Mark DeSantis is a Pittsburgh-based serial technology entrepreneur, policy wonk and educator. He is also CEO of Bloomfield Robotics, a new Ag company out of the CMU Robotics Institute that uses AI and computer vision to measure the health of agricultural crops on plant-by-plant basis, or in their parlance … “crop estimation technology.”
Mark knows venture capital and financing, and how technology gets commercialized. In the last 15 years Mark has co-founded and run three other companies: RoadBotics, an AI-based product that monitors and manages roadway infrastructure; kWantix, an energy hedge fund; and kWantera, a GE Ventures-backed energy predictive analytics company. Mark also served as CEO of Think Through Learning, an online tutoring company, and was U.S. managing director of ANGLE Technology, a UK-based venture capital firm and consultancy. And as if that wasn’t enough, he also ran as the Republican mayoral candidate in the 2007 Pittsburgh election.
On the policy side, Mark served as director of government relations for Texas Instruments in Washington D.C., and operated in a number of positions in the Federal government during the first Bush Administration, including as a Senior Policy Analyst in The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Department of Commerce. He was also on the staff of the late U.S. Senator John Heinz. Mark has sat on a number of boards and served as a consultant for a variety of technology companies throughout his career.
Mark’s robots are for rent. All over the world. And he believes, as do his customers, that his company’s robots will help us to produce more food on the finite amount of land we have available to us.
Insights and Inspirations
- AgTech robots will help to maximize crops on the finite land that we have.
- Bloomfield Technologies is renting “inspector” robots all over the world.
- Mark’s startup is based in Pittsburgh. A few years ago that was unheard of.
Read the podcast transcript here
Eve Picker: [00:00:11] Hi there, thanks for joining me on Rethink Real Estate. I’m Eve Picker and I’m on a mission to make real estate work for everyone. I love real estate. Real estate makes places good or bad, rich or poor, beautiful or not. In this show, I’m interviewing the disruptors, those creative thinkers and doers that are shrugging off the status quo in order to build better for everyone. When I’m not hosting the show, I’m running my real estate crowdfunding platform, SmallChange.co, where you’ll find impact real estate investment opportunities open for everyone. Or you can learn more about me and catch up on some podcasts at my website, EvePicker.com.
[00:00:20] Today, I’m talking with Mark DeSantis, serial entrepreneur and past Pittsburgh mayoral candidate. You might wonder how these two things come together and we talk about how. Right now his talents are focused on a startup called Bloomfield Technologies. They build robots that inspect valuable crops like grapes, helping to predict crop outcomes and helping to manage crop disasters before they happen. Mark’s robots are for rent all over the world. He’s certain they will help to produce more food on the finite amount of land we have on this earth. And so are his customers. If you’d like to join me in my quest to rethink real estate, there are two simple things you can do. Share this podcast or go to Patreon.com/rethinkrealestate and support us for the price of a cup of coffee.
Eve: [00:02:27] Hello, Mark.
Mark DeSantis: [00:02:29] Hi.
Eve: [00:02:29] It’s really nice to have you on my show. It’s been a while since we talked.
Mark: [00:02:33] Yeah, you bet. Happy to be here.
Eve: [00:02:34] So you’ve been called a serial entrepreneur and you’re on to your next venture. And this one is an agricultural technology or what we call Agtech. Right?
Mark: [00:02:48] You bet.
Eve: [00:02:49] So, what is Bloomfield Technology all about?
Mark: [00:02:52] Yeah. So we inspect plants and we determine their health and performance one plant at a time. And we do that for the world of specialty crops. So, if you think of all of the, you know, the world’s largest industry as agriculture, as many, I’m sure your listeners know, and within that industry, there’s a category of plants and crops called specialty crops. And those are all the things that you and I buy when we go into a Safeway or a Giant Eagle or a Whole Foods. So think of fruits, vegetables, ornamental flowers. But it also includes things like trees and even cannabis, all those things that are not wheat, rice, corn are speciality crops. That’s the world, two trillion-dollar market. Those crops require a lot of love and attention, specifically from inspection. So there are people who are trained to walk among those crops, whether it be in a greenhouse or a vineyard in Napa, to look at those plants. And they’re highly trained, typically viticulturists, botanists, agronomists, and they walk among those crops, and they examine them. Periodically looking for things that could damage the plant, water stress, disease infestation. But they’re also looking at the health of the plant, determine whether or not that grape is the size they expected it to be at that time of the year. Or those tomatoes are as large and red as they should be given this time of the year and these treatments. And if they see a problem, then they can tell the grower to provide a remedy, whether it’s more water, more light, more nutrients or what have you.
