Content

Content begins on the outside and ends up inside.

With written briefs and schedules flourishing in the rear view mirror, we’re beginning our approach to another early milestone: content. That word seems to mean everything and nothing at the same time. Let’s dispel the ambiguity.

In my view, content derives from information. It happens like this.

  1. Information is sculpted into communication
  2. Communication is rendered as media
  3. Media promote experience
  4. Experience is distilled into ideas
  5. Ideas are summoned into knowledge
  6. Knowledge is the safe harbor of content.

Phew! If all that is true, then it’s fair to say that content begins on the outside and ends up inside. Content bends the objective to the whims of the subjective. It starts as facts and finishes as perception. Content is what we think we know and what we think we can use to achieve our aims. Content bestows power.

Our briefs claim that the streaming content of Diabetes Agonistes is formed from six tributaries: biology, chemistry, psychology, environment, community and aesthetics. Biology and chemistry: these are scientific, decidedly factual. Psychology is less scientific because it is more tolerant of speculation and ideology. (I think therefore I am? Arguable. I am therefore I think? Indubitable!) Environment is the physical world that supports or harms life, and is very scientific. Community is the moral world of connections and relationships, interdependence and conflict: dynamic, metamorphic, cultural. Aesthetics are the human spirit, a force field that makes the cosmos personally meaningful, for better or worse.

All of these tributaries form the almighty stream of content in our project. Our schedule says we will survey the stream by July 2020, in time for designers to paddle its churning rapids, keeping us onboard as we twist and bobble onward.

Our first step of content discovery is to create a framework: the loose contours of information that we gather way upstream, in the placid pools of scholarly and popular literature. We do this to appreciate how others understand human metabolism, healthy and otherwise.

Framework in hand, we interview a gaggle of subject-matter experts in several disciplines: asking them questions about the literature, uncovering leads to additional information that we missed in our framework, learning how to bend information to the learning objectives of our curriculum.

Yes, our curriculum, because even though the thing we are making is a drop-dead gorgeous, butt-kicking, soul-riveting video game, under its covers it will be a competence builder; it will not teach, but will prompt and empower people to learn.

After the interviews, a great slog begins. The slog is a spreadsheet Topic Index. Word by word, row by row, an inventory of accurate and useful information that users may turn into knowledge while playing our video game — whether or not they want to. In fact we know they won’t want to and that’s why we won’t tell them they’re learning. Instead we’ll encourage them to feel they are winning, which after all beats learning in any head-to-head competition.

Once our Topic Index is written, we may rest. Our labors regarding content will be finished for the time being. We will set it aside and turn full attention to the next milestone: a technical marvel we call evaluation website.

The evaluation website is a test bed for our modular proof of concept, of which an elaborate simulation and a competency model are very important parts. Why mention them in this post about content? Because the content we delineate in the Topic Index will be plowed into the simulation and the model long before they see the light of day in a video game. The evaluation website is where stakeholders in our success will observe, manipulate, and comment on the content we have mustered for their immediate enjoyment and lasting benefit.

Scientific entertainment. Le Repos (1911) by Félix Edouard Vallotton, pictured with neurons that may be firing in the model’s limbic system as her friend approaches with a glass of milk and a cookie.

Briefs

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow?

For the poet TS Eliot, April was the cruelest month. For Humaginarium, it wasn’t too shabby. It began with completion of a grant proposal and ended with a synoptic schedule and briefs for our project. We did exactly what we said we would do, and that feels nice. Hopefully a sign of things to come.

The project schedule spans 28 months, from approval of our Phase 1 Project Pitch to completion of our Phase 2 proposal. The blocks of planned activities are:

  1. Proposal development: 12 months (43%)
  2. Project preparations: 6 months (21%)
  3. Research and development: 9 months (32%)
  4. Phase 2 proposal: 1 month (4%)

Six months of slack time are anticipated, three of which we’ve already used. Slack time buffers the impact of uh-oh pivots and koala-like performance.

Our project preparations kicked off on April 6. By September 30, we’ll have devised a detailed schedule in MS Project that allocates 33 professionals and 2,000 testers to a hierarchy of tasks that aggregate in five complex, glorious, interdependent milestones. This glorious amalgam is our modular proof of concept: empirical evidence with a direct bearing on our next project starting on January 4, 2022.

