Canadian innovations cultivate quality cannabis for explosive global marijuana market.
Earlier this year, the federal government made good on its promise to introduce legislation that will legalize recreational cannabis use for Canadian adults. The proposed Cannabis Act — estimated to come into law by July of 2018 — would allow adults to possess up to 30 grams of legal cannabis in public and grow up to four plants per household.
Beyond July 2018, Canada will join a growing wave of medical and recreational cannabis legalization taking place globally and thereby benefit economically from what most analysts forecast as an explosive market. According to Arcview Market Research, for example, the North American legal pot market is currently a US$6.7 billion industry but will expand to US$22.6 billion by 2021.
In Canada alone, a Forum Research poll estimates that 31 per cent of Canadians make up the theoretical pool of potential marijuana users — approximately 8 million people. Canadian financial firm, PI Financial, estimates the total Canadian cannabis market will reach CAD$7 billion by 2024. However, that’s only a tenth of the global market, which could reach CAD$70 to $75 billion by 2025.
No matter your views on legalization, Canadian companies see that there is a big slice of the “pot” pie to be had. To compete in such a unique space, Canadian cannabis is some of the “cleanest” in the world. Health Canada requires that licensed producers conduct mandatory testing of all cannabis products for the presence of unauthorized pesticides. To meet those quality standards, companies are finding enterprising ways to grow and cultivate “clean” cannabis.
“Canada has some of the strictest requirements to cultivate marijuana’,” explains Patrick Gagné, president and CEO of Avid Growing Systems and CEO of CannaCure, a producer of medical-grade cannabis. “We had to go above and beyond what the home growers and current cultivators were doing if we truly wanted to make this a pharmaceutical grade product.”
Avid Growing Systems
In 2014, Gagné launched his Niagara-based company, which manufactures modular turnkey marijuana growing systems. Approximately the size of a refrigerator, these vertically stackable systems are designed to convert a shell warehouse into a high-end marijuana producing facility, based on a common pallet racking system.
“We went this route because no matter what municipality we went into, there is already a set of rules and permitting processes in place to allow this type of racking,” explains Gagné.
The Avid Growing System has two parts. The nutrient centre monitors the feeding schedule, CO2 levels and is where all data tracking is done. The growing centre includes 17 separate plant chambers. These chambers are supplied by an innovative aeroponic system that feeds the plants by suspending the root base in air and spray it in a nutrient mist.
Aeroponics is known for its explosive growth cycle, cutting cultivation time by 35 percent. However, the mechanics are tricky; just as fast as a plant is reactive to growing in this type of system, a plant can be lost within hours, if there is a fault or problem. This is why the system was designed with 17 individual growing chambers. In addition, the growing system encompasses more than 22 subsystems including lighting, HVAC and heat exchangers.
According to Gagné, the hardest thing to manage with indoor cultivation of marijuana is proper heat and humidity control. At night, a single plant can produce one to three litres of water into the air, which is significant. The Avid Growing System uses sensors to control the climate and air temperatures but also includes a reclamation system that recycles 96% of the water lost to evaporation.
Another challenge was the lighting system. Gagné and his team designed the system to have compartmented chambers with highly reflective material to drop this electrical load significantly.
“We are using a lighting system called LECs or light emitting ceramics,” he explains. “Right now, our chambers are producing seven to 10lbs. per 96 square feet of space every 7-8 weeks, using only 2520 watts of lighting.”
Given this level of fine environment control, the system offers the ability to grow multiple marijuana strains simultaneously, adjusting environment variables to maximize yield and quality for each individual strain.
According to Gagné, this feature gives Avid a significant advantage, since there are more than 2200 different strains on the market today. To turn users away from the black market, Gagné says licenced producers will have to give them a reason beyond lower cost.
“Everyone wants to be a bit different,” he explains, “and the demands for ‘boutique bud’ is going to soar [with legalization in Canada].”
In addition to sparking large-scale commercial grow-ops, Canada’s legislation will also open up a new market segment for “grow your own” systems. Surrey-based BC Northern Lights (BCNL) is one company that got into the game early on.
In 2001, Blair Williams was struck with an idea, which he brought to fruition with his brother Rhys Williams and friend, Tarren Wolfe. The team found that growing required a significant amount of time and effort to produce quality cannabis, so they designed and built a home grow box prototype.
“The design and the concept was to make life a little simpler but to also make an easy setup growing system,” explains Blair Williams, sales manager for BCNL. “You can roll it on wheels into any room and it’s plug-and-play. The advantage is you don’t have to poly the whole room off. You don’t need intakes and outtakes or tons of equipment. It’s all built into one—it waters the plants, adds CO2 and filters the smell.”
Today, after 16 years in business, the company offers four variations of that prototype for people who want to grow for themselves. The most advanced boxes come pre-programmed with light timing, watering, CO2 injection, air circulation and air stone pumps. They are also outfitted with a number of sensors to ensure proper growing conditions.
“It’s a deep water culture hydro set up,” Williams says. “The system auto waters all of the plants. You get all the nutrients with it, the grow medium for up to at least three harvests and a carbon filtration system…You can even make your own clones, so it is very self-sustainable system.”
As with Avid, BCNL found the lighting system to be one of the biggest challenges. The first prototypes used T5 fluorescent lights and then moved to HID lights. Recently, the company had an LED lighting system designed and built. After testing, the yields were slightly smaller than using HID lights but the quality was much better.
As of October 2, 2017, BC Northern Lights was acquired by Canadian cannabis supplier, Aurora Cannabis, in a CA$8.35 million deal. Tarren Wolfe, co-founder and CEO of BCNL as of late, agreed to sell the company, to “enable us to address a much larger audience of people…seeking access to the equipment, genetics and educational support services to do so.”
For those who lack any sort of green thumb or enjoyment in gardening whatsoever, Waterloo-based Grobo has developed a personal robotic gardening system called the Grobo One. Founded in 2014 by CEO Bjorn Dawson, the company recognized a unique opportunity when many of its customers began expressing interest in growing cannabis.
Dawson boasts that this system should look great in any room environment and fits in seamlessly with its surroundings. The team constantly focused on industrial design and strives to create a design that fits seamlessly into different locations but, at the same time, looks nothing like a traditional growing system.
The solution they came up with is a 1x1x4 foot tower system—an at-home size footprint with unique finishes for a decorative aspect. Within the growing chamber itself, sensors collect temperature and humidity data that’s analyzed by algorithms to optimize growing conditions.
As a result, the system automatically adjusts nutrients, lighting and pH levels to ensure the success of each plant. The Grobo One is also able to track all plant growth variables including a plant’s height and the amount of nutrients it is consuming. According to Dawson, little is required of this plug-and-play system’s user.
“You just go to our app and choose from the list of plants to set up your system,” he explains. “You pick which one you’ve actually planted. It will load up a growing recipe and away you go.”
When it comes to lighting, each system offers its own unique option which includes lighting cycles and wavelength/spectrum of 53 LEDS (colour and intensity), which can be adjusted to promote compact and dense plant growth.
“The advantage of Grobo is that we can save hours a week troubleshooting, setting up, picking the right combination of lights, water, nutrients,” says Dawson. “It is the easiest way to start growing.”
Whether it’s a sleek at-home grow unit, a grow box combo system with high-yield design, or an automated stackable industrial grow system, one thing is certain: Canadian talent and innovation is leading the charge.
These companies have focused on the U.S. market, and according to Gagné, many customers expressed surprise that these unique and advanced systems were coming out of Canada. As legalization becomes more imminent, Canadian innovation in cannabis cultivation is expected to grow and yield positive results in both the domestic and global markets.