Tag Archives: facility

Flower-Side Chats Part 10: What’s Next for Audacious

By Aaron Green
No Comments

Flower continues to be the dominant product category in US cannabis sales. In this “Flower-Side Chats” series of articles, Aaron Green interviews integrated cannabis companies and flower brands that are bringing unique business models to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory, supply chain and consumer demand.

Audacious (OCTQB: AUSA) is an Aurora (TSX: ACB) spinoff formerly known as Australis Capital, Inc. They have focused on an asset-light expansion strategy whereby they leverage their expertise in designing cannabis facilities in exchange for favorable cost plus arrangements for a percentage of the facilities’ production.

We interviewed Marc Lakmaaker, SVP of Capital Markets at Audacious. Prior to joining Audacious, Marc worked with Terry Booth at Aurora. His background is in investor relations.

Aaron Green: Marc, how did you get involved in the cannabis industry?

Marc Lakmaaker: I was working for an investor relations agency. and one of my colleagues left and she had a cannabis client that I took over, which was Bedrocan, Canada. I started working with them. They were then acquired by Tweed, which became Canopy. The guy I was working with at the time at Bedrocan was Cam Battley, who then went to Aurora. As soon as he joined Aurora, he said, “I need some help.” So, I came in house and worked there until July 2019. When I left, I set up my own agency, but by that time, I’d been working with Terry Booth for a few years. Then, this past December, Terry got in touch with me and said he needed my help. It was after the concerned shareholders had won the shareholder battle around Australis and the rest is history. So, I’ve now been working with Audacious, which was Australis, since December of last year, roughly.

Green: Just quickly on Australis: So, Audacious is basically a spin off of Aurora, correct?

Lakmaaker: Correct. So, at the time, Aurora had a couple of US assets on its balance sheet, a piece of land an annuity through a company Michigan. We were listed on the TSX. We were going to list or had just listed on the NYSE and were arranging for loan facility with a syndicate of banks. They said, “even though these assets are dormant, you can’t have any US assets on your balance sheet.” So, we spun Australis off – a little bit how Canopy had spun off Canopy Rivers. But it was really the idea that Australis is going to become the foothold for Aurora in the US cannabis market because Aurora has back-in rights.

The management team was put in place and started making some investments in the cannabis space, but kind of drifted away, sort of more into FinTech. First, it was FinTech related to cannabis and then FinTech, full stop. That’s when the shareholders were like, “we don’t agree with this.” Then the proxy battle started in which the dissident shareholders, or the concerned shareholders, won overwhelmingly. The Board left. The management team left. A new management team was put in place, a new Board in place, and it was kind of a restart.

So, we feel like we’re a bit of a startup. But a very rapidly moving startup. We’ve done an incredible amount of work in just the last seven to ten months. There was a lot of housekeeping to do. A lot of stuff related to restructuring the company, dealing with the departing management teams, dealing with bringing new management, etc. There were some deals that had to be unwound… Housekeeping if you will.

Green: Australis went down the FinTech route. What are the plans for Audacious now?

Lakmaaker: We’ve already started. We pivoted right away. In early January, we announced two acquisitions. One of ALPS, and the other one of Green Therapeutics. ALPS is really what is enabling us to execute on our strategy. It’s a very different strategy. It’s an asset light model, because we figured out that in order to grow quickly in this market without spending huge amounts of shareholder money, you need to be able to get into markets in a capital-light fashion. ALPS is the world’s preeminent greenhouse design company. Not just greenhouses, but also indoor facilities. They’ve got a 35-year track record in fruits and vegetables. They’ve got an eight-year-plus track record in cannabis – and built some of the best facilities in the world. They’ve got a lot of IP.

Marc Lakmaaker, SVP of Capital Markets at Audacious (formerly Australis)

The proof point of that is our relationship with Belle Fleur. It’s a social equity license holder in Massachusetts. We helped them build their facility. We’re not contractors, but we do the design and engineering. We help them with partner selection. We do the construction management. We bring in a general contractor. Then we do the commissioning, and optionally, post-commissioning services, making sure that the facilities are dialed in. In return for all that IP, because what people know that what they get at the end of it is high quality, consistent cannabis and very low operating costs, we ask our clients to dedicate a certain percentage of their canopies to grow with our cultivars. Those we will buy back on a cost plus arrangement and we use that to launch our brands into whatever jurisdiction.

So, in Massachusetts, we’re working with Belle Fleur. We’re getting 10% of their canopy. We’re buying it back at cost plus 5%. So, we don’t have to sink money into building the facility. We’re not carrying the cost of capital there. We’re also not paying wholesale prices. And these relationships are locked in for a long time. I can’t remember if it was five or 10 years. So, it’s a very, it’s a different strategy, but it’s not contrarian – it’s very de-risked, that allows us to launch into new countries.

Then for Green Therapeutics, we’ve got a number of award-winning brands like Provisions and Tsunami. We’re kind of phasing out GT Flowers and there will be something else in its place. We also acquired Loose, which caters to a younger demographic, with a high potency shot beverage line that is now for sale in California.

We also have a partnership with PBR, the Professional Bull Riders Association. There’s some statistics around that that just absolutely blew me away – 83 million permanent fans! That’s 25% of the US population. I think the average income is $70,000. That’s well above the national average and the general split is fairly even too; it’s 53/47, male/female. Proper American sport! They have hundreds of hours of exposure on CBS. They’ve got 2 billion imprints on social media. So, with PBR, we launched Wreck Relief, which has several recognized and approved pain products in the lineup.

Green: What markets are you in right now?

Lakmaaker: Right now we’re in Nevada with cannabis products. This is our home market where our head offices are in Las Vegas. We’re in California. We just bought a dispensary in San Jose that comes with a partnership with Eaze. On top of that, we’re operationalizing in Missouri and Oklahoma, and officially building in Massachusetts.

Then through ALPS because they does both cannabis and non-cannabis, we’re in a number of states. We’re looking to get more of the supply deals. We’re also doing a lot of vegetable facilities throughout the entire world. We’re in Europe, we’re in Asia, in the Middle and in North America, we build these facilities from the desert up to the Arctic.

There’s a big movement right now to produce food that is safe and has a smaller carbon footprint. So, our facilities are kind of inherently more sustainable. They use up to 95% less water, less labor, less energy, they are less prone to disease, crop failure, everything. And because you are local producing for local communities, you reduce the transport carbon footprint.

Green: What in your personal life or in cannabis are you most interested in learning about?

Lakmaaker: I really like the sciences. I’m a chemical engineer by training. I think what is going to take an incredible flight in the years to come is the application of medical scientific research that’s being done right now. To me, that’s fascinating because the cannabis plant is something special. It’s got such a broad utility that we know, anecdotally. I think we’re moving towards a world where we’re going to see a lot of breakthroughs on the medical side.

I’m very excited about the other end too – cultivation. I think tissue culture is going to play an incredible and important role.

Green: Thanks Marc, that concludes the interview.

Lakmaaker: Cheers, Aaron.

Controlled Environment Agriculture: An Interview with Sam Andras

By Aaron Green
1 Comment

Food-focused controlled environment agriculture (CEA) is a multidisciplinary production technique whereby plants and products are grown inside greenhouses, vertical farms and growth chambers where every aspect of the environment can be monitored and controlled. Using CEA, cultivators can produce high-value and traditional food crops with the goal of maximizing plant productivity in an efficient and environmentally friendly way.

As the industry’s first integrated building and cultivation systems design firm, urban-gro is ushering in a new era in the design of efficient indoor agriculture facilities, providing productivity and efficiency benefits to CEA operators when designing and operating facilities.

We interviewed Sam Andras, executive vice president of Professional Services at urban-gro, and principal of MJ12 Design Studio. Sam joined urban-gro after his company MJ12 Design Studio was acquired in July 2020. Prior to that, he was principal in charge of 2WR+ Partners, a 20-year Georgia-based architecture and interior design firm.

Aaron Green: Sam, tell me, how did you get started in the cannabis industry?

A facility that Andras designed in Massachusetts

Sam Andras: I started my architecture firm in 2001 in Georgia and later moved to Colorado in 2012. In 2013, I had the opportunity to do three cannabis facilities and really saw it as an emerging market that I thought would be really cool to dig into and pursue. Due to the marijuana stigma at the time, our company, 2WR, decided to create a cannabis-specific entity and developed MJ12 Design Studio. We built a website and it took off. Since 2013, I’ve personally designed about 130 cultivation facilities and vertically integrated facilities, from Hawaii all the way to New Zealand.

