Cultivation Redefined – Interview with Chris Treville – Co-Founder of GrowEx
More cannabis demand means more cannabis growing… and more cannabis growing means a need for more efficient technology, energy usage, cultivation techniques and sustainability.
Luckily for the industry, there’s GrowEx, controlled atmosphere farming and indoor cultivation technology, which controls pests & mildew without using pesticides or chemicals. Some of the benefits are – less energy consumption, always consistent environment for optimal plant quality, lowest operational costs and highest yields, zero risk of cross contamination, automated pest control and more.
We had the chance to sit down with Chris Treville, the co-founder of GrowEx to discuss how they are revolutionizing the industry while optimizing a technology that was traditionally reserved for fruits and vegetables. Here’s what Chris had to say:
Source: Systems in Space
[Q.] Thanks for joining us today, Chris. Could you begin by telling us a little bit about your own background and how you came to be running GrowEx?
[A.] I started a STOREX franchise with my brother in 2012 in Montreal. STOREX originates from Holland (the Netherlands) and has operating partners in 25 countries; our territory is Canada and the U.S.
We specialize in controlled atmosphere technology which means we build, install, and maintain industrial caliber equipment to control temperature, humidity, CO2, O2, N2, ethylene, and ethanol. Our clients are mainly very large fruit and vegetable producers who need this equipment to control millions of pounds of biomass in storage facilities, which we also build for them on their farms.
This equipment is used to keep fruit or vegetables fresh for a longer period of time, compared to just refrigeration, prior to being distributed to supermarkets worldwide.
The cost of electricity in Holland is very high so the systems are designed to be as energy efficient as possible. Dutch agritech is world renowned for its innovations and STOREX is a market leader in fruit and vegetable storage technology.
In 2014, out of curiosity we started to visit greenhouses and indoor cultivation farms in Colorado where cannabis was already legal, where is what I call “ground zero” of commercialized legal cannabis on a large scale.
Holland, of course, was the first country in the world to have partial legalization, but Colorado was the first state to actually legalize high volume cultivation.
During these visits, my brother and I would walk around with our “engineer” thinking hats on, and take notes on clipboards of how we would optimize these cultivation centers; how to use less energy, how to avoid contamination, and how to bring the industrial caliber technology we were used to from large farming operations we were already dealing with to this new cultivation industry.
[Q.] I understand GrowEx is kind of the marriage between two unique technologies – True Vertical agriculture and climate-controlled atmosphere facilities. Can you tell about these technologies individually and how they work together?
[A.] Immediately after these visits, we started working on R&D on a small-scale cannabis canopy back in our office in Montreal. The first topic of our attention was how to keep temperature and humidity consistent in a cultivation room full of plants in order to avoid powdery mildew, and to see what was the impact on yields and quality if we grew these plants inside a “gas-tight” room
When I say “gas-tight” I mean that the room could be on the moon and still have the desired levels of gases (CO2, O2, N2, and other). In fruit storage we measure these gases down to two decimal points in terms of percentages, and being off by 0.5%, for example, can have such a negative impact on the quality that supermarkets could refuse that product and it would be categorized as a lesser quality, which are often used in juice factories as opposed to the fresh market.
A gas-tight cultivation room was showing us that we could keep things consistent, avoid powdery mildew, and deliver exactly what we want in terms of air quality and air content delivered to the plants.
A gas-tight cultivation room with digitally precise controlled atmosphere is also a first line of defense against incoming pests, which have a harder time to get indoors and if they do we developed a patent pending algorithm to effectively kill 100% of those pests and their eggs within 24 hours without causing any long term negative effects on the plants.
We also applied for a patent to describe the controlled atmosphere gas-tight rooms themselves. We couldn’t stop there! Although the building shell and the air quality are extremely important topics for quality of plants, as well as consistent yields, odor control, and energy efficiency, there was still something missing.
We didn’t have a solution for optimizing yield per square footprint, and there was also the topic of irrigation and nutrients. So we decided to continue our visits of cultivation centers in the U.S., but also in Canada and Europe.
In 2016 our paths crossed with a commercial facility in Colorado where two Master Growers were operating a facility that was clearly more advanced. They had figured out how to grow plants along a wall system similar to a library rack that would allow 3x more plants to fit inside a room.
With automated irrigation and special efficient recipe for nutrients, low heat emitting lights that would allow the plants to come very close to the light source. Colorado was already seeing its wholesale pricing of dry flower plummet to $500 / lb so they had no choice but to figure out how to lower their operational costs by optimizing the canopy density and by “looking for pennies, nickels and dimes” all over the process.
Combining the two together: controlled atmosphere and optimized canopy density was an instant attraction between all parties and we formed a partnership between our engineers and IP, and the two Master Growers and their IP.
[Q.] Why did you choose to harness this combination of tech to grow cannabinoid-producing plants?
[A.] Simply put: money. More money is available and circulating around the cannabis crop than any other crop. As a result more R&D can be done, which in turn allows us to create a profitable model for this crop indoors which will compete with outdoor farming of that same crop, and hopefully direct the industry towards a more efficient and environmentally friendly indoor farming; that is, gas-tight controlled atmosphere True Vertical ™ indoor farming. Other crops will get their turn next.
[Q.] How is “True Vertical” agriculture different from other vertical types of farming?
[A.] Other vertical agriculture methods are either horizontally stacked systems, which are inefficient, or other types of configurations, which are also inefficient.
When I say inefficient I mean in terms of the three most important features of indoor farming: quality, yield, and cost of production. All three of these factors must be consistently met. True Vertical ™ addresses all three by its design and the way it operates, which results in numbers that make a lot of sense.
