Scientific Entertainment

We’re joining the DTS Startup Company Showcase, November 7-10 in Bethesda.

Humaginarium has coined a phrase, “scientific entertainment,” that may be worthy of a trademark. It will depend on the reception it gets from three constituencies: consumers, artists, and scientists.

Consumers may view scientific entertainment as an oxymoron; like something Lewis Carroll uncorked with the mad Hatter. Though television stars like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson have famously made science entertaining, it’s entertaining in a public television sense of the word. In other words, not really. More edifying than fun.

Artists may view scientific entertainment as a dialectic; a juxtaposition of two opposing forces that catalyzes a third force, one that is more than the sum of its parts. Art history is full of examples, wherein monumental aesthetics emerge from a close study of nature; for example in the career of Leonardo da Vinci.

Scientists may view scientific entertainment as… well, I don’t know how they’ll view it! Most likely with grave suspicion because scientists, being truth seekers, are often misunderstood or utterly ignored by masses of people who can’t fathom what they’re up to, or even what they’re talking about. Have you noticed that most scientists portrayed in popular culture are mad? A scientist once pointed that out to me, sardonically.

Humaginarium is going to discover how some scientists view scientific entertainment on November 7-10 in Bethesda, Maryland, at a conference of the Diabetes Technology Society. We’ve been invited to join the DTS Startup Company Showcase, and tell a story about scientific entertainment that may win converts, or cause boredom, or maybe get no reaction whatsoever because we seem unscientific. That last outcome would be the hardest to bear.

To explain what we’re up to, we’ll present our first scientific poster. It will express our mission without any of the eye candy or theatrical heuristics that we employ when pitching. Because we are not going there to pitch. We’ll be there to make a case for scientific entertainment as an incredibly powerful medium for health literacy and education, and scientific acumen among the folk. The poster will describe our startup as though it was an experiment to test a hypothesis that regular folks are not dumb, are not oblivious to their bodies and health, and not incapable of understanding and using erudite scientific concepts so long as the information is reductionist and nicely staged.

In addition to a poster, we’ll hand out a flyer, run a slide show for scientists who want more insight, and conduct dozens of stakeholder interviews. As graduates of I-Corps, that part will be déjà vu all over again!

We hope our experience at the DTS Startup Company Showcase will inspire belief in our idea among the hardest of three constituencies to please. Especially because our prototype and proof of concept is named Diabetes Agonistes. We’ll be putting our hearts on the line, kind of like all scientists do when they’re seeking.

Jacques-Louis_David_Patroclus

Scientific entertainment. Variation on Patroclus, by Jacques-Louis David

Next Steps

In Phase 2 we’ll move fast and break things other than hearts.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step; or in our case a bunch of next steps. We pondered them at the end of August, gave ourselves until the end of December to finish, and got right to work. Here are highlights.

Last week I mentioned the slippery, slimy Business Model Canvas, still wriggling and flipping like a fish out of water. We’re going to reform it yet again, this time after reflecting on what we learned from customer discovery. Ready-aim-fire rather than shoot ourselves in the foot.

We’re going to plan commercialization using Scott Meadow’s model. The practical objective here is to de-risk innovation, a critical success factor in our case because so much of what we do is unfamiliar if not downright unprecedented.

We’re going to qualify business partnerships with Amazon and two medical centers who offered to join us in prototype development. Amazon is intriguing because they’re incredibly exciting; we want to catch their vibe.

We’re going to design a scientific poster for a Startup Company Showcase of the Diabetes Technology Society. (Thanks, Sam!) This is our first chance to pitch the science in our “scientific entertainment” to a community of scientists, a welcome change from geeks of our recent past.

We’re going to write a business pro forma that weighs Humaginarium on the proverbial scales of venture capital. VCs are anything but blind, so we’ll be explicit and transparent. We have a framework but the devil is in the details, waiting for us like Morgoth holed up in Angband.

We’re going to storyboard prototype media: a narrative game simulation that streams to desktops and a casual game that downloads to mobile devices. Both will take on the same chronic illness but in different ways. We want to see which consumers prefer, if not both or neither. Our seed funding will finance production of these digital wonders.

Speaking of seed funding, we’re going to update our website so it says what we say, and write two pitches; one lasting about 10 minutes, the other 30. And now hear this: we will memorize our speaking parts until we can recite them while crossing the Grand Canyon on a tightrope. No more blank stares and stuttering.

Of course we’ll rehearse and refine our pitches with wizards who don’t know what we’re doing; members of the “seen it all, don’t give a shit” investor class that expects mastery of the universe and 30% ROI in five years. Meantime we’ll qualify a list of real prospects for when we’re ready to withstand the inevitable slings and arrows.

