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Upstart startup: Big investments propel Monarch

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Some big-league investors are helping California-based startup Monarch Tractor dramatically expand its footprint in the electric-equipment space.

The maker of fully electric, driver-optional tractors for specialty crops has received $61 million in funding from a group led by Astanor Ventures, one of the world’s leading sustainable food venture firms. The funding includes contributions from CNH Industrial, At One Ventures and Trimble Ventures, according to Monarch.

The investments will enable Monarch to triple manufacturing, boost its sales and service operations and launch pilot projects in international markets, said Praveen Penmetsa, the company’s co-founder and chief executive officer.

“We’re also entering different crops,” Penmetsa told Farm Progress. “We started in grapes, and over the last five or six months we’ve done work in the berries market. Now we’re entering the orchard market in citrus and apple orchards. This allows us to customize our tractors for orchard customers as well.”

Related: Monarch Tractor brings tech to farms, vineyards

The investments follow an announcement by CNH Industrial in early November that it has entered a multi-year licensing agreement with Monarch to develop a scalable, modular electrification platform for low-horsepower tractors.

The partnership will enable CNH to enhance its internal electrification capabilities faster while allowing Monarch to harness the benefits of CNH’s distribution and supply-chain networks as well as its product and branding expertise, according to the two companies.

“What this means for farmers is that they can expect to see not just Monarch tractors but also CNH tractors with Monarch technology,” Penmetsa said. “For both companies, this means we can accelerate getting tractors in farmers’ hands.”

The new pathways provided by Monarch “will rapidly strengthen our competitive position in sustainable precision farming,” CNH Industrial CEO Scott Wine said in a statement. “Their talented team, exceptional engineering acumen and Silicon Valley R&D ecosystem will greatly enhance our digital capabilities.”

Grants and partnerships

The Livermore, Calif.-based Monarch has been using grants and partnerships to expand its fleet of machines since unveiling its new electric-powered tractor a year ago. To help some growers with the tractor’s $58,000 price tag, Monarch has been obtaining grants from the USDA, the California Air Resources Board and other agencies.

Monarch bills its tractor as the first to offer a “trifecta” of electrification, automation and data analysis that empowers sustainable farming, increases efficiency and data analysis which could help a grower improve practices and enhance yields.

The tractor features spare batteries that can be swapped in and out during the day to keep the machine running and can be charged overnight when electricity demand is lighter, Penmetsa has explained. The machines’ autonomous features enable trained workers to operate several at a time, which will enable the machine to “pay for itself” in less than two years, he said.

Monarch’s efforts to help specialty-crop growers achieve both their economic and sustainability goals have drawn interest from the investment community, including Astanor, a Brussels, Belgium-based firm that matches food-sector entrepreneurs with impact investors.

Related: Startup launches innovative electric tractor

The investments will enable Monarch to scale up production while making forays into South America, Europe and Asia with pilot testing programs, the company says.

“So far, we’re building tractors in Livermore at a rate of a few a week,” Penmetsa said. “By the middle of next year, we’ll be building them in tens a day. This fundraising allows us to do that.”

Penmetsa said there will likely be more announcements in the coming year related to implements.

“Our mission at monarch is, how do we create a bridge between farm economics and sustainability demands?” he said. “The fact that we have a number of technology giants supporting us means that everyone is starting to see what Monarch technology is capable of.

“We’re excited about this validation point,” he said. “Also, our customers can rest assured we have the means to support and deploy tractors and provide the service and maintenance they warrant over a long period of time.”