Project Pitch

Robert Becker for NSF SBIR

The Technology Innovation

Our Phase 1 grant supports R&D of high-impact innovation that benefits a mass market of adult consumers who play video games and have or risk developing a chronic illness. Our mission is to promote individual health literacy and empower self-care. Humaginarium is a scientific and educational, for-profit social enterprise.

We call our video games “scientific entertainment” because they are technically informed by computer models of physiology, experience- and system-simulation of morbid conditions, and 3D somatic models at molecular, cellular, physiological, and organismal scale. These powerful technologies have been effectively used for medical education, but have never been used for health education. There seems to be a cultural bias that consumers are not smart enough to use, appreciate, and benefit from them. We’re betting they are.

Our scientific entertainment is embodied in next-generation video games that are themselves innovative because they stream from cloud to desktop and mobile screens everywhere. Up to now high-density game entertainment has been downloaded or acquired on DVD to bypass technical bottlenecks (while increasing costs and limiting access). Ours will take full advantage of emerging cloud-based game tech and 5G wireless.

We chose the medium of video games for our mission because it is popular with consumers and highly qualified as educational technology. Scholarly evidence, that has accrued since the 1970s (summarized on our website), validates video games as uniquely endowed instructional systems for many industries including health. Because our innovation must be embraced and purchased by consumers, rather than for them, we feel it is vital that consumers deeply desire to learn. Their desire to learn from traditional health education is arguable; from video games it is well documented.

Consumers will access our scientific entertainment through a digital arcade of healthy physiology (Gondor before the fall), where they build a mental model of homeostasis. After battling morbid threats in game, they may go on to self-report actual lifestyle and medical choices in a diagnostic module, learn about behavioral causes of noncommunicable diseases, and make conscientious resolutions to mitigate them. They may also choose to join online communities for peer-to-peer learning about particular chronic conditions. These peripheral modules leverage separate technical innovations that are not included in our Phase 1 R&D.

In Phase 1 we will study the feasibility of making immersive game simulations of metabolic syndrome and diabetes mellitus type 2. Metabolic syndrome is a nexus of chronic illness that affects virtually 100% of the adult population, though few consumers know what it is. Our experiments will reveal how to model coherent, experiential pathways from homeostasis to metabolic dysfunction to diabetes.

If our Phase 1 R&D reveals how to ignite the desire to learn about this complex and commonly ignored morbidity, and demonstrates that erudite health science is within the grasp of ordinary consumers who lack intellectual, social, and economic prerequisites, we will be well-prepared to design, build and test a working prototype of groundbreaking scientific entertainment in Phase 2.

The Technical Objectives and Challenges

In Phase 1 we will conduct a series of experiments that culminate in a multifaceted proof of concept. This proof may largely derisk our Phase 2 project in which we design, build, and test a working prototype of scientific entertainment about biological and behavioral causes and consequences of metabolic syndrome and diabetes mellitus type 2.

Our Phase 1 experiments will test hypotheses concerning the relevance and utility of chosen subject matter to an audience of at-risk and unwell consumers who lack both basic health literacy and a desire to learn. Our experiments will indicate whether:

  1. Our reductionist model of metabolic syndrome is coherent and relatable
  2. Our narrative of implicated diabetes mellitus type 2 is gripping
  3. Our simulation of morbid conditions is responsive to user control
  4. Our scaled 3D visualization of biology is arresting and clarifying
  5. Our behavioral learning objectives are fitting and utilitarian
  6. Our mingling of real and fantastical aesthetics increases learning efficacy

As a Phase 0 participant in NSF I-Corps, we conducted extensive customer discovery. In Phase 1 we’ll conduct “solution discovery” to ensure optimal fit of our innovation with customer wants and needs. Our hypotheses will be tested on a platform of cloud-based entertainment that streams to accessible screens of the near future; our business partner Amazon Web Services will contribute by hosting our experiments. A proof that works only in a laboratory or classroom, or for elite users, may prove nothing of value for our mission. We must ascertain that our approach to scientific entertainment will likely work for a mass market of consumers who have demanding standards for video games, though their standards for quality of health education are ambiguous.