Eve: [00:04:21] So kind of what I do in my own garden, but on a huge scale.
Mark: [00:04:25] Yeah, absolutely. Bet on a massive scale where you’re talking about tens upon tens of thousands of acres. Well, we do that with machines and A.I., with specifically with cameras that are mounted about the size of a toaster and they’re cameras, not unlike your cell phone, they use the same kind of imaging, except they have the stereo lens and their own light source. And you put it on anything that moves. Our growers, we are in 15 vineyards in four countries, as well as a blueberry grow in Peru. And all of those customers have vehicles of various sorts. They mount the cameras on, and they just drive up and down the rows. Image, take pictures of those things and of the crops and the A.I., the artificial intelligence in the cloud does the rest. So they take those images and go through them at the pixel level. And basically the A.I. has been trained to look for all the things that that human viticulturist or agronomists is looking for when they look at the plant, believe it or not. So A.I. has now reached a point, this is my third A.I. startup and that technology, I should say, to give a shout out to Carnegie Mellon was developed over a decade at Carnegie Mellon. Little known secret about CMU is that they’ve been making ag tech robots for 30 years.
Eve: [00:05:36] Oh, that’s interesting.
Mark: [00:05:37] Yeah, little-known fact. So yeah. So that’s what we do. Eve, I’ll tell you one interesting tidbit. Your, listeners may find this particularly, I think it’s cool, but so we do this for vineyards. Some of the vineyards are some of the best known vineyards in the world. So, one of our customers in Bordeaux is Chateau Palmer, which makes the famous Chateau Margaux one of his. You know, we have vineyards in California and elsewhere, but one of the most interesting customers we have is NASA. So we recently got a grant. There is actually a greenhouse, small greenhouse about size refrigerator, inside of the International Space Station.
Eve: [00:06:18] Oh, so interesting.
Mark: [00:06:20] Yeah, they’re growing leafy greens and spices and what have you. And it’s actually a program in NASA called Space Crops. So, think of Matt Damon in The Martian. That’s a real thing. They actually want to grow plants on the moon, on Mars, but also in the ship going to and from Mars because you can’t carry enough food to make the journey. It’s too long. So you’re actually going to have to grow your food on the way to and from…
Eve: [00:06:50] We’re talking x, x, x x, urban, right?
Mark: [00:06:53] Yeah. This is what I was joking with somebody, you know, they call the greenhouse world and the vertical farm world controlled environments. And I was telling somebody other day, we’re doing controlled environments a little different than a greenhouse. It’s one in space. So we’re within two years will be all goes well, you know, we’ll be sending one of our cameras up to the ISS, where it will be in the ISS monitoring the crops in the space station. So pretty exciting.
Eve: [00:07:24] Yeah. So back on Earth. Tell me about like a success story, you know, some crop your robot saved.
Mark: [00:07:33] Yeah, well, I don’t know if we’re there yet. We’re two years old, but we’ve, generally the feedback we’ve gotten and from the growers that, you know, as I mentioned, we’re in France. We have a customer in Italy. Peru and across four states in the U.S. The response is, is the following. The good news is the problem with using people to inspect on plants is twofold. One is, there just aren’t enough of them. You know, you’re talking about, I’ll use an example, a viticulturist, the person who’s highly trained to go look at grapes and vines and everything on the vine, you know, he or she can inspect about a tenth of an acre in a day. And that’s about one hundred and fifty vines, you know, so you’re talking about a very small fraction of of the total vineyard, whether it be a vineyard or apple orchard or orange grove. The other problem with using humans, and this one’s a little bit more, a still larger problem is that, you know, you’re using humans. And you know this from from your world, Eve. If you gave five inspectors and had them look at the same thing, you know, you’ll get probably five opinions and they’ll probably be different enough to make any one opinion a little bit suspect.
