Jon Gowa is the founder and CEO of Bloom Automation, a company that is designing and creating robots in Colorado to assist the cannabis industry.
In this episode of the Ganjapreneur.com podcast, our host TG Branfalt and Jon discuss Bloom Automation’s participation in the Boulder Canopy startup incubator, the various robot designs they have tested and found most effective, what role robotics may play in the future of the cannabis industry, and more!
You can listen to the interview via the media player below or keep scrolling down to read a full transcript of this week’s Ganjapreneur.com podcast episode.
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TG Branfalt: Hey, there. I’m your host, TG Branfalt and you’re listening to the Ganjapreneur.com podcast where we try to bring you the actionable information to normalize cannabis through the stories of ganjapreneurs, activists and industry stakeholders. Today, I’m joined by Jon Gowa. He’s the CEO and founder of Bloom Automations. Jon, you guys make robots.
Jon Gowa: We do indeed. We make robots to help the cannabis industry.
TG Branfalt: That’s the crux of what we’re going to get into a little bit later, robots, how do they work — but before we get into that, I want to know about you. Tell me about what you did before entering the cannabis space.
Jon Gowa: Great. I’ve been an engineer for about seven years now. I initially started out actually in agricultural robotics at a firm called Harvest Automation and there, we made robots that moved potted plants such as rose bushes.
TG Branfalt: How did you decide to enter the cannabis space and did you use your previous experience to build this tech?
Jon Gowa: Yeah. Definitely, I would say I was inspired by my previous experience and honestly, one day, I was watching television. I believe it was a CNBC program about the cannabis industry and saw a particular task, this task of trimming and thought that might be something perfect for robots.
TG Branfalt: Again, we’re going to talk about the robots but I want to talk about a couple other things first. I want to talk about the accelerator program that you guys are involved in, the Canopy Boulder program.
Jon Gowa: Absolutely.
TG Branfalt: What was your application and pitch process like to get involved with that program? How did you discover it?
Jon Gowa: Okay. Canopy Boulder, we discovered it through the ArcView program and we were at one of their conferences, Canopy Boulder was set up with impressive booth and a list of companies that were at this investor forum. We got to know them. We got to know Micah. He said, “Why don’t you apply?” Later, last fall, I was in Boulder and actually met again at Canopy, learned a little bit more about the program, about their alumni and found it a fascinating opportunity.
TG Branfalt: What was the application and the pitch process like for you guys? Was it the Shark Tank experience? Were you in front of a bunch of people and …
Jon Gowa: Although we have had that experience on stage at ArcView, the Canopy Boulder application was a little more friendly. You mainly filled out a lot of forms online and wrote about exactly why you’re in the industry, where your goal is, and really pitching from there.
TG Branfalt: Why did you choose an accelerator program over other ways of finding investments such as finding direct investors or venture capitalists?
Jon Gowa: Great question. I think for us, it was more about getting really immersed in the industry. Although laws are changed in Massachusetts where I’m from, things are really developed out here in Colorado. To actually get to know industry professionals, get to know hopefully our potential clients and what their needs are, it seems like a good idea to come out here.
TG Branfalt: The Canopy Boulder experience and the culture, what’s that like working so closely with other companies who are designing their own tech or doing something entirely different and working with a lot of people who have very broad knowledge base?
Jon Gowa: Exactly. I would say it’s absolutely fascinating. We get to work, exactly like you say, with companies that have such varied skills. In this environment, it’s not so much competitive as it is collaborative. When I needed help working on the website, Henry from Cannabis Big Data knows all about website, all about analytics and was able to get me up and running in honestly 30 minutes, something that would have taken us weeks and more. Yeah, they have that kind of collaboration and everyone working towards the same goal, granted they’re on the same company … on different companies but we’re like working towards the same goal in the same industry.
TG Branfalt: I had an interview with the CEO of the San Diego Canopy and he appeared on the podcast. He said that one of the goals for their program, and they specifically bring in a lot of tech projects is they’re not looking for something that reinvented the wheel, so to speak. They’re more interested in picks and axes rather than gold so they don’t have any companies that touch the plant, that sort of thing. In Boulder, do you have the same experience in that program where it’s more picks and axes as opposed to the gold, if you will?
