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Matt Yee stands outside a room

Matt Yee stands outside a room equipped to simulate ‘summer.’ Access inside is extremely limited.

Green Thumb Industries’ marijuana-cultivation facility in Holyoke is not like most other businesses — or any other business, for that matter. There is no sign over the door, there was no elaborate ribbon-cutting ceremony when it opened, and, with a few minor exceptions, no one will visit this place. It is like all other businesses, though, in keeping the focus on innovation and putting out a quality product.

The ‘flowering room,’ as it’s called, is climate-controlled to simulate early fall.

And it does that so well that when Matt Yee, president of the Massachusetts market for Green Thumb Industries (GTI), walks inside … he has flashbacks of a sort.

“This is perpetual September. I always feel like I’m walking through the Holyoke Community College parking lot at the beginning of school — it always reminds me of that.”

“This is perpetual September,” he told BusinessWest, referencing the temperature, the warmth of the sun, and a slight, cool breeze. “I always feel like I’m walking through the Holyoke Community College parking lot at the beginning of school — it always reminds me of that.”

Perpetual September? Welcome to GTI’s 45,000-square-foot marijuana-cultivation facility in Holyoke, a recently opened venture that is, in just about every way you can imagine, not like any other business in this region.

That much becomes abundantly clear after one short visit — only, you really shouldn’t expect to visit this place anytime soon. They don’t exactly roll out the welcome mat — not because they’re not friendly, but because they don’t want or need company.

For starters, there’s no signage on the property, at least for GTI (there are other tenants in this old paper mill), and for a reason. The company doesn’t exactly want to broadcast its location, although its address, 28 Appleton St., in the so-called Flats section of the city, is commonly known.

The sign outside one of the growing rooms conveys the importance of keeping the plants safe at GTI’s Holyoke facility.v

The sign outside one of the growing rooms conveys the importance of keeping the plants safe at GTI’s Holyoke facility.

Also, there is no front door, really. You enter through the back, and only after using a coded key to get through a tall gate and passing under several surveillance cameras. Once inside — again, if you get that far — you can’t go any further without checking in with security, leaving a copy of your driver’s license behind, getting a badge with a recorded number on it, and being escorted by an employee through some more locked doors.

But before going through — and unless you’re an employee, an elected official on business, some other sort of VIP, or a business writer on assignment, you probably won’t be going through — one must step onto a large mat of sorts covered by about an inch of water.

That’s because marijuana plants are somewhat fragile and susceptible to contamination that might be brought into their home on the soles of one’s shoes. For the same reason, no one gets further than the security desk without donning a white lab coat.

“Contamination of the system can cause millions of dollars in damage,” said Yee. “Even walking across the parking lot, people can pick up some powdery mildew — one of the biggest issues we have — or various aphids and bugs, and those can be issues as well.”

To help keep these plants — which give new meaning to the phrase ‘cash crop’ — safe, GTI has enlisted the help of what are known as “beneficials” — tiny mites that feast on many of the known enemies of marijuana plants. There are hundreds of them in small packets placed next to each plant.

“If there’s an invasion of aggressive bugs, they’ll eat those little guys,” Yee said of the mites. “It’s an interesting process — signing the invoice for 25,000 bugs was kind of interesting; they’re very, very, very small, but you can see them, although it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

These are just some of the steps (ladybugs and other beneficials are also deployed) being taken to ensure that the first crop, and all those to follow — the business plan calls for cultivating 120 pounds per month — will be as healthy and profitable as possible, said Yee, who came to this job and this industry thanks to a chance encounter with Pete Kadens, president of Chicago-based GTI at the restaurant Yee was managing (more on that later).

The flowering room he showed BusinessWest was empty, but by the time this magazine went to the printer, it was full of plants enjoying those cool fall breezes. From there, it’s only a few more steps until the fruit of the plant is processed into product, such as the small joints called ‘dog walkers’ — because you can start and finish one in about the time it takes to walk the dog — to be placed in tins already stored in the so-called trim room.

“It’s a great little product — everybody really loves these all across the nation,” he said, adding that, starting in several weeks, these dog walkers and other products will be shipped to GTI’s recently opened dispensary in Amherst and other locations across the state.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look inside GTI’s facility in Holyoke, and also inside a business that is new to Massachusetts and this region, but appears to have a future that might be as bright as the high-pressure sodium lights inside the flowering room.

Branch Office

Those are 1,000-watt units, and there are 88 of them in the room, Yee explained, adding quickly that it gets so bright in those rooms that employees wear protective sunglasses when inside.