With discoveries made in Phase 1, we will proceed into Phase 2 more confident that our unprecedented health education can, in fact, be built well. Yet we know that technical feasibility is no guarantee of commercial viability. That is why, during incubation and leading up to Phase 1, we are drafting a commercialization model (employing a methodology described on our website) to predict how our innovation can successfully launch in markets we wish to enter. As we conduct experiments in Phase 1, our commercialization model will be further refined to reflect more precisely the technical approach we later prototype in Phase 2. We are thus, in Phase 1, pairing technical feasibility with commercial viability based on business data analytics (rather than intuition or wishful thinking). Our research on commercialization is being supported by the Northern Illinois University College of Business.

Our Phase 1 technical objectives and challenges are true experiments rather than workaday engineering or incremental product development. They will lower, but not eliminate, the risk of failure; and ensure that our ultimate definition of scientific entertainment is authentic, optimized for performance and impact, and likely to create a desire to learn in an audience that has been impeded because, up to now, they have lacked powerful and engaging technologies to acquire health literacy.

The Market Opportunity

Humaginarium customers are adult consumers with no particular intellectual, social, or economic advantages, who play video games and have or risk developing a chronic illness. Though Humaginarium will ultimately serve a global audience, we begin in the United States where 60% of the adult population play video games daily and 60% have a chronic illness. 70% of players are 18 and older and the average age is 34. Players are nearly equally distributed among men and women and found in most ethnic and socioeconomic communities including those most at risk and least able to thrive.

We must parse these statistics to estimate the actual number of consumers that Humaginarium can entertain, inform and influence, but the number is at least in the tens of millions. They are not currently served by products like ours though their unmet needs are acute, as indicated in I-Corps customer discovery and research of the entertainment, health, and education industries.

Journeys of a thousand miles begin with one step. Our first step is metabolic syndrome, a leading cause of devastating chronic illnesses that is poorly understood and controlled by consumers. We are gearing Phase 1 R&D to just one of its rampant consequences: diabetes mellitus type 2. This narrows our initial project so that it can be structured, contextualized, and completed on time and budget, as we address the technical tip of a gargantuan iceberg.

We are researching a commercialization model for Humaginarium. It will be summarized in our SBIR Phase 1 application.

The Company and Team

The idea of Humaginarium emerged in 2010 when Robert Becker consulted with a national consortium of gastroenterologists. With their encouragement and limited financial support, he ideated a video game simulation about inflammatory bowel disease; produced media for preliminary clinical review; and presented research findings at the Games for Health Conference in Boston. Then he set aside the project until founding Humaginarium LLC for the express purpose of broadly rethinking and remaking health education as popular and engaging consumer entertainment.

As a bootstrapping company Humaginarium joined the Polsky Exchange at the University of Chicago (2016-2018). It was a Phase 0 member of NSF I-Corp Midwest and National cohorts (2018) and is now a member of the MATTER Healthcare Incubator in Chicago.

For about 30 years, cofounders Robert S. Becker, PhD and David H. Walker have worked in higher education, instructional systems, and video game entertainment. For our SBIR project they have prequalified collaborators in the areas of scientific subject matter, standards of care, computer modeling of physiology, medical CGI, software engineering, cloud services, business and finance.

Our website offers a concise statement of purpose with a menu of resources for more information. Our blog is a weekly update of activities and reflections. Our YourTube channel has samples of visual treatments created for exploratory research.

In addition to SBIR seed funding for technical R&D, we are preparing to seek corporate grants and private equity to underwrite pilot testing, commercialization and marketing of products that are made possible by SBIR.

How I Learned About SBIR

Robert Becker first heard about SBIR when consulting with the aforementioned gastroenterologists. In 2010 with their support he attended a government-hosted conference for potential applicants in North Carolina, where he met several program officers and prequalified the idea of Humaginarium as a fit for the program. In 2016 he attended a two-day workshop for potential SBIR applicants given by BBC Consulting, hosted by the iBIO Institute’s PROPEL Center in Chicago. In 2017 he submitted an SBIR executive summary to NSF and received a green light to apply from two program officers (education and smart health). After hearing about the launch of Phase 0, making it possible for nonacademic startups to participate in I-Corps, he applied to join the Midwest Node of I-Corps that convened in Ann Arbor in January-February 2018. Afterwards the Midwest Node recommended Humaginarium for a national I-Corps cohort, which convened in Newark in July-August 2018.

© 2019 Humaginarium LLC