From refugee to serial entrepreneur, Ali Parsa, founder of Babylon Health, explains how tech is making healthcare more accessible.
Ali Parsa is an eccentric character. Within minutes of us meeting, he took a step back, looked me up and down and said “I’ll have your height,” before turning to our cameraman, “and your hair”.
Perhaps it’s this eccentricity and willingness to do things a little differently that has got him to where he is today – heading up a HealthTech company that aims to “put an accessible and affordable health service into the hands of every person on earth”.
Parsa was born in northern Iran and exhibited an entrepreneurial streak from a young age, although his business career didn’t have the most reputable of starts.
“I was always wheeling and dealing as a child. I used to go to the capital, Tehran, and buy music that wasn’t available at home, pirate it and sell it on at school. I’d also record music from the radio and sell the tapes to my classmates,” he explained with a grin.
Parsa moved to London by himself during the Iranian Revolution when he was just 16. Determined to do well in the education system, he studied hard, learning English and passing his O Levels and A Levels in just a couple of years. He then accepted a place at UCL, where he studied civil and environmental engineering.
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He went on to do a PhD in physics and it was during this time he set up his first company – V&G, which specialised in events planning. The company’s first event was a two-week-long party on a Greek island for The Guardian newspaper’s staff and readers.
“We then ran a whole set of other events for The Guardian and then lots of other newspapers. The business did really well so after a few years when my PhD was finished we sold it,” he explained.
“I never really liked banking. It’s just not me. I didn’t like the values of banking at the time – I was a refugee from a left wing family, so it really wasn’t right for me,” he said.
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Parsa went as far as to say he found it “soul destroying”, so left the banking world to look for a new direction shortly after his first daughter was born.
After a brief stint at an e-learning company, Parsa had an experience that drove him to get involved in the healthcare space. A keen sportsman, Parsa suffered a knee injury that resulted in surgery at a “top private London hospital” but he was less than impressed.
“I thought ‘oh my God, if that’s the best private hospital there is, surely I can do better’.”
But without a background in healthcare what made him think he was up to the challenge? Simple, he said, the power of ignorance.
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“Often incredibly intelligent people end up doing almost nothing because they can very quickly analyse all the problems that are going to face them throughout a challenge and decide there are just too many so they don’t want to do it,” Parsa explained.
He used the analogy of going to the gym to illustrate his point – if you think about all the work it takes it seems like too much effort. But if you take it one step at a time, you realise it’s more than manageable.
Parsa used this attitude to create CircleHealth, which runs a range of healthcare services. There were two main ways in which he wanted Circle to be different, firstly he wanted it to be a cooperative, so 50% of the business went to its employees, creating a John Lewis model in healthcare.
Secondly, he wanted its facilities to have a luxury feel. So he hired Norman Foster to design and build a state of the art hospital; brought in a Michelin starred chef to run the restaurant and the boss of a five-star hotel to head up the hospitality side.
“The first hospital we built won a Somerset hospitality award against five-star hotel Lucknam Park which used to win it every year. People used to come from far and wide to eat in the restaurant in the hospital,” he enthused, noting that efficiency was paramount at these facilities, too.
“The government started saying ‘well if you can do that with private hospitals, why can’t you do it with our facilities?'”
Circle was given a number of surgical centres to turn around, with the challenge of not only improving patient experience but also boosting efficiency. In Parsa’s nine years at the company, it achieved some £200m of annualised revenue and its employee count approached 3,000.
Parsa left in 2012 hungry for a new challenge having become dissatisfied with the direction in which the board wanted to take the company. It’s certainly had a rocky ride over the past few years. In 2012, Circle was given a 10-year contract to run Hinchingbrooke Hospital in Cambridgeshire but it pulled out after just three years following mounting losses and heavy criticism of its performance. The firm’s share price still hasn’t recovered, sitting at 18p (at the time of writing), down 49% on the previous year and 73% on the price at the same time in 2014.
Having left Circle, Parsa knew he wanted to remain working in healthcare but didn’t want to focus on hospitals.
“While I was at Circle, it dawned on me that the vast majority of our healthcare needs have nothing to do with hospitals,” he explained.
The process of seeing a GP or specialist now is essentially no different than it was in the 18th century. It’s not only archaic, it’s expensive and inefficient, too, Parsa argued.
“The current process is time-consuming and inconvenient, which makes it inaccessible for you and I, but for 50% of the world population this makes it impossible.”
Babylon was Parsa’s next brainchild and was created to solve the problem of healthcare inaccessibility. It’s a service that enables users to have consultations with a GP, specialist or therapist via phone or video call, thus removing the need to physically travel to a surgery. Babylon’s doctors can give referrals, but currently only to private hospitals, and can provide prescriptions, which can be sent electronically to the pharmacy of the patient’s choice. Users can then opt to collect their medicine or have it delivered to their door.