That was one of many bits of information Yee passed along while serving as tour guide, one of many functions he’s taken on (although, now that growing has started, the volume of tours has subsided) while carrying out a role he probably couldn’t have imagined for himself a few years ago.

GTI expects to cultivate 120 pounds of marijuana per month at its Holyoke facility.

GTI expects to cultivate 120 pounds of marijuana per month at its Holyoke facility.

But the picture changed quickly and profoundly after Kadens ventured into Johnny’s Tavern in South Hadley for dinner back in 2016. Yee, as noted, was general manager of that eatery (one of many owned and operated by his family), with the emphasis on was. Indeed, the two started talking, and the more Kadens talked about the cannabis industry and its potential in the Bay State, the more Yee wanted to be part of it.

To make a long story somewhat shorter, Yee joined GTI and has taken a lead role in opening the Holyoke facility and getting the first plants in the ground, if you will.

First, though, there was a lengthy learning curve for Yee, who said his education in cannabis and the business of cultivating and distributing marijuana took him to GTI facilities across the country, including those in Colorado, Nevada, Illinois, and Virginia.

“It was a really intense drop into the cannabis world,” he recalled, adding that GTI has facilities similar to the one in Holyoke operating in several states.

The operation on Appleton actually represents what Yee called the third iteration of a GTI growth facility. Lessons have been learned over the years, he said, in everything from production to automated systems to air handling, and they’ve all been applied to the Holyoke plant, which came to be after a lengthy review of options regarding what to build and where.

“It came down to ‘should we do this in an open field somewhere for cheaper or do the socially responsible thing and breathe new life into a vacant space?’ And we decided to do this — and it was a project.”

Indeed, as Yee walked through the facility, he noted that, while it provided one key ingredient in the form of wide-open spaces and high ceilings, the old mill required quite a bit of expensive work to be retrofitted into a marijuana-cultivation facility.

But in the end, GTI determined that rehabbing such a facility is a better alternative to building new, even it is the more expensive alternative.

“It came down to ‘should we do this in an open field somewhere for cheaper or do the socially responsible thing and breathe new life into a vacant space?’” he recalled of the decision-making process. “And we decided to do this — and it was a project.”

‘This’ was a retrofit in the middle of an urban setting, granted one that has embraced the cannabis industry with open arms.

Thus, security is extremely tight, he said, noting the facility is outfitted with cameras, motion detectors, glass-break sensors, and more.

“Visitation is very, very restricted,” he said, adding that the state has access to the facility’s camera systems and monitors what goes on. If someone watching sees someone in the building without a badge, inquiries are made.

Joint Venture

Yee’s ability to learn quickly about the industry he joined was in evidence on the tour, as he talked about marijuana and, more specifically, how it will be cultivated in this old mill.

“Marijuana is an annual,” said Yee, who walked while he talked. “Typically, the seeds will pop in the spring, it will grow through the summer, and then, come the shorter days of late summer and fall, its flowering process is triggered — and it’s those flowers that we’re harvesting; it’s the fruit of the plant.”

Matt Yee says it will be a few more months before GTI is able to fill tins of ‘dog walkers’ it will ship out the doors of the Holyoke plant.

Matt Yee says it will be a few more months before GTI is able to fill tins of ‘dog walkers’ it will ship out the doors of the Holyoke plant.

There are no seasons, per se, indoors, so cultivators like GTI have to replicate them, he went on, as he stopped at a room simulating early- to mid-summer. Through a large, thick window, Yee pointed to and talked about the already-tall plants inside.

Taking visitors in that room, even after they’ve put on a lab coat and stepped on a few of those water-covered mats, constitutes far more risk than the company is willing to take on, he said, adding that these plants are much too valuable to risk contamination.

The sign on the door gets this point across. “Do Not Enter — Limited Access Area,” it reads. “Access Limited to Authorized Personnel Only.”

“There are about 18 hours of light in this room,” said Yee, returning to the subject at hand and the process of simulating summer-like conditions. “We’re really just pushing the plants to get to a proper size, and then we stimulate them to get to their flowering stage.”

Actually, the ‘summer’ room is the second stop for the plants, which start off as cuttings from other plants, known as ‘mothers,’ and take up residency in the ‘cloning room.’

Their third stop will be in that room that simulates September, where it is a constant 72 degrees, Yee went on, adding that the first plants were due to arrive there in early June.

In that setting, a shorter day, with the lights on for maybe 12 hours, is created. That difference in the amount of light is what actually triggers the plant to move into its reproductive cycle, he explained.

