Bruce Lawson's personal site

Farewell Babylon Health

On Friday, TechCrunch reported The fall of Babylon: Failed tele-health startup once valued at $2B goes bankrupt, sold for parts:

It’s the end of the road for Babylon Health, the London tele-health startup once valued at nearly $2 billion after being backed by likes of DeepMind and deep-pocketed health insurance companies. After the company’s U.S. shares became worthless and its operation turned insolvent earlier this month, last night, the U.K. subsidiary of the business formally went into administration. At the same time, the administrators sold a large chunk of its assets to eMed Healthcare UK, a new subsidiary of U.S. company eMed.

Before mid-December 2022, I worked for Babylon until the whole accessibility team (and over a hundred other people) suddenly didn’t work for Babylon any more. It was difficult to understand why; the company had a colossal swanky office opposite Harrods, full of exciting and expensive pot plants. It had floated on the New York Stock Exchange. The after-effects of Covid lockdowns, the continuing pandemic and consequent changes in the way people access healthcare seemed favourable to a telehealth business. Yet suddenly, everything started to go horribly wrong.

But why? The product hadn’t got worse.

It appears that the answer lies in capitalist conjuring. The flotation had been done through some magical process called SPAC: a “special purpose acquisition company” which Wikipedia describes as “a shell corporation listed on a stock exchange with the purpose of acquiring (or merging with) a private company, thus making the private company public without going through the initial public offering process, which often carries significant procedural and regulatory burdens”.

I didn’t know what that means, but everyone seemed very pleased. Lavish floral displays were commissioned for the HQ, staff were promised a commemorative baseball cap or beanie hat (mine never arrived) and best of all, the founder/ CEO Ali Parsa appeared via TV screen on top of a remote-controlled trolley to ring the NYSE bell:

Happy Days! But they were fleeting. Just 13 months later, Parsa described his own decision as “an unbelievable, unmitigated disaster”. Shares were re-wiggled (a technical term that means they were magically multiplied in value by a factor of fifteen to prevent delisting on the Sock Exchange). From a high of $250 they went down to 3 cents, then were delisted.

Sick people in the USA opened the app to login for an appointment to be told “Babylon’s clinical services and appointments are no longer available. For details about your health plan benefits and to find a new provider, contact your health plan”. US staff were terminated and Babylon filed for bankruptcy protection for two of its U.S. subsidiaries.

After I left the company, I spent a few months contracting before deciding what to do next; I work in tech where many companies are Trojan Unicorns: superficially attractive but packed full of asset-stripping shocktroops of venture captialism. I eventually accepted an offer from Barnardo’s, the children’s charity. I’m too jaded to work for an organisation whose fate is in the hands of Capitalist Conjurers, and hate seeing good work by talented people flushed away because of the vagaries and whims of Money Magicians.

Try as hard as I can, I’m finding it hard to summon up many tears for investors like Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund or Palantir, who won’t see their money again. But then I doubt that they spare much thought for 2.8 million Rwandan people whose healthcare is now in doubt after Babylon announced it is “winding down” Babyl Rwanda.

Luckily, work bezzie Stinky Taylar saw my lament on the Alumni chatgroup about my lack of SPACalicious Babylon beanie, so posted hers to me. It arrived the day before it all collapsed.

Buy "Calling For The Moon", my debut album of songs I wrote while living in Thailand, India, Turkey. (Only £2, on Bandcamp.)

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