Veteran Tesla Engineer Leaving For Greener Pastures: AgTech Startup Plenty
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June 7th, 2018
Nick Kalayjian, a high-ranking Tesla engineer who joined in the company’s shambolic early days before Elon Musk was CEO and has worked on all its products from the Roadster through the Model 3, is joining Plenty, an ag-tech startup backed by SoftBank and Jeff Bezos that hired another top Tesla veteran last year.
A vice president of engineering reporting to Doug Field, Tesla’s engineering chief who’s currently on leave, Kalayjian becomes San Francisco-based Plenty’s senior vice president of engineering this month. He’s leaving Tesla not because of dissatisfaction or friction but out of a desire to tackle another big societal challenge after working to advance clean vehicles and energy for nearly 12 years, he told Forbes.
“The mission of Plenty is potentially bigger than the electrification of transportation or the grid,” he said. “The energy consumed, the impact on the environment of farming all over the world, is massive, and it’s a problem that needs a kind of engineering focus Tesla applies to vehicles. I think there’s a lot of opportunity to have a big impact.”
The company he joined in 2006 has evolved from a shoestring operation that avoided death in 2008 into a leader in electric vehicles with a $54 billion market cap and over 37,000 employees worldwide. Yet Tesla has struggled to fulfill Musk’s long-held promise of mass-producing vehicles average car buyers can afford, namely $35,000 Model 3s. And regardless of his motivation, Kalayjian is one of many notable exits this year. They include Matthew Schwall, an engineer working with federal investigators reviewing an Autopilot-related crash who joined Alphabet’s Waymo; the departure of chief accounting officer Eric Branderiz and vice president of finance Susan Repo; Autopilot chief Jim Keller, who joined Intel; and former global sales and service chief Jon McNeill, who took a job at Lyft in February.
Still, Tesla shares jumped 9.7% on June 6 after Musk told attendees at the company’s annual shareholder meeting that Model 3 output would hit a goal of 5,000-units/week by the end of the first half and that $35,000 versions of the car could be built in volume in early 2019. An emotional Musk was also visibly relieved that proposals to remove him as Tesla chairman and oust three board members failed to win shareholder support.
Kalayjian will find familiar faces at his new company, which has more than a dozen former Tesla staff, including Kurt Kelty, who until last year was a core member of its battery tech team and essential to Tesla’s partnership with Japan’s Panasonic. Kelty joined Plenty in October as senior vice president of operations and market development.
Cofounded by CEO Matt Barnard, Plenty is a unicorn in the fast-developing indoor agriculture space, luring Silicon Valley talent and capital to create high-yield vertical farms that use a fraction of the energy and water needed for field-grown crops. SoftBank Vision Fund was lead investor in Plenty’s $200 million Series B round in 2017, pushing total funding to $226 million. The company has started generating revenue from its South San Francisco farm and adds a commercial growing operation in Seattle this year. It will then expand across the U.S. and into international markets.
Kalayjian is a Stanford University-trained engineer who also has a degree in physics and multiple patents for work done both at Tesla and Apple, his previous employer. So why does a company planning high-yield indoor farms that grow affordable produce close to where it will be sold and consumed need someone with cutting-edge engineering chops?
“We’re ‘productizing’ farms,” Barnard said in an interview. “These are very dense, highly resource-efficient farms. It’s a very complex engineering problem.”
“It’s super important for us to have a production system to grow food at prices that fit into everyone’s budget,” he said. “Few people in the world that have led engineering development and productization processes that move as fast for systems that are as dense and complex as what Nick and his teams at Tesla have done.”
From the outside, Plenty farms look like warehouses or big box stores, and range in size from 100,000 to 250,000 square feet, or the equivalent of 2.3 to more than 5 acres. Inside, plants grow sideways on vertical columns between 7 and 20 feet high.
With precise use of water, nutrients, temperature control and light, its farms “can grow anywhere from a couple hundred acres to 1,000 acres of conventional field production on a volume basis over the course of a year,” Barnard said. And they do that using 1% of the water a traditional farm would. Growing close to where the crops are consumed also cuts shipping costs, fuel use and carbon exhaust.
Like at Tesla, the initial focus will be on higher-end products: organic produce priced in line with the field-grown variety. But Plenty aspires to build farms to feed parts of the world that currently have to import produce because of climate and local growing conditions that aren’t optimal.
“When I joined Tesla it was the appeal to really cause a revolution in the transportation industry,” said Kelty, who worked on its battery team from March 2006 until last August. A dozen years later, with most major global automakers planning to electrify their model lines, “that revolution is happening,” he said.
Plenty “is very similar to the early days at Tesla, where we’re going to revolutionize the agriculture industry. And it’s an industry that’s bigger than the EV industry,” Kelty said. “The impact on people is going to be much greater. The impact we can have on impoverished areas, especially in Africa, is just huge.”
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