You may have seen a trend during the pandemic of more and more people trying out their green thumb. While stuck at home, people noticed unused space in their back yards and planted vegetable gardens or started trying to raise potted plants by the windowsill. Some folks were less interested in vegetables and instead tried their luck with flowers and herbs; for some, that “herb” was cannabis.
There’s a distinct appeal in nurturing a plant from seed to sprout and then reaping the benefits of your own work. Though Bjorn Dawson’s interest in agriculture long preceded the pandemic, it was sparked in a similar way to many people just now noticing the unused space in their backyards. He explained, around 2013, he moved into a house in Waterloo, Ontario where the previous owner had kept an enormous garden.
“Suddenly, I was in this place with gardens on all four sides, and I figured I had to do something with them. So I started planting seeds and growing stuff outside,” said Dawson. “I’m not a huge flower person, so to me, the only logical option was to grow some food.” That was in the Summer. The problem is, as soon as the Fall hits in Canada and the temperatures start to drop, the plants didn’t stand a chance.
“So I remember that year, I’d grown some watermelon and I got a watermelon the size of an orange, maybe,” laughed Dawson. “But it was delicious! And then buckets of green tomatoes that just didn’t have time to ripen. But it was a pretty cool experience… A tomato that you grow at home just tastes so incredible. It really is so much better than anything you buy at a store. That’s what got me into it.” Dawson had started up his new hobby, and he wasn’t going to let it go just because of the climate. He decided to try again, this time inside. Being a student in mechanical engineering, and savvier with technology than he was with botany. He started trying to create his own greenhouse system.
Growing made easy
That’s what led him to found Grobo in early 2014. The goal right from the start was to make growing easy. “The ironic part of it is that I’m not a great grower, which is why I wanted the technology to help to do it for me. Really, I just want the end result.” For the first two and a half years or so, Dawson was still working on his mechanical engineering degree and Grobo was just a side project, the same way his gardening escapades had started. By the time Dawson finished school, the Grobo team included about half a dozen people and had raised a bunch of money. At first, the team was working on a smaller system catered for herbs and grains, but they never launched it.
“The economics don’t really work that well,” explained Dawson. “You have to grow a lot of lettuce to pay for a $120 system. Whereas with cannabis, we can sell a $2,000 system and our customers can still pay it off in just over a year.” They had a lot of feedback pushing them toward weed.
Stephen, who is now one of the team members with Grobo, interviewed the crew before he ever thought of joining in. He hosted a podcast at the time and was a medical cannabis patient. He tried growing at home and tried hydroponics, hoping for higher yields, but found it too complex and switched back to soil.
“He was a person that just wanted it to be simplified. He didn’t want life to revolve around having to grow this medication that he needed. He wanted kind of a set-and-forget piece.”
So, towards the end of 2015, Grobo shifted to start focusing on cannabis. Stephen joined on and has helped create many of Grobo’s plant recipes (more on that later). There was another motivator in that switch, too. Dawson says someone was in town with their child and needed medical cannabis. They were looking for a solution to grow as much as possible in the most affordable way. Though the stories themselves were different, Dawson says people in the medical cannabis community kick-started Grobo’s decision to change its market from vegetables to marijuana.
“Anybody we talked to was most excited about growing cannabis,” said Dawson. “At that time in Canada, we had elected a new government, and as part of their campaign promise, they were going to legalize cannabis recreationally. So we could see that legal cannabis was coming as well, and that put us in a pretty unique position in Canada to be able to grow and to test and to work in this space that otherwise would’ve been hard to work in.” In the United States, because cannabis is still illegal at the federal level, companies and researchers face major restrictions in trying to study the plant. For Dawson, that curtain was lifting, exposing new opportunities on the other side.
The vision of the company didn’t change – they’d always intended solely to use technology to make growing as simple as possible for the consumer. So although the team itself has kept the same goals from the get-go, the product itself was redesigned from the ground-up. “With cannabis you need a fully-enclosed space, you need to think about smell, you need a much larger system than we were looking at. We even switched from doing soil-based gardening that’s a little more forgiving to using hydroponics so that we can boost the yield a little bit faster and help our growers there.
That’s how the team landed on the Grobo Premium system it sells today.
The Grobo Premium
The Grobo Premium is a fully-automated in-home cannabis grow system. A 3-gallon water tank sits at the bottom and is fed up to your plant with an air pump. Rather than using soil, the Grobo Premium utilizes Deep Water Culture hydroponics.
