Mr. Bencke, the popular co-founder of Seattle startup Mighty AI and a former Microsoft manager, died in his Bellevue home late Wednesday night after his battle with cancer.
In the weeks after learning he had stage 4 pancreatic cancer, Matt Bencke diligently put together photo albums for his two daughters with nearly a decade’s worth of pictures.
He also worked with a videographer for nearly an hour each day, recording advice for them on college, careers and love, as well as stories of his life.
Mr. Bencke, the popular co-founder of Seattle startup Mighty AI and a former Microsoft manager, died at his Bellevue home late Wednesday night from cancer. He was 45.
“We are all so fragile. Each day is precious.”
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Mr. Bencke wrote these words in a post on national tech news site Wired in late August. He chronicled the days, less than a month before, when he found out he had pancreatic cancer and that his life was “hanging by a thread.”
Since then, a public Facebook group with updates on his condition brought together nearly 900 members, many of them taking time to share stories and photos of Mr. Bencke on the site.
His friends remember him as someone who always genuinely cared about everyone he interacted with.
“Even as he became more ill, he would still ask me what was going on with me,” said Seattle entrepreneur Greg Gottesman, a friend and colleague. “It wasn’t perfunctory. He was really interested and trying to be helpful.”
Mr. Bencke most recently served as CEO of Mighty AI, a startup that helps companies improve their artificial-intelligence technology. Before that, he worked as a senior vice president at Getty Images and on the Xbox and Windows teams at Microsoft. He also spent more than eight years at Boeing as a director of business and global strategy.
“He’s just a force of nature,” his wife, Amy Mezulis, said Thursday “He’s just such a personality. He’s pure energy in the room.”
Mezulis met her husband 20 years ago this week on a blind date that turned out to be not so blind. The two realized they had gone to Harvard University together. Mezulis remembers feeling immediately drawn to Mr. Bencke’s “wicked smart” and passionate personality. They married less than three years later.
Their careers took them from the Bay Area to Madison, Wisconsin, to Seattle, and a love of travel took them even further — to Russia, France and southern Africa.
After his diagnosis, Mezulis asked her husband what some of his favorite trips were. To her surprise, he included a vacation the two took to Paris and the south of France in the late 1990s. The pair had gotten in a fight, about something long forgotten, which had ended with one of them stomping across a small town square.
“I asked him, ‘And that makes it your favorite trip?’ ” Mezulis said. “He said, ‘but then we made up, and there was so much passion.’ That was just it, we were all in, good and bad.”
When Hadi Partovi, CEO of Seattle’s Code.org, met Mr. Bencke the first week of their freshman year at Harvard University, he didn’t yet know the technology leader that Mr. Bencke would become. Instead, he had heard of Mr. Bencke’s claim to fame as the student who, as a summer intern, had discovered the farthest galaxy known to man at the time.
Mr. Bencke started out studying astronomy, Partovi said, then changed his mind and learned to speak Russian while he studied international relations.
“Something that makes Matt unique is how he’s reinvented himself so many times throughout his career,” said Partovi. “Matt has basically never shied away from trying something new and different.”
Mr. Bencke went on to earn a Ph.D. in political science before pursuing careers that would eventually lead to his role as a tech startup leader.
At work, Mr. Bencke took care to make sure the employees of Mighty AI felt valued and welcomed, Partovi said.
He started a practice in the company’s early days where new employees would share information about their families and hobbies at weekly all-staff meetings, a practice that continued even as the company expanded past 50 people, the Mighty AI team said on its blog Thursday.
They referred to him as Coach Taylor from “Friday Night Lights,” someone who could always bring the team together. “He would push people hard, but he would always be the one that was working the hardest,” Gottesman said.
Fellow Mighty AI co-founder Daryn Nakhuda will continue to lead Mighty AI, after stepping in as interim CEO shortly after Mr. Bencke’s diagnosis in July.
Even as he worked long hours at his job, Mezulis said, he was always present and deeply involved in his family’s life. He made pancakes for his daughters every Saturday morning (extra eggs, no dairy). He would take his daughters out to dinner, each individually, to have one-on-one time.
He was so focused on whatever he was concentrating on at any given time, Mezulis said, that he always made people feel cherished and special.
“If you talked about a book over a meeting, he would remember to email it to you later or order it for you,” she said. “He was very unique.”
Besides his wife, Mr. Bencke is survived by daughters Anna, 15, and Elsie, 12.
Mr. Bencke’s rock band, Element 47, is playing a concert at 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 23 at The Crocodile as a fundraiser for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.
A memorial service for Mr. Bencke will be at 1 p.m. Nov. 9 at Bellevue Presbyterian Church.