Food-focused controlled environment agriculture (CEA) is a multidisciplinary production technique whereby plants and products are grown inside greenhouses, vertical farms and growth chambers where every aspect of the environment can be monitored and controlled. Using CEA, cultivators can produce high-value and traditional food crops with the goal of maximizing plant productivity in an efficient and environmentally friendly way.
As the industry’s first integrated building and cultivation systems design firm, urban-gro is ushering in a new era in the design of efficient indoor agriculture facilities, providing productivity and efficiency benefits to CEA operators when designing and operating facilities.
We interviewed Sam Andras, executive vice president of Professional Services at urban-gro, and principal of MJ12 Design Studio. Sam joined urban-gro after his company MJ12 Design Studio was acquired in July 2020. Prior to that, he was principal in charge of 2WR+ Partners, a 20-year Georgia-based architecture and interior design firm.
Aaron Green: Sam, tell me, how did you get started in the cannabis industry?
Sam Andras: I started my architecture firm in 2001 in Georgia and later moved to Colorado in 2012. In 2013, I had the opportunity to do three cannabis facilities and really saw it as an emerging market that I thought would be really cool to dig into and pursue. Due to the marijuana stigma at the time, our company, 2WR, decided to create a cannabis-specific entity and developed MJ12 Design Studio. We built a website and it took off. Since 2013, I’ve personally designed about 130 cultivation facilities and vertically integrated facilities, from Hawaii all the way to New Zealand.
Green: When you say vertically integrated, what does that include?
Andras: The full building design of cultivation, product manufacturing, extraction, infusion and dispensaries.
Green: Is that something urban-gro currently does as well?
Andras: Now? Yes, with MJ12 under the facility design umbrella. After urban-gro acquired us in July, they were able to start offering full turnkey services. Everything from architecture, mechanical and plumbing engineering, electrical engineering, integrated cultivation, design of fertigation, benching, lighting, water treatment, environmental controls and other plant focused services– all of that is under our umbrella.
Green: Can you explain what controlled environment agriculture (CEA) is?
Andras: Absolutely. To me, CEA is crop agnostic, it can be anything from leafy greens to cannabis. Though we’re mainly focused on the cannabis industry and controlling that environment, we do also serve some leafy green companies. Environmental control includes things like temperature and humidity levels in the various stages of growth which is key to the economic success of organizations.
I’m a firm believer in legalization on the federal level down the road, which means that everything’s going to be under FDA for human consumption. If you look at the European models, when you look at the medicinal product development, it’s focused on consistency of the crop, from one crop to the next. And the way you achieve consistency is with CEA.
Green: From a resource perspective, can you describe how CEA differs from indoor to outdoor and greenhouse?
Andras: When you look at the market and the sale value of cannabis flower grown indoors versus outdoors or even greenhouse, greenhouse growing has huge variations by region. I believe greenhouses function better in more of a dry, arid climate. Indoor grows give you the ability to design and control your entire environment including temperatures, humidity levels, plant sizes, watering rates and other considerations. Growing indoors, in a controlled environment, gives you more flexibility to explore different alternatives in your cultivation.
Green: Final question: what in cannabis or in your personal life are you most interested in learning about?
Andras: That’s a great question. I’m a hands-on kind of guy. I would love to spend a couple of weeks working in extraction, as that’s the piece of the puzzle, as an architect, I know the least about. We’ve designed pretty much every type of cultivation from drip irrigation aeroponics to aquaponics, ebb & flow. You name it, we’ve done it, but the whole extraction process and the different equipment, and why companies choose ethanol, butane, hydrocarbon, CO2 and how to design for those extraction processes is something that as an architect, I’d love to learn more about.
Green: Okay, Great. That concludes the interview. Thanks Sam!
Federal regulations have made compliant credit processing in the cannabis industry difficult to achieve. As a result, most cannabis retailers operate a cash-only model, limiting their ability to upsell customers and placing a burden on customers who might rather use credit. While some dispensaries offer debit, credit or cashless ATM transactions, regulators and payment processors have recently been cracking down on these offerings as they are often non-compliant with regulations and policies.
KindTap Technologies, LLC operates a financial technology platform that offers credit and loyalty-enabled payment solutions for highly regulated industries typically driven by cash and ATM-based transactions. KindTap offers payment processing and related consumer applications for e-commerce and brick-and-mortar retailers. Founded in 2019, the company is backed by KreditForce LLC plus several strategic investors, with debt capital provided by U.S.-based institutions.
We interviewed Cathy Corby Iannuzzelli, co-founder and chief payments officer at KindTap Technologies. Cathy co-founded KindTap after a career in the banking and payments industries where she launched multiple financial and credit products.
Aaron Green: Cathy, thanks for taking the time today. How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Cathy Corby Iannuzzelli: I’ve been in the payments industry for a long time. I was doing some consulting a few years ago for a client in Colorado and that gave me exposure to the issues in cannabis like the fact that you couldn’t have real payments in cannabis. Then, a close family member with health issues turned to medical cannabis when nothing else seemed to work. I was amazed by the difference it made in her life. At that point, I put those two things together and I said, I need to focus on helping this industry get a real cannabis payments solution because I thought it was ridiculous that you had an industry of this size and importance that had been abandoned by the payments industry.
Aaron Green: Can you highlight some of your background prior to entering cannabis?
Corby Iannuzzelli: Throughout my career, I’ve been a banker, I’ve been a payment processing executive and I’ve been a consultant. So, I’ve kind of done it all in the payments and financial services space.
Aaron Green: Why is it that most dispensaries only take cash?
Corby Iannuzzelli: In the US, even though cannabis is legal in many states, it’s still illegal federally. There are big banks and card networks like Visa, MasterCard, etc., who are national, even global companies and frankly, the executives of those companies don’t want to end up in jail for violating national laws. So, they have put cannabis dispensaries on what’s called a “prohibited merchants” list. This means you cannot accept Visa, MasterCard, Discover, American Express, or similar payments as a cannabis business and so it’s forcing the industry to a cash-based solution.
About the only thing you’re seeing that’s not cash in dispensaries are ATMs. But if you think about it, ATMs are machines where the consumer goes and pulls cash out and pays upwards of $5 or more in fees for doing that. They then hand that cash back to the dispensary who then has the costs of having to deal with that cash. The industry is just stuck in a cash-based business until federal legislation changes.
Aaron Green: I’ve been to some dispensaries where they accept credit cards or debit cards. What is going on there?
Corby Iannuzzelli: I’ve heard reports of consumers who’ve been able to use a credit card or a debit card in a dispensary. Sometimes the processor who sold that solution to the dispensary says, “Oh, it’s compliant, I guarantee you it’s compliant.” But if you dig in, that’s not the case. And eventually, Visa or MasterCard figures it out and shuts it down. In some cases, it’s outright fraud where the processor who sold the payment terminal to the dispensary is misrepresenting it as say a doctor’s office rather than a dispensary. There’s no merchant category code in the payment networks that says this is for processing dispensary payments, so they pretend it’s something else until they get shut down.
When they do get shut down, I’ve heard of cases in Las Vegas where it was basically 100% Visa or MasterCard one day and 100% cash the next day. It completely disrupted the whole business. It’s not just the retail store, but the inventories and everything else throughout the business.
There have also been some cases where you’ll see something called a cashless ATM. In a store, they call it a debit card transaction. It’s really a cashless ATM where the consumer is making what looks to the ATM network like a cash withdrawal in $10 or $20 increments, but the consumer is getting a receipt instead of cash, and they’re turning around and handing that receipt back to the dispensary who then makes a change because the cashless ATM only dispensed in $10 or $20 increments.
Now ATM networks are looking at these cashless ATM transactions to see if they are compliant. Do consumers know the fees that they’re paying? Are these transactions coming in and looking to the network like real cash when it’s not? Cashless ATM transactions are probably the most common thing you see, but that’s being called into question after the Eaze incident where a large company was misrepresenting its terminals. The federal government stepped in and called it bank fraud and the individuals behind it, the executives, are in jail. Since then, the networks are looking at this and saying, what about these cashless ATMs? Are those transactions within our rules, or is there something funny going on here?
Aaron Green: So, to summarize here: you’ve got federal regulations at the national level that says that cannabis banking is not allowed so major institutions are not offering it. Yet you found a way through the regulations and compliance issues. I’m curious can you pull back the curtains a little bit and tell us how you came up with a solutionhere?
Corby Iannuzzelli: Well, we came up with the solution by stubbornly refusing to believe that cannabis payment processing could not be done in a compliant manner. We just said, “there is a compliant way to do this, let’s figure it out.” We took the same components that are out there for the financial services and payments industry and reassembled them in such a way that we do not violate any rules. We do not use any of the Visa, MasterCard, Discover or Amex rails, we built our own network. We have direct contracts with the merchants and direct contracts with the consumers. We control everything and all the funds flow through regulated financial institutions. So, we designed something that looks and acts to consumers and retailers the way Visa and MasterCard look and act when a consumer goes to make a purchase, but they run on a separate set of payment rails and in compliance with banking regulations and state regulations. When you’re looking at the problem from a different perspective, sometimes you can come up with a better answer.
Green: On the consumer side, what does that user experience look like?
Corby Iannuzzelli: Our product is completely digital. The consumer experience starts with integration at the online checkout. When it’s an e-commerce shopping cart and somebody is placing an order, they will see a button called “Pay with KindTap.” The first time they click that button they’re automatically brought to our integrated web app where they do a quick and easy application for our digital revolving line of credit product. If approved, they instantly go back to the checkout screen and their first purchase will just happen immediately, with flexible payment options over time. If the consumer decides they don’t want our KindTap credit and would rather have a pay now-product where we pull the funds from their bank account, then the consumer can do so. So, there is no physical card per se, it’s integrated like PayPal or Affirm at the point of checkout online. For the consumers who use KindTap credit, there is a mobile app where they can see their transactions, view statements, pay their bills, etc.
Additionally, there is a loyalty program for all purchases – KindTap credit or through the consumer’s bank, because we feel very strongly that a lot of the reasons consumers choose to pay with one card over another is the points and the rewards that they get. So, we’re providing loyalty rewards with KindTap so that consumers can get rewarded for that spending with KindTap and it’s better for the retailers.
Green: On the retailer side, what does that experience look like and what is your business model?
Corby Iannuzzelli: We are not going store by store doing integrations, rather, we’re integrating with various software, delivery and e-commerce providers. That gives us broad reach and ability to expand rapidly in various state markets where cannabis is legal. Once a merchant says “yes, I want to be a member of the KindTap Merchant Network,” then we work to get them set up on our platform in a matter of days. The merchants receive continuous support from our success team, marketing co-investment and a depth of analytics reporting. We made the entire process and ongoing operations streamlined and frictionless for both merchants and consumers.
Aaron Green: What are the benefits of moving from cash to credit type of payments?
Corby Iannuzzelli: On the retail side, there are the obvious benefits of not having all the security, safety and theft issues associated with operating a physical cash business. Consumers very often don’t carry cash anymore, except when they’re making a cannabis purchase. There are a lot of hidden costs to retailers because payments are not just about moving money from the consumer to the business.
“I really am optimistic that with so many scientific breakthroughs we’ve had that we’re going to be able to figure this out.”Payment options – or lack thereof – can shape where people shop, how much they spend and what they buy. It’s a proven science how consumers make impulse purchases. If you’re a cash-based business in cannabis, and you’re trying to get somebody to make an impulse purchase, and they walked in with $100, then you can’t get them to spend more than $100, no matter how creative your marketing is! The consumer is limited by how much cash they have in their bank account or in their pocket at that point in time. So, it’s really about the upsell that comes with the bigger basket sizes that retailers experience when you move from a cash-based business to credit and suddenly, the merchant doesn’t have to deal with long lines of consumers on payday when the store was beyond slow two days before. Now the consumer can spread purchases with the thinking, “I’d rather not be the one standing in that line on payday. I’m going to go Wednesday [instead of Friday] because I have KindTap credit so I can budget and manage my cash flow throughout the month rather than around my paydays.”
So, we think that the lack of an efficient and effective payment system for cannabis is holding back sales. We all focus on how much the industry is growing. KindTap thinks about how much faster it could be growing if it was supported by a decent payment system.
Aaron Green: What are some other cash-only markets you are looking at?
Corby Iannuzzelli: We are laser-focused on the cannabis ecosystem and bringing a compliant credit and loyalty-based digital payments solution to cannabis merchants and customers and rewarding those stakeholders for accepting/using KindTap. Additionally, we are planning to extend the KindTap Merchant Network so that consumers can use/earn our loyalty points with other goods and services they’re purchasing that are adjacent to cannabis or that are important to the cannabis consumer. That’s the direction we’re going.
Aaron Green: Today people can receive gas points for spending with their credit card. Now with KindTap, you can spend to get cannabis points?
Corby Iannuzzelli: That’s exactly right.
Aaron Green: What in either cannabis or your personal life are you most interested in learning about?