Eve: [00:08:58] So it’s really about consistency, right?
Mark: [00:09:00] Exactly. So you really want to be consistent. And that’s where the machine, the machine intelligence, the A.I. really makes its benefit. So many of our growers have said repeatedly, you know, I now know the condition of my crops, my plants. I you know, I never really knew the condition because you’re imaging in many cases where imaging every single vine on the entire vineyard and knowing its condition as of Tuesday, that’s huge. Yeah, it’s big, big. And so, it’s new and different. No one’s doing this. This is you know, drones are a solution sometimes, but drones have been around. You know, farmers have been flying over crop fields, using sensors, various types for years. And the problem is when you’re up in the air, you can’t see through the canopy and all the fruit and everything. So we are the boots on the ground for the farmer. And growers have had higher yields. They’ve had better yield predictions. You know, that’s a big, big part of farming, as you know, is your…
Eve: [00:10:06] Yeah.
Mark: [00:10:06] And your grow. You want to know how many tomatoes you’d like to have a sense of, you know, how successful this is going to be and and so on. So all of those things are, you know, knowing what the yield is going to be, protecting the crops from damage from disease and infestation, a big one for citrus, particularly knowing when to harvest. That that cannabis is an example that we don’t we don’t do cannabis now. But we did previously some time ago when we first started the company and when I learned about cannabis is if you missed the harvest window by a day. By a day, you can lose 20, 30 percent of the value of the crop.
Eve: [00:10:47] Oh, wow.
Mark: [00:10:48] Yeah, and that’s a plant, by the way. That’s a crop where you’re talking anywhere between one and six million dollars an acre.
Eve: [00:10:58] Wow.
Mark: [00:11:00] Yeah, farming is changing dramatically and A.I. and robotic technology are driving that. It’s happened in the past, Eve. There have been waves of technology advancement in farming. You know, when you think of I always tell people this when you think of technology, the kinds of things that that allow humans to do more things, most of the advances up until the 19th century were in farming. You know, if you think of all the marvellous inventions that have helped humans do more with less and all those wonderful technologies, the vast majority of them been in farming over the last millennia or two.
Eve: [00:11:46] So interesting. Yeah. So this is a really mundane question, but I want to know what the robots look like. Did they look a little different than Rosie on the Jetson’s?
Mark: [00:11:57] Well, you would be disappointed. I can tell you that right now, anybody that’s imagining you know, like the robot butler. No, no. You would be you would be incredibly disappointed, Eve. It looks sort of like a toaster, maybe more like small microwave with two eyes and a rim around the edge of lights of LEDs. So no arms, no legs that’s provided by the ATV or the tractor. There’s a little antenna sticking out of the side. It does look like a techie thing. I mean, when they show up on the farms, people look at that. And their first question is, what in the world is that thing?
Eve: [00:12:42] So they must be designed, designed to go over a whole variety of grounds, like rocky flat, mushy, buggy.
Mark: [00:12:51] Yeah. These things are, I call it farm hardened. You know, anyone has been on a farm, knows it’s a rough it’s a, you know, it’s a rough place. So we’ve built these things. It’s very robust, you know, pieces of equipment that have been dropped and kicked and gotten dirty and rained on and and so all that’s been sort of designed in.
Eve: [00:13:17] Cool. So I have to ask, how much does it cost to deploy one of these?
Mark: [00:13:20] Yeah. So we charge our growers anywhere, somewhere in the range of two thousand dollars per month.
Eve: [00:13:27] So they don’t buy them, they rent them.
Mark: [00:13:28] Nope. Rent.
Eve: [00:13:29] Ah, rent a robot.
Mark: [00:13:32] Yeah. And that’s, believe or not, there’s a, you know, when people, your, some of your listeners, are in the software as a service phrase that probably a lot of people have heard that. Well, there’s now a whole industry called robots as a service. You’re not selling the technology. You’re just giving them access to it. There’s even something called FaaS now. It’s called farming as a service where you actually have a piece of land, and you think there’s a way to earn some money. A company will come in and be the farming entity on that piece of land. So you’re the owner, you reap the share, the profits from…
Eve: [00:14:16] Kinda like you’re renting a building, but you rent land instead.
