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Matt Bencke
Mighty AI co-founder Matt Bencke

Mighty AI co-founder Matt Bencke has stepped down as CEO of the fast-growing Seattle startup after being diagnosed with stage-4 pancreatic cancer.

Bencke, who co-founded Mighty AI in 2014 and helped the company raise $27 million in venture capital, passed the CEO reins to co-founder and CTO Daryn Nakhuda late last month after learning of the illness. Bencke remains on the board.

The diagnosis shocked members of Seattle’s technology community, many of whom have known Bencke from his past work at companies such as Microsoft, Getty Images and Boeing. The 45-year-old father of two young girls aged 14 and 11 was known to be in strong physical health prior to the diagnosis, which is why so many were stunned by the news. He’s a runner, biker and practices yoga.

“It’s obviously very tough to hear, especially somebody who’s so physically fit … and mentally fit. It was tough,” said Nakhuda, who received the news from his friend while walking to work in downtown Seattle from the Washington State Ferry terminal. He called Bencke a “great leader” and “visionary” who has set the tone and culture for Mighty AI.

Mighty AI’s founding team: Patrick O’Donnell; Matt Shobe; Matt Bencke and Daryn Nakhuda. (Mighty AI photo)

In an essay published on Wired on Thursday titled “The Day I Found Out My Life Was Hanging by a Thread,” Bencke details the traumatic day in which doctors told him he had more than 10 tumors in his liver, pancreas and chest.

He writes that he wants to “beat the odds” and intends to “beat this cancer” so he can cheer on his daughters at sporting events, send them to college and walk them down the aisle. He also notes that Mighty AI has “a shot at becoming an innovation benchmark in the breakout AI field.”

“Nothing would make me happier than to get back in the driver’s seat of my charmed life at home, work, and with friends and family,” he writes.

But, Bencke also writes, that he wants to be realistic, pointing out that the two-year survival rate of stage-4 pancreatic cancer is less than five percent, and the five-year survival rate is zero percent.

“If I get a soapbox, here’s my short shtick: We are all so fragile. Each day is precious. And the most important parts of our lives are the relationships we invest in,” writes Bencke. “I certainly feel that way, as my friends and family—“Matt’s Army”—have Amy and me awash in love that feels like a mighty waterfall.”

For now, Mighty AI is looking to move forward, despite what can only be described as an extremely difficult situation.

“Fortunately, the company is really tight knit, and we’ve hired a lot of people who share the same values,” Nakhuda told GeekWire. “So it just brought us closer together. We’re all motivated by making Matt proud, and by building out the vision that we’ve all been working towards for the past three years. And just moving forward.” 

As an example, nine members of the Mighty AI team participated in the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s Obliteride bike ride ten days ago, raising more than $12,500 for cancer research. Members of the team also have been creating cards and special video messages for their co-founder. The diagnosis also has stressed the importance of work-life balance at Mighty AI.

“Balance has always been one of our core values. And so this just brings it home a little bit as far as taking care of yourself while taking care of the business,” said Nakhuda. “We all try to be really ambitious and accountable for what we commit to, but also making sure that we balance ourselves in our lives and our health because, as we have seen, it is very fragile.” 

Formerly known as Spare 5, Mighty AI is one of Seattle’s hottest startup companies. It focuses on an area it dubs Training Data as a Service, basically providing the human insights that help make artificial intelligence engines smarter.

The technology is especially critical to the development of autonomous vehicles, and Mighty AI is now reportedly working with more than a dozen automakers. The company taps the insights of people to help make AI engines stronger in vehicles, for example identifying objects along the road that could be potential obstacles.

Mighty AI’s backers include Intel Capital, Accenture, Foundry Group, Madrona Venture Group, New Enterprise Associates and GV, the investing arm of Google.

Greg Gottesman, a venture partner at Madrona and a Mighty AI board member, called Bencke a “world-class CEO and an even better person.”

“I don’t think I have ever met a human being with more positive energy and more of an authentic interest in helping those around him,” said Gottesman. “He truly has changed my life in so many positive ways.  I bike to work because of Matt — he was always asking if I was exercising enough and just kept pushing me to do the right thing.  So many people have stories like that about Matt.”

Bencke was the first CEO hired at Madrona Venture Labs when the Gottesman and others started the startup incubator. Gottesman called Bencke “smart, positive, relentless, passionate, analytical, with a crazy work ethic.”

“Through smarts and force of will, he drove Mighty AI to become one of the most exciting startups anywhere,” he said.

As part of the management changes, Eric Webster has been named chief revenue officer. He previously served as VP of growth. The company, which employs 50 people, plans to hire a new VP of engineering to fill Nakhuda’s prior role.

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