Corby Iannuzzelli: Personally, I am most interested in seeing breakthrough technologies in climate change. We’re going to need to correct this situation and I’m reading about collecting carbon dioxide from the air and burying it in the earth and things like that. I really am optimistic that with so many scientific breakthroughs we’ve had that we’re going to be able to figure this out. Certainly, it’s going to take a lot of smart people and a lot of investment, but I really look forward to watching them do their stuff and hopefully taking us out of this nightmare situation that we’re heading into if we don’t make some changes.
Aaron Green: Thanks Cathy, that concludes the interview.
Vaping is a multi-billion dollar cannabis product category representing more than 20% category share in the US, according to a recent Headset.io report. The 2019 vaping crisis, whereby lung injury and several deaths were caused by the adulteration of vapor pen cartridges with vitamin E acetate, highlighted the importance of safety and emissions testing for vapor pen products. In addition to volatile organic compounds, metals and ceramics contained in the heating elements of cartridges are also a concern. While the FDA has a robust program for emissions testing in nicotine products, they do not currently regulate cannabis. Cannabis vaping is currently regulated at the state level in the United States.
Cannabis vaping is popular among minors owing to its discrete nature. In a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), 14.7% of teens reported vaping cannabis in 2018. In a separate research study, University of Michigan researchers found that teens vaping cannabis were two times more likely to experience respiratory issues than teens who smoked e-cigarettes.
We spoke with Corey Mangold, CEO and founder of PurTec Delivery Systems, to learn more about cannabis vaping safety and their PurGuard technology. Prior to entering the cannabis space, Corey founded a software company in 1998. He also founded the advertising agency Gigasavvy in 2008, which he recently exited from in March 2021.
Aaron Green: How did you get started in the cannabis industry?
Corey Mangold: I got started in the cannabis industry in 2016. My daughter was away at college in San Luis Obispo and got pregnant and was going to have a baby, which obviously I was excited about. I decided to have her come down to Southern California and start a company together, as I’ve done multiple times in my career successfully. I wanted to show her the ropes, and teach her everything from finance to HR, to business development, marketing – everything it takes to be successful – and give her the tools that she would need to be successful for her life.
Green: What kind of things were you into before 2016?
Mangold: I founded my first company in 1998 in the software industry and had that company up until 2005. In 2008 I started another company called Gigasavvy, a nationally recognized advertising agency out of Irvine, California, which I successfully exited in March of 2021.
When deciding to start a company with my daughter, we were interested in the cannabis industry – I think everybody was back in 2016. In 2016, I had started using cannabis again after probably about a 16- or 17-year hiatus. I was using a vape because I had children in the house. I went to literally anywhere I could and bought every type of cartridge on the market. What I found was that their user experience was not like what it was on the nicotine side of vaping. I reached out to associates of mine who had been manufacturing vapes since 2011, starting with the blue e-cigarette, and we engineered a unique device that was proprietary and completely unlike anything on the market. It was incredible, and still to this day, I think it’s probably the best 510 thread cart on the market. We launched that under the Orchid Essentials (CNSX: ORCD, OTC:ORVRF) brand in California and Oregon.
Green: Is that cart something that you sell to other brands as well, or is it purely for the Orchid brand?
Mangold: Yes, purely for the Orchid brand, but it’s what inspired me to start PurTec Delivery Systems. After a few years of struggling in this industry because we didn’t have the access to capital needed – Orchid is a US company traded on the Canadian Stock Exchange (CSE:ORCD, OTC:ORVRF) – and dealing in a substance that’s federally illegal, there was no access to any traditional financing, be it factoring or inventory financing. We were literally creating as much product as we could every month and then selling out almost instantly, and then waiting till the next month to get money in from all our accounts to make more. We had to slug it out. We did get into a little over 500 stores in California and Oregon, but it was just a battle, and I didn’t really want to be touching cannabis.
In 2020, I had a breakthrough in my strategy. I was watching the TV show Gold Rush and I watched one of the guys go and have to buy a new wash plant. He pulls up to this dealer’s yard that sells wash plants and tractors. I saw this dealer had a lot of inventory and clearly a lot of money, and I realized the place to make money was selling the shovels, not really digging for gold. I said to myself if I have the best shovel out there, why am I digging? I should just be innovating new shovels and selling shovels. Hence, I started PurTec Delivery Systems and now for the last year and a half have been 100% focused on developing advanced vaporizer technologies.
Green: Tell me more about PurTec.
Mangold: I founded PurTec with the sole intention of creating safe vaporizers for consumers. We conducted an 18-month safety study in Switzerland with our partners, on vaping devices in the market. I learned a lot of things that I already knew but wanted to see it proven by independent laboratories and by PhDs and MDs, and really see what was so concerning to me. For the last year and a half, we have sought to develop a safe line of vaporizers. I’m very cognizant about what’s going on in my body and want to know what’s going on internally with these products. I don’t think anyone would be using them if they knew what was really going into their lungs.
Green: What are some of the things that consumers should be thinking about when it comes to vape safety?
Mangold: Consumers should be thinking about all the different aspects from inhaling vaporized heavy metals to ceramics. Ceramic particle inhalation is one of my biggest concerns. I think it’s been ignored. I think all the manufacturers know about it and I think it’s been swept under the rug. I think it’s one of the threats that we have. There should be regulatory bodies that are out there protecting consumers like the FDA, hence why I believe federal legalization is so important, because if the FDA was involved not even one of these products would be on the market because the first thing the FDA would do would be very extensive emissions testing to find out what compounds and potential toxins are entering into your body.
Green: There’s clearly a need for safety and regulation in the space, but from where you’re sitting, is there a demand? When consumers go into a store, one of their main focuses is: what’s the THC content? How do you see consumer demand for safety and how do you think about building that awareness?
Mangold: I don’t think there is consumer demand yet. The consumer demand right now is for getting medicated and having fun or getting whatever relief or primary reason you use cannabis. I can point to a direct correlation with the opioid epidemic. No one knew they were as horrible as they are, and doctors were prescribing them left and right, and everyone thought it was okay. People think these cannabis products are okay because they’re on the shelf in every licensed dispensary, and the California Department of Health and the Department of Health in every other state and country has been involved to some degree. So, consumers think that they’re safe. The problem is they’re likely not just like we weren’t with opioids.
I don’t think the consumer demand will be there for quite some time until we start seeing a lot of long-term health impacts where we start seeing people getting lung disease, we start seeing people getting iron lung, different potential brain issues from inhaling adhesives and heavy metals. I think once the health impacts are seen clinically – just like we saw with the opioid crisis – once that was really in the forefront, everybody saw with their own eyes, and then they were aware that there was a problem. So, I think that it’s important to become aware of the potential health impacts, but I think it will take quite some time before that happens.
Green: It sounds to me like you want to get ahead of the industry on this because if it does go federally legal, there will be more stringent requirements. How do you think about that from a product design and development perspective to get ahead of a problem that exists but isn’t reflected in current regulations?
Mangold: The best thing we can do right now in the cannabis vape industry is to look at what the nicotine vape industry is doing. It is controlled by the FDA and there are standards for vaporizers in other parts of the world that are very stringent, like the AFNOR standards, which are in the European Union regulations for vaporizer safety.
What we do is we find the most stringent standards in the world, and we test our products to those standards. If the standards get stricter, we can develop our products and re-engineer them to meet those new requirements. Right now, all our products are emissions tested at AFNOR standards and over-engineered even for those standards. We also are constantly working on reduction of potentially hazardous materials: reductions of heavy metals; only using proven safe and effective materials and FDA approved materials like SAE 316L surgical stainless steel; and using improved ceramics that are not as brittle as the ceramics being used by almost every single manufacturer out there. There’s a lot of things that can be done. It takes supply chain management, understanding the technology and having strong solid teams of scientists and doctors that know this stuff much better than anyone else in the industry does, and leveraging their expertise.
Green: You recently launched a safety feature for minors. Can you tell me more about that?
Mangold: Yes. Two weeks ago, we launched a new software application called PurGuard. PurGuard is a massive innovation and is the first of its kind that we’re aware of. It’s a piece of software that pairs with any device, whether it’s a disposable pod system or a 510 cartridge. You then pair it to your phone and take a picture of your government ID. Then the camera looks at your face, runs quick facial recognition and runs an age check through the largest age-checking platform API in the world. Then based on location and legal age of the user’s location – some states are 18 and different countries have different rules – it validates your ability in your market to be consuming that product. This technology works in 180 different countries.
Once that occurs and the device is ready for you to use, we have another feature that we’ve developed. There is an auto-lock feature that we have where if you’re a parent, like me, and you have kids in the house, you can turn your device to auto-lock right from your phone. When you walk away from your phone and are 10 feet away, your Bluetooth connection will break, and it will automatically lock the device and so your child can’t walk into your bedroom and take your device.
This technology is important to us. Consuming cannabis is horrible for the health of minors. There are serious mental effects on brain growth that occur from using cannabis at a young age because the brain is still developing up until about the age of 23 to 25. So, it’s not safe for them to be using. Of course, I’m sure we all smoked when we were in high school, but the ease of use of vape and the discretion, I think allows minors to use significantly more cannabis than previous generations did 20, 30, 40 years ago. It’s a massive problem right now and I think it’s just a matter of time before the FDA requires such protections. This industry can only survive if we protect minors. So, we’re getting ahead of the curve and setting the standard.
Green: What kind of hardware does PurGuard work with?
Mangold: PurGuard works with every single type of device that we manufacture: 510 thread cartridges, disposables, and pods. If it’s a 510-thread cartridge, the battery has to be a PurTec battery, and the cartridge has to be a PurTec cartridge. They communicate to each other through certain technologies, and it can even recognize what oils are in the cartridge or the pod or the disposable. Moreover, we can tell what strain it is, when it was manufactured, what the potency levels are and more. It records all the usage statistics. We’ve also proven with our hardware, the actual milligram contents being consumed per hit, or draw based on volume, and draw duration. We can track and report to people and say, “Hey, you’re consuming 100 milligrams of THC a day, that’s too high, you need to slow down and maybe go down to 50 milligrams a day.” That will be what is required as it is being required in the nicotine industry under the FDA pre-market tobacco applications (PMTA). When the FDA comes into cannabis, they’re going to want to see the same thing. They’re going to want to know that cannabis products are not promoting people to use more, and they are trying to get people to use less. It doesn’t mean stop using it, but use it in moderation, like everything in life. You shouldn’t be drinking a bottle of whiskey a day. You probably shouldn’t be smoking a pound of weed a day either. Everything in life is moderation and this application not only protects minors but also teaches us about our consumption habits.
Green: A theme here is “skating where the puck is going to be.” What kind of trends are you looking at right now in the industry?
Mangold: The biggest trend I see right now in the industry is disposables. We’ve seen that the trends in cannabis consumption trail behind the nicotine industry by 2-4 years. We see a lot of our customers and potential customers shifting into disposables and are now seeing a very large spike in sales of disposables. I think that’s a big trend, but with that comes another major issue: we now have lithium-ion batteries being thrown away at astonishing rates and going into landfills. PurTec has an answer for that that we’ll be launching here in the next four to six months That will be I think the biggest innovation in regards to eco-friendliness within the vape industry. That’s where I see things going right now.
Green: What are you most interested in learning about?
Mangold: The thing that interests me most, and what I’m most interested in learning about is regulations. Not the regulations themselves, but how regulations are drafted. I’ve sat in several meetings with rules committees for different regulatory bodies throughout the United States and it is laughable. I was recently in a state I’m not going to mention. I asked them what scientists and what doctors they have consulted with and they said none. I just found that dumbfounding. The state regulatory bodies are making decisions without doing due diligence and without bringing in subject matter experts in some cases.
I’m very interested in learning about how we can change our regulatory bodies. Taxpayers pay these salaries and their job at the end of the day is to protect consumers. I think that these cannabis regulatory bodies need to be way more involved with their state’s Department of Health, as well as with the FDA, and National Institute of Health and looking at this as a holistic approach. How do we protect consumers? This is a drug. It’s like anything else out there. If you’re selling tomatoes that were sprayed with a certain pesticide, you must do the research and you have to know what’s in that product before you start putting it in people’s hands. Otherwise, you may have people dying left and right. So, I’m very interested in learning more about regulatory bodies and how they need to evolve and hopefully I can help push them into evolving sooner rather than later.
Green: Great, that concludes the interview, Corey.
Russell is the CEO of NES Technology Holdings, a technology development and marketing company that operates Vapor Distilled and LifeTonic Brands. NES Technology Holdings has invented a technology portfolio of more than 160 granted and pending patents that cover inventions across several high-value industries, including cannabis, beverage, fragrance and nutraceuticals. The company is currently in license acquisition diligence processes with 7 of world’s 10 largest fragrance companies and has received a joint venture offer from a $3 billion fragrance company to produce perfumes with its extraction technology. It is also launching ionized cannabis beverage products that provide effects as quickly as alcohol in Nevada and Colorado this fall.
