The quintessential San Francisco 2018 technology story of the new year happened to me last week.
I got an invite from a PR guy to check out an automated pot growing cabinet called a GroBox that was debuting on Amazon.com this week. The price: $2500.
Seriously? In the land of the $20 cocktail, maybe I should not have been surprised. But I was certainly skeptical. That’s my job. I had to see this, and had to put it in its place.
So I took MUNI down to an office high-rise near the gleaming new Salesforce Tower skyscraper, the second-tallest building on the West Coast. After an elevator ride up, and a workspace check-in, a PR rep for the company Cloudponics ushered me into their offices, where a non-descript, fridge-sized wooden cabinet stood in the corner.
Books sat on top of it and notes were affixed to it. You couldn’t smell cannabis in the air at all.
But after a swipe and a tap on the PR guy’s iPhone, the cabinet unlocked with a click. He pulled open the main compartment, and the room was bathed in an alien, purplish-red glow. A fresh, citrusy, dank aroma enveloped us. It came from five or so plants growing under a box of LED lights.
Now I was intrigued.
Thanks to legalization efforts in eight states and Washington DC, tens of millions of Americans now have the right to grow a few cannabis plants in the privacy of their own home. Most are considering doing so for the first time, either to scratch a long-held gardening itch or to save up to 95 percent off the retail cost of marijuana.
But home-growing good cannabis isn’t easy. Marijuana may be hearty, but — like brewing your own beer — it takes education and effort to produce something you’d be proud to share.
That is changing this year. With legalization has come the product rush, and companies are coming up with turn-key solutions to home-grown cannabis. I was standing in front of what I immediately thought might leap into the lead: the Grobox.
Developed by a Chilean-based startup called Cloudponics, the Grobox has been available since June. Each 176-pound unit is hand-assembled in San Diego and ships to anywhere in the world. Cloudponics says it’s sold a couple hundred of them already.
When I first heard of the pricey unit, I was suspicious. It sounded far-fetched and silly. But, now, after I’ve kicked the tires a bit, I think it’s going to sell like gangbusters among folks with a spare $2,500 who want to grow herb without trying very hard: dilettantes, tinkerers and makers.
It’s certainly more rewarding than building your own 3-D printer, which just makes plastic junk. By contrast, the GroBox can produce about eight ounces of dried, cured cannabis every four months. At $300 per retail ounce of marijuana, it can pay for itself in one good cycle.
Cloudponics is a classic startup story, too. Founded in 2014, it’s is the brainchild of Chilean former civil engineer Nicolas Ruiz and the Dutch national Pepijn van der Krogt (CEO).
Ruiz always liked cannabis but was “frustrated with killing plants.” He would leave for weeks on a work trip and come back to dead plants. “It can be a very fulfilling hobby, but it can be frustrating,” he said via Skype.
Ruiz wanted to “automate everything” about growing, and tried to crowdfund the project on Kickstarter. He got kicked off the platform because . . . cannabis. So he shot his own clever, tongue-in-cheek video about growing “tomatoes” and netted $20,000 in pre-orders.
The Grobox represents a milestone for cannabis cultivation. Normally, if you want to grow marijuana in a cabinet you would have to buy all the pieces from a hydroponics retailer. That would cost you about $1,500.
These retailers aren’t exactly Apple Stores, either. In San Francisco, the independently owned and operated hydro stores can politely be referred to as “quirky.” The service I’ve gotten has been gruff and circumspect — a relic of the don’t-ask, don’t-tell prohibition days. I don’t see most novices risking a visit.
But even if you brave a store and buy a grow tent, lights, a hood, a fan, a power ballast, air filter, pots, dirt, water reservoir, nutrients, etc., then you have to assemble everything, like an old-school personal computer. And like early computer geekery, a succesful assembly is seen as a badge of honor among pot growers.
But the time has arrived for something akin to the birth of the Macintosh computer — something anyone can use out of the box.
Ruiz and his partner spent four years and $120,000 in Chilean government grants to develop not only the cabinet but its brains, called a “controller.” This is the gizmo that listens to all the sensors in the cabinet and doles out nutrients to the plants on the right schedule. The controller feeds the status of the cabinet to your iPhone.
Cloudponics has been selling units all over the U.S. and in Chile, to mainly males age 30 to 50, but also older people and veterans, Ruiz says. It’s also available in Canada and soon, Europe.
“We literally get interest from all over the world — Latin America, Iran, Saudi Arabia,” Ruiz said. “It’s not news that cannabis is being used all over the world.”
GroBox comes with a number of “recipes” for different types of cannabis you can grow, so that the plants always get the right food they need in the right amounts. Sensors monitor temperature, humidity, acidity, nutrient levels in the water and more.
Back in the workspace, the PR guy pulled up the base tray on the main compartment. Underneath were tangles of white, healthy roots, bursting out from the plants. Technically the system uses “aeroponics,” which involves no soil or water, but rather spritzing the roots with a pre-mixed nutrient solution on a schedule.
I don’t fully believe Ruiz when he says any type of cannabis can do well in the cabinet, which has a four-foot-tall space for plants. I can think of some really tall strains that would suffer. But I have to admit, the Sour Tangie plants in the PR guy’s cube looked really happy. I mean, really happy: lush, dark, green with lots of leaves and no sign of deficiencies or sickness. They looked happier than anything I’ve grown on my porch and much, much healthier than some amateur grows I’ve visited at the homes of my friends’ dads.
Part of that is the awesome Black Dog LED lights GroBox uses from Boulder, Colorado. They’re professional-grade, not some off-the-shelf Chinese junk. The LEDs are low-power and low-heat, pulling just 300 watts with no need to dump the excess heat.
The system uses the popular General Hydroponics line of nutrients, which will not impress organic purists, but amateurs don’t care. Small pumps move the nutrients from their individual bottles into a reservoir where they’re mixed and sprayed on the roots.
GroBox also connects to your home WiFi, so “it really is an internet of things” appliance, Ruiz said.
Cloudponics’ biggest problem has been shipping, Ruiz said. The particle board cabinet can get banged up during transport across the country or the world, so they’ve revamped packaging at their San Diego warehouse.
Getting up close, I could see the waterproof interior liner was glued inelegantly to the inside of the cabinet. And the cabinet didn’t seal completely. A little light leaked out, but no aroma. Still, Ruiz says, “We have very, very few returns.”
Like any tech startup, the company is still raising funds, and Ruiz is definitely feeling the investment chill from Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ rhetoric about marijuana.
“We’ve already seen three investors take a step back,” he said.
But I expect consumers will pick up the slack in 2018. GroBox cannabis isn’t technically organic, but the company’s growth in 2018 promises to be both lush and all-natural.