Rise of the machines

Published on August 2, 2019 by David Wylie

The very first Vitalis extraction machine still works.

It’s sitting in storage at one of the company’s main offices in Kelowna. Vitalis Extraction Technology co-founder Pete Patterson, pictured above, helped weld it together. He showed it off with pride during a recent tour.

Nicknamed ‘Frankie’ — short for Frankenstein — the earliest version of the company’s cannabis extraction tech still hums to life when you plug it in and turn it on. The three co-founders (Joel Sherlock, James Seabrook and Patterson) ran hemp and hops through it to test because they didn’t have a cannabis licence.

Three years on, the company’s tech has come a long way. Patterson figures Vitalis-built machines have extracted the components from close to one million pounds of cannabis all around the world.

Cannabis extraction is about to become the backbone of a new market when edibles and concentrates become legal.

Buyers want large-scale equipment that runs reliably and nearly non-stop.

“This industry is moving so fast,” he says. “These pieces of equipment are the heartbeat of their revenue stream. Being that, they want it running all the time, but they also want to try new things, and try things that are going to be able to create some new products.”

Vitalis has grown relentlessly since it started up in 2016, and it has spread out over several offices in Kelowna. The company has sold about 150 sophisticated CO2 extraction machines since inception in 2016 — two or three now every week.

They are global, with sales and service teams all over the world including the U.S., Australia and Europe. They have big plans to scale up.

Home in Kelowna, at the Gaston Avenue manufacturing facility, crews assemble the machines. They each have 3,500 components, of which about 1,900 are made locally. Patterson estimates Vitalis spends about $6 million to $7 million in the region’s economy. Vitalis has about 100 employees and is constantly growing.

Patterson sees bigger extraction systems in the near future.

“The automation is going to be more important. As we see some of the big food factories out there, that’s where this industry will be going. These systems, over the next five to 10 years, they’ll look very, very different,” he says.

How the machines work

Vitalis systems use CO2 as the extracting solvent.

Biomass is packed into a large vessel where liquid CO2 is pumped over it.

What’s extracted depends on the heat and pressure applied. Cooler levels strip the material of flavourful terpene profiles and cannabinoids, while hotter levels extract fats and waxes.

The CO2 gas is refrigerated back to a liquid and reused up to nine time in an hour.

“People always ask, is it gooey when we’re done?” he says of the initial raw material. “It’s really just a fibrous material left over. Bone dry.”

All the moisture is removed and ready to be used to make vape refills, concentrates, topicals, beverages, foods, and whatever other formats creative entrepreneurs can imagine.

“It’s pretty cool what you can pull out,” says Patterson.

Check out Vitalis’ Instagram feed for great photos and videos of what’s extracted.

This is an abridged story. The full feature will appear in the oz.’s fall magazine. Newsletter subscribers get a free digital copy.