Vapor Distilled invented and commercialized an evaporative extraction process with 40 international patents granted and pending that, along with CO2 extraction, is one of only two fundamentally new extraction processes invented in the last 50 years. Instead of using solvents or hydrocarbons to extract oils from plants, evaporative extraction directly evaporates essential oils from plants and condenses the evaporated compounds into an extract. The process takes less than two seconds to complete and extracts higher levels of volatile terpenes than existing extraction methods. Vapor Distilled has built a fleet of commercial-scale extraction machines and has supplied some of the cannabis industry’s largest brands. The company is currently licensing its evaporative extraction technology within the perfume industry and is marketing an aroma hop extract to replace the dry hopping step when making beer.
LifeTonic invented a drug delivery technology with 56 patents pending and granted, that turns oil-based plant compounds like CBD and THC into electrically charged cannabinoid ions that dissolve completely in water without emulsifiers or additives. When cannabinoids are ionized, absorption is significantly enhanced and their effects can be felt in minutes. The effects of a LifeTonic ionized CBD beverage can be felt by most people in less than 5 minutes, whereas the effects of a LifeTonic ionized THC beverage can be felt by most people in less than 8 minutes. For reference, typical onset times for cannabis beverages are 30 minutes or longer. LifeTonic beverage technology will allow cannabis beverages to work as quickly as alcohol, enabling cannabis to become a social drink.
We spoke with Russell Thomas, CEO of Vapor Distilled and LifeTonic about his cannabinoid evaporation process and rapid onset beverage technologies. Thomas is a career entrepreneur and inventor with 21 years of experience inventing and protecting intellectual property. Russell’s team has generated more than 160 granted and pending patents. Prior to entering the cannabis industry, Thomas worked in the cleantech industry.
Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Russell Thomas: I came to the cannabis industry from the cleantech industry where I worked on technologies that improved the fuel economy of vehicles. I saw opportunities in the cannabis industry to improve cannabis extraction, which was one of the most important supply chain verticals in cannabis. Every product, from edibles to beverages and vape products, requires a cannabis extract. Any product that needs to be accurately dosed requires an extract. The old way of making edible products with cannabis butter was simply not viable as the industry matured, and most people were rapidly moving away from smoking cannabis and embracing vape products. Even with the entire industry almost completely dependent on extraction, no fundamental innovation was occurring. The primary ways that cannabis was being extracted were chemically intensive. The cleaner methods, such as CO2 extraction, were slow and expensive for terpene recovery. I saw this as a great opportunity to provide a better solution within a primary funnel of the cannabis supply chain.
We commercialized an extraction technology that evaporates cannabinoids directly from plant material in the form of vapor, and then recondenses that vapor back into an essential oil. The entire process takes less than two seconds to complete and preserves fragile terpenes. That technology, called Evaporative Extraction, is the foundation of Vapor Distilled.
Green: What timeframe was that roughly?
Thomas: We capitalized our company in 2015 and began selling wholesale extracts in 2017.
Green: Can you talk more about the evaporative extraction process?
Thomas: Our process works in a similar way to a cannabis vaporizer, but on a massive scale. Our extract is literally recondensed cannabis vapor. In one step, we extract, refine, and activate cannabinoids. On one end, plant material goes in the machine, and on the other end, extract and depleted plant material comes out. Our total extraction time is less than two seconds if you measure the time from when the plant material goes into the extractor and when the extract is condensed.
A continuous feed of dry plant material is introduced into a heated air stream. The air stream pneumatically conveys the plant material through a series of turbulent, heated evaporation chambers. Upon entering the evaporation chambers, volatile plant compounds are instantaneously distilled from the plant material. A centrifugal separator removes the depleted plant material from the air stream. The air stream is rapidly cooled, causing the volatile plant compounds to condense into an essential oil.
We achieve nearly total activation of THCA to THC simultaneously during extraction and, on average, we extract approximately two to four times more terpenes than a conventional extraction process. The cannabis industry is rampant with exaggeration about terpenes, but we are the only cannabis company negotiating a joint venture with a $3 billion fragrance company to produce perfumes, and I think that says a lot about our process.
Green: Is the extract coming out then as an oil?
Thomas: Our extract comes out of our machines as a fully-activated, high-terpene content, full spectrum oil. Unlike the THC crude that emerges from other processes, our extract requires no further distillation, activation or refinement. You can put it straight into a product.
Green: How about terpene recovery?
Thomas: This is by far what we do best. We excel with the recovery terpenes and volatile compounds from plant material. From day one, we noticed that our evaporative extraction process yields about two to four times more terpenes by mass compared to traditional extraction methods.
While we started as a cannabis company, we recently received a compelling joint venture offer from a $3 billion fragrance company to produce perfume products with our technology. We are also under NDA with 7 of the world’s 10 largest fragrance companies to complete diligence processes to license our extraction technology.
As part of our licensing diligence process, we are performing paid fragrance extraction research for three multi-billion-dollar fragrance companies. Our evaporative extracted fragrance extracts are presenting a broader and more complete range of volatile compounds compared reference samples. We are also seeing substantially improved yield of volatile fragrance compounds. Combined, this gives us the advantage of being able to produce more extract at a lower cost, while also producing a superior product. This combination is how licensees can take market share away from any fragrance company that does not have access to our technology, and it is why we are seeing so much rapid traction in this area.
We have also extracted hops with our technology. If you’ve ever smelled a traditional hops resin, it smells good, but the smell doesn’t fill the room. If you put just a drop of our hops extract on any surface, the entire room will smell strongly of a premium IPA beer. It’s so potent you don’t want to get it on your hands or clothes because you will smell like beer for hours. It’s powerful and wonderful stuff!
Green: What is your business model?
Thomas: At our core, we are a technology development and licensing company. We first identify what we believe to be critical verticals and bottlenecks in high-value industries, then we develop and patent highly differentiated and disruptive technology solutions that we believe exist nowhere else. We then demonstrate both market fit and viability at scale through proof-of-concept sales of branded and high-profile, white-labeled products produced with our unique technologies. Finally, we systematically license and exit the various portions our IP portfolio though the orchestration of highly competitive bidding processes that promote both defensive and strategic acquisitions of our technologies. We are currently at the final phase of our model with licensing our extraction technology, and we are receiving offers as part of a competitive bidding process.
Green: Okay, let’s change gears here and start talking more about LifeTonic and your cannabinoid ionization technology. Can you talk high level about the onset times of cannabinoids in different matrices and media?
Thomas: Through LifeTonic, we invented 56 international patents granted and pending cannabinoid ionization technology that compresses the normal onset time of cannabis beverages from 30 minutes down to just a few minutes. Our cannabinoid ionization technology can also be used as a rapid onset vape alternative when sold in a breath spray format. We are currently selling hemp-based versions of these products through LifeTonic.com, and we are bringing THC versions of these products to market in Nevada and Colorado this fall and winter under the brand name LifeTonic.
All conventional and even nano-emulsified cannabis edibles and beverages take a long time to work. A cannabis chocolate can take 45 minutes to two hours before the effects kick in. Cannabis gummies are faster, but it still takes half an hour to 45 minutes to feel the effects. The very best nano-emulsified cannabis beverages take about a half an hour to work on average, if you are lucky. That long of a time delay effectively eliminates the social aspect of consuming cannabis, so most people instead choose to vaporize or smoke cannabis.
If you look at the largest investments that have been made across cannabis, some of the most prominent have been made by alcohol companies. Constellation Brands invested nearly $4 billion into Canopy Growth, with a mission to find an alternative to alcohol in cannabis. Molson Coors has partnered with Hexo and AB InBev has partnered with Tilray, both with that same mission. Even after all this effort and investment, cannabis beverages represent just a sliver of the market because current cannabis-based beverages take too long to work. The fastest ones on the market, on average, take around a half hour to kick in.
Imagine going to a bar and knowing that every time you got a shot of tequila or a shot of whiskey it’s going to take thirty minutes or more for the effects to even begin to kick in. That would be terrible. That would be the end of social drinking. Unfortunately, that is how a conventional cannabis beverage works.
You can’t really get a social drinking experience with cannabis yet, so most people vape it because it’s fast. But a lot of people don’t want to smoke something; in fact, they don’t want to inhale at all. So, we saw beverages as a huge opportunity. How do we make cannabis beverages work as fast as alcohol? That’s what our ionization technology delivers. From all the people we’ve surveyed – hundreds of people – they say that they reliably feel an onset within about seven to eight minutes with our technology. That is just about as fast as a shot of tequila or whiskey.
“With our partners, we will be featuring LifeTonic beverage products on tap in a cannabis cocktail lounge right off the Las Vegas strip, where social consumption rules are welcoming.”What we’ve done is very different from available nanoemulsion technologies. All those technologies try to mix oil and water, and oil and water don’t mix. In a nanoemulsion, you mix cannabis, a carrier oil, an edible detergent and water, and then you run it all through an ultrasonic homogenizer that breaks the cannabinoids and oil into microscopic droplets suspended in water. There are a lot of styles of nanoemulsions, from spray-dried nanoemulsions to liquid liposomal encapsulations, and they all confer certain absorption benefits when compared to straight-up oil absorption. But still, even the microscopic oil droplets suspended in water are quite large compared to what we have done, and still take quite a long time to digest.
We looked at the cannabis molecule and we said, “You know what? If we can put a strong negative charge on it, if we can ionize it, then we can make it behave more like a dissolvable salt instead of an oil.” When we treat it this way, the cannabis molecule dissolves completely in the water without emulsifiers or additives. When something is dissolved, there is no nano-emulsion droplet size. It is single molecules dissolved water. A single ionized cannabinoid molecule is about 1,000 times smaller than an average nano-emulsion droplet – and this greatly enhances absorption. The onset speed of ionized cannabinoids compared to nanoemulsions is measurable as just a few minutes instead of a half hour or more.
We have 56 granted and pending patents on LifeTonic’s ionization technology. We can ionize THC, CBD, CBG and CBD – most cannabinoids are compatible. There are also several herbal products that are compatible with our ionization technology, like the curcuminoids in turmeric, which are normally very hard to get into water. We can also ionize the eugenol that is in cloves. Ionized eugenol is an intoxicant, so we have big plans for alcohol alternatives outside of cannabis.
We’re using this technology to enter the Nevada cannabis market with one of the largest dispensary chains and cannabis product manufacturers in Nevada. With our partners, we will be featuring LifeTonic beverage products on tap in a cannabis cocktail lounge right off the Las Vegas strip, where social consumption rules are welcoming. We’ll craft every kind of cocktail you can imagine, only without alcohol. All these beverages will work in a matter of minutes to provide the first true social drinking experience with cannabis. After you enjoy a beverage, you may purchase a package of ionized THC beverage powder sachets in the cannabis cocktail lounge or at any of the dispensaries within our distribution network. You can pour the powder into any beverage, and it becomes a friendly, fast-acting THC beverage that will get you high, but not leave you with a hangover. We will also be selling a breath-spray format that works almost as quickly as vaping.
Green: What kind of validation studies have you done?
Thomas: We have conducted several broad market studies for our ionized products and almost all people report a profound onset within a few minutes. We have not completed a formalized clinical trial, but we are closing a major funding round that will allow us to do so. We plan to begin controlled pre-clinical trials focused mainly on ionized CBD because it’s far easier to get FDA approval for clinical trials on CBD than for THC. Our studies will monitor a couple dozen volunteers with a functional MRI and watch the change in the brain using our oral spray and beverage products compared against a standard CBD tincture control. We know that we’re going to see fast action because everybody who uses it says that a feeling develops in minutes.
Green: What geographies are you active in and exploring?
Thomas: CBD and hemp products from our extraction technology have been sold in every US state and parts of Europe. Additionally, hemp-based CBD and CBG versions of our ionized products and ionized turmeric products have been sold in several states through our LifeTonic.com, our ecommerce site. We have also sold white labeled versions of our ionized products through partner brands. We will be launching THC versions of our ionized products with our partners Nevada this fall. We expect THC versions to also be available in Colorado this winter.
Green: So, you are creating the powders on site?
Thomas: Yes. We manufacture ionized CBD, CBG, eugenol and turmeric beverage powders on site. We also manufacture and fast acting ionized sprays. These products are sold through our own retail site and we white label for other brands. Per our long-term licensing strategy, these sales establish market viability through sales. Selling products and establishing market viability prior to licensing significantly increases the value of our licenses and exits. It’s very important to answer the question: Do people buy it and do people love it? So far, we like the feedback!
On the THC side, we manufacture ionized products through partners in each cannabis state that we enter. We manufacture the ionizing base here in Colorado, then we ship it to other states where our partners add the THC and package it in LifeTonic-branded packaging. The analogy is that we sell a proprietary Coca-Cola formula without the caffeine, then our partners add the caffeine and bottle it in Coca-Cola branded bottles. In this way, we ensure that the hardest part of our process is controlled house to ensure consistency and quality across all states. It also allows us to be a non-plant touching business, since we only sold upstream base products that did not contain THC. We pick the best manufacturing and distribution partner in each cannabis state and grow from there.
