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.

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

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.

Positioning

Like everything we’re doing right now, the elevator story will be tried on hundreds of people.

When we have seconds to say what Humaginarium is, what is it? The answer must be straightforward and intriguing, and elicit a response. Ideally something like, “How does it work?”

Humaginarium still needs an elevator story, but doesn’t have to write it on a blank sheet of paper. There’s a template and it goes like this:

For (target customers) who (have certain needs), the (product name) is a (product category) with a (compelling reason to buy). Unlike (competitive alternatives) our product (is different and better).

Filling the blanks of that template is surprisingly difficult because much of what we think must be left out. No room! The little that gets in has allusive meaning that stirs the imagination and doesn’t cotton to analysis. For that reason an elevator story is a little like poetry.

Few people can write good poetry, or understand it for that matter. Nonetheless we go where angels fear to tread: into the Shark Tank. Here’s what we have so far:

For adults 18 and older who worry about medical unknowns, Humaginarium is video games that increase health literacy and self-awareness; making people good stewards of their bodies. Unlike ordinary entertainment and education, it nudges people to wellness.

Not great, but not too shabby. Like everything we’re doing right now, the elevator story will be tried on hundreds of people from all walks of life. It’s not positioning per se, but a starting position.

Mature

Who the customer is, that’s a much harder question than how something works.

A proverbial stumper for startups is this very basic question: Who’s your customer? After all, the world has managed to turn well enough without your newfangled technology. What if the thing you make isn’t all that useful and worthwhile? Since it didn’t exist yesterday and nobody’s clamoring for it, are you sure of even one customer?

Humaginarium is pretty sure we have hundreds of thousands of customers. Not somewhere on the other side of a blue ocean, but here and now. Whose needs are undermet and whose goals are underachieved.

Our customer is an adult over 17 years old, healthy or not, any gender and ethnicity, any income bracket, any nationality and community. Among  billions of people worldwide who fit that description, our customer is one who plays video games online or downloaded to a device. Our customer has to have at least one modern device, electricity, reasonably fast Internet, and access to Amazon or Google cloud services. He or she can have any level of education but can’t be dumbass stupid. Simple, yes. Dumbass, no.

If you step back and consider these parameters, it’s clear that our customer is “mature.” The Entertainment Software Rating Board uses that word for consumers who are not easily bored by intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language. This is odd because those kinds of people are immature by Humaginarium standards.

Mature for Merriam-Webster and for us means having mental and emotional qualities of an adult, of being fully formed as a human being, and still developing to a desired level. That last clause is crucial, because our mature customer is not done with life no matter how old or impaired. He or she is still learning and yearning.

Maybe the reason why many technology entrepreneurs are stumped by the customer question is they’re makers and doers, while those who know customers are are observers, people who ask questions of others, empathize with them, care about them, make connections and reach fond conclusions about “them” rather than “us.”

Who the customer is, that’s a much harder question than how something works. We’re on it.

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Scientific entertainment. Variation on The Reading Girl, by Theodore Roussel

Catchwords

Science isn’t “hard” because of what it is, but rather because of how it’s learned.

Rhetorical chips are flying as we carve a new website and pitch. Some neatly express our world view. They crop up again and again, mushrooming like a mantra. Of course the chips are catchwords: a way to talk that’s a little different from the ordinary.

Our first catchword was the name of the company. Humaginarium is a mashup of three ordinary words: human, imagination, and vivarium. It’s where the human body is infused with fantasy (wishful thinking) and explored for pleasure, meaning, and utility.

Another catchword is nudge. The verb has always meant to push gently. Then economists coined a new meaning: to offer qualified choices. Lately Humaginarium has been saying “nudge to wellness.” In this usage it means to stir conation. Notice a progression here: first push, then choose, then desire. Our catchword takes the meaning of nudge to a more authentic and personal level, hopefully one that’s still easy to grasp.

Yet another catchword is scientific entertainment. Let’s parse that. Scientific means systematic observation and experiment leading to hypotheses. Science usually involves deductive reasoning: producing insight by means of evidence. So far so good.

