – treating only the youngest and healthiest (and therefore the least expensive to care for). Questions have also been raised about safety, despite approval from the UK’s health commission. 

As a sign of just how much Babylon is rocking the boat, in July NHS England launched a consultation looking to overhaul its GP funding model. ‘It’s a tipping point,’ said one industry expert. It’s likely to mean services like GP at Hand would receive less funding per patient – and could appease some critics. Still, Parsa knew it wouldn’t be easy. ‘Before I got into healthcare, I was six foot five, with blue eyes and blond hair; now I look like Danny DeVito,’ he says. 

Tough love 

Parsa may be charming – but he is also tough. ‘He’s an Alex Ferguson type,’ according to Barney Thomas, a designer who worked at Babylon for two years, referring to the football manager famed for his leadership style. ‘He has really high expectations, and if they’re not met, he won’t be happy. He’s hard, but I’m also fond of him.’ 

Over the last two years, Babylon’s team has grown from 60 to 350. In the week Courier visited, there were 50 new joiners – and finding them, says Parsa, has been the hardest thing of all. ‘It’s the number one rule of business that most people ignore. Select your people incredibly carefully and only have the very, very best people playing for you.’ 

Every Monday, the company meets on its second floor, where plants hang from the ceiling. Parsa updates everyone on various projects. ‘Those sessions were inspiring,’ says Thomas. ‘There was always this feeling that we’d made one milestone – but needed to get to the next one.’

Jumping hurdles seems to animate Parsa more than it tires him. ‘The problem is so big, so exciting, and so solvable that even the naysayers eventually have to accept there’s a solution. That keeps you going,’ he says. ‘I go to bed, wake up, go on holiday – and think about nothing else.’