“What you’ll do is, you’ll buy your seeds, and then your plant them in our system. And then the system automates a lot of the rest of the work.” Each step of that system is closely monitored by the Grobo and adjusts automatically. The LED lighting is responsive to the plant’s needs and adjusts from blue to red depending on whether it’s in the seedling, vegetative, or flowering phase. pH is tracked and balanced without you having to lift a finger.
“It changes all the nutrient dosing to the point where it can figure out if you put in distilled water, tap water, reverse osmosis water, and correct accordingly.” The lighting and nutrients are completely controlled, letting you rest easy knowing your shrub is well-cared for.
Fluid glass in the capsule lets you peek in to see your plant’s progress, but still keeps bugs out, and keeps the smell inside. A carbon filter also helps to reduce any odor. The vessel also has a steel lock so you can make sure to keep any wandering children or pets out. Dual intake fans allow the cannabis to grow free and happy, then can be used to air-dry the product right inside the same device. Grobo also sells support racks that can be used to prop the plant up, and to dry it. Once the plant is dried, you can start your next plant.
Grow recipes and guides
Grobo offers over 2,000 different grow recipes to pick from.
“Whatever seed or strain you found that works really well for you, we likely have a grow recipe for it at this point,” said Dawson. They also take requests for recipes. People can bring up a seed, and Grobo will test it out to form a recipe. There are a couple of differentiating factors in the recipes. For instance, whether or not you chose an auto-flower plant will affect which recipes will work with that seed. “What will happen for the user is, they can’t set the individual pH targets or anything like that – all of that has been pre-set for them.
What they can do, is they can extend the stage or shorten the stage if they need to. So if they see their plant is growing a little bit slower than you might expect, then they can extend the stage by a week, for example. Or if they see it’s growing faster, they can switch to the next stage faster.”
Users don’t actually have to know the details of each stage, they can just approximate whether they’re in the vegetative or flowering stage and so on. The pH, nutrients, and lighting will change automatically. The recipes also have different lengths of time they need to “cook.” Some are as quick as 90 days, some take 143. Once you choose the recipe, you can set it and forget it, or you can be more involved with the plant if you’d prefer.
Green thumb approved
Grobo can be as hands-off or hands-on as you’d like. The only thing you have to do with our system is you have to change the water weekly. But other than that, if you don’t want to touch your plant throughout the grow, you don’t have to.” The idea is not to be labor-intensive, but some people feel more connected when they spend more hands-on time with their seedlings. Sometimes, that can also help the plant to flourish. “Sometimes you just have to top your plant the right way and be comfortable cutting off the nicest looking part of your plant, knowing, in the end, it’s going to give you a better yield,” Dawson provided as an example. “If you want to try to do topping and trimming and whatever kinds of stuff, you can do that as well. We’ve seen some people have some amazing success with it.”
Cultivating a community
Dawson says Grobo doesn’t just sell you a product and send you on your way. They help with education throughout the growing and drying process, offering several educational videos on how to set the Grobo up, how to calibrate your pH Meter, what you should know about the nutrients and installation, and how to get the biggest yields.
“Our customer promise is, we’re here for you. We spend a lot of time with customers, even if they just have a question,” said Dawson. “It’s really cool to see how people, as growers, can improve over time, without much work.”
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Customers will send in a photo of their plant and ask a question, and someone from the Grobo team will look it over. They’ll provide advice, as well as a support system letting the customer know they aren’t alone. “Most of our growers on their first grow maybe get an ounce out. And that, like, not the most impressive. But it’s an ounce, and it’s very high-quality, which people really like,” said Dawson. “But by the second or the third grow, they’re getting two or three ounces, and that’s just that little bit of confidence they get and that little bit better understanding of the plant.” There’s also an entire community of growers who use Grobo who help each other out online. Grobo hosts a discussion page, divided into sections like “Share Your Grow,” and “Fundamentals,” and even simply “Miscellaneous.” Or, you can simply check what people have posted about most recently. Through the last few years, it’s grown significantly. People share their stories and tips about what’s worked best for them. Sometimes there are several posts in a single hour.
