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.


I parachuted into MATTER and loved the place. It felt like an agora.

Humaginarium recently applied for membership in the MATTER Healthcare Incubator and was accepted. For the first time we’re joining a community of dreamers, thinkers, designers, and makers whose values and aspirations are pretty much the same as ours. All focused on bending the curve of health.

This milestone is an end as well as a beginning. As I applied to MATTER, I ended my membership in the Polsky Exchange of the University of Chicago, where Humaginarium started in 2016. The Polsky Exchange is a nice shared workspace on both sides of 53rd Street in Hyde Park. Location is the catch. Humaginarium is in Oak Park, Polsky is in Hyde Park, and end-of-the-world traffic is smack dab in the middle. Even the genius of Google Maps can’t make that drive tolerable during business hours and there’s no quick mass transit.

Polsky was a blessing in some ways. As a member I met four dozen mentors with varied expertise and life stories; some became friends. Most were patient folks who listened as I stumbled through lame stories of Humaginarium and asked questions ranging from naive to inane. I may have impressed (or bored) a few with my passion, but not with my ideas. For a long time I apparently didn’t know what I was doing, but I kept reading and talking my way onward. Daniel Kahneman famously explains that people think, fast and slow. I’m one of the outliers who thinks slow only, and it sometimes takes forever to actually do things.

A valuable aspect of Polsky was its partnership with MATTER. I parachuted into MATTER events and workshops as a Polsky member. They were meaningful, often inspiring, and I began to love the place. It felt like an agora jammed with philosophers, geeks, creatives, teachers, scientists, clinicians, and business people. And perhaps because MATTER isn’t an academic incubator, the atmosphere felt pretty exciting.

A thing I didn’t sufficiently recognize about Polsky and about I-Corps as well, is their roots and culture in higher ed. They’re academic institutions designed for students and faculty rather than “community members” off the street. As a dyed-in-the-wool academic, I should have realized this sooner, but I tended to take their rhetoric about “business” innovation too literally. In retrospect I would say that both programs exist to advance academic careers and commercialize institutional IP. They’re an imperfect fit for refugees from the Ivory Tower like myself.

As our new era of incubation begins, I’ll be able to enjoy a 20-minute ride on the Green Line to Clark and Lake, my stop for MATTER on the 12th floor of the Merchandise Mart in the Loop. It’s the apex for health care innovation in Chicago. See you there!


Scientific entertainment. Variation on The Birth of Venus, by Alexandre Cabanel

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.