Success of Descartes Labs has startup eyeing growth in Santa Fe

Landing a government contract last month brings credibility to Descartes as the leader in mapping satellite data.

April 10, 2017
rice fields and irrigation areas

Composite, multi-year image of the Southeast region of the Nile Delta, showing a mix of rice fields as well as irrigation areas. Descartes Labs


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Startup businesses hoping to expand their reach and attract investors often send out announcements when they sign a new contract or consumer.

That has not been the case for Descartes Labs, a privately held startup that uses computer learning to translate satellite imaging of the Earth into readable formats. Last year, the company used its sensing and scientific muscle to unveil the first-ever crop map of the entire planet by patching trillions of the daily images from satellites circling the Earth.

That resulted in the first contracts for Descartes, with a group that trades in agricultural commodities as well an insurance company seeking to ferret information from hard-to-reach places. “We’ve created an immense amount of value for our customers,” said Mark Johnson, the chief executive at Descartes, who said the customer identities are confidential.

But last month Descartes, based in Los Alamos but with an office now in Santa Fe, announced a three-year contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. The $1.5 million agreement with the government agency will use Descartes’ scientists and imaging to monitor and forecast wheat crops across the Middle East and North Africa.

“Food insecurity equals political insecurity, and they want to better figure out when and where to deploy human services,” Johnson said.

“One of the things we’ve seen [is] that regional unrest has been linked to circumstances that seem detached from national security — like the price of bread,” Joseph Evans, a manager for DARPA’s strategic technology office, told Forbes magazine. “If we can get more accurate tools to predict famine, we can head off these types of situations with humanitarian versus human intervention.”

The work is especially satisfying for the small group of scientists still with the company — Steven Brumby, Michael S. Warren, Rick Chartrand, Tim Kelton and Mark M. Mathis — who left Los Alamos National Laboratory in December 2014 to incorporate Descartes with Johnson.

Brumby, now with the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C., remains a Descartes adviser, and always hoped to grow a company that could be both profitable and pioneering in areas such as drought, deforestation, rural development and climate change.

Johnson said the government contract brings credibility to Descartes as the leader in mapping satellite data, though it is not the only company doing the work.

But his investors are betting that Descartes is progressing faster and better because of its synthesis with satellite sensing and computer learning. The files from satellites are petabytes huge — too big except for massive storage sites on internet sites, known as cloud computing. Unless the images can be identified as something — a corn stalk, a cellular tower — they are not readily useful.

“These pixels are useless unless people can get some use out of it,” Johnson said.

So Descartes has shown with corn and other crops that it can teach computers to identify unique specks along the landscape — which is especially vital in charting changes to remote areas of the globe or where outsiders are not welcome.

The goal, as company spokesman Shawn Patrick said, is to offer “a library of planet Earth” so governments, nonprofits and businesses think of Earth-sensing data as essential for making better forecasting decisions.

For those studying deforestation, the images would be essential to see the long-term pattern of an area. Or for engineers looking at the construction of a major highway. Some data go back to 1972 and have never been analyzed.

To prove its concept, Descartes has released a free platform called GeoVisual Search, where users can click on something such as a baseball diamond or wind turbine find similar objects around the globe. The tool is available on the company website,

“Who knows what people will come up with when they have this data,” Johnson said. Someone, for instance, called last week wondering about the possibility of taking allergy counts from space.

Descartes initially raised $5 million from a small group of private equity investors. Johnson is now preparing for a much larger pitch for $25 million that would propel growth and perhaps double the workforce to 60. Along with that will come a larger, more visible office in Santa Fe.

So far, the company has architectural visualizations of what it wants from a design of an office in the City Different, but it is still looking for a location. It has leased spaces on East De Vargas Street in a historic adobe, as well as a main office in Los Alamos.

Of the 30 current employees, more than half have earned doctorate degrees in fields of computing, math, engineering, sensing, engineering and software development, many from universities in the Midwest, California or the Boston area.

One day last week, a new employee from Chicago started work in Santa Fe, another from San Francisco. Descartes recently hired a production manager from Boston and a science graduate from the University of Wisconsin. And it’s not just the employees but spouses moving to Santa Fe, many with advanced degrees hoping to start their own businesses in New Mexico.

And it doesn’t take much to see that the average $100,000 annual salary at Descartes Labs makes for a better quality of life than in Silicon Valley, where a modest apartment can rent for $3,000 a month.

“We pay a good Bay Area salary, but the money goes so much further here,” Johnson said.

For Johnson, an avid hiker who has embraced New Mexico culture, it’s also about developing a startup business culture in Santa Fe so others can follow.

If that sounds familiar, it is. In 2000, Wired magazine published an article about Santa Fe titled, “Welcome to the Info Mesa,” highlighting the scientific talent that had migrated to the city to work at the Santa Fe Institute, Los Alamos National Laboratory and startups The Prediction Co. and BiosGroup.

It quoted one of the entrepreneurs, “I’m told Santa Fe feels like what Silicon Valley felt like 10 years ago.”

But that was also the year when personal internet software was launched to make websites far easier to build and manage. Then in 2007, the iPhone came on the scene, cementing the tech areas around California as the growth corridor for computing talent.

But Johnson said a recent survey of tech workers in the Bay Area indicates half of them want to leave — and if some of them want to come live and work in Santa Fe, that’s good for Descartes, other companies and the city’s economy.
“Descartes is going to be a very successful company,” Patrick said, “and it’s here in Santa Fe.”

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