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.

Green Light

We’re not going to leave the long and winding path, but SBIR may strengthen and speed our steps.

The National Science Foundation has given Humaginarium a green light to apply for substantial, non-dilutive, SBIR funding. The light came on right after I submitted my Project Pitch, a required first step that gauges whether Humaginarium can “meet the program’s objectives to support innovative technologies that show promise of commercial and/or societal impact and involve a level of technical risk.

The Humaginarium project seemed like a good fit way back in 2010 when I first looked into SBIR. That’s when I began ideation for this venture, years before founding it. I guess this illustrates how serendipitously I approach even things that are important to me, and how I tend to follow long and winding paths with a compass but not a map. Taking me forever!

The manifold innovative technologies I pitched to NSF include computer models of physiology, high-fidelity time-based simulations of morbidity at scale, state-of-the-art medical CGI, cloud-built and cloud-based entertainment that streams to screens everywhere. My pitch is not about inventing these incredible emerging technologies, but rather adapting them (for the first time) to the direct use and benefit of regular folks.

I pitched my belief that the Humaginarium project will have commercial and societal impact. As commerce it operates in the nexus between entertainment, health, and education: three large, fast-changing and fast-growing industries. It caters to strongly-felt consumer needs at the center of each industry – but in this unique case all at the same time, with the same products that we rapidly make and the same business processes that are noncapital intensive. As a social enterprise, Humaginarium promotes health literacy and health equity not for a few who can afford it, but for everybody who chooses to use it. If activists are leading us to a brave new world where health is a right and not a privilege, Humaginarium may become one of the enabling technologies of that world.

The level of technical risk in the Humaginarium project is pretty high. I say the work can be done, but at the same time acknowledge that it’s never been done before. I speak with the voice of a world I’ve imagined, that doesn’t yet exist: one that will deliberately avoid an apocalypse in health care by empowering self-care. I promise to make health science coherent and beautiful and playful and useful to folks who currently know almost nothing about it; and who typically don’t want to know anything about it (until it’s too late). This is truly a moonshot, one that enables “one giant leap” for every individual who takes a ticket.

In order to mitigate this crazy level of risk, I pitched a series of Phase 1 experiments that may define the most promising way forward. Not only to design, build and test an effective solution, but also to commercialize it. I say mitigate, not eliminate risk, because the Humaginarium project is a lion that doesn’t wear a leash. We won’t abandon the long and winding path because that’s where know-how and value are captured. Still, SBIR can speed and mightily strengthen our steps. The green light thrills me like a call to arms on the White Mountains.

Click here to read the Project Pitch.

Scientific Entertainment. Variation on Academic Study, by William Mulready