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 traditional payment processors have been cracking down on these offerings as they are often non-compliant with regulations and policies.
Two companies, KindTap Technologies and Aeropay, are addressing the cannabis industry’s payment processing challenges with innovative digital solutions geared towards retailers and consumers.
We interviewed both Cathy Corby Iannuzzelli, president at KindTap Technologies and Daniel Muller, CEO at Aeropay. Cathy co-founded KindTap in 2019 after a career in the banking and payments industries where she launched multiple financial and credit products. Daniel founded AeroPay in 2017 after a career in digital product innovation, most recently at GPShopper (acquired by Financial), where he oversaw the design and development of over 300 web and mobile applications for large scale Fortune 500 companies.
Green: What is the biggest challenge your customers are facing?
Iannuzzelli: Our customers include both cannabis retailers and their end consumers. As long as cannabis is illegal at the federal level, normal payment solutions such as debit and credit cards cannot be accepted for cannabis purchases. This has resulted in heavy cash-based sales and unstable, transient work-around ATM payment solutions that can be ripped out with little notice, disrupting the entire business. The lack of a mature payment network to support retail payments for cannabis purchases is a huge challenge for all stakeholders. Cannabis retailers bear the high cost and safety issues of operating a heavily cash-based retail business. Consumers encounter several friction points that require them to change their behavior when purchasing cannabis relative to how they purchase everything else.
Muller: Our cannabis business customers have faced a constantly changing and, frankly, exhausting financial services environment. From the need to move and manage large amounts of cash, to card workarounds, added to the disappointment from legislation around the SAFE Banking Act, these inconsistencies have acted as a roadblock to their potential growth and profitability. Aeropay is in the position to be a stable, long-term, reliable payments partner ready to help them scale their businesses. We believe these opportunities are limitless.
Green: What geographies have got your attention and why?
Iannuzzelli: KindTap’s focus is on the U.S. market where federal policy has created the need for alternatives to traditional payment networks. KindTap is available in every U.S. state where cannabis is legally sold. In terms of our distribution channels, KindTap’s digital payment solution was brought to market during the COVID-19 pandemic when curbside pick-up and delivery became critically important. These channels are where the exchange of cash at pick-up posed the greatest security risk to employees and customers. Our early integrations were with e-commerce platforms focused on delivery and pick-up orders, and our integration partners have strong customer bases in California and the northeast. So, while KindTap can provide its “Pay Later” lines of credit and “Pay Now” bank account solutions anywhere, we have heavier penetration in those regions.
Muller: California, for its established tech culture and how it plays into the cannabis industry – your product simply has to live up to their tech standards to be heard. Also, Chicago, our headquarters, with its newly emerged commitment to financing the cannabis industry and bringing with it a more traditional business approach. In Chicago, you have to have elevated standards of professional practices in any industry you enter. And of course, we love to watch emerging markets like New York and Florida as they head towards adult-use and what shape cannabis and payments will take.
Green: What are the broader industry trends you are following?
Iannuzzelli: We continue to see a strong transition from cash and ATM transactions over to digital payments. Since KindTap has a fully-integrated payment “button” on e-commerce checkout screens, the adoption rate of end consumers to that one-click experience is quite strong. We are also seeing trends of more “express lines” in the retail environment – for those KindTap users who paid online/ahead – and faster/safer delivery experiences to people’s homes since there is no longer the need to collect any payment upon delivery. We are firm believers in the delivery/digital payments combination and a strong increase of that trend as more states allow for delivery.
Muller: The cannabis industry is starting to normalize payments and mirror traditional online and brick-and-mortar. With bank-to-bank (ACH) payments, cannabis businesses can now offer modern customer shopping experiences including pre-payment for delivery orders without the need for a cash exchange at the door, offering the option to buy online pickup in-store and contactless in-store QR scan-to-pay customer experiences. With these familiar and customer-driven options now available, we are seeing widespread adoption, as well as meaningful increases in spend and returning customers.
Green: Thank you both. That concludes the interview!
About KindTap: 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. Learn more at kindtaptech.com.
About AeroPay: AeroPay is a financial technology company reimagining the way money is moved in exchange for goods and services. Frustrated with the current, antiquated payments landscape, we believe there is a better way to pay and a better way to get paid. AeroPay set out to build a payments platform that works for all- businesses, consumers, and their communities. Learn more at aeropay.com.
Natural cannabinoid distillates and isolates are hydrophobic oils and solids, meaning that they do not mix well with water and are poorly absorbed in the human body after consumption. Cannabinoid oils can be formulated into emulsions to form a fine suspension in water to modulate bioavailability, stability and flavor.
