Los Alamos high-tech startup is booming

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Steve Brumby, co-founder and CIO, and Mark Johnson, co-founder and CEO, show off the mapping technology they are creating at Descartes Labs in Los Alamos. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

LOS ALAMOS — A paper sign taped to the window identifies the current home of Descartes Labs, a high-tech startup that burst onto the scene a little more than a year ago and is now bursting at the seams.

Behind the door of the sparsely furnished office, located on the second floor of the building that houses Los Alamos’ Bradbury Science Museum, are more than a dozen self-described “nerds of one stripe or another,” several of them with doctoral degrees, each one quietly working behind a laptop or desktop computer screen.

“We’re helping humans make maps of the world, trying to understand the environment of Earth from space,” explained Steven Brumby, one of the company’s co-founders.

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Named for the French philosopher, mathematician and scientist, Descartes Labs uses satellite images taken over a period of time to identify and analyze changes on the surface of the Earth.

Much of the data that’s derived can be applied to critical issues facing the world, including global climate change and food security.

“We arm the leaders of the world — whether they’re leaders in industry or of nations — with better information so they can make better decisions,” said Mark Johnson, another company co-founder, who describes himself as a philosopher by trade. “This can be a game-changer for the planet. Applications are just starting to come out as to what we can do with satellite imagery.”

Johnson said about a year ago the fledgling company challenged itself to try to obtain more timely and accurate measurements of corn yield and production in the country.

“Not only could we get a number before the USDA” — the U.S. Department of Agriculture bases its figures on surveys and results usually aren’t available until after the growing season — “we got a number that was more accurate,” he said.

“If we can do that, and do it during the growing season,” Brumby added, “that’s valuable to traders, to seed producers, and to those who deal with food security. There’s a lot you can do with that.”

Brumby said the information can make the trillion-dollar agricultural industry more efficient.

“Industry needs to know what’s happening with agriculture because it affects their bottom line right now,” he said. “In the last 10 years we’ve heard about how food security can be affected by climate change. As part of this we can predict early warning signs of climate change.”

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Not just in America, but all over the world. Satellite imagery lets them peek in on China, for instance, and learn what types of crops they are growing and where.

Johnson said the technology opens a window to the most remote places on the globe and allows analysts to monitor any number of trends as they unfold.

Getting the picture

Brumby, Descartes’ chief technology officer, is an Australian who came to the United States in 1998 intending to work for NASA. He ended up at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where, as a senior research scientist, he led a team delving into deep learning computer vision projects for satellite imagery.

In recent years, breakthroughs in computer technology and machine learning models have led to further opportunities to commercialize science, he said.

“Things that were sci-fi just a few years ago are now feasible,” he said.

As Brumby explained in a TEDxABQ talk last October, the type of artificial intelligence they’re developing can be used to create “a living, breathing atlas of the world.”

Through learning systems designed to work like the human brain, computers can be taught to recognize characteristics, such as a cornfield in Iowa.

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Once you teach one computer program how to do it, it can be cloned to thousands of other computers on the Internet in a cloud, so they don’t need a large frame computer.

Descartes has already analyzed more than 2.8 quadrillion pixels of satellite imagery and has designs to add more. Brumby said there’s satellite data from NASA that dates back to 1972 and is still available to analyze trends.

Today, Descartes is using images coming from about 10 publicly owned and 50 privately owned satellites, including those of NASA, USGS, Landsat, and Planet Labs, much of it at no cost to the company. They expect that number of privately launched satellites to increase to hundreds by next year.

Using Machine Learning and Remote Sensing technology, the satellite pictures can be converted into maps, which can be sequenced into a time-lapse video to show changes on the Earth’s surface and developing trends.

While their focus has been on agriculture, Brumby said the technology can be used to monitor deforestation, identify energy infrastructure, and measure population intensities to spot where Internet connectivity is most needed.

“There are a lot of interesting stuff that can be seen with data,” he said.

Taking a world view

The world is recognizing just how valuable the data can be. Though barely a year old, Descartes Labs has more than $8 million in venture capital backing.

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Brumby and Johnson credit Santa Fe’s Francine Sommer, a special general partner with Village Ventures, a private equity investment firm, with getting them together in July 2014. Less than six months later, they were business partners.

Johnson, a Stanford graduate, made a name for himself in Silicon Valley as CEO of Zite, a personalized news app that was sold to CNN. Prior to that he was a product manager at companies like Bing, Powerset and SideStep.

When he came to New Mexico to meet Brumby, “I was skeptical at first,” he said. “There’s this arrogance that all great technology comes out of Google. So when Steven showed me a demo of what they built, my jaw dropped.”

Johnson was equally impressed by the small team of LANL expatriates Brumby had assembled. “I couldn’t believe a team of this caliber was looking for its next gig,” he said.

Descartes found some angel investors in Santa Fe (Rolf Kelly, a fund manager at Thornburg Investment Management, among them) that got them $275,000 in startup funding. In December 2015, a league of investment groups led by Crosslink Capital provided them with $3 million and the business began to take off.

Since then, Descartes Labs has gone from a company with just a handful of employees to 20 with offices now in San Francisco and Los Alamos. About half of them are former LANL employees who work out of increasingly cramped quarters in Los Alamos.

But that is soon to change. Descartes recently signed a lease on a 3,000-square-foot commercial building in downtown Los Alamos that has been converted to a “smart house.”

The city of Santa Fe has been trying to woo Descartes Labs. Johnson was present in December when Mayor Javier Gonzales flipped a switch to activate the city’s $1 million broadband infrastructure project that increased Internet speeds to 1 gigabit per second along a two-mile stretch from downtown to the south end of the Railyard district. The city is hoping the infrastructure will attract companies, like Descartes Labs, that rely on lightning-quick Internet speeds to transmit data.

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Mayor Gonzales also mentioned Descartes Labs in his State of the City address last month as a type of business that would benefit from the city’s e-commerce efforts.

“Javier is absolutely on point,” Johnson said, adding that you never know what the future holds. “We’ll outgrow our new offices eventually … I thought we’d be here for six months and then go to San Francisco.”

Johnson said when it comes to growing a business in the tech industry, a rising tide lifts all boats.

“We’re part of northern New Mexico’s tech industry, and what I tell people is the best thing they can do is wish us good luck,” he said. “Boulder is a technology hub. Northern New Mexico is at least as nice as Boulder.”

Johnson said the company has even recruited a couple of people from Silicon Valley, who were attracted by the laid-back atmosphere, outdoor recreation, and lower cost of living.

In the meantime, Descartes Labs is working to put northern New Mexico on the map and change the world as well.

“Several things are happening at the right time,” Brumby said of the technology industry. “A year from now, we’ll have a fundamentally different way of understanding the world.”

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