Green: When you say vertically integrated, what does that include?

Andras: The full building design of cultivation, product manufacturing, extraction, infusion and dispensaries.

Green: Is that something urban-gro currently does as well?

Andras: Now? Yes, with MJ12 under the facility design umbrella. After urban-gro acquired us in July, they were able to start offering full turnkey services. Everything from architecture, mechanical and plumbing engineering, electrical engineering, integrated cultivation, design of fertigation, benching, lighting, water treatment, environmental controls and other plant focused services– all of that is under our umbrella.

Green: Can you explain what controlled environment agriculture (CEA) is?

Andras: Absolutely. To me, CEA is crop agnostic, it can be anything from leafy greens to cannabis. Though we’re mainly focused on the cannabis industry and controlling that environment, we do also serve some leafy green companies. Environmental control includes things like temperature and humidity levels in the various stages of growth which is key to the economic success of organizations.

A California dispensary he designed

I’m a firm believer in legalization on the federal level down the road, which means that everything’s going to be under FDA for human consumption. If you look at the European models, when you look at the medicinal product development, it’s focused on consistency of the crop, from one crop to the next. And the way you achieve consistency is with CEA.

Green: From a resource perspective, can you describe how CEA differs from indoor to outdoor and greenhouse?

Andras: When you look at the market and the sale value of cannabis flower grown indoors versus outdoors or even greenhouse, greenhouse growing has huge variations by region. I believe greenhouses function better in more of a dry, arid climate. Indoor grows give you the ability to design and control your entire environment including temperatures, humidity levels, plant sizes, watering rates and other considerations. Growing indoors, in a controlled environment, gives you more flexibility to explore different alternatives in your cultivation.

A California cultivation facility he designed

Green: Final question: what in cannabis or in your personal life are you most interested in learning about?

Andras: That’s a great question. I’m a hands-on kind of guy. I would love to spend a couple of weeks working in extraction, as that’s the piece of the puzzle, as an architect, I know the least about. We’ve designed pretty much every type of cultivation from drip irrigation aeroponics to aquaponics, ebb & flow. You name it, we’ve done it, but the whole extraction process and the different equipment, and why companies choose ethanol, butane, hydrocarbon, CO2 and how to design for those extraction processes is something that as an architect, I’d love to learn more about.

Green: Okay, Great. That concludes the interview. Thanks Sam!

Andras: Thanks, Aaron.

Cannabis Manufacturing Considerations: From Raw Materials to Finished Goods

By David Vaillencourt, Kathleen May
2 Comments

Facility layout and design are important components of overall operations, both in terms of maximizing the effectiveness and efficiency of the process(es) executed in a facility, and in meeting the needs of personnel. Prior to the purchase of an existing building or investing in new construction, the activities and processes that will be conducted in a facility must be mapped out and evaluated to determine the appropriate infrastructure and flow of processes and materials. In cannabis markets where vertical integration is the required business model, multiple product and process flows must be incorporated into the design and construction. Materials of construction and critical utilities are essential considerations if there is the desire to meet Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) compliance or to process in an ISO certified cleanroom. Regardless of what type of facility is needed or desired, applicable local, federal and international regulations and standards must be reviewed to ensure proper design, construction and operation, as well as to guarantee safety of employees.

Materials of Construction

The materials of construction for interior work surfaces, walls, floors and ceilings should be fabricated of non-porous, smooth and corrosive resistant surfaces that are easily cleanable to prevent harboring of microorganisms and damage from chemical residues. Flooring should also provide wear resistance, stain and chemical resistance for high traffic applications. ISO 22196:2011, Measurement Of Antibacterial Activity On Plastics And Other Non-Porous Surfaces22 provides a method for evaluating the antibacterial activity of antibacterial-treated plastics, and other non-porous, surfaces of products (including intermediate products). Interior and exterior (including the roof) materials of construction should meet the requirements of ASTM E108 -11, Standard Test Methods for Fire Tests of Roof Covering7, UL 790, Standard for Standard Test Methods for Fire Tests of Roof Coverings 8, the International Building Code (IBC) 9, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 11, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and other applicable building and safety standards, particularly when the use, storage, filling, and handling of hazardous materials occurs in the facility. 

Utilities

Critical and non-critical utilities need to be considered in the initial planning phase of a facility build out. Critical utilities are the utilities that when used have the potential to impact product quality. These utilities include water systems, heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), compressed air and pure steam. Non-critical utilities may not present a direct risk to product quality, but are necessary to support the successful, compliant and safe operations of a facility. These utilities include electrical infrastructure, lighting, fire detection and suppression systems, gas detection and sewage.

  1. Water
Microbial monitoring methods can include frequent/consistent testing

Water quality, both chemical and microbial, is a fundamental and often overlooked critical parameter in the design phase of cannabis operations. Water is used to irrigate plants, for personnel handwashing, potentially as a component in compounding/formulation of finished goods and for cleaning activities. The United States Pharmacopeia (USP) Chapter 1231, Water for Pharmaceutical Purposes 2, provides extensive guidance on the design, operation, and monitoring of water systems. Water quality should be tested and monitored to ensure compliance to microbiological and chemical specifications based on the chosen water type, the intended use of the water, and the environment in which the water is used. Microbial monitoring methods are described in USP Chapter 61, Testing: Microbial Enumeration Tests 3and Chapter 62, Testing: Tests for Specified Microorganisms 4, and chemical monitoring methods are described in USP Chapter 643, Total Organic Carbon 5, and Chapter 645, Water Conductivity 6.Overall water usage must be considered during the facility design phase. In addition to utilizing water for irrigation, cleaning, product processing, and personal hygiene, water is used for heating and cooling of the HVAC system, fogging in pest control procedures and in wastewater treatment procedures  A facility’s water system must be capable of managing the amount of water required for the entire operation. Water usage and drainage must meet environmental protection standards. State and local municipalities may have water usage limits, capture and reuse requirements and regulations regarding runoff and erosion control that must also be considered as part of the water system design.

  1. Lighting

Lighting considerations for a cultivation facility are a balance between energy efficiency and what is optimal for plant growth. The preferred lighting choice has typically been High Intensity Discharge (HID) lighting, which includes metal halide (MH) and high-pressure sodium (HPS) bulbs. However, as of late, light-emitting diodes (LED) systems are gaining popularity due to increased energy saving possibilities and innovative technologies. Adequate lighting is critical for ensuring employees can effectively and safely perform their job functions. Many tasks performed on the production floor or in the laboratory require great attention to detail. Therefore, proper lighting is a significant consideration when designing a facility.

  1. HVAC
urban-gro
Proper lighting is a significant consideration when designing a facility.

Environmental factors, such as temperature, relative humidity (RH), airflow and air quality play a significant role in maintaining and controlling cannabis operations. A facility’s HVAC system has a direct impact on cultivation and manufacturing environments, and HVAC performance may make or break the success of an operation. Sensible heat ratios (SHRs) may be impacted by lighting usage and RH levels may be impacted by the water usage/irrigation schedule in a cultivation facility. Dehumidification considerations as described in the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) Committee Blog: An Introduction to HVACD for Indoor Plant Environments – Why We Should Include a “D” for Dehumidification 26 are critical to support plant growth and vitality, minimize microbial proliferation in the work environment and to sustain product shelf-life/stability. All of these factors must be evaluated when commissioning an HVAC system. HVAC systems with monitoring sensors (temperature, RH and pressure) should be considered. Proper placement of sensors allows for real-time monitoring and a proactive approach to addressing excursions that could negatively impact the work environment.

  1. Compressed Air

Compressed air is another, often overlooked, critical component in cannabis operations. Compressed air may be used for a number of applications, including blowing off and drying work surfaces and bottles/containers prior to filling operations, and providing air for pneumatically controlled valves and cylinders. Common contaminants in compressed air are nonviable particles, water, oil, and viable microorganisms. Contaminants should be controlled with the use appropriate in-line filtration. Compressed air application that could impact final product quality and safety requires routine monitoring and testing. ISO 8573:2010, Compressed Air Specifications 21, separates air quality levels into classes to help differentiate air requirements based on facility type.

