Saudi Arabian wealth fund to invest in NHS chatbot maker Babylon Health

Public Investment Fund to make first high-profile direct investment in a UK start-up

Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund is in late-stage discussions to invest in the UK’s Babylon Health, a controversial digital health start-up used by the National Health Service, according to people with direct knowledge of its plans.

The planned investment, which is part of a new funding round running into hundreds of millions of dollars, may be announced as soon as later this week, these people said. The exact terms are yet to be finalised and could still change.

It marks the latest tech bet by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, the principal vehicle through which Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has attempted to diversify the oil-dependent country’s holdings.

The deal will mark the first high profile direct investment by the PIF into a UK start-up. It comes as the British government continues to court the Gulf country for deeper economic ties, including in the healthcare sector, even as the international community wrestles with the fallout from the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last October.

The size of the planned investment is not clear but is expected to amount to between $100m and $500m, one of these people said. The funding is thought to be part of a wider investment round.

London-based Babylon has been searching for fresh investment since earlier this year to fund its expansion. Founded in 2013 by Ali Parsa, a British-Iranian entrepreneur and banker, Babylon developed a “chatbot” to check the symptoms of patients, which is used by the NHS.

It also offers a service connecting patients in south-west London to doctors through the cameras of their smartphones.

The company, which also has contracts with South Korea’s Samsung and China’s Tencent, has been hailed by Matt Hancock, the UK health secretary, as one of the “biggest names in AI”.
But the start-up has faced scrutiny in the UK by regulators following complaints from doctors that its chatbot symptom checker could miss signs of serious illnesses.

That has compounded attention on Mr Parsa’s ability to secure funds from investors. He previously led Circle Health, the private manager of an NHS hospital, before it fell into financial difficulty in 2012.

In March 2018, Saudi Arabia’s minister for health development met his UK counterpart in London to discuss deeper co-operation between the two countries. They announced a memorandum of understanding with Babylon that was tied to “the future delivery of health solutions for the Saudi Ministry of Health through their local partner Thiqah using Babylon’s artificial intelligence application”.