It takes about 20 minutes to drive from downtown Kelowna, B.C., to the nondescript two-storey industrial building that is Valens Groworks.
It is so nondescript, in fact, that no exterior signage denotes the property as the headquarters and licensed production facility of a major publicly-traded cannabis processor – one with a current market value of nearly $400-million. The low profile, according to CEO Tyler Robson, is intentional.
“When we first started we didn’t really want a lot of attention,” Mr. Robson explained during an interview in his office just before Cannabis Professional toured the facility. “It was 2012 when we first applied for our licence.”
Capable of turning up to 425,000 kg of dried cannabis into various extracts on an annual basis, the company is currently constructing an expansion onto its existing property that it hopes will push total yearly capacity to more than a million kilograms.
From the specific challenges involved with becoming GMP-compliant to surprising details about the cost of testing equipment, below are five key takeaways from the tour.
Benefits of in-house testing
"Unlike a lot of other producers, we test product coming in, we test it during extraction, we test it during blending and then we test it again before it goes out," Mr. Robson said. "That is excessive but we really need to track because as we are talking to the big players in [consumer packaged goods] and alcohol, the number one concern I’m seeing is what happens when someone gets high that doesn’t want to; trust is built in years and lost in seconds."
Testing "is relatively cheap and fast for us," he said. "We can turn around a test in anywhere from 20 minutes to three days, depending on the exact test you’re going for, whereas the average industry waiting time right now is three weeks."
In addition to internal testing, the company also offers third-party testing services, with five pieces of equipment capable of testing for heavy metals, residual solvents and terpenes, microbes, pesticides and mycotoxins and finally, cannabinoid content. Houssain El Aribi, Valens’ lab manager, provided more detail on Valens’ current testing capacity.
"How many samples could we test during the day? It would really depend on the type of testing," he said. "For example, if we receive today 50 samples that need to be analyzed for all seven tests we do, that probably will not be possible to do all seven tests in just one day. In two days we could easily do it."
Potency testing is (comparably) inexpensive
The machine used to test cannabis for pesticides costs more than $500,000, Mr. El Aribi said while standing in a 50-square-foot room he said contained “well over a million dollars” in equipment.
The machine that measures cannabinoid content – the current industry standard to determine cannabis potency levels – costs a comparably affordable $50,000.
“It is one of the simplest of all our instruments," Mr. El Aribi said. "It is not very difficult to source”
Nearly one vape cartridge per second
Thomas Howes, an operational specialist at Valens, took Cannabis Profesional to an empty room with a label on the door that reads: “vaporizer blend and fill.”
The room, Mr. Howes explained, will not remain empty for long.
"We are getting a couple of machines in here for a proof of concept very shortly, [a third party] is coming in next week [Sept 30-Oct 4] for a showing and we are very excited for that," he said. "The machine we are looking at utilizing is 40 to 50 [cartridges] per minute."
China and vaping illnesses
Recent reports have connected tainted vape pen cartridges that have caused hundreds of illnesses to Chinese manufacturing sectors. To Anderson Smith, head of licensing and regulatory affairs at Valens, that comes as no surprise.
"There are children’s toys that have lead in them because they came from a cheap factory in China. This is not just a cannabis or just a vaping thing," Mr. Smith said. "This affects every single industry that orders anything from China, you have to do that extra level of due diligence because they just have different standards over there."
"There are some things that their factories are allowed to do that would never be allowed in a Canadian factory.”
Progress toward GMP
"Longer term for us, we believe the medical market is where we want to live and if you look at international distribution potential and international reach, most countries are going to have some sort of medical system [and] that is what we are really banking on," Mr. Robson said.
Critical to that strategy is obtaining Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) certification from the European Union. The E.U. requires any cannabis sold to member states with medical cannabis regimes be produced from GMP-certified facilities. Valens has been working towards GMP certification for more than a year and while the company does not have a specific date for when that goal is expected to be achieved, Mr. Howes provided more details on the challenges involved.
“There are quite a few things that need to change for us to become GMP compliant. We’ve had a couple independent GMP audits and each time that list gets smaller and smaller so we are definitely getting closer to our end goal,” Mr. Howes said. “An example of one thing we still need to do is have a fully integrated building automation system, and right now we are utilizing smart metres for temperature and humidity but one thing we are missing would be room pressurization. You have to not only monitor that but you also have to record it so let’s say a sprinkler line were to burst and that would raise the humidity above our specifications for this room, that would have to be indicated and recorded on your building automation system,” he said. “And that is just one example.”
A company spokesman later said Valens was expecting to achieve GMP certification within the first-half of 2020, but cautioned, “there are no guarentees.”