David recently joined our podcast host TG Branfalt to discuss the potential of Agrify’s cultivation technology, the important role being played by data collection and analysis in the modern cannabis industry, his advice for entrepreneurs who are feeling overwhelmed by the advent of technology in cultivation practices, and more!
Tune in to this week’s podcast episode via the media player below or scroll down to find a full interview transcript.
If you are a commercial cultivator and you haven’t already downloaded the free report that Agrify has published about indoor air quality, click here.
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TG Branfalt: Hey there, I’m your host TG Branfalt. And thank you for listening to the Ganjapreneur.com Podcast, where we try to bring you actionable information and normalize cannabis through the stories of ganjapreneurs, activists, and industry stakeholders. Today I’m joined by David Kessler. He’s the vice president of Horticulture and Customer Success for Agrify, a developer of premium indoor-grow solutions for the cannabis and hemp marketplace, whose mission is to assist horticulturalists in producing the highest quality crop possible, with consistency, and superior yields. Kessler interestingly also served as a consultant and hydroponic system designer for the Hunger Games film.
How you doing this afternoon, David?
David Kessler: I’m doing great TG, and thank you so much for having me on the show. Really excited to be here with you today.
TG Branfalt: I’m delighted, man. I was really like talking to people who can talk about cultivation. Because as I’ve said on the show, people who listen know I’ve never grown a cannabis plant. I, for the first time, the other day sprouted some vegetable seedlings. So these conversations allow me to fill in a massive knowledge gap that I have and also helps inform that the listeners. But before you drop some knowledge on me man, tell me about yourself, your background, and how’d you end up in the cannabis space?
David Kessler: Sure. It’s an interesting story, because I actually started cultivating cannabis before I ever consumed cannabis. I had a lot of friends in my late teens that were cannabis enthusiasts. And I didn’t understand why they focus so much attention and time on cannabis, whether it was getting cannabis or being able to use cannabis to medicate, but it took up an inordinate amount of time. And I didn’t understand. Because the seeds literally came in every pack that they got. And so for me, as someone who had been used as child labor, my mother grew fruits, vegetables, and flowers. My father was an award-winning rose grower. I naturally had that green thumb, that background. And so the thing I did before I was ever even consuming at all, was to learn how to grow the plant. And I fell in love with it. I fell in love with the genetic diversity, the differences in the various genotypes or the phenotypes, the flavors, the aromas, the aesthetics.
And from there continued, and started consuming. But then I just didn’t see it as a viable career option at that point. And so I went to university, I studied to become a lawyer. And before going to law school, I decided what I really love is plants, and I don’t want to do something I’m not passionate about for the rest of my life. So I went back to school for graduate work in horticulture. And that fostered an incredible level of opportunity in a lot of really diverse weights. So it allowed my various interests and expertise to kind of intersect.
And I opened an orchid nursery. I became a judge with the American Orchid Society. So I’ve traveled the world, looking at flowers, internationally. Started doing a facility and hydroponic system design consultations. And then that actually turned into some grant writing. Won a six-figure grant from Google, and started bringing science and technology or STEM curriculum into the public schools. And from there, got hooked up into these consultantships for Hollywood. So I got to consult on the Hunger Games film franchise, the Allegiant series, more recently Black Panther. And then someone gave me this opportunity. I never thought I’d have, to grow cannabis legally or to work with a technology company that fosters that. And I jumped on it. I’ve never looked back, and I’ve never been happier.
TG Branfalt: That might be the most wild background for any cultivator that I’ve ever heard. So I got to ask you a couple of questions. First is, so you talk about the genetic diversity. And you’ve worked a lot of plants. You studied horticulture. Is cannabis the most genetically-diverse plant that you’ve personally dealt with?
David Kessler: It depends on how we want to look at that question TG. And the reason I say that is this. From a genotype background, cannabis genetically doesn’t have a lot of speciation, doesn’t have a lot of varieties. In fact, the government only recognizes one species, cannabis sativa. Cultivators kind of push on that. And they’ll be dichotomies between sativa, indica, ruderalis, chinensis. But ultimately if we’re only talking about four or five species, that’s not really a diverse group of plants. When I fell in love with orchids after cannabis, I did so because they had a high value, they were really beautiful, really coveted, and they have the most diversity of implant family on the planet. There’s over 50000 natural species. So if you think about that 50000 times the number of species of cannabis, and there’s over 250000 registered hybrids.
