Part 1: How to build a community-owned cannabis company

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Last edited May 20, 2024 by carlygrowlaborganics-com

Embarking on the journey to establish a community-owned cannabis company has been an adventure filled with twists, turns, and triumphs. Join us as we meet some of the team behind the inspiring story of GLO, navigating the complexities of site selection, licensing, crowdfunding, GDPR compliance, and import regulations with unwavering determination and a sprinkle of community spirit.

In this three part series we will delve into the detail, hearing from the GLO team – just what does it take to build something that has never been done before?

First up we catch up with Charlie and Alex to chat about obtaining licences and finding a place to call home.

Charlie Price – Chief Scientific Officer

Finding the perfect home

In the quest to plant community-owned seeds, GLO faced the challenge of finding the perfect site for their cultivation and manufacturing facility. From exploring existing buildings to discovering a flat, disused football pitch, the journey was a testament to perseverance and serendipity, ultimately laying the groundwork for a sustainable future.

We asked Charlie to talk us through the hurdles and decisions along the way:

One of our first challenges was finding the right site. Back in 2020 when we first explored the islands existing building stock, we found the second largest building on the island that was available for lease and we started to get excited. However, over inflated rental costs combined with the presence of an asbestos roof, made the site untenable. It quickly became clear that actually building a new building inside the existing constraints of an old one, was going to be almost expensive as building from scratch. 

It was then that we started discussions with the wider ATG (Airport Technology Gateway) project and were subsequently offered a site on a flat disused football pitch, and an area designated for development with the ATG remit.

After around a year of negotiations between the landowner (the Government) and all the respective local stakeholders, we agreed a strategy, design and three phased footprint to allow GLO to build a sustainable cultivation and manufacturing facility to meet the objectives of its business plan, and to provide cannabis products to both the UK patient community and for export globally. 

The site has been proposed and selected because it fulfils a number of key criteria:

  • The site itself is flat, level, of limited ecological importance and within a designated zone for development, the Airport Technology Gateway (ATG) Project. 
  • Located within the island’s freeport zone, allowing tax free exportation.
  • It is located around 500m from the Islands Ronaldsway airport
  • Favourable terms on a 125 year ground lease from the IOM Government giving us security that is almost equivalent to ownership of the site.

It took quite some time to find what we felt was the perfect site combined with a unique, business friendly licence framework, but, with a lot of persistence and hard work; we got there!

Designing for growth

With a vision to cultivate craft quality cannabis products while minimising environmental impact, GLO had to embrace and develop energy-efficient indoor production methods. Commitment to sustainability is something that is so important to the team. 

We asked Charlie to summarise some of the design choices and energy challenges he managed to get over with some creative thinking and many hours of love.

“Perhaps our most crucial design challenge has been managing the trade-off between; deploying our capital wisely, whilst also being able to expand quickly. Sounds simple, and is of course a dilemma for any manufacturing business, but with pharmaceutical compliance layered in, the ability to scale whilst maintaining uninterrupted process flow, is very much the name of the game.

For these reasons we’ve chosen to carry our entire end to end process in phase 1. This would allow us to cultivate, dry, cure, process and package whole batches (up to 200m2 room). Initially only 4 of these flowering rooms would be built, giving a batch frequency of around 2 weeks (assuming an 8 week flowering cycle). Whilst the space would be designated for phase 2 & 3 drying rooms, these wouldn’t be fitted out until the corresponding time. In phase 2 a further 8 rooms will be added and batch frequency increased to every 5-7days. IN phase 3, an additional 8 rooms giving a final at capacity throughput of a batch being processed every 2-3 days. 

In this way, we’re able to maintain continuous uninterrupted process flow, whilst constructing, cleaning, validating and commissioning new phases of development and allowing them to seamlessly flow into an existing processing operation.”

The energy challenge was one that I felt excited to unpick, not least because of its importance to our cost of production, but also because our sustainability credentials were so inextricably linked. Thankfully it’s familiar territory having designed hundreds of milliwatt’s of renewable energy systems across the UK, from biomass, AD, large solar, and heat recovery systems and had the pleasure of working with some of the UK’s largest horticultural businesses in the process. From the infancy of renewables in the UK I’ve seen a lot of examples of where people have gotten it wrong, but I have also witnessed the transformative implications of getting it right!

