South Carolina Grower BrightMa Farms Builds Genetics Partnership With Swiss Hemp and Cannabis Research Company Puregene AG
From left to right: Puregene's Dr. Gavin George, BrightMa's Jean-Marc Villain and Harold Singletary, Puregene's Stevens Senn and Dr. Michael Ruckle, BrightMa's Sherman Evans, and Puregene's Dr. Daniel Carrera and Maximilian Vogt
Photo courtesy of Puregene AG

South Carolina Grower BrightMa Farms Builds Genetics Partnership With Swiss Hemp and Cannabis Research Company Puregene AG

Together, the companies strive to bring new, high-quality and consistent fiber, grain and cannabinoid hemp cultivars to a facility that BrightMa plans to build in Orangeburg, S.C.

November 10, 2021

A taxi boat ride on a lake overlooking the Alps jumpstarted Harold Singletary’s recent in-person meetings with Ph.D scientists and other representatives from a Swiss hemp and cannabis partner.

Other than that, he said, “We knew we had just seven days, so we didn't do the tourist track.”

In mid-October, Singletary, founder and CEO of South Carolina-based vertical hemp company BrightMa Farms, along with colleagues Jean-Marc Villain and Sherman Evans, spent a week in Switzerland. There, they met with Puregene AG, a company that focuses on hemp and cannabis breeding through techniques such as machine learning and molecular genetics.

Photo courtesy of Puregene AG
BrightMa Farms’ Sherman Evans, director of sales and marketing, left; Jean-Marc Villain, chief operations officer, middle; and founder and CEO Harold Singletary at Puregene AG’s facility in Switzerland

“That was the purpose of getting on the ground, not being on Zoom, meeting each other in person, and spending some quality time, getting to know both sides,” Singletary said.

RELATED: How BrightMa Farms is Striving to Create Opportunities in Hemp

BrightMa linked up with Puregene, the breeding arm of Swiss cannabis company Pure Holding AG, in the first quarter of 2021. During the BrightMa team’s October visit, the two companies laid the foundation for a future partnership, Singletary said, in which Puregene will use its in-house science and technology to create hemp genetics, seeds, and clones that will be proprietary to BrightMa.

Now, the South Carolina grower aims to create a breeding hub on an 80-acre land tract in Orangeburg, S.C., called the BrightMa Innovation Center, where its team, alongside potential employees and interns from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) can research and develop various genetic traits for U.S. fiber, grain and cannabinoid hemp production.

Puregene, through genome mapping and genomic prediction, develops exclusive new hemp and cannabis genetics, that it shares with partners, according to the company’s website.

Dr. Gavin George, Puregene’s director of research and intellectual property, told Hemp Grower prior to the South Carolina team’s visit that multiple approaches allow the Swiss company to add to its collection of 300 genetic traits. The breeding doesn’t involve genetic modification or gene editing.

George pointed to high-tech cannabis facilities with “drip fertilization and LED lighting and CO2 supplementation” as indicative of the idea that cannabis isn’t properly bred. Puregene AG has “re-sequenced” the cannabis genome dozens of times, George said, to create a “pangenomic reference.”

Before BrightMa’s leadership visited Puregene, George said on a call with the South Carolina team and Hemp Grower that Singletary, Evans and Villain would see all the elements of a robust breeding initiative.

“You'll walk through these fields, and you'll see the good, the great, the terrible, the bad, the ugly, and that’s what you want in a breeding program,” George said. “You want to be able to understand the diversity so that you can work with it.”

After his return to the U.S., Singletary said he was excited about obtaining “quality, consistent” genetics from Puregene, as obtaining reliable plant material has been an issue for a bevy of U.S. hemp businesses. Over the past couple weeks, his team has visited and spoke of their travels with HBCU partners at South Carolina State University, Delaware State University and Tuskegee University.

Photo courtesy of Harold Singletary
BrightMa Farms’ founder and CEO, Harold Singletary, holding a large hemp leaf, which he said is the type of leaf that would work well for wrapping a hemp cigar

Addressing specific genetic traits, Singletary said he was impressed with the large size of fan leaves on one plant he saw in Switzerland—adding that he is 6’7” and held a leaf bigger than his hand.

The breeder at Puregene was surprised with Harold`s enthusiasm about a leaf, Singletary recalled, but the South Carolina grower conveyed that he thought it would work perfectly for a hemp cigar wrap.

“I'm like, ‘That's amazing. I want it to stay in veg. I want to be able to harvest leaves,’” Singletary said, laughing. “So, it's understanding the vast capabilities of this plant, which is a miracle plant. In the South, we say, ‘From the rooter to the tooter.’ We leave nothing on the hog. Well, I'm trying not to leave anything on the hemp plant.”

Working with Puregene, BrightMa Farms is seeking access to a wide range of hemp traits, Singletary said. These include high lignin and cellulose content for biofuels, larger fan leaves for those hemp cigars, specific cannabinoid and terpene outputs for cannabinoid hemp, botrytis and fusarium resistance for help on the growing side, and high-protein grain, Singletary said.

“I think the list will expand,” he said. “Here's a great start, but we're not limiting ourselves to the possibilities.”

George said Puregene also has the capability to completely remove THC from hemp, to which Singletary responded, saying, “This is so amazing.”

The South Carolina entrepreneur added: “Obviously, in our indoor facility, we’ll want to produce the highest-grade quality flower in this market that has consistent 0.3[%] or below THC, and respectable CBD content. So, [we’ll be] able to say, ‘Hey, we like this spectrum. We like this cannabinoid [profile]. How do we adjust that?’”

Photo courtesy of Puregene AG
BrightMa Farms’ founder and CEO, Harold Singletary, inspecting a hemp stalk at Puregene AG’s facility in Switzerland

While Puregene conducts research on both low- and high-THC cannabis, BrightMa Farms won’t be growing any high-THC cannabis in South Carolina any time soon. But, Singletary said, the partnership presents numerous opportunities for both the hemp-focused BrightMa and companies operating in the cannabis space.

“Our state only limits us to hemp, but we know the territory that we have in both lanes, from relationships in North America and abroad, that this relationship opens all doors,” Singletary said. “South Carolina will eventually wake up, but that's what this connection brings us from across the pond in Switzerland to the whole [of] North America.”

Some companies, such as car manufacturers that may have a need for hemp fiber, require consistency in their raw material supply, said Villain, BrightMa’s chief operations officer. Proper genetics can help growers meet those specifications, he added, saying, “Genetics will dominate the industry.”

“We could have just acquired these genetics and seeds from Puregene based on our needs,” Villain said. “But we understand that hemp, today in America, has huge potential.

“But it’s a product that’s still looking for a complete supply chain that doesn't exist. So, it’s not just a transaction. We’re really investing in each other for the long term, and to really bring this competency to America.”