And that’s a point that I just want to talk about just quickly. With orchids not being illegal, there have been records kept of every species, every hybrid, every hybridizer, going back into the 1850s at the Royal Horticultural Gardens in ACU. And with that knowledge base, we’re able to really understand the breeding of those plants, what traits are dominant and what those expectations are. What’s interesting about cannabis from the diversity standpoint, even with those minimized number of species, because of the huge diversity of chemotype, the chemicals actually produced by the plant over 400, you get this incredible variance in actual expression.
And so whether you love those fruit flavored strains, or maybe you’re more on the gassy side of things, whatever your preference is, it’s the recombination of the DNA that we have, that leads to that various expression and that diversity that so many cannabis enthusiasts, and cannabis producers really strive for. And what we’re looking for is not something that’s good, but something that’s great, something that’s exceptional, a very unique combination of DNA that produces a plant or a flower that really has a unique chemical profile, and that chemical profile might be an expression of potency. It might have certain medical effects, but it also might be producing a certain aroma or an aesthetic, like some of the new slurry cane hybrid, almost a white. It’s hard to find green under all the tricombs.
So what I love is that diversity, and the ability to take a genome, a particular set of DNA, and really push it to see what it can become in an optimized environment. And that environment might be the cultivation environment, it might be having to do with how long it’s in a particular stage of its life. But there’s a lot of work to be done to understand the boundaries of what cannabis can do as a plant. And now that it’s come into a legal status, we’re able to really foster that understanding and Agrify’s technology is able to help not only discover what those maximized potentials can be, but also to get some consistency and reproducibility of those traits.
TG Branfalt: So before we get to the Agrify technology, I got to ask, just about, you said that you were growing cannabis before you were using it. Can you tell me about your journey to actually becoming a consumer?
David Kessler: Sure. You know, again, I had lots of friends that were quite enthusiastic about cannabis, and I just didn’t understand why when they were given the seeds, no one tried growing it. So initially I started just planting them in soil in the backyard, and in pots around the house, and seeing what would happen. And I would get seedlings that get up about six or eight inches and then just wither over and die. And at that point I really decided, “Okay, what I need to do is take an approach that I’m comfortable with. Which is learn everything I possibly can about this, so I can learn how to do it.” I wasn’t comfortable that I couldn’t grow this plant.
So I started learning, reading everything that was available. This was pre-internet. So I’m dating myself. There was very limited information that was available to us at that time. And I started cultivating. I found lights that were being disposed off at a country club. And I learned how to wire electricity so I could use those. And found a place in the basement that I didn’t think my parents would look. I was wrong. And that is how I started my journey. But once I started growing the plant, and understanding that three plants that came from the same seed, the same mother plant, if you will, were so different from one another, even though they had the same parent.
I was surprised, although I look back and I shouldn’t have been. My sister and I look nothing alike. And we came from the same parents. So why would I have expected cannabis to be any different? And it’s that diversity that I’ve loved, and the challenge of growing and maximizing those particular traits that I really feel fortunate to be able to help with today.
TG Branfalt: When did you decide to actually smoke it?
David Kessler: I had a girlfriend, and she was a very heavy consumer. And she convinced me to try it. And the rest is history from there. Was led down the path of sin by a good woman. So it was a great experience. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I finally understand what my friends were doing, and why they were doing it. And it was from then on just a part of my life. And again, it’s something that I became passionate about. But I just didn’t see it as a career option that I could go back to my parents and say, “I know you want me to be a lawyer or a doctor.” I’m a Jewish boy from New York. Those were the only options, lawyer, doctor, or disappointment. So to go in and have to tell them that, this is what I’m passionate about, it was an interesting experience. And I can tell you one where I didn’t get spoken to for several weeks after.
But once your name is associated with things like Hollywood films, all of a sudden, all of the nay say in the family kind of turned around. And I was in good graces again.
TG Branfalt: Super interesting, man. Thank you for telling me that story.
David Kessler: No. No worries.
TG Branfalt: Tell me about Agrify, and what you specifically do as Vice President of Horticulture and Customer Success.