Mark: [00:14:18] And exactly.
Eve: [00:14:19] It’s interesting.
Mark: [00:14:20] It’s exactly that. Yeah.
Eve: [00:14:22] So I have to ask, is there a plan for tiny robots, for urban gardens?
Mark: [00:14:27] Maybe someday. I mean, it’s funny you say that. So, what we’re probably going to do someday when we get to enough size, we will make a phone app version of this that will be free. So what will happen is we have cameras, as I mentioned, the hardware that’s to do it at scale. You’re talking about farms of one hundred to twenty thousand acres. But if you want to use it in your backyard, you know, you’re not going to go buy a bigger machine. You’re what you would want, though, is access to all of the smarts. And because cameras have pretty good lenses for small scale data collection, what will probably do is will make the app freely available to anyone who can, you know, wants to download it. And then they can use their cell phone camera and they can benefit from the analytics. So if you have tomatoes and we’ve done, you know, vast tomato grows around the world, we now have, because of the way A.I. works – it’s learning, we now have all that wisdom from all those tomatoes from all over the world. Well, you can get access to that for free through your phone app for your own tomato garden in your backyard.
Eve: [00:15:42] So, you know I, over the last year, I became an avid gardener, something I thought I would never do in my life. It’s a great, great hobby when there’s a pandemic going on. But I’ve been using a plant app to identify plants in case I think they’re weeds and I’m going to pull them out. Extraordinary, pretty extraordinary. So can I be the first one to test your app?
Mark: [00:16:05] Absolutely, Eve. I hereby, I’ll go on live and just right here publicly say you will be the first.
Eve: [00:16:13] I mean, It’d be fantastic because you’re dealing with all sorts of, you know, mildew and moles and bugs. And it’s hard.
Mark: [00:16:22] You know, there’s a. you know, I’ve been in this ag tech now thing for two years, so I know, you know, a very limited knowledge, dangerous amount of knowledge, which is a very little bit. But one of the statistics I learned that really kind of stayed with me is, you know, for those listeners know your population and the world’s about seven billion, it’s expected to grow to 11 billion in the next 30 years. So that’s a 40 percent increase in population in 30 years. And somebody has done the calculation on food production. And what they concluded is that we will need to grow, we will need to grow more crops in the next 30 years than we have since the beginning of agriculture ten thousand years ago.
Eve: [00:17:13] Wow.
Mark: [00:17:14] Yeah, but it’s an even bigger challenge. And the bigger challenge is we’re going to have to do it on less arable land. So, there’s no Iowas or Ukraines left in the world with dense, rich soil left. So we’re going to have to do it on probably less arable land than is available now. And with fewer of the tools that currently are common to farming. The fertilizers and what have you are with all of the requirements for sustainability that are increasingly the case around the world, those tools will be less available. So somehow or another, we’re going to have to get more with less if we’re going to feed the world. So that’s really probably what’s driving this Agtech revolution I commented on earlier.
Eve: [00:18:03] Mm hmm. Interesting. So who thought up this robot?
Mark: [00:18:08] Well, I ,you know, I was fortunate to have met two people, one of Dr. George Kantor and who is a 20 years researcher at Carnegie Mellon, very well known in the Agtech space roboticist and one of his grad students, Tim Mueller-Sim. Tim and George had spent years developing variations of this technology in the field at Carnegie Mellon. In a literal sense in the field. And they had built all the robots that you’re imagining that you want to see, they’ve actually built those. So, the ones that crawl around or can pick a cherry without crushing it, all that, you know, they developed a lot of those things, field tested them and pretty cool stuff. But one of the lessons they learned is, you know, farmers don’t want to buy robots, yet. And that’s, you know, for people that love robots and build robots, that’s tough stuff. But they concluded, hey, look, we still want to help farmers. So what we’re going to do is we’re going to carve out the perception piece of that robot, the eyes and the brains, if you will, the A.I. in sensing and we’re not going to sell that to them. We’re going to sell a service. And we know that crop inspection, especially in specialty crops, is an essential routine in every specialty crop, just the way it is in your own garden. And so they said we’re going to carve that out and sell that as a service. So it was pretty, pretty thoughtful of them to kind of you know, it’s played out that way that the growers have resonated. So, you know, it’s probably the classic example of academic researchers transitioning to entrepreneurs. And, you know, that’s hard to do.
