Matthew: Hi I’m Matthew Kind. Every Monday look for a fresh new episode where I’ll take you behind the scenes and interview the insiders that are shaping the rapidly evolving cannabis industry. Learn more at www(dot)cannainsider(dot)com. Do you know that feeling when you sense opportunity? When you see something before most people and you just know it will be successful? Then you’re ready; ready for CannaInsider Consulting. Learn more at www(dot)cannainsider(dot)com/consulting. Now here’s your program.
More cannabis entrepreneurs are thinking big. Joseph DiMasi Founder of Suncast is one of those entrepreneurs thinking really big. Joseph’s company is developing a technology that promises to route or bend lights to dramatically reduce the cost of lighting a cannabis grow. Joseph welcome to CannaInsider.
Joseph: Thank you Matt. Happy to be here.
Matthew: Joseph to give us a sense of geography can you tell us where you are in the world today.
Joseph: Sure I’m one of the lucky few who gets to live in Boulder, Colorado.
Joseph: I came out here for graduate school in 95 and haven’t been able to leave since.
Matthew: A lot of people are saying like wow a lot of your guests are from Boulder and it’s just happenstance that there’s just a lot of cool things going here. A lot of innovation in the cannabis space so it’s nothing intentional I’m doing it’s just a cluster like Silicon Valley for technology I’d say.
Joseph: Well apparently Boulder has the largest number of PhD’s per capita of any city in the U.S. and it’s on all the top entrepreneur cities in the U.S. too.
Matthew: Gosh yeah. I didn’t realize there was that many eggheads going around. I had to think I had a lot of triathletes so that’s like a weird combination.
Matthew: So Joseph if you would give us a little background about yourself. Your education, your career so we can get a sense of who you are and how you came to start SunCast.
Joseph: Sure Matt. Gosh, so my background is largely engineering. I’ve got an undergraduate degree in engineering and then a graduate degree in optical and laser engineering where my research thesis was in holographics and optical computing so some real advanced stuff. So for the last 25 years I’ve been in and around technical projects. I’ve run my own consulting firm since 2000, done about three or four million dollars worth of Government grants for high tech, run lots of multidisciplinary engineering teams, been in engineering sales, technical marketing, and for the last four or five years have been pursuing this project now with SunCast.
Matthew: So tell us at a high level what SunCast is and what’s it do.
Joseph: Awesome, yes. SunCast is a new solar cogeneration technology and those are a bunch of fancy words. What cogeneration means is we’re doing two different energy technologies with sunlight. So we scoop up sunlight and we split it into the half you can see and the half you can’t see. The half you can see and that plants can use we cram that into fiber optic cables. They are like pipes for light but they’re skinny and flexible like your shoe lace and we can route the sunlight deep into buildings. The other half of sunlight is heat. It’s infrared. It’s what makes your hands and arms and body feel warm when you’re in the sun. Well the plants don’t use it and you don’t want it in your building because it’s just going to run your air conditioning costs up. So we split that off and we send that to another technology which turns it into electricity more efficiently than a solar cell.
Matthew: Wow. That is really interesting. You know I’m probably one of the many people out there that equate the suns energy and think of the heat component as so important and don’t think about there’s an aspect other than the heat that’s going on in the light spectrum that’s doing such incredible things. So that is really interesting and now when you say you move the light around how exactly does that happen?
Joseph: So yeah it’s a technology called fiber optics. For example most any telephone conversation you have like our conversation we’re having right now is going over the internet and the internet is communicating the light pulses that are going through these pipes for light called fiber optic cables. So once you can cram light in it it will just go down it like water goes down a hose. We’re using a different kind of fiber optic cables and we cram light into them; sunlight into them and just like water goes through a hose you can route these cables and bring the light into your building.
Matthew: So who do you picture as the ideal customer for SunCast. I mean obviously we have a cannabis focused show here but who uses this technology ideally?