Jon Gowa: We do. We do have that same experience and the same criteria for it to be an ancillary company. I think that’s interesting and it’s also … because we’re all ancillary companies, we’re tied in that sense. Our clients are all similar so it’s really … it’s kind of a good thing for our company.
TG Branfalt: Tell me about your company. Tell me about Bloom Automation. You have robots. What do these robots do? Who’s using them?
Jon Gowa: Great. We have robots and it’s mainly aimed at the task of trimming which is after you harvest the cannabis, you have the flowers and then you have the sugar leaves and the fan leaves or the water leaves. Although the leaves are still valuable, you want to remove those and separate them. There’s numerous ways of doing it. Typically, it’s hand-trimmed or there’s some large machines that trim it but these machines are a little bit more coarse, so to speak. We’re looking at robots that could use cameras and they actually look at the cannabis and understand each different plant, each different branch and are able to cater that when it goes to actually trim and operate on that branch.
TG Branfalt: These aren’t like humanoid robots, right, that are holding scissors and doing this? These are more production style robots?
Jon Gowa: I would say it’s somewhat of a mix, so our next generation robot, it does wield a pair of shears, they look quite like a regular scissors and it uses an articulated arm that enables it to be more dexterous. Meanwhile, our initial prototype which is online and functioning right now like you said, looks more like a production piece of equipment, even kind of like a 3D printer. The robots are changing in form.
TG Branfalt: Already?
Jon Gowa: Already to kind of make sure we’re precise, as precise as a human and as we learn different capabilities and restrictions of a particular robot or system, we’re adapting to this.
TG Branfalt: I read that the automation increases security. I was wondering if you could just tell our listeners how automation does increase security and why.
Jon Gowa: Automation can certainly increase security by … It’s a more controlled environment. Certainly, if you have conveyor belts, you have your product going from one conveyor perhaps through a robot, it’s all controlled. It’s very unlikely you’re going to lose any product particularly with all the cameras, automated cameras. For that reason, you have a good control of your product throughout the entire process whether it’s trimming or going through packaging. Automation can certainly help.
TG Branfalt: You had mentioned earlier that your tech is already sort of evolving. Give me some sort of specifics about what has happened since the early test phase to now.
Jon Gowa: Exactly. Early on, although we’ve always used cameras, we had numerous different sensors like touch sensors and other sensors but now, we rely completely on cameras. What’s changed is in the beginning, the robot was a lot more cumbersome, so to speak. Sometimes, it ate an entire flower without really knowing it. Now, we’ve refined that algorithm much, much further. It knows exactly where each leaf is. It no longer has false positives or false negatives and it’s certainly more precise and more efficient. In fact, it’s almost 10 times faster than when we started.
TG Branfalt: Tell me how much product it can go through and how accurate is it.
Jon Gowa: Okay. We’re aiming for the production model to go through at least a quarter pound dry equivalent per hour. That would represent the equivalent of perhaps one to two hand trimmers. The accuracy is quite good. We’re at about 80% right now but we really want to hit that 95% threshold which is, it starts looking exactly like a hand-trimmed product. It’s very precise.
TG Branfalt: How far are you away do you think from hitting that 95% goal?
Jon Gowa: We have beta testing to begin at some cultivation sites across the country, about six of these sites. From there, that’s where we really start to gather data so we’ll see how are these actually performing in real life, what is the accuracy that the cultivators are reporting because it is something of subjective matter and from there, we’re going to make incremental improvements until we hope we get to that 95%.
TG Branfalt: What do you mean by it’s subjective? What does that mean when you’re dealing with data? Data is not really subjective.
Jon Gowa: Right. For accuracy, some would say some cultivators prefer a closer cut where perhaps you’re trimming the sugar leaves very down low, of course, getting all the crow’s feet but other trimmers, especially when the product is wet, might consider it okay to leave some sugar leaf because it still has product on it, active product. I think it depends on cultivator to cultivator. That’s actually something we want to program into the robots. This is one of the levers they can pull but we want to make sure when they pull that lever, they’re getting a desired outcome.
TG Branfalt: The system is adaptable.
