Canoga Park, California

Founder George Mekhtarian’s innovative company is supplying energy- and cost-saving grow lights to cannabis players, research labs, seed companies, and more.

Cannabis is big business and getting bigger. Thirty-six states have legalized medical use to date, while 18 states allow recreational consumption — a roster that’s only likely to grow. Further, federal legislation legalizing cannabis is now progressing through the U.S. House of Representatives.

Much of the nation’s legal cannabis is supplied by growers cultivating outdoor plots — but increasingly, the grow is moving inside. Despite the expenses associated with artificial lighting and requisite hydroponic systems, there are several advantages to indoor grows: the use of pesticides can be greatly reduced or even eliminated, security is easier to maintain, and three to four crops a year can be grown because lighting can be manipulated to hasten plant maturity. Most areas in the U.S. can only yield one crop a year under outdoor conditions.

The burgeoning indoor cannabis industry has turned out to be a boon for Mekhtarian, a California electrical engineer with a deep background in semiconductor design and automation. By the early 2000s, Mekhtarian had enjoyed a long and prosperous career in Silicon Valley. But he also had a stubborn entrepreneurial streak, manifested by both a master’s degree in business and a small sheet-metal shop that he ran as a side gig.

“I enjoyed my work, I was paid well, but I had this urge to strike out on my own. I didn’t want to work for The Man forever,” Mekhtarian observes with a chuckle. “The sheet metal operation was doing okay, but sales ran under a million a year, and the future was very limited. Plus, I wanted to employ my technical training.”

Mekhtarian was particularly intrigued by LEDs: light-emitting diodes that can generate abundant light in a wide spectral range at greater energy efficiencies than traditional lighting.

“Fifteen years ago, LEDs were being increasingly used for commercial, residential, and automotive needs, and I understood that growth rate was only going to accelerate,” says Mekhtarian. “It seemed like a good sector for a business, but I knew I couldn’t compete with the big players. I had to find a niche that I could make my own.”

Mekhtarian started researching options online and soon focused on cannabis grow lights.

“I was fascinated, because virtually all the lights sold and used at that time were either metal halide or high-pressure sodium bulbs,” says Mekhtarian. “It seemed to me that LEDs could be a better option. You can use LEDs with different colors to hit the McCree Curve — that area on the light spectrum where photosynthesis is maximized. Also, LEDs typically have a much longer life span than metal halide and high-pressure sodium, and they had the potential for far greater energy efficiency.”

Mekhtarian shopped around for materials to build some LED grow light prototypes. He couldn’t find the components he needed off the shelf, so he designed his own.

“I laid out the circuit boards, put the components together, made a thousand prototypes or so and started outsourcing them,” says Mekhtarian. “A distributor looked at them and placed an order. That left me with a difficult decision: whether or not to quit my comfortable day job. I initially took a six-month leave of absence, but after a couple of months I was fully committed to my new business. I’ve never looked back.”

Thus, California Lightworks was born. Engineer that he is, Mekhtarian constantly refined his products, ultimately achieving the energy efficiency that the early LEDs promised.

“When we started out, LED grow lights pretty much matched the efficiency of metal halide and high-pressure sodium,” Mekhtarian says. “We now have LEDs that use half the energy required by the alternatives.”

For Mekhtarian, that represents more than savings for his customers, given that most of the power generated on the planet entails a large atmospheric carbon footprint — and a subsequent contribution to global warming.

“Lighting, including indoor lighting, figures significantly into that load,” says Mekhtarian, “and as a company, we’re determined to be part of the solution. Right now, LED grow lights are about two times more energy efficient than metal halide and high-pressure sodium lights. And we’re confident we can push that figure even higher.”

Further, the net energy savings represented by LEDs aren’t restricted to the electricity the lights consume directly, Mekhtarian emphasizes.

“Less energy going into the lighting system means less heat emitted into the building, so the amount of power needed to run air conditioning is cut,” he says. “Also, with less heat your water needs are reduced because there’s less evaporation, meaning the energy needed to run your hydroponic systems is reduced. And those extra energy savings further cut carbon emissions, of course.”

California Lightworks’ latest innovation is the MegaDrive, a centralized power supply that dramatically simplifies grow light schematics.

Before the MegaDrive, explains Mekhtarian, each lighting fixture consisted of LED diodes, an enclosure that served as a heat sink, and the electronics that convert alternating current to the low-wattage power needed for LEDs.

“Now we’ve moved the electronic components that were in each light to a centralized source,” he says. “The fixtures are now very simple, consisting of the LED diodes and the heat sink enclosures. So instead of having each light converting its own power, the work of an entire light array is now done by a single power source sitting on one side of the greenhouse or grow room. Before, you had to have power drops all over the place. Now, you just string up your lights and plug them into the MegaDrive. You get 95 percent to 96 percent power efficiency while installation costs are reduced by 80 percent and fixture costs drop by 30 percent.”

The legal cannabis trade is growing by around 30 percent a year, a figure that is virtually duplicated by LED sales. Every time a new state legalizes weed, California Lightworks discovers it has another pipeline to fill, says Mekhtarian. Ultimately, though, this meteoric growth rate will slow. Which isn’t to say the company will languish.

“We evolved with the cannabis industry, but 20 percent of the lights we sell have nothing to do with cannabis,” he says. “We sell to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, research labs, seed companies, and universities. That’s not going to go away. And at the same time the demand by cannabis growers will remain significant, no matter the maturity of the industry.”

Photos courtesy California Lightworks

One thing’s for sure, though: indoor cultivation technology will continue to evolve — and rapidly. That prospect doesn’t faze Mekhtarian, however. He’s looking forward to it.

“I cut my engineering teeth on semiconductors, where the culture has always been about accelerated change,” Mekhtarian says. “We see that same dynamic in play here, and we’re ready for it.”

Challenges: “Our biggest challenge is tackling the fact that more than 50 percent of cultivators are using old technology [high-pressure sodium or metal halide bulbs],” says Mekhtarian. “That’s inefficient, and it negatively impacts our environment. We are showing that our products can both help mitigate climate impact and increase return on investment, but many growers are set in their old ways and resist change. Still, we see gains when we can actually sit down with the CFOs because when they pencil out the significant ROI, they quickly decide to adopt our LEDs.”

Opportunities: “Our biggest opportunity is expanding our business as regulatory reform in decriminalization, legalization, and banking progresses,” Mekhtarian says. “Lighting is typically the biggest up-front investment for cultivators. With banking reform, banks can finance cultivators to help make their businesses more profitable and sustainable. We can improve ROI and save our planet through innovation and investment.”

Needs: “Our needs go hand-in-hand with our opportunities,” Mekhtarian observes. “Ongoing banking and regulatory reforms are a must. Outdated policies keep cultivators stuck using outdated technology, which hurts our planet. We need sound governance that promotes sustainability and social justice. As society moves forward, we have a real opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives and livelihoods and create a more equitable and conscious future.”