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Growing medical cannabis? You’ll need some tech essentials first – Morning Brew

If you want to grow and sell medical-grade cannabis, you’ll need more than just a green thumb and some compost. Think: more scientist in a lab coat, and less soil-caked hippie growing their own supply.

Maitri Genetics, a Pennsylvania-based medical-cannabis cultivator, exemplifies this shift toward science. The state’s Department of Health requires medical cannabis growers to attain “a very high level of quality” and consistency, Samantha Mikolajewski, cultivation manager at Maitri, told Emerging Tech Brew. To hit those quality targets (e.g. extremely low mold and bacteria thresholds), it has constructed a highly controlled grow environment—and technology spanning enterprise software, IoT, and biotech helps provide that grip.

The 120-person company operates solely in Pennsylvania, where recreational cannabis remains illegal but medical sales generated ~$909 million between April 2020 and March 2021, per Headset Insights, a cannabis data and market intelligence platform. Maitri is gearing up to open its fourth dispensary, in Greensburg, PA, later this year. With that, it plans to hire 25 more people.

Maitri also grows all of its cannabis indoors. Not in a greenhouse, but inside of a building that’s kept as sterile as possible. That environment shapes which technologies it can employ. Drones don’t make much sense in a building with 10-foot ceilings, for example, but software-managed smart devices and biotech solutions work just fine.

In contrast, recreational cultivators regularly grow outdoors or in greenhouses, which, in turn, influences the tech they use. Drones are viable for monitoring outside—in fact, Mikolajewski used them in a previous gig on a 17-acre recreational farm in Canada—as are cutting-edge solutions like weed- (the pesky, unwanted kind) killing robots. And in general, recreational growers could choose to hold themselves to the same standards medical growers have to meet, but no external body is requiring them to adopt the same tech solutions.

“Growing outdoors is maybe looking more at environmental and biological technology,” Mikolajewski said. “Really trying to understand the natural environment and the predictability of, say, a different microclimate, or soil structure, or weather patterns of an area.”

Maitri has less of a need to try and predict these variables within its grower-processor facility, because everything is calibrated to the plants’ preferences. That means Maitri employees are selecting which microclimates, soil structures, and weather patterns plants need, and using tech to provide—rather than predict—that.

To help with this, it uses a Dutch hardware-software system called Priva, which controls Maitri’s fans, temperature, light, humidity, and irrigation. Argus is another software tool that provides similar features and is widely used in the industry, Mikolajewski told us.

“It’s a pretty dialed-in system. It gives us maximum control over the environment,” she said. “Using this type of system, you can pretty much stay within like 1% of your set point that you’re requesting of it.”

For strains Maitri has been growing for more than three cycles—that’s how long it takes to get enough data to understand the plant’s preferences, and cycle length varies depending on the strain—Maitri will program Priva to adjust settings according to what it knows a given plant likes. It’s not an AI system, but more like a decision-rule system that can execute on the directions a grower gives it.

But as with nearly every automated system deployed in the real-world, a human is always in the loop. Maitri has workers monitor the system to ensure it’s maintaining its orders, and the plants to ensure they’re responding as anticipated. This is a dynamic, not a static process, because, like all living things, the cannabis plants want different things at different times—more vapor pressure in the morning, for instance, or less intense light in the evening—and on different days, throughout their life cycles.

“You still want to have people visually monitoring those areas,” she said, “We can set what we expect and what we want, but we still use people to say, ‘Hey, I think something’s going on over here.’”

Maitri also extends fastidious control over the production of new mother plants, which it uses for the asexual reproduction of its crops, via its tissue-culturing lab—a hyper-sterile environment that requires employees to wear personal protective equipment (like special lab shoes) to access, and all equipment (like petri dishes) gets run through an autoclave before it can enter.

If the company wants to experiment with a new strain, the tissue-culture lab is where it goes first. Workers can flip open Maitri’s library of thousands of cultivars, grab a miniscule genetic sample of the plant, and grow a contaminant-free version of it in a gel medium.

“We can take these very, very small cellular samples and culture them in a medium, and bring that sample back to life free of bacteria, free of mold, free of pathogens, free of insects, and really keep this facility really clean,” she said.

When the plant gets big enough in the lab, it’s “hardened off,” which means it’s acclimated into a higher-intensity environment and, eventually, planted into a soil-like medium where it can blossom into a mother plant.

“To be able to be in this enclosed space and be providing these plants with everything they need to be at peak performance,” Mikolajewski said “[is] a real feat of human ingenuity.”