Roundup

Humaginarium will keep people up at night jailing the baddies of chronic illness.

I recently shared quick impressions and opinions of meeting with the Diabetes Technology Society. I’ll begin now with a rumination that kindled slowly; then offer a roundup of other recent activities.

Concerning my passivity at DTS. Though I traveled as an NSF sponsored investigator, I didn’t hunt and gather evidence that shores up my business model. I didn’t follow the I-Corps script for customer discovery and afterwards I wondered why. Without realizing it, I may have become recalcitrant towards the empiricism of lean startup. There I was, schmoozing and kibitzing in Bethesda, getting out of the proverbial building. But instead of probing stakeholders about problems and needs, I was learning their science and taking time to ponder and reflect. Ideation and reflection are among the missing pieces of lean puzzles. Lean technique is more reactive or opportunistic than inquisitive and creative. So maybe I was reverting to form at DTS after my summertime plunge in the turbulent Mines of Moria-Newark.

Concerning revenue streams. At my poster session in Bethesda I told a diabetes drug company that it doesn’t want what Humaginarium is making. You invest in sickness, I said, but Humaginarium is an investment in wellness. They told me I was mistaken. A few days later a marketing advisor told me I was wrong. A few days after that a business mentor told me I was stupid. The net? I must restore health care companies to my customer segmentation! Why? Because two pharmaceutical executives liked the idea of Humaginarium. That counts as evidence in a lean startup. Yet I don’t want to do it! I already view health care companies as revenue streams because they are potential sponsors and advertisers. I don’t view them as customers because that, honestly, is not what they are. Think about it. They sell products and services to clinicians who care for patients, but how does that qualify them as my customers? They don’t even qualify as my business partners because their job has little if anything to do with promoting health literacy. They sell stuff to doctors but they don’t empower patients. In this light the advice I got feels unhelpful and distracting (not unusual when a startup is incubating).

Now looking beyond DTS, I recently wrote three challenge grants for support of our prototype project Diabetes Agonistes. All three were (ironically) sponsored by health care companies: big pharma, a provider system, and a payer organization. I’m not sanguine about making even the first cut in these pitches, but it’s good practice and I hope to collect a bit of useful feedback from potential sponsors and advertisers about the role of Humaginarium in the health care ecosystem. I learned yesterday about a fourth challenge grant that resonates because the corporate sponsor claims it wants to disrupt the health care industry. I’ll write that grant as well.

After returning from Bethesda I interviewed two consultants, one in Indiana and another in Michigan. They advise startups that want to apply for SBIR funding. SBIR has been a goal of Humaginarium for about a year now. We were prevented from making a December 2018 submission by nuisance factors in I-Corps. However these consultant interviews were encouraging and a good reset. Right afterwards a third consultant was recommended to me, this one in Illinois. On the basis of these inputs, Humaginarium may apply for Phase 1 SBIR at least twice in 2019: to NSF in June and NIH in September. There’s also a chance that we’ll discover other sources of government funding and foundations that make program-related investments in health education and wellness.

Still looking ahead, after the Thanksgiving holiday I’m going to visit somebody I’ve wanted to meet for years: a research scientist at UChicago Medicine who founded a studio making games for health. Though her focus is pedagogy and mine is andragogy, I am so looking forward to meeting and will write about it in a future blog. She and the medical director of LevelEx are in my gallery of local heroes.

Speaking of university, over the past few days Humaginarium became the subject of a practicum for business school students at Northern Illinois University. If enough students sign up, starting in January 2019 they and a faculty advisor will research and draft marketing and commercialization plans that bridge the abyss between entertainment and health. That bridge building is fundamentally my mission, so I am very excited about this project. I’ll ask the class to study the commercialization model of Professor Scott Meadow at the University of Chicago, which is the best thing of its kind I have seen and way better than lean templates that are more familiar among startups.

Last but certainly not least in this meandering roundup, I interviewed a quant named Richard Cross who is not looking for work but who easily gets what I’m trying to create (bless him). Our 30 minutes together were full of ideation and reflection. My kind of guy. He offered to connect me with people who can plot the kind of mathematical model that I want for consumers exploring the human body in Humaginarium. A model I can use to generate real-time scenarios of adventure, complementing the real-time scenarios of physiology that I already have with HumMod. My vision for world building in this fantasy platform is biology that truly mimics and yet improves nature. When consumers roam the miracle known as the human body, I want them to experience what exists under their skin as well as what could happen there with a braver and more skillful self at the controls. A digital engine that turns our teeny weeny Diabetes Agonistes into gobsmacking cool video games that keep people up at night jailing the baddies of chronic illness in their own bodies.

Diabetes Tech

Everybody would know what everybody else is talking about and even patients could join the conversation. Imagine that!

