Santa Fe formalized its financial commitment to an upstart tech company Wednesday night, as the City Council voted to give Descartes Labs $100,000 for improvements to an old bank building downtown that will become the startup's headquarters.

Descartes is a spinoff of Los Alamos National Lab technology that uses software to create a cloud-based supercomputing platform that helps computers analyze mapping data. As the city's briefing on the company put it, "their software teaches computers how to 'see.'"

The city's $100,000 investment comes from Local Economic Development Act money and will supplement $700,000 in state LEDA funds. The money will be doled out over the course of five years, provided the company meets job creation goals and other benchmarks.

Descartes seems likely to do so. It has offices in San Francisco and New York City and projects another 50-70 jobs at its headquarters here during that time. It will have to deliver 19 new jobs by July, then 17 and 14 in the following two years, respectively. For 70 jobs, the company estimates payroll would top $7 million. Those are the kind of high-paying tech jobs the city has long coveted.

Descartes CEO Mark Johnson (right) and city staffer Fabian Trujillo make their pitch.
Descartes CEO Mark Johnson (right) and city staffer Fabian Trujillo make their pitch.

"The numbers in this packet are the numbers we'd like to see all the time," beamed Councilor Signe Lindell.

Descartes moved to a temporary Santa Fe location last summer and will stay in its Railyard offices until construction and renovation at the 100 N Guadalupe St. building is complete. The company painted itself as pleasantly surprised by the ability to plant a flag in the Santa Fe soil.

"I've absolutely fallen in love with Santa Fe," Descartes CEO and co-founder Mark Johnson told the council. The tech executive had been living in Silicon Valley and expected to move within a year. But Johnson said investors and board members were taken with the city and began asking if meetings could be held in Santa Fe. The company eventually had a conversation about staying—if it could recruit talent.

"We started being really successful in attracting people to Santa Fe when we stopped apologizing for Santa Fe and started celebrating it. And what I mean by that is this is not San Francisco, and as Councilor [Renee] Villarreal said, thank God. This is a much different place and it's an absolute lifestyle change for people. And a lot of people don't want to live in a big city. They want to live in a fabulous and amazing, magical place like this."

Councilors Villarreal and Mike Harris both pressed Johnson to hire local and seek Santa Fe talent whenever possible. While the tech jobs are what the city is after, Harris praised Descartes for hiring a local contractor and pointed out the economic development money doesn't force the company to do so.

Like all such funds, the money has to be spent on physical improvements and infrastructure. The company will have to spend the money first and then be reimbursed for it. The agreement includes clawback provisions should Descartes decide to abandon the project. The city's money will start going out this summer, when Descartes is set to get $400,000 from the state and $20,000 from the city when it gets a certificate of occupancy for the property.

"The state of New Mexico and the city of Santa Fe are investing in the facility that will allow Descartes to do their work," said Mark Roper of the state's Economic Development Department, addressing concerns from the small audience at City Hall that the money amounted to a giveaway.

Infrastructure improvements stay even if Descartes leaves, the state’s Mark Roper argued.
Infrastructure improvements stay even if Descartes leaves, the state’s Mark Roper argued.

The measure passed unanimously, with several councilors saying they hoped it was the start of a tech-savvy community that could create momentum for the city's job market.

"This is tangible proof. I'm hopeful, but I don't think we should let our foot off the gas," said Councilor Joe Maestas.