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Descartes Labs is now off and running

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Business > Tech startup uses artificial intelligence

By Arin McKenna

The story of startup tech company Descartes Labs reads like something from the heyday of Silicon Valley.
A group of Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists strike out on their own. They leap bureaucratic hurdles to acquire licensing for technology developed at the lab and manage to secure venture capital.
In record time, they are ready to launch a product with the potential to impact Wall Street, major industries and world governments.
“The fact that a group of scientists from Los Alamos could start their own company and within seven months of opening have a first product to start to sell to industry is an unusual thing,” said co-founder and Chief Technical Officer Steven Brumby.
The company — which launched December 2014 — is named after philosopher René Descartes, renowned for saying, “I think, therefore I am.”
“We’re an artificial intelligence company that’s building systems that can look at the world from space and map out all sorts of interesting stuff, starting with all the world’s agriculture,” Brumby said.
Brumby was at LANL 16-1/2 years, where he led the team that developed some of the licensed technology Descartes is utilizing.
Brumby’s co-founder and the company’s CEO is Mark Johnson, whom Brumby calls “a serial entrepreneur from Silicon Valley.” Johnson — who has founded several extremely successful tech startups — secured the venture capital and provided a link to a top-notch lawyer who facilitated the technology transfer license.
The technology Descartes has developed can process and analyze publicly available NASA satellite data in real time.
Descartes is also developing partnerships with new venture capital backed commercial space companies as additional data sources.
“Our initial project that we’re working on — our initial product — is to make a map of all the world’s agriculture, starting with the United States and starting with corn, which is the most important agricultural crop,” Brumby said.
According to Brumby, Descartes models indicate that the analysis the company provides is faster and more accurate than that of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
There are five major target groups for that information, starting with commodities traders.
“These are the people who need to know global supply, and then they estimate global demand and they figure out how to trade,” Brumby said. “And the annual corn crop in the United States, just the corn crop, just in the United States, is worth tens of billions of dollars a year. So there’s a big market for trading corn.”
Since corn is also critical for livestock feed and in ethanol production, many foreign industries are also dependent upon the U.S. corn production and could utilize Descartes analysis. And with corn being a global commodity, Descartes plans to eventually map corn production throughout the world.
The insurance industry is Descartes next target group, “because they care about whether there are major weather events, how many fields are doing well, how many fields are they going to have to make a payoff on,” Brumby said.
The data could also be useful to large agricultural supply chain companies such as Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill.
“Those types of companies, other companies like Monsanto that provide seed to farmers, the companies that make the fertilizers, the companies that make all the different crop supplements and the companies that make the equipment for farmers, like John Deere and everybody else, they all care about what’s happening on the farms,” Brumby said.
Descartes also expects to attract the interest of world governments.
Descartes acknowledged the USDA does a very good job, “though they do it a little bit slowly,” but added that no other country in the world has anything to match the USDA.
“In principle, our product allows countries all around the world — including poorer countries — to know what’s going on within their own countries, to help them with understanding their needs and early warning detection of famine and all sorts of food security issues and economic development issues. We could be helping them to basically leap frog up to Western standards of agricultural governance.”
During a recent visit from Rep. Ben Ray Luján, Brumby told Luján, “We have better information about what’s going on with famine in Africa than the African governments do.”
One group that could greatly benefit from the Descartes technology, the farmers themselves, have the fewest resources to be able to utilize it. The mapping could, for example, help farmers make decisions about which crops to plant, based on factors such as an overabundance of one crop or weather patterns that indicate it would be best to plant drought resistant crops.
In principle, satellites could even look into fields to discover which fields are doing better than others in real time.
As the company grows, the Descartes technology could be put to many other uses, including monitoring natural resources such as water and snowpack, detecting pollution or mapping the growth of cities.
“From space, you can actually see the difference between well-organized cities and cities where there are poorer regions that are basically chaotic slums,” Brumby said. “And you can actually watch the process of transformation that happens in cities when as local communities start to transform themselves. You can watch big factories going in and you can watch big warehouses going in.”
Descartes technology could even be used to monitor progress on big construction projects such as the Brazilian Olympic Village.
Brumby voiced one of his major concerns to Luján during his visit: proposals in Congress to cut budgets for satellite imaging.
“There are some less flashy space programs that the U.S. government has maintained for decades that provide some of the most valuable data that the U.S. government collects and makes public,” Brumby said. “They’re national treasures and we really hope that the U.S. Congress will protect those missions, even with all the pressure on the budget.”
According to Brumby, that data is critical to both scientific research and commercial industries.
“Global warming is coming, global warming is real. It’s going to affect people, right down to possibly forcing people to have to move out of areas that are running out of natural resources,” Brumby said. “And it’s extremely shortsighted to even be talking about reducing the funding to the earth observing missions right now, just when it’s becoming critical to know what’s going on around the world.”
Brumby’s discussions with a number of companies reveal a thirst for that information.
“The U.S. community of companies really wants to know what’s going on, because it affects all of their decision-making. It’s not just a political thing that people argue about. The scientific data from these missions allows companies to make rational decisions about their investments and their business decisions, and they need these systems to make the best decisions.”
Although it is still in its infancy, Descartes is growing rapidly. The company launched with just seven people. Now it employs 12.
That growth could benefit both Los Alamos and the state at large. The people Descartes is recruiting include two people who gave up post-docs at Stanford to join and other highly qualified Ph.Ds.
“And because we do everything in the Cloud, we can do it from here in New Mexico,” Brumby said. “Ten years ago, five years ago, you couldn’t have done this from here. We would have had to move to San Francisco or to New York or somewhere else.”
According to Brumby, New Mexico offers other advantages such low rents and beautiful landscapes.
Investors who were initially skeptical “because New Mexico’s just not on the map for this type of thing” are now planning their board meetings here.
“They all are starting to think that Boulder has a high tech corridor, Santa Fe could be the next Boulder.”
Follow the Los Alamos Monitor for more on Luján’s visit with Brumby.