“The male plants will develop pollinating elements, and the female plants develop the flowers,” he noted. “We only have females here; there are no males on site.”

The plants will double or triple in size in the flowering room, he went on, adding that, when they’re ready for harvesting, they’re removed from their pots, the iconic fan leaves are removed, and the flowers are put into a drying room, to be hung on what are known as ‘Z racks.’

Once the flowers reach a certain level of dryness, they can be processed, said Yee, adding that the product is weighed and then moved into the ‘trim room,’ a space where the flowers are “manicured” (Yee’s word) into their final, saleable form, such as those aforementioned dog walkers.

From beginning to end — from the nursery to that tin of dog walkers — the process covers about three months, and, starting with the second batch, there will be continuous yield at this facility, which will be needed to recover the significant investment (nearly $10 million) in this facility.

“We’ll be harvesting about half a room a day,” he projected, adding, again, that the overriding goal is to keep the crops safe — from invading insects and anything else — until they’re harvested.

Yield Signs

Getting back to those packets of beneficials, Yee said the mites are really small and quite hard to see, and he’s essentially taking the distributor’s word that there were 25,000 of them in that last order.

“If you crack one of the packets open and pour the contents in your hand, there’s sawdust or whatever it is … and if you look hard, you can spot these little critters rolling around.”

What’s somewhat easier to see is the vast potential for the cannabis industry in Massachusetts, although that picture is still coming into focus, on both the medicinal and recreational sides of the spectrum.

GTI intends to be well-positioned to capitalize on whatever market eventually develops, and the Holyoke facility will play a huge role in those efforts.

It is really unlike any business you’ve ever visited — only, you won’t know, because you probably won’t be visiting.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Business Management Sections

Spotlighting Innovation

Matt Bannister says the Innovation Series, by relating stories of entrepreneurship, will hopefully inspire more of them in the years to come. Photo courtesy of PeoplesBank

Matt Bannister says the Innovation Series, by relating stories of entrepreneurship, will hopefully inspire more of them in the years to come.
Photo courtesy of PeoplesBank

Throughout its 133-year history, PeoplesBank has touted innovation as one of its core values. But until very recently, this emphasis on innovation has been focused inward, on products, services, and ways of doing business. With a new program, called, appropriately enough, the Innovation Series, the bank is turning that focus outward, telling stories of entrepreneurship with the broad goal of inspiring more of it.

Matt Bannister sounded more like the producer of a new television sitcom than a bank’s first vice president of Marketing and Innovation.

“If it goes well, it will get renewed for a second season,” he told BusinessWest, laughing as he did so. “Right now, we have a pilot and a handful of episodes — let’s see where it goes from there.”

He was referring not to the latest candidate for binge-watching on HBO or Netflix, but to something PeoplesBank is calling its Innovation Series. And yes, you can binge-watch this, too. Well, eventually.

There are now three ‘episodes’ available for viewing on the bank’s website and on YouTube, including that so-called pilot and an interview with the braintrusts at Valley Venture Mentors, and there will soon be more installments in the can, as they say, as Bannister sits down with more entrepreneurs.

As the name of the series denotes, this is a program about innovation and entrepreneurship.

Or what Bannister, who plays host/interviewer for the series, also simply called ‘it,’ a not-so-casual reference to that collection of qualities, talents, and intangibles it takes to not only have an idea (we all have those) but advance it, hopefully all the way to the marketplace. We’ll talk a lot more about that later, but first, more about this series, how it came about, and why.

Bannister started by saying that innovation has always been one of the bank’s core operating principles. But for just about all of the institution’s 133-year history, this emphasis on innovation has been focused inward — on the development of new products, services, and ways of doing business.

Some Tips for Entrepreneurs
to Stay Sane

Entrepreneurial life has been described as a rollercoaster — incredible highs that can follow take-your-breath-away descents.

Several mentors and startup founders offered the following tips to help smooth out the ride:

• You’re not crazy! Most people would never take the leap into starting their own business, but that’s what makes you different — not crazy. When you have that idea, the one that has been burning inside you for years, and act on it, you’re following the same path as Gates, Jobs, and Edison — and they weren’t crazy.

• Make sure to have clear expectations about ownership and compensation amongst the founding team. Write down your agreement, even if on the back of a Post-it Note, but ideally with the help of an experienced lawyer.

– Scott Foster, attorney and co-founder, Valley Venture Mentors

• Be able to pivot. Having a plan is great, and you certainly need a direction, but as you learn more about your customers and your product, you may find that you need to change the business plan, go-to-market strategy, or even change the product completely. You cannot be myopic in your immediate future, and hard pivots are what separate failed startups from those that succeed.