Happy Chance is a cannabis infused products company offering better-for-you products to their customers. Happy Chance recently launched a low-glycemic index fruit bite line made from fresh ingredients, distinguishing them from traditional gummies. Splash Nano is a cannabis infused products ingredients company specializing in nano emulsions. Happy Chance utilizes Splash Nano technology in their fruit bites formulations.
We spoke with Katherine Knowlton, founder of Happy Chance, and Kalon Baird, co-founder and CTO of Splash Nano to learn more about their products and how they came to do business together. Prior to Happy Chance, Knowlton worked as a chef. Prior to Splash Nano, Baird was a consultant to the cannabis industry.
Aaron Green: Katherine, how did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Katherine Knowlton: I am a chef by trade. I went to culinary school in 2015. My partner also got into the cannabis space in 2017, which was right around the time when adult use cannabis became legal in California. As a chef, I am very passionate about cooking for optimal health and well-being. I noticed right away the abundance of candy- and sugar-laden products on the market. I set out to create a wellness driven product blending healthy, whole foods with a better value proposition, better-for-you and better-for-the-planet.
Green: Okay, great. Kalon, same question: how did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Kalon Baird: I left a corporate job in 2011 and started cultivating in Southern California. I started to develop techniques for horticulture and developed a connection with the plant. I was a consultant for many years, and then decided to take a different path when legalization happened and got into the regulated manufacturing space. My goal was to bring new products to market to help satiate the demand for the infused category, the non-smokeable categories and to pursue niche product development.
Green: Tell me about your recent product development interests?
Baird: We’re interested in the research that comes out regarding cannabis minor constituents. We work with other research labs doing two-dimensional chromatography. We’re trying to figure out what compounds exist in the plant that aren’t just the major cannabinoids, and how to work with them in a pharmacological context so that they can be standardized and replicated at scale.
So, it’s not just about making a sugary THC gummy, it’s about seeing what minor cannabinoids, what minor terpenoids and what other unknown compounds can we explore, and then put back into products.
Green: That’s 2D GC-mass spec?
Baird: Yeah, it’s GC-by-GC and tandem mass spec. There are only a couple people that make that piece of equipment. The lab that we work with on that project is called Veda scientific. They’re one of the only people in the cannabis space that uses that machine. And they’re right in our backyard. The tech enables us to further quantify terpene profiles and helps to differentiate our products.
Green: I’d like to focus first on the Splash Nano technology and then we’ll dig into how you got to know each other, and then we’ll finish off with learning more about Happy Chance. So Kalon, tell me more about Splash Nano.
Baird: We employ nano emulsion technology. It’s essentially the science of making oil and water compatible and suspended in a way that reduces droplet size. With nano emulsions, you create an interfacial layer that enhances absorption and solves technical problems like being able to make cannabis oil compatible in water-based matrices, and sometimes in non-water-based matrices. The idea is that as we spread out the particles and as we change attributes of how they’re coated, they’re more bioavailable, and you get a more consistent and faster onset experience like you would in the pharmaceutical or alcohol industry. It’s bringing the industry standard up to the consumer package level and the pharmaceutical level, so that people aren’t waiting the typical hour-long timeframe to absorb that first dose.
Green: Tell me about your business model.
Baird: When we started out in 2018, we were going for a manufacturing license. In the meantime, we saw the drink category evolving and we wanted to be a part of that conversation in that ecosystem. We started developing our own nano emulsions that we knew would be useful when we got our license. We knew that we would sell the base material to co-packers who would put them into beverages. We didn’t want to co-pack the beverages ourselves. So, we developed a drink additive that was our proof of concept that had legs for the technology so that we could show people how to use it. That proof of concept spun off and became its own product and now it’s in the market under the brand name Splash Nano and comes in four distinct product SKUS using minor cannabinoids as differentiators.
Meanwhile, our bread-and-butter business was working with smaller brands, like Happy Chance that needed a path to market but couldn’t get the license or couldn’t go through that whole rigmarole of a two-year waiting period and a half a million dollars and all the other stuff. So, we started taking on all these smaller brands effectively licensing their brand IP and their ideas. In the process, we ended up learning a ton about product development and it became kind of a passion.
We have three core revenue streams. One of them is contract manufacturing, or private labeling. The other one is our own product Splash Nano which is a drink additive. And then the last is we open sourced the technology and sell that as a business-to-business platform so that people can infuse their own products with our fast-acting emulsions. We’re working on a licensing model that will allow other states to create that same consistency, where we send a black box model out to them, and then they infuse the cannabis and then turn that into a product.
Green: Moving on to Katherine here. Tell me about Happy Chance, and how you came up with the brand concept and the product idea.