Jon Gowa: That’s correct. There will be some tunability whether they want, like I said, a closer trim or perhaps a looser trim and that can be for numerous reasons from speed to, of course, just how they like their product.
TG Branfalt: That’s really cool stuff. We got to take our first break. I’m TG Branfalt. This is Ganjapreneur.com podcast.
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TG Branfalt: Hey, welcome back. It’s the Ganjapreneur.com podcast. I’m your host, TG Branfalt here with Jon Gowa, CEO and founder of Bloom Automation. Before the break, we’re talking a bit about how the robot works but there’s going to be … You’re definitely going to get some voices who are saying that one of the benefits of legalization is job creation. A February report from New Frontier estimated the cannabis space to create 250,000 jobs by 2020 while manufacturing, government and utility jobs decrease by 814,000, 47,000 and 383,000 respectively. What is your response to people who might see your robots as a threat to job creation in the cannabis space?
Jon Gowa: Yes. The robots and automation in general really works to increase efficiencies. Often, what occurs there is as opposed to eliminating jobs,
you’re actually creating more jobs such as everything … The robot needs an operator. These current robots, for example, don’t feed themselves. Branches need to be fed in. Then, of course, there’s robot technicians, robot programmers and a number of jobs that are actually on-site jobs that will be created. What we like to look at is the efficiency improvements that these robots can provide employers and enable them to employ even more people whether it’s down the line or actually helping the robots.
TG Branfalt: Well, and tech companies need a variety of talent as well. What are you guys going to be looking for as you expand in terms of talent?
Jon Gowa: Certainly. Everything from, of course, programmers who are experienced in robotics and specifically vision to then we would need robot technicians across the country because robots, they break down like any piece of capital equipment or any piece of equipment really. We will be wanting to train particularly people that are familiar with other equipment in the cannabis industry whether it’s they’re trained on lighting equipment, dehumidification equipment. We’ll be looking for those same people and hopefully train them how to work on the robots so that we have technicians capable all across the country and when a cultivator needs them, they can go out and service the robots and of course, individuals that would operate the robots and then, we are planning on United States manufacturing so we’ll need an army of assembly technicians as well.
TG Branfalt: So far, have you been able to find qualified people to do the jobs that you’re looking for and if so, what sectors are they coming from?
Jon Gowa: Great question. For example, we’ve been looking for contractors that are familiar with cameras and how cameras integrate with robots and typically, that’s in automation field. We found contractors everywhere from Denver to San Diego to Tampa, Florida who all not only have an interest in the field but have a strong interest. They see it as a growth industry and have said that there’s request from other people, from cultivators themselves. We’ve had very good response honestly from vendors and industry professionals outside of the cannabis industry.
TG Branfalt: What other functions might robots be able to perform in the cannabis supply chain?
Jon Gowa: We’ve already seen some equipment whether you would call it an automation equipment or robotics, that help package cannabis, help package flower. One of the things I know that’s being looked at is packaging concentrate products. No pun intended but it’s really a sticky process and … yeah.
TG Branfalt: I love puns.
Jon Gowa: It’s tough to really … The process is called gramming and I think it’s pretty tough to do manually.
TG Branfalt: That’s something that people might be looking towards robots for or are they already being utilized?
Jon Gowa: They’re not being utilized but they are looking towards that, just one example, to help packaging, help packaging efficiency, consistency so that every time you look at the product, it’s consistent to what you expect.
TG Branfalt: When you approach a cultivator and you tell them, “Hey, I’ve got these trimming robots,” what’s their reaction?
Jon Gowa: Generally, their reaction is fairly positive. I think trimming is often seen as one of not the most desirable jobs in the industry. What we hear from cultivators is they love their great trimmers but all their great trimmers want to do is move up to that next level where they’re no longer trimming, so it’s difficult for them to find good trimmers and if they could instead operate robots that would really equate to this quality, they would love to do so.
TG Branfalt: How much training would somebody who’s trimming by hand now need to operate one of these robots?
Jon Gowa: Certainly, I think a large population of the trimmers right now are of the age that they’re quite familiar with technology and the robot’s operated through a touch panel control. It’s fairly intuitive. It’s a small combination of mechanical, just how you load the branches and then simply following kind of on-screen instructions. I think they would get sort of used to the errors that might happen with the robot and learn how to adjust those pretty quickly. It’s very similar to how humans work with robots in the automotive industry. It’s pretty collaborative.
