Deathtech Rising: Mylestoned Unveils Interactive Memorial Software

Xconomy Boston — 

A startup industry around “deathtech” seems to be emerging. Last fall, Xconomy was among the first to explore new business approaches to death in the digital age.

At the time, Boston serial entrepreneur Dave Balter was mum about what he was developing with one of the companies we featured, Mylestoned. That changes today with the launch of the startup’s beta version of its service that aims to give the grieving a more meaningful and interactive method of paying digital tribute to the dearly departed. (More on that in a minute.)

The seven-person company, which CEO Balter incorporated in January after leaving his position at Pluralsight, announced it has raised $1.5 million in seed funding from Founder Collective, Boston Seed Capital (where Balter is a venture partner), Converge Venture Partners, and individual investors.

The money gives Mylestoned a chance to see if it can gain some early traction in its quest to “reframe death through the communal transformation and discovery of memories,” as the company says in a press release announcing its launch.

“We think we’re at the forefront of a massive change of how people memorialize” the dead, Balter says.

Balter’s previous ventures include BzzAgent, a word-of-mouth marketing company he founded in 2001 and sold to Tesco subsidiary Dunnhumby a decade later for $60 million, and Smarterer, a skills-assessment company started in 2010 and acquired four years later by Pluralsight for $75 million.

A software company focused on death might seem like an abrupt departure for Balter. But he studied psychology in college and says all of his businesses “are really about the behaviors of people.” BzzAgent explored “the willingness of people to share their opinions.” Smarterer looked at the “necessity of us to prove our skills.” And now Mylestoned is focused on “this great psychological desire to stay connected to those that have passed on,” he says.

“The psych degree is the foundation for every curiosity I have about why people do what they do,” Balter says. “And I want to solve that stuff. I love seeing how you can help people come to their own conclusions and change their behaviors for the better.”

Balter has been obsessed with death for months. The initial spark for Mylestoned came during regular flights to New York’s LaGuardia Airport, when he was consistently unable to spot a single living person in the cemeteries that the plane passed over just before landing. The reason, Balter has said, is people are more “transient” these days, and it’s less common for them to live near the cemetery where their deceased relatives are buried or to routinely visit their graves. At the same time, more people are opting for cremation, in part, he argues, because they want their lives honored in a different way—for example, by having their ashes scattered into the sea.

His new company’s approach is to build software that makes it easier for people to share and view an engaging digital collection of memories of the deceased. In the beta version of the product, users can submit a “memory” by filling out a form on the company’s website or by sending it via text message to Mylie, a software bot created by Mylestoned using artificial intelligence techniques.

Balter gave me a sneak peek of the service last week. After texting “hi” to a number provided by Balter, Mylie responded and asked me to share a memory I have of the late actor Leonard Nimoy. I replied with a short tribute to him. I gave Mylie my name and confirmed that I wanted my memory shared on Nimoy’s “Mylestone”—the company’s term for each collection of memories. Within seconds the bot sent me a URL where I could view my homage, along with those that others have submitted.

An example of a "Mylestone" memory, this one submitted by Dave Balter.

An example of a “Mylestone” memory, this one submitted by Dave Balter.

The current version of the Mylestone is pretty bare bones, Balter admits. It has a sleek design, but it’s basically just short snippets of text. “Our roadmap has a long list of items that will turn this into a much more dynamic structure,” he says.

That will include augmenting the text with photos, videos, audio, and other features, Balter says. For example, if someone submits a memory about the deceased person’s love of football, Mylestoned will be able to embed images of football in the story in real-time. If users would prefer uploading their own pictures of the deceased playing football, say, they could do that. “We can make this relevant to a point, and allow the user to build on that with their own content,” Balter says.

One target audience is relatives and acquaintances of the deceased—people in the “second ring of grief” outside of the immediate family—who could create a Mylestone as a gift to the family, Balter says.

The company is still figuring out how it will generate revenue, but Balter says some possibilities could include a fee to maintain a Mylestone after a certain period of time has passed since a loved one’s death (a year, say), and perhaps charging people if their post about the deceased exceeds a certain length.

Still, choosing the right business model for a startup is difficult, and it’s an even more delicate decision in deathtech, given that customers are experiencing some of the most trying and emotional moments of their lives.