Joseph: Well the ideal customer is any of the pioneers in indoor agriculture. Some 90% of legal cannabis grows are still inside. There’s a lot of benefits to growing inside. You get superior number of crop rotations, better yield control security but the challenge is always trying to replicate the sun. Well we can make that challenge much, much less for them by bringing the sunlight that’s hitting their roof inside their grow and lower their costs dramatically and we believe increase their yield.
Matthew: Yeah there is a lot of pioneering efforts in the indoor growing space apart from cannabis. I follow some of these container companies that are growing food crops in they look like shipping containers and they’re doing it in a way that looks so efficient and incredible that I hope we see some breakthroughs there.
Joseph: Yeah indoor agriculture the time is coming. If you even look up the information from the USRDA they talk about a nine billion dollar market; target market of people growing food indoors and there’s a lot of reasons for that. That average fruit or vegetable you eat probably travels 1,500 miles to your plate. So a lot of what you’re paying for is the cost of the transportation, you’re paying for the cost of refrigerating, the cost of spoilage as it comes to you, and there’s now a new hyper local movement going on; people care. Even if you buy organic food you don’t know if your next door neighbors have GMOs or not so indoor agriculture is coming.
Matthew: Yes. Now tell us a little about your connection with the Department of Energy and their interest in SunCast.
Joseph: Yeah so well I’ll just say it right now. The Department of Energy did not give us several million dollars to grow weed for people right. So this technology was funded through the Building Technologies Program and it’s for commercial lighting. So commercial buildings represent some 70% of electricity used through buildings and the number one cost of energy use in buildings happens to be lighting and you could say oh if you want to be green about it you can put up LEDs and solar panels but the truth is once you get above two stories you just can’t get enough energy from solar panels to light up LEDs due to all the efficiencies. So we are really a breakthrough in green building design.
SunCast is the company that’s taking it to agriculture and taking it into the cannabis industry. So there’s two sister companies that are working with each other and we do have to keep church and state separated a little bit. Make sure we’re not using federal money, taxpayer money to grow weed. There’s some concern there so SunCast is the one that’s allowed to use the technology for that.
Matthew: Can you tell us a little bit about the upfront costs to implementing SunCast in a grow?
Joseph: Sure. Well you know that’s one of the really exciting parts that we want to provide our customers. There’s a company called Solar City. Have you ever heard of them?
Matthew: Yes. I have.
Joseph: Yeah. I mean what Solar City did solar panels have been around a long time and the technology has advanced but it hasn’t changed that much. The real breakthrough is when Solar City provided financing for its customers. So it was able to put the solar panels on a person’s house for free or little money down and then only charge for the electricity that the solar panels deliver but charge that electricity less than what the utility would charge for electricity. So it’s a no-brainer right? Who wouldn’t want free, cheaper, green energy on their house and they’ve been crushing it and the solar energy industry has been one of the fastest growing clean energies ever, ever seen. SunCast will be the Solar City of cannabis. So we intend for just a fraction of the install costs to put these systems on a grower’s rooftop and then only charge for the full spectrum daylight that we deliver at a cost cheaper than any full spectrum electric light lifetime costs that they could run it for.
Matthew: Wow that’s fascinating. Now is Solar City is that an Elon Musk company as well.
Joseph: It was actually Elon and his brother, Kimbal. We’re talking to their cousins and I can’t remember their cousin’s names. So actually the cousins of Elon and Kimbal are running Solar City and the majority owners although I believe both Kimbal and Elon are on the board and involved.
Matthew: We got to figure out a way to clone these musk family members here because their clearly having a huge positive impact on the world.
Joseph: Yeah well maybe everybody out there can cross their fingers for me. I was told that I’m going to get an introduction to the family in the months to come so hopefully we can all work on this together. It would be a great strategic entity to work with. We would really get some great leverage there.
Matthew: Oh yeah. So tell us a little bit about; we talked a little bit about how sunlight is different than normal electrical light. How the sun is a better growing medium than artificial light but can you tell us anything more about how growers should be framing this concept in their mind of the sunlight versus artificial light and what it means to them on a practical level day to day running their grow?