  1. Electrical Infrastructure

Facilities should be designed to meet the electrical demands of equipment operation, lighting, and accurate functionality of HVAC systems. Processes and procedures should be designed according to the requirements outlined in the National Electrical Code (NEC) 12, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) 13, National Electrical Safety Code (NESC) 14, International Building Code (IBC) 9, International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) 15 and any other relevant standards dictated by the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ).

  1. Fire Detection and Suppression

“Facilities should be designed so that they can be easily expanded or adjusted to meet changing production and market needs.”Proper fire detection and suppression systems should be installed and maintained per the guidelines of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 11, International Building Code (IBC) 9, International Fire Code (IFC) 10, and any other relevant standards dictated by the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ). Facilities should provide standard symbols to communicate fire safety, emergency and associated hazards information as defined in NFPA 170, Standard for Fire Safety and Emergency Symbols 27.

  1. Gas detection

Processes that utilize flammable gasses and solvents should have a continuous gas detection system as required per the IBC, Chapter 39, Section 3905 9. The gas detection should not be greater than 25 percent of the lower explosive limit/lower flammability limit (LEL/LFL) of the materials. Gas detection systems should be listed and labeled in accordance with UL 864, Standard for Control Units and Accessories for Fire Alarm Systems 16 and/or UL 2017, Standard for General-Purpose Signaling Devices and Systems 17 and UL 2075, Standard for Gas and Vapor Detectors and Sensors 18.

Product and Process Flow

Product and process flow considerations include flow of materials as well as personnel. The classic product and process flow of a facility is unidirectional where raw materials enter on one end and finished goods exit at the other. This design minimizes the risk of commingling unapproved and approved raw materials, components and finished goods. Facility space utilization is optimized by providing a more streamlined, efficient and effective process from batch production to final product release with minimal risk of errors. Additionally, efficient flow reduces safety risks to employees and an overall financial risk to the organization as a result of costly injuries. A continuous flow of raw materials and components ensures that supplies are available when needed and they are assessable with no obstructions that could present a potential safety hazard to employees. Proper training and education of personnel on general safety principles, defined work practices, equipment and controls can help reduce workplace accidents involving the moving, handling, and storing of materials. 

Facilities Management

Facilities management includes the processes and procedures required for the overall maintenance and security of a cannabis operation. Facilities management considerations during the design phase include pest control, preventative maintenance of critical utilities, and security.

Damage from whiteflies, thrips and powdery mildew could be prevented with an appropriate PCP

A Pest Control Program (PCP) ensures that pest and vermin control is carried out to eliminate health risks from pests and vermin, and to maintain the standards of hygiene necessary for the operation. Shipping and receiving areas are common entryways for pests. The type of dock and dock lever used could be a welcome mat or a blockade for rodents, birds, insects, and other vermin. Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) should define the procedure and responsibility for PCP planning, implementation and monitoring.

Routine preventative maintenance (PM) on critical utilities should be conducted to maintain optimal performance and prevent microbial and/or particulate ingress into the work environment. Scheduled PMs may include filter replacement, leak and velocity testing, cleaning and sanitization, adjustment of airflow, the inspection of the air intake, fans, bearings and belts and the calibration of monitoring sensors.

In most medical cannabis markets, an established Security Program is a requirement as part of the licensing process. ASTM International standards: D8205 Guide for Video Surveillance System 23, D8217 Guide for Access Control System[24], and D8218 Guide for Intrusion Detection System (IDS) 25 provide guidance on how to set up a suitable facility security system and program. Facilities should be equipped with security cameras. The number and location of the security cameras should be based on the size, design and layout of the facility. Additional cameras may be required for larger facilities to ensure all “blind spots” are addressed. The facility security system should be monitored by an alarm system with 24/7 tracking. Retention of surveillance data should be defined in an SOP per the AHJ. Motion detectors, if utilized, should be linked to the alarm system, automatic lighting, and automatic notification reporting. The roof area should be monitored by motion sensors to prevent cut-and-drop intrusion. Daily and annual checks should be conducted on the alarm system to ensure proper operation. Physical barriers such as fencing, locked gates, secure doors, window protection, automatic access systems should be used to prevent unauthorized access to the facility. Security barriers must comply with local security, fire safety and zoning regulations. High security locks should be installed on all doors and gates. Facility access should be controlled via Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) access cards, biometric entry systems, keys, locks or codes. All areas where cannabis raw material or cannabis-derived products are processed or stored should be controlled, locked and access restricted to authorized personnel. These areas should be properly designated “Restricted Area – Authorized Personnel Only”.

Future Expansion

The thought of expansion in the beginning stages of facility design is probably the last thing on the mind of the business owner(s) as they are trying to get the operation up and running, but it is likely the first thing on the mind of investors, if they happen to be involved in the business venture. Facilities should be designed so that they can be easily expanded or adjusted to meet changing production and market needs. Thought must be given to how critical systems and product and process flows may be impacted if future expansion is anticipated. The goal should be to minimize down time while maximizing space and production output. Therefore, proper up-front planning regarding future growth is imperative for the operation to be successful and maintain productivity while navigating through those changes.


References:

  1. United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).
  2. United States Pharmacopeia (USP) Chapter <1231>, Water for Pharmaceutical Purposes.
  3. United States Pharmacopeia (USP) Chapter <61>, Testing: Microbial Enumeration Tests.
  4. United States Pharmacopeia (USP) Chapter <62>, Testing: Tests for Specified Microorganisms.
  5. United States Pharmacopeia (USP) Chapter <643>, Total Organic Carbon.
  6. United States Pharmacopeia (USP) Chapter <645>, Water Conductivity.
  7. ASTM E108 -11, Standard Test Methods for Fire Tests of Roof Coverings.
  8. UL 790, Standard for Standard Test Methods for Fire Tests of Roof Coverings.
  9. International Building Code (IBC).
  10. International Fire Code (IFC).
  11. National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).
  12. National Electrical Code (NEC).
  13. Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).
  14. National Electrical Safety Code (NESC).
  15. International Energy Conservation Code (IECC).
  16. UL 864, Standard for Control Units and Accessories for Fire Alarm Systems.
  17. UL 2017, Standard for General-Purpose Signaling Devices and Systems.
  18. UL 2075, Standard for Gas and Vapor Detectors and Sensors.
  19. International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineers (ISPE) Good Practice Guide.
  20. International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineers (ISPE) Guide Water and Steam Systems.
  21. ISO 8573:2010, Compressed Air Specifications.
  22. ISO 22196:2011, Measurement Of Antibacterial Activity On Plastics And Other Non-Porous Surfaces.
  23. D8205 Guide for Video Surveillance System.
  24. D8217 Guide for Access Control Syst
  25. D8218 Guide for Intrusion Detection System (IDS).
  26. National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA): Committee Blog: An Introduction to HVACD for Indoor Plant Environments – Why We Should Include a “D” for Dehumidification.
  27. NFPA 170, Standard for Fire Safety and Emergency Symbols.

Challenges with Process Scale Up in Cannabis/Hemp Extraction

By Darwin Millard
No Comments

What makes scaling up your process so difficult?

There are many factors that can lead to the challenges people face when scaling up their processes. These challenges are not unique to the cannabis/hemp industry, but they are exacerbated by the consequences generated from decades of Reefer Madness. In my time operating in the cannabis/hemp space, 15+ years, I have seen established equipment vendors and sellers of laboratory supplies, like Sigma-Aldrich (now Millipore-Sigma), Fisher-Scientific, Cerilliant, Agilent, and others, go from reporting individuals inquiring about certified reference materials to setting up entire divisions of their companies to service the needs of the industry. Progress. But we are still a fledgling marketplace facing many challenges. Let’s look at a few specific to process scale up.

Darwin Millard will deliver a presentation on this topic during the Cannabis Extraction Virtual Conference on June 29. Click here to learn more.Equipment Availability: Lack of available equipment at larger and larger process scales can severely impact project timelines. Making not only equipment acquisition difficult, but also limiting the number of reputable equipment manufacturers you can work with.