Did I mention that we’re going to write a Phase 1 NSF SBIR grant for submission in December? I didn’t because I’m trying to avoid the withering thought, but we shall do this. We’ve already been encouraged by NSF program managers so this milestone is not as far-fetched as it feels. They claim to love moonshots.

In closer proximity to our heart’s desire, we’re going to join MATTER in Chicago. The values of that health tech incubator perfectly match ours; and we want to be active members of the MATTER community. This will be a refreshing change from Polsky and much less of a commute.

We have dubbed these milestones our Phase 2, which officially began on September 1. Not only do we have milestones, we’re writing them into a plan in Project Wizard so that we can move fast and break things other than hearts.

One thing we wanted to do but won’t is use I-Corps Go funds to cover some expenses related to business formation. We’ve already discovered that I-Corps never got the famous memo from the Lords of Business Ethics which says “do what you say you’re going to do.” So when Go fell off the table for no known reason, we were disappointed but not surprised.

In any case I got the memo, many years ago, and have never forgotten it. See the Fellowship page of our website for a nice way of putting it.

The Beginning of Days

Much good work and exciting discoveries lie ahead.

Two months have passed since my previous post. In the interval Humaginarium traversed the scary caverns beneath the Dwimorberg, also known as I-Corps, and emerged at the Stone of Erech to plan next steps.

What is I-Corps? It’s hard to say if you haven’t experienced it; and even harder if you have. The words “crossfire hurricane” may be as good a description as any that dribbles down the web pages of NSF.

Humaginarium joined the 2018 New York summer cohort of I-Corps that met from mid July until the end of August. Though called New York, it convened in an isolated hotel at Newark Airport, as far from the Isle of Manhattan as Barad-dûr is from the Shire.

Along with 23 other teams, we went to Newark for a three-day Kickoff meeting and a two-day Lessons Learned meeting. The first was brutal; the second bone-tired.

Between times we met with I-Corps facilitators weekly for 90 minutes on WebEx, to give reports and watch slide lectures; we also met them weekly for online office hours.

Though all of these meetings were milestones, our activity was mostly studying books (The Startup Owners Manual and Business Model Generation); watching  training videos; and conducting extensive customer discovery (what we began at the University of Michigan back in January).

I-Corps has a five-word mantra for customer discovery: “get out of the building.” I have the impression that in Silicon Valley, where the program originated, people never leave buildings where they work so they have to be ordered out, like high-school students in a fire drill. But why?

Well, that’s complicated and could take a long time to explain. Here is a short answer: to remove “confirmation bias.” You get out of the building to interview strangers who can relieve you of confirmation bias.

And what is that odious thing you need to lose like an infection? It can have different meanings such as beliefs, common sense, passion, experience, perspective, expertise. When you get out of the building and lose confirmation bias, you gain something immeasurably more valuable: the wisdom of the commons.

Of what use is that? Well, a narrow objective of I-Corps is to write a Business Model Canvas. If you’ve ever tried to write one you know it can be tricky. That’s because its inventor, a business consultant named Alexander Osterwalder, describes it in ways that may be interpreted subjectively by miscreants who have not lost their confirmation bias. In other words, you can write a BMC that is self-expressive and unreliable. Just your damn opinion!

The commons helps prevent that. I-Corps requires each team to interview at least 100 strangers to test assumptions embedded in a BMC. The resulting BMC serves as evidence that a business idea makes sense on paper and can potentially succeed in a world like Middle-earth; or that it doesn’t, in which case it’s time to pivot.

Humaginarium interviewed 118 people, the second most in our cohort. However we did not write a good BMC. Now as we pass the Stone of Erech, a next step is to make a BMC to our satisfaction. We hate the thing, but it must be conquered and it shall.

In two months we have come through the dark caverns and arrived at our Beginning of Days. Much good work and exciting discoveries lie ahead.

Problems

Is solving the problem of health illiteracy the reason why we exist? Candidly, it is not.

I have a problem with problems. For ventures like Humaginarium, problems are supposed to be liberating, motivating, focusing, ultimately rewarding. Often they’re not. They’re merely utilitarian.

Problems make consumers feel confused, distressed, vexed. A problem is anything that isn’t right and furthermore, by being wrong, creates an unwanted opening between what is and what should be. Openings like that have costs and conceal opportunities. Unlocking hidden opportunities is the job of entrepreneurs.

Fair enough, but since the business of business is to deliver solutions rather than solve problems, it’s normal to hand off problems to engineers. Myriad kinds of engineers have just this in common: they all solve problems.