The briefs are 3-4 page orientations for members of our professional cohort. They cover all the major bases of on-ramp:

  1. Content brief
  2. Creative brief
  3. Curricular brief
  4. Evaluation brief
  5. Office brief
  6. Scheduling brief
  7. Technical brief

The briefs are not restatements of our proposal, but narrative seasonings for kicking it up a notch. Since the subject matter of the briefs has been top of mind for a full year, they were surprisingly hard to write. Hopefully easy to read.

Their overarching theme may be quoted from the technical brief. It applies to everything we’re doing from now on:

Innovative popular systems are the technology of this project. We also have lofty and arguable philosophical, social and economic ideas, but the project is not about them. It is technical and pragmatic. Our only job is to demonstrate that the systems we plan to build are feasible.

The content brief concerns six classes of information that will be mustered for our simulation: biology, chemistry, psychology, environment, community and aesthetics. These data are the knowledge that we impart to users without uttering a word. Like magic.

The creative brief concerns art and entertainment. It says our greatest invention is a way to make science and education more palatable and engaging to those who couldn’t care less. It claims that Humaginarium is the most fun you can have with your body. And we mean it!

The curricular brief says that our video game inculcates a competency model that makes healthy choices and healthy habits likely, if not inevitable. There’s no teacher. Experience teaches! Our technology merely facilitates. Users get to be thank god-almighty free at last.

The evaluation brief concerns the website we will build in the digital public square to demonstrate our technical and aesthetic wizardry. Thousands of people may drop by and leave feedback, and while there enter a lottery for valuable prizes. Money can’t buy me love? Not.

The office brief describes our virtual office, which is actually our Business G Suite account with twinkling lights, glass balls and tinsel. It explains how colleagues around the United States will receive assignments, post work and get paid. Work happens, meetings are ad hoc.

The scheduling brief explains our techniques of project management that somehow combine careful planning, practically unlimited flexibility and iron-clad budgeting. We want to know how and when everything will happen, and yet not mind of it doesn’t work out that way. Zen.

The technical brief is the one I was afraid to write, because it is technical and I am not. However it pleased technical lead Dave Walker so I’m more relaxed after all. Feasibility is the gist of this brief. It poses many of the questions we must answer well to qualify for Phase 2.

So then, April at least in this case has not been the cruelest month. You may ask along with the poet, “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow Out of this stony rubbish?” I will tell you now. They are the seedlings of health literacy, health acumen, and medical self-efficacy for patient sufferers who may not, who cannot be fooled again, because soon they will know better.

Scheduling

Plans are containers for snappy bits.

“It is a curse having the epic temperament in an overcrowded age devoted to snappy bits!” That’s me thinking about Humaginarium in 2020 — quoting JRR Tolkien thinking about The Lord of the Rings in 1944.

Both projects (his and mine) are gigantic and erudite, yet made for untutored masses with purportedly short attention spans. How odd! Both are outlandish and amusing, steeped in adult fantasy and occult imagery, yet each feels natural and familiar to regular folks who are purportedly empirical and pragmatic. How peculiar! Tolkien’s project characterized the deranged evil that threatened himself, his family and friends and civilization. Mine models poorly controlled illness that threatens me, my family and friends and civilization. How curious! Nobody paid Tolkien to devote years of his life to his project. He was merely asked to write a sequel to a successful children’s book. Nobody has paid me to persist in my project after my first successful startup, yet I do. How strange!

We both know why. Epic undertakings occur because their makers want them, not because “users” or “customers” demand or even expect them. The efforts such undertakings require are their own sweet reward, not a down payment on fame and fortune that may never come. Large, innovative projects have no ulterior motive. They truly exist for their own sake, though makers may want them to change the world a little, for the better: in my case to make it a happier and healthier place to live, in Tolkien’s to justify a personal commitment to virtue in a fallen world. When makers work hard, great things may come about. It’s just possible. On the other hand their projects may fail, they may give up and turn back. When that happens, problems like evil and illness may become even harder to fathom, as though the human spirit perceives them and doesn’t care. The fallen world doesn’t change, but its problems do. They grow worse.