Eve: [00:19:59] And that’s where you came in, right? Because you are a serial entrepreneur.
Mark: [00:20:04] Yeah, yeah. And so when I met them, I came in as an advisor. And I think, Eve, I was like, I don’t know, 20 minutes into their first presentation and I, you know, I said to myself, OK, I’m just going to advise, see what. 20 minutes in, I’m like, oh, I’ve got to do this. So I just like, you know, I just can’t help myself and I don’t regret it for a minute. The two years it’s been I have flown by and I’m thoroughly enjoying this.
Eve: [00:20:35] So how do you hope to scale this company?
Mark: [00:20:39] You know, great question. So that’s the challenge every tech company has when they think of the all the benefits they could bring to the world, but then they don’t necessarily think through how everyone’s going to access this this wonderful tool. And for us, you know, for a lot of entrepreneurs like us, our strategy has been initially to knock on doors. The good news is because this technology had already been sort of field tested, we had a few leads with some vintners in California that led to them trying it and then them telling other vintners. And before, you know, we’ve got 15 vineyards in four countries,
Eve: [00:21:18] So no Facebook ads.
Mark: [00:21:20] No, no Facebook. You know, it’s funny. I think that it’s interesting how sometimes that PR is a startup and I’ve been guilty of this as you can almost get too much. And what happens is you get too much too early. And then when you meet investors or customers, they find out that the hype, you know, of your business is way ahead of what actually is there. So we were careful not to sort of get ahead of ourselves. But one of the things that we’re starting to do now, which is working is, is, you know, people use this phrase partnering. There are entities right now that buy large marketers that buy crops and then resell them to package them and sell them to the Whole Foods, Safeways and Giant Eagles of the world. And they have an interest in several things. One is in knowing that what the yield for that farm is going to be, if the sooner they know that, the better they can price it to the Whole Foods of the world. They also want to ensure that the crop that they’re buying at the beginning of the year is of a sufficient quality at the end of the year as to make that worthwhile. So they have an interest in knowing the condition of the crops, knowing the yield and various other things of the person from whom they’re going to buy those crops. So they came to us and I can’t name them yet. Someday soon, a big, big entity, global entity, and said, hey, we want to pay you to give your service to our growers. They can have access to all the analytics. They can get all that for free because we’re going to pay you and we get the benefit of knowing what the yield is going to be and the quality is going to be from that same data and then we resell it. But then there’s another addendum you’re going to find interesting. And this is new and different. This is very new. So what they’re telling us with this marketer is saying is people like you and me, when we go into Whole Foods or Giant Eagle or wherever we shop, we are increasingly want to know the history of that apple or that pepper, in other words, we want to know, OK, is that pepper really organic? We want to know where it came from. And when we say where it came from in this, believe it or not, this is where it’s going. The grower, the seller, the Whole Foods of the world wants to know what tree that apple came from.
Eve: [00:23:55] You’re kidding.
Mark: [00:23:56] I’m not kidding.
Eve: [00:23:58] I mean, is there a move towards buying more local in supermarkets as well as farmer’s markets?
Mark: [00:24:05] There is an attempt to do that. The challenge with buying local is, and this is some of the issues around some of the larger issues that people are struggling with is it’s pretty hard to compete with a Driscoll’s. You know, which is a massive grower when you’re trying to reach that quality level. There’s just a point at which a small grower just doesn’t have the scale.
Eve: [00:24:28] Yes.
Mark: [00:24:29] To match the quality of a massive grower like a Driscoll. So so there’s that. But there is a desire by the to grow the grocery stores, the places where we shop, to try to at least incorporate some local production. And so you’re seeing that play out. The challenge is we as consumers still demand our quality. As much as we want to buy local, as much as we have a desire to help keep that local ecology sort of functioning business, ag ecology functioning, we still like our quality apples. We still want to want to get the best quality we can for the price. And so there’s a bit of a challenge there for the you know, for the local growers. What’s seemingly happening is and I think this is another feature of just our own preferences as people are fussier and fussier and fussier about the quality of their produce, which is great. And so where there’s an opportunity for the local grower is rather than try to compete at the low end, they compete at the high end.
