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

Mentor

Has Éowyn arrived on the Pelennor Fields?

Our first application for admission to I-Corps Phase 0 was stymied by lack of a suitable mentor. No more! The search was short and sweet, in the end yielding eight fully qualified candidates. As a group they have remarkable breadth and depth, like a faculty of Humaginarium College.

The challenge now is choosing just one mentor as we admire them all. Only one can join our team in the 2018 Summer Cohort of I-Corps. The others will become advisors if we are fortunate, because they clearly have a lot to offer. And they love our mission.

As we repaired the mentor deficiency, the Spring Cohort filled and closed. That was disappointing but, like most problems, there are silver linings. First, we learned more about the program than we knew before. Instead of basing decisions on assumptions, we grew to base them on facts. Second, we met a lot of terrific people in our search that we barely knew before if at all. They are likely to become colleagues and friends. Third, we formed and began enacting plans for the interval between now and the Summer Cohort in July. Plans include putting up our beautiful new website, writing and practicing our pitch, researching commercialization, and calculating a five-year valuation. These are vital to-dos that would have skidded off the highway if we had rushed into the Spring Cohort. Instead we are doing them well.

A fourth silver lining, by no means the least, is the discovery of women for the mentor role. Humaginarium at present lacks diversity, and we hate that. Now it looks like that’ll change for the better. Éowyn has arrived on the Pelennor Fields.

Website

After meandering  for months with a website that doesn’t lead anywhere, we’re replacing it with one that may. This is about more than self promotion. We want to broadcast our wavelength in ways that people can easily discern and engage.

People? What people? As recent followers of Aaron Crumm at University of Michigan, we no long say people without qualification. People don’t even exist unless they’re particular people whom we understand and who have reasons to want us.

Therefore we are designing our new website specifically for four types of people:

  1. Those whom we’ve met and made curious. (“What is this startup that I can’t pronounce?”)
  2. Those who know us well enough to consider investing. (“If I give them money will they fritter it away?”)
  3. Those who want to do business with Humaginarium as employees or contractors. (“Hey I love what you’re doing, will you pay me to do it too?”)
  4. Those who just want the latest news about Humaginarium. (“They’re creating a new website? BFD!)

Aaron, if you are reading this, know that our new home page features little more than a big fat question: “What brings you here?” It’s actually a multiple choice question with four answer options. There’s no “none of the above.” When people show up who, for example, are poking around the Internet with nothing much on their minds, we ignore them. We’re a little like a clerk behind the counter at Brooklyn Bagel.

The new website has a designed look that will be as hard to perceive as our name is to pronounce. The look is inspired by suprematism (look it up). Our choices of typography are likewise inspired by early 20th Century arts and crafts: Priori Sans Alt in our logotype and Neue Kabel everyplace else.

Because we understand the people we are designing for, we expect them to spend less than 30 seconds deciding whether our website is a waste of time and attention. So our text is very short, though much longer than advertising copy.

The website will go live in April. When it does, look it over and click the icon in the upper right of any page. That’s how to send feedback and suggestions, which we will deeply appreciate.

Stymied

We’ve begun looking for a genie in a bottle. Startups are all about overcoming obstacles, so we’re optimistic. We’re also stymied.

Many see things and ask “Why?” Sometimes I see things and ask “WTF?” That happened last week in I-Corps, a program by the National Science Foundation for entrepreneurs who want to commercialize science.

Background. Humaginarium first tried to join I-Corps in 2016 but was stymied by a stipulation: academic teams only. Three of the four in our fellowship have taught in universities, one has performed large-scale, funded, postdoctoral research, and all are probably too smart for our own good (like most academics). However we’re not an academic team. So Humaginarium did not join I-Corps in 2016.

That stipulation changed in 2017 when NSF quietly announced “Phase 0” (zero). This is 2G I-Corps that admits non academic teams. We stepped up!

Phase 0 is an on ramp to Phase 1, a funded NSF SBIR activity that tests the feasibility of innovations. In a manner of speaking, in Phase 0 we determine if the world wants what we’ve imagined. In Phase 1 we figure out how to build it.

In February 2018 Humaginarium completed a Phase 0 prerequisite named Introduction to Customer Discovery at the University of Michigan. It was terrific! With encouragement from organizers we applied for Phase 0. Then we were stymied again.

