Steamboat Springs, Colorado

The first mover in indoor agriculture automation has found a fertile market in the cannabis industry.

James Hamilton started Gualala Robotics while living in the Northern California town of the same name in the late 1980s before he moved to Steamboat Springs in 1991.

That’s where James developed the company’s flagship product, the LightRail Light Mover, to make indoor grows more efficient and productive. “He’s a bit of a gearhead and he just came up with this concept,” says Nancy Anderson Hamilton, executive VP (and James’ wife). “He tinkered and tinkered and over time he came up with this cool product that makes a big difference for growers and urban agriculture.”

Early adopters were cannabis growers in California, followed by the broader greenhouse industry. It’s a no-brainer for many customers. “You can get better yields no matter what you’re growing, and you can use fewer grow lights to do it,” says Nancy. “These 1,000-watt lights, they use a lot of electricity — times however many you have going. With LightRail, we say you can cut down 30 percent of your grow lights, or if you have one grow light, it can cover 30 percent more area.”

In the 35 years since the company’s founding, the LightRail brand has become akin to Xerox or Scotch Tape. “People know us,” says Nancy. “Everybody figures out that they need this because the math is right. We say it’s the only grow equipment product that pays for itself the second you buy it.”

Cannabis growers remain the top customers and California is still the top geographic market, with about 20 percent of sales exported to Canada and other countries, says Nancy.

All major components are made in the U.S., with production in Craig, Colorado, about 40 miles west of the headquarters in Steamboat Springs. “We put them together here in the USA and these are made-in-the-USA components,” says Nancy. “We’re not handicapped in any way by supply-chain issues. When people source from China, a lot of times there are issues with that.”

James started a separate business, Steamboat Machine, to cut rails and produce other components for LightRail systems, while also providing machining services to outside clientele. “Sometimes when we’re creating a new product, we use our own machine shop and it complements [Gualala Robotics],” notes Nancy. “We have it, it’s here, we’re in control of it. It’s just another perk from our perspective.”

The move of manufacturing to Craig in the last year was largely based on the workforce. “It was pretty difficult to get people to work in Steamboat,” says Nancy. “It turned out most of our employees were commuting up from Craig anyway, so it was a no-brainer for us to move our facility down there.”

As LightRail Light Movers emerged as an industry standard, Gualala Robotics has grown “slowly but surely,” says Nancy. “We had some banner years — huge, monster years — [in 2009 and 2010]. Since then, it’s a steady rise.”

The company originally sold through hydroponic shops and other retailers, but now it also sells its products directly to customers online and via Amazon. “Over time, online is growing, and the stores have shrunk,” says Nancy.

She is quick to note that Gualala Robotics is a technology company first and foremost. “We’re a marijuana neutral-company; we’re not a marijuana company,” she says.

Photos courtesy Gualala Robotics

Challenges: Export logistics. “I personally wish it was easier to sell on all of the international sites,” says Nancy. “In Europe, for instance, you have to have a VAT [value-added tax] for each country, and I just wish there was a smoother, simpler process for all of that. It’s something that holds U.S. companies back.”

Opportunities: Beyond exports, Nancy sees urban agriculture, as well as states with legalized cannabis, as the main sales drivers. “I don’t think there’s ever going to be federal legalization, because it’s more of a state decision,” she adds.

Needs: “I don’t honestly think we need anything,” says Nancy. “We’ve got it so that we’re kind of a lean, mean company. We’ve got it streamlined — Henry Ford would be very proud of us — so we don’t need many employees and all of our employees are happy. We’re a small company, but at the same time, we’re mighty.”


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