An epic temperament is all very well. It’s the mother of invention. It kept Tolkien going and keeps me going more conscientiously than orders and lucre ever have. What makes the temperament a curse is not the inspiration, but the perspiration. The curse of snappy bits: pesky details of how and when things will be made. As avaricious angels — who may have never had an original idea of their own — are fond of saying to makers: “ideas are basically worthless.” Execution matters. Stuff has value. If it doesn’t sell it doesn’t count.

Stuff rarely just happens. It must be inspired, ideated, investigated, planned, prepared, washed-dried-ironed-folded, assigned, designed, developed, tested again and again, repaired and refined and finally launched — or at least saddled and walked out of the barn. Tolkien did that with The Lord of the Rings. He not only wrote and typed and recited his story again and again for years before it was printed. He also wrote a “history” of the different world in which his story unfolds; he invented languages spoken there, animated deities adored and feared there, empowered supernatural laws and fierce traditions that shaped reality there; and he created newfangled geography, morphology, astronomy and physics so his story would make perfect internal sense to every one of the purported nincompoops who would eventually buy and read his very long and complicated novel. He did all of this not to please them, but to please himself and a few individuals he loved. He had no customers or bosses or investors or contracts, so he made The Lord of the Rings in his spare time after work while raising a family, and gardening, and fixing the plumbing, and running errands on his bicycle. How impractical! What a stupendously foolish way to create one of the most beloved and best selling stories of all time! If only there had been an Innovation Corps or incubator or creative writing program to show him how to do things the right way!

Tolkien and I planned our respective projects. Plans are containers for snappy bits. They tell makers what will be done, by when, for how long, by whom, with what results. Plans are details of execution: how an epic temperament actually makes the things it wants.

Unlike Tolkien, my plan is a schedule. Correction: right now it is the outline of a schedule. Relatively little is scheduled just yet, just enough to inform the National Science Foundation how my execution will play out. For this reason, Dave Walker and I have begun writing a proper schedule: him in Microsoft Project, me in Merlin Project. What snappy bits may our schedule contain? Here’s what I know:

  1. The project is named Diabetes Agonistes
  2. The start date is April 4, 2020
  3. It has three phases: preparatory, generative, evaluative
  4. Preparatory ends no later than September 2020
  5. Generative and evaluative end no later than June 2021
  6. The schedule involves 24 credentialed professionals
  7. It also involves 2000 online testers (the “nincompoops”)
  8. The project produces evidence rather than product
  9. Evidence lowers the risks of product development that follows
  10. Evidence is collected in five milestone deliverables
  11. Milestone deliverables cohere in a modular proof of concept
  12. The project allocates cash of $233,613 and equivalent sweat equity

The preparatory phase, which we’re in now, produces our detailed project schedule, two websites, seven briefs, and an ineluctable sense that the epic temperament of Humaginarium is mastering the snappy bits and throwing off a nagging curse, in our overcrowded age: turning “worthless ideas” into treasure worthy of Khazad-dûm.

Writing

George Mallory had similar thoughts, standing at the foot of Mount Everest.

One year to write 20 pages! That is how long they took. Even for me — the slowest of the slow, the latest of the late — this is a personal best. How did it take so long?

Easier question: why didn’t it take longer? Answer: because there was a time limit imposed by somebody else. A timer was set in April 2019, giving me no more than one year to finish or be damned. Not liking the eternal-infernal option, I finished my writing with precisely four days to spare (phew).

Same sort of thing happened in 1975, when I “finished” (i.e. stopped) my doctoral dissertation in English Letters at the end of a fifth year living in the UK. There is evidently something about limits that makes me want to exceed or at least ignore them, as long and as much as possible.

My recent year of writing was an NSF SBIR Phase 1 proposal. Together with documentation it turned out to be 10 x 20 pages, but the Pareto principle applies to just those measly 20 pages comprising the Project Description and Technical Discussion of a game changer known as Diabetes Agonistes.