On November 8 I presented a poster at the Startup Company Showcase of the Diabetes Technology Society meeting in Bethesda, Maryland. The Showcase featured a variety of gizmos, most notably for monitoring and measuring risks and symptoms, enhancing delivery of medications, and managing dietary and lifestyle choices. Humaginarium uniquely made a case for diabetes education and was one of just two solutions that empower autonomous self-care.

The three-day meeting agenda listed many speakers from around the US and overseas. Most were academic, many were corporate, a few were government officials from the FDA and the NIDDK. I observed more than I understood because typical presentations were given in science lingo over PowerPoint slides that looked like pharaonic walls in the Valley of the Kings. I’m not complaining about that. If presentations were given in a vernacular over artistic images, there would be far less need for the Rosetta Stone that Humaginarium is carving. Everybody would know what everybody else is talking about and even patients could join the conversation. Imagine that!

My observations and interactions with attendees led me to this provisional conclusion: Humaginarium is making a kind of health education that doesn’t already exist for diabetes, has never been tried, makes a lot of intuitive sense to providers and payers, and complements a pervasive, relentless, seemingly desperate search for solutions that empower patients. Desperate is a strong word, but in light of the widely acknowledged catastrophe threatened by type 2 diabetes, it’s no exaggeration.

I even received encouragement from two executives with a pharmaceutical company. They so liked the idea of Humaginarium that they asked if I could make similar media for their marketing and education groups. I was amused. Before customer discovery earlier this year I had actually included B2B revenue streams in our business model, but later removed them because I learned from stakeholders that big pharma invests in sickness rather than wellness. (You may think I made that up, but it’s true.) Anyway I shared this anecdote with my DTS interlocutors and stated confidently that their company wouldn’t care for things Humaginarium is making. They politely disagreed and walked away.

To me one of the striking things about the Diabetes Technology Society meeting was an almost complete absence of educational technology. Apart from my poster, not a single other session I attended, or read about on the program, acknowledged the existence of edtech or its utility in the struggle with chronic illness. Is that because diabetes treatment and management don’t rely on health and medical education? No, it is not. Education plays an enormous role, but I sensed that educational technology doesn’t (yet). Diabetes education is still an analog business pretty much, like the conference itself, and powerful affordances of instructional systems are overlooked rather than resisted. Some of this may be for economic reasons, but my intuition is that the real reason is unawareness. The diabetes experts aren’t resisting educational technology; they just don’t know much about it and haven’t talked with a lot of people who do.

Still the knowledge and passion of conference attendees really impressed me. These are the kinds of people that I want to work with, and several stepped up to advise the Humaginarium prototype project Diabetes Agonistes! I plan to cultivate their interests and collaborate with some to create maybe the greatest diabetes education in the world so far. A portfolio of products that everyone can use, enjoy, and share when and where they want to. I know, I know, “greatest” is a strong word, but in light of the observed status quo, it’s no exaggeration.

Solving for X

We’ll have nine product portfolios with dozens of nifty products.

Size is a conundrum for startups like Humaginarium. We’re born infinitesimally small with no employees, no address, no products, no customers, and no capital. Unlike most hatchlings, we don’t even have parents to foster our growth. We start with just an idea and then a panoply of ideas as immaterial as energy. Yet somehow ideas cause startups to grow. How?

Or more specifically, how fast, how large, and to what end? The answers seem irregular and obscure to me. I listen to How I Built This, the invaluable podcast hosted by Guy Raz, and every success story is more than different; it’s unique. I attend fireside chats with VCs like Ben Horowitz and haven’t caught a whiff of the secret sauce. On the other hand experts like Ron Adner, Chris Anderson, Steve Blank, Geoffrey Moore, Alex Osterwalder, Eric Ries, and Noam Wasserman have published standard methods, tools, templates, and models to explain how startups grow, but I’m still not convinced they figured it out. For one thing, many fine entrepreneurs haven’t read their books or followed their advice. For another, many like me, who did, found it’s about as useful as scripture for writing code.

Yet growth is crucial. So I’m pondering “how I’ll build this” along lines like these. Two years ago we started at an infinitesimally small Point A. We’re now advancing to a minimally viable Point B. In a few years we’ll end up at a big Point X, when we make our way to the exit.

I know what Point A looks like. It’s the company I founded named Humaginarium LLC. We’re earnestly building Point B. It’s named Diabetes Agonistes, our very first minimally viable product with at least one paying customer (hopefully more than one). I’m using the Unit Model Method to inform the design so that it’s repeatable and scalable. Because Diabetes Agonistes has to contain DNA for transforming intellectual energy into subject matter that consumers will learn with and enjoy again and again and again. Without that, it’s just a game.

