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SECRET LEADERS: THE FOUNDERS OF BABYLON AND CALM

Originally published at agoraworld.one.

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Last night, we attended the top Business Podcast “Secret Leaders,” for their live event on the theme of “Healthy Body, Healthy Mind.” Two of the most outstanding entrepreneurs of the moment — Michael Acton Smith, Co-Founder Calm.com & Dr Ali Parsa, Founder of Babylon Health — gave their insights on the future of healthcare as it intersects with technology, and particularly AI.

Michael spoke of the journey which led to him start Calm, which was in fact his previous undertaking, Moshi Monsters, taking a hit rather than living up to the expectations of being “the next Disney.” He spoke of how entrepreneurs can become so intertwined in their business that it “becomes you.” Michael finally decided to take a step back rather than grind on with this venture, and disconnect from business by going on a solo trip where he concentrated on his health and developing a meditation practice. Too often associated with hippies and religion, Michael believes that meditation needs to be re-branded as a sensible practice which everyone can benefit from, hence the simple name of his app “calm.”

Though there was lots of resistance in the early day, even without marketing the app became increasingly successful, with exponential growth, now with a revenue of 80 million for 80 people working there. The numbers cannot capture the positive impact this has had on people’s lives and the cultural shift that is taking place in society, towards a greater awareness of mental health and wellness.

Ali shared his story as well: an immigrant from Iran, he arrived in London at age 16 without a word of English. He referred to the challenges he faced as this time as “desirable difficulties” — though also highlighting the growing number of teen immigrant suicides in Europe as a serious problem to be engaged with. Ali educated himself, gaining admission to both UCL and Cambridge. After 10 years at UCL, where he earned a PhD, funded by his first startup for which he won an award, Ali decided to work as a banker for Goldman Sachs. Soon after his first child was born, he decided to go back to being an entrepreneur. In 2004 he launched Babylon health, a subscription service that allows virtual consultations with doctors via an app.

Ali referenced some of the challenges he faced as an entrepreneur: investors may turn on you when things go well, not just when things go badly. He stated that even the most passionate of entrepreneurs need a work-life balance and it is counter-productive to work 100 hours a week if for 40 of those hours you are going to be “a zombie.” Nevertheless, his passion shone through as he spoke of the energetic entrepreneurial spirit that leads to businesses which change the world and humanity. An optimist, he firmly believes in exciting and progressive healthcare solution we will witness in the next ten years time.

Michael stated that for him the four pillars of health are sleep, exercise, nutrition and meditation. Ali built on this that it’s important to do what you enjoy and emphasize the importance of mental health.

When asked about the future of healthcare, Ali expressed his frustration at the amount of money from the NHS going into sales and raising salaries rather than making structural changes to the system. He said that what we have now is “not a healthcare system but a sick care system,” using the example of how the NHS does its best to keep you away from doctors with a two week waiting time, a model which works because that’s often how long it takes for the body to heal itself, but also one that is under pressure. Babylon’s waiting time is just two minutes!

Michael underscored the importance of mental health, which was in the shadows till just a couple years ago. “Everyone has a mind,” and we must care for it as we do the body. The success of apps like Calm among others shows that people are taking responsibility for their own health — and that’s exciting for the future of health.

What will future health look like? As Ali wisely said, we don’t know! Though we are getting better and better at managing diseases, we have never managed to prolong longevity. Now, we are on the brink of a scientific revolution with design biology, such as that which allowed humans to engineer rats 10 times more intelligent than the norm, and has the possibility of conquering ageing. “Is this intelligent design? Or dumb design? What will the result be? We have no idea,” said Ali, “This could be an existential threat to humanity” as genes and DNA manipulation inevitably have unforeseen consequences.

In the context of overpopulation, how can we extend the life of all without making things worse? Michael and Ali are both optimists. “Humans are an incredible species, smart and creative, and will find solutions to the problems” — so often presented in such ominous form by the media.

These entrepreneurs have founded businesses which help people live joyful, meaningful, purposeful lives by optimizing physical and mental health. There is so much good news to be celebrated. The world is increasingly peaceful, infant mortality is declining, and fewer people’s lives are threatened by disease than ever before. No studies show that population growth will continue, as the richer people are, the fewer kids they have. In fact, models show that world population will settle around 8–11 billion. There has been a 150 year “blip” in terms of our treatment of the planet but the earth can heal itself, said Ali. The goal of these entrepreneurs is to optimize health so humans can continue to live amazing lives.

A major problem to be dealt with nowadays is mental health, with suicide being the leading cause of death for men under 50 in the UK being just one example of how this issue is literally a matter of life and death. Another is that we now lose more people to suicide than violence (terrorism, war, crime). We need to teach and understand our minds, and as a society give time, energy and research to this issue. Too many people are living in constant pain. Meditation is one of the simple yet powerful tools we can use to master the mind by understanding it and training our brain, even rewiring it.

Of course, some factors which effect our lives are out of our control. Ali pointed to genetics having a major impact on our happiness and mental health. Despite biology presenting certain limitations, nutrition, environment, habits and behaviors also have a major effect on our wellbeing.

Michael alluded to a more controversial influencer on mental health: psychedelics. Despite often being demonized to the same extent methamphetamines and highly addictive drugs are, Michael described psychedelics as being capable of “rewiring” and “shaking up the brain.” There’s also a movement to legalize marijuana for medical uses, with the push in the US being paralleled by the 20 countries worldwide which now allow it in medicinal settings. Alcohol and tobacco are true killers, on the other hand. Michael calls himself an optimist because society rethinking its attitude towards psychedelics and mental health shows a movement to critically rethink tradition in order to make the world of tomorrow a better one.

In the words of Alvin Toffler, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. ” The tech revolution allows us to access the information to learn and retrain our own minds, and also to make a meaningful living in the industry, as these men have. Indeed, Michael’s answer to Calm being an app on smart phones, which have the possibility of degrading our mental health, was that our devices are not good or bad, it’s how we use them. His company is about rethinking how we use them.

Ali concluded with a word for entrepreneurs and those aspiring to be ones: be liberated, take risks, enjoy the journey as a bit part of entrepreneurship is being given money to go build your dream. Too many people fear risk, Michael said, “but you’re going to die! So start living.” Ali emphasized we should think big: “don’t build a small business, it’s just as much work. Build something the world needs.” He quoted Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Entrepreneurship requires persistence more than genius. And there are many excuses, but no restrictions other than you own mind.

Book recommendations from Michael:
Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About The World — And Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling and Ola Rosling
How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us by M. Pollan

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