On Dec. 10, 2014 Gabe Batstone was returning from a business trip in Vancouver to his home in Ottawa when his phone rang, bringing the message that his 8-year-old daughter had been murdered by his ex-wife, the girl’s mother.
“Everything has been different since then,” Batstone said firmly over coffee in midtown.
Batstone is the CEO and cofounder of a company called Contextere. Contextere uses artificially intelligent software to make the labor of industrial workers safer and more efficient by recognizing problems before humans do. The company was in the previous cohort of Greenpoint urban-tech accelerator Urban-X, and followed that as a member of accelerator Grand Central Tech.
We first met Batstone at an event at Urban-X last fall and he seemed like a nice guy. Recently, I came across his Twitter, the bio of which had said, “CEO of @contextere & founder of @teagansvoice. Transforming #AI, #AR & #IoT. Advocate for children’s rights after the murder of his 8 year old daughter Teagan.”
Wow. So I asked to get coffee with him before he heads back to his native Canada, now that his stint at Grand Central Tech is over. We met by Grand Central Station to talk about his life and what he’s learned.
“One of of my favorite quotes is that some things aren’t overcome, they’re endured,” Batstone explained.
But how does someone endure a trauma like this and continue functioning, not only functioning, but by nearly any measure succeeding. Batstone runs a startup, after all.
“I described in it the earlier days as being like a personal 9/11,” he said. “Your whole world is ripped up, you question everything. And some of that is good. It’s not a bad thing to be introspective. It’s just a part of who you are now.”
In December of 2014, Batstone’s ex-wife, Lisa Batstone, allegedly killed the couple’s daughter, Teagan. The manner in which Teagan died is not publicly known, and in fact Gabe Batstone says he doesn’t know himself. What is known is that Lisa Batstone crashed her car into a ditch in Surrey, British Columbia. She knocked on the door of a nearby house and asked them to call the police, saying, according to reports, that her “baby was dead.”
Lisa Batstone was arrested and eventually charged with second-degree murder of the couple’s daughter, but the trial has faced numerous delays, and in fact has not even begun yet, more than three years after the incident. According to a recent tweet from Batstone’s advocacy org, the trial could begin later this year.
Lisa and Gabe Batstone met each other in their late 20s through mutual friends and married in their early 30s. They had their first and only child, Teagan, in 2006. Two years later, the couple separated and divorced. Lisa and Teagan Batstone continued to live in Vancouver, while Gabe lived in Ottawa. Teagan would come to Ottawa during school breaks and for the summers. Gabe remarried after a few years and now has a toddler with his new wife and a stepson from his wife’s previous marriage.
I asked Gabe if he thought his ex-wife Lisa was mentally ill. He responded that given that he will be a witness in the trial, he didn’t want to answer that, but noted that she’d been ruled mentally fit to stand trial. Still, 18 months before Teagan’s murder, in 2012, Lisa Batstone had been admitted to a hospital due to a suicide attempt. Gabe Batstone was able to win custody of Teagen for the duration of his ex-wife’s stay in the hospital, but shortly after she was released, the state ruled that Teagan belonged back with her mother, much to Gabe Batstone’s protestations.
“It was one of those inflection points,” Gabe Batstone said of the court’s decision. “There are some things you look back at but there are some things you knew are wrong at the time. We treat children who go through a process like this like a piece of property. There’s a mother and a father and they fight over the property. It treats them like a couch: ‘Who gets the couch?'”
From the more recent pictures before Teagan’s killing this is one of my favourites. She always like to visit my offices so we spent a few hours in downtown Ottawa.
— Teagan's Voice (@Teagans_Voice) March 31, 2018
“After an event like this, you’re essentially nonfunctional for some time,” Batstone explained. “But actually you have a lot to do. Like planning a funeral. What size casket do we need? And this was at a time where I didn’t even, like, know how to eat. People asked, ‘How were you able to navigate that?’ and I said ‘Teagan’s voice.’ Would you allow the parents of the woman that murdered your daughter to the funeral?” He did. “Yeah, and not cause I wanted them there but because Teagan would have.”
Batstone calls that Part 1.
“Part 2 was that as you get through that, and at the time I was the CEO of another startup based in Vancouver, and you have to get back to it. When you work at a startup, leave is not an option. You get back to work but you’re also working through ‘How did this happen. How did this happen? How did a beautiful 8-year-old girl end up in the trunk of a car of a woman supposed to protect her?'”
Batstone took just two months off before returning to his startup. He also started a foundation in Teagan’s honor, Teagan’s Voice. The organization works to advocate for the rights of children under the law and for the legal system to allow children’s voices and opinions to be taken more seriously in something like the custody battle Batstone had with his wife over Teagan.
“There are cliches. One foot in front of the other. Everyone grieves differently. There’s no template,” he said. “For me, you have to do something. You have so much emotion you have to apply it somewhere. I apply some of it to Tegan’s Voice and I apply some of it to business. I want to create jobs and help workers be safer and I want to supply a good life to her brothers.”
All along, Batstone said, he’s guided by what he calls Teagan’s voice. Would she want him to shut down and hibernate? No. She’d want him to work on his business. Would she want a fulfilling life for her brothers? Yes, and Batstone needs to work to make sure they’re afforded a chance at one.
“There’s no way to not want to curl up in the fetal position,” he said. “That’s the initial reaction. [But] I think you have to engage with the world and push yourself outside that. It’s not always easy. I still cry multiple times per week. There might be a song or a memory or… I don’t know why. My heart will always be broken. There’s nothing natural about the loss of a child. But to me, it’s always been clear and simple that this is what you need to do because of her brothers.”
I wondered if the loss of Teagan had had an effect on the way Batstone went about his work as a businessman. He said yes, but only to some degree.
“When you’ve suffered such a traumatic loss I just have no patience for the little things,” he said. “The insignificant and the mundane. And sometimes that can be good.”
I also asked if Teagan’s murder came up in fundraising meetings. Women founders sometimes talk about how they feel they might be at a disadvantage if they’re visibly pregnant while pitching. Does Batstone feel the same way about VCs wondering if he’ll be able to serve out his duties while dealing with such enormous trauma? He said it doesn’t usually come up.
I asked Batstone’s accelerator, Urban-X, if they had known about the issue before they selected Contextere.
“No,” said Micah Kotch, the managing director of Urban-X, by phone. “We don’t ask people to provide health history or family situation as part of the process.”
I pressed Kotch on whether, hypothetically, it would have been a discussion point during Urban-X’s deliberations on who they would select for the program. He said he really didn’t know if it would have been a factor, having never experienced a founder with a personal history of that magnitude.
“I honestly don’t know,” Kotch said. “I would like to think that had I known in advance I would’ve given him points, knowing that there’s dedication to a cause that drives him.”
Gabe Batstone doesn’t seem unhappy. He’s maybe not as outwardly enthusiastic as some of the other founders I’ve met, but I wouldn’t call him dour.
“Am I happy?” he asks, repeating back my question. “I think I am.” He shrugs. “I’m happy within the constraints of the situation. … There’s no silver bullet. Some things aren’t overcome, they’re endured.”