That’s why startups are called “tech” startups, led by engineers at least in the beginning. Startups launch to solve problems. That’s the gist of their value propositions to investors. This stance is brilliantly utilitarian, yet somehow incomplete and unsatisfactory.

Why? Because engineering doesn’t begin to cover the gamut of human endeavors and aspirations. I’ll go out on a limb and posit that engineering is largely irrelevant to many basic human activities.

What might those be? For starters, set technology aside and consider art and science. If you believe that arts and sciences are technical, well, you’re wrong. They use technology of course, just as industry and commerce do, but neither is utilitarian per se. Art is essentially imaginative self-expression. Science is essentially the discovery of new knowledge. Both are useless. Neither art nor science solves problems, though both satisfy deeply felt human needs.

What kinds of needs? In the case of art, the need to experience rarefied beauty and truth. That’s what drives billions of consumers to books, screens, galleries, and theaters, spending hard cash to contemplate things that are admittedly useless. In the case of science, it’s the need to apprehend contextual, mathematical, and physical truth. Both art and science enable people to perceive their place in the world, which is different from changing or improving it.

The difference between problems and needs is often glossed over by tech entrepreneurs. Could that be why 90% of startups fail? I’m not sure, but in any case Humaginarium isn’t glossing over anything; and we’re going to succeed.

Humaginarium is a tech startup, meaning that we solve a problem. We call this problem “health illiteracy”: the massive obstacle preventing most people (90% of adults) from achieving and sustaining wellness. Is solving the problem of health illiteracy the reason why we exist? Candidly, it is not.

We exist to satisfy needs. The need for a sense of well-being that doesn’t depend on being healthy or strong or smart or young or beautiful; but only on knowing precisely what you are, aware of what that means, and curious and brave enough to have fun with it.

Satisfying needs (not solving problems) is also the mission of entertainment, education, and health care. Satisfying needs drives consumers to shows and museums and consultations and classes and all sorts of adventures.

Speaking of adventures, my recent hike to the Burgess Shale did not solve a single problem, mine or anyone else’s. It simply satisfied needs that somehow made me appreciate my “wonderful life” and the world I live in. That is the benefit users will get from Humaginarium, whether or not their problems are solved.

Jean_Léon_Gerome_1896_La_Vérité_sortant_du_puits_2

Scientific entertainment. Variation on The Cock Fight, by Jean-Léon Gérôme

Stakeholders

We’re using a few individuals to form a lens on problems, needs, and solutions that belong under the heading of health literacy.

Right now Humaginarium is listing, vetting, and scheduling stakeholder interviews in the ramp-up to our I-Corps Summer Cohort. At least 100 interviews that we’ll conduct and analyze from mid July until late August. Who are the people we’re going to meet, and why do they deserve all that bandwidth?

First the why. Stakeholders are a clue train. Some are interested in the causes and consequences of health illiteracy, and want to see it reduced. Some are interested in the social impact of digital art, and want to make it pervasive. Some are interested in emergent learning technology, and want to make it engaging and far-reaching. Thus our stakeholders cut across big industries: life science, health care, entertainment, education. Each is a sparkling light on a dark horizon, guiding us to safe harbor for our market.

Now the who. We’re listing scientists, clinicians and other health care workers, health organizations, participants in the health care supply chain, patient advocates and patients themselves (like the young woman who inspires this startup). We’re listing consumers of video games, software engineers and tool vendors, digital artists, storytellers, media producers, cloud vendors, and professional associations in the entertainment industry. Plus we’re listing a variety of marketers, educators, and regular folks who consume online information. Together these stakeholders make up a vast popular culture that surrounds, involves, and strongly influences our customers.

This who is a big chunk of the adult population. In one sense that’s encouraging, because it suggests we have a lot of stakeholders and a huge market opportunity. In another it’s discouraging and distracting because our who is way too large. It makes us look like Atlas holding up the world: an image that’s impossible to fathom commercially.

To escape this conundrum, we’re following the example of favorite artists by putting on blinders. After all, Rembrandt didn’t paint every burgher in the Netherlands to get at his truth; he painted just a few. Shakespeare didn’t tell the story of every British monarch to get at his truth; he dramatized just a few.

We will likewise get at our truth by interviewing around 100 stakeholders. They will become our lens on problems, needs, and solutions that define a new market for health literacy. This lens will help us decide where to begin building Humaginarium, precisely what to build first, how to deploy and scale, and ultimately why ours is a mission that must not fail. For the benefit of investors of course; and also for the benefit of millions of consumers across the United States and maybe beyond.

Literacy

All consumers need is a nudge at just the right times, in just the right ways, to change from a hapless ignoramus into a hero of their own life story.

