Matt Bencke, a fixture in Seattle’s technology community and co-founder of the startup Mighty AI, passed away on Wednesday after a battle with stage-4 pancreatic cancer.
Bencke, 45, was diagnosed with the disease in August and had vowed to “beat the odds.” His Mighty AI co-founder, Daryn Nakhuda, who stepped in as the 3-year-old company’s CEO, shared the news of Bencke’s passing on Thursday in a blog post titled “In our hearts, always.”
“It’s difficult to express what a profound impact Matt has had on my life, as well as the lives of our Mighty AI colleagues,” Nakhuda wrote. “In addition to being a good friend and just all-around wonderful human being, Matt was a visionary leader. He was Coach Taylor from ‘Friday Night Lights,’ with a gift for rallying the team around a shared mission. He had a palpable energy about him that I will miss dearly.”
Bencke, who is survived by his wife Amy and two daughters Anna, 14, and Elsie, 11, was well-respected in the Seattle tech community, where he worked at companies like Microsoft, Getty Images and Boeing before launching Mighty AI. An active runner and biker, Bencke was known to be in strong physical health prior to the diagnosis, which is why so many were stunned by his diagnosis.
In late August, he published an essay on Wired titled “The Day I Found Out My Life Was Hanging by a Thread,” in which he detailed the traumatic day in which doctors told him he had more than 10 tumors in his liver, pancreas and chest.
“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,” Bencke wrote. “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.”
— Matt Bencke (@bencke) August 24, 2017
Nakhuda noted in his post on Thursday how Bencke established a tradition at Mighty AI where new employees would give a presentation about their background, hobbies, families, and passions so new colleagues could learn more about them as a person.
“This to me exemplifies Matt as a colleague,” Nakhuda wrote. “It was important to him that, no matter how much we grow, we take the time to learn more about each other than just our names and titles. That we actively seek to find common connections with one another and embrace what makes each of us who we are.”
Greg Gottesman, a venture partner at Madrona Venture Labs 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,” Gottesman told GeekWire in August. “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 Gottesman and others launched 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.
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, 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 employs 55 people and recently opened new offices in Boston and Detroit. The startup has raised $27 million to date from backers that include Intel Capital, Accenture, Foundry Group, Madrona Venture Group, New Enterprise Associates and GV, the investing arm of Google.
— seth levine (@sether) October 19, 2017
Some of those firms are participating in a Pancreatic Cancer Action Network charity event next month under the name “Matt’s Army.”
— Rick (Evidence Based) Klau (@rklau) October 19, 2017
Bencke’s supporters in Seattle, also known as “Matt’s Army,” have come together to donate more than $57,000 in Bencke’s name for the PanCan walk in Seattle on Oct. 29. Bencke also played in a band, Element47, which organized a concert to help raise money for pancreatic cancer research next Monday in Seattle.