Green: What’s the one thing you’re most interested in learning about?
Thomas: Increasing the bioavailability of cannabis. I have been most passionate about making cannabis work as quickly as alcohol and giving people an alternative to inhaling it through smoking or vaping. That’s definitely what we’ve been most excited about as a company.
Sleep health is a large and growing global market. According to Statista, the global market value of the sleep market was $432B in 2019 with an expected CAGR of 6.3% from 2019 to 2024. Supplements are a growing category of popular sleep health products with common ingredients including melatonin, valerian root, and more recently cannabinoids such as CBD and CBN.
RealSleep is a cannabinoid formulation company developing personalized products to improve sleep outcomes. RealSleep’s product strategy has been developed by top scientists and sleep experts, and clinically tested to aid individuals seeking to fall asleep faster, sleep deeper and cut down on sleep disturbances. Their studies have shown that 90% of people taking RealSleep have reported experiencing better sleep immediately
We spoke with Michael Kamins, co-founder and partner of OpenNest Labs and RealSleep, about RealSleep’s innovation in personalized formulations for better sleep. Kamins founded RealSleep as an incubated company under OpenNest Labs, where he is also a founding partner. Michael is the Chief Community Officer of the Wholistic Research and Education Foundation, and just led the world’s largest study on CBD and general health with Wholistic and Radicle Science, where he is also an advisor. Prior to RealSleep, Michael worked in tech where he was an early employee at Musical.ly (now TikTok) building brand partnerships.
Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Michael Kamins: I got into the industry professionally about two and a half years ago, but my relationship with the plant goes back to high school. Prior to jumping into this space, I was working primarily in digital media. I was an early employee at Musical.ly, (eventually rebranded as TikTok), leading global music partnerships and growth. I helped grow that business by leveraging the social capital of music artists and celebrities and doing partnerships with record labels. At the end of 2018, I really saw the opportunity in the cannabis space. One of my best friends in Los Angeles, Dr. Jeff Chen, someone I did my MBA with at UCLA, became the founder and executive director of cannabis research at UCLA Medical. Seeing all the clinical research that he was doing and the objective health outcome data coming out of that research was really a huge inspiration to me. I saw a massive whitespace and opportunity to help build that bridge between the medical community and the cannabis marketplace. There’s been almost a century of cannabis prohibition setting back our scientific understanding of the plant. We know more about the rivers and plants in the Amazon than we do about the composition and compounds within the cannabis plant with regards to their wellness benefits.
I met my partners, Tyler Wakstein, Kris Bjornerud and Max Goldstein and we started a cannabis venture studio called OpenNest Labs, which is building out a diversified portfolio of cannabis consumer brands. We are focused on leveraging our collective experience at building ventures and communities and rallying those communities around a brand.
Over the last two and a half years, it’s been super exciting building brands that you see on shelves. We’re still in the early stages right now of building brand loyalty. A lot of cannabis consumers are still going into dispensaries and asking, “what is the cheapest product that I can buy with the highest potency?”
Green: Tell me about RealSleep, how did you come up with the idea and what is the basic concept for the end user?
Kamins: RealSleep comes from the passion that I had developed for medicinal aspects of the cannabis and hemp plant, thinking about not only THC and CBD – which are two major cannabinoids in the plant – but also thinking about the other 120 plus cannabinoids, each with their own unique properties.
It turns out that half the world’s population suffers from one poor night of sleep a week, and sleep issues lead to the highest rate of other comorbidities. We were thinking about the addressable sleep market, with ourselves being a part of that market, and wanting to build products that would help not only ourselves, but the countless other people around the world that suffer from poor sleep too, as it impacts their daily lives.
I’ve had issues with sleep myself. I have a genetic hearing condition called tinnitus. It’s a ringing in your ears that other people can experience environmentally from exposure to loud noises. I’ve had loud ringing in my ears my entire life even in quiet situations, like right before I go to sleep. I’ll often be lying in bed awake for an hour or two unable to sleep with the ringing. Everyone else on the team has had their own sleep issues and realized the profound negative impact of lack of sleep on other areas of health and wellness, whether it be next day energy or immunity.
We felt that by leveraging our access to the medical research community and even running clinical research on our own to validate the efficacy of the product relative to other products on the shelves, we could create a product that was safe and effective. We came across a clinical trial on insomnia and CBD by one of our research partners, the Wholistic Research and Education Foundation. What we saw from a lot of that anecdotal data was that CBD, and hemp in general, really helps to provide restful and restorative sleep.
CBD and CBN are two highly effective compounds for sleep and melatonin is by far the most widely researched and used over the counter sleep aid. We are sourcing clinical research on other ingredients such as valerian root, L-Theanine and GABA, and the list of ingredients goes on. We were interested in formulating a product that incorporates these safe and effective ingredients.
We noticed from our research and our access that sleep is as unique to an individual as their fingerprint. Take brainwave patterns when you are sleeping as an example. No one person’s patterns are the same. You could essentially identify an individual based on those patterns. One solution, or one product, is not going to help everyone. So, we worked with UCLA and the head of their laboratory of sleep and circadian medicine, a gentleman by the name of Dr. Chris Colwell, to understand the science of sleep. He is one of the most renowned sleep researchers in the world and is the head of our scientific advisory board for RealSleep. We’ve done clinical studies with over 900 people and 10,200 nights of sleep and used this data to develop a personalization engine in the form of a quiz that takes 90 seconds and allows us to map ingredients to specific answer selections. From these answers we deliver products that are customized to the individual consumer specific to their unique needs
We’re proud of the journey that we’ve gone on to understand the science and research behind sleep and to develop this personalization engine variations of products that work for each individual and their unique needs.
Green: Tell me how the questionnaire and personalization engine works. I understand the ingredient profile will change based on the customer’s responses?
Kamins: Sleep impacts an individual’s general health and wellness. For me, if I don’t sleep well, my next day is filled with anxiety, and that anxiety leads to worse sleep; it’s a vicious cycle. For other people, it could be a metabolic issue that leads to poor sleep or poor sleep that leads to weight issues. The list of other health issues and diseases linked to poor sleep goes on. So, while we’re looking at combating sleep to prevent other health issues down the road, one person who’s looking to get better sleep to improve one aspect of their life could be different from another person and the area of life they are looking to improve upon.
The quiz is essentially a combination of validated, reliable and flexible measures of patient reported outcomes. We use a combination of gold standard patient reported sleep questionnaires, one of which is called the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index, another being the RAND MOS scale, and others. We also work with our scientific advisory board and machine learning experts to advise us on customizing these questions with logic. We then use the responses to generate the appropriate formulations for our customers.
The questions cover everything from very specific questions on sleep, like sleep latency (the time it takes to get the bed) or sleep fragmentation (the number of times you wake up in the middle of the night) sleep duration, sleep quality, and then other areas of health that you’re looking to improve upon. Examples include metabolism, cardiovascular health, skin health, anxiety and stress. So, all these things factor into the different ingredients that we layer into the formulation.
Let’s say you don’t have a problem getting to sleep, but you wake up a lot of times in the middle of the night. Your formulation might be very different from someone who has trouble getting to sleep, but they don’t wake up in the middle of the night. Overall, one of our big goals with the formulation of all these products is that they increase your next day cognitive alertness by giving you that high sleep quality and restorative sleep. We don’t want to make anyone groggy the next day. Because overall, what you’re trying to achieve with sleep is you want to be ready to go the next day and be able to perform at your peak.
Green: So, you mentioned CBD, CBN and melatonin already as ingredients. Are there any other ingredients?
Kamins: Depending on what your answer selections are for the quiz, we will layer in L-Theanine, valerian root, Ashwagandha and even some of the other novel cannabinoids like CBC (cannabichromene). We have about 24 different ingredients that we can layer in, so it just depends. When you look at all the permutations and combinations of formulations and dosages, it’s in the trillions. From a supply chain standpoint, we’ve simplified it in a way that makes it very easy to funnel people into one of many predefined combinations of ingredients and dosage levels.
Our algorithm is an unstructured machine learning algorithm. The more people that take the quiz and the more people that provide feedback on their sleep score makes our programming and our personalization engine smarter.
Green: How does your manufacturing and packaging work?
Kamins: We have a strong relationship with a pharmaceutical partner that we have been growing even before RealSleep. It is a pharmaceutical manufacturing facility underneath a regional health care provider in the state of California. Everything they do is incredible. It’s a state-of-the-art facility and focused on complete transparency and building the products with the highest efficacy and safety profiles. They’re based in LA, and they’ve been such a pleasure to build our supply chain with.
Green: What kind of trends are you looking at in the formulation space?
Kamins: From a cannabinoid side, there’s been a bit more of a look towards some of the novel cannabinoids that have traditionally catered to a niche consumer base that is educated on cannabis. From being inside the industry, it’s very easy for me to talk about all the different cannabinoids, but a lot of people still don’t even know the difference between THC and CBD.
Our goal overall is to build efficacious products and educate people on all the different formulations and the different ingredients going in. Outside of cannabis, this year we’ve seen a large boom in consumer demand for Ashwagandha. There’s just so much hype around it in terms of how it impacts stress and energy and even libido, which is interesting. It’s probably the hottest non-cannabinoid ingredient that we’ve seen. Specific to sleep, the combination of L-Theanine and GABA and how they potentiate each other is impactful. Then there’s valerian root, which has been a big one over the last few years for sleep.
Green: Last question. What are you most interested in learning about?
Kamins: A personal interest of mine over the last few years is understanding from a scientific perspective, each of the cannabis compounds in greater detail. I think part of it is just really the curiosity to know the unknown. We’re at a point in the industry where there are still so many unknowns on the science-side of cannabinoids.
My passion for science has led me to support medical researchers in the space, so much so that I am an advisor and chief community officer to a nonprofit medical research organization called the Wholistic Research and Education Foundation, which to date has funded over six and a half million dollars in human clinical trials with cannabinoid rich therapeutics. One we’re currently conducting at UC San Diego is studying the impact of CBD on autism and other neurological conditions. That’s given me incredible exposure to research in the space. I am also a strategic advisor to a for profit medical research organization called Radicle Science, which is a very swiftly running clinical research for CBD and other cannabis brands in the space.
All in all, I’m driven by the possibilities that come with continuing to unlock the science behind the plant. By doing so, we can innovate products with efficacy and can educate people who are uninformed about the therapeutic benefits of cannabis, which will in turn benefit the industry and society. Striving for research breakthroughs and being transparent about our findings is going to help us destigmatize cannabis and legitimize the industry.
Green: That concludes the interview. Thanks, Michael!
In this “Flower-Side Chats” series of articles, Green interviews integrated cannabis companies and flower brands that are bringing unique business models to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses integrate innovative practices to navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory, supply chain and consumer demand.
4Front Ventures Corp. (CSE: FFNT) ( OTCQX: FFNTF) is a multi-state operator active in Washington, Massachusetts, Illinois, Michigan and California. Since its founding in 2011, 4Front has built a reputation for its high standards and low-cost cultivation and production methodologies earned through a track record of success in facility design, cultivation, genetics, growing processes, manufacturing, purchasing, distribution and retail. To date, 4Front has successfully brought to market more than 20 different cannabis brands and nearly 2,000 unique product lines, which are strategically distributed through its fully owned and operated Mission dispensaries and retail outlets in its core markets.
We interviewed Andrew Thut, chief investment officer of 4Front Ventures. Andrew joined 4Front in 2014 after investing in the company in 2011. Prior to 4Front, Andrew worked in investment banking and later moved on to public equity where he was a portfolio manager at BlackRock.
Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Andrew Thut: I came at it from the investment side of things. I started my career as a junior investment banker right out of school and then I was a public equity analyst and Portfolio Manager. I ran small-cap growth portfolios for BlackRock where I was on the team for a better part of 11 years.
One of my friends, Josh Rosen, who came from the finance industry, got interested in the cannabis industry really in 2008. He founded 4Front as a consulting company officially in 2011 and I came in as an investor. After that original investment, I left BlackRock and I was looking for something different to do. I was tired of chasing basis points and running public market portfolios. Josh said to me “This industry needs more talent,” and I became more and more involved at 4Front as the years went on. In 2014, I came into the business full time. Originally, I was someone that was kind of the gray hair in the room when we were applying for licenses. We had to go to different municipalities and convince them that we were going to be responsible license holders. I also spent a lot of time on the capital raising side for our business leveraging my career in corporate and more traditional public finance. These are incredibly complex businesses that require a fair amount of capital in some places. So, that’s how I originally got into the business.
These are complicated businesses in a lot of cases. The “sausage making” in cannabis is incredibly complicated. There’s friction at every step along the way. As an example, when you’re buying a building where you want to cultivate your product, you can’t get a mortgage from a typical bank.
