Dark Matter

Monetizing new technology for the healthcare industry.

The MATTER Healthcare Incubator in downtown Chicago is closed for coronavirus. My membership there ended in December 2019, so dark MATTER doesn’t directly affect me. Still, I own a budding health tech startup and identify with the MATTER community, even if I’m not sure there is one. I may have imagined it.

I used to pay $320 a month for basic MATTER membership. That let me into a co-working space that I called the commons: filled with long tables lined on both sides with swiveling desk chairs a few feet apart. No desk lamp, no phone, no coat rack, no book shelf or stand, no library, no office supplies, no Ethernet; only a shared power strip to charge my mobile device and WiFi.

The commons also housed windowless, whiteboarded conference rooms and a classroom that are bookable for a couple of hours a pop. There’s a tiny kitchen with a coffee urn (yum, but empty most afternoons and evenings) and a vending machine for snacks. No seating in the kitchen; it’s not a break room.

Having no phones in the commons doesn’t mean it’s quiet there. Members often make calls on their mobile devices. That along with loud conversations, and the atmosphere gets pretty noisy at peak times. I usually donned AirPods and listened to music, to block the noise with more noise; there was no way to cancel it.

$320 sounds like a lot for a month of this, and it is, but it was less than MATTER membership at the next level up which includes baby office space. Glass-walled cubes may be fine for startups without real offices, though they’re a tight fit for more than a couple of occupants. Pricey again.

For comparison, MATTER membership costs about six times more than Polsky membership. The Polsky Exchange incubator actually has nicer space but it’s rather distantly located at the University of Chicago in Hyde Park; and is more for high-brow students and faculty than community. Polsky is now closed for coronavirus too.

I joined Polsky in 2016 and MATTER in 2018, not for office space of course or convenience. I joined to meet tech entrepreneurs with similar backgrounds and ambitions, mentors with keen business acumen, investors who have ardently mastered the business economics of innovation. I came to both for collegial interactions that might help me formulate Humaginarium right after the Big Bang, when its universe was filled with stardust.

I found some of that collegial interaction, though more by accident than design, and I’m glad. Yet most of the other members I met did not have similar or even comparable backgrounds and ambitions; and little was done by organizers of the incubators to facilitate new relationships among members.

Mentors too were kind of limited, coming from backgrounds that were generally solid but rarely exceptional. Most didn’t seem notably wise or experienced or well-connected. Not one shared my passion for health literacy, health acumen and medical self-efficacy — or even understood what these words mean. They and investors whom I met seemed impatiently interested in monetizing new technology for the healthcare industry — a thorny topic that sometimes seemed beyond their skill sets! I often felt some were there to learn rather than inform or coach or finance.

Which brings me to an awkward confession. I’m not interested in monetizing new technology for the healthcare industry. In fact I hate the contemporary healthcare industry and have no desire to put shiny new lipstick on its porcine face.

My passions are not for healthcare, Lord knows, but for people — known as patients in the healthcare marketplace, just people to me. Researching health promotion, I inevitably found that the most effective medicine in the United States today is named placebo effect; and the #1 cause of death in hospitals is clinical mistakes. I am not intrigued by a sinkhole where these awful things are true, no matter how personally enriching it may be. Monetization doesn’t make it good or right.

Now that MATTER is temporarily dark, would it be fair to say, when it was lit up and bustling, that healthcare incubation is about monetizing new technology for the healthcare industry rather than promoting the health and wellness of ordinary people? Yes, I think that’s a defensible observation.

Would it also be fair to say that the MATTER community — somewhere out there — is more excited about money than medicine and the well-being of ordinary people; that its raison d’être is to cut juicier slices from the pie of an overpriced, underperforming, now calamitous healthcare industry? That sounds very harsh indeed, but yes, it’s also a defensible observation.

Even if my observations are valid, they don’t change anything. MATTER is what it is bless its heart. Dark and light come to the same thing and, who knows, maybe household disinfectant or hydroxychloroquine will cure COVID-19 as well as a placebo. Sounds innovative. What do we have to lose?