One Word

We in our time, in our world, can master fate with one unchanging and unfaltering word.

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.

I recalled Tolkien’s incantation during a recent marketing workshop for startups. A facilitator had been lulling me to sleep with familiar bromides about 5 Cs and 5 Ps. Then suddenly she posed a striking question! A really good puzzler that I never before tried to answer and wasn’t sure I could.

“In this challenge,” she said, “you’ll choose one word that epitomizes the difference between Humaginarium and its competitors. One word you’ll coin that others can’t credibly use. One you’ll own that others can’t easily copy. Everything in Humaginarium will sum up to it. Customers will value and love its meaning, because it’s the generative organ of your brand.”

OMG! I expected to struggle for weeks or months and eventually give it up. After all, I’ve used tens of thousands of words to discover, explain, and promote Humaginarium. Distilling my sea of rhetoric into a single sparkling drop felt impossible. I squirmed, “This is ridiculous. Who cares about one word anyway? Why not two or ten or fifty? Why does one matter?”

The incantation reveals why it matters. Follow along here, I’m unpacking an analogy. I pondered: which one of my words can rule all the others and lead inevitably to them? Which corral my verbiage into a pattern or system or way? Which bind my jabberwocky to an elegant purpose that goes deeper and wider over time but never changes or falters? Which become a beacon that guides consumers to harbors they seek? I came to believe, reluctantly, that one word isn’t impossible. It’s crucial, and I need to know what it is.

The usual suspects were plainly wrong. For example, my word can’t be functional – concerned with how Humaginarium works or is made. Words like simulative, complicated, responsive, interactive, educational, streaming, informative, personalized, adaptive, entertaining, or immersive don’t cut it. Everybody has a version of those things. Functional is not experiential; it’s merely procedural. Neither can my word be conceptual – marshmallows like a brand name, an operating principle, a core belief, a price point or business model. Conceptual is not experiential; it’s spongy. And neither can my word be metaphorical – allusive like a symbol, a token, or an invocation. Metaphorical is not experiential; it’s tricky.

My one word had to connote the wondrous thing that happens when people experience Humaginarium that doesn’t happen when they experience my competitors. The word for that is uplifting.

Uplifting is the cumulative effect of improvement. It’s growth in strength and stature, grace and capability. Uplifting manifests in biology as homeostasis; in religion as zen; in behavior as flow; in learning as vision. To be uplifting is to concentrate rather than divert attention like so much entertainment does. To inspire, embolden, make resilient and curious. Uplifting is having less to fear and more to enjoy.

Every way I look it, this word seems appropriately generative. As video game entertainment, Humaginarium is uplifting: rather than facilitate escape or denial, it returns people to the real world with more understanding and appreciation of themselves. As health education, Humaginarium is uplifting: rather than bewilder and frighten people with medical jargon, it endows them with control of a human body that suddenly makes sense and is actually quite miraculous. As a diagnostic tool, Humaginarium is uplifting: rather than outrageously prescriptive and bureaucratic like 99% of health education, it nudges people to make excellent choices in their informed self-interest. Finally above all, as a work of art Humaginarium is uplifting: it’s gobsmacking cool to look at, play with, learn from, and build on.

Thus my one word, and this is where the magical incantation breaks down. In Middle Earth the One Ring belongs to the darkness. In Humaginarium, the one word belongs to the light. I suppose elves, men, and hobbits were unequal to the solemn power of the Ring, but we in our time, in our world, can master our fate with one unchanging and unfaltering word.

Evidence

Consider a review of research on the utility of video games for education.

I’ve just finished a moiling task of compression. Mostly finished actually. I still have to incorporate feedback, but the basic job is complete. If you’re curious you can view the upshot on the Humaginarium website, in the Evidence option of the Resources menu.