The National Science Foundation does very nice things for aspirants and martyrs who want to cross the chasms of technical innovation. They carefully publish an explicit Solicitation telling applicants how to write a proposal; and they reinforce the Solicitation with a Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide that kind of “tells ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em” — with more detail in different words. They further reinforce those helpful documents with myriad web pages of procedural, referential, social and historical information that strikes aspirants with awe and turns some of them into martyrs. Reading this stuff feels a bit like gazing at a Himalayan summit from a safe distance and thinking, “it’s not that tall after all.” All told, there are hundreds of fact-packed government pages that are not only helpful, but also debilitating. Even for me, a person who loves reading for its own sake, that textual mountain was a lot to take in. Consequently much of my year spent writing was actually devoted to getting ready to write and then afterwards checking to make sure that my text was complete and compliant with standards. Even now I’m not sure that it is. The summit is shrouded in mist, and there is a throbbing red glow within it.

As usual with anything related to health care (e.g. Diabetes Agonistes), there is a way to leapfrog the labor by delegating it, with cash. You can hire a consultant, one who is well versed in government documents, as your sherpa. The consultant tells you what to write, and when to write it, and how to revise it until it is ready for primetime. Alternatively, you can hire a consultant as your ghostwriter and project manager: a magus who will use you as a subject-matter expert, write a splendid proposal for you to sign, and afterwards (if successful) manage the entire project for a reasonable fee.

I considered consultants. I attended a two-day workshop hosted by one of the best, and interviewed four others who came highly recommended. I chose not to engage one because (idiot that I am) I wanted to learn and master this writing process myself. I felt there is no text in the English language that I can’t wrestle to the mat (hubris), and if I don’t do the heavy lifting myself, I won’t do all the necessary thinking either. Then I would lose an ineffable chance to experience something new: crossing one of the wider chasms of technical innovation. I’m sure that George Mallory had similar thoughts, standing at the foot of Mount Everest.

Apart from reading and processing freight cars full of documentation, another cause of my slowness was poetics (so-called). Hard as it may be for readers of this blog to believe, I am very careful about every word I write, often writing them over and over in different ways until they sort of chime in my ear and look good to my eye. For this reason, what I want to express is perhaps 30% of my writing. Wordsmithing is 70%. The nutty thing about that is, my subject matter here for the most part is technology, and literary style is certainly not one of the criteria for evaluation of my proposal. Nonetheless, I can’t help myself. My muse insists.

As soon as my writing job was done a few days ago, I turned to (what else?) more writing. I quickly wrote a Project Pitch for educational technology that may bend the curve of COVID-19. Fascinating proposal which will go nowhere, of course, but deserved to be written. Then I started writing an SBIR Phase 1 proposal for the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, one of the National Institutes of Health. And also began writing a series of briefs for the NSF project team, in case that proposal isn’t kicked out like a stray dog.

Will I set a new record for slowness with NIH? I think not. Having practiced and sort of mastered the process of parsing technical documentation with NSF, I am likely to cross the next chasm like a hare rather than a tortoise. I will certainly let you know when that happens.

Scientific entertainment. Female nude, back view (1831), by Alexandre-Jean Dubois-Drahonet. Pictured with coronavirus on the prowl.

Checklist

Putting my nose to the grindstone for Humaginarium

During the past week of travel in Scotland, I was reminded every day of The Checklist Manifesto, the book by Dr. Atul Gawande that recommends the use of checklists in complex situations like an OR or airplane cockpit. For years I’ve used the Wunderlist app to make and manage lists of practically everything I set out to do. I don’t know if I could function these days without it! Even when traveling last week, starting each day with a neat list on my phone of goals to accomplish, whether large or small, and ending the day by making a fresh list; well, there is nothing more satisfying than that – except maybe a wee glass of Aberlour A’Bunadh before a hearty dinner of Scotch chicken and leek pie.

My checklist for the next four months is going to be broken down into daily milestones that I must meet before I turn in each evening. I am coming to the start of a nasty nose-to-the-grindstone quarter for Humaginarium, exciting and dreadful at the same time.

Wait, isn’t that what every quarter is like for a startup? Well no, not for this one. I love keeping lists, but I also love “slack time”: leaving plenty of play in every day for work that is not consciously goal-oriented; for example, writing this blog. My most satisfying accomplishments are often randomly inspired and unplanned. Alas, there won’t be much of that for the rest of this year.