• Find team members that you can work well with. You will be spending more time with them than your family, so it is important to be able to have a good working relationship with them.

– Barrett Mully, co-founder, Aclarity

• Know what you don’t know, and don’t be afraid to ask for help and advice from others. There are so many resources out there to help; all you have to do is ask.

• Find mentors who have experience and that you can trust. They are the ones who will introduce you to your next investor, help you understand your industry ecosystem, and be there when you just need to talk. Our mentors have been key to our success.

– Julie Mullen, co-founder, Aclarity

• You’d be surprised what you can do on a budget or for free. You don’t need to spend money on everything. In fact, the more you can avoid spending money without needing to, the better. You can get surprisingly good results without breaking the bank, and there is a plethora of free resources for almost anything you can imagine a few Google searches away.

• Resilience and the ability to adapt to change are the name of the game in the world of startups, and being able to effectively recover from problems is the difference between life or death. Never be afraid to ask for help or consult your advisors and mentors for advice on what to do, and always lay everything out on the table for your team to discuss the best course of action.

– Evan Choquette, co-founder, AnyCafé

• Don’t be afraid to share and talk about your idea. This is how you will get feedback and find mentors, customers, and co-founders. Remember the adage “the idea is 1% and the execution is 99% of success.” You have so much more to gain by sharing and collaborating than keeping your great idea locked up.

• Entrepreneurship can be isolating and lonely. Find and build a great support community of peers, mentors, and advisors.

– Liz Roberts, CEO, Valley Venture Mentors

With this new series, the bank is turning that focus outward, Bannister went on, by turning the spotlight on entrepreneurs working to take innovative ideas to the marketplace.

Like the team at AnyCafé. Now graduates of Western New England University (they started this venture while still in school), the team members want to “mobilize your kitchen,” as Logan Carlson, president and CEO of the company, told Bannister in the second installment of the series, with a product that enables someone to brew a cup of coffee just about anywhere.

And the team at New England Breath Technologies, comprised of professors at Western New England, which is developing the first pain-free glucose detector. And also the team at Aclarity, formerly Electropure, a startup launched at UMass Amherst that designs, tests, and develops innovative water-purification devices for various applications. It is the next company to be profiled, with more to follow.

Bannister said the bank has a number of informal goals in mind with this series. The ultimate goal, of course, is to strengthen the region’s economy by increasing the population of startups and next-stage companies — a development that would certainly bring benefits for all the players within the banking community.

More short-term, if you will, the goal is to hopefully inspire others to innovate and motivate them by showing some success stories in the making (these companies certainly aren’t there yet) and what lies on the path to success.

For this issue and its focus on innovation, BusinessWest turned the tables on Bannister and asked him some questions. He and the others we spoke with expressed confidence about the innovation series’ ability to not only spotlight innovation but inspire it — and get picked up for a second season while doing so.

Getting the Idea

As he and Bannister talked with BusinessWest about the innovation series at VVM’s headquarters in Tower Square, Scott Foster, one of the founders of that nonprofit and one of those interviewees in the pilot episode, said one of the program’s goals is to convey the message that anyone — and he meant anyone — really can be an entrepreneur.

It will do that, he went on, by showing the vast diversity of people who have taken advantage of VVM’s array of programs over the years — a demographic that includes college students and college professors, retirees, housewives, and more.

But can anyone really be an entrepreneur? Foster clarified his comments by saying that people from all of those demographic groups can become entrepreneurs, if they have the necessary qualities in the right quantities, a formula (if it’s even a formula) that is hard to put into words.

Foster gave it a try.

“The best description I heard, and I heard it years ago, is this: if you’re in a conference room and there’s a meeting, and the temperature isn’t right, the entrepreneur is the one who gets up, finds out where the thermostat is, and changes it,” he explained. “Because they can see that things aren’t right, they can see that other people aren’t comfortable about it, like them, and they’re going to solve that problem.

“That spirit is the entrepreneurial spirit,” he went on. “It’s seeing a problem, not being content with the status quo, and getting up and doing something about it.”

In a nutshell, the Innovation Series was created to share the stories of some people clearly not content with the status quo and also quite determined to change the equation.

Such a mindset was articulated by Carlson as he related the genesis of AnyCafé for Bannister.