David Kessler: For sure. So Agrify, I think as you mentioned, is a premium supplier of the indoor agricultural technology and solutions. And what we’ve done is take a different approach to cultivation. I mean, I think a lot of cultivation today has emerged from the illicit black market era. And a lot of the best practices that were used were just scaled as reasonably as possible to address this increase in demand. But what we’ve done is take a different approach. We looked at it as a way of systems engineering, specifically designing hardware and software solutions for cannabis cultivators that really work together.
One of the challenges that we identified in the industry early on, was that a lot of cultivators and investors/entrepreneurs were taking kind of a best-of-breed approach. They wanted the best light. They want the best HVAC system. They want the best computer control system, and fertilizer, and checks and system. But then you’re hiring an integrator and you’re trying to get kind of closed systems to communicate with each other. And that doesn’t necessarily foster the best results. So what we wanted to do is provide that ecosystem of equipment; hardware and software solutions that could really address cannabis cultivation, bringing into practice things like best practices from pharmacology, and horticulture, and plant science. And combining that with proper sanitation procedures from the food production industry. And also involving more commercial agricultural best practices.
And so in doing all of that together, we think we’ve put together a really effective system for cultivators that allow them to produce a very high-quality cannabis flower to do that consistently, and still do it at a reasonable or low cost, making them more viable long term.
TG Branfalt: So how does this tech sort of… I’ve interviewed people from grow box companies, that sort of industry. How does your tech in these vertical farming units is … What sets it apart from similar tech?
David Kessler: Sure. Well, one of the things is that it is in smaller environment, I think, than most of the other, what I would call prefab or box cultivation solutions are on the market. A lot of those cultivation solutions are more hardware driven, like retrofitting shipping containers with more of a traditional cultivation approach. But in terms of what sets it apart, aside from industry leading efficiency on LED lighting and custom design software, is the fact that we’re taking an enormous amount of data, each one of our grow chambers or VFUs, which is only 32 square-feet of floor space, has two layers of canopy. So that’s 64 square feet of canopy. But is taking one-and-a-half plus million data points each year. And because we are amalgamating that data, our clients have the opportunity to review that data, to learn from that. And it’s also a unique approach. If I’m trying to optimize a new cutting, a new strain that was brought in, let’s say law the cake, and I’m in a traditional grove where I have eight flowering rooms. I can only really put it in one room with a lot of other genetics and trying to get it to produce a good result.
Using Agrify’s VFU technology, each one of the VFUs is a completely independent climate. And in that, we have independent testing grounds. So I can take that same cutting, run it in one of the VFUs at 80 degrees, one at 84 and one at 88, and see if the temperature impacts the results that I’m looking for. Maybe it’s not yield that this cultivator is interested, maybe they’re looking for quality. Maybe this is about maximizing the total cannabinoid production. And then from there, maybe I’ll do it again. And I’ll look at optimizing the fertilizer utilized throughout the life cycle of the plant or the CO2 levels. And by gathering all of these data points, and by being able to do these iterative experiments, we’re really able to push the boundary of what that genetic is able to do. And because of the data collection, and the granularly controlled internal environment of each VFU, we can then deliver and reproduce the desired result.
And if you don’t mind, I just want to mention one thing. Earlier I had talked about how the plant, how cannabis can produce over 400 different chemical compounds. Well, the plant cannabis is extremely plastic or variable based on its environment. If I take the cutting and I grow it outdoors in New York, and I take the same cutting and I grow it indoors in a VFU, although it’s genetically identical, the phenotype or the outward expression, the look of the flower, the chemical profile of the two flowers are going to be dramatically different. And that’s because plants can’t move away. And so they react to their environment by kind of changing with that environment.
And so that plasticity is minimized using Agrify’s technology, which means for the first time, cultivators can really start to dial in, not just the recipe by which they cultivate, because a lot of cultivators do that. A lot of cultivators look in kind of develop the fertilizer program, and the light recipe, and so forth. But not a lot of them can control the internal cultivation environment so granularly that you can minimize that plasticity, which allows cultivators to deliver a high-quality product to a consumer that is going to have that same effect, whether it’s a chemical profile or an aroma. But I think that consumers really demand consistency.