Knowlton: Going back to what I touched on earlier, many traditional edibles in the space are brownies, cookies and candy type of products that do not contribute to wellness. I wanted to give the wellness driven consumer an option in cannabis. I wanted to create a powerhouse edible that was not only functional and complete but that elevated the consumer’s experience as a whole because of the ingredients we choose and the whole cannabis we source.
I’m someone who values better-for-you products that contribute to optimal health and well-being. So, I set out to make something. I didn’t really know what I wanted to make in the beginning. I bought a dehydrator and a food processor, and I started messing around with different applications in my kitchen. Over 100 variations later, the fruit bite was born.
The fruit bite is made with dates – a natural sugar that delivers nutritional power: a low glycemic index and high in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. A sweet you can feel great about. And we use pumpkin seeds which have a lot of great protein. We are working with a company in California that takes imperfect fruits and vegetables and upcycles that back into the food supply chain. We utilize the whole fruits and vegetables as a dried intermediate, capturing all the flavor of nutrients. No added natural flavors and nothing from concentrate.
Green: How does the consistency differ from a gummy?
Knowlton: The consistency is similar to a Lara bar or an Rx bar. Essentially, it’s that same consistency in a bite form and so it’s very different than a gummy. It’s a low dose, low sugar alternative to the modern-day gummy.
Green: So, you’ve got this healthy concept for the fruit bite. You’re looking at suppliers and technologies to infuse the product. How did you finally decide on Splash Nano?
Knowlton: I watched my partner lose his company a few years ago to a larger vertically integrated company. The MSO promised the moon and the stars, and they got lost in the weeds of their eco-system, ultimately losing their company. That said, I was very sensitive when I first started on this journey. I even took on my own partners who didn’t work out either. I spoke with a lot of manufacturers in the selection process. Splash Nano was the tenth manufacturer I spoke with.
It was a very organic way of meeting. I am also based in Santa Barbara where Splash Nano is located. My partner’s brother shared an office space with Kalon, so we met through that connection. I learned right away that Splash was founded on wellness, much like Happy Chance. It was important to source clean cannabis, an aspect that Kalon and his team take pride in. We quickly discovered that Kalon’s Splash Nano technology was going to work in my product. Happy Chance immediately found a home, and it has been an organic evolution of realistic business and friendship.
Green: Kalon, I’d love to get your perspective as well. How do you think about partnering with brands?
Baird: Because of our contract manufacturing experience, we’ve been able to touch approximately 50 brands over our three-year tenure in this space. We’ve seen kind of everything from the multi-state operator to the owner-operator and everything in between. I developed a passion for working with these smaller brands for a lot of different reasons. This industry is built on the success of small mom and pops. Yes, the multi-state operators do have a place and they absolutely add a lot of value. But at the same time, they have their own natural challenges. You have essentially a culture of employees versus a business owner that’s making a lot of their own decisions.
There are advantages to somebody like Katherine, who’s in the trenches of business, and understands the ebbs and flows and ups and downs of this industry and be able to get through some of those challenges a lot more organically and a lot more sustainably. Katherine has such a deep pulse on her business and on her customer and on her own money. She tends to make a lot more calculated decisions, and I really appreciate that.
There’s a lot of waste that gets accumulated in this industry through packaging, through bad decisions, and over extensions of capital. It’s sad to watch and you see these people that have great potential, but it’s kind of lost in this sort of the framework of a large organization. Again, I like multi-state operators, they’re great. There’s nothing wrong with them, but it’s just a different flavor. I’m trying to highlight the fact that working with somebody that has a pulse on her business, and the passion for what she’s doing is wonderful. It’s not just about making money; it’s about adding value.
Green: Katherine, talk to me about sustainability and how you’ve woven that into your product.
Knowlton: We’re dedicated to supporting Product, People and Planet. That’s the whole mission and ethos of Happy Chance. As a chef, I wanted to be intentional about where our ingredients come from. We only source organic and upcycled ingredients – an essential recipe in sustaining a healthy, eco-friendly plant. Intention and integrity are always at the forefront of our products. We prioritize partnering with more transparent supply chains. We want to show the world how cannabis can promote positive lifestyle changes that support living more actively and consciously.
To reiterate, we are also not using anything from concentrate. We are using the entire strawberry, the entire blueberry and so it encapsulates all the flavor and all the nutrition that you would have from a fresh fruit into our products.
Green: How do you think about sustainability in product packaging?
Knowlton: As far as packaging goes in this industry, we’re very limited in what we can do. Compostable packaging isn’t really available, but we have partnered with a packaging company that definitely has mindfulness at the core of their mission. They have established their entire supply chain to ensure they are focusing on green practices and reducing waste each step of the way. Their energy efficient machinery creates a zero-waste manufacturing process to reduce their carbon footprint and they utilize soy and vegan inks to help reduce air pollution by minimizing toxic emissions in the air. My hope for the industry is that as it continues to evolve, we can become less wasteful as far as packaging goes.