Joseph: Absolutely. I mean first I’ll talk a little bit about electric lighting. It is the largest cost to the grower. The lights; energy is the largest cost to the grower and it can be anywhere from 30% their costs up to 50% their costs depending on where they live and their circumstances of their grow and it all starts with the lights. Not only does it take a lot of energy to run one of these lights; you can have a 1,000 watt light spaced anywhere from 4’ to 6’. When you talk about a grow one of the first questions the growers will talk to each other is they’ll say how many lights do you have right? Actually they don’t even talk in terms of square feet.
Joseph: How many lights do you have right?
Joseph: And each one of these lights is actually producing more heat than light. I mean up to 80% of the energy that you’re getting out of the electrical socket is being turned directly into heat. So there’s an enormous amount of energy that has to go into the air conditioning. A single 1,000 watt HID lamp can take anywhere from 5 to 6,000 BTUs of air conditioning and even the high end gavita’s, ePapillon’s, double ended lamps still take 3 to 4,000 BTUs. So they’re talking about HVAC in terms of tons of HVAC and then this extra heat depending on how it’s hitting the plant can heat it up and drive its respiration. Respiration is the way the plant defends itself from that extra heat. It will pull up more water out of the soil and then it will pump it out the surface of the plant. Well then you have a dehumidification problem so that’s the other great energy sucker right and dehumidification is actually a double problem because if you don’t manage that quite right that extra vapor can turn into mold and take down crops.
Matthew: Yeah. A big problem there.
Joseph: Right. So there are lots of options in the lighting space. I just mentioned a couple. The vast majority are standard HID lamps, high pressure sodium, metal hay light. There are some up and coming technologies the double ended lamps will get you anywhere 10 to 30% more efficient than standard HIDs. There’s ceramic metal hay lights they are great for vegetation. They may be 10 to 20% more efficient than other HIDs. There’s plasma lights and then of course the one that everybody loves to talk about is LEDs. That stands for light emitting diodes and for all the talk about how efficient and how great LEDs are a lot of third party research has shown that even the best LEDs are just about as efficient as producing light as double ended lamps but the upfront cost can be anywhere from 5 to 6 times the upfront cost of double ended lamps.
Now LEDs will get there. I work with the Department of Energy Solid State Lighting Group so I do know a lot about that technology and it will be; the costs will be coming down in the next few years. They will be getting more efficient the next few years but not that much maybe a factor of two. So it’s still going to be a big pain area and it’s still going to be a big cost. There are other advantages to LEDs that I could get into they use light more efficiently and spectrum more efficiently but when we talk about spectrum of sunlight versus man made light. So a photon is a photon so if we’re actually creating a photon with some kind of electric light it’s a useable photon. That photon isn’t too much different than what comes off the sun. It’s really the collection of all the different colors and we call that spectrum and there’s a particular range that horticulturists know and talk about in terms of light spectrum. They call it PAR, P-A-R and I’m just going to geek out a little bit here.
The way they talk about that spectrum is they use a unit called nanometers which talks about the wave length; how long that wave is and the PAR spectrum is generally regarded from 400 which is a deep, deep purple out to 700 which is just beyond what we can see; what humans can see in red. In fact humans see differently than plants see. So it’s really important to get a spectrum. You don’t really care about lumens, you care about how it feels out this McCree Curve of plants. So different lights will do that but still if you look at all the spectrums of different electric lights they’re choppy. The high pressure sodiums kick out a ton of this yellow/orange light that isn’t actually ideal for flowering. It’s just better for flowering than the metal hay light lights that don’t have any orangish/reddish light. It’s really the deep red that plants really like.
LEDs have spiky; they can really hammer certain frequencies. You can have a blue and you can have a red and it kind of gives this purple light and then new LED vendors are putting these white phosphorus in there to give a nice even glow. In general they’re all compared. If you go to all the literature they always compare it to sunlight. If you look at all these lamps they compare it to sunlight and why it’s because sunlight is the gold standard and it’s what the plant has evolved to use and they’re even showing that these plants will use wave lengths, frequencies, colors of light that go beyond this PAR range and well beyond what we can see into the UV, into the IR, into the near IR. So sunlight is kind of what you want to recreate and we’re just bringing it in your building.
