Bjorn Dawson admits the timing was, well, kinda perfect.
When C-45, the bill that made marijuana legal, passed in the Senate last June, Dawson and his co-founder, Chris Thiele, were already well under way with a startup that would make growing marijuana at home a cinch.
Today, Grobo, as their company is called, is a 12-person operation located in an 11,000-square-foot building in Waterloo that’s crafting special boxes filled with tech that automate the process of growing virtually any plant or vegetable you’d care to name. And, yes, one of those plants is marijuana. Quite a few different strains, in fact.
And with weed set to become legal across Canada on Wednesday, Grobo is ready to scale to keep up with a market that is expected to consume 734 metric tonnes of cannabis by 2021, with Canadian sales estimated to reach $6.5 billion by 2020.
“There are very few markets where you don’t have a big U.S. competitor, and this would be one of them,” says Dawson, asked about being the CEO of a company that happened to be in the right place at the right time. “They’re not going to have enough supply to meet demand.”
Starting on Wednesday, Canadians will not only be allowed to buy and use marijuana, they’ll also be allowed (with Quebec and Manitoba being the exceptions) to grow up to four plants at a time in their homes.
Grobo’s home cultivation system is contained in an elegant white cabinet which stands about four feet high. It’s just over a foot deep and a foot wide. It’s enclosed, which keeps prying eyes out, which is handy since in at least one province, namely B.C., plants can’t be visible to the public. An onboard carbon filter removes odour.
The genius of the Grobo idea is that it automates the entire growing process. Add seeds, fill the device with water, walk away, and a few weeks later, presto!, it’s time to harvest. Grobo takes care of metering light at the perfect colour spectrum for each stage of a plant’s growth, as well as analyzing the chemicals in the water being used and dispensing fertilizer accordingly.
The system retails for $1,999 and Dawson says it pays for itself within 18 months, depending on usage.
“There’s a ton of technology in it. What you’re spending on equipment you’re saving in time. It provides you with a lot of freedom,” he says.
The irony of Dawson’s entry into the space is that he not only didn’t set out to create a marijuana growing device, he has what he calls “a brown thumb.
“The funny thing is people look to me for plant growing advice. And I am still not good at growing plants [which is] why I developed a system to do it for me. That’s why I use Grobo to grow my plants.”
In Dawson’s case, the plants he cultivates aren’t marijuana plants. Dawson has a hankering for home-grown vegetables and fruit.
“I grew a watermelon,” he says. “It was delicious. That’s what got me into growing.”
Dawson’s predilection for fresh fruits and vegetables, however, came with a caveat: while he loved what his garden produced, he didn’t actually enjoy the gardening part. It was too time intensive, and outdoor growing was too subject to the vagaries of the weather.
“So I built a little [automated growing] unit for myself. I just wanted the end result.”
Dawson at that point was a student at University of Waterloo in mechanical engineering. Halfway through his degree, in 2014, he realized his little grow box had startup potential. Fate helped things along. A year earlier he had met Thiele at a UW business course. Thiele, who today is Grobo’s CTO, had a passion for growing plants and energy efficient lights, or LEDs, and technology in general.
“It seemed like a perfect fit,” Dawson says. And it was.
The co-founders entered Velocity, University of Waterloo’s startup incubator, and set about talking to potential customers. As they did, it became apparent that the most interested among them wanted to use the device to grow cannabis.
“We were talking to a lot of medical patients,” Dawson explains. “Medical cannabis patients have difficulty getting a consistent supply of the cannabis that they need. A lot of licenced producers, even as legalization [nears], they run out of strains.
“As a patient, it’s like going to a pharmacy and saying, ‘I really like Advil. Advil works well.’ And the pharmacist says, ‘We don’t have Advil this time, so try Tylenol.’
“So that’s why a lot of people like to grow: They know they always have the supply of the strain that they want. So, it was a bunch of Canadian patients who were asking us, ‘Can you help us grow our cannabis?’
“That’s how we ended up getting into it. We can make a difference for people.”
After a year-long beta-test period, the company began shipping units last June – coincidentally when Bill C-45 was passed. There is currently a four-week wait for a unit.
“We still haven’t caught up to demand,” Dawson says, “but that’s on purpose. We want to make sure we’re shipping product that works.”
Dawson is from Montreal, and comes from, he says, a long line of entrepreneurs, including grandparents on boths sides of his family.
His entrepreneur’s instincts played a role in him deciding to remain in Waterloo Region to set up and scale his company. Just as a plant requires good growing conditions, so too does a startup.
“The support, the community, the availability of high-quality team members,” Dawson says, listing the region’s advantages.
Grobo is currently a member of the 12th cohort of Communitech’s Rev program, a six-month accelerator for growing companies.
Dawson says he can envision the company opening up into the food space: Grobo is capable of growing 200 different varieties of plants. All the recipes are programmed into the device’s accompanying app. The most popular plant grown in the device after cannabis? Hot peppers.
“We build the best system for growing any plant,” its co-founder says.
“But cannabis is for us a great starting point that we’re really excited about.”
Dawson, meanwhile, brown thumb and all, is excited about what he’ll be up to on the day cannabis turns legal – namely, looking forward to his next crop of strawberries.
Communitech is a partner of Startup HERE Toronto. This article originally appeared on their site.