In the UK, the service is available through an app, with membership costing £5 per month. As well as being able to book virtual appointments through the app, users can order health check tools, such as pin prick blood tests. It also has a free-to-use AI-powered triage tool, which is a kind of messenger bot, with users answering a series of questions about their health complaint before being advised what to do next, for example seek medical attention, go to a pharmacy or deal with it at home.
“When we started doing consultations, we realised that quite a lot of what we do, we could train a machine to do,” Parsa explained.
“Actually, machines are much better at dealing with billions of variations of symptoms than the human brain is,” the 51-year-old added.
Last June, Babylon pitted its AI against a senior A&E nurse and a junior doctor from Oxford University. UCL professor Irwin Nazareth compared the results and revealed Babylon’s AI was consistently faster and more accurate in triaging patients than its human counterparts. The AI achieved 92% accuracy compared to the doctor’s 82% and the nurse’s 77%.
As well as being used by individual patients, Babylon has formed partnerships with a number of large corporates, including Sky, Cisco and Aviva, with its services being made available to the companies’ employees. On top of this, the firm has partnered with two NHS GP clinics in Essex and now over 20% of these clinics’ patients are using the service, freeing up the time of the practice GPs.
The CEO revealed the NHS has given Babylon a contract to deliver triage for the population of North Central London – more than 1.2 million people. This means the NHS will be promoting the app as an alternative to its 111 non-emergency helpline in areas including the boroughs of Camden, Islington, Enfield and Barnet.
“It’s the first AI platform anywhere in the world that will be deployed by a government for such a large population,” he claimed.
Babylon has also been making waves overseas. Some of Parsa’s team took a scaled-back version of the service, which could be used on a non-smartphone, to Rwanda. Within three weeks, they signed up 20,000 users.
“Today we are at 120,000 registered members in Rwanda, that’s over 1% of the population of the entire country that has signed up to Babylon in just a few months. It’s incredible,” Parsa said.
He believes it may be easier for his company to crack developing nations like Rwanda than the likes of the UK as there’s less red tape to navigate and people are curious when it comes to technology.
“Places like Rwanda can adopt technology much faster – we’ve seen it already with mobile money. In East Africa, something like 80% of the population took up using mobile money within five years,” he explained.
Things are much more complicated in the UK, he added, with the biggest challenge he faces here being that of getting the NHS on board on a national level.
“The NHS doesn’t roll things out as fast as it should,” he explained, adding that our health service is understandably cautious about healthcare innovation, requiring products and services to gain a decent amount of traction before it will even consider adoption.
Parsa feels his company is getting there, though. The NHS pilots in Essex have proved very promising and he said 2% of Londoners below the age of 40 have registered with Babylon, with the platform currently facilitating up to 5,500 consultations per day.
He’s extremely confident and passionate about his company, but is pretty blasé about the fact it’s not really making money at the moment.
“A lot of companies in the world operate on the philosophy of ‘charge what you can get away with’ but others have the philosophy of ‘I’m going to charge the minimum that I need to’, and that’s what we’re all about,” he explained.
Money’s not currently a problem, though, he claims. Parsa said Babylon has raised much more than the $25m Series A it secured in January 2016, but he refuses to reveal who has been putting money in and how much.
One thing’s for sure, though, he’s very picky when it comes to selecting investors. He has little time for VC firms, preferring to opt for those with a proven track record in business. The likes of Innocent drinks founder Adam Balon and DeepMind co-founder Demis Hassabis took part in his Series A and Parsa said he feeds off their wisdom in areas such as brand building, operations and artificial intelligence.
“Much more important than the money you’re given is who is giving you that money,” he stressed. “At Circle, I had amazing investors except one. And that one ruined it for me.”
So what does the future hold? Parsa reiterates his goal – to put digital health in the hands of every person in the world – and believes he has the right team in place to be able to achieve this. “150 of the smartest people in the world are sitting here,” he said, gesturing around the room.
“These people are incredibly expensive, but they are dedicated. In here, they are solving one of the world’s biggest problems. And I think that’s what keeps people here. Great people need great missions,” Parsa added.
But he’s not complacent. He’s fully aware that competitors are emerging in the space and others could be watching from the sidelines, quietly observing before making their move.
“When you run a business, you’re always paranoid somebody somewhere else is building it faster or better or more smartly than you. In the US they are incredibly good at throwing humongous amounts of money behind projects – just look at how much IBM Watson is spending on the same space.
“This doesn’t mean they’ll win, though, but it does mean you have to stay on your toes,” he concluded.
This article first appeared on edition 13 of Tech City News’ popular print magazine – The HealthTech Issue.