Readers of this blog know that brevity is not my forte. Getting straight to the point is difficult. Why do you suppose one of my favorite novels is Tristram Shandy? The other day I dreaded hearing a venture capitalist say he won’t consider pitches that take more than a few seconds to read on his phone. Sadly, it seems easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a prolix startup to enter the kingdom of unicorns.

Where was I? Ah, compression! My task involved reading 500 pages of scholarship in a book named Computer Games and Instruction, edited by Sig Tobias and Dex Fletcher (2011). This brick-like tome reviews research on the hypothetical utility of video games for learning. More than 30 experts contributed chapters on various types of educational games, for example Jan Cannon-Bowers on games for health.

(By the way the book lacks a chapter about games for industry and commerce. Ian Bogost punted an invitation to write it, perhaps after thinking it over for a while. He asked the editors to invite me, which they did on fairly short notice. I’m not as clever as Ian so I accepted without thinking and tried – but failed – to write a brilliant chapter on video games for business. I knew there were many, believed in their utility, and had myself designed some, but I didn’t find much research to review. Neither could Sig and Dex. I eventually inferred that some companies invest ambitiously in games and gamification but the return on these investments is still uncertain. This despite the Kirkpatrick model of training evaluation.)

I digress. Though my chapter is not in Computer Games and Instruction, I admire the other contributors and consider the book a touchstone. It answers a question I’ve been asked many times, which goes something like this: “I don’t get it. Why video games?” It would be ideal if I could simply hand the book to skeptics. However VCs are not alone in their aversion to plodding. I may be the only general reader the book ever had because it’s a slog to read cover-to-cover, with numbness encroaching the cerebral cortex.

Having studied it though, my next step was to compress the scholarly evidence that is relevant to Humaginarium. I needed to set aside the academic rhetoric, the footnotes, the caveats, the attributions, the anecdotes and examples, in order to succinctly and confidently state that well-designed video games do – in fact and beyond reasonable doubt – promote learning.

I filtered the 500 pages for the gold dust: a couple dozen solid claims. I then asked several scholarly and industry experts to vet the claims, in order to root out confirmation bias and add things I may have overlooked. Each claim occupies one slide: clean black text centered on plain white background. My months of labor takes about five minutes to read and think about, but I didn’t actually create it for reading. It’s for talking.

My pitch for Humaginarium is actually not about the efficacy of video games for education. I doubt investors care about that. Instead it’s about the promise of Humaginarium to return multiples on their investment in a reasonably short period of time. I have only a few minutes to make that case in the language of numbers.

That said, a minority of investors intrigued by the numbers may want to know why Humaginarium promises to improve health literacy and empower self-care with, of all things, exciting video games. That’s when I’ll bring forth the evidence. We’ll talk about it while not looking at our phones.

Unit

The unit isn’t complicated; it’s just unprecedented and seems hard.

We’re starting to research and build a commercialization model. The job is described in a link on our new website. Select the Resources menu in the upper right corner of any page, then pick Commercialization. A 24-step method opens in a new window. It’s a little challenging to execute, so your suggestions will be very welcome indeed.

The job is supported by an experiential learning cohort at the Northern Illinois University College of Business. Humaginarium is blessed to have these smart, ambitious and personable consultants at its side.

The first hurdle we face is our unit. For those who haven’t plumbed the depths of financial analysis, a unit is an average instance of what we make and sell. We define a unit in order to estimate its economic value over time at scale. A logical, evidence-based estimate is a prerequisite for engaging investors in 2019.

So what is our unit? It’s a “bundle” of products and services that fulfills a singular purpose for consumers. That purpose is also known as our brand promise and value proposition. Our unit has four integrated components:

  • Platform
  • Game
  • Diagnostic
  • Community

Our platform tempts customers with trailers and mini-games. It frames chronic illness as the non-intuitive subject of entertainment. It offers a menu of full-scale games that are now available or coming soon. It highlights post-game components of diagnostic and community. The call to action is an invitation to create a free account. Only account owners have access to other functional components of the unit.

