IYA Graduate Student Creates Innovative End-of-Life Marketplace

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A 15-year veteran of the dance world, artist, designer, and technologist Vincent Perez gives pivoting a whole new meaning. Having attended San Francisco State University to pursue dance, Perez spun into a different kind of world, one that incorporates business and design to create something new. For Perez, who has been attending the Iovine and Young Academy’s Master of Science in Integrated Design, Business and Technology (MSIDBT) program since 2019, the work has not only been professionally fulfilling, it has also been a way to create a positive impact for others in the wake of personal tragedy. As Perez began his studies at the Academy, he lost his partner and best friend, Shane Colombo, to gun violence.

“My partner Shane Colombo was a confidant, a dancer, a student, a son, and a brother. Shane was an academic, a cancer survivor, Queer, and a BBIPOC,” says Perez. “I was so looking forward to a future with the one I love. I have taken the pain I feel about what happened and channeled it into a resolve to see that things change."

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For Perez, the loss was amplified by the end-of-life processes that followed which he describes as awful, predatory, and unsustainable. Now, the graduate student is channeling the memory of his partner into Elysian, a marketplace that's officially launching in 2022 for end-of-life resources and services designed with empathy and sustainability as its guiding light. The company aims to create access to resources that were not available to Perez when he was faced with the unthinkable.

“For someone my age, the experience was horrific. I created Elysian with sustainability in mind,” says Perez. “I wanted to do something to show people there is a better way to create a legacy for those you love.”

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Perez dancing at Shane's memorial

The alternative provided by Elysian is one rarely afforded to people during one of the hardest decisions people have to make: how to say goodbye. Often, funeral homes simply offer traditional burials and cremations, two end-of-life options that are not only environmentally unfriendly but costly and complicated, adding an additional burden to those who are struggling with profound loss. Water cremation (better known as alkaline hydrolysis), water burials, or green burials are newer but less well-known alternatives Elysian plans to elevate to the bereaved who are simply told to go to the funeral home when a loved one passes away. Perez has been refining his idea in the end of life space since 2018, iterating and pivoting across designs in search of the right service for those faced with the loss of a loved one.

“In my classes at IYA, I always thought that figuring out end-of-life processes and mechanisms for people my age is very important,” says Perez. “One of the first projects I thought of is how to deliver free wills to individuals under the age of 25. I continued to pivot from this one idea … but I always thought there has to be more.”

Alongside Academy classmate Neilda Pacquing, the team came up with and launched Elysian. They quickly built momentum, entering USC’s Troy Labs competition and winning the Demo Day Audience Award. Simultaneously, Elysian was accepted into its first accelerators Troy Lab LAUNCH and PCC Venture Launch to further develop an enhanced business model. For Perez, the success is energizing, but he isn’t satisfied with resting on his laurels. He continues to seek ways to honor and incorporate his partner’s legacy into a positive impact through his coursework at the Academy. One such opportunity came near the end of the 2021 academic year through the Peace Pods project.

A collaborative project between the Iovine and Young Academy, the USC School of Dramatic Arts and Open Paths Counseling Center in Los Angeles, the Peace Pods project gave Perez an opportunity to design and build prototypes for a series of enclosed spaces aimed at providing a temporary area for healing and respite for women who have experienced trauma or domestic violence. The project blended aspects of theater and design and honed in on the psychology of trauma that resonated with Perez, whose partner had also been a dancer and had recently been offered a fully-funded doctoral candidacy in psychology at Northwestern University just prior to his passing.

"Shane was prepared to start in the fall of 2018 as a graduate student at Northwestern and new member of the ADAPT lab," says Perez "His research interests centered around understanding the neurobiological mechanisms that link psychosocial stressors with self-knowledge deficits observed in psychosis."

“I thought it would be a way to merge his background with my background and create something,” says Perez. “Throughout the entire process, I wanted to honor him by making something I know people could benefit from. It was such a beautiful process.”

As creative director and project leader, Perez played a major role in his team’s push to complete a working prototype of the healing space. On April 28th, Perez and his team showcased their prototypes at a USC Visions and Voices-hosted event at the Bing Theater, sharing the work with students, community members, and clinicians. For Perez, the process was another way to honor the memory of Shane through restorative work.

“The pandemic has only increased anxiety for women already stretched thin by the needs of their children, partners, families, and work,” says Perez. “Through this project, we seek to create a personal reparative space, literally and figuratively, for marginalized women who have experienced trauma.”

As he continues his coursework at the Academy, Perez works on projects big and small, all with the drive to help others and honor his partner’s memory. Through Elysian, the Peace Pods project, and more, there’s no doubt Shane’s memory lives on through those who are positively impacted.

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Perez alongside Academy classmate Jamae Lucas at a client brand sprint for Kwerk, LLC.

For continued updates on Elysian, click here.
For more information on the Peace Pods project, click here.

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