Green: Rapid fire questions for both of you: What trends are you following in the industry right now?
Knowlton: As a chef and coming from the CPG world, I’m passionate about health and wellness. I think that it’s important to stay on trend with what we’re seeing in CPG. There’s definitely a market as far as people wanting these better-for-you products. I want to bring that into the cannabis space.
Baird: We’re seeing the inclusion of minor cannabinoids, terpenoids, standardized recipes and faster- or slower-acting delivery systems. So, I’m following trends in advanced drug delivery systems paired with minor cannabinoids.
Green: What are you most interested in learning about?
Knowlton: I’m most interested in how I can take what I’ve learned in the food space and help bring that into the world of cannabis through Happy Chance. Ultimately cannabis is plant medicine. So, how can we educate people that the ingredients we choose to make products should be good for us too. I think that there’s a lot that can be done with it from a from a health and wellness standpoint.
Baird: I’m interested in learning more about the analytical overlay between quantifying and standardizing entheogens and plant medicines like cannabis into the product development process in CPG. I’m thinking of ways to blend the two worlds of traditional science and New Age medicine.
Green: Awesome, that concludes the interview. Thank you both, Katherine and Kalon.
Flower continues to be the dominant product category in US cannabis sales. In this “Flower-Side Chats” series of articles, Aaron 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 navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory, supply chain and consumer demand.
TILT Holdings (NEO: TILT) is a publicly traded cannabis company with business divisions including Jupiter Research, distributor of CCELL in the US, as well as cannabis operations Commonwealth Alternative Care in Massachusetts and Standard Farms in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Unlike many publicly traded companies, TILT has focused their business on B2B sales staying away from retail operations. TILT recently announced a partnership for vertical cannabis operations with the Shinnecock Nation on Long Island, New York called Little Beach Harvest.
We interviewed Gary Santo, CEO of TILT Holdings. Prior to joining TILT, Gary worked at Columbia Care where he was the vice president of investor relations. Gary has a background in finance with several startup companies.
Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Gary Santo: My career started about 26 years ago in finance at a startup. It was a financial services intermediary startup company where we did a lot of B2B work. From there, I branched out and continued to work with what I consider to be startup companies and companies going through a massive transformation. What’s been interesting is no matter whether that industry is finance, or whether it was gaming and leisure – where I was doing casino equipment – or whether it was life sciences, there were all so many common threads to how those businesses work. They were all complex and all had stories that needed to be told.
I looked at cannabis around 2017 or 2018. A friend of mine said, “you should really look at this space, because this could be a great way to cap off your career. It’s an emerging space. It’s a story space. It’s a space that’s just looking for some level of normal operational competency.” So, I was lucky enough to find Columbia Care. I joined them back in 2019 and helped take them public. They were the first cannabis company I had seen that was focused on being pragmatic and operational, not flashy, like so many of the companies that went public. They showed me that there is a way and a path in cannabis, that can be pragmatic, that can be operational, and where certain business rules do in fact, apply.
In July of last year, in the middle of COVID, I joined TILT, because I saw an opportunity to have that rebirth story, that complete turnaround story. It’s a B2B story that fits almost every part of my career up to this point.
Green: You have business units within TILT that span a diverse array from cultivation to manufacturing and technology. How do you see the business units of TILT working together in synergy?
Santo: That was the first question that was posed when I joined. We had three divisions at the time. We had our technology and accessories division with Jupiter that focused on inhalation. This includes the power packs, the cartridges, all the packaging that goes into that and also packaging for cannabis in general, not just for vapes. We had the software and services division in Blackbird which also does a bit of distribution in California and Nevada. Then we had our plant-touching side with vertical operations on the East Coast.
We quickly figured out that the software and services were not a place where we had good line of sight. That market is very competitive and irrationally priced. So, we leaned into the other two parts of the business which were profitable. TILT went through a rebirth when it went public with the same kind of wide mandate in 2018 that a lot of companies had back then. They had acquired some interesting assets. Jupiter has been profitable since day one. On the plant-touching side, we have assets in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, that are in underserved, limited-license and supply-constrained markets, and those were profitable as well.
The way they work together is if you think about Jupiter’s business model, they are a distributor of the CCELL vaping technology. It’s a ceramics-centered cart. They were instrumental. The founder of Jupiter, who’s the chair of our board, Mark Scatterday, really helped the Chinese factory, Smoore, who owns CCELL and the patents on CCELL, to develop that technology from their use in the tobacco space, which is where it had been for quite some time, and bring it into the cannabis space.
