We are so excited to introduce you all to JP, otherwise know as John-Paul, CEO and Co-founder of GrowX. We had the pleasure of meeting JP at this year’s CannaTech Annual Pitch Event.
And…spoiler alert: he won.
As the judges shared their decision and gave feedback about JP’s outstanding pitch, they all commented on the clarity and the professionalism of his presentation. I think that same confidence, backed by practical experience and his “I am going to make this work” attitude shines through with as much clarity in this interview.
So, tell me JP, how was the CannaTech experience for you?
Honestly, it was incredible.
First of all, coming out to Israel, seeing the absolutely amazing progress that has been made on the scientific front, with a government that understands the potential for this plant and lets the research ‘have at it’ – that was incredible to see.
On the GrowX side of things, it was really gratifying to be with people on an international stage that really understand the value and the ‘why’ of what we’re doing.
It was a pretty perfect analogy to the disconnect between the US and the rest of the world. So much of what’s happening in America is solely driven by money with little regard for much else.
[So much of] the rest of the world seems to be highly concerned about solving the problems that face us all as humans on this one planet with limited resources. And it was very refreshing to be in that kind of environment.
We know you’re the co-founder and CEO of a very promising new startup, winner of the CannaTech 2017 Pitch event, but before we dive into what GrowX is, tell me a bit about what lead you to where you are today.
My background is in software and computer science. I developed software for big companies which included Booz Allen Hamilton (working for the National Security Agency), and Advantage Solutions, with the most poignant part of my young career spent at Elon Musk’s company SpaceX.
So you’re a real underachiever?
Okay. GrowX builds aeroponic pods.
Aeroponics is a way to grow plants without soil or any other hydroponic medium. Which makes it cheaper, cleaner and less labor intensive than traditional farming methods.
I designed our system at GrowX, which we call “pods.” You can think of them as a pot with no soil in it – but it is still able to grow a plant with very, very little water – 95% less water than soil farms. (that’s any kind of plant, including tubers).
So these pots are large, approximately 1 square meter, and each pod has a variety of sensors inside and outside that collect data.
The sensors measure all the different factors that affect how a plant grows; the temperature, the humidity, the CO2 concentration of the air and of the root zone.
We also have sensors that attach themselves to the plant directly and we can actually watch the plant “eat,” actually watch it photosynthesize and see how much water is flowing through the plant. With that information we can precisely determine how much water that plant actually needs and give it exactly what it needs, when it needs it. That’s what allows us to achieve the massive savings that we do.
Okay, can you break down how aeroponics actually work?
So basically there is a plastic mesh that your rooted plant sits on (this can also be done with a seed). What happens is that the roots grow down, into a light-tight “root chamber” and then it gets periodically misted with nutrient rich water.
The real key to the success of this technology is the specific size of the water droplets in that mist, the speed of the droplets and the temperature of that root zone.
Aeroponics is very hard to do properly.
When the roots are allowed to grow without interference, you get the development of of something called “root hairs” which are these very fine single, elongated cells that grow out of the walls of the root. And what that does is massively increase the surface area of the roots allowing the roots to uptake way more oxygen and nutrients than they normally would.
So what happens is that you end up with a smaller root mass, which means that the plant is not spending energy on growing roots – it’s spending energy on growing the actual plant.
In the research that NASA did with this technology back in the 90’s, they found that they were able to increase growth rates over traditional soil farming by 200-300% just by utilizing aeroponic technology.
WOAH. So, how many people are utilizing this kind of technology for industrial farming today?
A fraction of a percent.
What’s the biggest impediment that has kept this technology out of the mainstream?
It’s a mix of things.
It’s expensive to do correctly, because of how much monitoring it takes. You need very specific things to happen at just the right times. It really wasn’t until the recent advancements of affordable, low cost sensors and cloud computing that we have been able to make this both technologically and financially viable.
So now we can build a system that has 18 sensors inside each system – and we can produce this for under $500 and send the information in real-time to the internet.
This simply wasn’t possible 20 years ago.