While those of us that have been in the industry like to gripe and complain about it, this friction is also the opportunity. Because more traditional investors can’t invest in this industry yet, it allows us more time to build our businesses and have some protective moats around it from a competition standpoint until those folks do come in. So, all this friction is a pain and it’s brutal, but it’s also the opportunity here in cannabis.
Green: Can you speak to the transformation of 4Front from consulting to MSO?
Thut: The original business was consulting. Our original investor was sensitive about touching the plant – it’s one thing to offer services to a federally illegal business, it’s another thing to directly run a federally illegal business. For example, 4Front would have consulting clients that were interested in acquiring a license in Massachusetts. Because of our expertise and our standard operating procedures, we could apply for licenses in limited license states on behalf of our clients and help them show regulators competence and give the regulator’s confidence that these operators knew what they were doing. So, we would help our clients win the licenses and then once those licenses were won, our operations folks would come in and help them get up running.
When I came into the business we said, “well, geez, we have quite a track record helping clients win licenses and get open. If we’re good at winning these licenses and getting them open, why aren’t we just doing this on our own behalf?” So, in 2015, we shifted the business from consulting to being a multi-state operator. We leveraged our capabilities in regulatory compliance and winning licenses to go and get those on our own behalf. We also leveraged our financial expertise in M&A to add to our portfolio, so what we ended up with was a seven-state portfolio at the time.
Green: Chief Investment Officer is an uncommon title, even in the MSO space. What does your day-to-day look like?
Thut: I spend an awful lot of time helping management plot our strategy, and then figuring out how we are going to pay for our growth. Not only structuring finances for the company, but also having contact with our existing and new investors.
I spend a lot of my day to day thinking about where we want to be as a business and what geographies we want to be in. If you look at cannabis longer term, we have less interest in being cultivators or farmers. We think that’s going to be the most quickly commoditized piece of the value chain. We like retail as a business, but I think that we have less interest in managing hundreds of retail locations scattered across the country. We ultimately want to be a finished goods manufacturer. What we think is going to matter longer term is establishing low-cost production.
There is a lot of price elasticity in the end markets for cannabis meaning if you get customers a quality product at a much better price than the competitor, you’re going to take outsize market share. To offer that lower price, you have to be efficient. Over the years, we have figured out how to bring the labor cost out of our production. We have 25 different brands with 1000s of different SKUs of products that have dominant market share in states like Washington. And we’re now putting them into Illinois, Massachusetts, California, Michigan, and hopefully New Jersey.
Green: Do you have a preference towards acquisition, or do you seek growth through internal investments?
Thut: We are always weighing build versus buy. We want our products to have dominant market share, or very strong market share in every state we are in, and we have a lens towards what gets us there faster and most efficiently. For instance, we have two cultivation facilities and one production facility here in Massachusetts – about 15,000 square feet of canopy in the state. That will just about serve our three retail locations in Massachusetts.
Back to our bigger investment thesis, we believe that we should be a finished goods wholesaler in every state that we’re in. We know our products are incredibly well received and we know that consumers love our price point. In Massachusetts, for instance, we’re currently evaluating if we need more capacity from a cultivation standpoint and a production standpoint. And if we do where do the lines cross in terms of whether we should build versus buy that additional capacity?
We are currently in five states, including our facility in Washington has dominant market share in one of the toughest markets in the world for cannabis – somewhere close to 9% market share in Washington. Our brands are in the top 10 of every single category from flower to vapes, to edibles everything across the board. And what we’re doing our strategy is simple. It’s taking those tried-and-true products and operating procedures that have been so effective in Washington, and we’re replicating them in other states where we have licenses: Massachusetts, Illinois, and Michigan, California and hopefully New Jersey. We’re looking for more state, but we want to be deep in the states we’re in.
We also have a lot of confidence that you know, having been having translated some of these, having been able to effectively take our Washington success story and port it to other states. We’re looking for other states to sort of bring into the portfolio because we feel like we’re in a position now to stamp it out.
At our facility in Washington, which is the number one edibles manufacturer in that state, we produce the edible Marmas which is our the number one selling gummy in Washington. We produce 3,500 boxes of those in one shift using 25 people in Washington. Our facility is one of the lowest cost producers in the country.
We are opening what we think is going to be a very disruptive facility in Southern California right now. The facility is 170,000 square feet of purely automated finished goods production. So, rather than making 3,500 boxes of our gummy squares in one shift using 25 people, with the automation that we have in California, we can make 30,000 boxes. So, 10x one shift for the same number of people. We look more like the Mars Candy Company than most investors would think of when they see a typical cannabis company. We’re bringing that kind of scale and automation.
Green: What are some of the industry trends that you’re watching closely?
Thut: We keep a close eye on limited license states. States like Massachusetts and Illinois. For various reasons Massachusetts is very tough to get zoned. So, there’s going to be a limited number of players in a state like Massachusetts, which means you can have pretty good moats around your business and pricing will hold up over several years. We love limited license states like that, where price is going to hold up. On the other hand, we’re not afraid to enter a state like California where we think our low-cost production expertise uniquely qualifies us to go into a huge market like that and be disruptive and take a lot of the pie.
“You’re starting to see the market expand. There’s some anecdotal evidence that we’re taking a fair amount of share from the beer industry.”What we’re seeing in terms of industry trends, particularly on the THC side of this business, has just been phenomenally strong. You’ve had robust medical markets where, by and large, we’re seeing those dominoes start to fall quickly and going recreational. When that happens, the size of the market increases – call it from 2% of the population to as much as 10% of the population. So, from a state regulatory standpoint, having states go form medical to adult use is a huge deal in terms of the market opportunity.
We’re also seeing states get a lot more comfortable with the idea of selling cannabis. I’ve been around for close to seven years in this industry. When I started and I went into a municipality, and I said we wanted to open a cannabis store you’d have people following me to my car with pitchforks. As these municipalities open and public acceptance comes around, people are realizing that these stores are providing jobs and providing a good tax base for communities. So, the acceptance of cannabis has a snowballing effect that just continues to roll.
It’s not just the ultra-frequent users of cannabis who are totally driving the bus in terms of the demand growth for your business. You’re starting to see the market expand. There’s some anecdotal evidence that we’re taking a fair amount of share from the beer industry. So, the fundamentals of this industry are phenomenal. I think that we’re probably in the second inning of what is a mega-trend of legalization of cannabis and the investment opportunity here.
Green: I think one of the interesting things about the fundamentals is you’ve got this hardship of 280E, that all the companies are facing, and yet you still have groups that are surviving, profitable and growing. What are your thoughts on 280E’s effect on cannabis businesses? Do you foresee anything happening there?
Thut: There was a huge liquidity crunch in cannabis in 2019, meaning it was hard for people to come up with capital to grow their businesses. You had a bunch of companies that had licenses who didn’t really know how to operate and weren’t really focused on profitability. That liquidity crunch of 2019 made people get religious about being profitable and being efficient with capital allocation. Fast forward to 2021 and if you look at the top 10 cannabis MSOs in the US, I think we’re all profitable.
So, here you have an industry with accelerating top line growth and they’re already profitable. That profitability should only improve as you’re able to leverage your operating expenses and that’s a unique thing. When the internet craze was started in 1999 you had companies that a weren’t profitable, didn’t have business models, and no one really knew what they wanted to be. You have companies here in cannabis that are growing the top line 50% a year, and they’re profitable, and they’re trading at under 10 times EBITDA, which is totally disjointed.
So, that leads me to your question on to 280E. 280E has been a problem. Banking has been a problem. Having to list our companies over the counter instead of on exchanges like the NASDAQ and NYSE – that’s been a problem in terms of attracting capital. But the good news is Senator Schumer, Senator Booker and others have put out some bold initiatives on what they want to achieve from a legalization standpoint. From an investment standpoint, the biggest thing that investors should be focused on is access to banking, which is included in the senators’ proposed legislation.
Once we get access to banking services, the federal government is basically acknowledging cannabis as an industry will be able to not only have more traditional financing for our growth, but it will also lead to uplift into exchanges and real institutions like the Fidelity’s and the BlackRock’s of the world being able to come and invest in these companies. It also acknowledges 280E is an antiquated law. Getting rid of 280E will give us a much lower tax rate and will allow us to have a bigger proportion of our pretax cash flow into growing our businesses rather than having to go outside for that funding. My crystal ball is probably no better or worse than others in the industry, but if you fast forward 18 months to two years, I have a tough time seeing 280E still in place.
Green: Last question here. What’s the thing you’re most interested in learning about in the cannabis industry?
Thut: I’m just fascinated to see how these various business models will play out. People are placing bets on picks and shovels. People are placing bets on whether being a finished goods manufacturer works. People are placing bets on whether a retailer business model is going to win the day.
If you look at the leadership in the cannabis industry today, it’s totally different than it was four years ago. People that were foregone winners four years ago like MedMen had to do significant recaps. I put Acreage in that sort of bucket too. The leadership had shifted and so I’m really curious to see just from an intellectual standpoint, how this business evolves.
I sometimes scratch my head, you know, do you really want to be a cannabis company with 200 retail locations? You’re going to have a tough time growing same store sales in three to five years in 200 retail locations. So, I’m just most curious in proving out our thesis of being finished goods producers and low cost finished goods producers in the value chain. I’m most curious in seeing how that plays out. I think we are seeing our strategy play out in the most competitive markets in the world. We have a high degree of conviction that we’re on the right track here, but our eyes are always open and we’re always making little pivots here and there trying to make sure to stay on top of the sweet spot in the value curve.
If you describe the cannabis industry generically and you didn’t say cannabis, you said “widget” I think it’s the most fascinating Business School case ever presented. If you’re taking this market that already exists, it’s just illegal. So, all it needs to do is switch from the black market to the legal market and then you’re always trying to plot a course and steer the ship towards where the highest value creation can be. So, I’m fascinated to see how it’s going play out here.
Green: That concludes the interview. Thanks Andrew!
In this “Flower-Side Chats” series of articles, Green interviews integrated cannabis companies and flower brands that are bringing unique business models to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses integrate innovative practices to navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulations, supply chain and consumer demand.
Jushi Holdings Inc. (OTCMKTS: JUSHF | CSE: JUSH) is a multi-state operator with a national footprint and core markets in Illinois, Pennsylvania and Virginia, with developing markets in California, Nevada, Massachusetts and Ohio. In addition, Jushi maintains offices in Colorado, New York and Florida. In Q1 2021 they posted $42M in revenue representing 30% growth over Q4 2020 and 77% of their sales were conducted online. Jushi brands include Beyond / Hello, The Bank, The Lab, Tasteology, Sēchē, Nira CBD and Nira+ Medicinals.
We interviewed Andreas “Dre” Neumann, Chief Creative Director of Jushi Holdings. Dre joined Jushi in February 2020 after connecting to the founders through a colleague and running a large user experience research project. Prior to Jushi, Dre cut his teeth in advertising and branded entertainment. He was a startup founder at TalentHouse.com and a Partner at Idean, which he later sold to Capgemini.
Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Andreas Neumann: I’m a guy who has been interested in many genres – I’m always looking for the next big thing. I started out in advertising and then I faded into branded entertainment when the traditional advertising wave was kind of shaky due to the digital attack of the internet with platforms like Facebook and Myspace.
I’ve also been fascinated by digital which led me to move into Silicon Valley. I had a startup called TalentHouse.com which was like LinkedIn for creative people. I learned a lot there about building a company in Silicon Valley. It was the first time I was confronted with experienced customer and user experience people. CX and UX was already kind of a thing in Silicon Valley at the time. My last company I was a partner in was a company called Idean, a Silicon Valley-based user experience company which we sold to a French company called Capgemini about four years ago.
I continue to be involved in the entertainment industry as kind of a creative outlet. I’m working with a lot of big rock bands like The Foo Fighters and Queens of the Stone Age. I just did the last Foo Fighter album. Photography is my last domain of total creativity where I can do whatever I want specifically in the rock business.
Coming to the cannabis point, I was actively looking for a partner to do a cannabis brand with The Queens of the Stone Age. I met Jushi through a very interesting coincidence. I was on the way to do a shoot in Silicon Valley with a guy called Les Claypool, who is from a famous band called Primus. I shot Les there and I was driving through Silicon Valley and remembered I had a friend nearby I should talk to. So, I called him and he was in Singapore. He called me right back (he never calls back normally) and said “You’ve got to talk to Jushi! You’ve got to talk to these guys Jim Cacioppo and Erich Mauff (two of the founders). They are starting something very exciting. They could be your partners.”