Jupiter has always had a forefront position as a distributor. We have our own R&D shop, but the way we sell there is B2B. We will sell vape cartridges and power packs either as stock items with Jupiter and CCELL logos or on a customized basis. If there’s a bespoke mouthpiece or something we can take one of our existing designs, white label it and put different badging or color combinations.
The CCELL business grew to over 700 customers, including MSOs, LPs, brands, and in about 36 different states and in 15 countries. As we looked at how best to lean into our plant-touching assets coming into 2021, the question was, could you replicate that where you own more of the supply chain? The issue with being a distributor is if you don’t own enough of the supply chains, the margins aren’t quite as eye-popping as they are in the plant-touching side. So, we’ve built a robust wholesale business, selling into about 90% of the retail stores in Pennsylvania from our manufacturing and distribution facility, and selling into about 50 or 60% of the retail stores in Massachusetts from our operations. We thought that created a strong window for us to do the same exact thing: offer up our facilities to create product whether it be on a bespoke basis with one of our brands, or a white-label basis, or straight-up contract manufacturing. We then leverage that distribution network, and that’s where the pieces all started to fit together.
We started this year with probably about 15-20% of our revenue was coming from people who were customers of both plant-touching and non-plant-touching businesses. We’re up to over 30% now and really, we just started leaning into the strategy in the start of 2021.
Green: In Q2 TILT showed continued growth in revenues and EBITDA with the Q3 report recently released. Where are you seeing growth in revenues right now? What’s got you excited?
Santo: With Jupiter, it’s been great to watch the vape industry come back. I think you could not have thrown much more at the vaping industry than what was thrown out there in late 2019, with the vape crisis rolling right into a respiratory pandemic. I think what we saw there was consumer demand remains strong. For every percentage point vaping was down, smokable flower is up. So, inhalation is clearly the absorption method of choice.
Obviously, the utility and the convenience of the vape was less important to people working from home. You can now smoke a pre-roll, whereas you’d never do that in your office setting. You might go outside and take a quick draw on a vape and then go back to work. That’s one of the reasons we saw a little bit of choppiness in 2020. We started to see that that business come back towards the end of the year with a lot more consistent ordering, and this year, it’s gone into full throttle. All-in-ones – the disposables – have returned to ordering so that means more power packs and more cartridges. It’s been a pleasant return to normalcy.
Now, I think Jupiter has been outpacing the broader vaping market in terms of year-over-year growth. That’s exciting granted the margin profile is certainly not as eye-popping as the plant-touching businesses. With Jupiter, we’re talking mid 20%’s on gross margin and low-to-mid teens on EBITDA.
Plant-touching aspects are where we’re super excited. These are facilities that a little over a year ago, prior management was thinking of selling off mostly because they thought there was tremendous value there. And it made sense. When I joined the firm, one of my first jobs was to look at a strategic view of the entire company and break down each of the business units. It became very clear that Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and recently Ohio, we’re going to be the significant growth engines for us, but not necessarily in retail.
A lot of the MSOs go and play in several stores and focus on sales per square foot. We are leveraging that B2B wholesale strategy. That’s exciting to us and the approach that we’re taking. It’s not about selling bulk flower. It’s not about selling just our own brands. It’s about really partnering with brands that are going to be coming from West to East. Whether it’s California, Washington State, or Colorado, brands that have managed to stake out a claim in the most hyper-competitive spaces in a race to the bottom market in terms of pricing, have held their price point and held their ground. We think they play exceptionally well here on the East Coast where we’re just getting started. The East coast is nowhere near the depth of market that you see over in California.
What we offer, what makes it exciting, is that we’re not trying to buy those brands. We think brands are where this industry is going. But we don’t know which brands are going to win any more than anyone else does. We know it’s expensive to own a brand and it’s hard to keep a brand fresh. So, we’re doing partnerships and those partnerships are literally on a SKU-by-SKU basis. In some cases, it’s a straight licensing deal, and in other cases, we share the gross profit. Brands come in, like Old Pal, for example, and we’re able to educate them on how different it is to sell their ready-to-roll pack in Massachusetts compared to what they do in California from the packaging to the formulation, and what can be on the labels, all those kinds of things. It’s been eye-opening.
The feedback has been better than I would have ever expected. I knew we would land a few brands. I wouldn’t have thought we would have already signed four brands on something we just announced strategically in January. We had MJ BizCon, where we were getting hit up all over the place with additional brands. I think between that, and then the work we’re doing in New York State, it shows that we’re differentiated and how we’re approaching this market. We’re in this to last, not to just squeeze every last basis point and ride the wave into the shore. We want to still be out here playing in the ocean in any market, whether it be this market, the legalized market, or whatever the market throws at us.
Green: When you are partnering with brands, what does that look like?
