Inside the Future of Hemp Technology
With the passing of the 2018 farm bill, the US hemp industry entered a new age. For years, it had been the province of small, enterprising companies, trying to operate in a sector catching up to legality. But now that federal approval has finally arrived, these hemp pioneers could soon be out-competed by the hemp opportunists.
Fortunately, the industry veterans might just have enough hemp expertise to stay ahead of the new kids on the stock. “There's a lot of hype. And there's a lot of folks that are just jumping in to make a quick buck,” says Jonathan Vaught, PhD.
Years ago, over a cup of coffee in Boulder, Colorado, Vaught and his business partner Nick Hofmeister had a vision: to marry the best scientific knowledge at hand with hemp agriculture. In 2015 that vision became Front Range Biosciences, a biotechnology company that enables growers to produce pathogen-free plants with prime properties. Now, with years of experience behind them, Vaught and his team are some of the industry’s leading experts in hemp cultivation – expertise that could be sorely sought after in the booming years ahead.
So, just what can companies learn from Front Range Bio?
“So, the business is really split into two parts,” explains Vaught. “The first part is our Clean Stock® nursery program, which is really about creating the highest quality young plants and seeds and providing them to growers so they can generate the highest value for their craft.”
“And the other part is our breeding program, which is really about understanding the underlying biology and the genome behind this plant so that we can accelerate the breeding process and create improved varieties with new traits that are commercially relevant.”
The former aspect of the business is perhaps what Front Range Bio is best known for. And informed by decades of hemp research, this Clean Stock® nursery program might be the most regimental cannabis breeding strategy in the US. In a thorough nine-stage process, the cannabis cuttings are washed, pathogen-tested, and grown in a controlled series of lab, greenhouse, and outdoor environments. By the end of the programme, the remaining plants should be the most productive, pathogen-free, and profitable a grower could hope for. And as disease outbreaks can generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages, it’s a programme that’s highly coveted.
“Whether [our clients] are big outdoor hemp growers or indoor marijuana growers, greenhouse growers or in between, the Clean Stock® program develops clean, healthy, more vigorous plant material to distribute to our growers,” says Vaught.
But Front Range Bio’s vigorous, healthy plants aren’t just products of its peerless cultivation programme. This biotechnology company’s seeds of success are quite literal.
“We can create a population of 10,000 seeds, grow them up, sample the DNA from those seedlings, and then you can look for specific markers or combinations of markers that would be indicative of a specific trait,” explains Vaught. This is Front Range Bio’s second selling point: the ability to genetically screen seedlings and weed out the weaker plants before they can even grow. Wasting effort on ‘lesser hemp’ is out of the question.
“[These traits] could be indicative of production of a certain cannabinoid or a certain level of disease resistance,” Vaught adds. “So you're still doing natural selection, meaning you still have to take a male and a female and put them together and make offspring, then look for the strongest with the traits that you care about.”
But while Front Range Bio’s genetic capabilities have helped give the company an advantage when choosing its crops, Vaught is keen to downplay the hype around such technologies. Likening the cannabis sector’s interest in genetic profiling to that of the race to sequence the human genome, the CEO predicts that the technologies’ real benefits will be seen over the decades to come.
“It happened 20 years ago when we sequenced the first human genome, everybody thought, ‘Oh, this is going to change diagnostics; we're going to cure cancer’,” Vaught says. “Well, here we are, decades later, and it's still hasn't happened. And the reason is because biology is much more complex than that.”
“So I think there's still a lot of work to do and it's going to take years and multiple labs, companies, universities, and research institutions to really get the crop to a level of understanding that we might have for something like corn or wheat.”
And cannabis’ problems don’t end at its genetic level. According to Vaught, the biggest concern any upcoming cannabis company should be addressing is where to put it all.
“The big challenge that I see is about scale up,” he says. “It's one thing to grow a few acres or even to grow a few hundred acres. But when you look at other crops, you're talking about millions of acres around the world. Hemp has a long way to go before we know how to do that effectively.”
To address these challenges, the hemp industry will undoubtedly follow in the steps of conventional agricultural products. Mechanical harvesting, mass transportation, and other such industrial standards will become the norm. With the right investment, this once marginalized sector could soon become just like any other agricultural business.
But cannabis is still a unique plant - its matrix, lifecycle, and market unlike any other mass-produced crop. So while industrial standards are incoming, it will be the companies that add them to their deep understanding of cannabis that will fair best in the competitive future.
“I think there's a lot of excitement, growth potential, and the influence of huge amounts of investment dollars, and that's a double-edged sword for the industry,” says Vaught. “We see a lot of folks putting products out on the market without the right level of rigor, validation, and scientific process to make sure their products are high quality and safe.”
“So, I think it's important for people to keep that in mind when they look at this industry, and they're thinking about getting involved or investing in it.”