A game is an immersive, interactive science fiction fantasy. On desktop or mobile screens, players contest with morbidity encroaching on the human body and spirit. They search out this enemy in order to interrogate, contain, or destroy it. Meantime the enemy sets traps to foil or vanquish players. Game mechanics are mediated by a dynamic, high-fidelity simulation of human physiology. This is real biology projected into fantasy. Players have to outsmart an ingenious enemy, the product of eons of evolution, in order to win. The emphasis on cognitive skills makes this experience a puzzling strategy adventure.

Customers keep playing a game until they achieve a satisfactory goal; or switch to a different game; or choose to leave the magic ring of fantasy and cross into real life. Just outside the ring is a diagnostic that processes personal data relevant to a disease faced in the game. The diagnostic identifies risk factors. It lets customers mitigate personal risks with lifestyle and medicinal choices. It also models purported outcomes of their choices until they’re ready to cement them in resolutions. Modeling is therapeutic in that it helps customers make informed choices in light of their own self-interest.

After a diagnostic customers can join a safe social network (moderated and closed) where they assemble or join communities of interest centered on chronic illness, or game play, or objective health science; or anything else they deem useful or meaningful. Like Quora, the purpose of community is peer-to-peer learning. What’s learned in a game is applied in a diagnostic and reinforced in a community. Community is a controlled environment for meaningful self-disclosure.

All customer experience of a unit is elective. Customers may use some components and ignore others though full value comes from using all of them.

Having said all of this I now wonder, is the unit too complicated? Using the methodology in our outline, I try to answer the question with analogies. Is our unit as complicated as the computer on my desk or phone in my pocket? No, far less complicated than that. Is it as complicated as surgery or marriage? Not even close. Is it as complicated as a building by Frank Lloyd Wright, a combine by Robert Rauschenberg, or a concerto by Philip Glass? Of course not. Is it as complicated as the novels of JRR Tolkien or video games of Sid Meier? Give me a break.

The unit isn’t complicated; it’s just unprecedented and therefore seems hard. The method we use to model commercialization may demonstrate that our components are really not unprecedented, but the bundling is.

Scientific entertainment. Variation on The Wave, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

Website

A new website for investors, sponsors, advisors, business partners, and employees.

One of my 16 milestones for 2019 is an overhaul of the Humaginarium website. This will be version 3 since getting the startup off the ground. Versions 1 and 2 retailed abstractions like vision and mission; stuff that feels good but doesn’t yield much traction. Version 3 has a higher calling. It’s about products and services. What we make and sell. What consumers buy and use.

Version 3 is streamlined. It tells a simple story in big scrolling pages that answer a few basic questions:

  • What is a “Humaginarium”?
  • How does it work?
  • Who’s it for?
  • What does it cost?

A Humaginarium in this context is not an idea but a thing. I’m focused now on how our pioneering product will be made; the experience it will create; why thousands or millions of consumers may love their Humaginarium and a few may decide to pay for it; and how much value a Humaginarium is likely to have for those who build or use or share it. We’re rigging a simple version 3 story along these lines in our online shop window and will invite passersby to come in for a closer look.

A few who are intrigued may enter; when they do version 3 will be ready for them. It offers nine substantial and practical resources for potential investors, sponsors, advisors, business partners, and employees. The resources are:

  • Business Model
  • Commercialization
  • Marketing
  • Finance
  • Fundraising
  • Elevator Pitch
  • Links
  • Paper Prototype
  • Evidence

My web design challenge – familiar to every startup doing innovative things – is to describe product and market in concrete terms without saying too much or too little. Saying too much too soon may eventually force the company to abandon choices that don’t hold up over time; to stop work that isn’t well thought out and shouldn’t be continued for technical or financial reasons. The agile term for that is “pivot,” but it feels a bit like “drift.” Fine for others, but I prefer to think carefully before acting, do what I said I would do, and stay the course come hell or high water. Hence my 16 milestones and the version 3 website.