Non-Linear Expansion: NEVER assume your process scales linearly. Perhaps one of the most avoidable mistakes during process scale up. You will quickly find that for many processes you cannot just put in a larger unit and expect a proportional increase in output. This is because as process equipment increases so to must utilities and other supporting infrastructure, but not only that, process vessel geometry, proportions, and design are contributing factors to process efficiency as your scale of operations increases.

Hazardous Material Quantities: Just as important to the process as the equipment are the solvents and reagents used. As your scale of operations increases so does your demand and production of hazardous materials; solvents including carbon dioxide (CO2), ethanol, and liquid petroleum gases (LPG) like Butane and Propane are obvious hazards, but so too are the refrigerants used in the chillers, fuels used to power generators, steam created to heat critical systems, and effluents and wastewater discharged from the process and supporting systems. Not every municipality wants thousands of gallons of flammable substances and hazardous waste being generated in their backyard…

Contractor/Vendor Misrepresentation: Finding out in the middle of you project that your contractor or equipment vendor has never set up a system at this scale before is never a good feeling. Unfortunately, contractor and vendor misrepresentation of qualifications is a common occurrence in the cannabis/hemp space.

If all this was not bad enough, all too often the consequences of improper planning and execution are not felt until your project is delayed or jeopardized due to misallocation of funds or undercapitalization. This is especially true when scaling up your production capacity. Now let’s look at some ways to avoid these mistakes.

The Rule of 10

Construction drawings for a piece of process equipment.

When scaling up your process, NEVER assume that a simple linear expansion of your process train will be sufficient. It is often the case that process scale up is non-linear. Using the Rule of 10 is one way of scaling up your process through a stepwise iterative approach. The Rule of 10 is best explained through an example: Say you are performing a bench-top extraction of a few grams and want to scale that up to a few thousand kilograms. Before jumping all the way to your final process scale, start by taking a smaller jump and only increase your bench-top process by a factor of 10 at a time. So, if you were happy and confident with your results at the tens of grams scale, perform the same process at the hundreds of grams scale, then the thousands of grams scale, tens of kilograms scale, and so forth until you have validated your process at the scale of operations you want to achieve. By using the Rule of 10 you can be assured that your process will achieve the same yields/results at larger and larger scales of operation.

Scaling up your process through an iterative approach allows you to identify process issues that otherwise would not have been identified. These can include (but by no means should be considered an exhaustive list) improper heat transfer as process vessels increase in size, the inability to maintain process parameters due to inadequately sized utilities and/or supporting infrastructure, and lower yields than expected even though previous iterations were successful. However, this type of approach can be expensive, especially when considering custom process equipment, and not every processor in the cannabis/hemp space is going to be in the position to use tools like the Rule of 10 and instead must rely on claims made by the equipment vendor or manufacture when scaling up their process.

The Cannabis/Hemp Specific Process Equipment Trap

How many times have you heard this one before: “We have a piece of process equipment tailor-made to perform X,Y,Z task.”? If you have been around as long as I have in the cannabis/hemp space, probably quite a few times. A huge red flag when considering equipment for your expansion project!

Unless the equipment manufacturer is directly working with cannabis/hemp raw materials, or with partners who process these items, during product development, there is no way they could have verified the equipment will work for its purported use.

GMP compliant phytocannabinoid processing facility underconstruction.

A good example of this are ethanol evaporation systems. Most manufacturers of evaporators do not work with the volumes of ethanol they claim their systems can recover. So how did they come up with the evaporation rate? Short answer – Thermodynamics, Heat Transfer, and Fluid Mechanics. They modeled it. This much surface area, plus this much heat/energy, with this much pressure (or lack thereof), using this type of fluid, moving through this type of material, at this rate of speed, gets you a 1000-gal/hr evaporator or some other theoretical value. But what is the real rate once an ethanol and cannabis/hemp solution is running through the system?

For a straight ethanol system, the theoretical models and experimental models are pretty similar – namely because humans like alcohol – extensive real-world data for ethanol systems exist for reference in designing ethanol evaporators (more accurately described as distillation systems, i.e. stills). The same cannot be said for ethanol and cannabis/hemp extract systems. While it is true that many botanical and ethanol systems have been modeled, both theoretically and experimentally, due to prohibition, data for cannabis/hemp and ethanol systems are lacking and the data that do exist are primarily limited to bench-top and laboratory scale scenarios.

So, will that 1000-gal/hr evaporator hit 1000-gal/hr once it is running under load? That’s the real question and why utilizing equipment with established performance qualifications is critical to a successful process scale up when having to rely on the claims of a vendor or equipment manufacturer. Except this is yet another “catch 22”, since the installation, operational, and performance qualification process is an expensive endeavor only a few equipment manufacturers servicing the cannabis/hemp market have done. I am not saying there aren’t any reputable equipment vendors out there; there are, but always ask for data validating their claims and perform a vendor qualification before you drop seven figures on a piece of process equipment on the word of a salesperson.

Important Takeaways

Improper design and insufficient data regarding process efficiencies on larger and larger scales of manufacturing can lead to costly mistakes which can prevent projects from ever getting off the ground.

Each aspect of the manufacturing process must be considered individually when scaling your process train because each element will contribute to the system’s output, either in a limiting or expansive capacity.

I go further into this topic in my presentation: Challenges with Process Scale Up in the Cannabis/Hemp Industry, later this month during Cannabis Industry Journal’s Extraction Virtual Conference on June 29th, 2021. Here I will provide real-world examples of the consequences of improper process scale up and the significance of equipment specifications, certifications, and inspections, and the importance of vendor qualifications and the true cost of improper design specifications. I hope to see you all there.

Until then. Live long and process.

Growing the Seed of Sale: Integrating Security with Business Opportunity

By Ryan Schonfeld
No Comments

Anyone in the cannabis industry is well aware that theft of crops can economically devastate a grower. Security is critical, and thankfully, growers and dispensaries have many tools available to protect their investment. There is simply no excuse for not having a solid security posture to keep your business in compliance, from public-private partnerships to advanced security tools – in fact, it’s required in most jurisdictions.

In 2020, nationwide cannabis sales increased 67%, and support for legal marijuana reached an all-time high of 68%. New Frontier Data found that U.S. legal cannabis market is projected to double to $41.5 billion by 2025.

The industry’s advancement impacts numerous areas such as job and tax revenue creation and providing a wide variety of valuable opportunities. For cannabis facilities to keep up with the market expansion and experience success, they must face two significant challenges: achieving adequate security and efficient business operations. Though both can be seen as separate concerns, growers and producers must merge processes and solutions to tackle the issue as a whole.

Dispensaries are prime targets for burglary. Defending your storefront requires a comprehensive security plan

Along with rapid growth, dispensaries face traditional security risks, such as workplace violence and retail theft, while cybersecurity risks have also become more prevalent. These potential issues make it clear that the stakes are high, and as the potential impact on a business rises, the need for real-time, predictive response increases. Insider threats are another issue plaguing the industry when you look at the rate of theft, diversion and burglary that is attributable to employees.

The cannabis market is complex: it’s expanding rapidly, has to meet essential regulatory requirements and faces high-security risks. Therefore, security needs to be looked at holistically since it can be challenging to determine where a potential threat may originate.

With security top of mind, it is critical to move away from responsive behaviors and seek ways to manage security in a manner that gets ahead of threats, prevent them before they happen and respond to them in real-time. But does a grower or retailer have the time and expertise to manage all this while keeping an eye on how security affects the business?

Remote Security Operations

The ability to comply with government regulations and protect a valuable cannabis crop at all stages of its journey from seed to sale makes security systems a mission-critical asset for cannabis growers. Security operations centers create a safer and more productive environment and provide state-of-the-art tools to protect employees, retail locations and grow facilities. But some businesses in the cannabis market may not have the resources or space to have their centralized security operations, leading them to piece-meal security together or do the best with what they can afford at the time. Running these facilities can also be prohibitively expensive.

Security operations centers create a safer and more productive environment and provide state-of-the-art tools to protect employees, retail locations and grow facilities.

But new options take the process of security off the table. The business can focus on the growth of its core functions. Remote security operations services allow companies to take advantage of advanced security services typically only possible in larger enterprise environments. These services are offered on a subscription basis, delivered through the cloud, and are entirely customizable to detect risks unique to your business operations while saving each company significant expense.

Centralized security operations centers leverage intelligent tools, standard operating procedures and proven analytic methods to provide cannabis facilities with the information and guidance necessary to mitigate issues like retail or grow theft before they can have a significant impact.

