From left, Descarte Labs CTO Steven Brumby, Brian Crone and Rep. Ben Ray Luján discuss the future of high tech in New Mexico at the Descarte offices on Central Avenue in Los Alamos. Photo by Bonnie J. Gordon/ladailypost.com
Northern New Mexico The Next High Tech Center? … It Could Happen
By BONNIE J. GORDON
Los Alamos Daily Post
U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján and Congressional Fellow Brian Crone, who is attached to Luján’s office as well as a technical staff member at Los Alamos National Laboratory, were in Los Alamos Aug. 5 to meet with Descartes Labs co-founder Steven P. Brumby in his office in the Museum Parke Building.
Descartes is a one-year-old startup focused on taking satellite imagery, turning it into something coherent and analyzing it for useful data.
Brumby is the company’s chief technology officer and a theoretical physicist who formerly led a machine-learning team at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Descartes sells most of its data to Wall Street, insurance companies and large farming concerns to help in the prediction of crop yields.
“This data is time-sensitive to Wall Street,” Brumby said. “After it’s been used by them for their purposes, we hope to release our maps to the general public afterwards.”
The massive amounts of data could potentially be used to map the growth of cities, environmental impacts, energy infrastructure and more, in real time.
“We have better information about African crops than their own governments,” Brumby said. “We teach the computers to tell us what we want to know.”
“We’re turning the Cloud into a supercomputer,” Brumby said. “Because we do everything in the Cloud, our company can be based in New Mexico.”
The sky’s the limit for Santa Fe as a new high tech center, Brumby said. “It’s a lot more cost effective to be here than in San Francisco or New York. Our investors think Santa Fe could be the next Boulder in terms of tech startups, and why not?”
“We’re recruiting people around the country to come to New Mexico,” Brumby said. “If you have a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) Ph.D., New Mexico should write you a ticket to come here. You need critical mass to be a technical center.”
Luján asked what was holding northern New Mexico back. Internet speed, Brumby said. “The thing we need most is fiber connection.”
Luján then asked about the lessons Brumby and his team had learned about working with Los Alamos National Laboratory, and what LANL could do to encourage other startups like Descartes.
“The length of time it takes to get a license is critical,” Brumby said. “You can’t afford to wait a year. It took us three months and I think that’s a record for the Lab. They’re used to working with big companies.”
Another issue is the policy on leave from the Lab to work on a startup,” Brumby said.
“Policy has to be clear. You have to be independent when you step out for a year or two,” he said. “Those not on the managerial team should have leave without pay. There’s no real policy reason for the strings to be there.”
The Lab need not worry about losing its workforce, Brumby said. “This is risky and you have to have an appetite for risk. Everyone is not going to do this. However, if it was known that working at the LAB was a ticket to a Silicon Valley-backed startup, people would be beating down the door at LANL.”
Crone asked about security issues raised by computing in the Cloud and by making data freely available to everyone.
“Technology can get ahead of the policy implications,” he said.
“Like all technology, it’s a double-edged sword,” Brumby responded. “Knowing the real picture can reduce global tensions and allow people around the world to make more informed decisions.”
Brumby worried that cuts in basic research at the National Labs and in the satellite programs could negatively impact the future of U.S. high tech. “The usual suspects always try to cut these programs,” he said.
He urged Luján to look ahead at how rapidly-changing technology is outpacing policy. For example, he said, “FAA rules on drones are in the way. The U.S. is getting behind Europe in drone technology.”
Brumby said that LANL had been “very supportive” of Descartes. “There are benefits for the Lab in what we’re doing,” he said. “They knew we had the expertise and they saw we had the money to be a success.”
Following Luján’s tour of Descartes Labs, he visited with constituents at the Betty Ehart Senior Center.