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Fluence CEO Peers Into the Future of Indoor Cannabis Cultivation

David Cohen talks the current state of lighting for indoor cannabis cultivation and where the industry could head in the next five years.

Fluence client MedMen's vertical farm.
Fluence client MedMen's vertical farm.

Fluence CEO David Cohen gives his company credit for indoor cannabis cultivation moving toward white light and he has some ideas where the industry category could head next.

Fluence, a horticultural lighting company, was founded in 2014 and at the time it was called Build My LED. In 2017, the brand was changed to Fluence while the company simultaneously developed two lights specifically for cannabis cultivation. One was a top light for greenhouses and another was a light for vertical growing.

Cohen said cannabis grows best in the sun and that all lighting vendors are working on solutions that mimic sunlight. That’s what was behind Fluence’s push toward white light.

“A lot of people were growing with HPS, which is a yellow-y, not LED, very low-grade kind of light,” he said. “Then other people coming into the industry with LED had high red or high purple content, which is very difficult to work under.”

Cohen said his company’s research has shown that white light works best for growing cannabis. “Cannabis plants love a lot of sun. Photons are what they react to, and what we have found is that this is a plant that you can push really hard. You can’t push a tomato plant or a cucumber plant that hard, or lettuce. These things, they burn up and die. But cannabis, if you’re feeding it the right way, moving the air and watering it, you can crank it up to be like two suns and it grows twice as fast.”

Earlier this month during MJBizCon in Las Vegas, Cannabis Equipment News caught up with Cohen to talk about what’s top of mind for indoor cannabis growers and how that conversation could evolve over the next five years.

CEN: So, if white light is already a known thing in the cannabis cultivation industry, what are you talking about with customers this year?

Cohen: Right now we’re talking about getting them more photons, getting as much out of the light as possible. But then teaching our customers to understand that, on a specific cultivar, it may be more red, more blue or more green. It’s just a matter of putting different colored LED lights in to change the output. Even though it may not look any different because there are 2,000 [LED lights] and we’re only talking about 20 of them, 20 can make a really big difference. And we’re showing customers that at different stages of growth, you can mix and match that formulation to optimize what you’re growing.

We try to sit with the grower and find out what they’re growing. We try to throw a blanket over as much as we can. Because different strains originate from different parts of the world, and some of them grow better in California because the sun’s out all day, some of them grow better somewhere else.

We do anywhere between $5 million and $10 million in research every year, around the world at different cannabis grows and at universities. We try to spread out as much as we can.

CEN: Where are your cannabis research partners located?

Cohen: We have one in Austin. One of the license holders in Texas is one of our best research partners. And then we have customers who, if you want to do a research trial with us and you’re buying lights from us, we’ll give those lights for free essentially and we’ll deploy our science team to help you design the experiment, get the data and come to conclusions. We do research at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, which is a massive horticulture university, and we do research at Delphi University.

CEN: What do you think the cannabis lighting is going to look like five years from now?

Cohen: I think a couple of things are going to happen. This is a very difficult time for a lot of people. You have this pent up demand that broke loose during COVID and all of the sudden demand went through the roof. COVID kind of ended and everybody started deploying their money to do other things. So, cannabis demand went down and supply ratcheted up because everyone thought there would be billions and billions of [customers]. Now the industry is faced with a glut and prices have plummeted, which has put a lot of pressure on expenditures. Lighting is expensive; it’s the second most expensive thing you’re going to buy when you build a grow outside of real estate.

To get to the point here, you have to have capital to survive. You can’t borrow or sell your way out of this. So, issue number one for me is, who’s going to survive? Big guys like Scotts Miracle-Gro and Hawthorne, they’ll survive because they’re huge multi-billion-dollar companies. But then there’s about one hundred lighting vendors here; where are you going to get the money, how are you going to get through this? That’s one thing I’m looking to see, and I see a consolidation coming.

Then, going a little bit further into the future, what we’re trying to do is put a little bit of intelligence into these lights. So the lights can communicate with sensors and control systems, and those systems can be used to adjust the light intensity, or going forward two or three years down the road, the light is going to be a part of a communication mesh and it will tell the grower where there are problems.

CEN: The light is going to tell them that?

Cohen: The light is the brain of it all. So, you have sensors that can sense everything from moisture to humidity to bugs, but that data has to go somewhere. And the logical point for it is the light, which will be part of a network that will collect the data. I don’t know about full AI. People talk about it like there’s going to be a day when you can just sit at home and your iPhone will tell you what to do. That’s a little bit futuristic for me. But what we’re all striving toward is to put as much automation into this as possible

With what’s out there today, you could get a million data points a day. Then the question is, what do you do with it all? That’s really the challenge. But the lights are going to be part of that journey toward making this more automated and more digitized.

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