[Q.] What makes this method the most environmentally sustainable way of growing cannabis?
[A.] With a 30-foot clear height we can grow the same volume in 1/5 of the foot print. Our model will keep going to as high as possible with more automation in order to reduce land use and continue to optimize operational costs related to labor. Less land use means we can build closer to cities, utilize less trucks on the road for transport, and ultimately less trees being cut.
In addition, we use a lot less water and electricity which is also more sustainable. Less employees are needed to operate, which also means less people on the roads needing to go to these very big centers which are usually outside the cities, sprawled on millions of square feet of land, and use currently 1% of the total power grid in the U.S. alone, spitting out wastewater like there is no tomorrow.
[Q.] Besides preventing pests, what else does the climate control accomplish? Does it affect yields in a positive way? How else does it protect the plant? What other cultivation processes can it help with?
[A.] It doesn’t prevent pests but seriously reduces their success rate to enter. If they do, then the system can eliminate them if needed. The system does affect yields in a positive way as well as cannabinoid production. It is too early to give out figures on this as we are still in R&D. The system also has a huge impact on drying, curing, and “quality hold” storage.
Source: Cannabis Business Times
[Q.] We heard that you have a goal of growing quality cannabis at .50 cents a gram? What is the current price per gram? What is the timeline for your accomplishing this goal?
[A.] Just below 50 cents was reached in a small version “V1.0” in Colorado. This was with 2,000 plants, so relatively small scale. This number is also just a reflection of labor, electricity, nutrients, and all consumables. Rent or amortization of building and equipment, marketing, head office management, and packaging/distribution are not included.
That same number in “V2.0”, which is what we are building in Montreal right now, is estimated to be between 15 and 25 cents.
This is because our new design has a much better canopy density per square foot print compared to version 1.0. Furthermore, none of the controlled atmosphere tech was present at version 1.0, and we will have a much lower energy bill in Canada.
I overheard someone fairly high level in our organization on the indoor cultivation “dream team” say his new estimate will be 10 cents; this is out loud for the first time. We’ll know more in less than 6 months as we study the data that will come out of V2.0.
[Q.] What makes your company different from your competitors?
[A.] I think the biggest difference is that we are not only focussing on the thrill of being involved with cannabis post-legalization. We started right away on mature topics which already-consolidated industries are involved with to remain competitive.
The white board started with design and workflow and on efforts to engineer a profitable and environmentally-friendly solution at the same time. If you watch the movie “The Founder”, my brother and I could be compared to how the McDonald’s brothers “designed” their kitchen back in the 60s, except the people involved in our story are a combination of Master Growers and engineers, as opposed to kitchen staff.
Source: Getty Images
[Q.] Right now, your business is all in Canada. Do you have plans to expand into the U.S. or elsewhere?
[A.] Yes! Conveniently we got lucky and met the right group of investors in Montreal which is where we are based. They are what I call Cannabis 2.0 which means they have been sitting on the sidelines watching Cannabis 1.0 companies, which today seem to be seeing their valuations take a sharp fall in the stock markets.
The reason why this is happening is because Cannabis 1.0’s focus was all about volume, first to market, and promoting shareholder expectations. For the most part the focus has not been on efficiency, quality, and profitability, and certainly not environmental impact.
In the US, we think our message will resonate well in Massachusetts, New York, Illinois, and California. The North East is definitely even more challenging for any greenhouse type of design, due to climate but also due to limited footprint and population density. Massachusetts and Illinois were also the first two states to impose energy use limits per square foot of canopy, which makes the standard HPS 1000 watt lighting less desirable and forces companies to look for solutions involving LED lights.
The problem is that most investor groups will need to team up with a Master Grower and there are not too many of them that have experience with LED on a large scale. This is where we bridge that gap. California is always big on brands so we want to team up with some of the leading brands there who need a “trusted source of consistent high quality biomass”, and, of course, California is also concerned with energy use and like Massachusetts promotes solar panel installation which fits well with our design.
Europe is clearly our next target after that as new countries come online with medical and recreational use of cannabis.” Energy”, “land use”, “water use”, “advanced engineering”, efficiency, and “profitability” are definitely all European buzzwords. Unfortunately we are not in front of those European groups yet and they are being courted by Cannabis 1.0. Thus, we are anxious to finish our demonstration site in Montreal and start parading potential partners there who would like to own and operate a GrowEx franchise in their country.
Source: Cannabis Pro Grower
[Q.] Where would you like to see GrowEx in 5 years? 10 years?
[A.] In 5 years, I’d like to see GrowEx among Canada’s top 10 biggest cannabinoid production facilities and probably on the stock market.
I’d like to see GrowEx facilities in a few key North East U.S. states and also in California, and breaking the ice in Europe. By that time, we will be at our version “V4.0” design which will be all laser light (even more efficient than LED), more density per square foot print, and AI will have recorded enough data to start dictating more efficiency which will increase profitability.
Our extraction IP will also be in full swing because it is one thing to produce consistent quality biomass that can compete with outdoor farming but it is also another thing to efficiently convert this into other forms of product (using nanotechnology) which can be more efficient to deliver the important compounds to the human cells.
A world class R&D center will also be built by then. In 10 years. I’d like to see continued expansion to new markets like Brazil, China, Japan, and of course our first profitable non-cannabis indoor cultivation site to start feeding people more efficiently!
Thanks for speaking with Cannabis Magazine Chris!
Thanks for having me be a part of this!