If you look at say the adoption of brands like Coca Cola or McDonald’s, they are successful because every Coca-Cola tastes pretty much the same. Whereas in cannabis, I was on a panel in a Michigan conference and they asked, why do people try a strain twice and then not try it a third time? And I said, look, I have to guess that they loved it the first time. They didn’t have the same experience the second time. And they weren’t going to give you a third chance. And so I think in order for entrepreneurs to build brands, they need consistent products, uniformity. And that is really what Agrify delivers.
TG Branfalt: Well, and to your point, I had a guest on a few months ago who they collect basically all of the terpene data, and basically everything comes out of state testing programs where they take terpenes. And he was basically like, “We got the same what was marketed as the same thing, and had the same strain name.” And he goes, “And then we look at the data points and they weren’t even close. But it’s still marketed as it’s an indica, or it’s a sativa. And it had the same strain name.” So could this possibly make… I mean, you’re saying that this is a way to ensure consistency. And so we don’t end up with, as you mentioned dissimilar experiences.
David Kessler: Absolutely. And to your point, I think that, yes, this is a way cultivators can guarantee consistency of their crops. But you’re also bringing up a larger industry wide issue, which is that there isn’t a taxonomic structure. And unlike orchids, which have this huge database of information, and also a specific scientific naming structure to allow us to separate the hybrids. Without that we’re in a situation with the cannabis industry, where there is no right way for naming. So routinely, we see people share cuttings, change the names of those cuttings. In fact, one of the genomic testing companies looked at samples of 39 different strains and found them to actually all be genetically identical, but they were being sold in the California market as 39 different things. And that’s the challenge, that’s the problem. So without kind of a widespread adoption of a taxonomic structure, which wouldn’t be that hard.
For example, if you cross Blue Dream with Green Crack, you might get a particular hybrid. Anyone anywhere on the planet that takes Blue Dream and Green Crack and hybridizes those two varieties together, is going to get that same end result name. But every seed that is produced from that would be a cultivar, a unique variety, because it’s a combination of DNA that’s not identical to others. And so if we can say that this is the name of a strain, this is the name of a cultivar, then all of a sudden we can kind of wade through this confusion or ambiguity that we have.
TG Branfalt: So as somebody who comes from this background where everything is has its place, if you will, in terms of name and breed. And when we were talking about you judging, what would you sort of… Do you have this thing in your brain that would help people create this database, this controlled database to prevent these broad generalizations about products, I guess?
David Kessler: Being a pragmatist, I have to assume that it’s going to be really hard to have a emerging industry, even as nascent as it is, kind of adopt a taxonomic structure this late in the game. But there is a solution. And so the solution is to look at the genomic testing, your DNA doesn’t lie like that company test all the different varieties in California. And so what we can do is say, look, a lot of people call it Purple Punch. Some people call it Purple Pixie, but it’s all genetically identical. And you can actually have strains now, genetically identified.
And so it’s that level of specificity that will remove the ambiguity of the name game in the cannabis industry. And then you still have a huge amount of variance in the phenotypic expression. So your Purple Punch, you might be a better grower than I am, and mine might not have as high a cannabinoid content. You might have a higher terpene profile, whatever that is. And so there’s still room for people’s skill sets to evolve and to be demonstrated as a superior. But what’s really at play is it eliminates the names and in favor of just a pure genetic identifier. And so even the Agrify software, Agrify insights has both a section for a name and a genomic identity as well, so that you can try and limit this kind of ambiguity.
TG Branfalt: I want to just take a step back and talk to you about your role as VP of Horticulture and Customer Success. On its face, it doesn’t really seem like the VP of horticulture the science guy would have a ton to do with customer success. And VP’s of the horticulture are not… it’s not rare in this industry. How does your role differ from others with that title, Vice President of Horticulture?
David Kessler: Absolutely. And I think what it comes down to is a lot of people that are a VP of Horticulture are focused on specifically and only the cultivation, or more likely even just ongoing operations. They have to be more of an operations manager, and produce cannabis as a commodity, as a widget. And so with that in mind, I really get to focus on helping our clients succeed. Because if they’re successful, then that means that we are going to be successful. And so I get to take my unique experiences and skill sets, and help our customers maximize the quality of their genetics. And that might not be the only thing I’m doing for sure. I’m also helping develop biosecurity procedures, and implement standard operating procedures, training new facilities coming online on best practices, or shaping the R and D at Agrify to allow us to maximize the qualities of cannabis even further.
