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 week 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.


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.

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.