The integrated, holistic response center staffed by experienced operators and security experts delivers a comprehensive security and regulatory compliance method. This approach is designed to provide complete data about what is happening across a cannabis business, from seed to sale, and how individual events can impact the company as a whole. As a result, stakeholders get the security intelligence they need, without the high overhead, personnel investments and complex daily management.

For those businesses in the cannabis market looking to supplement their security operations with other workforce but may not have the budget or infrastructure to do so, remote security operations services are something you should consider. With the experts handling all the heavy lifting, leaders can focus on growth. And, right now, in the cannabis industry, the sky is the limit in terms of opportunity.

Flower-Side Chats Part 5: A Q&A with Bob Fireman, CEO of MariMed, Inc.

By Aaron Green
No Comments

In this “Flower-Side Chats” series of articles, Green interviews integrated cannabis companies and flower brands that are bringing unique business models to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses integrate innovative practices in order to navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory, supply chain and consumer demand.

Multi-state operators (MSOs) are on the rise in the United States, navigating complex regulatory frameworks to drive profitability through economies of scale and scope. As an MSO and an early mover in the space, a significant part of MariMed’s current strategy is to complete the acquisition and consolidation of the licensed state cannabis businesses it has developed. It takes seasoned leadership to make that happen, and MariMed’s is led by one of the most experienced and successful MSO management teams in the industry. Over the last eight years, Bob Fireman and his colleagues have won 17 licenses in 6 states, and designed and developed over 300,000 square feet of cannabis cultivation, production and dispensing facilities.

MariMed has also developed a portfolio of award-winning cannabis brands and infused products which are licensed, manufactured and distributed in Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Nevada, Rhode Island and Puerto Rico. A recently announced $46 million financing for a facility with Hadron Healthcare Fund will help repay all MariMed debt other than mortgage-backed bank loans and one convertible note, as well as help upgrade and expand the company’s owned and managed cannabis facilities.

We spoke with Bob Fireman, CEO of MariMed. Bob started the foundations of MariMed in 2008 after getting into large-scale hydroponics for urban sustainable agriculture. Prior to MariMed, Bob served as a startup lawyer focused on tech and emerging industries.

Aaron Green: Bob, tell me about how you got started in the cannabis industry.

Bob Fireman: I practiced law for decades. Part of my practice was to help startups in all sorts of industries, particularly technology and new emerging markets. At one point, I was introduced to a fascinating sustainable food business opportunity – to build hydroponic farms on rooftops in cities across the country.

Bob Fireman, CEO of MariMed, Inc.

When one of our projects in San Francisco hit some roadblocks, our team there pivoted to what was becoming the Wild West of California cannabis. My friend and current MariMed CFO, Jon Levine, and I began investing and managing a cultivation site there. That’s where we built our early foundation of industry knowledge.

Fast forward a few years, and I was afforded the opportunity to be involved in the drafting of the proposed Massachusetts medical cannabis legislation.

Through that work, we met a team that had won one of three cannabis licenses in Rhode Island. We formed a real estate LLC and raised the capital to develop a seed to sale cannabis facility in Providence, which was later leased to the Slater Center, a not-for-profit medical cannabis licensed business. Today, the Slater Center is a nationally acclaimed operation that services over 10,000 medical patients.

From there, we took our know-how and formed a new entity that was the formal beginning of the company we now know as MariMed. Initially, we helped win licenses for clients in Massachusetts, Delaware, Maryland, Illinois and Nevada. We also provided management services, working capital and other necessities. Under our management, we organically built these businesses from the ground up, advancing best practices and somewhat quietly creating a network of best-in-class operations throughout the industry.

That led to the consolidation of those businesses that we’re focused on today as a core strategic pillar.

I’m incredibly proud of our team, the core of which has been at this for 10 years. We’ve watched other MSOs try different models of success, with varying degrees of success. For us, focusing on growth markets, building at a reasonable and scalable clip, attracting incredible talent at all levels of the company, and developing fantastic brands that customers love, are the ingredients that have translated to where we are now – strong performance and an exceptionally bright future. “Slow and steady wins the race” has become a mantra.

Green: What trends are you looking at right now? What’s on your radar?

Fireman: My radar has a singular focus, and that’s to create shareholder value. That’s why completing the consolidation of the cannabis licensed businesses we’ve developed and manage into our public company is so critical. Back in the day, the initial available licenses were in medical-only state programs where applicants were required to be not-for-profit state companies. Accordingly, we raised the capital in the real estate entity which leased facilities to the licensees. Our revenue was from rents, management services and licensing fees.

Panacea Wellness in Middleborough, MA is one of MariMed’s adult use cannabis dispensaries

In 2019, we implemented a new strategic plan to consolidate these businesses. While that translates to our being structured similarly to other MSOs in that we are a vertically integrated seed to sale company, we are distinct in our operational excellence, quality product portfolio, and strong balance sheet. Other MSOs have raised large amounts of capital to pay large sums to acquire licensed state cannabis businesses and have found themselves over-leveraged and challenged to assimilate other companies’ methodologies and cultures. By consolidating the businesses and talented people we developed and managed from day one and utilizing our best practices and processes system-wide, we realize enormous capital efficiencies.

Our strategy is paying off. Our core cannabis revenue in 2020 increased 207% to $50.9 million, and our 10k reported EBITDA of $16.3 million. And now we’re on track to double our revenue in 2021.

The last piece of the puzzle is to let the world know what we’ve been doing. Slow and steady has worked for us but gone are the days of doing so quietly. We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished and exceedingly bullish on what’s to come.

Green: What do you look for in an M&A target?

Fireman: When M&A makes sense for us, we first look for single operators and entrepreneurs in states where we are not active and look to partner with business leaders that had the vision and the courage to get into this industry and build solid cannabis businesses from the ground up. I’m looking for businesses that could benefit from being part of a larger, more experienced and well-capitalized company like MariMed. Obviously, as an MSO with a solid platform, MariMed is approached regularly by other MSOs and banks suggesting candidates for M&A opportunities. Lining up with a company that has complementary cannabis licenses in other states and who shares our vision and ethics could be a win-win situation. They must embrace our commitment to diversity, the environment and proper corporate governance. We have been somewhat reticent to do this until we see some increase in our share price and market capitalization.

Green: Are there any new products, or product trends that you’re looking at?

Fireman: Marimed looks to be the most trusted source of high-quality cannabis products that consistently delivers innovative health and wellness solutions to our patients and customers. Our lab scientists are constantly creating and testing new and innovative formulations of cannabinoid compounds including CBD, THCa, CBG, CBN and others that will improve the health and wellness of our customers.

Our brand portfolio is ever-expanding with new and better product offerings. Our award-winning Betty’s Eddies Fruit Chews brand is adding new SKUs of varieties and flavors for both medical and adult use programs. Our Nature’s Heritage flower and concentrates brand is adding a line of solventless concentrates, live rosin, as well as new formulations for RSO, an oil popular with medical patients. Kalm Fusion is expanding its successful line of powdered drink mixes as we see more movement in the cannabis beverage category.

Microdosing is hugely popular right now, and we’re rolling out products in the 2-5mg dosage range. Health and dietary concerns are top of mind as well, and we offer products that are vegan, sugar-free and gluten-free. Ultimately, we want to be sure that we have something on the shelves for every single consumer. The financial hardship created by the pandemic has made consumers more attracted to value added products such as popcorn buds.

Green: You recently announced an equity financing from Hadron. I’m curious to learn more about it from a nuts-and-bolts perspective if you can share any of that information.

Fireman: Over the last year, access to the capital markets for equity raises in cannabis public companies was difficult. The cost of debt was and is still high, and we were looking for a long-term financial partner that understood the industry and could assist us. Hadron Capital has been successful for several years investing in some of the most successful MSOs and they saw the value and potential in MariMed’s experienced management and great assets.

Hadron invested $46 million in equity in MariMed this March. Approximately $16 million was utilized to retire all our short- and long-term debt but for bank secured debt and one convertible note. $7 million is committed to funding our capex and expanding the capabilities of our facilities, enabling us to grow more flower and automate production. The balance of funding will support our consolidation strategy to fund two more roll ups of state licensed cannabis businesses into the public company.

