Jazz Shaper: Dr Ali Parsa

Posted on 26 June 2021

Dr Ali Parsa is a British-Iranian healthcare entrepreneur and engineer.

Elliot Moss

Welcome to the Jazz Shapers Podcast from Mishcon de Reya.  What you are about to hear was originally broadcast on Jazz FM however the music has been cut due to rights issues.

Welcome to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss, bringing you the shapers of the business world together with the musicians shaping Jazz, Soul and Blues.  Our guest today is Dr Ali Parsa, serial healthcare entrepreneur and Founder and CEO of Babylon, the revolutionary artificial intelligence and digital health company.  Born in Iran to parents who instilled in him a spirit of resilience, Ali was forced to flee the country, alone, after the Iranian revolution in 1982.  Just sixteen years old, he arrived in the UK, not speaking a word of English but as he says, he locked himself in a room, studying for his O then A-Levels and went on to gain a PhD, hence Dr Parsa, in Engineering Physics.  After founding media promotion company, Victoria & Gilan at age 24, Ali spent some time as an investment banker but having knee surgery in a private hospital, inspired in him a belief he could provide a better service.  Ali launched healthcare group, Circle, which became Europe’s largest partnership of clinicians and the first private company to run an NHS hospital, and in 2014, aware the health sector was falling behind in its use of technology, Ali founded Babylon Health, a digital healthcare company combining cutting edge AI with medical expertise to give people 24/7 access to affordable health tools such as personalised health assessments and face-to-face appointments with a doctor.  It’s lovely to have you here, thank you for joining us.

Ali Parsa

It’s so nice to be with you, Elliot.  I always listen to your show and to this station for decades ago and it’s just lovely to be with you.

Elliot Moss

Immediately, people will know, and those that know you Ali will know this, you are, and in your own words, an immigrant.  You were a refugee actually to be more precise, at one stage, Iran originally.  How did the young man who was smuggled across borders end up talking to me all these years later having founded so many businesses?

Ali Parsa

The reality is, like everybody else, a huge amount of luck plays its role.  I was incredibly lucky to be born into a loving family that had great values that was installed in us.  I was very lucky that when I left Iran, I met many wonderful human beings who for no reason or benefit to themselves, helped me at every stage of my life, from the family I landed with when I arrived, to the people who helped me cross the borders, to the people who advised me on my career so, like everybody else, I think you are incredibly lucky when you are born into a family and you are very lucky through your passages in life. 

Elliot Moss

Now, you would say that, wouldn’t you Ali because immediately it is clear that you are a humble man and that I read somewhere that you, and I mentioned earlier, that you were an investment banker and you went, ‘The money, doesn’t really interest me particularly.’  The luck is one thing but there’s an engine in you and that engine, not everyone that has your journey has that engine, why is it configured the way it is?  Why is Ali so driven to make the most of his life?

Ali Parsa

So Elliot, I don’t want to stress this point but luck has a lot to do with it right, with the way you are born, where you are born, how your brain is configured as you are born and as it shapes in the first two years when the neurons are forming, has a huge deal to do with it.  So, yes I am, or I was, a refugee but I was born in a middleclass family who had a huge amount of love for education and for contributing to the world.  I think I would have been in a very different place if I was a refugee that was born in say in illiterate family in Afghanistan, just next-door to me.  So, I don’t think that it is so much to do with the engine, the engine takes us some of the way but I think almost 90% of who we are in life, almost gets decided in that very first moments of life when we are conceived to the parents we are conceived.  So, I have very little time and I am sure so do you for people who just boast about their achievements, I think that we all are where we are for so much of that what has happened to us.  I mean, imagine if I had mental health issues and how much more difficult it would have been to get to just ordinary affairs of life.  So, I think humility is not something that you do just because you think it sounds good, it’s something you do because you profoundly understand that what is the effect of all the exterior things on where you end up in life and that, I think, comes with age. 

