Disclosure: For many years, I have served in some capacity as a judge for MIX Santa Fe's BizMIX competition, an accelerator program for local entrepreneurs. I always enjoy reading the various pitches and proposals and, as an inherently lazy person, admire all the folks in Santa Fe toiling to create new restaurants, services and products for the rest of us.
This year, one of the initial pitches last spring stuck out to me as it proposed a business to revolutionize cremation via new technology with help from Los Alamos National Laboratory. Always on the look-out for science-meets-world stories, as well as a sucker for anything that sounds like the premise for a zombie flick, I contacted Parting Stone founder Justin Crowe and invited myself over to his Second Street studio to learn more.
Crowe, 30, received a BFA in ceramics from Alfred University but, even as an art student, was just as drawn to the commerce side of the endeavor. When he analyzed all the things he loved about pottery—an obsession from the age of 10—he soon realized he loved creating things and he also loved selling them: an entrepreneur was born.
"Building businesses feels like building art," he says. "You start with nothing, you
have an idea in your head … you have to figure out the tools that you
need and the people you need and the funding you need and … slowly you take the world that's in your head and get the rest of the world to see it like that. That was my process with art and that's also my process with business."
Crowe began creating products and selling them on the internet. One is named Paul, a giant torso whose crotch serves as a phone charger. Another iterates on the selfie-stick by allowing users to take photos in which they appear to be holding hands with someone else. Both were intentionally funny and designed as objects of both aesthetics and discourse.
But after Crowe's grandfather died in 2015, the entrepreneur began thinking less humorously about society's relationship to technology and more intently about the culture's relationship to mortality. "I started to research death and mortality because I was facing my mortality for the first time watching him die," he says.
He was thinking about how people inherently strive to remain connected to their loved ones after they die, and also began mulling the average experience for those whose loved ones are cremated: the trauma of seeing a loved one reduced to ash and bone, followed by the challenge of deciding how to live with those remains. Crowe describes the entirety of the cremation industry as "an unfortunate user experience," and set about improving it.
Knowing a bit about glaze chemistry, he began experimenting with adding ashes to glazes and from there launched Lifeware, a business that incorporated remains into jewelry and other objects. Crowe then began further investigating the funeral industry, a point of interest that became an obsession.
Today, Crowe is the managing editor for connectingdirectors.com, a website for funeral industry professionals (yes, this is a thing and it's pretty fascinating. Be sure to check out Crowe's story, "DJ Khaled's New Hit Song is a Major Milestone for Cremation.") Through that work and additional research, Crowe began to expand on Lifeware's original mission.
"We were making cremated remains beautiful and touchable and displayable," he says, but nonetheless, people were still left with 12 cups of ashes. Crowe pushed forward. His current business, Parting Stone and its technology, Purified Remains, takes cremated ashes, removes impurities, superheats them into molten remains and then creates "purified remains," a solid object (or possibly many solid objects) that can be touched and displayed.
Crowe applied for and received help from the New Mexico Small Business Assistance Program, which connects small businesses with technical challenges like his to either LANL or Sandia National Laboratory. Crowe was paired with LANL scientist Chris Chen, who described to me the technical problem of firing the ashes at a high temperature with a small amount of glass to create a solid object as a "very easy" problem to solve.
The science may not be complex (if you have a Ph.D in material science and engineering at any rate), but the disruptive nature of Crowe's idea touches on a variety of complex issues regarding attitudes toward death and memorialization. Moreover, the rise of cremation versus burial created an opening for someone with an entrepreneurial spirit. "The death industry is so starved of innovation," Crowe says, and "that's created a situation where there's a lot of opportunity."
On Sept. 20, judges picked Purified Remains as the top BizMIX recipient and awarded it $5,000. Crowe also picked up a CEO through the BizMIX process (BizMIX mentor Kimberly Corbitt) and is on his way to launching what appears to be a very successful endeavor.
"The dream is that we're creating a new form of human remains," he says. "The results will be beautiful and touchable and clean, and they're going to have a really good and beautiful user experience."
For more information about Purified Remains, go to partingstone.com