Shallow focus photography of cannabis plant

Photo Credit: Michael Fischer

A Growing Concern in Comox

Company is investing in science and plant breeding to grow market share in retail and medical cannabis sectors

Who would have guessed that Comox would be the home of a $28 million state-of-the art cannabis research facility?

Talk about a growing operation. The Comox Cannabis Innovation Centre (CIC), which opened its doors in early 2020 in Comox, is a state-of-the-art cannabis research facility owned by Ontario-based Aurora Cannabis Inc.

Aurora is betting heavily on science and plant breeding to give it a leg up in the competitive retail and medical cannabis sector.

Up until recently, most plant breeding has been focused on one thing – getting people higher, faster. In other words, breeding plants with buds containing greater concentrations of THC, the naturally occurring psychoactive chemical compound contained in cannabis.

However, the small staff of plant genomics experts at CIC is focused on a different goal. They want to understand cannabis genetics further so they can breed for other characteristics, such as resistance to powdery mildew and fungal pathogens. The Centre is also producing seed stock so that Aurora won’t have to rely on unreliable cloning techniques for cannabis cultivation in its production greenhouses.

The CIC was spearheaded by Jon Page, one of Canada’s foremost experts on cannabis – he was the first to sequence the plant’s DNA. This eventually led the Comox Valley-raised scientists to launch a cannabis testing company, Anandia Labs, with a fellow University of BC research scientist.

In 2018 the partners sold the company to Aurora for more than $100 million. Page then joined Aurora as Chief Scientific Officer, in large part to recruit scientific talent to Comox and get the CIC up and running (Page has since stepped away from his role at Aurora, but remains as an advisor.)

“It’s super ambitious. There’s nothing that comes close to this facility in terms of research capability,” said California-based plant geneticist David Ovadya in an article previously published in Coast Mountain Culture. “The current state of big cannabis is all about producing the most flower, generating revenue, and hoping new markets open up, and that’s been a tough road recently.”

The price tag for the CIC facility, located on Knight Road near the Comox Airport, was more than $28 million. It includes some slick technology, like the Dutch-designed greenhouse with an autonomous roof cleaning system controlled with a smartphone app.  The public reception area and research labs are contained within a striking timber-framed structure, designed by Vancouver’s Local Practice Architecture & Design and constructed from German pre-fabricated cross-laminated timbers.

The Innovation Centre may help make the Comox Valley a key cog in the growing cannabis industry.