My top priorities are to finish writing two grants – one to the NSF, the other to the NIDDK – for Phase 1 SBIR funding of R&D. The grants are more than seed funding; they are blueprints for an enterprise that will ascend in 2020 like a hot air balloon, with me and my colleagues in the basket holding on for dear life. I’ve been working on the grants for a while, but somehow not taking them seriously enough. They have not been properly committed to checklists! Now the time has come to get very serious. These grants are not quick wins or slam dunks. They require meticulous planning and writing, the kind I can do when I’m not enjoying myself very much. Oh well, nose-to-the-grindstone.

In the same period I will also facilitate a new cohort of experiential learners at the Northern Illinois University College of Business. These undergraduate business majors will be directed by Humaginarium and a team of financial consultants in Chicago and San Francisco who like what Humaginarium is doing with health promotion and video games. We’re going to study and make better sense of things like valuation and commercialization, if that’s not biting off too much between now and the end of the year.

A different cohort is likewise forming as I write this, one with enormous potential value if managed well. It’s a Circle of Industry Advisors including corporate stakeholders at provider, supplier and payer organizations who are strategically committed to my four pillars: health promotion, health education, health literacy and health equity. You know, the important stuff that I care so much about, but is hard for most folks to monetize even in their heads. The stakeholders will help ensure that Humaginarium moves the needle of population health in ways that industry endorses. I am not looking for funding from the Circle, just knowledge and brand equities.

That is an overview of my current checklist. Will I do just this and nothing more? Well, there’s one more little thing that may be added. Humaginarium was asked to create an innovative module of continuing medical education for practitioners of a medical specialty. I’ve been slow to take this up because it doesn’t feel particularly altruistic; in other words, it’s work for a fee and it isn’t likely to change the world for the better.

For reasons unknown to me at the present moment, altruism has become almost a filter that I use to evaluate opportunities. This is very strange, to put it mildly. It may be because I am painfully alienated by the economics of American health care. They are pretty disgusting and dispiriting, and I don’t like getting my hands soiled with them.

Yet the prospect of making boatloads of money from consumers with health problems is a key driver of Humaginarium. I’d better put that goal on a checklist so I can chunk it down to bites I can swallow, maybe with the help of Aberlour A’Bunadh.

Green Light Redux

Two federal agencies have invited us to request SBIR Phase 1 funding.

I’m taking a break from game design this week to talk about progress on another front.

Back on April 10, I announced that the National Science Foundation approved Humaginarium’s Project Pitch. Today I’m announcing that the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases has approved our Specific Aims. Two US federal agencies have thus invited Humaginarium to apply in 2019 for substantial, non-dilutive, SBIR Phase 1 funding. In my opinion, that’s cool!

Specific Aims is a single page argument that our groundbreaking idea for biomedical innovation is a good fit for NIH support; and that it’s a good candidate for commercialization. I dubbed the idea Metabolic Genii.

In popular culture, a genie is Robin Williams magically springing from a bottle to make jokes and grant wishes. I’m fine with that; it fits our brand well enough, but the word genie is actually more meaningful. It’s a variant of genius, and a genius (plural: genii) is an attendant spirit: a force that influences actors for better or worse.

Metabolic genii are digital affordances that empower folks who have or risk developing metabolic disorders. The genii enable them to inquire what’s up with their bodies and gain a bit more control over their medical outcomes.

Like any genius worthy of that moniker, metabolic genii are extremely creative. Ours are creative like scientists rather than sorcerers. They intelligently pan for the personal gold in every individual they meet, ultimately enabling users to feel a little like Aladdin, with wishes that now make a lot more sense and eventually may come true.

The terminal objective of our Specific Aims is a set of six precise, repeatable techniques that reliably convert basic health literacy (acquired in a separate project) into resolute behavior. These six techniques are drawn from a social science palette that includes situational awareness, choice architecture, scenario planning, nudge theory, decision science, and reinforcement theory of motivation. According to my reading of research literature, these powerful and accessible affordances have never been synced to produce sustainable medical outcomes. We’re about to sync them in order to discover what happens next.

What do we expect to happen next? Empowerment. Users will demonstrate their ability and desire to make evidence-based decisions about illness and wellness; and furthermore make those decisions as sticky as flypaper. Sound easy? Sorry, it’s never been done before. That may be why health education mostly doesn’t work. At all.

