The babylon digital healthcare app provides 24/7 medical advice and fast, easy access to doctor appointments wherever you are in the world. The app uses a blend of artificial intelligence as well as video and text consultations with real doctors.
Launched in 2014, the service now covers over 800,000 people globally, with local services operating across Europe and Africa. Last year, babylon launched in Rwanda providing Rwandan users with health information, prescriptions and consultations via their mobile devices. In the first 6 months, over 10% of the Rwandan adult population had registered with babylon.
babylon’s purpose is to democratise healthcare by putting an accessible and affordable health service into the hands of every person on Earth, which by anyone’s standards is no small feat. We spoke to babylon CEO and founder Ali Parsa to find out more:
Ali, what is babylon?
The babylon app allows users to book a health consultation face-to-face via a smartphone or desktop computer, check symptoms using AI technology; ask medical questions, monitor overall health indicators, carry out health tests and keep clinical records in one secure location.
What inspired you to start babylon?
I used to run a chain of hospitals and realised that the vast majority of people’s healthcare needs have very little to do with time in hospital. The important stuff comes before and after hospital.
Some of us are lucky enough to live in a developed country rich with resources, but for people who live in developing countries the problem is significantly more severe. They have very little access to healthcare, and yet thanks to people like Sony they all have a mobile phone in their pocket. That got me thinking. Once an idea gets into an entrepreneur’s mind it just bugs you until you get access to do it.
And when did the idea start to bug you?
Around 2010. I took my previous company, Circle, public in 2011 and I really couldn’t leave my business, so I tried to persuade the board to create babylon. Unfortunately we couldn’t persuade the board, so I thought well I’ll just get out and do it. I left in December 2012 and registered the idea of babylon on 1 January 2013.
So have you always been involved in healthcare?
I started my career as an academic. I was a physicist, I achieved a PHD in Engineering Physics at UCL. I’m an immigrant, I was a refugee, I didn’t have a family to help me here so I had to set up a business to help me with the very low pay of academia. I got lucky, that business did very well, I sold it and then became an investment banker. Then when my first child was born I had a mid-life reckoning: why do something I don’t enjoy? So I abruptly left to build my own businesses.
Have there been low moments since you started babylon?
It’s very, very early days. We’re only three years old so we haven’t really had enough time to have low moments! Almost every moment is a high moment because everything is new, everything is exciting. You never lose, you just learn. Life is full of ups and downs, you don’t enjoy the ups if you don’t have the downs. If you don’t have something to measure it against then everything becomes rather dull.
You’re UK based, are there benefits to being based there?
Yes. I live in the UK, and I’m sick and tired of people leaving this country to go to Silicon Valley where the sun is shining and build their businesses there. I think there’s a lot we can improve in Britain but I think it is as good a place as any to build a business.
What tips would you give to other innovators hoping to break the mould?
I don’t know if it’s up to me to give tips but my concern is there are so many big problems left in the world and I’m always surprised by how so many people try to solve the small problems.
The number of people trying to figure out how to sell you more financial quotes or deliver you more pizza as opposed to serious problems: healthcare, education, governments, democracy, welfare, challenges the elderly face. There are existential problems out there and it would be brilliant if we could put our ingenuity to solving the very large problems rather than the easier problems.
What other services would you like to see improved by technology?
Education. I think that the thing that would make the biggest difference in society is the quality of education. If we can democratise education, if we can give the kids in the camps and houses in the middle of the slums in Mumbai the same quality of education give or take that the kids in Eton are getting, just imagine what that would do to the progress of the world. If someone can democratise education, to me it’s the single most impactful way of changing our society.