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Wow that’s fascinating. I have heard some of these terms before but you put that into a nice easy to digest context so I appreciate that. In terms of men sequestering or separating the heat into a useable form of energy what are the exact mechanics there that allows that to happen? So we’ve separated off the sunlight into a useable format for our plants and now we’re going to separate the energy or the heat to create energy can you walk us through some more of the mechanics there?
Joseph: Yeah and let’s talk a little bit about this magic word heat right because heat is a tricky one. So when you have an HID bulb okay the heat comes out the bulb itself. That thing is several hundred degrees. You don’t want to touch that. You don’t want that near your plants. It’s going to burn them okay. That’s a high temperature and it will come into your building as heat that you have to remove.
Joseph: Okay but you know honestly in the light you can see there is heat there too. It’s just the plants can use that energy so it doesn’t turn into extra heat load for the room. LEDs similarly give out just as much heat although they’re at a lower temperature and it’s out the back so they feel cool out the front but you’ll notice they’ve got these big heat sinks out the back. Now sunlight has the full spectrum. The plants use a portion of it and what we’re saying is that the portion of light that the plants don’t use would just land in the room as extra heat. So that infrared spectrum, that infrared energy would be heat because the plants don’t used it. If the plants didn’t use visible light that would be heat too but they suck it up.
Joseph: Now we split the visible and the infrared with a technical term called magic. No we have some patent pending technology but I can’t fully get into here and after the light is split off we have a very particular chemistry of solar cell that is sensitive to infrared light and not to the visible light and so that research is part of what’s been funded by the Department of Energy.
Matthew: That’s fascinating. Okay so how much cooler would you say a grow would be that is using SunCast or supplemented by SunCast than a traditional grow?
Joseph: Yeah. So let’s talk about how do I want to say that? I guess I want to talk about in terms of there are electric light usage and then there’s SunCast usage right because they’re each kind of separate. Let’s say they’re using just as much electric light as they were before and they’re adding our sunlight to it.
Joseph: So adding our sunlight to it would only add the extra visible photons that the plant could use. We are not adding extra energy that the plant can’t use and because of our delivery we’re not spraying unnecessary light around the room. It’s either going directly on the plant or we have some exciting technologies that allow us to deliver light throughout the canopy of the plant which is really cool. We can talk a little bit more about that later. In that case we would hardly change their heat load at all right so if they had a certain tonnage to manage their existing lights adding our cold light to it will keep their heat load just about the same. It will increase a little but not very much.
Now some growers may want to save electricity and save costs so they will have much, much, much less electric light. You still want some maybe as much as a cloudy day which isn’t very much just to keep the plants going to extend the cycle and the timing or as backup whenever it’s cloudy outside. So in that case their heat load is only going to come from their electric lights which are say maybe reduced to a 10th of what they were before and their heat load is going to be a 10th of what it was before and then again we won’t add very much to that.
Matthew: Okay. Now for people that are listening and saying well how much; if I’m renting a building or leasing a building would I have to make huge substance changes to the roof or how do we get the SunCast technology into the building in a minimally invasive way?
Matthew: Impact on a grow facility.
Joseph: Right. So the first thing we have to say is every rooftop is wildly different. So every installation will be custom and we will work with the customers and with structural engineers to work with their rooftop and their needs. The first and most important consideration is structural load. Most buildings at least here in Colorado have at least a four pound per square foot structural load. Many are as high as ten pounds per square foot structural load. We will be under that and largely you don’t want to affix things to the roof. You want them floating on the roof. So our systems are modular which can work around other things like HVAC systems. We can fit our technology around that upon their roof.
Now we do have to get the light in the building right. Now we concentrate the sunlight thousands of times into these fiber optic cables. So what that means is for the amount of light we’re letting in our penetrations into the roof are thousands of times smaller. So in general when they put an HVAC system on the roof they’re cutting a big hole sometimes 3’ x 3’ and they’re making huge structural adjustments to put the extra HVAC load on the roof. So our penetrations will be much, much smaller than that 4’ x 4’ hole but there will be more of them right because we have to let the light in more often throughout the roof. We want to work with the growers and the building owners. A lot of the people who are renting facilities the landlords know that hey this is a big business and I can charge a certain premium to these cannabis growers. I’m going to let them put the HVAC on the roof, I’m going to let them make penetrations, I’m going to let them modify the electric.
