Kurt Kelty, Tesla’s former director of battery technology, is moving into a very different sector of the tech industry: indoor agriculture.
Kelty, who worked at Tesla for over a decade and left in early 2017, was one of the earliest executives at the vehicle startup founded by Elon Musk. Before that, he spent more than 14 years with the Energy Lab at Panasonic, a company known for consumer electronics (which also happens to run its own vertical farming division in Singapore).
At Tesla, Kelty worked on partnerships and material sourcing at the company’s Gigafactory near Reno, Nevada, where it manufactures lithium-ion batteries for its cars. At Plenty, he will launch a mass production facility for growing produce in the US, he told Bloomberg.
Instead of growing greens outdoors, Plenty grows its greens on glowing, LED-lit 20-foot-tall towers inside a former electronics distribution center in South San Francisco. The towers don’t require pesticides or even natural sunlight.
The technique is called indoor vertical farming – a type of agriculture in which food grows on trays or hanging modules in a climate-controlled, indoor facility. The process allows certain types of produce to be grown year-round,in small spaces. Produce could be delivered to consumers within hours of harvest.
Plenty, founded in 2014, claims to grow up to 350 times more greens than conventional farms of similar size, while using much less water and land. The goal, Plenty CEO Matt Barnard previously told Business Insider, is to revolutionize the way the world grows food – and sell that food for lower prices than typical produce.
A $200 million investment in the startup, led by SoftBank Vision Fund in August 2017, could help make that vision viable. One of the biggest struggles for the company is the energy usage cost from the LEDs, though the lighting technology has become more of a commodity in the past several years.
“I can’t predict what the venture industry will do, nor what the USDA will do given the current state of federal budgeting, but we’re confident that this will be a prominent form of agricultural practice for many crops much sooner than even we projected a few years ago,” Barnard said.