3D printing startup brings former Tweed boss on board as adviser

A local startup that created the world’s first 3D-printable hydroponics system is looking to a pioneer of the medical marijuana industry to help take its business to the next level.

Ottawa's 3Dponics announced Friday it has brought Chuck Rifici, the chief financial officer of the Liberal Party of Canada and the co-founder and former CEO of Tweed Marijuana, on board as an adviser.

The company said Mr. Rifici, who resigned as Tweed’s chief executive last August and stepped down from its board the following month, will “help ease the transition into the exploding legal cannabis industry.”

The move came the same day 3Dponics launched a custom-designed 3D-printable hydroponics system for medical marijuana cultivation.

Mr. Rifici, 40, said he has known 3Dponics founder Michael Golubev for several years, and both are intrigued by the business potential of emerging fields such as 3D printing and medical marijuana.

“To see a business that combines two of those interests together, I definitely wanted to see how I might be able to help them out,” he said.

Mr. Golubev said Mr. Rifici has been working with his firm for a few months and has already proven invaluable in helping the company forge relationships with other key industry players.  

“I’ve known him for a few years, and it seems like he has a lot of interest in similar industries – drones, marijuana, legal cannabis, 3D printing,” Mr. Golubev said. “So we kind of reached out to him and he’s been a big fan ever since. He’s been helping us a lot.”

For example, he said it was Mr. Rifici who suggested pursuing a partnership with California’s General Hydroponics, one of the world’s largest hydroponics equipment manufacturers with about $40 million in annual sales.

“It turns out, after talking to them, they have some pain points such as people wanting to connect different systems together and add different (components),” Mr. Golubev said, adding General Hydroponics has sent his company some of its products in the hope it can “experiment” on them and improve them. “With 3D printing, you can print components and (connect) different systems together that weren’t feasible before.”

He said Mr. Rifici urged the company to allow users to order parts and other components such as fertilizer on its website and have them delivered to their homes. The firm plans to launch the service in conjunction with General Hydroponics later this summer.

While the young startup is still struggling to generate consistent revenue, Mr. Golubev said he hopes the legalized marijuana space will be the answer.

Several U.S. states, including Alaska and Colorado, now allow users to grow their own pot for recreational and medicinal use, and the industry south of the border is expected to grow from $2.7 billion last year to $11 billion by 2019.

Mr. Rifici said it’s only a matter of time before marijuana is legal throughout Canada and the U.S., sparking a boom in DIY hydroponics equipment.

“I’d say it’s unstoppable at this point,” he said. “We’re seeing jurisdictions all around the world slowly moving toward legalization. I think people are realizing that prohibition doesn’t work. So I think it’s really a race between Canada and the U.S. to see who legalizes first. With that, we’re going to see a lot more cannabis. I think it will become similar to alcohol today.”

Mr. Golubev said 3Dponics is perfectly positioned to cash in on the pot explosion.

“I think we’ve finally found our market,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a really exciting development.”

The design files for all of the company’s products, including the new marijuana hydroponics system, are available online for free to encourage open-source collaboration and innovation, he said. The company hopes to make money by charging a fee to save the files and subscribe to its Customizer app, which allows users to quickly and easily modify the designs to suit their needs.

“It’s a very nice, user-friendly tool which I think will help people adopt their system, and (3Dponics) might be able to see some growth if they can execute well and if there is a need,” Mr. Rifici said.

Ultimately, Mr. Golubev hopes to adapt the software to other industries and partner with businesses such as hardware store chains.

“A lot of things will be manufactured on the spot and customized to be unique,” he said. “That’s our ultimate vision.”

Currently, 3Dponics is a “humble company” with fewer than a dozen full-time employees, including one in San Francisco, Mr. Golubev added. But he sees big things for the future of both his own firm and the 3D printing sector as a whole.

“Right now, the industry is really small,” he said. “I like to compare it to the (personal computer) industry of the ’70s. But what took 30 years to develop for computers, I think will take five, 10 years to develop in 3D printing. It’s going to be bigger than anything we’ve seen so far.”