Startup seeks to modernize grow ops as Canada set to legalize pot

Question: When is a datacentre not a datacentre?

Answer: When it’s growing pot.

Smart datacentre managers use technology to regulate power consumption and productivity. Paolo Pincente, CEO of Grow Ratio, is basing his business on the fact that cannabis grow-ops work the same way.

Pincente comes from an IT background, having sold his managed IT services business pNetworks in 2015. Now, he wants to bring the same efficiencies found in high-performance datacentres into licensed grow-ops.

“A typical grow operation uses as much power as a datacentre,” he says. These facilities use high-intensity discharge or high-pressure sodium bulbs to provide the light that cannabis plants need to grow.

The problem for growers is that the bulbs lose a lot of that light as heat, which they must then eliminate with coolers, drawing still more power. Anyone cramming high-powered equipment into a datacentre has experienced a variation of this problem; they must crank up HVAC units to eliminate the waste heat from their racks.

LEDs to the rescue

Grow Ratio makes computer-controlled LED lighting systems that produce similar lighting conditions with a fraction of the power. This will drive down the power costs for the lighting and reduce the cooling requirements. He believes his lights can halve grow-op energy consumption.

With Canada poised to legalize pot, he thinks it’s the perfect time. Cannabis is still illegal in Canada unless produced for medical purposes under strict regulations. Nevertheless, the federal government hopes to ease restrictions on the drug with the Cannabis Act, which it hopes will pass into law no later than July 2018.

As Canada prepares itself and legalization continues on a per-state basis south of the border, companies like Pincente’s are preparing themselves to apply technology to the tricky art of cannabis production.

After selling pNetworks, he took a road trip in the U.S. and noticed how legalization was creating a new, legitimate market in some states there. “Everything in Colorado is sponsored by a pot company. There are billboards and everything. It’s the wild west,” he says.

In Canada, legalization will be more measured, he predicts, but he still sees a market north of the border for modernizing marijuana growing operations.

Sensors and sensimilla

Driving down power requirements isn’t the only thing that Grow Ratio’s system has in common with modern datacentre management systems. The other part of his service offering is environmental monitoring.

In datacentres, thermal flow analysis systems help to distribute air properly around the facility, while performance monitoring ensures that operators are squeezing every FLOP and IOP out of their equipment. In a grow-op, CO2 and humidity join temperature as key environmental factors.

“The environment is critical to the quality and potency of the various cannabinoids that are growing in the plant,” he says, describing an 80-20 rule surrounding pot protection. You can get 80 per cent of the plant’s yield using conventional growing techniques, but the high value of cannabis makes it profitable to squeeze every last piece of productivity out of the soil.

“To really get that last 20 per cent of quality and yield, the environment has to be perfect and it has to change over the life of the plant to simulate the seasons,” he says.

Grow Ratio built a lighting system combined with sensors that operate at different levels of plant to feedback temperature, humidity and CO2 levels, all of which affect its growth. The sensors communicate data to a back-end system that can be monitored and controlled from a mobile app.

Customers worried about security in this highly sensitive industry can install it locally, or use a Grow Ratio-provided instance running in either Amazon or Azure datacentres north of the border.

There are 45-50 licensed producers in Canada today producing cannabis for medical purposes, says Pincente. These large operations are preparing to expand production to cope with increasing demand from a legalized cannabis industry. Every square inch will count. His system will help avoid ‘dead spots’ in growing centres where reduced CO2 levels hinder plant growth.

A mobile app lets growers control operations remotely. “The master grower responsible for multiple facilities didn’t have to run around everywhere to personally check on things,” he says. “He could just look at his phone, and when there was an issue, he knew right away.”

The company is also preparing a smaller version of its cloud-based cannabis system for home growers, who will be permitted some legal growing rights under the new Canadian law, should it go ahead. It isn’t the only company going after that market.

It isn’t the only company going after that market. Grobo also sells a $1,700 USD cabinet for growing single plants, which it says is good for “anything from basil to cannabis”.

How times change. We remember when ‘green IT‘ meant something entirely different.

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Danny Bradbury
Danny Bradbury
Danny Bradbury is a technology journalist with over 20 years' experience writing about security, software development, and networking.

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