We’re going to work with those building owners and show them that this is going to be improvement to their building and when it’s all done we can take our modular systems off their roof and we can seal up those penetrations with a professional roofer and let them reuse their building how they see fit.
Matthew: You mentioned a little bit about how to use the light in the canopy. Let’s circle back and let you talk about that a little bit in terms of maybe running a light for the canopy under the canopy or in different ways.
Joseph: Yeah right thank you for that. We have a couple other really cool things that I haven’t even talked about so I’ll talk about this and one other thing. When you have a cannabis bush outside I mean it’s really a tree. If you go to an outdoor grow these things are huge 12, 15 feet tall, sometimes taller. They’re enormous.
Now when they are outside the sun walks around the whole surface of the plant and its fruit, its flower, its bud grows around it like ornaments on a Christmas tree right. That’s an outdoor grow where the plants have lots of space around them and that’s what the plant is built to do. Now if you have an indoor grow your economics have changed. You now have to think in terms of how do I maximize my yield per square foot and the way people maximize their yield per square foot when the number one cost is the lights is they cram the trees together and at the very top where they get the light from the electric light they form a canopy and that canopy is where all the bud, all the flower grows, and then they cut the undercarriage. They spend a lot of time and energy trimming that undercarriage because the plant will spend extra energy creating vegetation down there but there isn’t enough bright light to create any bud down there because of the shadowing of the canopy.
Joseph: So because our light is in these skinny, flexible fiber optics and because we have eliminated all the heat from the fiber optics or from the sunlight we can actually take the sunlight and drop it under the canopy of the plant. We can have light go down through the body of the plant and create more vegetation or I’m sorry more flowering under that bright canopy. So if you’re canopy say all your profit centers come from a 12 inch plane right that’s where your flowers are the top 12 inches of your plants. Well if we can bring light under the canopy and maybe double or triple that profit center plane to 24 inches, 30 inches, 36 inches then we can actually leverage the output of the entire facility. Now that’s a huge gain for the growers. No one else can do that except LEDs because they don’t have a high temperature; they have a lot of heat but not a high temperature but the problem with LEDs is they’re expensive. So if you want to have an LED bar every few feet the cost of that adds up and they still use a lot of electricity too.
So we think the fact that we can bring in cold light that’s full spectrum and under the canopy is a real disruptive aspect to this technology and we do think it’s going to change the face of indoor growing and it’s going to make indoor grows comparable or better in many regards to a greenhouse.
Matthew: Fascinating stuff. Now for growers that are listening that want to start to implement something like this or want to make it part of their long term planning when will this be available to commercial growers?
Joseph: Thank you. We are in late stages of development. We have to ramp to manufacturing levels and we hope to do that in early 2017. However right now we are looking for BETA test partners. We’re looking for grows that can really take measurements of our system and compare it to an electrical only system and give us results, give us feedback, and give the industry honest feedback from horticultural people, from people in the trenches growing day in and day out to show what our product can do and to show how we can improve our products. So we’re looking for those BETA test partners and I ask them to reach out to me at the website or either by email and let’s start talking. Let’s start talking about your grow, about your needs. We can go through some of the fine details of what our technology looks like and we can get that conversation started.
Matthew: Now let’s talk about where you are in raising capital. I mean you recently pitched at the ArcView Group can you tell us a little bit about that and where you are in raising capital and if you would like any investors listening to reach out to you? Can you do that?
Joseph: Yeah. I mean ArcView was great. Oh man what a great community. Everybody was connected and sincere and really excited about the industry. We had an especially good time. From the pitch we got first place which is really exciting.
Matthew: Well yeah that always makes it fun.
