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Santa Fe startup grows up

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Phil Fraher is the new CEO of Descartes Labs, a geospatial data mapping company. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Was it the in-house chef that drew Phil Fraher to Santa Fe’s Descartes Labs?

Was it the opportunity to hang around pets at work?

Or was it the downtown office’s proximity to skiing in the winter, the Santa Fe Opera in the summer, and hiking and mountain biking year-round?

All of the above.

There’s no doubt quality of life was a factor in the seasoned C-level executive’s move from Austin in September. But what really drew Fraher to the City Different was the opportunity to scale the geospatial data mapping company.

Until now, most of Descartes’ business has been consulting. But, last month, the company unveiled a platform that offers customers tools to analyze its data and build artificial intelligence models.

“This is a really exciting time for the company,” said Fraher, who holds an undergraduate degree from Auburn University and an MBA from the Simon School at the University of Rochester. “We took a tool and made it a product.”

Typically, Descartes’ customers, which are in such industries as agriculture, energy and financial services, haven’t had the in-house expertise to analyze geospatial data. “The good news is we’re seeing more early adopters, companies that are hiring data scientists who can make use of our workbench,” Fraher said.

The “rich” data that drives the platform runs in the cloud maintained by Google so Descartes doesn’t have to worry about data security issues.

Fraher joined Descartes as chief financial officer in September and was promoted to CEO in January after co-founder Mark Johnson moved into the newly created job of executive chairman. Johnson had led the company since its inception in 2014.

Descartes Labs’ offices on Guadalupe Street in downtown Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The changing of the guard essentially marks the end of Descartes’ startup phase and its evolution into a more established growth company.

Founded by a group of Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists, Descartes made its name by analyzing satellite and aerial pictures of cornfields taken from an airplane, cleaning up the images (by removing clouds) and then plugging in weather forecasts to predict crop yields. Its claim to fame is beating the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s estimate of corn yield increase in 2015.

Especially with the launch of its new platform that puts tools in the hands of its customers, Fraher sees potential in markets beyond agriculture.

Regardless of the vicissitudes of federal and state environmental regulation, Fraher sees companies moving to protect the lands where they grow crops, cut timber or extract minerals from becoming depleted.

“A lot of employees are driving the sustainability push,” he said. “Here at Descartes, all of our employees are passionate about the environment.”

The company currently has 115 employees, with about 70 in Santa Fe and the remainder scattered around the country in such places as San Francisco, New York, Denver and Washington, D.C.

Last week, Descartes hosted a gathering of oil and gas company executives doing business in the Permian Basin. The meeting featured Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who last year signed an executive order calling for the state to cut economy-wide emissions 45% below 2005 levels by 2030. She also signed into law the Energy Transition Act requiring New Mexico to generate 100% of its electricity from carbon-free resources by 2045.

A computer-generated map of all oil well pads in New Mexico generated by Descartes Labs based on aerial images from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Descartes has tools and data that can help oil and gas companies identify methane gas emissions, which are largely invisible, as they move to reduce their impact on the environment and meet the state’s mandates. Using data from the National Agriculture Imagery Program, Descartes has built a computer vision model that automatically maps all well pads in a specific area.

“We can run this computer vision model across entire oil- and gas-producing regions using multiple processors in the cloud,” said Fritz Schlereth, Descartes’ head of marketing in an email.

Fraher is no stranger to the energy business. From 2002-09, he led the turnaround of Visual Numerics, a 35-year-old software company based in Houston that served the oil and gas industry, leading to its sale. A finance executive, Fraher made the leap to CEO at a company called FuelQuest, where he worked from 2010-14, after moving up from COO and CFO.

In his most recent position before joining Descartes, he served as CFO of Austin-based Zilliant, a software company that uses AI to help manufacturers and distributors optimize pricing.

Throughout his career, Fraher has been a great believer in mentoring and giving back to his alma maters, including Auburn, where he met his wife and where his daughter is now a senior. A New Jersey native who went to high school in Connecticut, Fraher originally headed south to Auburn because it had an accredited computer engineering program.

At Auburn, he serves on a number of boards, including the university’s research advisory board. Fraher also still has ties to the Simon School in Rochester, New York, serving on its executive advisory board.

In New Mexico, Fraher said he looks forward to helping the startup scene, which appears to be gaining momentum after languishing for years despite the ample brainpower at LANL and Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque.

Of course, Descartes itself was incubated at LANL for seven years with $15 million worth of funding before being spun out as a private company. It has also benefited from a $700,000 Local Economic Development Act grant from the New Mexico Economic Development Department, plus $100,000 from the city of Santa Fe.

In addition, Descartes was the recipient of a combined $397,248 in Job Training Incentive Program grants from the state Economic Development Department in the three years ended in August 2018.

Startup boosters argue the company’s success story could be replicated dozens of times more across the state.

“I recently joined a group called CXO, C-level executives that meet for dinner in Santa Fe and Albuquerque to brainstorm, and I look forward to doing mentoring,” Fraher said.

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