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.

Provisioning

Success depends not on what users know but what they discover and use.

This is the game objective of Diabetes Agonistes:

  • Seize the causes of metabolic disorders
  • Confound their powers to harm
  • Claim the birthright of homeostasis

Reminder: this serious objective is met with play, not with study. It’s pursued in a fantasy; not real life. Users solve tough problems on a personal quest through the make-believe. Yes, they will eventually do similar things in their own real life; and they will do it better because they practiced first in Diabetes Agonistes. But I’m not concerned with that now. Right now I’m thinking only about how to play a really good game.

Each of the three jobs I mentioned – seize, confound, claim – is an agon. Each is beautiful and magical, yet difficult and messy. Users who don’t carefully prepare before questing will fail fast and often.

Players who are MDs and RNs – there will be plenty (real and aspiring) among our play testers – may opt to ‘damn the torpedoes’ because they’re confident of their scientific and clinical acumen; they may plunge headlong into the fight to prove they can beat this silly game sim in record time. By design though, they’ll get plastered by adversaries who have even more confidence, and with good reason.

Preparation for questing is necessary and also voluntary. Like everything else in Diabetes Agonistes, success here depends not on what users know but what they choose to discover and then use. It depends on clue finding and strategy. Diabetes Agonistes does not leverage motor skills like an arcade game.

Users who earnestly examine their surroundings for clues soon find a checklist that helps them prepare. The checklist is for provisioning. It helps them acquire and create things they’ll need to survive an agon. A checklist guides individual discovery of things like:

  • Who are my adversaries?
  • Why are they adversaries?
  • What are their powers?
  • Where are they now?
  • Do they morph and mutate or always stay the same?
  • Are they immortal or can they be killed?
  • Who are my allies?
  • What can they do for me now and later?
  • Why should I join this quest; what’s my purpose here?
  • What do I win; what larger difference may I make?

Our principal mechanic for clue finding in Diabetes Agonistes is a metaphor for geolocation. Users can (if they wish) lease a dirigible airship with credits stored in their key. They can steer this airship above a phantasmagoric terrain that elegantly symbolizes human biology and physiology. This landscape is not a funky realistic model of the human body as in most healthcare simulations; it’s not like Lemuel Gulliver in Brobdingnag, or Frankenstein’s cadaver, or a Russian scientist in the movie Fantastic Voyage. Instead it’s an experiential metaphor that showcases metabolism in the human body as a fabulous, habitable world.

Users survey this world from high and low altitudes. They probe it for insights that can be used when pursuing the game objective, but they don’t do that peacefully. Adversaries who dominate the terrain have radar; they sense when their empire is being scrutinized and they don’t like it. The knowledge of others inflames them! Once detected, they do everything they can to capture or kill users who spy on them, knowing that those who escape may come back to haunt them.

In addition to geolocation, users may discover clues in curious containers. Some containers explode when touched inappropriately, others open when gently coaxed; some open freely, others unlock with credits stored in a key; some are unique and can’t be shared, others can be traded. Some are useful and endow users with powers to heal or cure, others are evil and extremely dangerous.

When users guess they have all the clues they need for what comes next, their questing may begin. I’ll describe that beginning in my next post.

Dark Glass

Diabetes Agonistes is more than adventure: it’s also a system simulation of human physiology.

In the Humaginarium Arcade, new users create their own mental model of wellness: a grail most worthy of questing. Each model releases a unique and reusable key to a magic portal. The portal itself is a translucent barrier, beyond which users see only darkly and with longing – like the shadow of death. They can use their key to open the portal, then plunge inward and downward into a labyrinth of exquisite beauty and danger.

The first instance of Humaginarium is a prototype with just one quest on the far side of the portal. Once we decide the best way to make and deliver interactive adventure, that is also edifying, then the far side of the portal will resemble catacombs, starting in a lobby with networked branches that dissolve into mystery. Users will choose branches according to their needs and interests; and for the prospect of challenge and fun.

For now though, the first and only branch is called Diabetes Agonistes. This is an adventure with metabolic syndrome and diabetes mellitus type 2. In the fantasy of Humaginarium, these are not diseases; they are adversaries.

When users arrive in the lobby of catacombs, they are given a job to do: prepare to enter the labyrinth in search of adversaries and their minions. Find and overcome them, and win back the grail that they imprisoned and maligned, maybe destroyed.