Santo: It depends on the jurisdiction. In Pennsylvania, you can’t really do pre-rolls there. You can’t sell the ready-to-roll pack that comes with a lighter. I can sell the pouch with flower, but I can’t sell you rolling papers. I can’t sell you a lighter because you might “figure out how to put that all together and smoke a joint.”
Part of the issue is being able to marry what makes that brand, “the brand?” And how do we keep that brand fidelity when we know we have certain restrictions, whether it’s medical-only market in Pennsylvania, or THC levels in Ohio. That’s where we spend time working with the brands, helping to develop which SKUs they want to see hit the market first. Everybody says they want to be a number one brand in every market and it’s not realistic. You might carve out a niche if you want to be number one in a certain type of product. We work with brands to figure out where their niche is going to be.
Green: You recently announced a partnership with the Shinnecock Nation. How did you decide on a partnership with them? Why does it make sense? And can you talk to kind of the tribal aspect of it and how that differentiates you in the New York market?
Santo: We had been looking across the Northeast and want to build sort of some type of Northeast corridor for brands to come East because we think having that tri-state region right would be distribution most of these brands would love to have. We had been looking for ways to get into New York. It is incredibly expensive and incredibly difficult. We saw deals earlier this year. One was $75 million for the old MedMen assets and money has to be invested into building out the growth facility further.
My former shop, Columbia Care, spent about $45 million purchasing a bunch of greenhouse space on eastern Long Island. We thought the return on that kind of expense was just not there.
So, looking at how we look at brands and how we look at the market in general, we love partnerships where both sides are incentivized. An investor introduced us to Conor Green. They are a shop out of Chicago, and they had been advising a lot of different Native American tribes, including Shinnecock, on how to enter the cannabis space. We were very impressed when we met with the Shinnecock on how they were viewing cannabis. A lot of people want to just get in and ride that green wave I talked about and don’t fully understand how to translate the passion for the plant into a functional operating company. I was incredibly impressed by the thoughtful, pragmatic way the Shinnecock worked through setting up their cannabis control infrastructure on their sovereign grounds. They had their own standalone Cannabis Control Commission, setting up the regulations to mirror very closely what was going on in New York state where they are ready should that time come where wholesale can occur across sovereign state lines. They were really being thoughtful about what they were looking for in a partner.
We like the location out in eastern Long Island. The next closest dispensary is about 30 minutes away. It’s a great neighborhood with good access. We’re creating a vertical operation that has a large dispensary selling on the tribal grounds. The numbers look great. Once wholesale comes, and we do think wholesale will come to the state, the ability to reach all of New York State from that tribal ground is incredible. We have the ability to expand the facility if the demand is great. They’ve already approved adult-use on tribal grounds. Little Beach Harvest, which is the name of the Shinnecock enterprise we’ve partnered on, does have to go through the process of applying to the Shinnecock Cannabis Regulatory Division to get approval. But they’ve already got all the framework in place for both medical and adult-use. So, it gives us a chance to really get going strong in New York.
From a dollars and cents point of view, it only costs $700,000 to get in – about half in cash half in stock. If Conor Green hits their milestones and we get open when we think we can, there could be another two and a half million or so in stock. Every dollar we put in is now going towards building the facility, not towards just the right to build the facility.
We love this deal from a social equity standpoint. It’s unique. This is not a facility we will take over and own. At the end of the day, it is owned by the Shinnecock. They will be receiving 75% of the free cash flow. Our contract runs nine years and it’s got some automatic extensions if we hit certain milestones. If we decide to build bigger, that opens up the contract again. It’s a symbiotic relationship. We provide financing. We provide training. We provide the horsepower to help them scale. They provide the license. They provide the passion and the understanding of the plant, and really a great group of folks who are so interested in investing and seeing a true economic, sustainable engine out on that plot of land. We couldn’t be more excited.
Green: What trends are you following in the cannabis industry right now?
Santo: We are keeping our eyes on where the form factor is going. CPG is where we think the world is heading to at some point. I think in Massachusetts, it moves quicker. When you look at Pennsylvania, and as you watch these markets trying to transition from purely medical to medical and adult-use, we’re seeing some grinding of the gears. Some states did a great job. Pennsylvania is a little bit of a no man’s land where right now the legislature and the Department of Health are fighting with each other, saying one got ahead of the other. So, it’s hard to get new products approved. If you can’t get new products approved that migration towards adult-use becomes that much harder. You would want to broaden out the form factors. So, we are keeping an eye on what’s allowable in those states.
We are also keeping a strong eye on how we can expand further with additional partnerships, maybe in New Jersey, maybe in Connecticut, who knows? We must be responsible. Those deals take a while to find and a while to get done.