And so, while I wear many hats, ultimately my job is to support our clients, both their current and future success. And it’s something I love. I get to do what my 18-year old self would have thought was one of the coolest things that I could have ever come up with.
TG Branfalt: When you deliver these VFUs, or you start working with a company, I’m sure there’s a learning curve. Can you tell me about what that learning curve is like, and what is the most common question you get from people who begin working with you?
David Kessler: Sure. And if we take a step back, I think that, that question, the common question is, this looks different than how a lot of cultivators are comfortable cultivating. And so even if we look at what is becoming a little bit more popular, which would be an LED and a rack style system, so people can use that vertical space, it still is even more foreign than that. And so the most common question is how do we cultivate in that? And you’ll get, or I hear a lot of concern from the growers themselves. A lot of growers that I’ve met, most in fact are somewhat competitive. They do this as a labor of love, but they also want to be good at their craft. They consider it a craft.
And so what I try and explain to them is that the Agrify technology, the VFUs while different, is ultimately just a toolbox, and we’re not trying to replace growers. This isn’t robotics and automation. We use limited automation to lower the labor, so cultivators can focus on actually improving the quality of the plant. But what I explain to them is that this is a toolbox at their disposal. This isn’t about replacing cultivators. This is about empowering them. We want to give them the tools to grow the best cannabis that they’ve ever grown, that anyone’s ever grown.
And so what we normally have to do is just kind of walk through how the cultivation process works, explain how we can utilize vertical space differently, and manipulate the plant both physically and biochemically using things like photo period adjustments in order to maximize the traits that we’re looking for. And so, while early on we get a lot of discomfort from cultivators, they generally become our biggest advocate because they love what the technology allows them to do, which is improve their craft, and show their scale, and grow great cannabis.
TG Branfalt: Additionally, I mean, this is an indoor setup, and many states require indoor cultivation. And you’re based in Massachusetts, which I’m fairly certain does. Am I correct there, that they require indoor cultivation?
David Kessler: My understanding is, yes.
TG Branfalt: So when that legalization initiative passed in 2018, and cannabis growers needed an indoor solution, did that drive interest in the product?
David Kessler: I think definitely when new markets emerge, there’s newfound interest, and people are somewhat captivated and always looking for a better mousetrap. So absolutely it drove interest. Primarily though, what we saw from the Massachusetts contingency was that with regulations centered around required vertical integration, there was a lot that they had to understand. And they also had to try and estimate what the market was going to be. Do they want to produce flower, or concentrates, or edibles, and how is the market going to respond to that? And then if you have to both cultivate, and then you also have to extract, and then you have to make your value added products, then you have to own a dispensary. There’s a lot involved in that vertical integration.
And so what Agrify wanted to do was provide cultivation expertise, and a method of growing that let clients focus on the business of cannabis as a whole, but let them rest easy, knowing that they had a lot of insight and control over the actual cultivation, and that they didn’t have the kind of key man risks of being tied to a master grower if they themselves, weren’t an expert in cultivation. And so by providing a really valuable service and also some really interesting software, like production planning algorithms that let you model different utilizations of the facility space, and different cost inputs and so forth, they could actually model what was the most appropriate or advantageous way to proceed in the Massachusetts market. And so we were really happy to help those clients find a better way of being vertically integrated in the Massachusetts market.
TG Branfalt: What’s your favorite part of the Agrify tech? Because you have this deep history with gardening in general, with growing plants. What’s the biggest appeal to you? What’s your favorite part of this stuff?
David Kessler: Well, I’ve been doing this a long time. I won’t tell you how long. But I’ve gotten a lot of experience with every facility I’ve designed, with every cultivation round or cycle that I’ve myself undertaken which is many, I have learned. And so what the Agrify technology really is, is the culmination of my wishlist. It’s that granularly controlled environments, and the ability to reproduce that. So if I get a really phenomenal result, I can get it again. There was one point I was growing a California orange strain from Amsterdam. And I swear to this day it was one of the most flavorful varietals that I’ve ever had. And while I cloned it, I was never able to reproduce those results. It was one of the biggest frustrations that I’ve had as a grower. I have the genetic, but I can’t make it do what I did once.
And so Agrify’s technology really is about controlling that environment, producing a great result, and then allowing it to be reproduced time and time again. It’s that consistency that I think is really going to drive client success and the market in the future.