Elliot Moss

In your own words, what was the birth of Babylon Health like?  What neurons were configured?  What luck conspired for it to be born in 2014?  And in your own words, what is it?

Ali Parsa

So, before Babylon I was running a chain of hospitals and that was doing very well but one thing you understand when you are dealing with hospitals is, actually we are dealing with the wrong part of healthcare, that is by the time you get to hospital unfortunately something has gone wrong and we caught you at the end of that thing going wrong and also the vast majority of us have very little to do with hospitals, once in average in twenty years we end up in a hospital unfortunately and if we are very unlucky, we spend the last two years of our life visiting hospitals often but outside that, for most of the healthcare most people need, we should be doing a better job so we sat back and thought knowing what we know about technology and what we know about healthcare, can we make most of the healthcare most people need accessible and affordable for everybody on earth.  Could we do with healthcare what Google did with information?  And if you think about it, once you start having a thought in your mind, if you are an entrepreneur it just becomes almost like a disease, like an obsession, and the more I thought about that, the more I thought that this is the right thing to do so I left my previous company, Circle, in December I think, 2012 and I registered Babylon almost on the 2 January 2013 but it really wasn’t until 2014, as you mentioned, where we started going with it, we spent a lot of time thinking on how do you fundamentally solve the problems of accessibility, quality and affordability of healthcare. 

Elliot Moss

Small problem there to grapple with, Ali, I mean you know, why didn’t you just get more ambitious?  Honestly, you’re… I watched your speech, which is a wonderful watch by the way and it sounds a strange thing to say but you did the UCL graduation speech 2019, it should be a TED talk because it’s short and to the point but in there you talk about dreaming big, I mean solving access to healthcare is about as big as it gets.  Did that not daunt you or was that the very thing that excited you?

Ali Parsa

No, I think to be daunted by anything, you need to have a level of intelligence that is beyond me because if you are very intelligent you start thinking about all the challenges that you will come across as you go through the journey of solving or doing anything and the more you think about it the more impossible that becomes, it’s just like planning to go up a mountain, if you think about every challenge you have on the way, it becomes like almost an impossible task but if you just think about the next step you have to put in front of your foot then that kind of becomes a lot easier so, when we launched into that journey, to be frank, we had no idea how difficult and how many angles one need to look into and solve for but, you know, as you go one problem at a time and you solve it and you move on and as long as you have the tenacity to keep going, not to be deterred, I think most problems are solvable and that brings you to then the choice of the problem you want to have in life, I mean I don’t think that if you take a small problem or a big problem, if you take a small company or a large company, a small dream or a large dream, they all take the same amount of time and effort from you, if you give it everything, they take everything and therefore why not take a big problem to try and solve rather than a small one. 

Elliot Moss

I think that’s really good advice.  I think… I wish I could… I’m going to listen to that, Ali.  Joking aside, that’s absolutely right.  Small problems take just as much time and effort as big ones to solve.  Much more from my guest, Ali Parsa.  He’ll be back in a couple of minutes here on Jazz Shapers.  Right now though we are going to hear a taster from the Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions which can be found on all of the major podcast platforms.  Mishcon de Reya’s Tom Grogan of MDRxTECH and Alastair Moore, a doctor in data science, are going to be discussing artificial intelligence and machine learning, their possibly application and the key things for organisations to consider when seeking to implement them.

You can enjoy all our former Jazz Shapers and hear this very programme again with Ali on the Jazz Shapers podcast or if you’ve got a smart speaker, you can ask it to play Jazz Shapers and there you will find many of our recent shows but back to today and my guest, Ali Parsa, Founder and CEO of Babylon, the revolutionary artificial intelligent and digital health company.  Does it help, Ali that you are a scientist as it relates to AI in the application in your business?  And obviously very, very different, fluid dynamics as I understand in my basics in physics, is not the same as understanding machine learning and natural language search and AI and whatever else we want to call it but is there a sense that an aptitude for science is important if one is going to create a business predicated on artificial intelligence?

