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Jesse Elkins: The Henry Ford of the Cannabis Industry

Elkins is one of the most sought-after designers of cannabis cultivation and manufacturing facilities.

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This week, Jesse Elkins, founder of Grow Industries, discusses how he became one of the most sought-after designers of cannabis cultivation and manufacturing facilities.

Much of Elkins' story is being at the right place at the right time. When he graduated from high school in Washington State, he enrolled in refrigeration school to become an HVAC professional. At about the same time, the state legalized medical-use cannabis. A few of his friends started small home grows, and he helped them out with HVAC on side jobs. However, he soon began receiving referrals, and the side job snowballed into a business. In 2007, he founded ClimaGrow, a company that specialized solely on climate control for indoor cannabis gardens. 

By 2015, the company grew to more than 20 employees. The previous year, when the recreational cannabis market was legalized, Elkins was perfectly positioned as the only expert in the market. He landed every job, and his business transformed from a basement grow specialist to managing industrial grows.

In 2016, Elkins founded Grow Industries. While ClimaGrow focused on climate control, Elkins wanted to design and build the entire cultivation facility. He landed some of the biggest names in the state and went on to create some of its most envied facilities, including operations at Wonderbrett and Bountiful Farms.

After 20 years in the business, Elkins has seen many changes as the industry has evolved, and he has fine-tuned his approach to facility design. Elkins wants to be the Henry Ford of the cannabis industry: while Ford didn't invent the car, he essentially created modern manufacturing and put out a better product faster using automation. 

Four years ago, nearly half of his business was retrofitting newer buildings designed and built incorrectly. The jobs included complete tear-outs at dozens of facilities in which fledgling companies wasted time and money by hiring mechanical engineers without industry experience. 

The facility floor has also faced significant changes over the years. For example, for a 20,000 square-foot cultivation, he used to see at least 30 employees on the floor. It was chaotic. Now that the floor is more fine-tuned and automated, it can be managed by five or six employees. 

The other half of Elkins' business was retrofitting old buildings to suit cannabis operations. With old buildings come other problems. Elkins recalls one client who purchased an old shop from about the 1930s. His calculations were correct, and the dehumidification set — but during the last few weeks of flower, the facility experienced huge humidity spikes, and Elkins was flummoxed. He discovered that the slab under the building was only two inches thick. Side note: The slab should be six inches thick, or, at minimum, four inches. As a result of the shoddy slab, the facility pulled groundwater through the concrete and ruined the grow. 

Elkins says it is always better to build a facility from the ground up, but he understands that sometimes you have to make an old building work. For any retrofit, he advises ripping the building down to the studs, sealing the concrete floor and sanitizing the entire facility — it's impossible to know the contaminants, insects and mold that remain from the previous owner. 

While Elkins started in Washington, but he now lives in Arizona. He has built facilities from coast to coast. 

Last week, Grow Industries was acquired by GCorp, a small management and consulting services company owned by the Gilder family in New York. Elkins says the acquisition will help him grow the business by taking day-to-day business operations off his plate. He also plans to work on cannabis industry-specific product development.

The Cannabis Equipment News Podcast is an interview series with growers, processors, manufacturers, distributors and other professionals who work within the legal cannabis industry.

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