TG Branfalt: What advice would you have for entrepreneurs who are not, I don’t want to say afraid of using tech, but a little averse to… they want that hands in the dirt, or that experience that relies less on technology? What would you say to those entrepreneurs who may be a little nervous about handing that aspect over to technology?
David Kessler: First, that this isn’t a replacement of human beings. Agrify takes a hands-on eyes-on approach to cultivation. The technology is there to help you. In terms of their trepidation towards adopting technology, I would say that unfortunately those that don’t adopt technology are not going to have as an easy time competing in the future. I think as new markets emerge and prices might be artificially high, everyone’s doing great at $4000 a pound wholesale. Colorado last summer experienced sub $800 per pound on the wholesale market for indoor A-grade flower. And that really changes your perspective. You can have ideals and values about not using technology until you can no longer afford to be in business.
And so I would caution them to make smart decisions to adopt technology as they’re comfortable with it, but also just to be open to it. You know, cannabis cultivation as a science is about 100 years behind every other flora culture crop Because of the fact that it was illegal for so long. And unfortunately we don’t have the benefit of all of those decades of research. So in order to compete in a modern time, I think it’s really critical that they start considering the adoption of technology, and to aggregate as point. I really believe that the technology, again, it’s about empowering those cultivators. And once they can get over the fact that the box looks different, they love it. And so I think that that’s really the key.
TG Branfalt: So I want to ask you one last question is, can companies like Agrify and others that do collect a lot of data, how can they work towards filling in this 100-year knowledge gap of cannabis cultivation?
David Kessler: Well, I think the first thing is to start collecting the data. You really need to have data to work from. But from there, you have to then figure out how to parse that data, and then how to translate that data into useful information. And that’s part of what the Agrify insights software really affords and allows, that data collection and that understanding. And so you can go back through and figure out what changed between this cycle and the next cycle in your cultivation of slurricane that got you a 17% increase in cannabinoids, or why is it that this variety for the first time ever produced terpene profiles above 4%. And you might go through and you look at the environmental data, you look at the irrigation data, you look at the light data. And you might realize that there was an anomaly, and prior to harvest the temperatures actually dropped more than they should have. And so that low period of temperatures might be connected to that increase in terpene profile.
And it’s, without those data points, without having a way to look back, you’re never going to be able to figure out where those successes came from. And so what we really value is that, that data, and then the interpretation of that data. And I think that that’s how they will be successful. Is to not just collect it, but interpret it, and then utilize their findings to further improve the process with more iterative experiments, which having instead of eight cultivation rooms, if you have 200 of our VFUs, you’re going to have a lot more ability to experiment with a lot less risk. And you’ll also have a lot easier time collecting all that data.
TG Branfalt: Now I have a lot more questions about experimentation, and we don’t have time for that. This has been really a great conversation, man. I really appreciate you taking the time. And now that I have your email address, I’ll email you when my radishes and my Ps ultimately don’t grow. But where can people find out more about Agrify? Where can people find out more about you?
David Kessler: Absolutely. You can learn more about Agrify by following us on Instagram @AgrifyCorp, or Facebook @AgrifyCorp, or Twitter @AgrifyCorp. You can also find us on LinkedIn @AgrifyCorp. And my personal email address is David.Kessler K-E-S-S-L-E-R @agrify.com. And if anyone would like to have any questions or continue a conversation that might’ve been started during this podcast, I would be thrilled.
TG Branfalt: Well, I am definitely going to be thrilled when I have you on again. And when I can ask you a lot more questions that I jotted down during this conversation that we just don’t have time for. David Kessler, Vice President of Horticulture and Customer Success for Agrify. Thank you so much for being on the podcast.
David Kessler: TG. Truly my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me. Stay safe, stay well. And I look forward to coming on again.
TG Branfalt: Thank you so much. You can find more episodes of the Ganjapreneur.com podcast in the podcast section of Ganjapreneur.com, and in the Apple iTunes store. On the Ganjapreneur.com website, you will find the latest cannabis news and cannabis jobs updated daily, along with transcripts of this podcast. You can also download the ganjapreneur.com app in iTunes and Google Play. This episode was engineered by Trim Media House. I’ve been your host, TG Branfalt.