Forget unicorns.We may fall for their rippling musculature and lustrous manes, but unicorns are purely the stuff of fiction. And in today's crowded, crushingly congested market, we're better (if not best) equipped to breed and track rare creatures when we tread quietly, and resist the temptation to constantly mythologize. At the very least, visionary entrepreneurs and clear-eyed investors should adopt a stronger metaphor--and with it, a more actionable target: the black rhino. They're few in number, formidable, and ferocious to a fault. And maybe horns aren't the greatest prize. When we look elsewhere across the the same wild African savannahs, we see an even greater source of inspiration--and promise. Homo sapiens.

Unchanged over millennia isn't just our ability to make and shape tools--or indeed our unique capacity to formulate fiction(s) and embrace those same narratives--but our vulnerability to making instinctual decisions driven by the oldest, least rational part of ourselves: the lizard brain. This is what urgently warrants consideration. Latent in our primordial minds are billion-dollar business opportunities. Starbucks, for instance, isn't in the coffee business; they're purveyors of the world's most popular and least stigmatized psychoactive drug: caffeine. A no-less-potent example is Facebook. Make no mistake--Facebook isn't a media site or a global public utility; it's a scarily resourceful farming instrument, designed to "milk" dopamine by releasing pleasure sensations, using the same reward pathways stimulated by delicious foods, sexual activity, drug consumption, or making money.

At stake, and under consideration here, is the power of the lizard brain--"the seat of emotion, addiction, mood, and mental processing"--which governs a notably high percentage of routine decision-making.

Behavioral economists like Danny Kahneman, Richard Thaler, and Dan Ariely attest to the potent (and often confounding) power of the limbic system--the complex set of structures responsible for our emotional life and the formation of memories. Evolutionary psychologists like Jonathan Haight, whose work examines the spiritual and political self, lend additional credence. Even randomness theorists like Leonard Mlodinow join the chorus of writers and researchers who identify the presence of rational blocks and blind spots when it comes not just to the enterprise of decision-making but our very basic biological faculties (and weaknesses).

In today's business environment, large-market-cap companies with real corporate maturity recognize their vulnerability when it comes to disruption not just from known rivals, but from nearly invisible startups. Which are everywhere and anywhere. Market leaders quietly acknowledge the limitations of trying to out-speed competitors (which they often can't) or trying to out-spend them (which they can, but less cleverly). These twin tactics are often tin tools in a reinforced steel war. Companies can't just fight for simple share of wallet, or sliver of mind. CEOs and leaders in every industry, vertical, domain, and discipline should quickly come to terms with a new truth: In this new era, the chemistry and basic mechanics of brain activity are the real keys to winning.

To be clear, purer tech isn't the answer. And the Internet isn't the sole superhighway. The limbic system offers much faster, more impressive (and permanent) lanes for commercial and emotional traffic. It means that future billion-dollar businesses likely won't claw out incremental value through novel engineering, ruthless execution, or blind luck. IDEO argues--and adroitly so for the last several decades--that addressing latent needs or unmet desires is paramount. True. But we now are called upon to drill even deeper, into more primitive or primordial motivations: fear, flight, fatigue, the urge to fornicate, and the imperative to feed ourselves.

Critics of all-consuming tech hysteria point out that this most recent wave of innovation has largely lacked invention. The winners have just led the digitization or data-ization of the analog world. Uber's $68 billion on-demand transport system facilitated conveyance by exploiting under-utilized "real estate" in the rear and passenger-side seats of automobiles; what they didn't crack, birth, or deliver is pilotless cars. Airbnb's $25.5 billion business took a similar approach to unlocking under-exploited real estate, offering flexible accommodation or what we might consider clever "leasing" scenarios, but they haven't shaken the notion of shelter or residential living to its foundation. Even $16BN+ WeWork provides shallow evidence, catering at best imperfectly to knowledge workers, in a gig economy, with changing demands for office space; they haven't figured out how to dramatically improve community or hospitality. Unsolved are issues of well-being, meaning, and joy.

So what's next? AI, machine learning, and robotics are in the mix. And it's widely written (or broadly assumed) that the most lucrative, life-altering frontiers are likely to be genetics, energy innovation, health and wellness, and nanotech. I wouldn't contest this. But despite the Decacorn Club's attempts to force feed us, we're hardly any happier. Suffering is the new status quo.

According to the 2017 U.N. World Happiness Report, the most significant source of (global) human suffering isn't AIDS, malaria, or food insecurity but mental illness. If we narrow our geographic focus to what Jonathan Haidt calls WEIRD countries (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic), mental health factors more prominently in the human happiness quotient than issues of income, employment, or physical health--combined.

The report even suggests that in the developing world, efforts to address depression and anxiety would have a greater impact on overall well-being (and GDP) than a reduction in poverty, unemployment, or physical illness.

If the brain is our barrier to global well-being, it's also the source of the biggest deals to cash in on. As the line between the digital and material worlds continues to blur beyond any practical distinction, we'll be tasked with babying and battling the 1,400 grams of immaculately folded tissue we call the brain. That means: breakthrough brands and businesses of the future will be those best able to leverage and exploit neuropsychology.

New gold can be mined in eliminating the perception of pain and increasing the experience of genuine pleasure. Digital encounters and immersive programs can open the brain's dopamine, endorphin, serotonin, acetylcholine, and oxytocin valves--killing pain, stimulating happiness, stoking arousal, and promoting bonding. When neurotransmitters are targeted, intelligently leveraged, and scaled in the next wave of business innovation and service design, big new winners will emerge. More importantly still, there will be a major rebalancing of the strategic landscape for founders, operators of major brands, and individual consumers.

There is already proof to which we can point. Consider devout sports fans, for instance. Fans watching a game experience a rush of biochemical reactions (not unlike athletes on the field); their brains flood with dopamine (reward), adrenaline (energy), oxytocin (bonding), and testosterone (victory). Consider, too, that MLB's At Bat mobile app has been the No.1 sports league app for iOS and Android for four years, and that At Bat users spend more than 2.8 times as many minutes on the app as they do on its competitors. Fans not only venerate the heroes on the field or revile the villains; they bond with the face-painted, jersey-wearing crowd that fist-pumps or curses along with a game's thrill and despair.

The imperative to invest in similar innovations is nothing compared to the cost of complacency. By 2020, mental health costs are projected to hit $6 trillion, according to the World Economic Forum--that's greater than the cost of diabetes, respiratory disorders, cardiovascular disease, or cancer. Businesses that focus on moments of human vulnerability will cash in on an opportunity. But to consider it a payday is much too cynical. This is a call to increase the depth of human emotional experience, to expand our capacity to celebrate and to connect.

Startup success doesn't just depend on it. Our happiness does.

Published on: Apr 7, 2017
The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of