This is where the conversation started. It was my first time confronting a cannabis MSO and understanding how this works. I had just exited from my last agency and put together the best people from my previous endeavor to create a new sort of “creative collective” of UX and marketing experts. We did a test project for Jushi, a big research project on cannabis for California in retail, which was super interesting. It was a 200-page document – the first phase of user experience of the process before you build something – and through that I saw this as a big opportunity. I spoke to the founders again and came fully onboard in February 2020, just before the pandemic hit. From then on, it’s been a real amazing journey with me and the team. And it was the right moment to jump on the Jushi train as it was just about to leave the station.
Green: Can you talk about some of the geographies you are active in?
Neumann: Jushi is a multi-state operator. The most important state for Jushi is Pennsylvania. That’s where we have the most stores and we are building more stores there this year as well, very aggressively. We currently have 13 Beyond / Hello medical cannabis dispensaries in the state with many more to come, bringing an unmatched in-store experience, coupled with online reservations and in-store express pick-up.
The next important market for us is Virginia. We have a unique position there in Manassas with a cultivation facility and manufacturing and extraction facility, with the license for up to six stores. We started store number one in the facility, and we are rolling it out in HSA II. We are the only ones who can open stores in HSA II and this is straight on the border to Washington D.C. We call Virginia the “sleeping giant.” So much happened in the last year in Virginia around regulation and the industry, and now flower is finally legal.
Then we have Illinois – super interesting stores there. We have two flagship stores located straight on the border of Missouri, basically in East St. Louis. They are our biggest performers in the whole network because of the location. You have people coming over from Missouri, which is really in the beginnings of a medical market, and Illinois, which is now adult use. It was a super cool experience to see a medical market change to adult-use and be part of that change.
In other states, we recently announced the acquisition of Nature’s Remedy in Massachusetts, where we will have cultivation, processing and stores there. In Nevada, we have a grower-processor and we’re looking at opportunities in retail as well. At the moment, we have all our brands launched there. We are also continuing to build out our processing and cultivation capabilities in Ohio.
Last but not least is California. I’m based in California and the whole creative team is here. It’s a vanity market and it’s very competitive, but you’re in the capital of the world of cannabis in terms of brands and retail. California is in the future compared to the other states. So, we need to be here. It’s just like a soccer team. You must compete against good people or you’re not going to grow. So, that’s why competing here in California is key.
Green: How do you think about brand development, specifically in the cannabis CPG space?
Neumann: California is the king of brands. There are more products than brands in the cannabis industry at the moment. The products may have nice packaging, but brands aren’t really out there yet. The only states where you have “brands” as I would call them are California, Colorado and Oregon. I think we are just about to get to the place where the first rush is over and people with more experience about brands come in and build on the story of the brand. The myths, the cult, the legend of that story is important, and I think this is just about to get started.
Our brands, The Bank and The Lab, have good stories. They have been around a long time. We acquired them from a company in Colorado and we rolled them out in Nevada with a total revamp of look and feel as well as story. The Bank is celebrating this kind of roaring 20s idea. We have a lot of images, from black and white prohibition-style photos to this black-gold, very high-end, adult use tailored brand.
The Lab is a solid vaping brand from Colorado, and one of the 8th best-selling vape brands of all time. We revamped The Lab image to “take the lab out of the lab.” So basically, take the hairnet and the lab coat out of the vibe and add a whole new energy, with symmetry and nature in a leading role.
Tasteology, which is one of our self-made, self-created brands, was all based on customer research. In Pennsylvania, we have thousands of people we can communicate with, and we can test our brands. So, we’ve done focus groups and testing to see what sticks, and the name Tasteology came out of a huge research project with hundreds of names.
The last brand comes back to your question “Where are the brands going?” I think our brand Sēchē is the first one of our own creation and has this total lifestyle feel. It’s fine grind flower which normally might make its way to extraction. We treat it well and then we sell the raw flower, as well as a pre-roll line. It’s this kind of a young, cost effective, very affordable pre-roll and pre-ground brand, which is fabulous. And Sēchē really gets a lot of traction – flies off the shelves in Pennsylvania. It is a great product.
So, this is now the first stage where brands are created, but I think overall, there’s not many brands yet. They have to find their stories and their real purpose, I think. But California is ahead of it. And there’s some of them coming out now. So, I think there’s a new wave coming. It always goes in phases.
Green: How do you think about brand partners?
Neumann: We did the first step towards outside partnerships recently. We just partnered with Colin Hanks, Tom Hanks’ son, on his handkerchief line called Hanks Kerchiefs and we’re going to sell these in our stores. Hanks Kerchiefs has nothing to do with cannabis, but it takes our stores to a place where it’s not only cannabis products, it’s more the retail scene, the lifestyle scene. If we go into future partnerships with people, we would partner with big talent agencies to create something special. Maybe it’s limited editions, maybe it’s something more story-driven, but it doesn’t have to be there forever. I see using outside partnerships for more “drops,” as we call it. But we will see. You cannot force these collaborations. They have to come at the right time and need to be real. That’s what people feel. If it’s real you can feel it.
Green: Do you notice any differences in consumer preferences between the states you’re in and do you have to tailor your messaging differently?
Neumann: This is a super interesting question. I’ve been working in Europe, and you have all these different countries, so every market is different. Every market gets different messages. Every market gets different commercials. It’s the same in cannabis in the United States! The only difference is that it’s so regulated. I could launch a gummy in Virginia and all Virginia would know about it. It would become a household name, and everybody uses that gummy. But in California, no one will hear about it. No one would care about it. And the same vice versa, right?
So, different states, different brands. With our acquisitions, we are acquiring new brands, which then live only in those states. Then we have to support that. If the data would show we should then we do it. When we acquire something we consumer test in many states, and specifically in the states where the acquisition happened.
Overall, you can say flower is always what people want. But in markets like Virginia, we cannot sell flower at the moment. In Pennsylvania you have flower, but you can’t have edibles. Do Pennsylvanians want edibles? Of course, they want it but it’s not allowed yet. So, there’s always this to consider.
Green: What are some of the forward-looking opportunities that you see to merge product with technology?
Neumann: It’s interesting that flower, the most old-fashioned thing you could have, is the biggest thing. If you get into it, it’s pure, you can smell it, you can trust it. Flower has its own charm.
So, asking about merging technology and product is like asking what technology comes with drinking wine. There’s lots of stuff around it. I think in the end the technology will be more about how you can create a product which delivers high THC, fast and controlled. The technology that goes into making stuff like live resin has a big future, because not everybody can make it. It has a very complicated process of freezing the product within four hours after the harvest, and then cold extraction. So, I think technology there has a big impact and gets the experience of the consumption right.
In the consumer world, people have tried a lot of things with technology. For example, limiting doses and inserting flower into a device. There are people trying all kinds of stuff. Common sense is always the key. What do you want to use most? Do you want to have a pre-roll and just enjoy it? A long one when you have friends around? A short one if you’re alone walking a dog? I think you have to keep it simple. That’s the most difficult thing most of the time.
Green: Final question here. What are you most interested in learning about? This can be personal life or cannabis.
Neumann: When I entered the cannabis industry, I hadn’t been a consumer since I was 18. I was more of an alcohol guy, but then later I stopped drinking alcohol, so I was totally clean the last 15 years until I entered the cannabis industry.
When I do something like making films about a jet fighter, I have to fly the jet fighter. If I make a film about jumping out of a plane, I have to jump out of the plane. So, if I work in the cannabis company, I have to consume cannabis. I cannot not consume it. So, I started professionally consuming cannabis every day. From day one when we started research, every day I tried other products and I became a real user. Not during the day, but in the evening when it’s the right time.
First of all, I compare it a lot with music. It’s like a feeling. Everybody feels it differently. I think what it does – and this fascinates me about it and it’s why I love to be in this industry – is it seems to be slowing down the world a little bit and your desperation. This slowing down of desperation actually opens you up to receive and when and you receive good stuff it comes to you kind of effortlessly. Not only is it great for medical use – it has helped me for pain as well – but also as a receiver of energy. I think it clears a lot of the “signal.” I’m always interested in learning more about this incredible plant.
In this “Leaders in Cannabis Testing” series of articles, Green interviews cannabis testing laboratories and technology providers that are bringing unique perspectives to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses integrate innovative practices and technologies to navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory constraints and B2B demand.
PathogenDx is an Arizona-based provider of microbial testing technologies. Since their inception in 2014, they have broadened their reach to 26 states in the US. In addition to cannabis product testing, PathogenDx also provides technologies for food safety testing, environmental testing and recently started offering human diagnostics testing to support COVID-19 response efforts.
We interviewed Milan Patel, CEO and co-founder of PathogenDx. Milan founded PathogenDx as a spin-off from one of his investments in a clinical diagnostics company testing for genetic markers in transplant organs. Prior to PathogenDx, Milan worked in finance and marketing at Intel and later served as CFO at Acentia (now Maximus Federal).
Aaron Green: What’s the history of PathogenDx?
Milan Patel: PathogenDx was effectively a spin-off of a clinical diagnostics company that my partner Dr. Mike Hogan, the inventor of the technology, had founded when he was a professor at the University of Arizona, but previously at Baylor Medical College back in 2002. I had invested in the company back then and I had realized that his technology had a broad and wide sweeping impact for testing – not just for pathogens in cannabis specifically, but also for pathogens in food, agriculture, water and even human diagnostics. In the last 14 months, this became very personal for every single person on the planet having been impacted by SARS-CoV-2, the viral pathogen causing Covid-19. The genesis of the company was just this, that human health, food and agricultural supply, and the environment has and will continue to be targeted by bacterial, fungal and viral pathogens impacting the safety and health of each human on the planet.
We founded PathogenDx and we pivoted the company from its original human organ transplant genetics market scope into the bigger markets; we felt the original focus was too niche for a technology with this much potential. We licensed the technology, and we repurposed it into primarily cannabis. We felt that achieving commercial success and use in the hands of cannabis testing labs at the state level where cannabis was first regulated was the most logical next step. Ultimately, our goal was and is to move into markets that are approved at the federal regulatory side of the spectrum, and that is where we are now.
Green: What year was that?
Green: So, PathogenDx started in cannabis testing?
Patel: Yes, we started in cannabis testing. We now have over 100 labs that are using the technology. There is a specific need in cannabis when you’re looking at contamination or infection.
In the case of contamination on cannabis, you must look for bacterial and fungal organisms that make it unsafe, such as E. coli, or Salmonella or Aspergillus pathogens. We’re familiar with recent issues like the romaine lettuce foodborne illness outbreaks at Chipotle. In the case of fungal organisms such as Aspergillus, if you smoke or consume contaminated cannabis, it could have a huge impact on your health. Cannabis regulators realized that to ensure public health and safety there was more than just one pathogen – there were half a dozen of these bugs, at a minimum, that could be harmful to you.
The beauty of our technology, using a Microarray is that we can do what is called a multiplex test, which means you’re able to test for all bacterial and fungal pathogens in a single test, as opposed to the old “Adam Smith” model, which tests each pathogen on a one-by-one basis. The traditional approach is costly, time consuming and cumbersome. Cannabis is such a high value crop and producers need to get the answer quickly. Our tests can give a result in six hours on the same day, as opposed to the two or three days that it takes for these other approved methods on the market.
Green: What is your business model? Is there equipment in addition to consumables?
Patel: Our business model is the classic razor blade model. What that means is we sell equipment as well as the consumables – the testing kits themselves.
The PathogenDx technology uses standard, off-the-shelf lab equipment that you can find anywhere. We didn’t want to make the equipment proprietary so that a lab has to buy a specific OEM branded product. They can use almost any equipment that’s available commercially. We wanted to make sure that labs are only paying a fraction of the cost to get our equipment, as opposed to using other vendors. Secondly, the platform is open-ended, meaning it’s highly flexible to work with the volumes that different cannabis labs see daily, from high to low.
One equipment set can process many different types of testing kits. There are kits for regulated testing required by states, as well as required environmental contamination.
Green: Do you provide any in-house or reference lab testing?
Patel: We do. We have a CLIA lab for clinical testing. We did this about a year ago when we started doing COVID testing.
We don’t do any kind of in-house reference testing for cannabis, though we do use specific reference materials or standards from Emerald Scientific, for example, or from NCI. Our platform is all externally third-party reference lab tested whether it’s validated by our external cannabis lab customers or an independent lab. We want our customers to make sure that the actual test works in their own hands, in their own facility by their own people, as opposed to just shrugging our shoulders and saying, “hey, we’ve done it ourselves, believe us.” That’s the difference.
Green: Can you explain the difference between qPCR and endpoint PCR?
Patel: The difference between PathogenDx’s Microarray is it uses endpoint PCR versus qPCR (quantitative real time PCR). Effectively, our test doesn’t need to be enriched. Endpoint PCR delivers a higher level of accuracy, because when it goes to amplify that target DNA, whether it’s E. coli, Salmonella or Aspergillus pieces, it uses all the primer reagent to its endpoint. So, it amplifies every single piece of an E. Coli (for example) in that sample until the primer is fully consumed. In the case of qPCR, it basically reaches a threshold and then the reaction stops. That’s the difference which results in a much greater level of accuracy. This provides almost 10 times greater sensitivity to identify the pathogen in that sample.