“It was a freezing cold Northeastern day, and I had walked into my Marketing class,” he noted. “I looked around, and everyone had Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks, and I said, ‘why can’t I brew a cup of coffee here? We have mobile phones, we’ve got all these crazy travel technologies where we can do everything on the go…”

At that moment, the camera panned to Evan Choquette, the company’s co-founder and chief information officer, who fast-forwarded nicely and took the conversation in a different direction.

Scott Foster says there are no overnight success stories, and the Innovation Series helps articulate the wild rollercoaster ride most entrepreneurs experience.

Scott Foster says there are no overnight success stories, and the Innovation Series helps articulate the wild rollercoaster ride most entrepreneurs experience.

“When Logan came up with the idea for the Travel Brewer, it was like ‘that would be really cool to be an inventor and start your own company and try to make a product,’” he noted, adding that “we basically created our own careers and our own destiny by creating this product and building it up from nothing.”

New England Breath Technologies (NEBT) was born from a similar desire to solve a problem. The company is developing what it calls a ‘breathalyzer’ for diabetics.

“We’re a technology company, and our main goal right now is to try to change the way that diabetes is managed,” said Michael Rust, co-founder and chief technology officer of NEBT. “We’re trying to develop a breathalyzer that would allow the patient to simply breathe into and give the same kind of reading as a blood glucometer, and really take out a lot of the pain and a lot of the cost of managing diabetes.”

His partner, Ronny Priefer, the company’s chief scientific officer, said their journey took a serious turn when he “stumbled” — a word you hear often in entrepreneurship — onto the fact that people with diabetes have elevated acetone in their breath. Through his work in nanotechnology, the company is advancing a product that will essentially measure those acetone levels.

Some clinical trials have been conducted, with considerable success, and more will take place in the near future, he said, adding that, if all goes smoothly — a phrase most entrepreneurs are reluctant to say out loud — the product might be on the market in 2019 or 2020.

The Company Line

‘Pivot.’

Bannister told BusinessWest that he’s never heard that word as much as he has the past several weeks, or since he took up the role of interviewer for the Innovation Series.

It’s a verb put to use extensively by entrepreneurs as they talk about how their original idea is often reshaped on the journey involved with taking an idea to the marketplace. Entrepreneurs do a lot of pivoting, because the path to success is neither smooth nor level. There are a lot of ups and downs, and they are part of the process.

How entrepreneurs cope with the twists and turns, good days and bad days, is what ultimately determines whether they have it, and the Innovation Series succeeds in getting that message across as well.

“It’s very much a rollercoaster,” said Carlson when Bannister asked him what life was like as an entrepreneur. “There are some days when you have this huge win and you’ll feel amazing, and the next day everything will come crashing down. If you don’t have a very good support network of people to back you up as an entrepreneur, things can just get so difficult.”

The team at NEBT offered similar thoughts, but also many others about how the business world, and the life of an entrepreneur, is much different than what they’ve experienced in academia.

“Being in the academic world, we’re trained to be independent researchers and to really dive deep into a particular subject, and mine is engineering,” said Rust. “As an entrepreneur, I’m really trying to make connections with the broader community, networking for the business side to try raise funding for our company, but also to create partnerships that are going to move our technology from our lab into the marketplace.

“It’s really exciting, and it actually kind of changes the way we view our day-to-day life and how we view society in general,” he went on. “Now at the dinner table, I think about new ideas that can really affect people in our community and people around the world.”

Both teams of entrepreneurs talked about the importance of support systems and mentorship, especially for those new to the world of business.

Carlson’s partner, Choquette, may have summed up things best when he related to Bannister — and his audience — what Carlson’s father told the team at AnyCafé a while back.

“He said, ‘life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it,’” Choquette recalled. “Being in business is all about being able to adapt to change and new problems and circumstances; it’s being able to take in new information and then change based on that.”

Foster would agree, and noted that this series was designed to help take the viewer on that rollercoaster ride Carlson described, and show the many emotions, and many aspects, of taking a product or idea to market.

“There are no overnight success stories — that just doesn’t happen,” he told BusinessWest, speaking from considerable experience mentoring entrepreneurs developing everything from beer to apps to wedding dresses. “It’s a long slog, believe me.”

Warming to the Idea

As noted earlier, PeoplesBank leaders had a number of motivations for creating the Innovation Series.

It’s doubtful that anyone in the room when the discussions were going on talked about inspiring those types of people who would be so inclined to get up, find the thermostat, and turn the temperature down if the room was too hot — or words to that effect.

But that’s certainly one of the goals.

And based on early returns, it is meeting that goal and seems well on its way to getting picked up for another season.

 

Go HERE to view the Innovation Series ( bit.ly/pb-innovation)


George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]