“We do believe strongly that things around death and memories, we’d prefer to put as few hurdles in place as possible to let people have the experience in the time of grief,” Balter says. “The last thing you want is [to say], ‘Hey, would you like to say some wonderful things to this person as a gift to the family? Slide your credit card here.’”

The public conversation around death does seem to be changing. Some signs Balter points to: “death cafes,” which are gatherings held around the globe where people (often strangers) eat cake, drink tea, and discuss death; and a “death positive” movement started by The Order of the Good Death, a group of funeral industry professionals, academics, and artists trying to “prepare a death-phobic culture for their inevitable mortality.” The group has amassed hundreds of signatures from people expressing their intentions to talk more openly about death.

At the same time, people are seeking new ways “to celebrate the spirits of their loved ones,” Balter says.

The timing might be right for Mylestoned, says David Chang, a Boston entrepreneur and investor, and PayPal Media Network’s former chief operating officer. (Chang is not a Mylestoned investor and is not involved with the company.)

“I think it’s too early to [say] whether there will be a whole industry of [deathtech] services, or simply the emergence of narrowly focused apps that address specific use cases,” Chang says in an e-mail message. “I suspect we’ll see a few different services launch in this industry before they merge/consolidate with each other or get acquired by incumbents.”

There are already plenty of websites that enable people to pay tribute to the dead through text, photos, videos, and so on. And social media platforms like Facebook have also become popular ways of memorializing the dead online.

But Balter thinks those options leave a lot to be desired. Not everyone has a Facebook account, so making that the main vehicle for online tribute automatically leaves out some family and friends. And the “likes, emojis, and well-intentioned comments” of social media can “trivialize meaningful memorialization and can sometimes lead to awkward interactions,” Mylestoned says in the press release.

Meanwhile, Balter sees current websites dedicated to memorializing the dead as “one-dimensional” and essentially just taking the traditional funeral-home comments book and moving it online. “We haven’t taken that to the point of enabling the spirits of those loved ones to be around us at times that matter,” Balter says.

Mylestoned intends to make that possible in future versions of its software by enabling the recollection of memories based on triggers like dates, events, and visiting certain locations. (The concept is similar to what SafeBeyond, another deathtech company, has built.) For example, on favorite holidays or the anniversary of a loved one’s passing, Mylestoned could send a notification to family members and friends that “there’s a gift waiting for you, which is a series of memories” they can view, Balter says.

Another example of a trigger would be a place that held meaning to the deceased person, perhaps a favorite restaurant. When someone in the person’s “Web of memories” visits that spot, Mylestoned could serve up digital memories people had shared about the deceased’s experiences at that place, Balter says. The idea is for Mylestoned to be more than an online repository of memories, but to add “relevance” and “discoverability” of things people might not know about the dearly departed.

Balter also suggests that Mylestoned could someday incorporate augmented and virtual reality technologies, which are still in early stages of development and adoption. “Today, [the format] may be a Web page. In 20 years, it might be AR/VR.”

Balter and his team are taking a smart approach in the early going by starting with a “tight focus” on a small number of features, Chang says.

“I also think Mylestoned is positioned well,” Chang says, “on how it’s leveraging its target user base: low barrier to get the ball rolling, relying on a few motivated individuals to seed the content, then enabling a broader audience to consume the content and provide positive feedback/cycle to encourage more adoption.”

Mylestoned’s primary challenge, Chang says, will be “figuring out how much to leverage existing incumbent content sources (e.g., Facebook) to jumpstart adoption and grow their own user base.”

“They can either create a destination site/app and require their users to create content from scratch, or take a thin layer approach where they stitch together media that already exists,” Chang says. “Both strategies can work, but have very different pros and cons.”

Ultimately, Mylestoned could be useful not only to those who knew the deceased personally, but also those who didn’t, including those born after the person is gone. “You can imagine a future where every single deceased person has almost a personality or a set of memories so anyone can discover who they were,” Balter says.

“The goal is to create this tapestry of people and who they were and the impact they had on the world,” he continues. “You don’t have to just chisel someone’s name in granite and put them in a cemetery and hope to go there to remember them. It can be present all around you.”