Phase 0 teams must bring an “industry mentor” to the program. We found a good one, but he was rejected. Why? Because he was able to commit 60 hours to mentoring, rather than the required 105 hours, during our 6-7 week activity. He was able to spend four days, rather than the required seven days, in remote meetings and travel.

In addition to spending all that time, our mentor must be a senior professional with expertise and connections in industries of interest to Humaginarium: entertainment, health, life science, education. But a mentor isn’t employed or paid by Humaginarium or NSF. There is no compensation.

We’ve begun looking for this genie in a bottle. Startups are all about overcoming obstacles, so we remain optimistic though we’re stymied. Again.

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Scientific entertainment. Variation on La Grande Baigneuse, by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

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.

Bivouac

We interviewed 35 stakeholders in our ecosystem: potential users and buyers of our video games, and influencers ranging from clinicians and scientists to health educators and organizers.

Humaginarium just completed the first leg of a vital expedition. We finished Introduction to Customer Discovery at the MWIN Midwest I-Corps Node. Right now we’re bivouacked on a narrow ledge under a brilliant star field. And we’re just below a rock face where the route leads upward: Phase Zero of I-Corps National.

For us Customer Discovery involved interviews with 35 stakeholders in our ecosystem: potential users and buyers of our video games, and influencers ranging from clinicians and scientists to health educators and organizers. We learned a lot about problems that haven’t been solved, needs that haven’t been met, constraints that haven’t been overcome, and desires that haven’t been satisfied by the status quo in health care and education.

One of the hardest things to do came first: narrowing our focus. Humaginarium wants to engage adult consumers of all kinds, but we had to define a precise market segment to avoid being swamped with data. So we chose consumers who have, or risk developing, type 2 diabetes.

Why type 2 diabetes? For technical reasons, because our computer model of that disease is ready to deploy. A lot of our foundational engineering exists. More importantly though, type 2 diabetes has social characteristics that made it eminently worthy of our attention:

  • It’s prevented, caused, controlled, even cured by patient agency
  • It’s hard to motivate patients to fight it, because it’s easy to ignore
  • It’s rampant and deadly
  • It will bankrupt individuals and the health care system if it isn’t stopped

Thanks to superb facilitators and coaches at the University of Michigan Center for Entrepreneurship, our bivouac is a good place to rest and reflect before the expedition continues.

Discovery

Customer discovery is about making ourselves worthy of customers.

Humaginarium is flourishing in the Winter 2018 cohort of Introduction to Customer Discovery. Flourishing, as in beating our heads against a wall until the wall breaks.

The Introduction to Customer Discovery Course runs from the MWIN Midwest I-Corps Node at the University of Michigan. Humaginarium founders arrive from Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Georgia for half-day workshops in Ann Arbor. We’re joined there by coaches, facilitators, and fellow climbers on the slopes of ingenuity. We also meet online for tough love with examiners.

Customer Discovery is the first and most soul-crushing step in The Four Steps of the Epiphany, a bible for tech startups by Stanford professor Steve Blank. He designed Innovation Corps for the National Science Foundation as an entrepreneurial boot camp for nerds and geeks. Ahem.

So what is customer discovery? It’s a methodical investigation that answers the question “Who cares?”

  • You have breakthrough ideas. Who cares?
  • You make things better. Who cares?
  • You change lives. Who cares?
  • You monetize like Midas. Who cares?

The starting point of inquiry is always the same: Nobody cares. If you manage to find somebody who does, voila you found a customer. If you find a lot more, you may be on to something. You’re chances are maybe 10%.

The fascination of customer discovery is the way it deconstructs entrepreneurs. The things they value — their stories, beliefs, expectations, assumptions, knowledge, practice, experience, titles, prerogatives, certificates, hubris — all of that is reframed as baggage. Most baggage gets tossed aside as the litter of past lives, not the building blocks of the future.

So is customer discovery about finding customers? No, not really. It’s more about finding and making ourselves worthy of customers. We see a snow-capped summit of innovation gleaming in the distance, getting closer with every anxious step we take. And soldier on.

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Scientific entertainment. Variation on Zephyr and Chloris, by Sandro Botticelli (in The Birth of Venus)