Saying too little is also a problem but for different reasons. It betrays a lack of courage, one of the qualities we’re set to kindle in consumers with a chronic illness. And saying too little lacks excitement. I believe a startup that isn’t risking a moonshot is just another small business. So I have to say enough to ignite passion without making stuff up that I suspect isn’t true. That puts the challenge somewhere between Mark Zuckerberg (fabulist) and Elon Musk (dreamer) on the path of Steve Jobs (Zenist).

I’m designing the raw materials of humginarium.com version 3 and liking how it’s coming along. Technical wizard Dave Walker will take my bricks and mortar and craft a shop with a crystal clear window facing the world. We can’t wait to hang the OPEN sign.

Contests

Corporate stakeholders like shiny new toys.

Soon after I joined the MATTER Healthcare Incubator in October, three partner organizations announced contests. None were a good fit for Humaginarium but I entered them anyway. Why? To learn more about the needs of corporate stakeholders; stretch my universal value proposition to the limit; practice my nascent pitch; and assess the competition. It was fun actually and I gained a few insights.

The partner organizations were Novo Nordisk (supplier), Advocate Aurora (provider), and Blue Cross Blue Shield (payer). Each called for innovations that serve a special interest:

  • The supplier wants to improve the treatment of diabetes
  • The provider wants to improve the quality of primary care
  • The payer wants to improve health equity in the community

Each contest attracted about 70 submissions from around the United States. I was surprised by the number and distribution because the prize in each contest was just a small amount of money. More than money though, the partners promised to commit human resources to the winners in order to advance their ideas to the next level.

As far as I can tell, I’m the only contestant who proposed a solution involving health education and literacy. Among the finalists, all of the others pitched technology that collects or generates data from patients. The data theoretically get used by clinicians to increase the speed and certainty of treatment.

The bleeding edge of these innovations is data analytics. “In God we trust, all others bring data.” Some contestants also preached the gospel of artificial intelligence. They coupled data analytics with expert systems in order to make their apps perform medical diagnosis and recommend treatments. Some contestants further broadened their scope by aggregating third-party technology into their architecture. So for example, after a patient enters a description of symptoms, the app crunches a universe of medical records and research to suggest a diagnosis and course of treatment. Assuming that you, as the patient, are sufficiently alarmed by that point because the signs point to cancer (like what often happens on WebMD), the app schedules an appointment with your doctor and calls a Lyft to get you there. You lose no time before experiencing the full curative force of our marvelous health care system. Providers capture more revenue from you, who would otherwise be oblivious to your condition; and they spend less time treating you because a lot of your health care has magically become self-serve.

I think all of the final pitches fit under a rubric of “connected health,” though there’s still a lot of variation. This overall pattern reinforced my perception that connected health is “hot” and shouldn’t be ignored in the design of Humaginarium. AI is likewise hot, but that makes me a little nervous because the science of AI is many years away from making life or death decisions about health, at least when it comes to mine. It’s a safer bet for pizza delivery. There’s a slight chance that data analytics and artificial intelligence in health care are digital lingo for “smoke and mirrors.” I doubt it, but it’s possible.

Anyway my takeaways from all three contests are:

  • Corporate stakeholders like shiny new toys
  • The top innovations solve provider problems, not patient problems
  • They want to automate health care to the extent possible
  • That pairs nicely with increasing capacity and efficiency
  • Patients themselves are objects rather than subjects of innovation
  • Self-care is a euphemism for medication adherence

Most of the finalists were pretty far along on their journey, with fully developed products, teams, pilots, partners, and customers. Thus their innovations were low risk because they were seeking support for execution rather than ideation. They have traction.

I was delighted to be the only contestant promoting health literacy, delivering health education that empowers regular folks to think like a consumer and not just behave like a patient. This brought to mind the Jungian gallery of archetypes. My brand archetype of sage is uncontested at least in these contests. The question remains though, can a sage attract investments and make boatloads of money? We shall see.

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.