Going forward, it is comforting to have a capital partner to assist us in future acquisitions and M&A opportunities.

Green: I’d love to learn more about your Nature’s Heritage brand, particularly as it relates to the cultivation and the flower products.

Fireman: Our COO Tim Shaw has assembled a cultivation and production team with expertise in all aspects of genetics, growing methodologies, extraction techniques, and packaging innovation. That’s provided us a rich collection of quality genetics that make up Nature’s Heritage, our top-selling flower, oil and concentrate brand in Massachusetts and Maryland. We’ve recently expanded the line to include Rick Simpson Oil (RSO) and solventless concentrates (including live rosin) and have been receiving stellar feedback.

Green: What are you interested in learning more about?

Fireman: Over the last decade, the MariMed core team has seen the emergence and amazing growth of the cannabis industry. The initial medical programs in California and Colorado have now led to some form of legal medical or adult use cannabis programs in over 33 states and districts.

We are most interested in learning and following the federal, state, and international laws and regulations. It is vital to know how these laws will affect our company and the industry as a whole. When might full federal legalization become a reality? What might different versions of the law be? Will state legal programs be protected as well as the companies that took the risk in investing in the industry at its nascent state and how? What will FDA requirements and regulations look like? What medical claims will companies be allowed to make, and what kind of research or trials will be required to put a product on the shelf? What are the ramifications of the MORE Act or the SAFE Banking Act?

Responsible MSOs need to be prepared to rise to or above the standards of care of other industries. A lot of this was impossible in the past because of federal prohibition laws. Soon, if not already, labs and manufacturing processes will need to be GMP certified and more. Consumer data will need to be HIPAA compliant. Cannabis companies have to be good corporate citizens: diversity and equal opportunity should be embedded in business decisions, and commitment to ESG and sound environmental and social policies with good corporate governance need to be in planning and implemented.

Following the laws and holding ourselves to the highest possible safety and business standards will allow the cannabis industry to finally become “mainstream.”

Green: Alright, great. Thank you, Bob. That concludes the interview!

Lab Shopping: Highlighting the Need for Checks and Balances in Cannabis

By Josh Swider
No Comments

Cannabis, we have a problem. Legalizing adult use cannabis in California caused the demand for high-potency cannabis to increase dramatically over the last several years. Today, many dispensary buyers enforce THC minimums for the products that they sell. If smokeable flower products don’t have COAs proving the THC levels are above 20% or more, there is a good chance many dispensaries won’t carry them on their shelves. Unfortunately, these kinds of demands only put undue pressure on the industry and mislead the consumer.

Lab Shopping: Where the Problems Lie

Lab shopping for potency analysis isn’t new, but it has become more prevalent with the increasing demand for high-potency flower over the last couple of years. Sadly, many producers submit valid, certified COAs to the California Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC), which show two to three times the actual potency value.

At InfiniteCAL, we’ve purchased products from dispensary shelves and found significant discrepancies between the analysis we perform and the report submitted to the BCC by the producer. So, how can this happen? Several factors are creating the perfect storm in cannabis testing.

Problems with Potency

Many consumers still don’t understand that THC potency is not the only factor in determining quality cannabis, and they are unwittingly contributing to the demand for testing and analysis fraud. It is alarming for cultivation pioneers and ethical labs to see producers and profit-hungry testing facilities falsifying data to make it more appealing to the unaware consumer.

Basically, what’s happening is growers are contacting labs and asking, “I get 30% THC at this lab; what can you do?” When they see our COA reporting their flower tested lower than anticipated, they will go to another lab to get higher test results. Unfortunately, there are all too many labs that are willing to comply.

I recently saw a compliant COA that claimed that this particular flower was testing at 54% THC. Understanding cannabis genetics, we know this isn’t possible. Another product I reviewed claimed that after diluting an 88% THC distillate with 10-15% terpenes, the final potency test was 92% THC. You cannot cut a product and expect the potency to increase. Finally, a third product we reviewed claimed 98% total cannabinoids (while only looking at seven cannabinoids) with 10% terpenes for a total of 108% of the product.

These labs only make themselves look foolish to professionals, mislead laymen consumers and skirt under the radar of the BCC with basic mathematical errors.

The Pesticide Predicament

Frighteningly, inflating potency numbers isn’t the most nefarious testing fraud happening in the cannabis industry. If a manufacturer has 1000 liters of cannabis oil fail pesticide testing, they could lose millions of dollars – or have it retested by a less scrupulous lab.

Photo: Michelle Tribe, Flickr

As the industry continues to expand and new labs pop up left and right, cultivators and manufacturers have learned which labs are “easy graders” and which ones aren’t. Certain labs can miss up to ten times the action level of a pesticide and still report it as non-detectable. So, if the producer fails for a pesticide at one lab, they know four others won’t see it.

In fact, I’ve had labs send my clients promotional materials guaranteeing compliant lab results without ever receiving a sample for testing. So now, these companies aren’t just tricking the consumer; they are potentially harming them.

An Easy Fix

Cannabis testing is missing just one critical factor that could quickly fix these problems – checks and balances. The BCC only needs to do one of two things:

Verifying Lab Accuracy

InfiniteCAL also operates in Michigan, where the Marijuana Regulatory Agency (MRA) has already implemented a system to ensure labs are maintaining the highest testing standards. The MRA will automatically flag all COAs which test above a certain percentage and require the product to be retested by multiple labs.

labsphotoLabs are required to keep a back stock of material. So, when test results come back abnormally high from Lab A, then Labs B, C and D are commissioned to retest the material to compare data. If Lab A reports 40% THC, but the other labs all report 18%, then it’s easy to see Lab A has made an error.

Secret Shopping

By simply buying products off the shelves and having them blind-tested by other labs, it would be simple for the BCC to determine if the existing COA is correct. They already have all the data in Metrc, so this would be a quick and easy fix that could potentially solve the problem overnight.

For example, at InfiniteCAL, we once purchased 30 samples of Blue Dream flower from different cultivators ranging in certified COA potencies from 16% to 38%. Genetically, we know the Blue Dream cultivar doesn’t produce high levels of THC. When we tested the samples we purchased, nearly every sample came back in the mid-teens to low 20% range.

Labs Aren’t Supposed to Be Profit Centers

At InfiniteCAL, we’ve contacted labs in California where we’ve uncovered discrepancies to help find and flush out the errors in testing. All too often, we hear the excuses:

  • “If I fix my problem, I’ll lose my clients.”
  • “I’m just a businessman who owns a lab; I don’t know chemistry.”
  • “My chemist messed up; it’s their fault!”

If you own a lab, you are responsible for quality control. We are not here to get rich; we are here to act as public safety agents who ensure these products are safe for the consumer and provide detailed information about what they choose to put in their bodies. Be professional, and remember you’re testing for the consumer, not the producer.

Designing Precision Cannabis Facilities: A Case Study

By Phil Gibson
No Comments

With data forecasting expert BDSA predicting that the global cannabis market will reach $56B by 2026, there is no time to waste. Whether it’s Oklahoma, New York or even Macedonia, the frenzy is on. Investment decisions are immediate, and you have to be correct out of the box. This is where an expert like Andrew Lange and his company, Ascendant Management, come in. Andrew has designed more than 1.5 million square feet of cannabis facilities and moved them into profitable production in North America and Europe. One of his active customers is Onyx Agronomics in Washington. Bailee Syrek is the director of operations at Onyx and this is the story of the key points in designing a precision cannabis facility with state-of-the-art efficiency.

Background

Andrew Lange, a navy veteran, runs a global cannabis consulting business based in Washington. With a “prove it to me” approach, he regularly tests the best new technologies in the facilities he designs. He integrates his knowledge of what works in practice into his subsequent facilities. One of his previous projects, Onyx Agronomics in Washington, started in 2014 and moved quickly into production in a retrofitted warehouse. Many of his best ideas started with Onyx, including some new innovations in the latest expansion there this month. Onyx is a tier 3 cannabis cultivator.

Bailee Syrek’s operation at Onyx currently produces 9,000 lbs. of dry trim bud per year in 8,000 square feet of canopy. She operates the state-of-the-art, clean room style, indoor grow facility around the clock, delivering 2.7 grams/watt from every square foot of canopy in her building. She runs a highly efficient facility.