Ali Parsa

You are absolutely right, the branch of science that I engaged in many, many decades ago – and I wasn’t very good at it, that’s why I’m not doing it any longer – has very little to do with the work I do today but I think there is something about curiosity and not taking things for granted and not accepting that things should be the way they are that a scientist has, it’s not of course unique to a scientist, any curious mind has, and I think that is very important for being an entrepreneur because one of the challenges you have when you are entrepreneur is that people constantly tell you why what you think can be done, cannot be done and they constantly try to almost persuade you to settle for what exists or a marginal, an incremental movement from what exists and I think it requires a certain mind to on one hand question what exists, on the other hand try to find answers that are dramatically different, better, than what exists, to ask the question why should it be like this and then to ask the following question, why shouldn’t it be like this, a much better way and then have the determination, the tenacity or if you wish, the stupidity, to keep going until you get to that vision that you have had in your mind and I think that’s an aptitude that many scientists have but also many non-scientists have.  One of the things that I really enjoyed when I was a scientist and when I was a teenager I read a biography of Einstein and I was fascinated by a technique that he learned when he was a teenager, which was visualising the world so he learned in this school he went to in Zurich on how to close his eyes and visualise the question or the world that he is in and if you will remember, he famously phrased that if you were sitting on a photo and not moving with the speed of light, what would you see?  He was visualising that and as a teenager, I practiced that a lot, I was fascinated by that practice that, it’s a habit that has stayed with me so every time I want to do something, I spend a significant amount of time must closing my eyes and seeing it like a movie in my head and after a while, it becomes reality almost in your own head and many times entrepreneurs are accused of distorting reality but that’s because they’ve seen an alternative reality in their head, they have a vision that they stick to and I think that that is something you have in common with many scientists who try to visualise the world in which they imagine the new reality should be. 

Elliot Moss

How do you find people, Ali that buy into this visualisation of the new world?  Ground-breaking people need ground-breaking people around them.  How have you managed to inculcate a sense of revolution inside of the team of people helping you deliver your vision?

Ali Parsa

I think when you have a concept or an idea or a vision, as long as you can share that with others, it naturally attracts those who also believe in that vision, who can identify with that sense of mission and they come to you rather you try to seek them.  I always think that it is important that to work with people who share your values and who share your vision.  A lot of people hire for expertise, for experience and I think that is given, that is if you want, that’s the utility, that’s the hygiene of the people you meet and I have made the mistake at some stages of only hiring or working with people who share the vision or the values and not worrying too much about their experience and I kind of learned through time that actually experience matters a lot, unless you have time for people to develop, like different stages of people’s careers of course, if somebody is young at the earliest stage of their career then it’s all about values and attitude but as they get more experience, that experience shapes them and therefore it’s important to look for that too.  But at the end of the day, people identify, self-identify with a set of values that represents them and the job of entrepreneurs is to put those values up.  When we created Babylon, the very first document I wrote, almost before I wrote the business plan of Babylon, was a document called We are Babylon and in it, it says ‘we have a public mission, the mission is to make healthcare accessible, affordable, put it in the hands of every human being on earth’ but we also have a private, a secret mission and that is to do so while not being jerks, to do so with good human beings who I would want to bring up my children and even to date, every single person that we hire in Babylon, we ask three questions, one is, is this person exceptional?  Two is, do we have some exceptional for them to do that is worthy of who they are?  And three is, would I let them bring up my children?  And that third question is still with us. 

Elliot Moss

I think my children would very much like lots of other people to bring them up but they are excellent questions.  The pandemic hit a year ago, give or take.  Your business is based on virtual communication.  You were seven years ahead, six years ahead of this horrendous thing that has hit the world.  Has it made life easier for you to essentially not have to convince people that this is a part of a critical part of the provision of healthcare going forward?  Or has it actually, in a funny kind of way, not changed the discussion at all?