TG Branfalt: You don’t need to have like an engineering degree or something to operate these?
Jon Gowa: No. Absolutely not. We really would count on those hand trimmers and other employees to assume these roles.
TG Branfalt: We got to take our last break. When we come back, we’re going to talk about something you and I both know a little bit about and that’s cannabis on the East Coast. Before we do that, we’ll take a break. This is the Ganjapreneur.com podcast. I’m TG Branfalt.
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TG Branfalt: Welcome back to the Ganjapreneur.com podcast. I’m your host, TG Branfalt with Jon Gowa, CEO and founder of Bloom Automation. You had mentioned earlier you’re from Massachusetts. I lived in New York for years and years. I spent tons of time in Massachusetts and I was stoked and maybe a little surprised when they passed cannabis legalization last November. It was a huge domino that toppled in New England because of Boston and the power politics that are played, I’m certainly sure you know, in Massachusetts. Were you confident going into that vote? What were your feelings as a native going into the November election?
Jon Gowa: No. I was hopeful but I wouldn’t say I was completely confident. I knew in the earlier polls, it was somewhat split but at least we had passed medicinal and then decriminalization. I was hopeful we would follow suit and certainly pleased with the outcome there.
TG Branfalt: Do you have the same sort of feeling that I do that it was kind of the first domino? I mean that and Maine, that I mean it was a simultaneous thing but to me, New England or I’m sorry, Massachusetts is sort of the bigger of the two fish if we’re frying them. Do you kind of get that sense as well that … I mean now, we got Vermont who just, the legislature passed, strange legalization bill. Delaware is working on it. I hear Rhode Island but do you think that it took Massachusetts to kind of get that ball rolling?
Jon Gowa: Personally, I do think it did take Massachusetts to really get everything rolling. I think just as other states have looked to Colorado including Massachusetts, I think other New England states will continue to watch Massachusetts as the legalization plays out.
TG Branfalt: Well, and there’s been some setbacks. The legislature delayed implementation from January to July 2018. Several municipalities have enacted either moratoriums or total bans. They have approved the funds for the program which is a start. How confident are activists and canna-business owners in Massachusetts that the state will meet that July 2018 deadline? What are your concerns about the law if any or its implementation?
Jon Gowa: I certainly hope that the law is implemented. As you said, it was supposed to be in January. I certainly hope in July, I think the voters have voted. The time has come but the cities that haven’t, for the cities that haven’t or that have pushed back, I think they’re losing out and I’m sure eventually, they’ll turn, just like some cities here in Colorado have. Then, yeah, I’m not 100% confident on the actual meeting the timeline. It’s really, I mean … yeah.
TG Branfalt: Finally, what advice would you have for entrepreneurs, specifically those interested in entering the tech sector?
Jon Gowa: Great. I think there’s ideas. There’s thousands of ideas but really, I would say building your team, whether it’s just you and a partner or you and two partners, building a team where you really complement each other and then really looking at your opportunities, so if you have an idea and you have a prototype, then maybe you start looking for some investment but otherwise, these incubators are really … It’s a really good opportunity to get to know the entire industry, get to know venture capital. Myself, I’m not an MBA but this is kind of like a mini-MBA. I would certainly advise that to any entrepreneur whether you’re an engineer or not, or a business professional or not.
TG Branfalt: Finally, can you tell us where we can find more about your product?
Jon Gowa: Absolutely. On our website at bloomautomation.com and of course, at our Twitter, @bloomrobots. Both is a great opportunity to learn more.
TG Branfalt: Awesome, man. Well, thank you for taking the time out to be on the show. It’s really cool tech that you guys are rolling out and I really can’t wait to see how it exactly develops. That’s, I think, going to be a really fascinating thing to keep my eye on.
Jon Gowa: Yes. Thank you really much, Tim. I love the show and I’ll be anxious to hear more from you.
TG Branfalt: Thanks 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’ll 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 Jeremy Sebastiano. I’ve been your host, TG Branfalt.