Joseph: Oh it was totally fun and people were coming up to me and chatting the whole time. We just pitched early. We are just actually starting our fundraising now so although we had talked to a number of investors we are just starting that process now and I do invite you please come talk to me and we are doing a seed round right now and would love to discuss our business model and where we think the business can go and how we’re poised in this industry. It’s all extremely exciting. As the judges showed us when we got the results at ArcView.
Matthew: For investors specifically how should they reach out to you? Go to your website or is there an email? What’s the best way?
Joseph: Our website right now. So here’s our website www.suncast.co. sun-cast.co. Our website right now is really pretty fluffy and vague. We are in stealth mode and the reason your listeners get to hear it is because this is CannaInsider right.
Joseph: Yeah. So we’re not to market yet and we don’t really want to let the cat out of the bag. We do have a contact portal there so you can fill in the form and that will send me an email or I can just give you an email right now.
Matthew: Whatever; it depends how brave you’re feeling.
Joseph: Oh I think you have good people here.
Matthew: Okay. Go ahead.
Matthew: Okay great. Well let’s talk a little bit about a couple personal things here. It’s something I’m trying and we’ve gotten good feedback and that is is there a book that has had a big impact on your life. I mean it sounds like you’ve been very immersed in technical subjects and the world is about to get the benefit of that but is there any book when you look back over the arc of your life that maybe opened up a crossroads for you or helped you to develop a lens on your life and where you wanted to go that you would like to share with listeners that you’d recommend?
Joseph: Absolutely. Yeah I mean I’ve definitely had a strong technical background my whole life but that’s not really my north start and it came out. Boulder is a very open mind, progressive town and when I came here I was like a sponge with different spiritual traditions and I have to say that having a deep spiritual connection whatever that looks like for you right. It could be a particular modality. It could be nature right. It could just be enjoying a sunset or enjoying other people. Whatever that is for you I invite you to go deeper because that’s going to provide a richness to your life and it’s going to provide you a more finely honed moral compass which is really going to help you in the tougher questions and ultimately business is all about people anyway and for me it was my spiritual path that really made me want to take technology and have my life be a contribution. So there is about a ten year process of me looking at spiritual paradigms and saying God I’m just a nerd. What can I do that actually makes a difference in the world and then for me I learned about climate change and what a mess that is and I said okay how can I do something about that and after about seven years of looking and working in the solar space I stumbled on this technology.
So I would say develop your spiritual north star. A book for me when I was in my early 20s was “Autobiography of Yogi” and that’s the life, autobiography of Paramahansa Yogananda. I was never his teacher or anything but he’s just a beautiful example of a humble spirit with an open heart who was always willing to take more and more and miracles happened in his life and I think we all need to hear more stories and miracles to show us what’s possible.
Matthew: That is a perfect place to end Joseph. Thanks for sharing that. Can you give out your website one more time for our listeners?
Joseph: Sure. www.suncast.co and my email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Matthew: Joseph thanks so much for coming on CannaInsider today and educating us. This was really a fascinating subject to learn about and we appreciate it.
Joseph: Oh what a pleasure.
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Cannabis grows are challenged by heat caused by traditional grow lights. This often results in cultivators having to invest a lot in chillers, special HVAC systems and more. Also, as much as we try we can’t replicate the perfect energy of the sun when lighting our plants indoors. Joseph DiMasi of Suncast believes he has solved both of these problems, listen in to learn more.
[1:59] – Joseph talks about his background and how he started SunCast
[2:58] – What is SunCast
[5:16] – SunCast’s ideal customer
[7:12] – Joseph talks about his connection with the Department of Energy
[8:40] – The cost of implementing SunCast in a grow
[11:30] – Sunlight versus artificial light
[19:16] – Joseph talks about separating the heat into usable energy
[21:22] – How much cooler is a SunCast grow compared to a traditional grow
[26:32] – Joseph talks about using the light in the canopy
[30:03] – When will SunCast be available to commercial growers
[31:22] – Joseph talks about pitching at ArcView and how investors can reach out
[34:02] – Joseph’s book recommendation
What are the five trends that will disrupt the cannabis market in the next five years?
Find out with your free guide at: http://www.cannainsider.com/trends
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