High times for high-tech: Vancouver startup aims to digitize cannabis industry
Published Friday, April 19, 2019 12:54PM PDT
Last Updated Friday, April 19, 2019 8:09PM PDT
With pen and paper still the de facto method of record-keeping in the agricultural world, a Vancouver tech startup is looking to overhaul the industry with digital record-keeping and analysis, starting with the cash crop that has everyone seeing green: cannabis.
Elevated Signals has developed software that tracks cannabis yields at all levels, monitoring potency, while documenting growing conditions like light exposure and water intake. Those factors are input side-by-side with security tracking and stringent regulatory requirements Health Canada now requires of licensed cannabis producers.
The creators, who met while studying engineering, business and agricultural science at UBC, compare it to an operating system for a greenhouse.
"Digital transformation has barely hit traditional agriculture for field agriculture in general,” said CEO Amar Singh. “With cannabis being a new industry, having been grown in an underground setting for many, many years, tech companies never really entered this space. We’re one of the first.”
The company, which includes former Adobe developers, has set up a comprehensive implementation of its system to track all aspects of cannabis cultivation and production from seed to harvest at Tantalus Labs in east Maple Ridge.
While other “test greenhouses” in the region have tiny physical sensors in the soil and suspended from the ceilings, employees at Tantalus Labs manually input data on laptops throughout the massive greenhouse facility through all stages of the plants’ development. Integration with data from the climate-control system is coming soon. The digitized information is then easily searchable and the software makes suggestions to adjust variables for better results, while tracking the potency of each harvest.
“And as they grow batch to batch to batch, each one is grown with the same genetics but they may have different results in terms of quality and yield,” said Singh. “This allows them to study their own data sets and make data-driven decisions."
Tantalus CEO Dan Sutton told CTV News Vancouver when their state-of-the-art facility was being designed, they did so with the intention of running one of the most technologically-advanced greenhouses in the world. A millennial himself, Sutton sees digital data- and record-keeping is a matter of convenience but also a critical component of profitability.
“It really arms our cultural operators with the ability to make datafied, educated decisions with how they change this environment and adapt it to best bring out the genetic potential of these plants," he said.
“There are some big companies that have benefited from substantial funding from public markets but there are very few cannabis firms that are actually profitable today. This is a nascent business and we need to approach it with as tight of a degree of control ,as tight of a degree of understanding as we can so that we can really make sure there's a long-term sustainable business."
As a medium-sized producer, Sutton says Tantalus Labs can’t afford teams of PhDs and analysts like those employed by large-scale producers to optimize their yield, so the company is relying on Elevated Signals’ data and analytics to bridge the gap.
And while taking cannabis production monitoring into the 21st century is keeping Singh’s team busy, they have an eye toward applying the oversight and technology to other agricultural sectors, from tomatoes to flowers, as climate change makes greenhouse produce more reliable — and in some cases, the only viable option.
“That's absolutely the long-term goal, to build this data-science platform to advance the hardware and software technologies with food security in mind,” said Singh.
“We’re using the cannabis industry as a vehicle because it has such interest and capital behind it and that's going to drive forward agricultural technology in other industries."