In the Northeast, there’s been a slowdown in cannabis sales. I think it’s too soon to know exactly what’s driving that. But it’s also an industry that’s going to normalize at some point from these explosive growth rates that have been reported for all these years. It was inevitable it was going to start to slow down. That’s what happens with mature industries.
Green: What in cannabis, or in your personal life are you most interested in learning about?
Santo: I think every day I find instances of new uses for the plant. I was not one who thought much about cannabis growing up. I was a bartender. I was kind of on a different side of the world. But cannabis is amazing. I first was introduced to use cases by my dad. He’s suffering from arthritis in his knees, and he had gotten a medical card. He was getting CBD and THC balms that he puts on his knees.
As I look deeper into the plant, it amazed me that if this was a plant that was discovered today, and nobody knew anything about it, you’d probably be buying it down the aisles of Whole Foods. It’d be in every drugstore. It’d probably be over-promoted at that point. But it’s got that long legacy of prohibition, and social inequity. So, it’s making it harder to adopt. Obviously, being Schedule 1 doesn’t help either.
I am excited to see more and more people start to incorporate it responsibly in their mainstream lives and really promote a lot of that counterculture. It really is no different than other ways that people use to manage stress and anxiety and manage pain. That’s what keeps me coming to work each day, frankly. No, we’re not saving lives necessarily. But at the end of the day, I think we really are improving them and giving people alternatives to opioids and benzos and things like that. So, I think as long as that keeps happening, I’ll still be here.
Natural cannabinoid distillates and isolates are hydrophobic oils and solids, meaning that they do not mix well with water and are poorly absorbed in the human body after consumption. Cannabinoid oils can be formulated into emulsions to form a fine suspension in water to improve bioavailability, stability and flavor. Vertosa is a cannabis infused ingredients company specializing in emulsion technologies. Their technology can be found in a range of CBD and THC containing beverages found on shelves today.
We spoke with Austin Stevenson, chief innovation officer at Vertosa, to learn more about emulsification technology and some of the challenges in testing cannabis infused beverages. Stevenson joined Vertosa in 2019 after spending time as a cannabis advisor at CanopyBoulder as an entrepreneur in residence. Prior to Vertosa, Stevenson ran the hemp and CBD analytical testing laboratory business unit for Eurofins.
Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Austin Stevenson: I got involved in the cannabis industry nearly seven years ago, when I was an advisor to an accelerator in agriculture technology in Africa. I went to the MIT Innovation Laboratory, and I saw a whole bunch of farmers cultivating green leafy vegetables in the middle of the Kalahari Desert, which piqued my curiosity. I learned that it was all done via hydroponic indoor cultivation and freight containers. I got back to the US and put my detective hat on, and learned that it was really the cannabis industry that was driving innovation in terms of indoor and sustainable agriculture. At that point, I took it as an opportunity to dive in and started, again, as an advisor at an accelerator in Colorado. From there, I’ve been on the amazing cannabis journey.
Green: And how did you get involved with Vertosa?
Stevenson: I became an advisor at CanopyBoulder to a few software companies and got on the founding team there as well as at a few cultivation companies and other license types across the supply chain. Immediately before Vertosa, I ran the business unit for hemp and CBD testing at Eurofins, one of the world’s largest analytical chemistry laboratories, specializing in Ag Pharma. My clients were your traditional retailers: CVS, Kroger. Our team analyzed thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of SKUs of infused products.
At one point I had to tell one of my clients at Eurofins, that all of their beverage SKUs were failing potency tests. Their supplements, OTC products, some of the confections, cosmetics, were all passing, but the beverages were failing potency testing. Cannabinoid ingredients were floating to the top, sinking to the bottom, even leaching into the can liners. It just wasn’t working, so we had to tell them that those beverages could not go to market. On this same day, I happened to run into my longtime friend and business partner in the industry (now Vertosa CEO) Ben Larson at a conference in Oakland, who was running the Gateway Incubator at the time, but had met our other partner and founder, Dr. Harold Han. Ben told me, “I have this PhD chemist, a surface chemist from BioRad. He’s been experimenting with techniques, taking cannabis oils and turning them into fast acting emulsions for beverages. I’d like for you to check it out because I’m considering building a business around this.” I said, “Alright, show me the technology. Let me take it back to the lab, analyze it, verify it, and then try it. See if it works.” Lo and behold, it did. I fell in love with the product. I saw the problem firsthand at my lab and now I saw a solution, so I knew that the next part of my cannabis journey would be to join Ben and Harold in building a business together focused on being the number one technology solving the problem of stability and potency for the infused beverage market.
Green: What is the core technology of Vertosa?