Ali Parsa

No, I think, invaluably made our life in that respect much easier because almost everything we have ever done was in preparation for this moment.  This was a moment in which we could not drag people into doctors’ offices anymore or hospitals to be seen because a moment in which our clinical resources went under significant pressure and therefore we had to be as efficient with it as possible.  This was a moment in which many people needed information and we couldn’t give these informations by making appointments for them to go see doctors and one on one passing it on.  So, everything we ever built, almost was in preparation for this moment and businesswise, we did exceptionally well, we grew fourfold last year and just looking at our numbers already in 2021, it looks like we will grow another fourfold this year but there is nothing, nothing in spite of the fact that we as a business have done very well in this pandemic to celebrate about this pandemic.  This pandemic was an awful disaster that happened and took so many lives of so many of our best people, I lost very early on in the pandemic, almost a year ago to date, my own father to this pandemic and I would give everything we gained as a business back to have my father and all those wonderful souls that we lost, back with us again.  So, I don’t want to celebrate just the fact that we did well out of this pandemic businesswise, as I said, it has brought much misery with it. 

Elliot Moss

Absolutely, absolutely.  Stay with me for my final chat with my guest today, Ali Parsa, and we’ve got a wonderful track from Kamasi Washington as well, that’s coming up in just a moment. 

My really great Business Shaper today, full of philosophy and practical advice too, Ali Parsa, and inspirational I hope as well.  Ali Parsa is my Business Shaper just for a few more minutes.  I feel like there… the kids are in the back of the car and they’ve gone quite far on this journey called Babylon Health and they are asking, “Are we there yet, Dad?  Are we there yet?”  Where is ‘there’ in your head and do you feel you are getting there?

Ali Parsa

Oh, I think if the kids were in the back of the car, I will tell them we just left the neighbourhood and we have a very long journey ahead of us so, buckle up.  This is a long journey.  We are in day one.  We haven’t even began yet, there is so many things that we think that you could do in order to help make healthcare more accessible, more affordable, more high quality and put it in the hands of everybody.  Don’t forget, 50% of the world population today have no access to healthcare.  We demonstrated in Rwanda, one of the financially poorest countries in the world – spiritually, culturally, one of the richest – but financially, unfortunately, still one of the poorest countries in the world.  It is possible to pick up the phone and talk to a clinician within minutes.  It is possible to be connected to the local clinics digitally so, if Rwanda can do it, any country in the world can do it.  So, we have a long, long way to go.  We haven’t even begun yet.  Last year we served 20 million people, the world has 7 billion in it so, we haven’t even taken the first few steps or turns in the car, to use your analogy, but it’s a highly exciting journey, I mean we’ve been, as I mentioned earlier, we’ve been growing fourfold a year every year but we started of course from this very small base.  It is only now that we are in hopefully this year in hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue but healthcare is a ten trillion dollar sector and when you look at how tiny we are in it and how big our dream and ambition is to serve all those who have very little access to healthcare today, you could just see how insignificant what we’ve done so far has been. 

Elliot Moss

You talked, I mentioned earlier in the graduation speech about four things, you have a gift, don’t do small things with it, and you talk about build fast, you talked about being brilliant and making other people’s dreams your dream, help them deliver their dreams.  Beyond that philosophy which I think is the Ali Parsa philosophy if he’s only got four minutes to say what his philosophy is, I’m sure you’ve got millions… you’ve evidently got many other things.  What’s the rocket fuel you need beyond that to serve one billion, two billion, three billion, four billion, five billion, six, seven billion, everybody?  What is the rocket fuel you need to turn the corner and to make this, you know, you talked about Google, to essentially put in the hands of everybody?  What do you need?