The second thing is that we have separated out how the amplified sample hybridizes to the probe. In the case of our assay, we have a microarray with a well in it and we printed the actual probe that has the sequence of E. coli in there, now driving 100% specificity. Whereas in the qPCR, the reaction is not only amplifying, but it’s also basically working with the probe. So, in that way, we have a higher level of efficiency in terms of specificity. You get a definite answer exactly in terms of the organism you’re looking for.
In terms of an analogy, let’s take a zip code for example which has the extra four digits at the end of it. In the case of endpoint PCR, we have nine digits. We have our primer probes which represent the standard five digits of a zip code, and the physical location of the probe itself in the well which serves as the extra four digits of that zip code. The analyte must match both primary and secondary parts of the nine-digit zip code for it to lock in, like a key and a lock. And that’s the way our technology works in a nutshell.
Endpoint PCR is completely different. It drives higher levels of accuracy and specificity while reducing the turnaround time compared to qPCR – down to six hours from sample to result. In qPCR, you must enrich the sample for 24 to 48 hours, depending on bacteria or fungus, and then amplification and PCR analysis can be done in one to three hours. The accuracies and the turnaround times are the major differences between the endpoint PCR and qPCR.
Green: If I understand correctly, it’s a printed microarray in the well plate?
Patel: That’s correct. It’s a 96-well plate, and in each well, you’ve now printed all the probes for all targets in a single well. So, you’re not running more than one well per target, or per organism like you are for qPCR. You’re running just one well for all organisms. With our well plates, you’re consuming fewer wells and our patented foil-cover, you only use the wells you need. The unused wells in the well plate can be used in future tests, saving on costs and labor.
Green: Do you have any other differentiating IP?
Patel: The multiplex is the core IP. The way we process the raw sample, whether it’s flower or non-flower, without the need for enrichment is another part of the core IP. We do triplicate probes in each well for E. Coli, triplicate probes for Salmonella, etc., so there are three probes per targeted organism in each of the wells. We’re triple checking that you’re definitively identifying that bug at the end of the day. This is the cornerstone of our technology.
We were just approved by the State of New York, and the New York Department of Health has 13 different organisms for testing on cannabis. Think about it: one of the most rigorous testing requirements at a state level – maybe even at a federal level – and we just got approved for that. If you had to do 13 organisms separately, whether it’s plate culture or qPCR, it would become super expensive and very difficult. It would break the very backs of every testing lab to do that. That’s where the multiplexing becomes tremendously valuable because what you’re doing is leveraging the ability to do everything as a single test and single reaction.
Green: You mentioned New York. What other geographies are you active in?
Patel: We’re active in 26 different states including the major cannabis players: Florida, Nevada, California, Arizona, Michigan, New York, Oklahoma, Colorado and Washington – and we’re also in Canada. We’re currently working to enter other markets, but it all comes down to navigating the regulatory process and getting approval.
We’re not active currently in other international markets yet. We’re currently going through the AOAC approval process for our technology and I’m happy to say that we’re close to getting that in the next couple of months. Beyond that, I think we’ll scale more internationally.
I am delighted to say that we also got FDA EUA federal level authorization of our technology which drives significant credibility and confidence for the use of the technology. About a year ago, we made a conscious choice to make this technology federally acceptable by going into the COVID testing market. We got the FDA EUA back on April 20, ironically. That vote of confidence by the FDA means that our technology is capable of human testing. That has helped to create some runway in terms of getting federalized with both the FDA and the USDA, and certification by AOAC for our different tests.
Green: Was that COVID-19 EUA for clinical diagnostics or surveillance?
Patel: It was for clinical diagnostics, so it’s an actual human diagnostic test.
Green: Last couple of questions here. Once you find something as a cannabis operator, whether its bacteria or fungus, what can you do?
Patel: There are many services that are tied into our ecosystem. For example, we work with Willow Industries, who does remediation.
There’s been a lot of criticism around DNA based technology. It doesn’t matter if it’s qPCR or endpoint PCR. They say, “well, you’re also including dead organisms, dead DNA.” We do have a component of separating live versus dead DNA with a biomechanical process, using an enzyme that we’ve created, and it’s available commercially. Labs can test for whether a pathogen is living or dead and, in many cases, when they find it, they can partner with remediation companies to help address the issue at the grower level.
Another product we offer is an EnviroX test, which is an environmental test of air and surfaces. These have 50 pathogens in a single well. Think about this: these are all the bad actors that typically grow where soil is – the human pathogens, plant pathogens, powdery mildew, Botrytis, Fusarium – these are very problematic for the thousands of growers out there. The idea is to help them with screening technology before samples are pulled off the canopy and go to a regulated lab. We can help the growers isolate where that contamination is in that facility, then the remediation companies can come in, and help them save their crop and avoid economic losses.
Green: What are you most interested in learning about?
Patel: I would prefer that the cannabis industry not go through the same mistakes other industries have gone through. Cannabis started as a cottage industry. It’s obviously doubled every year, and as it gets scaled, the big corporations come in. Sophistication, standards, maturity all help in legitimacy of a business and image of an industry. At the end of the day, we have an opportunity to learn from other industries to really leapfrog and not have to go through the same mistakes. That’s one of the things that’s important to me. I’m very passionate about it.
One thing that I’ll leave you with is this: we’re dealing with more bugs in cannabis than the food industry. The food industry is only dealing with two to four bugs and look at the number of recalls they are navigating – and this is a multi-billion-dollar industry. Cannabis is still a fraction of that and we’re dealing with more bugs. We want to look ahead and avoid these recalls. How do you avoid some of the challenges around antimicrobial resistance and antibiotic resistance? We don’t want to be going down that road if we can avoid it and that’s sort of a personal mission for myself and the company.
Cannabis itself is so powerful, both medicinally as well as recreationally, and it can be beneficial for both consumers and industry image if we do the right things, and avoid future disasters, like the vaping crisis we went through 18 months ago because of bad GMPs. We must learn from those industries. We’re trying to make it better for the right reasons and that’s what’s important to me.
Green: Okay, great. That concludes the interview. Thank you, Milan.
Patel: Thank you for allowing me to share my thoughts and your time, Aaron.
In this “Flower-Side Chats” series of articles, Green interviews integrated cannabis companies and flower brands that are bringing unique business models to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses integrate innovative practices in order to navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulations, supply chain and consumer demand.
The California legal flower market is the largest in North America. According to recent BDSA data, monthly cannabis sales in January 2021 were $243.5 million. Flower sales represented 35.6% of overall sales, or about $87 million, representing a $1 billion yearly run rate for 2021 flower sales in California.
Union Electric was founded in California in 2020 as one of OpenNest Labs’ first incubator brands. Its model is uniquely asset-light, and focused on filling an area of opportunity with a consumer-first approach, aimed at an underserved market: the working-class customer. The name Union Electric was inspired by the punching-in and punching-out aspect of working a union job — more specifically, the average cannabis user’s job. The name also represents the brand’s union of stakeholders: Customers, cultivators and retailers alike, working together to provide affordable, quality products.
Max Goldstein is the CEO of Union Electric and Founding Partner at OpenNest Labs. Max incubated Union Electric at OpenNest Labs, a cannabis venture studio he helped co-found, and launched the brand in 2020 the day after COVID lockdowns began in California. Prior to Union Electric, Max worked at Google managing a 90 person, 12-market partnerships team.
Aaron Green: How did you get into the cannabis industry?
Max Goldstein: I’ve had a fun entrepreneurial and professional journey. I started my career in my 20s with Google working in the marketing department sitting at the intersection of new product development and customers. During that time, I really learned the ins and outs of bringing products to market and building brands. I had to understand how to value and champion the customer, or the user. At Google, I was sitting at the intersection of people building products that are affecting billions of people’s lives and users and customers that potentially have really cool insights and feedback. It was an incredible learning experience. I was able to focus on what I’m good at, which is that early stage of businesses and most importantly, listening to the consumer and developing products and services that they ultimately really want.
Near the end of 2018, I co-founded OpenNest Labs, a cannabis venture studio. We came together as a four-person partnership to form OpenNest, as an assortment of skill sets, with all of us contributing an area of focus that we could really combine our experiences to take focused and concerted efforts at building brands that resonate with different consumers across various form factors in cannabis and health. My partner Tyler Wakstein has been in the cannabis industry for several years and helped launch the brand, hmbldt (which is now Dosist) and a number of other projects in the cannabis space.
Green: Was Union Electric an incubation project out of OpenNest?
Goldstein: Yes. Union Electric is the first project we incubated out of OpenNest. We launched the day after the pandemic. So, it was interesting timing.
At Union Electric we’re focused on the core, everyday consumer of cannabis. I think a lot of folks, particularly the new money that have come into the industry, have often focused on new form factors or things that they think the new cannabis consumer is going to enjoy or appreciate. Because quite frankly, that’s their level of familiarity with the industry. For us at Union Electric, we want to hit the end of the market with exactly what they want and that is high-potency, affordable flower with a brand that really stands for something and has values.
Union Electric is positioned as an advocate for the legal cannabis industry as a whole. We look at the stakeholders and the work that needs to be done across the board. The idea of just being one member of the value chain and not trying to ultimately uplift and elevate everyone in that value chain, it’s just not going to work in cannabis. We’ve seen a lot of people trying to go at this alone and I think the pandemic, if anything, showed that you’re only as good as your partners. We truly believe that the investment in our partners, in the local communities and everyone that’s really touching this industry is critical to ultimately building success for one company because a rising tide raises all ships.
Green: How did you settle on the name Union Electric?
Goldstein: One of the things that we wanted to do was focus the brand on who we see as the core consumer, which is somebody that is working hard, like a shift worker punching in and punching out and putting in the long hours on a daily basis and using cannabis as a critical part of their personal wellness and relief. There are elements of that which we certainly want to tap into. The “Union” represents our stakeholder approach, which is, all of us are in this together and our tagline “roll together” represents that. The “Electric” part is what we’ve seen cannabis sort of representing culturally, and for people more broadly. This is an exciting product that’s going to change a lot of people’s lives and, and I just don’t think there’s anything else in our lifetimes that we’re necessarily going to be able to work on from a consumer-packaged goods perspective, that’s going to change as many people’s lives. It’s electric. That’s how we came up with the name.
The coloring and a lot of the brand elements that we focused on were about providing transparency and simplicity to the marketplace: big font and bold colors. There are little nuances with our packaging, like providing a window just so people can see the flower on our bags. We look at the details and made sure that we’re ultimately out of the way of the consumer and what they want, but providing that vehicle that they’re really comfortable with.
Green: You have an asset-light business model, focusing on brand and partnerships. How did you come to that model?
Goldstein: I think everyone who’s operating and working in cannabis right now is looking at strategy and what the model is that’s going to work for them. We’re ultimately going to find out what works, which is why this industry is so fun and exciting. Our specific approach is really under the assumption that vertical integration in a market that’s maturing as quickly as California is going to be hard, if not impossible – it’s just too competitive. There are too many things going on in order to be successful in California. You have to be really good at cultivation, really good at manufacturing, really good at distribution, and then ultimately, you have to be able to tell a story of that process to ensure sell-through and that you really resonate with the consumer.
I think the big, missed opportunities that we’re seeing are that a lot of great cultivators are not marketers or storytellers. They really do need people that are there to help amplify and provide transparency to their stories. There are amazing stories out there of sacrifice and what cultivators have done to create a new strain. We all enjoy Gelato. What’s the process to make that happen or to create any other new strain? It’s fascinating. It’s too hard for a lot of these cultivators to go out and tell that story themselves. So, we act as a sales and marketing layer on top of the supply chain to provide visibility, transparency and trust with the consumer so that they know who grew their product, how it was grown, when it was cultivated and that they can build a real strong relationship with that cultivator as well.
It’s also hard to be a brand that’s using 19 different suppliers, selling the same genetics and expecting the same results. As an example, we’ve gotten Fatso from one of our partners, Natura. We’ve also gotten Fatso from Kind Op Corp (fka POSIBL). We renamed one of the strains – by adding a number on the end – just so that the consumer knew that we’re not saying that this is the same product, because it’s not. It’s from a different farmer and there’s going to be differences. While it does create a little bit more complexity for the consumer, we ultimately believe that every consumer has a right and will expect to know that type of information in the future.
Green: You launched Union Electric one day after the COVID lockdowns began in California. How did you navigate that landscape?
Goldstein: A lot of praying to the cannabis gods! It was really an incredibly challenging and difficult time. We were all concerned about the impacts of the virus. There were moments where we didn’t even know if dispensaries would be open, particularly in states that just legalized. You went from something being completely illegal to an essential business in 12 months. As a team, we were just trying to hold on to our hats and focus on product and partnerships.