Be careful though! Adversaries do not forgive trespass; they come after users who invade their empire. As users put up defenses, they may be out-smarted, out-maneuvered, out-foxed by brainless pathogens, genomic saboteurs, biochemical cannibals and their ilk. Failure in this fantasy is not just an option; it may seem unavoidable.

How do users prepare for questing in Humaginarium? By sizing up their adversaries, probing them for weakness, arming themselves for conflict, ideating a plan that is not utterly hopeless. All of this is possible in Humaginarium because Diabetes Agonistes is more than adventure: it’s also an engaging system simulation of human physiology.

To prepare for engagement, users can hover over that system, like a balloonist over a battlefield, zooming points of interest, soaring higher to avoid detection and attack, dropping surveillance robots or provisions in places where they may be needed in the approaching journey. This hovering is limited in duration and resources. It can be steered and stretched within limits to increase its utility, but it doesn’t obviate the risks and dangers of questing. It informs users about their adversaries but doesn’t weaken or reveal their adversaries’ secrets.

Before this, users left the Humaginarium Arcade with an individualized mental model of wellness. Now they complete their prep for questing with an individualized mental model of illness. They have made ready to play in a fantasy where all hell will break loose.

In my next post, I’ll describe the mechanics of preparation. This is a delicate subject because it is an intensely cognitive activity. Can we keep users pumped for questing while they ponder the fearful unknown, before they meet their first disgusting orc?

Arcade Redux

The overarching purpose of Arcade is to ignite the desire to learn and use health science.

In his magisterial medical history entitled The Great Influenza (2004), John Barry evokes the heroism of brilliant, bewildered and ambitious pathologists trying to identify an emerging crisis in public health that would soon kill around 50 million people worldwide:

And the excitement! Each time a student fixed a specimen on a slide and looked through a microscope, an entire universe opened to him! To some, discovering that universe, entering into it, beginning to manipulate it, was akin to creating it; they must have felt almost godlike.

Humaginarium isn’t a microscope; neither is it for clinicians (though some may choose to use it). Even so, that historic experience of hunting flu virus and its collaterals in 1918 is somewhat comparable to the living experience of trouncing disease in Humaginarium.

Our users are adults who have or risk developing chronic illness and coincidentally enjoy challenging video games. Our prototype application is for consumers who are affected by – or have reasons to be concerned about – metabolic disorder (even if they don’t know what that is and are oblivious to the risks it poses).

It’s important to state clearly and emphatically that users stand to benefit mightily from Humaginarium – but that’s not why they use it. They use it because it’s fun and beautiful and enriching and self-actualizing. “That’s entertainment!” Health and educational affordances are consequential and valuable aftereffects.

Our users stream Humaginarium to large and small screens. They may be in classrooms or clinics when they play, but probably not. More likely they’re at home or work or traveling – just hanging out. They’re keen to play rather than learn per se. However their learning experience is so surprising and engaging and useful that they really won’t dismiss it (as they tend to diss traditional health information and education); instead they’ll relish and likely share and build on it.

Our typical users take their first look (through a digital lens) at a biological universe that beggars the imagination; one riddled with fantastic menace like some seething terrorist underground; one they can safely explore and manipulate and maybe even master if they’re clever and fast and keep trying. Like those antique pathologists striving to rescue humanity from gruesome pain and suffering and sudden death, our users may experience the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat when saving themselves (or their family and community, or their generation) from Morgoth-like powers of organic malevolence. Moreover if I do what I intend with Humaginarium, players may indeed feel “almost godlike” because they themselves are creating the meaning of health and life inside a miracle known as “my body.”

Thanks to historian Barry, I know how pathologists discovered the one pestilential ring that ruled them all back in 1918. They did hard, frustrating, relentless science in labs, clinics and the field. How will users destroy a ring of their own in Humaginarium? They’ll start by getting situated in our Arcade.

The overarching purpose of Arcade is to ignite the desire to learn and use health science (to gain the power of health literacy). That’s the unrivaled albeit unconscious goal of all users from the moment they land on our home page. Without a desire to learn, users will experience our game simulations the way inert marbles experience a pinball machine. We don’t want that; it feels too much like industrial health care.

