LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – Very soon “everyone will have an avatar to represent themselves”, according to CEO and co-founder of 3-D avatar creation company DNABlock, Anthony Kelani. “Pixar for people”, as he describes his company, will “allow people to build, perform and publish to the metaverse”. On Tuesday, the startup announced it had procured $1.2 million in seed funding from Softbank’s new diversity-minded Opportunity Fund, Twitch co-founder Kevin Lin and a few other investors focused on bringing about the “next generation” of the Internet.
A drop in the bucket as far as technology investments go, but part of a continuing and concerted effort to build out the virtual ecosystem that combines Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR), gaming and commercial transactions into “one big, pervasive network layer”, where the various sectors of the economy currently migrating to digital-first offerings can better engage with their potential customers.
After all, the metaverse is dead in the water if no one is hanging around the pixel-based shopping mall by the alphanumeric fountain. Kelani understands that in order for the concept of a metaverse to succeed, a population has to live in it that is independent from any particular social media company like Facebook or avatars linked to specific gaming brands. Such an approach is “not scalable,” he says, adding that “in order to achieve scale in the metaverse, you’ve got to have a community of independent creators.”
That is why DNABlocks is placing special emphasis on developing avatar-creation tools that reflect minorities, who according to Pew research studies surveying social media demographics and activism, represent the lion’s share of usage across the most popular platforms. “The metaverse needs to represent everyone,” says Kelani. Softbank Opportunity Fund’s managing partner Shu Nyatta agrees, but clarifies that “beyond creating new spaces for us to connect with each other, it is also creating new streams of revenue.”
By letting people create a digital “replica of themselves” in just 40 seconds, Nyatta points out that DNABlocks removes the skill barriers similar tools may have and opens the door for anyone “to easily participate in the metaverse”. The Japanese venture capital powerhouse’s investment in the company that lists AI, Blockchain and “Fashiontech” among its specialties is minimal, but sure to dovetail with its much larger stakes in related healthcare tech companies, which are in the process of developing so-called digital therapeutic technologies and whose success is equally contingent on mass emigration into the metaverse.
In the fall of 2020, Softbank led a $100 million investment round for a Boston-based digital therapeutics company called Biofourmis, that uses artificial intelligence and algorithms to “predict, treat and manage disease”, with a business plan that revolves around partnerships with pharmaceutical companies and healthcare organizations “where payment is tied to patient outcomes”.
Founded by an MIT Media Lab alum in 2015, Biofourmis already had 150 employees and offices in the United States, Singapore, Switzerland and India by the time Softbank came along and made it the fourth healthcare technology company of its sputtering Vision Fund 2 portfolio. The other three firms include an AI blood diagnostics company, a digital pharmacy and a precision gene therapy company.
Last May, Biofourmis brought in Amazon Halo’s chief medical officer, Maulik Majmudar, to serve in the same position at the fledgling firm. Before overseeing the tech giant’s first wearable health tracker, Majmudar had already built a long track record in the space as co-founder of Quanttus – a pioneering wearable tech venture, he and two fellow MIT researchers began in 2012. Despite its commercial failure, all three landed at top spots in the health technology divisions of Silicon Valley’s biggest players, Apple, Alphabet and aforementioned Amazon.
Majmudar joins his other MIT colleague at Biofourmis full time to develop the company’s wearables as it embarks on refining the “services to put around that technology to really drive the outcomes [they] care about”. As the company’s clinical advisor since 2015 and board member, Majmudar now oversees the company’s remote patient-tracking technologies that hinge around an armband sensor made by Biovotion, which it acquired in 2019. The biomarker data collected through the wearable is relayed to physicians via an online dashboard called Biovitals Analytics Engine.
Three months after Majmudar’s arrival, the FDA conferred a “breakthrough device” designation on Biofourmis’ heart failure medication-monitoring digital therapeutics platform, the first such designation by the agency for a wearable device in a clinical context, opening the door to fast-track approval and bolstering the company’s growth, which has more than doubled its workforce to 350 employees and raised $45 million more since last fall.
It also brings the company closer the CEO’s goal of making “the technology itself be administered as a treatment program”. Notably, heart failure affects African Americans and women disproportionately, with the latter accounting for both the highest incidence and worst outcomes of the disease. Biofourmis’ wearable is intended to track heart rate, respiration rate and stroke volume to allow patients to regulate their intake of ACE inhibitors from home.
Clash of the Avatars
At the moment, the world of the digital avatar consumerism promised by the metaverse and the emerging telehealth and remote data tracking technologies seem far apart. But, this is only a temporary illusion, since both are converging at an alarming rate of speed and a consolidated digital ecosystem where your doctor and your favorite entertainer are both computer-generated images existing within the same VR space isn’t as far-fetched or far off as it seems.
Other wearable technology companies like Neurosity are already closing the gap between the entertainment/gaming side of the metaverse and healthcare with their release of a wearable EEG (brain wave) monitoring device marketed as a productivity optimization tool. The “personal brain computer” called “Crown”, promises greater levels of concentration and “more magical moments”. The head gear comes integrated with a Spotify account, which is activated by your brain activity to play “just the right music to get you back in the zone”.
Blackstone Group’s recent acquisition of meditation app Headspace and merger with its MIT-spin off company Ginger to create the world’s biggest on-demand mental health mobile platform demonstrates how close these two worlds are coming together and with companies like DNABlock making the process of building a virtual identity – complete with ethnic characteristics to mirror you back to yourself – practically effortless, the metaverse appears to be manifesting before our eyes, beckoning us to come in.
DNABlock is also paving the way to link avatars to the blockchain through its “play-to-earn” Chain Clash cryptocurrency game, which innovated a new blockchain gaming protocol called Proof-of-Clash. Meanwhile, the integration of blockchain technologies to segments of the healthcare sector are already well-underway with partnerships like that between IBM and Moderna for the former’s Digital Health Pass medical credential.
With the technology to store and move genomic data on the blockchain overcoming the initial obstacles presented by the data’s sheer size compared to normal merchant transactions, the only hurdle standing in the way of a consolidated digitally-twined metaverse designed to profit from our very existence is the awareness of our own true nature as heirs to a vast, mysterious and living universe.