Eve: [00:25:43] That makes sense.
Mark: [00:25:44] So they go after the really premium crops, the kind that, you know, that I’m not, you know, five-dollar tomato or whatever.
Eve: [00:25:56] Yes. Yeah, interesting, so you must have done the math, because this is what I’m thinking, if everyone deployed one of your, every farm, deployed one of your robots. How much more food could we produce?
Mark: [00:26:09] Yeah, good question. You know, if you do the math conservatively, if you can increase yield just on believe it or not, I mean, the farming is it is a challenging business, whether you’re a giant grower or small. As you know, a lot of resources go into farming in the margins are pretty thin. So that means if you can increase yields, say two or three percent, you can dramatically improve the profitability of that farm dramatically. But that yield increase of two or three percent over time, in other words, you can do that on a fairly continuous basis, can add up to a lot. And that’s where food production is. It’s at the margin. You know, it’s at the margin of getting more with less. And by more with less, I mean, not just with less arable land, but with a lower resource base, less water. Water is now one of the big, big challenges in farming in, say, California, where a huge amount of our specialty crops come from. In the U.S., water is a big challenge. We as citizens of the Northeast United States, believe it or not, ultimately subsidize fresh water availability in on the west western United States. We are in our taxes and in the subsidies that are provided by the federal government to farmers. It allows for fresh water practically from being places like the Columbia River and other places out west to provide water on a massive scale, fresh water to farmers. And that is increasingly becoming expensive. Now there’s issues around the water table and you know, people that are much more expert at that than I am knowing about the depletion of of fresh water in the United States. But fresh water is now increasingly a constraint. So if you can increase yield with data and as a result, target my use of water and even nutrients by and have me use less of those and get higher yields, you not only improve the quantity of food, you reduce the resource cost. And that’s just data, Eve. It’s not, you know, we’re not talking about the labor costs or anything. We’re just talking about the simple use of the data. And that’s really our goal is not only to increase the productivity, the production, absolute production, it’s to reduce the resource base required to produce that.
Eve: [00:28:52] Yeah, interesting. So I’m going to shift gears a bit.
Mark: [00:28:56] Yeah.
Eve: [00:28:57] You know, you ran for mayor in the city of Pittsburgh a few years back, and you, and I know you’ve really been involved in the city, in the startup community. And I want to know what you believe the relationship is between a healthy city and startups.
Mark: [00:29:12] Yeah, that’s a good question. And I’ve thought a lot about that. Eve I don’t think there’s a city in the world that thinks that economic growth is necessarily inherently a bad thing. However, I do believe that a community like Pittsburgh, where there is now, I think, for the first time, I’ve been here 20 years, Eve, and I tell you what’s happening in the last three, three to five years is unlike anything that’s ever existed before. As long as I’ve lived here. It is really exploding. I mean, you have your first big IPO.
Eve: [00:29:47] Yes, Duolingo, right?
Mark: [00:29:49] And you have a few more in the queue. Yeah, that’s insane. So you’re going to see an explosion of millionaires living in the city. You’ve already seen that people who are now have suddenly are flush with wealth. There’s a concern by every city that, hey, is that going to be shared? Is that going to prosperity going to go to just a handful of people or a small elite community in this city? Or is it going to be our other citizens going to enjoy the fruits, the fruits of that?
Eve: [00:30:18] That did not play out well in San Francisco, right?
Mark: [00:30:21] Not at all. And I’ve been there with anyone who’s been there sees the disparity in peculiar San Francisco. You’ve got a beautiful, magnificent city with huge pockets of poverty.
Eve: [00:30:33] Yes.
Mark: [00:30:34] Disappointing. But I think in the case of Pittsburgh, I think it’s thoughtful leadership that doesn’t create a antagonistic kind of, you know, regressive. I don’t believe what’s happened. And I’m not pointing fingers at any politicians here. I think it’s just maybe just a natural outcome, you know, is this tech community grows is increasingly another community or other communities in this city are saying, hey, they’re getting all the attention and we’re still poor.