Imagine then an Arcade that dramatically opens on the first of many self-assembling choice architectures we have prepared: a prelude to the quest for wellness. The Arcade interface is desirable, intriguing, tempting and threatening; shimmering, sparkling, promising and ominous; spatial and fluid like gripping and evanescent dreams. Users gaze on this animated tableau for a few seconds and most likely utter “WTF?”

Their eyes are drawn to a stony portal they can see through to observe wonders, but can’t seem to pass. The portal is a metaphorical cut in a border wall between the real world (where we must live) and a hyperreal world (that we long to live for): a world full of promise and pleasure and despair.

To penetrate the portal each individual must make a magic key that becomes a private and powerful identity and credit card in Humaginarium. Like DNA, that key is unique to each player. It cannot be shared or exchanged though it can be edited. The key is a personal credential for playing and learning in Humaginarium. It works forever and grows in power over time, but it may be forfeited under penalty for unworthy behavior. The key is endowed with tangible and symbolic assets that are useful in play and beyond, on both sides of the border wall.

To make a key, each user dips into three wholesome mini games about biological birth, growth and death. These are visual puzzles that users manipulate in order to become deeply situated and immersed in Humaginarium while generating clues to unlocking the portal. All three pose the question “how”: how is the ideal body born; how does it grow; and how does it die. Content is presented in elementary symbolic rhetorics, not in words. Together the solutions inform a mental model of homeostasis (physiological wellness) that is important for future struggles in Humaginarium. For now the mental model is a grail; it triggers an urgent desire to learn.

Once through the portal, users leave the Arcade behind and enter an agonizing labyrinth – a framework for quest. In the first instance of Humaginarium (our MVP), there is one modular and multilevel game named Diabetes Agonistes. Eventually there will be hundreds. Before proceeding though, users must discover a little about the problems that lie ahead, as they provision for adventure.

I’ll describe that provisioning in my next post.

Scientific entertainment. Variation on Les Deux Baigneuses (1884), by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. Pictured with a micrograph of menstrual hormones.

Arcade

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here, and resolve to fight.

The first component of our model unit is the landing page: an architecture in the Cloud where consumers meet our brand, create a Humaginarium identity and shop our stuff. A few months ago I cluelessly dubbed this the “platform.” A misnomer! Platform means many things but none describes our landing page. The correct word is arcade.

I pause now because I don’t want to be confused with arcade video games, a classic genre that’s big in sports, gambling and amusement. We don’t make arcade games. On the other hand gamers don’t own the notional concept of arcade; they borrowed it from architecture and it’s much bigger than them.

A traditional arcade is an agora under a roof. A place to shop, discover new things, meet people, catch up on the news, have fun. It’s a precursor of the modern shopping mall. Arcades are also engines of culture; places where communities gather and make meaning together. That’s also a reasonable description of Humaginarium: a place where folks make meaning.

Our arcade is a digital environment loaded with things to view and do. When consumers first land there, they gaze upon the front gates of a labyrinth. A fantastic labyrinth that could have been designed by Jorge Luis Borges if he played video games. They stare in amazement and wonder, Why enter this perilous realm? Why not turn right around and find something normal to play? We don’t tell them why; we let them figure it out themselves by messing with curious knobs and handles. Our arcade is a cabinet of curiosities from a world where science and fantasy have fused and formed a strange new dimension.

In the center of the arcade there is a room for viewing video shorts. How short? Depends on the topic, but anywhere from 10 to 30 seconds. The videos are not eye candy, though they’re incredibly beautiful; some funny, others scary, still other puzzling and a little irritating. The videos are interrelated clue dispensers. Consumers who want to try the labyrinth can’t just enter it; can’t buy a ticket even if they want to pay; can’t use a key even if they have one; can’t make an offer or a trade or sign a waiver. Instead they must find clues in the arcade to crack the code and prove their mettle. They must earn the privilege of entering Humaginarium or forever be stuck outside, peering through display windows at magical intimate things that they can’t touch until they get past the gates.

Why would restless consumers “waste time” collecting and configuring clues like this? Some won’t of course, but many will because it doesn’t feel like wasting time. It feels exhilarating! One, because it’s fun; a lot of fun. Two, because it’s intriguing; like a teleport to somewhere desirable and momentous – and free for those who can turn the lock. Three, because it’s useful; promising a weird kind of entertainment that makes people smarter, more capable, more centered, more in control of their most painful and costly challenges. It bestows a gift of unshackled imagination and the freedom to explore the human body as if they were its creator.