“We have such a wide range of customers. One of the segments that I definitely didn’t see coming quite so strong as it has is the older demographic – people who are just starting to have arthritis and these daily pains. They’re going back to the cannabis they used to know when they were younger, or they’re trying it for the first time because their kids or grandkids are saying, ‘Hey, why don’t you try this out?’ They’re discovering a love of growing, so that’s pretty cool. But we’ve got people with all kinds of needs.” Dawson says Grobo’s support team has been invited to different places all over Canada and the United States.
It’s the community Dawson has surrounded himself with that’s helped to make Grobo so successful. How did he go from just a moderate interest in growing some tomatoes to creating an incredibly successful company, unrivaled by anything else on the market? “By finding smarter people than myself,” Dawson answered. “That’s really it. We’ve got a team where the recipes and a lot of the horticulture stuff comes from Stephen, who’s been growing for over ten years now. And then we’ve got our customer support team – multiple plant-lovers that have their own grows, that have multiple other plants – to our new Marketing team member, I think she has over 200 plants in her apartment. We’ve found the people who really love plants and really want to learn and try to grow them as best as possible. That’s what’s done it. It’s really a lot of everybody else helping to figuring everything out.” Dawson says that team and the passion they bring to the company is one of the things he’s most proud of. “The willingness to learn – we try to get a little bit better every day. And that’s such a great place and environment to work in.”
The Grobo Start
The Grobo Start is similar to what Grobo initially envisioned in 2014. The company just launched it in November 2020. It’s much smaller and is specifically designed to be a seed-starter.
“A lot of the starting of a plant is not the most complex part,” said Dawson. When it’s young and you just need a little bit of water and the roots start to drop, and the plant starts to grow and the seeds pop, that’s a more simple process. So that’s why you can do it in a smaller, less expensive system.” When the seedling is about a month old, you transfer it over to the Grobo Premium.
“So what you can do is, when you know you’re three or four weeks away from being ready to harvest your current plant [in the Grobo Premium] you plant the seeds for the next one, so you can get an extra grow in every year.”
Products, products, products
If you’re thinking about starting up with Grobo, the Pro Grow Kit is the best option. On top of all the nutrients, you’ll need and a cocoa pod for your seed to sit in, it also comes with the support racks which can also be used for drying, a 60x LED microscope that can help you figure out if your plant is ready to harvest, along with carbon filters to get rid of any odor, stainless steel pruning shears to help with trimming, and a scale.
You can buy a simple grow kit that only has the nutrient bottles, the carbon filters, and the cocoa pod. Additionally, you can buy any of those products separately, including individual bottles of nutrients: Basic, Acidic, Micro, Macro, and Balanced.
If you’re still worried about any potential smell, the Ona Block Pro promises to eliminate the odor entirely for up to 30 days. If you’d like to get more involved, you can purchase a digital water temperature sensor or a pH probe. Grobo offers a pH Calibration and Conductivity Care Kit that helps your probes to work more accurately and for a longer time. If you’re getting extra up-close and personal with your plant, the company offers an adjustable clip-on magnifying microscope that can amplify your view by up to 100 times. The company has also recently started selling CO2 canisters.
“It allows you to have a little bit higher yield by increasing the CO2 in the Grobo space that you grow.” Grobo doesn’t sell seeds. Instead, they find reputable seed companies with good genetics that are out there already and point people toward their sites.
Grobo is the world leader in automated cannabis growing products. Certainly, no others are shipping out products to the same degree. “A lot of that is just due to our community and our growers and continuing to focus on them and making them more successful,” said Dawson.
Of course, that isn’t for a lack of trying on other companies’ parts. “There have been a number of products trying to do this, and for one reason or another, they haven’t succeeded so far.” Knowing that Grobo is helping growers is another thing that Dawson takes pride in each day. When he sees five-star reviews, which seem to roll in fairly constantly, Dawson says his reaction is essentially, “Yeah. This is awesome.” “Somebody genuinely is enjoying their experience with the product and has been able to grow some medication or some cannabis that they just use recreationally or to relax them. Whatever that is, we’ve been able to help somebody with a problem that they’ve got. That’s exciting to see.”
Right now, Grobo is working on creating more content for education and support that can help customers with their grows. “For us, it’s really still about making everything easier and more robust,” said Dawson. “Right now, what we’re trying to do is, we just have more growers being added than ever before.
We’re just trying to make sure that everything is working well for them right from the get-go, and that we have a ton of support procedures – we’re building out a ton of support guides. Even now, working less on the technical side for support but more on the plant side, trying to help people become more confident.”