Most apps work to keep users engaged with their devices and away from conversations around them. But Suelin Chen ’03, SM ’07, PhD ’10 hopes her app will start conversations, particularly about death. The app, called Cake, is designed to help users navigate end of life planning at their own pace, with some direction along the way. “It doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom,” Chen says. “Talking about the end of life is really talking about how you want to live and honor your life.” Chen launched the app after working at Mass General Hospital and IMS Health Capital, where she learned that too few people are prepared to talk about their end of life wishes.
Cake is a profile-based app similar to LinkedIn, but instead of work experience, users load end of life requests and plans. These requests can range from specific funeral plans to what a user would like to happen to their Facebook profile after death. This user information is then stored in the cloud, safe for later access and updates. A Cake profile does not take the place of a will, but does offer guidance for users and their loved ones, something Chen says is sorely needed.
“What we thought was missing in this landscape was a guided experience. It’s not like filling out your taxes, which is an objective experience. End of life planning is entirely subjective,” she says. Cake provides guidance by asking users questions like, “Do you have pets?” or “Do you have a living will?” Based on a user’s answers, the app offers next steps to help make sure pets are taken care or to start the process of creating a living will. The approach to planning is incremental by design. “People can use the app whether they are casually curious or if they are intensely planning before a major life event. People can go at their own pace,” she says.
After positive feedback from individual users, Chen and her team now have contracts to distribute Cake through healthcare providers and insurance companies, as a way to facilitate planning. “It’s a good ice breaker to get people talking about their end of life plans,” she says.
Chen says her experience at the Institute prepared her for the growing startup. “Persevering through a PhD is a great experience. One essential trait of a founder is perseverance,” she says. “The fact that a PhD is so unstructured is also helpful to working at at a startup—no one is telling you what to do and there is a lot of uncertainty and potential paths.” Chen can also credit MIT with helping to connect her with Cake co-founder, Mark Zhang, a palliative care doctor. The duo met at MIT Hacking Medicine after Zhang found Chen’s hack idea and introduced himself. They went onto win the Grand Hack for the idea that would eventually turn into Cake.
As for the future of Cake, Chen hopes the app will become a standard and a conversation driver—making talking about death more normal. “Talking about it doesn’t have to be overwhelming, it can sometimes even be interesting and motivating,” she says. “Thinking how you want to honor your life can help you find what makes life worth living for you.”
Want to learn more about Cake? Co-founder Mark Zhang will be speaking at the upcoming TEDMED.