Now what about Point X? As I say, I’m working on it, but I don’t care much for cookie cutters and a unit model feels a bit like one of those. Make it once, sell it many times. That’s not for me. I want to make many things once and sell each of them many times. This ambition leads me out of the neighborhood of type 2 diabetes and into the realm of chronic illness.

To my way of thinking, Humaginarium is a safe and trustworthy place where people of all stripes go to reckon with their chronic illness, and have fun with it, and practice killing it. Starting with type 2 diabetes and ending with… what?

The answer goes something like this. Diabetes Agonistes is a product. It’s going to lodge in a product portfolio. All told we’ll have nine product portfolios in Humaginarium with dozens of nifty products. The nine portfolios are:

  1. Cancerous
  2. Cardiovascular
  3. Endocrinological (home of diabetes)
  4. Hepatic
  5. Immunological
  6. Neurological
  7. Renal
  8. Respiratory
  9. Rheumatological

Have I left out any types of chronic illness? I have indeed, but I also included enough to bound what Humaginarium is, and what it isn’t. It’s very big, huge actually, but exactly the size needed to bend the curve of the #1 cause of sickness, suffering, and death in the United States and worldwide.

If you already know that half of humanity has at least one chronic illness, and if you already know that chronic illness is our #1 killer, and if you already know what each chronic illness is, and if you already know what you can do about it, then you are much farther along than millions of regular folks who may want Humaginarium because we built something they need. Therein lies Point X.

William-Adolphe_Bouguereau_Seated_Nude_(1884)

Scientific entertainment. Variation on Seated Nude, by William Bouguereau

MATTER

I parachuted into MATTER and loved the place. It felt like an agora.

Humaginarium recently applied for membership in the MATTER Healthcare Incubator and was accepted. For the first time we’re joining a community of dreamers, thinkers, designers, and makers whose values and aspirations are pretty much the same as ours. All focused on bending the curve of health.

This milestone is an end as well as a beginning. As I applied to MATTER, I ended my membership in the Polsky Exchange of the University of Chicago, where Humaginarium started in 2016. The Polsky Exchange is a nice shared workspace on both sides of 53rd Street in Hyde Park. Location is the catch. Humaginarium is in Oak Park, Polsky is in Hyde Park, and end-of-the-world traffic is smack dab in the middle. Even the genius of Google Maps can’t make that drive tolerable during business hours and there’s no quick mass transit.

Polsky was a blessing in some ways. As a member I met four dozen mentors with varied expertise and life stories; some became friends. Most were patient folks who listened as I stumbled through lame stories of Humaginarium and asked questions ranging from naive to inane. I may have impressed (or bored) a few with my passion, but not with my ideas. For a long time I apparently didn’t know what I was doing, but I kept reading and talking my way onward. Daniel Kahneman famously explains that people think, fast and slow. I’m one of the outliers who thinks slow only, and it sometimes takes forever to actually do things.

A valuable aspect of Polsky was its partnership with MATTER. I parachuted into MATTER events and workshops as a Polsky member. They were meaningful, often inspiring, and I began to love the place. It felt like an agora jammed with philosophers, geeks, creatives, teachers, scientists, clinicians, and business people. And perhaps because MATTER isn’t an academic incubator, the atmosphere felt pretty exciting.

A thing I didn’t sufficiently recognize about Polsky and about I-Corps as well, is their roots and culture in higher ed. They’re academic institutions designed for students and faculty rather than “community members” off the street. As a dyed-in-the-wool academic, I should have realized this sooner, but I tended to take their rhetoric about “business” innovation too literally. In retrospect I would say that both programs exist to advance academic careers and commercialize institutional IP. They’re an imperfect fit for refugees from the Ivory Tower like myself.

As our new era of incubation begins, I’ll be able to enjoy a 20-minute ride on the Green Line to Clark and Lake, my stop for MATTER on the 12th floor of the Merchandise Mart in the Loop. It’s the apex for health care innovation in Chicago. See you there!

Alexandre_Cabanel_Birth_of_Venus

Scientific entertainment. Variation on The Birth of Venus, by Alexandre Cabanel

Prototype

We’ll escape the dungeon of prototype development and bask in the sunshine of MVP.

After two years of dreaming and thinking, writing and arguing, Humaginarium is getting around to making. A prototype actually! We’re coming to the job from several starting points at the same time, weaving loose threads into tapestries that tell a fabulous story.

This is our second prototype project. In the first a few years ago, when Humaginarium was no more than a sparkle in my eye, three collaborators made some beautiful pictures and movies. We tried to make a vision of health education tangible and we succeeded to some extent, but the project was backasswards. I know now that prototypes should describe structure and flow, mechanics, utility, feasibility, usability. Ours was merely storytelling. You can view pieces of it on the Humaginarium channel of YouTube. It’s no big deal.