Fortunately, with a brand like ours and the price point that we’re operating at, we just needed to consistently be on the shelves and available, and to be present with the bud tenders. So, we focused on that and shoring up our supply chain and just trying to wait it out. COVID forced a lot of cannabis companies to make a lot of decisions quickly and I think in some ways, because we have not been in the market for 24 months under one paradigm, we were pretty quick to be able to adjust and keep the team super lean to fit the emerging and rapidly changing environment. We learned a lot. We focused on partnerships and we leaned into the model that we set out to build which is being asset-light and focusing on the sell-through.
Green: I understand you have a 2% giveback program. Tell me about that.
Goldstein: The 2% giveback program was something that we wanted to put on the bag from day one. It’s on every bag that we made and put out into the market. We’ve seen a lot of cannabis companies come in and invest tens and hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure. Then, month 24 they realize “oh, crap, I gotta figure out what I’m going to do to get back and actually tap into the issues that are most important to cannabis consumers.” These are issues like social equity, equitable development of the industry, and ensuring that cannabis companies and its owners are active, responsible members of society.
What we’re going to focus on with our giveback program is working with our supply chain partners. We highlight the local communities, because when you look at the landscape in California, two thirds of its municipalities still don’t allow cannabis operations. We’re in a heart and minds battle still, even here in California, just proving that the operators here are not criminals and that they’re not going to bring negativity to local communities.
As we scale in California and scale to other states, the giveback program for us is a platform and a medium to work with our supply chain partners to make sure that we’re giving back and investing every step of the way. As founders and operators, it’s how we show that we are being mindful of the importance of equitable development of the industry. Ultimately, prosperity is going to come if everyone is getting a piece of the pie.
Green: What are you most interested in learning about?
Goldstein: I’m a student of history (I was a history major) and I was very fortunate to be part of a big evolution of technology development starting in 2011 working at Google and other tech companies. In some ways, this is the second generational industry that I’ve been a part of, and I have a lot of regrets about how the first one developed – not that I necessarily was the chief decision maker. The idea that large tech companies would always act responsibly (i.e. “Don’t be evil”) didn’t really pan out. I think it was an ignorant thought process as a person in my young 20s.
What I’m most interested in learning is: Can the cannabis industry develop consciously? Can you keep the greed and the things that bring industries down at bay? How can I, as an operator, be the best facilitator of that future? I’m always thinking how I can continue to bring in the people around us and around me as the CEO of Union Electric to ensure that we’re always focused on that.
Green: Great, that concludes the interview. Thank you, Max.
Goldstein: Thanks Aaron.
From Union Electric: Union Electric Cannabis will be offering their first Regulation CF crowdfund raise in an effort to give everyday consumers a stake in one of California’s fast growing cannabis brands. Due to the ever-evolving legal status of cannabis in the US, there have been very few opportunities for individuals to invest early on in American cannabis brands. This decision to give everyday cannabis smokers access to investing in their favorite cannabis brand (for as little as $100) is a natural manifestation of Union Electric’s mission: Collective power and championing accessibility for the plant. You can learn more about their raise by visiting https://republic.co/union-electric
The cannabis industry in the United States represents about a $50 billion asset class making it one of the largest new asset classes in the country. Commercial real estate lending is a key enabler for companies seeking to expand and scale. Pelorus Equity Group is one of the largest commercial lenders in cannabis with over $170 million deployed since its first cannabis transaction in 2016.
Since 1991, Pelorus principals have participated in more than $1 billion of real estate investment transactions using both debt and equity solutions. Pelorus offers a range of transactional solutions addressing the diverse needs of cannabis related business operators. While most cannabis private equity lenders focus on real estate acquisition and refinancing, Pelorus has leveraged its experience in more than 5,000 transactions of varying size and complexity to offer value-add loans, a rarity in the industry.
We spoke with Rob Sechrist, president of Pelorus Equity Group and manager of the Pelorus Fund. Rob joined Pelorus in 2010 after several years in the California real estate market. In 2018, Pelorus launched the Pelorus Fund where Rob is currently the manager. The Fund converted to an REIT in 2020.
Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Rob Sechrist: Pelorus is a value-add bridge lender. We’ve been lending for a long time, originally in the non-cannabis space. We’ve done 5000 transactions for over a billion dollars – more than a lot of banks.
In 2014, our local congressman Dana Rohrabacher passed the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment that defunded the Department of Justice from prosecuting any cannabis related business in a medically licensed state. We were a supporter of that legislation and once that passed, we took a serious look at utilizing our expertise in being a value-add lender and applying it to the largest asset class of real estate that is newly coming about today. That cannabis related asset class is about $50 billion.
We decided that we had the expertise to move into this space and to build these facilities out for our borrowers so that the cannabis use tenants would have a fully stabilized facility and make it operate. After the amendment passed in 2014, by 2016 we had originated our first transaction. Since that time, we’ve originated 51 transactions in the cannabis space for over $177 million so far. It wasn’t that big of a pivot when you’re just providing the value-add loan.
“Value-add” in the loan business means that a portion of the loan amount, let’s just say is a million dollars, maybe 250,000 of that, is a pre-approved budget to go back into the property. In cannabis property those are typically tenant improvements and/or equipment to fully stabilize that tenant. So, we’re the first fully dedicated lender in the nation exclusively to cannabis and we’ve done more transactions than anybody else in the nation.
Green: What are some challenges of cannabis lending compared to traditional lending?
Sechrist: The number one challenge in cannabis is that you must disclose to your investors that you’re originating the loans to cannabis use tenants. Many people have concerns that lending indirectly might be federally illegal. If you did not disclose that to your investors when you form that capital stack to fund these transactions, you’re going to run into issues. So, you would need to create a vehicle where you disclose to your investors that you’re intending to lend into cannabis and it’s still federally illegal. Doing one-off stand-alone transactions deal by deal is not sustainable if you’re going to be a large lender.
There are other challenges. Because cannabis is still federally illegal, it gives insurers and other third parties the ability to deny a claim, or certain lender protections. Some examples include errors and omissions insurance, title insurance, property insurance, etc. and all of them say in those policies that if you’re doing something federally illegal, then the policy is null and void. So, you must think your way through very carefully all the things that could potentially be an issue. You also have to disclose to those third parties and find a way to get them to acknowledge it to make sure you have the coverage if you ever have to make a claim. That’s a very difficult process.
Green: How has the investor profile in cannabis lending changed over time?
Sechrist: Our fund was structured to allow for institutional capital from the inception. We were able to do that because we are completely non-plant touching. Our fund only lends to the owners of commercial real estate. We do not lend to any cannabis licensed operator directly whatsoever. Our borrowers – the owners of the properties – would then have a lease agreement with the cannabis use tenant. Even if it’s an owner-operator, those are separate entities. That’s how we’ve distinguished ourselves.
Regarding the investor profile, the first $100 million plus we raised was primarily from retail investors who were individuals writing checks up to a million dollars. Once we had three years of audited track record and our fund was $100 million, we then pivoted over to family offices and institutional investors and pension funds. We’re now working primarily with those types of investors.
The reason that we started with retail investors is that it’s very easy for me to explain our model to a single decision maker and answer their questions. Once I move into family offices or institutional investors, the opportunity goes to a credit committee where I’m relying on some other party to educate the investor about our investment. It’s enormously challenging at that point if it’s not me doing the talking. I know the answers, but I’m having to rely on somebody else to answer questions. We’ve tried to educate everybody we speak with and craft our documentation in such a way that even when it’s not myself answering the questions directly, people can understand how we thread the needle through some of the legal hurdles.
Green: How do you prioritize deal flow, and what are the qualities of a successful loan applicant?
Sechrist: We typically maintain a pipeline of around $150 million in transactions at any one time.
Applicants must have real estate. We’re not doing business loans or operator loans directly to tenants or business operations. So, that’s the starting point. We want a real estate piece of collateral where we feel more than comfortable with the loan-to-value and ratios and the loan to cost and other figures, that we feel that this transaction is going to be a success for our borrower and ultimately the tenant.
Next, we will only work with very experienced operators who have a proven track record where this is not their first transaction. Ideally, we are working someone who is looking to expand their operations and who is ready to either move from being a tenant of their previous facility and buying their next facility.
The next aspect that we’re looking for is the strength of the borrower’s guarantor. They must be able to qualify to support that transaction. Many of our transactions are millions or 10s of millions of dollars. You must have a sponsor that can support that size of a transaction.
Green: What sort of value-adds should a cannabis property owner look for in their lender?
Sechrist: Most people that are looking for loans are only familiar with getting loans for themselves on their owner-occupied house. Most loans have points, they have a rate and a term, loan-to-value and things like that.
“We wanted to make sure that when we underwrite the transaction, that every single piece of capital is necessary to get that facility all the way to where that tenant can start generating their first crops and make their lease payments.”When you move into construction loans or value-add lending, there are other elements that are more important than the pricing of the loan. The number one thing is to get that property fully stabilized and built as quickly as possible. Cannabis tenants are generating 10 to 15 times more revenue per month than non-cannabis tenants.
If you go to a bank and borrow money it may be a third of what it costs to borrow from us, but they process draws maybe once a month. So, if you’re having to advance the money for improvements of the property, and then the bank reimburses once a month, at a certain point you’re not going to be able to advance any more money until you get reimbursed. The project comes to a stop. So, in your mind, you might have saved an enormous amount on the pricing of the rate, but it’s costing you dearly in revenue and opportunity costs. We typically process 50 to 100 draws post-closing on transactions, and we get that facility built and the money reimbursed to all the contractors on a multiple-times-a-week basis. It’s happening in real flow all the time.
A typical problem for a tenant is that the tenant improvements are orders of magnitude higher than a non-cannabis tenant – anywhere from $150 to $250 per square foot. In addition, the equipment is often enormously expensive as well. It’s tough to put money into a buildout for a building that you may not own. Our vision at Pelorus was, let’s not force these tenants – the cannabis operators – to raise equity at the worst possible time when they’re not generating revenue through the facility. Let’s shift that capital balance for those tenant improvements and equipment from the from the tenant to the owner of the building, which is where it’s secured and adds value to that building anyway. Our vision was to shift that money from the balance sheet of the tenant over to the owner of the real estate so the tenant didn’t have to sell equity to come up with that money. Then the tenant is paying for the improvements in the lease rate and the borrower is paying for improvements in the note rate. And so we’ve shifted tenant improvements from being an equity component to now it’s just priced in the debt. This way you know what the terms are and you know what your total exposure is there.
We wanted to make sure that when we underwrite the transaction, that every single piece of capital is necessary to get that facility all the way to where that tenant can start generating their first crops and make their lease payments. Most of our peers in the space don’t look at it that way. They just do the acquisition or the refinance. They don’t do anything for the tenant improvements. They don’t do anything for the equipment. The tenant is left out there to either raise that equity or the borrower – the owner of the real estate – is having to come up with that additional capital on their own. We think you’re set up for failure in that circumstance. So, we blend all that into one capital stack. It’s important that the tenants can get all the way up to being able to cash flow and support that facility and be fully stabilized so they can refinance into a lower cost bank or credit union transaction.
Green: What federal policies and trends are you monitoring?
Sechrist: First, I think that it’s important to remind people that the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment has protected everybody from any prosecution. So, there’s no jeopardy out there that exists. The second thing I like to tell people is there are 695 banks on FinCEN’s website of cannabis Tier 1 depositors, and of those, we’re tracking numerous FDIC insured state banks and credit unions that are lending directly. We’ve been paid off by banks.
So, there’s this massive misconception that there’s no banking at all and that everything is happening by cash. The only cash buildup that happens is at the retail dispensary level because credit cards aren’t allowed for retail sales at the dispensaries. Out of the 2,000 transactions that we’ve either processed or reviewed, not one has ever not had banking set up. So, it is a big misnomer that there’s no depositor relations for Tier 1 banking, which is plant touching.
Tier 2/3 depositors are ancillary, which is what we are at Pelorus. There are 100 private lenders and dozens and dozens of state and federal credit unions or state banks and credit unions, not federal, that are FDIC insured and lending. Those banks are difficult to get loans from because they only want to do urban environments. They want to do fully stabilized companies and they want to use alternative views and the facility has to have seasoning for cash flow. It’s difficult to qualify for them. So, banking and lending exists out there, and most people are not aware of that.
Green: What are you most interested in learning about? This could be either in cannabis or in your personal life.
Sechrist: My two passions are snowboarding and racetrack driving. I just came back from the Mille Miglia race in Italy, and I do a lot of driving on the racetracks. I’m always looking to learn from those experiences.
In the cannabis sector, social equity programs are happening across the nation and cannabis licenses are being issued to operators. We would like to help participate in some system of educating these applicants that win the awards. Lending to an owner of a property who just won a license but has no experience is going to be problematic. Somebody needs to be thinking that out and making sure that these people that win have enough experience and education to set them up for success. Cannabis is one of the most complicated businesses ever, and they’ve got this license as their ticket, but they need to know how to make sure they’re going to be successful.
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