Ali Parsa

Well I just think that you need to keep reminding yourself that as we started with, let’s just finish with that, you need to keep reminding yourself how lucky you have been.  Look Elliot, I was lucky enough to be born in a wonderful middleclass family as I mentioned to you but I was also lucky enough to become very poor as a refugee and I was an insider and then I became an outsider, I was young and I am now much older and it really didn’t matter where I was, which country I was, or whether I was young, poor, rich, immigrant, insider, what I saw was people everywhere have the same desires, the same needs, they just have different opportunities and if each of us just try to do a little bit better to equalise those opportunities, to level the playing field, that would be a wonderful thing to do.  I have seen many super rich people who died lonely and unhappy and I have seen many people with modest means who died with a smile on their faces.  We were brought up to think that you should leave the world a better place than what you found it and I think that is all the fuel anybody needs.  It’s your happiness in life, 23.44 shows, comes from being inspired and having a purpose and I couldn’t do more than wish anybody I know to have that inspiration so, I don’t think doing good is something you do for others, in a large way, you do it for your own sake of purpose and happiness in life and I wish it for all. 

Elliot Moss

It’s been absolutely lovely talking to you.  Thank you.  I’ve really enjoyed it, genuinely enjoyed it.  And it leaves me with just one more question, the easiest question so far which is what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Ali Parsa

The song that I chose was by Louis Armstrong and of course you all know his most famous of songs, What a Wonderful World, and I chose that because we do live in a wonderful world, especially in this year where we have been hit by this pandemic, we forget all the things that we still have left and I am hoping that we will come back from this pandemic, as we certainly will, with the last words of my father, that we will come back not to the world that we were in but to a much better world where we have learned the lessons but we also had a year of reflection where we can change everything that we always wanted to change.  I think we lived in a wonderful world but I think it is even going to be more wonderful and there is everything, everything to be hopeful about. 

Elliot Moss

That was Louis Armstrong with What a Wonderful World, the excellent song choice of my Business Shaper today, Ali Parsa.  So much to say about what he talked about.  Find a big problem, don’t find a small one, you are going to spend a lot of time working on it so you may as well make it matter.  Find answers that are dramatically different to those problems.  Be curious, curiosity is absolutely critical.  Don’t overestimate your own abilities, acknowledge the role that luck plays and finally, and really importantly and beautifully put I thought, leave the world in a better place.  That’s it from me and Jazz Shapers.  Have a lovely weekend. 

We hope you enjoyed that edition of Jazz Shapers.  You will find hundreds of more guests available to listen to in our archive, just search Jazz Shapers in iTunes or your favourite podcast platform or head over to mishcon.com/jazzshapers.

Dr Ali Parsa is a British-Iranian healthcare entrepreneur and engineer. He is the founder and CEO of Babylon, the revolutionary artificial intelligence and digital health company. Babylon’s mission is to put an accessible and affordable health service in the hands of every person on earth.

A serial entrepreneur, Ali also co-founded media promotion company Victoria & Gilan and healthcare company Circle Health. He has been recognised in The Times' '100 to watch' and the Health Service Journal's ‘50 most influential people in UK healthcare’. He was also featured in the Maserati 100, a list that recognises game-changing entrepreneurs who are disrupting the world of business and has won an Entrepreneurial Achievement award from the Independent Healthcare Awards. Ali is also a UK Cabinet Office Ambassador for Mutuals and has a PhD in Engineering Physics. 

Highlights

I was incredibly lucky to be born into a loving family that had great values that were installed in us.

I am, or I was, a refugee but I was born in a middle class family who had a huge amount of love for education and for contributing to the world.

We spent a lot of time thinking on how you fundamentally solve the problems of accessibility, quality and affordability of healthcare.

One of the challenges you have when you are an entrepreneur is that people constantly tell you why what you think cannot be done and they constantly try to persuade you to settle for what exists or is a marginal movement from what exists.

It is important that to work with people who share your values and who share your vision.

Every single person that we hire in Babylon, we ask three questions, one is, is this person exceptional? Two is, do we have something exceptional for them to do that is worthy of who they are? And three is, would I let them bring up my children? And that third question is still with us.

Last year we served 20 million people, the world has seven billion in it so we haven’t even taken the first few steps or turns in the car.

I have seen many super rich people who died lonely and unhappy and I have seen many people with modest means who died with a smile on their faces.

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