Eve: [00:31:04] Yes.
Mark: [00:31:04] We still have crappy roads, and our institutions are not working. Our crime is. And so I think that the kind of leadership that that needs to happen is that somebody sort of bridges that that doesn’t create an us versus them mentality, because then when the tech community says, oh, the city doesn’t like us because we’re successful now, they want to make us a scapegoat for their failures as local government. So there’s two sides to that. And that you end up creating, you know, you probably see it for the listeners nationally play out this way is, you know, when it’s really easy to point the finger and say it’s, you know, they’re the source of the problem. And I don’t see it that way. I think it’s a function of quality leadership, Eve, that I sound like giving a speech here.
Eve: [00:31:51] Oh, I completely agree with you.
Mark: [00:31:54] It’s the quality of leadership
Eve: [00:31:55] That, I mean, it’s actually played out that way with the health industry in Pittsburgh, which is really absolutely first class. And there’s been constant friction politically between that community, each other, and the city. And, you know,
Mark: [00:32:14] Needlessly, I think needlessly, I think both care about their community, both want it to succeed. Both have a desire to have everyone as much as possible enjoy the fruits of what’s happening. But I think that is in the details where it gets lost.
Eve: [00:32:30] Yeah, I mean, how did you get here? Like, what’s your background in a nutshell?
Mark: [00:32:35] Yeah, in a nutshell, it’s going to be a big nutshell because it’s crazy, but I’m trying to fit it in a tiny nutshell. OK, I spent the first 14, almost 15 years of my life in Washington, D.C., professional life in Washington, D.C., in and in and out of government, in and out of the federal government. I worked I was fortunate. I worked for initially two then congressmen, one guy named Tom Ridge, which any of your listeners in Pennsylvania would know to me became governor and secretary of homeland security. And fortunately, I worked for him. And then another guy named Mike DeWine, who is actually, now, the governor of Ohio, and that those two experiences were sort of fundamental. I then managed a political campaign in Maine. A guy we ran for Congress and a fellow named Rollin Ives. That’s a great New England name. And we lost. But I learned a lot about campaigns and came back to D.C. I worked for a Beltway bandit, Booz Allen, that’s the phrase in Washington for anyone listening. So I don’t mean that in a negative way. So big, big consulting firm. Worked for the Justice Department, the US Justice Department, briefly as a policy analyst, and then ultimately got a job working for John Heinz. Senator Heinz, up until tragically he passed away in 91. When the senator passed away, the new senator came in and brought his own staff. So I was again in the market and I was fortunate. Just dumb luck really, got a job in The White House. Got a job working in the Office of Science Technology Policy and under the first Bush administration in the early 90s, so I got a chance to work with an interesting group of people, the science adviser for people who don’t know something called the Office of Science Technology Policy was formed formally became a White House office staff when Eisenhower was President. But but every President since John Quincy Adams actually has had some kind of science adviser. So did that for two years. And President Bush lost. I was a political appointee. So when the President loses, you also lose a job. And so I was out the door and back on the street again. But I am fortunate to have all those wonderful experiences. And I ended up getting a job with Texas Instruments. So, Texas Instruments was looking for a lobbyist, somebody to help run their government affairs in D.C. And at that time, Texas Instruments was a Fortune 60 company in 48 countries and had a lot of business all over the world. So I had to travel, got a chance to travel around the world and had a lot of interesting assignments and it’s a wonderful company. I cannot say enough good things about the generosity of the Texas Instruments. I learned a lot about technology and policy and funny thing when I left, Eve, for your listeners who don’t like corporate lobbyists, they all enjoy this. I had a going away party when I decided to leave that world and moved to Pittsburgh. So I kind of finished that stint when I was about thirty five. I had done all that stuff and I was ready to kind of move on. And they had a party for me at my favorite watering hole in D.C. and they someone gave me a bumper sticker and it said, and these are other corporate lobbyists too, they give me a bumper sticker and it said, “Please don’t tell my mother I’m a corporate lobbyist. She thinks I’m a piano player in a brothel in New Orleans.”
Eve: [00:36:30] That’s great.