This time around we’ll start with a Paper Prototype, and probably go no farther for a while. A Paper Prototype is rough sketches paired with design specifications. In other words, a script and a flip book or a set of storyboards explaining how Diabetes Agonistes software may work. A Paper Prototype itself doesn’t work. It just lies there making people think and think again until “fabulous” begins to stir.

Sketches are visual, so there is a visual dimension here. A Paper Prototype is more than words, but it’s not the slick CGI that we produced the first time around. Our sketches will demonstrate how people control software operations; how they interact with objects on a screen and with other players; the kinds of content they view and touch; the way objects behave when they show up and perform; how learning is fostered by entertainment; and then how new knowledge gets used beyond the fantasy, in a player’s real life.

A team of Humaginarium creatives will make the Paper Prototype. Our technical partners at AWS will offer practical advice and connect us with resources that can validate, or at least critique our designs from expert and naive perspectives. Naive because the purpose of any prototype doesn’t end with self-expression. A Paper Prototype must be shared with people like the customers we have in mind – those who love to play video games and have a chronic illness – who have no functional or economic stake in what we’re doing. Their questions and suggestions should give the “fabulous” in our Paper Prototype a boost.

The Paper Prototype will take weeks or months to finish. What then? More prototypes actually.

  • A Proof-of-Principle Prototype to demonstrate core functions in our software specifications. It may draw little more than lines, shapes, and characters on a screen, but will show that our mechanics are feasible and compelling.
  • A Working Prototype to grow out of these coding experiments. Based on iterations known as Horizontal and Vertical Prototype, we’ll get to an integrative system that can be tested and optimized.
  • A Visual Prototype that returns us to the artistic realm of storytelling, where we were a few years ago. Here we decide how things look and feel not just in sketches, but with colorful illustrations and animations.

At that point, after much exploration and decision making, we’ll leave the dungeon of prototype development and bask in the sunshine of MVP: minimum viable product. An MVP is Diabetes Agonistes all worked up (pretty much): unfinished, imperfect but ready for showtime. The MVP is given to people who play with it and offer feedback; and since they’re playing in the Cloud, their usage analytics will generate bundles of fresh insight for product optimization.

We hope that the distance between MVP and launch will be very small because by the time we get to MVP, “fabulous” will no longer be a goal. It will be a certainty.

Infrastructure

IAAS is the “how” of how things get done in the 21st Century.

Humaginarium is fascinated by Amazon Web Services. And why not? AWS is new and different. Rock solid and continuously evolving. Hard to fathom as dark energy, yet earthy and ineluctable. I see AWS as our ideal business partner, though I’ve barely begun to figure it out.

I noticed AWS last year, when the Amazon Lumberyard (beta) game engine appeared on our horizon. Lumberyard is called that because it’s for building stuff, though precisely what and how were unclear. After all beta means in-progress, unfinished, experimental, randomly documented, high-potential, go-away-and-let-me work-on-this. I didn’t even know how to ask questions about it.

Maybe for just that reason, Lumberyard had charisma. It made no overt claims, but I felt a powerful brand promise sloshing in its amniotic fluid. The kernel of an idea that high-end graphic animation and massive, immersive interactivity can be made by a small company and delivered straight from the cloud to millions of screens.

Intrigue deepened when I started reading about AWS, Amazon Game Studios, Amazon Game Tech; and attended an AWS Media and Entertainment Symposium in Los Angeles on July 31. You know, I make the point almost daily that reading is not the best way to learn (and I say that as an avid reader). Case in point: it’s quite easy to spend an afternoon reading web pages about AWS and still be mystified. Attending the Symposium in LA and then the Amazon Startup Day in Chicago on September 6 was better for me. Listening to practitioners tell how they made things, even things that have nothing to do with games or medicine or education, produced helpful insights.

After drinking from a proverbial fire hose for a year, I can suddenly step back and hold up my discovery: IAAS (infrastructure as a service). Amazon is maybe technology’s greatest example of an adage, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. IAAS is the whole of AWS. The parts are myriad ideas, people, systems, and companies that are to digital enterprise what transportation is to travel. IAAS is the “how” of how things get done in the 21st Century.

What is the whole of IAAS for Humaginarium in particular? It’s hard to overstate it. IAAS makes us feasible. It empowers us make and deliver numerous portfolios of exquisite scientific entertainment without having to beg investors for beaucoup millions in capital. It de-risks our business model and accelerates our production of things people love that they don’t already have, but which they need. It equips us for a long journey to success with a mass market, and shortens the journey with many amazing shortcuts. Most of all perhaps, it partners us with a company that shares our values and thinks the way we think, even though we have to work very hard to understand everything about it. Or maybe, because we do.

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