For years, cultivators managed growing operations without the oversight, regulation and market pressure that are prevalent in today’s North American market. As the indoor cannabis market matured, the systems supporting the high-value plant have also grown more detailed and complex. Ancillary companies have emerged from a niche service area into a larger, more prominent market force, connecting the dots between cultivation engineering with the design and integration of complex systems to meet the needs of cultivators in their unique regulatory environments and market conditions.
To illustrate the critical nature of this role, let’s consider the concept of complexity. Complexity requires a flexible and nuanced understanding: a thing can be defined as complex when its genesis is caused by many elements interacting with each other. Such a definition perfectly fits the description of any indoor cultivation facility (also known as controlled environment agriculture or CEA) which features environmental controls, irrigation and fertigation systems, water and wastewater strategy and management, the building’s energy-consuming systems, and so on. With such highly complex, interdependent systems, CEA (both cannabis and traditional crops) requires a team of designers, engineers, construction management professionals and growers who understand how to properly optimize and integrate these technologies to support profitable post-startup operations.
Cannabis and Controlled Environment Agriculture
To address the complexity of building and systems integration and help cultivators to grow plants profitably, urban-gro recently completed a $62 million IPO to help fund the company’s mission of better serving the broadening CEA industry with a larger geographic reach. “CEA is any facility that is fully self-contained and has a fully controllable environment, regardless of the crop,” explains Brad Nattrass, CEO of urban-gro. “It is our cannabis expertise in engineering, design and systems integration that enables urban-gro’s customers to leverage the knowledge and expertise gained over nearly a decade in the cannabis industry to better serve the larger CEA industry as a whole.”
From the left: Brad Nattrass, CEO of urban-gro, and James Dennedy, President and COO of urban-gro
Nattrass goes on to explain what such an approach entails. “First of all, we are talking about a complex environment, and as such it’s important to look at it as a system, as a whole made out of different elements which should not be considered in a vacuum,” he says. “Similar to a single thread in fabric, systems are interdependent; if you pull one thread, everything reacts to that pull. Similarly, urban-gro has experts for each thread to make a strong, durable fabric. ”
Lessons Learned Benefit Traditional Crops
Since the early days of the cannabis legalization movement, urban-gro has worked on more than 300 projects. “What truly separates us from the rest is our team and expertise,” Nattrass says. “We have been working on the most valuable crop in the world, namely cannabis, and have become experts in controlling the environment. Now, urban-gro is going to leverage our domain knowledge and expertise to help traditional crops such as vegetables.”
Indeed, thanks to the raising of funds, urban-gro is poised to execute a growth strategy to help satisfy the demand for indoor facilities around the world. This vision will be bolstered by the newly appointed Chief Operating Officer and President James Dennedy, whose focus is on market and geographic expansion. Dennedy will drive the strategy execution through disciplined growth. “Our growth will revolve around the markets and the crops we can support,” he explains. “As urban-gro matured and our expertise went beyond cannabis to become more crop agnostic, we have continued to strengthen our infrastructure as an all-inclusive mechanical engineering and horticultural systems design firm. We are capable of efficiently taking a facility owner or manager from the design phase all the way through to facility start-up, cultivation and post-harvest.”
Vertical Farming for Traditional Food Crops
One area of keen company interest is in vertical farming. “The thing is, designing a profitable vertical farm facility is not easy,” Nattrass states. “That is why we have invested in our team’s expertise to develop tools to support growers in making informed decisions during the critical early design phase. For example, Cultivation Space Programming allows growers to see how much of their space is optimized for cultivation and understand opportunities to improve efficiency. Beyond that, there are numerous other critical considerations. For instance, water treatment varies depending on local regulations which require specialized water treatment plans and programs.”
“At the same time, we don’t want growers to change their processes unnecessarily,” continues Nattrass. “Our goal is to work hand in hand with our clients to maximize the efficiency of the operation as a whole; we want to enable the hidden potential of facilities.”
Another aspect that is critical to the success of CEA facilities, whether cannabis or food, is the HVAC systems. “Incorrectly specified mechanical systems are crop killers,” Nattrass says. “In our opinion, environmental controls are the single biggest challenge for the traditional indoor crop industry. It is of the utmost importance to understand early in the design phase just how mechanical systems will interact with plants. Case-in-point, we recently signed a contract to design a vertical farm in Canada, and one of our first tasks is to design and integrate the mechanical systems.”
Vertical farming helps address food shortages and reduce dependence on uncertain supply chains. “95% of the leafy greens in the US are grown in California and Arizona,” Nattrass explains. “And by the time they get to the store, their freshness has diminished, and a full 40% of harvested lettuce is thrown out due to spoilage. With experts like urban-gro and our key partners, we can design, build and efficiently operate more facilities throughout the US to reduce food miles, and thereby, food waste.”
What’s Next: Turnkey Solutions
Thanks to the recent IPO listing, urban-gro is positioned to offer the CEA sector—both cannabis and traditional crops—with highly sought-after turnkey solutions.
Nattrass concludes, “We are expanding our offerings through acquisitions to add brainpower, fostering innovation and the pursuit of new ideas. Through our service-based offerings, we will support the ongoing and evolving needs of our growers. Recently, we launched our gro-care managed services program, which features post-startup training and support to monitor client systems. This ensures the peak performance of equipment and facilities. Rather than onboarding a new third-party operations consultant, companies can now rely on the experts from urban-gro who have been involved with the project since inception. All in all, the future looks bright for the CEA industry, and we are excited to support cultivators around the world to grow more plants and grow those plants profitably.”