Onyx has had an ongoing relationship with Ascendant Management and chose to leverage them again with their current expansion to increase their capacity further. Onyx uses a range of advanced technologies including aeroponic cultivation equipment and control software from AEssenseGrows to hit their metrics.

Precision, Quality & Consistency

“I look for ways that my clients can differentiate themselves,” says Lange. Maybe it’s his military background, but Andrew demands precision, quality and consistency in the operations he designs. “Cannabis is a just a plant really so we look for the highest performance grow methodology. I find that to be AEssenseGrows aeroponics,” says Lange. “The AEtrium Systems provides a good foundation to manipulate for grow recipes and business process. I add teamwork, communications, and operations procedures to that foundation.”

At Onyx, Bailee Syrek works closely with her channels. She invites her customers in regularly to review the Onyx cultivars and to cover their ideal requirements. These can range from bud size for their packaging to THC or terpene profiles (Yes, channels do want both higher and lower THC content for different consumers and price points). Based on that feedback, Bailee and Andrew work together to dial in the ideal grow recipe in the AEssenseGrows Guardian Grow Manager central control software. They push their target strains to optimize the results in the direction requested by their customers. For example, “How do you get the highest possible THC out of 9lb Hammer?” You’ll have to ask Andrew and Ascendant Management.

Driven by customer requests, Onyx is adding new strains to build on their innovative brand. Bailee expects to reach new levels of terpene bundles with Cheeseburger Jones, Koffee Breath, Shangri-La and OK Boomer. Utilizing Andrew’s expert knowledge, they can take typical sub-20% cannabinoid bundles and improve them using aeroponics and better controls, into standout aeroponic 30% packages.

The Onyx Vision

Andrew Lange, Ascendant Management

Bailee Syrek believes this is the most exciting time yet for Onyx. Delivering premium grade cannabis as a white label flower supplier for years, Onyx is a profitable and successful business. But even with doubling capacity every year, they are still having trouble keeping up with customer demand. Bailee wants to get to the point where she can always say yes and accept an order from their white label customers. With this objective, she again engaged Ascendant and Andrew to get beyond 15,000 lbs. of output in 2021 to make her customers happier. Beyond that basic expansion, she is also ambitious and is preparing plans for additional lines of revenue with their own proprietary flower, oil and derivative products.

“This expansion will be a new challenge,” says Syrek. “Flower production is in our wheelhouse. We have tighter operations, with the most consistent bud size, terpenes and test results in our state. These new products will require that same quality but now in new areas.”

Her Path to Leadership

Bailee started with Onyx in a compliance position that grew out of the constant demands for government licensing and reporting. In that compliance role, she had the opportunity to work a bit in every department, giving her a good understanding of all of the facility operations and workflows. All of that experience led her to eventually take over the operations leadership role. She instills care and effort to maintain the cleanest and most efficient operations possible. “With aeroponics, we don’t have to lug soil from room to room or in and out of the facility. This saves us a ton of work that we can redirect to plant health and maintenance,” says Syrek. “Medical precision and GMP quality is a given. Each room on average is 105 lights and one room manager and one cultivation technician take the room from clone/veg transfer to harvest as a two-person team.”

Bailee Syrek, director of operations at Onyx Agronomics

Bailee prides herself with results. “Medical grade precision is normal for us. We use medical grade SOPs for every aspect of our production.” Bailee has designed these guides into their control system that runs on the Guardian Grow Manager software. From sensor tracking, to performance graphs to time cards; everything is integrated in her performance monitoring.

A quality focus is very apparent in every Onyx flower room. Every watt of light energy is transferred to the pristinely manicured canopy. Naked stems feed nutrients up to the fat buds at the trained canopy surface. Fan leaves are removed and all possible energy turns into bud weight and potency. The room technician has a passion for plant health, table care and plant maintenance all the way through to the harvest bonanza.

What is the biggest challenge for Bailee as she drives the operation? Even at 105-110 grams per square foot per harvest, they are sold out. “Every customer wants to buy beyond our capacity. It is a good problem to have,” Bailee says. “Customers want our quality and love the consistency. This is the most exciting thing about our expansion. We will finally be able to make additional channels happy with high quality supply.”

This is where Andrew credits Onyx’s performance. “Most well running operations deliver 1.1-1.8 grams of dry trim bud per watt of electricity used in powering a grow room,” says Andrew. The Onyx grow formula results leave this in the dust. Running Fluence SPYDR 2i grow lights and the AEtrium System aeroponics, Onyx plants are delivering just shy of 4 lbs. per light with every harvest cycle. At 630 watts max output, that delivers ~2.7 grams/Watt, the most efficient operation he has seen. The Onyx process and execution works.

“Bailee is a great example as a professional. She builds a motivated team that executes better than her competition,” says Andrew.

At the same time, Onyx runs a highly space efficient nursery with just enough mother plants feeding energetic cuttings into the 4-layer stacked AEtrium-2.1 SmartFarms in their environmentally controlled clone room. They produce more than enough healthy clones to jump from veg to flower in the span of a week. Grow time, harvest turn time and no veg space, results in very efficient use of power in the complete operation.

Mirroring Onyx for Medical Grade Cannabis in Europe

Andrew Lange’s current passion is a green-field project in Portugal. Self-funded, Andrew says that this facility will be one of the first that is pure enough in operations to supply non-irradiated clean-room-level-quality cannabis beyond the precise standards required by European regulators. Current importers have not been able to clear the European standards for cleanliness without irradiating their buds. Other companies like Aurora have abandoned efforts to access the market due to the precision requirements. Typical methods used for fruit imports use gamma radiation to get bacterial counts down. This was tried with cannabis to sterilize buds, but the problem with cannabis is this degrades the quality of the flower.

Andrew’s Portugal facility will be using a sterile perimeter surrounding his grow space (mothers, clones/veg, flower rooms) and harvest and processing areas (dry, trim, packaging). Andrew creates a safe environment for healthy production. A steady harvest cleaning regimen is built into his operational designs from the beginning. All operators are trained in procedures to exclude pathogens and limit all possible transmission (airborne, physical/mechanical touching, or water carried). Every area is cleaned during and between harvests. Andrew is confident he will reach a consistent level of accuracy and purity beyond European requirements because it is routine in all of his designs.

Certified Efficiency is the Message

Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) and Good Agricultural and Collection Practices (GACP) are required for certification and access to European markets. Andrew always builds tight operations, but in this case, his Portugal facility is designed with the fit and finish to be GMP and GACP compliant from day one with advanced air filtration and air management throughout.

Automated aeroponics is a foundation technology that Andrew recommends for his facility designs. The automatic data logging, report generation, cloud access and storage make this a foundational technology. Andrew does get some resistance from cultivators that are used to the classic soil media approaches but he explains that software configurable grow recipes, precision controls, zero soil/no pests and hyper-fast growth makes aeroponics the foundation of competitive advantage. Precisely controlled medical quality precision operations are built on top of this foundation.

The initial phase of the Portugal facility is 630 lights and this facility is Andrew’s latest personal investment. From secure perimeters to modular grow rooms and highly automated equipment, this location will be state-of-the-art in terms of grams/watt yields and renewable energy with an output of 6 metric tons per year. Solar powered electricity from a 4-megawatt farm will use Tesla megapacks for storage and be grid independent.

Technology & Innovation, Onyx & Ascendant

From his first experience with AEssenseGrows aeroponics, Andrew has been able to design complete grow recipes in the Guardian Grow Manager software with very tight precision on dosage. This makes it possible to create ideal recipes for each strain (nutrition, irrigation cycles, lighting and environmental management). This frees up the operations teams to focus on plant health and execution. The nutrients, pH, CO2, temperature and humidity, follow the Guardian directions that he sets.

Working with Bailee at Onyx, Andrew is now consulting on the post-harvesting side of operations (drying, trimming, extracts and packaging). In parallel with his efforts, Bailee is optimizing THC & terpene production on the cultivation side with UV lighting (considering far-right red frequency light recipe enhancements).

That is the Ascendant Management approach to innovation. Trial, test constantly, perfect ideas in practice. Optimize the results for consistent, high-quality results. Even while driving for the personal craft touch, use automation to increase efficiency of mundane, but important tasks. With these methods, Andrew believes that the Onyx labor cost is one third of typical soil media grow operations. Zero soil aeroponics offers many benefits. Bailee’s team is able to give each plant more attention and delivery better quality. Automation is a win-win for them.

