Set in Stone

NM awards $150,000 in LEDA funds to Santa Fe startup Parting Stone

When her first husband Gregory Alan Grisham died in 2004 from a brain aneurism, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham encountered the same difficult decisions many people face when their loved ones pass away: what to do next with their remains. In the case of her husband, Grisham was cremated, and “we weren’t ready,” the governor said. “We didn’t have a plot or a family cemetery or a family-unified church relationship. It was very diverse. And I’m going to suggest that’s probably more often the case for families.”

Ultimately, Lujan Grisham’s family chose to use a columbarium—essentially a structure that stores and even displays urns containing cremated remains. “But we didn’t feel as connected as we needed to, and actually going to visit that space was limited,” she said. So, the family worked with a company that transformed a portion of the ashes into gems she and her daughters share. “They still mean something to us,” she said. “They’re environmentally sound, and we can carry them with us when we choose.”

Parting Stone CEO and founder Justin Crowe is well aware of the lack of options for people struggling in the face of loss to deal with human remains. After his grandfather died in 2015, the entrepreneur spent a lot of time thinking about death and mortality and how to improve the cremation industry so people could have more meaningful experiences.

His company takes the full remains of both humans and non-human animals and solidifies them into a form that resembles a collection of smooth stones. In 2018, Parting Stone won the BizMIX competition and a $5,000 prize (disclaimer: This writer served as a judge on that panel), and the company has only continued to grow since.

On Aug. 10, Lujan Grisham announced the state is pledging $150,000 from the Local Economic Development Act (LEDA) so Parting Stone can grow from 20 to 109 employees with an average salary of $48,000 at its new Santa Fe facility, where it moved at the start of the year.

“I am really excited about the emotional aspect about what you’ve done for people,” Lujan Grisham said to Crowe during her remarks, ”including what a difference this can make going forward for my family,” she added, referencing the death of her mother, Sonja Lujan, last April, and noting that had the company and its services been available when her husband died, “it would have made a difference in that space.”

The City of Santa Fe will serve as fiscal agent for the funds and has pledged an additional $25,000 of local LEDA economic assistance, pending review and approval by the Santa Fe City Council.

“Every great startup begins with a big idea,” Mayor Alan Webber said during a news conference announcing the award held at Parting Stone. “And the big idea here couldn’t be more profound, and that is that every one of us needs to have a better option for dealing with death than we have had in the past… My experience in entrepreneurship is that all great startups do a number of things: they change the conversation. In your case, you’re changing the conversation about something profound.”

In the years since winning BizMIX, Crowe has also won the Balloon Pitch and Ski Lift pitch competitions; participated in the TechSprint startup accelerator at New Mexico State University’s Arrowhead Center and developed the technology his company uses with help from Los Alamos National Laboratory through the New Mexico Small Business Assistance Program. Last April, the state awarded Parting Stone $134,000 in Job Incentive Training Program (JTIP) funding for 15 trainees. He has also received significant buy-in from private investors.

“This is a shining star from BizMIX,” City Economic & Community Development Department Director Rich Brown tells SFR. “And we’re very excited about the growth and his ability to leverage the ecosystem.”

During a news conference announcing the LEDA award, Crowe discussed the earlier stages of the company when it proved its technology. “As far as we can tell, we’re the only company in the world offering a 100% alternative to cremated remains,” Crowe said. The ability to do so, he noted, transformed “the experience for these families from one that was kind of uncomfortable and caused some anxiety…into an experience that allowed them to hold their loved ones again, and allowed them to share the stones and solidified remains with their community and ultimately create a more positive experience for families.”

While launching a business right before the COVID-19 pandemic began provided numerous challenges, support from both the private and public sector have allowed the company to continuously grow. Today, Parting Stone works with 600 funeral homes across the US and Canada, and is in the process of “closing major partnerships” within New Mexico, the US and internationally, he said.

“It’s not been easy to grow this business over the last three years facing a pandemic, trying to innovate in an industry that’s very traditional,” Crowe said. “And trying to build this technology and this process along the way. And the support from the state that we’ve received has been crucial to us getting to this point. New Mexico is woven into the DNA of Parting Stone. And we’re so proud to be a New Mexico company.”

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