It’s around 6:30 a.m. and the sun is beginning to rise outside Frank Qin’s hotel window in Shanghai.
Sitting at the edge of his bed, the 29-year-old from Markham, Ontario rubs his eyes, turns on Zoom and prepares to take a call from a reporter.
Qin is the co-founder and CEO of Mary Agrotechnologies, a data-driven agriculture technology company developing growing systems for both at-home consumers and commercial operators.
He’s been in China since last December, having travelled there to oversee the development of a 150,000-sq-ft facility in Yunnan, one of two provinces where industrial hemp cultivation, processing and sales are legal. The other being Heilongjiang province in northeast China.
According to Mary, upon completion, the building will be China’s only facility with European Union Good Manufacturing Practices (EU-GMP) certification, allowing the company to not only supply the domestic market with cannabinoids but also export to Europe.
Mary is the first North American company with a full set of industrial hemp licenses to cultivate, extract, sell, and export cannabinoids from China. But growing cannabis isn’t the company’s only goal. Launched in 2018 with an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, the company reached its initial funding target of $69,515 within 36 hours — with the final count resting at $98,172.
The company’s signature product is the Model Z grow box, an enclosed system for growing plants indoors or in small areas. This isn’t your standard grow tent.
The Model Z is Wi-Fi equipped, artificial intelligence provides built-in air conditioning, a filtering system combats odour and mould, and pre-made nutrient packs can be deployed via a smartphone app. The plants can be grown anywhere and monitored remotely.Qin built manufacturing relationships in China to get the Mary system off the ground and those connections helped propel his acquisition of the company’s coveted licences. Operating there, however, was never in the original plans.
“We first knew about hemp being legal in China back in 2019, when we’re doing our manufacturing here,” Qin says. “We were surprised to learn it was legal.”
After multiple visits and preliminary discussions with the government, they learned that there were problems in Yunnan keeping track of outdoor cultivation.
“Acres and acres of hemp were being grown here, outdoors, and it was really hard for them to keep track of these operations,” Qin says. Those conversations opened the door and the company’s tech closed the deal.“We have this indoor cultivation technology where it’s way easier to track things when you only have one door in and out instead of open fields,” Qin says. “They were really interested in how our technology can help. So they gave us a green light to get the licenses.”
The facility in Yunnan will contain multiple 2,000-sq-ft grow rooms, allowing the company to deploy its technology at a much larger scale. Qin calls it the ‘second phase’ for the company.
“When we’re developing this technology, we didn’t really have a grow box. We had this set of algorithms for automation. So scalability and modularity were always something that we had in our mind, the grow box is just kind of a validation of our technology,” he says. “We can easily apply our technology and automation to these grow rooms and keep pumping out stuff.”
Growing commercial quantities of hemp in China, though, comes with a few challenges.