Sen. Heinrich Visits High Tech Startup Descartes Labs

Gathered for a tour of Descartes Labs Thursday in the former Smart House at 1925 Trinity Dr., from left, Los Alamos County Manager Harry Burgess, Descartes Labs co-founder and CTO Steven Brumby, Sen. Martin Heinrich, Council Vice Chair Susan O’Leary and Los Alamos County Utilities Manager Tim Glasco. Photo by Chris Clark/
Sen. Martin Heinrich, center, during Thursday’s tour of Descartes Labs, formerly the Smart House, a 3,000 square-foot building abutting Los Alamos Canyon in downtown Los Alamos. Photo by Chris Clark/
Los Alamos Daily Post

During a busy visit to Los Alamos Thursday, Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., made a point to call attention to one of his favorite programs in the Department of Energy national science laboratories, laboratory directed research and development or LDRD.

Heinrich and staff stopped by the office of one of LDRD’s most recent success stories, Descartes Labs, a venture-backed start-up spun out of Los Alamos National Laboratory in Dcember 2014. Heinrich was joined by Los Alamos County Manager Harry Burgess, Descartes Labs co-founder and CTO Steven Brumby, Council Vice Chair Susan O’Leary and Los Alamos County Utilities Manager Tim Glasco.

Now ensconced in Los Alamos County’s model “smart house,” overlooking Los Alamos Canyon, Descartes Labs has quickly become a high-flyer in what co-founder Steven Brunby calls the “living map” business.

“We use machine learning and satellite imagery to build a living map of the world, supporting agriculture, insurance, finance and policy makersworld wide,” Brumby said. By using live satellite imagery from NASA, and color-coding landscapes of meaningful values, Descartes analyzessuch vital data as daily crop yield potential, fire and pest dangers and weather impacts around the world. The company is talking to theWorld Bank, commodities brokers and international development organizations.

Heinrich asked Brumby what needs to happen to recruit the millennial generation into science and technical research at the New Mexico laboratories. Brumby said there used to be a saying about attracting scientists to LANL, that they would “come for the science and stay for the retirement.”

But that has less resonance with a generation raised on breakthrough success and deteriorating retirement plans, he noted. Brumby proposes a model that has been used to good effect at Stanford University, which is to develop the next generation in an enviable environment and not to worry whether they will be lured away because there are five other people waiting to get in.

“If LANL realized this is the way to get the quality people they need to come in to revitalize and reinvigorate the lab, that solves other problems they have, but to do that they can’t be afraid that people may want to serve their country and move on,” he said. “That would mean a cultural change.”

Heinrich is one of the most vocal advocates for LDRD in the U.S. Senate. He called special attention in recent weeks to his vote to pass the Energy Policy Modernization Act, which is the first energy policy bill passed by the Senate since 2007. It contains a Heinrich-sponsored reform amendment that would end the practice of allocating  general and administrative costs from laboratory directed research and development. 

Heinrich also has joined with the rest of the New Mexico Democratic Congressional Delegation in calling for National Nuclear Security Administration to make technology transfer a “substantive evaluation criterion” for evaluating the performance of the next generation of management contracts.

The 3,000 square-foot building Descartes Labs leases at 1925 Trinity Dr. was built in 2012 by the Los Alamos Department of Public Utilities in partnership with the Japanese government’s New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) who invested $30 million in Los Alamos to test and validate smart electric grid equipment capabilities. After NEDO completed their research, the building sat vacant for more than a year and was recently remodeled to accommodate commercial office use. The Los Alamos County Council approved leasing the building to Descartes Labs.


Scene from Thursday’s tour of Descartes Labs. Photo by Chris Clark/
From left, Descartes Labs CTO Steven Brumby, Sen. Martin Heinrich and Los Alamos County Utilities Manager Tim Glasco Thursday at Descartes Labs. Photo by Chris Clark/
From left, Los Alamos County Utilities Manager Tim Glasco, Sen. Martin Heinrich and Descartes Labs CTO Steven Brumby. Photo by Chris Clark/
Descartes Labs CTO Steven Brumby chats with Sen. Martin Heinrich during Thursday’s tour of the business on Trinity Drive. Photo by Chris Clark/
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