From an energy perspective we face a number of really interesting challenges. Firstly its worth noting that all of this in underpinned by the fact that we’re designing a space for plants to thrive and to express themselves. Given the variety of cannabis we plan to grow, these spaces need to be both highly controllable and also flexible in how they are dialled in for a specific strain. 

With that in mind, and given that we’ve embraced the idea of full indoor; lighting was the first main energy requirement to consider. 

Obviously LED technology is progressing fast, and putting spectrum and intensity choices to one side, it represents far and away the most efficient lighting source for our cannabis. 

That being the case, we have a situation where the lights become our heaters, and rooms therefore need cooling. So we face the scanerio where during the “day” when our lights are on, we need our HVAC (Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) system to largely act to chill the air to maintain optimal conditions (based on our leaf vapor pressure deficit’s). 

Our strategy is that, whilst we are actively chilling the air in one room, we utilise the ‘waste’ heat to provide the heating input for the room next door whilst its lights are off. 

This strategy works particularly well where paired rooms are operating in 12:12 cycles such as flowering.  In this way we can balance energy between rooms. 

For those of you that have just thought “what about the veg rooms where light isn’t 12:12?”. Here we use the ‘mismatch’ and the surplus heat from the additional photoperiod, buffered into hot water and use this to provide heating for the office and processing zones.

So in short, we’ve designed our climate control systems to allow the balancing of energy from room to room through appropriate use of heat recovery ventilation and air source heat pumps, so that we can maximise the recycling of every kw of energy we use. We are really excited to see how the designed systems become operational and test their performance against the predicted data. If our predictions are correct we will have huge potential to sustainably produce British cannabis products for years to come.

Alex Fray – CEO

Navigating the regulations

Securing licences for a community-owned model in the tightly regulated cannabis industry is no small feat. Alex Fray, shares the rollercoaster journey of obtaining the Isle of Man’s first cannabis cultivation and pharmaceutical wholesale licences. Despite challenges, GLO emerged victorious, paving the way for community-driven investment and groundbreaking opportunities.

So Alex, how hard is it to actually get a licence?

“Cannabis is perhaps the most tightly regulated market in the world and getting a licence is harder than you would imagine. The regulations exceed that of the most highly regulated industries in the country. It varies from jurisdictions but typically requires several licences. For us on the cannabis front it’s a licence to cultivate, process, manufacture finished products, import/export and conduct R&D. Then on top of that we have a pharmaceutical licence to wholesale medicine, and all of these are issued by the Isle of Man Government.”

Were there moments where it got a little tricky?

“Yes, many! The Isle of Man is a Crown Dependency which means it is not part of the UK but is in the British Isles. It has its own government and their relationship with the UK government is crucially important. Being the first Isle of Man licence both we and the Government were in unchartered territory and it involved inter-governmental dialogue which we hadn’t expected.

Then after we thought everything had been completed, we had to wait a further 9 months for a GDPR matter to be investigated by the ICO at the time. This was unexpected and nerve wracking in the extreme. Fortunately, that was dealt with via a new data sharing agreement and we were able to get over the line!”

How did you feel when the licence was approved?

“Elated! Also a little exhausted… There are very few of these in the British Isles and so many applicants have tried and failed. We first started speaking to the Government several years ago and it took over 3 years to receive approval.

The licence is the foundation stone for a cannabis business. No licence = no business. Working transparently and collaboratively is our modus operandi to build trust with all stakeholders including the regulator. We have to protect this licence and do that by being mindful and respectful of the regulations.”

What does this mean for investors/the community?

“Having a licence is a scarce and valuable resource which is great for our community investors. We are the only one on the Isle of Man and I believe there are less than 5 elsewhere in the British Isles. Of those few licences, we believe that our project is the only one being done fully indoors rather than a glasshouse. This is a key differentiator in cultivation that we believe adds further value to our licence.This is really positive for the community investors as they are investing in a business that has this asset.”

Stay tuned for part two of this series where we will be talking to Carly and Alex about the journey of crowdfunding and the complexities of doing this in such a tightly regulated market.

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