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.

Scientific Entertainment

We’re joining the DTS Startup Company Showcase, November 7-10 in Bethesda.

Humaginarium has coined a phrase, “scientific entertainment,” that may be worthy of a trademark. It will depend on the reception it gets from three constituencies: consumers, artists, and scientists.

Consumers may view scientific entertainment as an oxymoron; like something Lewis Carroll uncorked with the mad Hatter. Though television stars like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson have famously made science entertaining, it’s entertaining in a public television sense of the word. In other words, not really. More edifying than fun.

Artists may view scientific entertainment as a dialectic; a juxtaposition of two opposing forces that catalyzes a third force, one that is more than the sum of its parts. Art history is full of examples, wherein monumental aesthetics emerge from a close study of nature; for example in the career of Leonardo da Vinci.

Scientists may view scientific entertainment as… well, I don’t know how they’ll view it! Most likely with grave suspicion because scientists, being truth seekers, are often misunderstood or utterly ignored by masses of people who can’t fathom what they’re up to, or even what they’re talking about. Have you noticed that most scientists portrayed in popular culture are mad? A scientist once pointed that out to me, sardonically.

Humaginarium is going to discover how some scientists view scientific entertainment on November 7-10 in Bethesda, Maryland, at a conference of the Diabetes Technology Society. We’ve been invited to join the DTS Startup Company Showcase, and tell a story about scientific entertainment that may win converts, or cause boredom, or maybe get no reaction whatsoever because we seem unscientific. That last outcome would be the hardest to bear.

To explain what we’re up to, we’ll present our first scientific poster. It will express our mission without any of the eye candy or theatrical heuristics that we employ when pitching. Because we are not going there to pitch. We’ll be there to make a case for scientific entertainment as an incredibly powerful medium for health literacy and education, and scientific acumen among the folk. The poster will describe our startup as though it was an experiment to test a hypothesis that regular folks are not dumb, are not oblivious to their bodies and health, and not incapable of understanding and using erudite scientific concepts so long as the information is reductionist and nicely staged.

In addition to a poster, we’ll hand out a flyer, run a slide show for scientists who want more insight, and conduct dozens of stakeholder interviews. As graduates of I-Corps, that part will be déjà vu all over again!

We hope our experience at the DTS Startup Company Showcase will inspire belief in our idea among the hardest of three constituencies to please. Especially because our prototype and proof of concept is named Diabetes Agonistes. We’ll be putting our hearts on the line, kind of like all scientists do when they’re seeking.

Jacques-Louis_David_Patroclus

Scientific entertainment. Variation on Patroclus, by Jacques-Louis David

Next Steps

In Phase 2 we’ll move fast and break things other than hearts.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step; or in our case a bunch of next steps. We pondered them at the end of August, gave ourselves until the end of December to finish, and got right to work. Here are highlights.

Last week I mentioned the slippery, slimy Business Model Canvas, still wriggling and flipping like a fish out of water. We’re going to reform it yet again, this time after reflecting on what we learned from customer discovery. Ready-aim-fire rather than shoot ourselves in the foot.

We’re going to plan commercialization using Scott Meadow’s model. The practical objective here is to de-risk innovation, a critical success factor in our case because so much of what we do is unfamiliar if not downright unprecedented.

We’re going to qualify business partnerships with Amazon and two medical centers who offered to join us in prototype development. Amazon is intriguing because they’re incredibly exciting; we want to catch their vibe.

We’re going to design a scientific poster for a Startup Company Showcase of the Diabetes Technology Society. (Thanks, Sam!) This is our first chance to pitch the science in our “scientific entertainment” to a community of scientists, a welcome change from geeks of our recent past.

We’re going to write a business pro forma that weighs Humaginarium on the proverbial scales of venture capital. VCs are anything but blind, so we’ll be explicit and transparent. We have a framework but the devil is in the details, waiting for us like Morgoth holed up in Angband.

We’re going to storyboard prototype media: a narrative game simulation that streams to desktops and a casual game that downloads to mobile devices. Both will take on the same chronic illness but in different ways. We want to see which consumers prefer, if not both or neither. Our seed funding will finance production of these digital wonders.

Speaking of seed funding, we’re going to update our website so it says what we say, and write two pitches; one lasting about 10 minutes, the other 30. And now hear this: we will memorize our speaking parts until we can recite them while crossing the Grand Canyon on a tightrope. No more blank stares and stuttering.

Of course we’ll rehearse and refine our pitches with wizards who don’t know what we’re doing; members of the “seen it all, don’t give a shit” investor class that expects mastery of the universe and 30% ROI in five years. Meantime we’ll qualify a list of real prospects for when we’re ready to withstand the inevitable slings and arrows.

Did I mention that we’re going to write a Phase 1 NSF SBIR grant for submission in December? I didn’t because I’m trying to avoid the withering thought, but we shall do this. We’ve already been encouraged by NSF program managers so this milestone is not as far-fetched as it feels. They claim to love moonshots.

In closer proximity to our heart’s desire, we’re going to join MATTER in Chicago. The values of that health tech incubator perfectly match ours; and we want to be active members of the MATTER community. This will be a refreshing change from Polsky and much less of a commute.

We have dubbed these milestones our Phase 2, which officially began on September 1. Not only do we have milestones, we’re writing them into a plan in Project Wizard so that we can move fast and break things other than hearts.

One thing we wanted to do but won’t is use I-Corps Go funds to cover some expenses related to business formation. We’ve already discovered that I-Corps never got the famous memo from the Lords of Business Ethics which says “do what you say you’re going to do.” So when Go fell off the table for no known reason, we were disappointed but not surprised.

In any case I got the memo, many years ago, and have never forgotten it. See the Fellowship page of our website for a nice way of putting it.