Mark: [00:36:31] So anyway, so I got that and then decided I was done. I had done a lot of what I wanted to do there. It was wonderful, but I was done. So I came here right around 2000 and didn’t really have a job. I actually was able to pick up some consulting work locally and then kicked around, got some work done. I was did a little bit of consulting work for Free Markets, back in the day. And I did a little bit of consulting there and that gave me a little taste for entrepreneurship and then really kind of dedicated myself to the starting companies over the next, you know, 15, 16 years here.
Eve: [00:37:15] So, what’s interesting about that is, you know, when people think about startup, they think about some young 20-year-olds starting a company. But you have this amazing wealth of experience that you’re bringing to this company.
Mark: [00:37:33] You know, Eve, I will tell you, the statistics share. I’m also an adjunct professor, at Carnegie Mellon that’s said I want to shout out to CMU. I’ve been teaching here since I moved here and they’ve been wonderful to me. But people if the statistics for those listening or prospective entrepreneurs, statistics are, most startups are started by people in their late 40s, early fifties, believe or not vast majority. It is the, there’s a small fraction of people in starting new businesses that are in their twenties or early thirties. That’s a rarity when it comes to starting businesses. And everyone thinks of the overnight success and…
Eve: [00:38:14] And overnight success is ten years, right?
Mark: [00:38:16] Oh, yeah. I mean, this is it’s a, this isa brutal, I tell people who are contemplating starting a business and, you know, you’ve done it, you’ve done it more than once, and, you know, it’s a brutal taskmaster. It is unforgiving. And it’s…
Eve: [00:38:34] I think I’m about halfway through that ten-year fix, that success on my latest business. And it is completely brutal.
Mark: [00:38:41] Yeah. And it just, but, you know, it’s funny. It’s the kind of thing where as tough as it is. I have a friend, he’s a retired Navy SEAL officer and he’s also an entrepreneur. And he said to me once, you know, he is, you know, being an entrepreneur is sort of like being a Navy SEAL and that you just have to get comfortable being uncomfortable.
Eve: [00:39:04] Yeah. Yeah. OK, I have one more question for you, and that is, what is your big, hairy, audacious goal?
Mark: [00:39:15] Wow. Wow. Oh, my goodness, where do I begin? I just want to make a difference here and in our community and whether that community is Pittsburgh, the region or even the state, I want to make a difference. That’s my goal. I enjoy what I do. I feel great about this company and what it can do. And that’s one of the reasons I love this company, is it’s going to make a difference for farmers, hopefully all over the world. And, but another important goal of mine is to make a difference where I live and try to make as big a difference as possible. And so I think that the great old, grand old, you know, Keystone State that we live in, you know, one of the colonies from way back is seen better days. And I think the communities that are here, you know, we’ve had suffered from population decline in Pittsburgh, in the region and in the state. And I think that there’s a desire to see something better and see change coming. And I think that that’s now possible. You know, it’s not the old, you know, stodgy community state that it once was. I think there’s new vitality, but I think it’s going to take time. And I want to see what I can do to make a difference somehow, some way. That’s what I think is the most energizing thing for me is that it’s why I love startups. It’s a way to kind of cause positive things to happen, keeps me motivated. And that’s what motivates me, is to try to make a difference where you live.
Eve: [00:40:53] That’s a great answer. I feel completely energized now. Mark, thank you very much. Thank you very much for talking to me.
Mark: [00:41:01] Yeah, sure. Happy to be here, Eve. Thanks.
Eve: [00:41:09] That was Mark DeSantis of Bloomfield Technologies. Mark pivoted his life and career from politics into start ups, and he moved from D.C. to Pittsburgh, where he is living his dream, nurturing an ag tech company into a global position in his much loved, adopted city. We’ll be hearing more about Mark and Bloomfield Technologies, I’m sure.
[00:41:46] You can find out more about this episode on the show notes page at EvePicker.com or you can find other episodes you might have missed, or you can show your support at Patreon.com/rethinkrealestate for the price of a cup of coffee. A special thanks to David Allardice for his excellent editing of this podcast and original music. And thanks to you for spending your time with me today. We’ll talk again soon. But for now, this is Eve Picker signing off to go make some change.
Image courtesy of Mark DeSantis, Bloomfield Robotics