We’re making a market for health literacy. Say whaaat? I’ll parse that claim.

Every market is a space for commerce. Where buyers with certain needs look for sellers to satisfy them. Humaginarium is making a market for health literacy and selling in it. This market hasn’t existed before; we’re not improving on some mediocrity in the health care industry. Ours will be the first and most likely the best market for health literacy for a very long time to come.

A glance at the dictionary reminds us that health may be many things; or maybe nothing after we think about it. That’s because everybody wants or claims to be “healthy” but nobody ever is. Our real lives compare to the paragon of health somewhat like our appearance compares to models in Vogue magazine. Without thinking deeply about it, personal health is a state of mind more than a condition.

Humaginarium doesn’t buy that conceit of popular culture. Health for us is tangible, not ethereal: it’s physical well-being. Health is the state of a body within the normal range growth and decay over time. Mind you, normal isn’t necessarily good; it’s actually more like meh when it’s not dreadful. That may be why many healthy people are troubled by their bodies while the unhealthy try not to think about it.

Bringing this down to the level of how we live versus what we’re taught to believe, for most of us health is merely shorthand for the ability to function. “How are you?” “I’m good.” (I may have a tumor the size of a grapefruit in my bowels, but forgetaboutit, “I’m good.”) Most of us run our bodies the way we run our cars, with minimal preventive maintenance and no clue what’s under the hood. Works great until it doesn’t. Then we find a mechanic or doctor for expensive and inconvenient repairs.

Now for the most important word in our syntax. Basic literacy is the ability to read. From reading we get knowledge, from knowledge we get competence or the ability to do things. Few people care about reading for its own sake (and no one knows this better than a jaded English professor). But most people put a very high value on the utilities of literacy. Literacy makes people smart and capable, maybe effective and successful too.

Health literacy is a variation on the textual kind. It’s the ability to read a body, develop insight into its condition and needs, make shrewd choices for or about it, and consequently become its good steward. Those who have health literacy are competent consumers and patients. They engage in preventive maintenance and clinical care, and are eager to learn what’s under their skin. Those who don’t have health literacy check their look in the mirror and say, “I’m good, forgetaboutit.”

Only 10% of American adults have health literacy. The other 90% can’t read their bodies worth a damn. Compare this with 80% of Americans who read the newspaper and email, books and blogs. How can this be? Why can 80% of adults understand the enormously complex fantasy of The Lord of the Rings while only 10% can comprehend the physical reality of their own bodies?

Believe it or not, no one has asked that question until now. While the health care industry bets big on scientific breakthroughs, nobody is asking the more important question: “How about regular folks like you and me?” Can they become good stewards of their bodies and stop running to mechanics every time a weird sound comes from under the hood?

Yes, they can, and they will, but no mechanic is going to do it for them. All they need is a nudge at just the right times, in just the right ways, to change from a hapless ignoramus into a hero of their own life story. The nudge isn’t coming from health care. It’s coming from Humaginarium.

SBIR Phase 0

We’ll join the I-Corps Summer Cohort in New York in July 2018.

2018 is becoming our Year of I-Corps. Made possible by the National Science Foundation and a program innovation known as SBIR Phase 0.

  • SBIR stands for Small Business Innovation Research
  • Phase 0 prepares qualified startups for a Phase 1 SBIR grant

Our Phase 0 boot camp in January was a Customer Discovery course run by the Midwest I-Corps Node at the University of Michigan. Great experience! We discovered much about our business ecosystem and even more about our capacity to deliver.

After boot camp the Midwest Node facilitated our application to SBIR Phase 0. We’ll join the I-Corps Summer Cohort in New York City starting in July. Phase 0 includes seven weeks of intensive customer discovery and related business formation supported by the new I-Corps Go Entrepreneur Assistance program.

Boot camp convinced us that it’ll be best to start Phase 0 before it formally begins. We actually began preparing in February and will continue right up until the kickoff meeting in July. By that time we’ll have enumerated many of our critical success factors; written our business, technical, scientific, and clinical assumptions to test with stakeholders; and made a balanced, vetted list of over 100 scheduled interviews around the United States. Rather than leave New York at the end of the kickoff meeting, we’ll stay to conduct stakeholder interviews in the metropolitan area.

Two members of our team along with our industry mentor will attend Phase 0 meetings in New York and weekly online. All four founders are helping to prepare and analyze our results. One will manage the project and the process that leads Humaginarium to a December submission of a Phase 1 SBIR grant from the National Science Foundation.

Boucher

Scientific entertainment. Variation on Ruhendes Madchen, by François Boucher