Bailee finds that constant testing is useful for two things: one, great results, and two, surface the best talent with their hand’s-on approach.

Always Finish with People

Bailee says that her staff works incredibly hard. “We are a different grow, with better ergonomics on the job, aeroponics for precision and yields, and advanced technology at the leading edge in every part of our grow. No dirt up and down stairs. People are proud to work here. We are not your dad’s grow operation.”

“We promote from within. Everyone starts as a room tech and has the opportunity to move up. Teams are isolated by rooms so there is no contamination between rooms or humans. Put in the work, and you will get promoted with expansions, and grow with the company as we take a bigger share in the market.” Female employees make up almost half of the current staff, and Bailee encourages employees to refer their friends. “Good people invite good people,” she says.

Her training program introduces the technical aspects of their unique operation, the positive expectations and career path for every new employee. The social environment is friendly with good pay and regular raises. Each new employee fills a range of roles during their 1-month training circuit and are assigned to a cultivation space under a lead as an official cultivation tech at the end of 30 days. “One thing that we do more than at other grows is constant cleaning,” says Bailee. “This is an ever-present mantra for the staff.”

Cannabis & Chemicals: Why Glove Sourcing is Vital

By Steve Ardagh
No Comments

Freya Farm, a pesticide-free cannabis producer and processor located in Conway, Wash., was recently forced to issue a recall after the chemical o-Phenylphenol, listed under CA Prop 65, was found on its products. Testing traced the antimicrobial compound, known to cause cancer, back to the FDA-compliant food grade gloves used by Freya during packaging.

The reason this could happen with FDA-compliant, food grade gloves needs urgent attention. The production and manufacturing of food contact gloves is largely unsupervised, with limited and infrequent checks on gloves imported into the US. After initial approvals, non-sterile, FDA-compliant food grade gloves are not subject to ongoing controls. This may lead to lower grade and cheap raw materials being used in sub-standard production facilities and processes.

Why “Food Safe” Gloves Aren’t Always Safe

The quality and safety of disposable gloves are limited to Letters of Compliance and Guarantee on the general make and model of the glove, not necessarily the glove you are holding in your hand. There are few controls on the consistency of raw materials, manufacturing processes and factory compliance for both food contact and medical examination grade gloves. Therefore, the opportunity exists for deliberate or accidental contamination within the process of which the Preventive Controls Qualified Individual (PCQI) may not be aware.

Read more about this in Disposable Gloves: The Unregulated Cannabis Threat, previously published in the Cannabis Industry Journal.

The Cost of Recalls

In the words of Freya Farm, “Nothing ruins your day like testing your product, confident it will be clean, only to find it contaminated with some crazy, toxic chemical.” In tracing the issue, the gloves were the last thing Freya Farm tested, as they never suspected something sold as food safe could be the culprit.

A recall of this type can be expensive, as fines range up to $200,000. Since this incident, Freya Farm has implemented a responsible sourcing policy for gloves using supplier Eagle Protect to protect its products, people and brand reputation.

Glove inspection includes five factors of quality controls

Eagle Protect, a global supplier of PPE to the food and medical sectors, is currently implementing a unique proprietary third-party glove analysis to ensure a range of their gloves are regularly checked for harmful contaminants, toxins and pathogens. This Fingerprint Glove Analysis mitigates the risk of intentional or accidental physical, chemical or microbiological glove contamination by inspecting five factors: the use of safe ingredients, cross-contamination potential, cleanliness, structural integrity and dermal compatibility.

Harmful toxins and contaminants in gloves have been identified in many peer reviewed scientific studies. This is now a real issue for companies producing consumer products, especially in industries such as organics and cannabis whose products must be handled by gloves and test clean.

Three key areas that can be tested for in a glove analysis to ensure safe product handling include:

  • Dermal compatibility tests for toxins and chemicals will flag any toxic chemical, such as o-Phenylphenol
  • GCMS testing for consistent quality and safety of glove raw materials
  • Cleanliness tests for pathogens inside and outside the surfaces of gloves – particularly pathogens also required in cannabis testing, such as E. coli and Salmonella, mold and fungus and pesticides.

For cannabis producers responsible glove sourcing is vital, especially as the COVID-related demand for single-use gloves exceeds supply, with poor quality, counterfeit and even reused gloves flooding the market. For producers with a product that rests very much on its quality, it’s important to focus on quality and not just cost when procuring gloves.

The Ten Biggest Mistakes When Building a Cultivation Facility

By Michael Burnstein
2 Comments

As cannabis legalization becomes more prolific across the United States, entrepreneurs are entering the cultivation business in droves. With so many new companies entering the market and growing cannabis, there are a lot of common errors made when getting started. Here are ten of the biggest mistakes you can make when building a cannabis grow facility:

  • Failure to consult with experts in the cannabis business – poor planning in floorplan and layout could create deficient workflow causing extra time and costing profits. Bad gardening procedures may result in crop failure and noncompliance could mean a loss of license. Way too often, people will draft a design and begin construction without taking the time to talk to an expert first. Some important questions to ask yourself and your consultant are: What materials should be used in the building of the grow? Is my bed-to-flower ratio correct? How long will it take before I can see my first harvest? 
  • Contractor selection – DO NOT build your own facility; leave it to the experts. Sure, you have experience building things and you have a friend who has worked in construction. Do not make this mistake – Our experience can save you from the mistake’s others have made. To stay lucrative in this competitive industry and to maximize your products’ quality and yields, have the facility built right the first time. Paying an experienced, qualified cannabis professional to build you a facility will produce better yields and will save you time, stress and money in getting you from start of construction to your first crop.
  • Not maximizing your square footage potential – With today’s fast changing environment, multi-tiered stationary racks, rolling benches and archive style rolling racks help maximize square footage. Without the proper garden layout, you will find yourself pounds short of your potential each harvest.
  • Inadequate power – Not planning or finding out if there is sufficient power available at the site for your current and future needs. This will stop you from building the overall square footage you want. When finding a building make sure you first know how much power you will need for the size grow you want. With proper engineering you will find out what load requirements will be so you can plan accordingly.
  • Material selection – The construction material that goes into a cultivation and extraction facility should consist of nonabsorbent anti-microbial finishes. The days of wood grow benches are long gone. Epoxy flooring, metal studs and other materials are mandatory for a quality-built, long-lasting facility.
  • Hand watering – Once your facility is up and running, many people feel they have spent enough money and they can save by hiring people to water by hand, rather than going with an automated system to handle the watering and nutrients. The problem with this is your employees are not on your plants timetable. What if an employee calls off and can’t come into water at the right time or they mix the wrong amount of nutrients from the formula you have selected? These are issues we see a lot. It is critical to perform precise, scheduled watering and nutrient delivery to increase your yields.
  • Failure to monitor and automate – Automating your grow is important for controlling the light and fertigation schedules as well as data collection and is crucial to maximizing yields. Being able to do this remotely gives you peace of mind in that you can monitor your grow room temperature and humidity at all times and be notified when something is not right.
  • MedicineManTechGrowPoor climate – This can cause stunted growth, smaller harvests and test failures. Our experience has taken us to facilities that have had mold and mildew issue due to poor climate. Proper air balancing, additional dehumidification along with a proper cleaning procedure can get a facility back in working order. Installing proper climate control systems could save millions of dollars.
  • Choosing the wrong site or building – Not knowing the history of the building you are choosing to rent or buy can create logistical and monetary nightmares. The wrong site can be a distribution and marketing disaster. In the wrong building, exponentially more money is spent to bring that building up to the standards needed for successful production and yields. For example, bringing in the ceiling and the cleaning of an existing facility can be a great expense. If you do not know what you are looking at when you purchase, you may be in for months of unaccounted expenses and inaccurate timelines. This can be detrimental for companies and individuals that are on restricted timelines and have to start producing successful and continuous yields from a space that has to be converted into a prime grow facility.
  • Failure to maintain your facility – A dirty site creates an invitation for pests, workplace injuries, unhealthy working environment and equipment failure. Keeping the facility and equipment properly maintained with routine service will ensure efficiency, longevity of equipment life span and reduce mold and bacteria risk. Clean facilities = clean plants and better flower.