By Donna Loughlin
Praveen Penmetsa grew up helping his family on their chili pepper farms in Southern India, a rather fitting start for someone who would eventually devote his career to reinventing agriculture. But as an engineer, he took a circuitous route away from — and back to — farming, choosing first to indulge his passion for fast cars.
As a teenager, Praveen had two hobbies: Formula One racing and tinkering with machinery. So after graduating from college in 1999, he found a graduate program at the University of Cincinnati that would allow him to study both fluid and aerodynamics and combine his skills as an engineer with his love of cars. After completing his Master’s degree in 2001, he began applying for jobs with race car companies around the world, eventually landing at Rod Millen Motorworks — now known as MillenWorks — in California.
“I just had a phone interview,” Praveen told me. “But they asked me if I wanted to just move out there and start right away. So I threw everything I owned into my car and drove across the country for two days nonstop to start work in Huntington Beach.”
Praveen would lead several small teams at Millen over eight years. But when the company was sold to Textron in 2010, he and a group of colleagues decided to branch out on their own and launched a research-and-development startup called Motivo, which he still runs today as CEO. In more than ten years at Motivo, the company has worked with numerous entrepreneurs and visionaries in the areas of mobility, energy and aerospace to bring new technologies to market. But it was a visit to India in 2015 that would inspire Praveen’s biggest move yet.
During his trip, he got to thinking about India’s sweeping electricity shortages that often affected the country’s rural areas. He thought about the farm machinery he grew up taking apart and fixing. He’d spent the last several years at Motivo working on hybrid cars and other smart technology. Maybe, he thought, he could do the same for a tractor.
“I thought if I just had one of those electric cars that we’d just done at Motivo, which could power a house,” he said. “I thought that would be amazing. But then I realized it would be ridiculous to have one of those cars sitting in the middle of a field in India. So that led to, ‘what if we did an electric tractor that could do everything a tractor does, but also power a house?’”
Praveen teamed up with his partner at Motivo, Zach Omohundro, Tesla alum Mark Schwager and winegrower and agricultural visionary Carlo Mondavi to launch Monarch Tractor and bring his vision to life. By early 2020, Praveen and his team had developed the world’s first fully electric, driver-optional, smart tractor that could also be a net energy producer. Monarch is the first to offer a trifecta of electrification, automation and data analysis that empowers sustainable farming, increases efficiency and safety, and maximizes profitability for farmers. Monarch sees its tractor as the future of agriculture, allowing growers to apply precision farming while cutting their diesel costs to virtually zero.
“It’s very much a farmer-first kind of mundanity tractor,” he told me. Everything there is there for a reason. We’re not trying to be the Tesla of agriculture. With regular consumer goods or most high-tech goods, there’s a fair amount of aspiration that you create. Monarch can’t be aspirational. We made this for farmers because we wanted to solve a problem. So I don’t know what Silicon Valley leaders think about it, but we know what farmers think about it and we’re happy with their reaction.”