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

Democratization

The tools of Humaginarium are collectively known as health literacy.

Our recent pivot from video game developer to market maker has lots of ramifications. Remember our motive was to match the speed and scale of operations with the opportunity that lies before us. Yet the more we think about it, the more we realize that the pivot changes everything. It re-frames us as a My Space of wellness.

Chris Anderson has a word for this: democratization. “Transformative change happens when industries democratize, when they’re ripped from the sole domain of companies, governments, and other institutions and handed over to regular folks.”

What industry are we aiming to democratize? What’s being handed over, and to whom?

The industries that matter to us are entertainment, education, and health. Thanks to thousands of companies like YouTube and Wikipedia, the first two of those industries have already been democratized. Not health though.

The health industry is not a democracy, but a syndicate of institutions (clinics, providers, payers, manufacturers, universities, agencies). The customers of this syndicate are not consumers or patients, but fellow institutions. This partly explains why consumers feel that health care is costly and dysfunctional while institutions keep increasing the costs and chaos.

A “market for health literacy” is what we’ve always said about Humaginarium, only greater. It’s where communities of interest get the health education they want, in the ways they want and can use it, from as many “teachers” as there are points of view. By teacher we mean experts with scientific and medical proficiency, and communicators with artistic talent; and we also mean peers who have learned from the greatest teacher of all: personal experience. The market we make is where “regular folks” enjoy and learn from others; and co-create insights with others; and endow others including experts with the gift of their own knowledge and perspective.

Chris Anderson goes on to observe that “We all have our own needs, our own expertise, our own ideas. If we are all empowered to use tools to meet those needs, or modify them with our own ideas, we will collectively find the full range of what a tool can do.”

The tools of Humaginarium are collectively known as health literacy. There’s no central store or world market for these tools that speaks in the vernacular of regular folks rather than the jargon of institutions. At least, there hasn’t been until now. Stand back, we hear the rumble of Shadowfax approaching!

Value Proposition

Our pivot gives credence to our value propositions. It lets us promise meaningful results.

Our recent pivot from producer to market maker is a paradigm shift. Though it preserves and even strengthens vision, it also re-frames everything we call execution: what we do and how we do it. CSFs like speed and scale can now emerge from the mist and glisten in the light of certainty.

Another outcome of the pivot is a good value proposition. This is the central pillar of a Business Model Canvas, the holy grail of tech startups, the secret sauce of innovation, and maybe the hardest thing to get just right. In our case it’s taken years of ideation that resembled a blind search under the Lonely Mountain.

So then, returning to early drafts of our Business Model Canvas, the pivot prompted us to replace one rickety post holding up a low roof with five flying buttresses reaching for the stars. One new value proposition for each class of stakeholders in our venture:

Customer Value Proposition
Making health literacy easy, fun, useful, and rewarding; and making wellness a reasonable choice for everybody.
Customers are buyers and users in our market.

Partner Value Proposition
Increasing access to targeted customers, developing new revenue streams, and enhancing brand equity.
Partners are producers, sponsors, and advertisers in our market.

Investor Value Proposition
Achieving superior return on investment while improving population health.
Investors are shareholders, foundations, and companies with stakes in our market.

Provider Value Proposition
Increasing patient engagement and compliance with medical protocols; and improving outcomes that rely on patient agency.
Providers are caregivers who send patients to our market to increase insight.

Payer Value Proposition
Lowering the lifetime cost of subscribers who deliberately choose wellness.
Payers are insurers who send customers to our market to lower risks.

Our pivot gives credence to each of these value propositions. It lets us promise meaningful results to each stakeholder: promises we can reasonably expect to keep. That’s why we quoted Merry Brandybuck on our website, when speaking about those we serve:

You can trust us to stick to you through thick and thin — to the bitter end. And you can trust us to keep any secret of yours — closer than you keep it yourself. But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends.

 

CSF

A Market for Health Literacy quickly achieves social and economic impact.

Reductionism is how we promote science to non scientists. And also how we present opportunity to investors. After all a pitch deck, a commercialization plan, a valuation, a business model: all are simplifications that make innovation easier to understand and risk easier to accept.

A handy tool of reductionism is the CSF: critical success factor. Rather than feeling overwhelmed by the many ways our venture could fail, we focus instead on a few that increase the probability of success. Do we know what our CSFs are?

Reductionism itself is certainly one. By virtue of integrated modeling, simulation, game mechanics, and visualization, we think we’ve come up with powerful technology to handle reductionism efficiently. Consumers become health literate with Humaginarium because we make it fun and easy for them.

Two other CSFs are speed and scale. They mean we must:

  • Make things really fast
  • Offer many different things to a very diverse audience

Pondering these CSFs changes the role of Humaginarium. We’ve been seeing ourselves as product developers; we are pivoting into market makers.

Why? Because product developers can’t make things fast enough, with enough variety, and for enough people, to satisfy customer demand. They are relatively slow and specialized, like a tool maker that comes out with one new tool every so often; relying on it to fire up customers. This is cottage industry. A bad idea.

On the other hand, a market maker is fast and comprehensive. By making a Market for Health Literacy we (along with many other organizations and individuals) can offer a wide range of products and services, all with the common denominator of nudging consumers to wellness.

As the market maker we define standards and protocols for the marketplace. We set the bar high for things like quality and security. And we unleash the creativity and prowess of the market to fulfill our mission.

Market making somewhat follows the examples of Ebay and Amazon, Facebook and Reddit, Wikipedia and the App Store; it doesn’t follow analogs like WebMD or Lumocity. A Market for Health Literacy achieves social and economic impact of great magnitude, far greater than any product development model is likely to attain, in a relatively short time.

This paradigm shift suggests another CSF: reliability (so important in anything to do with health and science). That one’s for another discussion.

Flandrin_Jeune_homme_nu_assis

Scientific entertainment. Variation on Jeune Homme nu assis au bord de la mer, by Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin,