Funeral planning idea wins $25k top prize at UW student startup competition

The AfterLife Listings team from the University of Washington during a virtual presentation. Clockwise from top left: Co-founder Clara Kobashigawa, co-founder Aidan Shev and UX specialist Brendan Tran. (UW Photo)

A team of University of Washington students whose mission is to simplify planning and transactions related to burial plots, has won the $25,000 grand prize in the 2021 Dempsey Startup Competition hosted by the UW Foster School’s Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship.

AfterLife Listings and its online marketplace beat out three other teams that reached the final round of the all-virtual contest. The results were announced on Friday. Now in its 24th year, Dempsey Startup is designed to give students practice in the putting together a team, writing a business plan, pitching to investors and learning the dynamics around venture creation.

The $15,000 second prize went to a UW and Olympic College team called Puget Buoy, “a green technology startup developing experimental fishing gear designed to prevent whale entanglements and reduce lost fishing gear for the improved health and sustainability of the seafood industry.”

Washington State University’s Ananta won third prize and $10,000 for “developing a bioreactor that can rapidly expand T-cells for use in cancer immunotherapy with the goal of disrupting the cell-based therapy market.”

UW’s HealthXpress took fourth and $7,5000 for its plan to develop “refurbished mobile clinics to solve the problem of health inequality in underdeveloped countries.”

AfterLife, which also won $2,500 for the K&L Gates Best Business to Consumer Idea, is made up of co-founder Aidan Shev, a senior majoring in biochemistry and minoring in entrepreneurship; co-founder Clara Kobashigawa, a junior majoring in communications, sales certificate and minoring in entrepreneurship; and UX designer Brendan Tran, a junior majoring in informatics with a concentration in human-computer interactions.

Kobashigawa said the idea originated after her family had to say goodbye to a loved one and was shocked to see the lack of price transparency and information online in regards to purchasing a burial plot. After running the idea by professor and mentor Alan Leong, she and Shev got to work at the beginning of the year.

“The last thing a grieving partner or family member should have to do is worry about the logistics of how to best say goodbye to a loved one,” Kobashigawa said. “That is why we hope to act as a resource for families going through this process and to simplify the stress of finding a burial plot.”

AfterLife Listings website during a presentation. (UW Photo)

The startup is pre-launch, but the team says it’s been in contact with the vast majority of King County cemeteries and is finalizing initial partnerships. The primary revenue streams will stem from subscriptions, featured listings, appraisals, and financing. Tran said his goal was to create a seamless and straightforward environment where users from all technical backgrounds could navigate the website without any frustrations.

Tech has been gaining ground in a bid to modernize the services around end-of-life decisions. Portland-based Solace is simplifying cremation services with online tools and Seattle’s Recompose turns human remains into soil with its unique processes.

“We believe that gaining a foothold in the burial market will allow us to rapidly branch out into offering caskets, flowers, green burials, and other funeral services on our website,” Shev said. “We hope to be the one-stop-shop for afterlife celebrations.”

The Dempsey competition is open to undergrads and grad students at colleges and universities in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, British Columbia and Alaska and attracted 100 entrants this year representing 23 schools.

Thirty teams moved on to the Investment Round, which is the first live-pitch/presentation portion of the competition. Before the pandemic, this was a “tradeshow style” in-person event. Teams this year and last created their own virtual booths with breakout rooms and presentation materials (slide decks, video, prototypes, etc.) as part of the competition, according to the UW.

Out of that group, 16 teams moved on to the Sweet 16 round on Wednesday, and four teams moved on to present to a select panel of Final Round judges on Thursday.

This year’s prize money totaled $90,000 — the most ever. Over the past 24 years, more than 5,800 students have participated, and 218 teams have been awarded undiluted seed funding totaling more than $1.7 million.

Sleep apnea solution ApnoMed took home the top prize last year.

Here is the complete list of 2021 prize winners, with video from Friday’s presentation below:

$25,000 Herbert B. Jones Foundation Grand Prize — AfterLife Listings (UW)
$15,000 BECU Second Place Prize — Puget Buoy (Olympic College + UW)
$10,000 WRF Capital Third Place Price — Ananta (WSU)
$7,500 Friends of the Dempsey Startup Fourth Place Prize — HealthXpress (UW)
$5,000 Glympse Internet of Things (IoT) Prize (tie — prize was split evenly) — Arc Security (UW-Seattle and UW-Bothell) and CARA (Univ. of British Columbia)
$5,000 MOD Pizza Social Impact Prize — Sound Sustainability (UW)
$2,500 eBay Best Marketplace Idea Prize — SongChain (UW + Dartmouth)
$2,500 K&L Gates Best Business to Consumer Idea Prize — Afterlife Listings (UW)
$2,500 Perkins Coie Best Innovation/Tech Idea Prize — Ananta (WSU)
$2,500 DLA Piper Best Idea with Global Reach Prize — GreenLoop (UW)
$2,500 Smukowski Family Best Sustainable Business Prize — Puget Buoy (Olympic College and UW)
$2,500 Saara Romu Foundation Community Impact Prize — HealthXPress (UW)
$2,500 Thatcher & Shannon Davis Best Consumer Product Idea — Clarity Core (UW-Seattle and UW-Bothell)
$2,500 Voyager Capital Best Business to Business Idea Prize — Bandit Labs (Univ. of British Columbia)
$2,500 Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati Best Health & Wellness Impact Idea Prize — VoxCell BioInnovations (Univ. of Victoria)

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