Who is going to benefit from this project? Of course Humaginarium and its investors will benefit, but more importantly 60% of the adult population stands to benefit. That is the proportion who already have a poorly controlled chronic illness (the numbers are increasing). That’s also the proportion who play video games, the medium we are using to generate basic health literacy (and yes, those numbers are increasing too).

What will our R&D be like? It begins with a re-review of secondary research that bears on our terminal objective. From there it takes the form of agile discovery. We are not going to think this problem to death. Instead we shall design activities that a large number of experts and ordinary consumers can experience and comment with feedback. Each of these activities generates data that indicate efficacy and flow into other parts of the Metabolic Genii system.

Our Phase 1 research and development yields proof-of-concept of this system; and verifies its theoretical efficacy. If results are encouraging, we will migrate our hardening techniques into a Phase 2 design-build-test-deploy project. At that point, our world begins to resemble an oyster.

Metabolic Genii and it’s counterpart Diabetes Agonistes are now as two horses pulling a chariot named Humaginarium. Our chariot isn’t racing against competitors; there is none working at our level. We’re racing against time. We want to stymie metabolic disorders and other chronic illnesses as quickly and as soon as possible.

Click here to read the Specific Aims.

Worth

Worth doesn’t show up in a value proposition; it’s under the radar.

My recent investigation of pre-money valuation yields a number: $3 million. That is the current hypothetical value of Humaginarium: pre-grant, pre-investment, pre-product and pre-revenue.

Like any good hypothesis, this one’s just a reasonable guess. It’s based on the parameters of four valuation methods: Berkus, Risk Factor Summation, Scorecard, and Economic. I also took into account the informed opinions of skeptical or auspicious advisors; and factored in the lasting value of cash and intangible assets given to, or generated by, Humaginarium as it bootstraps.

So what’s next after this valuation exercise? There are five steps related to valuation in the foreseeable future:

  1. Ask federal agencies for SBIR seed funding
  2. Ask select companies for dedicated industry knowhow
  3. Ask other companies for transactional corporate sponsorship
  4. Ask select foundations for program-related investments
  5. Ask investors for private equity

I estimate that these five asks may increase early-stage valuation (pre-revenue) to just under $10 million – an amount that seems sufficient to develop, test and launch awesome MVPs that generate serious revenue.

Yet not all of Humaginarium’s value can be measured in dollars and cents. The company exists not to make money, after all, but to promote health literacy and empower self-care. I believe it’ll make a lot of money because our business idea is meaningful and strikingly, uniquely commercial. But it doesn’t exist just to make money. For that reason, I want for a word that connotes value the way I think about it. That word may be “worth.”

The dictionary defines worth and value almost as synonyms, and often that’s how they’re used. But not by me. I associate value with benefit. Whether you’re a consumer or investor, the value of Humaginarium is the benefit you may get from it. Such benefits may be aesthetic, behavioral, educational, financial or some combination of these gimmes. A notable example: adults with a chronic illness have fun while learning stuff that improves their lifestyle and lowers their spend on medicine. That’s four concurrent, measurable benefits. Another example: investors own a monumentally creative solution while working with a brilliant team on the cutting edge of several advanced technologies as they head for an exit of 20x their original stake. That’s four concurrent, tangible benefits. According to my projections, Humaginarium is valuable.

Still, the way I think about it, value is not enough. Humaginarium also has to be worthy. This is nuanced, please bear with me. I associate worth with merit. Unlike value, merit isn’t what people take out of Humaginarium, but what they plow into it. Whether they’re a founder, employee, advisor, investor or business partner. merit is the quality and excellence they impart to the venture. This principle even applies to consumers who are often cutthroat when it comes to spending their hard-earned dough. They want more than their money’s worth! So I unlocked the front gates by welcoming consumers into Humaginarium for free; not just into the foyer but free to roam the whole house. The attention they give, the devotion they consequently pay to their own marvelous bodies, the merit they enact when they radiate the insights of Humaginarium, that’s what I mean by worth.

Worth doesn’t show up in a customer value proposition; it’s under the radar of value. Worth shows up in the pride that Humaginarium makes people feel, the honor it bestows on them, the belief that what they’re doing – researching, making, investing, selling, using – really matters in real life and in the brave fantasies of an unshackled imagination.