- British startup Babylon Health says it will invest $100 million from its own balance sheet into hiring hundreds of scientists to push forward the use of artificial intelligence in health.
- Babylon already has several contracts with the NHS, the UK’s national health service, and its AI medical service is embedded in Samsung phones in the US.
- The company will move to a new headquarters in London within the next 18 months to house its new staff.
- CEO Ali Parsa was outspoken in his rejection of criticism from doctors, who have pointed out that Babylon’s claims are not peer-reviewed and that its “GP at Hand” app may be having a negative impact on GP surgeries.
British medical startup Babylon Health will invest $100 million in hiring more than 500 researchers, scientists, and engineers over the next year to develop the use of artificial intelligence in healthcare.
Chief executive Ali Parsa said this would bring Babylon’s current team to more than 1,000 staff, and that the company would eventually move into new headquarters in London over the next 18 months to house the additional recruits. The firm is currently headquartered in Kensington, London, and plans to take over the rest of the offices in its building.
The artificial intelligence research will build on software that Babylon showed off in late June. The company claimed at the time that its AI could assess common conditions more accurately than doctors. The idea is to expand the AI from primary care, which refers to the stage when patients first approach their GPs, to helping to diagnose and manage chronic diseases, which is currently threatening to overwhelm the UK’s NHS health service.
Babylon’s announcement coincided with an endorsement from health secretary Matt Hancock, who has pledged to reform the NHS with technology.
But the company has come under considerable scrutiny and criticism from the medical community.
Specifically, doctors have criticised the “GP at Hand” app, which is powered by Babylon and offers patients video appointments through an app. The worry is that Babylon would receive NHS funding for looking after younger, fitter patients who would be more likely to use a digital service. That would leave physical GP surgeries with the burden and expense of looking after elderly patients with complex needs.
They have also criticised Babylon’s June claims about its AI chatbot, namely that its claims had not been peer-reviewed. Babylon did publish an explanation about how its AI worked on its site, though it’s listed under the “marketing” section.
In a call with Business Insider, chief executive Ali Parsa dismissed the criticism that Babylon was cherry-picking younger patients as “complete nonsense.”
He said not only were older patients increasingly using GP at Hand — though he didn’t give figures — but added that surgeries are paid less for looking after younger, fitter patients. “The cherries are actually the elderly,” he said.
Asked whether Babylon would submit its AI research for peer review, he said that the model of waiting 18 months for submissions to be accepted to an academic journal was outdated.
He added that patients themselves were satisfied with the technology.
“One person every few seconds is using our technology,” he said, citing a net promoter score of 82, a metric usually used by marketing departments to measure customer satisfaction. “We published the paper, we showed the methodology… the only thing we didn’t do was this situation of waiting 18 months for a peer-reviewed paper.”
Parsa said the company had to submit its paperwork to medical organisations such as the MHRA and the US Food and Drug Administration. “Everybody can see our methodology but this peer-review model … which two giants of journals advocate massively, was created in the 19th century, when science moved at snail pace.” (Scientific American suggests the birth of peer review was in 1731.)
Parsa’s criticism is unlikely to win over the cynics. His view is that technology moves too quickly to wait for a lengthy evaluation process.
Asked if the startup was now profitable, Parsa said licensing its technology to partners such as Samsung and Chinese internet giant had been hugely lucrative, and said the firm was in and out of profitability. He said the firm was focused on growth and expanding its capabilities.