Additionally, our product is Ai-powered – meaning that all the data is processed by an artificial intelligence algorithm – we’ve taken the guesswork out of it – so we feed all the data that the pods are collecting into an engine that can read and find patterns in that data.
The ultimate goal being that we completely automate this type of farming. It will be a push-button, turn key farming solution so that anyone can grow anything, anywhere with minimal resources as possible.
I can see old-school kibbutz style, outdoor farmers, saying ”Thanks son, but I know my trade, been doing it for generations and I’ll be damned if a robot is going to replace me.” How do you respond to that? What’s the re-education process like for farmers?
In my experience, farmers are typically pretty averse to this kind of technology. Many of them have been doing this all their lives. They have a way that they’ve figured out that works and they don’t want to change it.
And that’s fine, from our perspective.
The fact of the matter is that we’re starting to see massive capital come into this industry. Cannabis is an agricultural crop and is going to become highly commoditized. People are setting up huge multi -acre farms, and finding efficiencies in order to stay cost competitive are imperative.
We believe that in the long term, our technology is going to the one that is used for all the large farms – you’ll always have those “back to the roots” boutique, artisan, sun-grown-soil grown strains…and then you’ll have everything else.
We’re not selling to those farmers. We’re selling to the large-scale, well capitalized growers that understand where this industry is headed.
If you could speak for a moment to the entrepreneurs tuning in, looking for a way to mature their own idea, what can you tell us about your experience with the cannabis business incubator Gateway:
We came to Gateway after being around for about a year and half, so we had already done some product development and we had tried to raise some money. We got close, it didn’t work out. So we had made a little progress and we thought we knew quite a bit, but there was still plenty we didn’t know and the fact was, that we still were not funded.
We came into Gateway not really knowing what to expect – at the time, we were more financially motivated and interested in the cash they were providing to help us continue with our product development.
We weren’t anticipating having too much more to come out of it.
But that was not the case at all.
Our time at Gateway was extremely valuable. The biggest thing that we learned from that experience was the arch of storytelling and communication. I can’t tell you how many versions of our pitch we had gone through in that previous year and half.
Gateway really helped us refine it into that clean, three minute pitch that you saw at CannaTech. It really hits all the points that investors want to see and tells a compelling story.
It’s one thing to have a great idea, it’s another to convey that idea in a compelling way that in this particular context, causes someone to open their wallets and invest in your idea.
Also their network in tech and cannabis is amazing. They introduced us to our first client, and Ben Larson at Gateway is who brought us to CannaTech.
So, what are you busy with now?
Coming out of Gateway, we did a last round of product development with very limited capital. We produced functional prototypes, but by no means production ready. We just deployed our first product last month, to our san Francisco client and are deploying our second unit this month to our Denver client who we actually met at CannaTech.
We’re also in the midst of a fundraise. We’ve got the traction now and we’re focused now on scaling and scaling fast. So we are raising a 3 million seed round to fund our product development; to get us from our prototype to our first production unit. We’re actually pitching at Cube Tech in Berlin this May 10th, competing for a million Euro.
What kind of advice or encouragement can you offer hopeful entrepreneurs, someone who is maybe a year or two behind you in developing their own startup?
I would say, before you even start, make sure your idea is something that you are 150% passionate about and that you’re willing to commit your life to, because that’s what it takes.
On a more practical side, to make life as easy as possible, you should expect for it to take two years. It takes about that much time to really get traction and get the company off the ground and figure out whether this idea really has legs.
To that end, make sure you have a support system in place to make it through those two years.
In my case, I moved back in with my Mom, and was able to live there for free for two years. That was the sacrifice that I made to get this company off the ground…that support was key for me.
Also, you need to be willing to push through the neigh-sayers and all of the challenges that come your way. Just don’t give up. The number one reason that startups fail is because the founders quit. If you really believe in your idea, you will make it happen given enough time and energy.
On behalf of all of us on team CannaTech we wish JP and the whole GrowX team the very best of luck on your journey. We look forward to hearing great things.