Science may be cerebral and erudite, but more often it’s merely curious, logical, and persistent. This is a very important point that non scientists usually overlook. Science is not “hard” because of what it is, but rather because of how it’s learned.

In contrast to scientific, entertainment tends to be downplayed as frivolous. It amuses and gives pleasure, helps pass the time agreeably. People like it, but they typically don’t get much out of it. They may even expect entertainment to be lazy and stupid, like some sitcoms, video games, and popular songs, but that’s not always the case.

Throughout our culture and over the course of history, entertainment is often intelligent and moving. There’s a reason for this. Entertainment is inherently artistic and art is among the noblest human endeavors. Take a stroll around the Art Institute of Chicago and see for yourself. True art is highly entertaining but rarely, if ever, lazy and stupid.

Scientific entertainment denies the polarity between serious science and frivolous art. It claims these are two sides of the same creative coin. They are complementary ways of posing questions and proposing answers. When we use this catchword, we mean that people can think more clearly and deliberately about the miracle known as human life. While they’re having fun.

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Scientific entertainment. Variation on Prometheus Creating Man in Clay, by Constantin Hansen

Fellowship

Our mission is not to sell trinkets and gadgets, but to help people enjoy more of their birthright.

Who runs Humaginarium? Are they founders? Leaders? Executives? Directors? An operating committee? These words say something about the actual team, but not enough. A much better word is Fellowship.

Fellowship is more than working together. It connotes camaraderie and shared values, trust, style, mutual respect, and synergy wherein the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Humaginarium is a Fellowship.

Like the Fellowship of the Ring, our cohort is on a risky quest. Like the Taliesin Fellowship, we’re devoted to learning. Here’s a roll call.

  • Dave Walker is our chief technical officer. He’s a software engineer and program manager, with decades in the video game industry. Dave makes stuff.
  • Ramiro Atristain is our chief financial officer. He’s an analyst and planner, with decades in investment and commercial banking. Ramiro counts stuff.
  • Alan Klevens is our chief commercial officer. He’s a brand builder, with decades in biotech innovation including three successful exits. Alan pitches stuff.
  • Bob Becker is our chief executive officer. He’s a scholar and ideologist, with decades in teaching and instructional systems design. Bob invents stuff.

In the realms we inhabit – entertainment, science, health, education – many see things and ask “Why?” We dream things that never were and ask “Why not?”

We also say (figuratively) that our Fellowship is on a road to Mordor. Not the garrison of trolls and orcs, but a real world armory of unhealthy lifestyles, diseased bodies, puzzled minds, and broken hearts. Our mission is not to join hordes of vendors selling trinkets and gadgets outside the walls of that armory, but to tear down the walls, overcome what’s inside, and help people enjoy more of their birthright. Wellness, well-being, longevity, and happiness.

Genesis

Humaginarium helps people feel good about themselves in a world that doesn’t.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth and a lot more besides. Nobody asked why and God didn’t say. The universe was not a tech startup.

Humaginarium is a tech startup. Everyday we’re asked why and other questions. What is it? When did it begin? Where’s it heading? How will it get there? This is what we say.

Why Humaginarium? Because nothing like it exists and because people need it. Lots of people. It will help them feel good about themselves in a world that doesn’t.

What is it? Scientific video games that reveal the human body in its majesty, beauty, complexity, and meaning. Not the cadavers of medical school, but the homo ludens of high culture. Played to enjoy, learn, improve health and well-being.

When did it begin? In Chicago in the spring of 2016. Grew from one founder with a dream into four earnest professionals. Still slogging through formative research and development. No short cuts. No mantras. No brass rings.

Where’s it heading? Near term to a working, testable prototype, a pre-money valuation, and a commercialization plan. Long term to an Atlas moment when the world pauses and considers what we did, and smiles gratefully.

How will it get there? Tireless unpaid contributions of executives and advisors. Leading to funding by the National Science Foundation, private foundations, angels, sponsors, and sooner than later consumers and patients who pay to play and learn for free. Amen