This article is presented by Rx Green Technologies, a provider of specialty agricultural products designed with the cannabis industry in mind.
As the team at RX Green Technologies worked to develop new agricultural products that help cannabis cultivators get the most out of their operations, they learned firsthand how tough it can be to do rigorous research on cannabis cultivation. That’s why they took the initiative to develop a licensed grow operation and research and development facility in the heart of Colorado’s cannabis country.
We sat down with founder Todd Brady and Director of Research and Development Stephanie Wedryk, PhD, to learn more about Rx Green’s R&D process, from how they decide what products to develop to what their trials look like.
What does the product development process look like at Rx Green Technologies?
SW: We try to identify needs in the industry and things we can improve in terms of plant health and growth that growers are interested in. Then, we take a look for what research is out there, and that helps us start a formulation process to develop a product that is stable, easy to use, and addresses the issue for growers.
Once we have a formula, we test it on cannabis plants in our R&D facility in Colorado. These are rigorous, replicated tests where we’re measuring the performance of a product against a control group, because the standard we’re aiming for is to demonstrate results that would pass muster in a peer-reviewed journal article. Once those results are in, we decide whether to pursue a product as is, or make adjustments to the formulation.
What factors inform that process?
TB: Like Stephanie said, first we listen to the growers we work with and respond to their needs, helping them overcome challenges and make the most of opportunities they see. That means communicating with cannabis growers is really key for our team. We work hands-on with hundreds of growers every week, and we talk to many more, so we feel we’ve got a great handle on what their needs are, what their challenges are, and what they’re seeing at their operations. That understanding really informs our research and development practices.
This sounds very involved. What sort of timelines are your team looking at with all that testing?
TB: That’s over a minimum of 12 to 18 months, and for more sophisticated technologies, it’s more like three to four years. And while that may seem like a long time in the cannabis industry, it’s actually very fast in terms of the traditional agriculture industry, where the typical development process is closer to eight to ten years.
Walk us through this testing process a little more in-depth.
SW: A typical test involves dozens of plants, and we use different strains in different phases of their life cycles so that we can see a range of responses to a potential product. We do multiple replications of every trial, so that we know we’re not seeing outlier results and are confident that we’re seeing is the true response.
We also collect data throughout the course of each of these trials. We’re not just looking at yield and potency and terpene content after harvest, though all those things are important factors. But looking at plant growth and physiology throughout the process lets us go beyond saying ‘this product gives us a yield increase’ and understand why we’re seeing that result.
What drove the decision to create a stand-alone R&D space for Rx Green Technologies?
TB: The regulatory restrictions around cannabis make it tough to conduct basic research. One of our earliest products was meant to address issues growers were seeing during propagation, and we teamed with some researchers at Cornell University to conduct a trial on its efficacy during the propagation of basil. And we saw positive results in that trial! But we’re not developing products for basil. We’re developing products for cannabis, and we need to be testing them on cannabis.
We’ve worked with licensed growers to conduct trials, but that’s not ideal because we have different aims—they’re trying to produce as much cannabis as they can, and we are trying to learn. You don’t learn by only finding things that work. You also have to look at things that don’t work. So, for us, creating a standalone research operation was the only way to do that, so we made it a priority.
Can you tell us what the space looks like?
SW: You can take a virtual tour of the lab on our website. The lab is also a fully licensed commercial cultivation facility, and when you walk in, it’s not necessarily obvious that we’re doing research, and that’s by design. We’re developing products for use in the real world, so it’s important to test them in real world conditions. We want to make sure everything we’re developing is effective and easy to use in the conditions cultivators actually face.
Is all the data you’re gathering in the R&D space devoted to product development, or is there a more basic research component as well?
TB: We’ve got a variety of products in different stages of development, so there are plenty of trials going on. But we’re also using the information we gather to build a very robust database of information about the cannabis plant.
We’re gathering data about photosynthesis, mineral requirements, and a lot of other things that we hope to one day turn into a blueprint for the cannabis plant that lets us understand it better and develop more effective products to support licensed growers.
What’s the current state of research on cultivating cannabis, and where is there room for improvement?
SW: There’s a decent amount of work being done on the plant, as far as cannabinoid pathways and how these compounds affect people. But as far as the growing of cannabis, the state of published research is pretty close to zero. There’s very little published research in terms of plant nutrition, ideal soil conditions, and other factors. Most of what we know is coming from trial and error conducted by growers who have been doing this for a very long time.
Speaking of that, how do you blend modern, science-based research with the knowledge cannabis growers bring from years in the field?
TB: We’ve worked hard to build a team of people with lots of cannabis experience and others with more traditional science backgrounds. That puts us in a great place to leverage traditional cannabis grower knowledge that is correct and has been proven to work, then take that a step further and show the science behind how and why it works.