AI startup Faculty wins contract to predict future requirements for the UK’s NHS

Faculty, a VC-backed artificial intelligence startup, has won a tender to work with the NHS to make better predictions about its future requirements for patients, based on data drawn from how it handled the COVID-19 pandemic.

In December 2019, Faculty raised a $10.5 million Series A funding round from U.K.-based VCs Local Globe, GMG Ventures, and Jaan Tallinn, one of Skype’s founding engineers, giving it a valuation of around $100 million.

Faculty will work with NHS England and NHS Improvement to build upon the Early Warning System (EWS) it developed for the service during the pandemic. Based on Bayesian hierarchical modeling, Faculty says the EWS uses aggregate data (for example, COVID-19 positive case numbers, 111 calls and mobility data) to warn hospitals about potential spikes in cases so they can divert staff, beds and equipment needed. This learning will now be applied across the whole of the service, for issues other than the pure pandemic response, such as improving service delivery and patient care and predicting A&E demand and winter pressures.

Faculty also worked with NHSX as a partner for the NHS AI Lab, which developed the National COVID-19 Chest Imaging Database (NCCID).

Faculty has also reportedly worked with the U.K. Home Office to apply AI to its database of terrorists, as well as the BBC and easyJet.

I asked Richard Sargeant, COO of Faculty, if he thought Faculty was the “Palantir for the U.K.” (Palantir has also worked with the NHS during the pandemic.) “We are, I believe, a really effective and scalable AI company, not just for the U.K. but we’re working in the U.S. and in Europe, Asia. I think we will continue to scale. We’re growing, and we’re going to grow because I believe that AI can make things better for the citizens, for customers. Palantir doesn’t really do AI, they do data engineering in a big way. And we’ve seen them be effective in the NHS. I think Faculty kind of stands on its own.”

He said that Faculty has a different role to Palantir. “Palantir has helped with the data pipelines, and they’re using their software to pull a lot of data together, but really they’re not a machine learning organization, their specialism is in gathering data together. Data across the NHS is rather an archipelago. It’s in hundreds of different places, and being able to gather together makes it much easier to do machine learning, both centrally and at a local level. One of the things that sets the early warning system apart is not just the use of machine learning, but the use of explainability to give clinicians and managers, some understanding of why the models are forecasting the results that they are, which is relatively cutting edge stuff, and that’s the stuff that Faculty specializes in that Palantir doesn’t.”

I asked him why Faculty had attracted VC when, typically, VCs invest in startups that have scalable products. “It’s a good question and it’s something that we often get asked. I see Faculty as a little bit different from your classic software as a service business, and from a consultancy. AI isn’t a ‘once and done’ product, and neither is it something that people create from scratch every time. But there are core components of what we do, that we can use again and again, but also the models themselves are always bespoke… it’s a combination of the bespoke, and the common, or generic together, that makeup Faculty, and that’s a bit different.”

Faculty is not a stranger to controversy over its government contracts. Last year it was revealed that a a U.K. cabinet minister owned £90,000 of shares in Faculty when it was awarded a £2.3 million contract from NHSX to help run the NHS COVID-19 Data Store.