Our arcade is a string of amusements that inspire and motivate. The inspiration is a mental model of perfect wellness. The model presents the formation of the body at birth, its disintegration at death, and its healthy progression through life known as homeostasis: an ideal state that’s impossible for any person to ignore and nearly impossible to attain. Worthy not just of study but of quest! The arcade motivates folks to break into a hall of horrors: a labyrinth where chronic illness is waiting to outsmart, outfox, outmaneuver, outlast any would-be hero who dares to enter. Abandon all hope, ye who enter there, and resolve to fight.

Humaginarium is made for heroes who are not endowed with superpowers. Just regular folks who have, or risk getting, a miserable chronic illness that lasts a lifetime in the real world. In the real world these folks may hope and endure and suffer. In Humaginarium they can choose to fight and control or overcome. Truly that’s a fantasy, but for many of the people landing in our arcade, it’s one of the greatest unreal stories ever told and it’s all about real life.

Coming next: a use case that describes what consumers may experience in our arcade.

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.

Specific Aims

When consumers are ready to transfer knowledge from the fantasy world of play to the real world of health.

I recently received a green light from the National Science Foundation to apply for Phase 1 SBIR. The invitation was prompted by my “Project Pitch,” a compact description of R&D that Phase 1 has the potential to support. My proposal calls for a series of experiments, conducted over a several months, that may confirm the technical feasibility of scientific, educational and commercial goals set for the video game component of Humaginarium.

The video game is one of four components of my model unit. Maybe the most exciting and creative, but not the most powerful and impactful. Why? Because the video game is for learning huge things while having intense fun, but that’s as far as it goes. A video game by itself cannot make learning stick. If all I do is make incredible video games for health, that may not move the needle; it may not produce tangible and valuable outcomes.

The job of moving the needle is performed by a different component of Humaginarium. I call this the Diagnostic (versus Game). The Diagnostic is where consumers go AFTER having fun and learning the science of chronic illness. They go there to figure out what to do with incipient health literacy that emerged in the game. They participate in the Diagnostic when they’re ready to transfer knowledge from the fantasy world of play to the real world of health; i.e the human body and the experience of life that the body makes possible.

The Diagnostic is the subject of my “Specific Aims” document: a single-page précis that describes what Humaginarium would do with a Phase 1 SBIR from the National Institutes of Health. NSF requests a Project Pitch whereas NIH requests Specific Aims in order to prequalify applications for funding. Since grant writing takes weeks or months, and grant reviewing takes additional weeks or months, both agencies want to discourage laborious submissions that are just not a good fit for their SBIR mandates. I sent my Specific Aims to program officers at NIDDK (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases) because my R&D concerns mitigation of metabolic syndrome and diabetes mellitus type 2: morbid conditions in the NIDDK wheelhouse.

Actually I sent my Specific Aims twice. The first submission, a couple of weeks ago, was like throwing a stone into a pond and not seeing ripples form. Eventually the eerie stillness made me wonder, so I opened my file and read my text. OMG it was bad! Bad meaning incoherent, meandering, dotted with idiotic rhetorical flourishes, doomed to failure (in my opinion). I couldn’t fathom why I wrote it that way; couldn’t imagine why I sent it after writing; and couldn’t guess why it wasn’t immediately spurned by the agency as DOA. I hated it.

The writing was bad, but the ideas lurking behind the words were pretty good (in my opinion). So I started over; rewrote my Specific Aims as quickly as possible (fearing that NIDDK would acknowledge my first draft before I replaced it), and submitted the second draft with a cover note of mea culpa and fuhgeddaboudit and I’m not the a-hole that I seem to be.

I may not grab the brass ring with my second draft, but at least I won’t be embarrassed by it. “The tangible yield of my Phase 1 experiments will include cloud-based, self-administered qualification and prioritization mechanics for setting health goals, conducting intimate risk-assessment, contextualizing a personal choice architecture for change, modeling behavior changes to predict impact, and reinforcing medical and lifestyle resolutions.” In a nutshell that is the Diagnostic. It doesn’t already exist anywhere; it’s a linchpin for making health education stick; and if NIH lets me propose it for Phase 1 R&D, it may practically guarantee that the individual outcomes I promise with Humaginarium will be delivered en masse.