Stevenson: Our focus at Vertosa is being the best delivery mechanism for cannabinoids. That means that we have a portfolio of different technologies that we’re using to take cannabis oils and turn them into fast-acting liquid emulsions, as well as powder-based APIs. When we began, we were using nano-emulsification. We are using nanotechnology in the food space, with a few different methods for creating those nano-emulsions, to infuse a diverse range of different products – everything from seltzer waters to dealcoholized wines and teas.
Green: So, it’s a portfolio of products with the basic idea of encapsulating the oil into smaller components. Can you highlight some of the challenges when you were first developing the product with testing? My assumption is that it was relatively new for testing labs. How did you support method development with them so that you are accurately reporting cannabinoid content?
Stevenson: The biggest problem that we faced at Vertosa is that there’s no one size that fits all. The chemistry of an infused seltzer water is different than the chemistry of a dealcoholized wine. The reason is because, quite literally, the ingredients are different. They’re different products. When we’re making the emulsions for these beverages, all the ingredients have to be compatible – the ingredients in the emulsion as well as the ingredients in the beverage. We’ve had to design a portfolio of different emulsions for different beverage types to ensure compatibility in any scenario, otherwise there could be instability, causing separation between the emulsion and the ingredients.
Additionally, we’ve seen challenges in the packaging type as well as the manufacturing techniques, specifically sterilization, thermal processing, chemical treatment, or the lack thereof. These three core variables (ingredients, packaging, and manufacturing technique) are where all the challenges in potency testing arise. For example, you have an infused beverage that is going to be packaged in an aluminum can. There is a polarity between cannabinoids and the can aligners that ultimately could create leaching, or an absorption type of effect.
At Eurofins, we would see beverages that were supposed to contain CBD in the can but were testing at 0 milligrams, despite manufacturers confirming that they had added the CBD. All the CBD had been absorbed into the can liner. Our teams of method development chemists and management had learned to acid rinse the can liner so that we would be able to capture the cannabinoids and identify them. That was a step that we had to learn through trial and error, and we were able to bring this over and build upon this at Vertosa.
Here at Vertosa, the biggest challenge in the lab currently is that there aren’t consistent methods for analyzing beverages. Every lab has different standards, and the instrumentation hasn’t always been calibrated. To ensure that these low dose beverages are measured properly, you have an accurate LOQ to identify the cannabinoid content. Part of the challenge is that the analytical chemistry community has only started to collaborate here recently, literally in the last few months as the AOAC made a call to action for methods for beverage.
At Vertosa, we’ve had to work together with the labs and ask if they have a method for developing beverages. It’s a three-step approach: we send a lab the oil, the emulsion, and the finished product, and ensure that the accurate cannabinoid profile is being diluted across the entire chain to make sure that each step the instrumentation has been calibrated the correct way. We want to make sure that they calibrate it into the HPLC and that the correct cannabinoid profile is always consistent in the finished product. It’s a lot of intimate hand-holding with the labs.
Green: So, you took it upon yourself to go out and get the methods validated, anticipating the need for finished goods testing with your customers and partners?
Stevenson: That’s right. From the beginning, we understood that the problems we are setting out to solve are consistent potency testing and accurate dosing. We wanted to be able to say confidently that when you work with us, you’re going to pass potency tests every time. And if you don’t, we’re going to uncover the reasons why.
For us, we have been able to provide that consistent and reliable ingredient. And yes, there’s been stumbles along the way, but those stumbles are the learnings that make us better. In the beginning, we had just one formula but the chemistries of different beverages vary too much for that to work. We also know that packaging type and manufacturing processes play a role. So, we now have a portfolio of different emulsions, such as conventional, natural, and organic, that can work with any given varibale and that have verifiable potency.
We anchor ourselves to the promise that our clients will pass potency, because that’s the biggest problem most brands have.We know the ingredients inside and out – knowing how heat plays a role, how polyphenols play a role, how oxygen plays a role, and helping the labs and our brand partners succeed while minimizing all the risk and pain that they go through with failed potency. You’d be surprised how many people are using the wrong product in formulation. A new client will come to us frustrated after adding CBD isolate powder to their beverage and seeing it fail potency tests. That’s where we’re able to come in and correct the course.
Green: Someone comes in with a magic wand. What do they solve for you?
“Efficacy research is the most interesting aspect of industry research to me.”Stevenson: If I had a magic wand, I would use it to accelerate efficacy research to validate and verify specific cannabinoids/terpene formulas for targeted effects. In other words, I’d love to have a peer-reviewed, scientifically validated cannabis formula for any desired effect, like anxiety or pain relief, aid in sleep, or increased energy, for example. At Vertosa, we’re currently investing in third party academic research to empower our clients with validated information; however, it takes a lot of time, money, and effort conducting research and clinical trials. It’s a long but essential and beneficial process!
Green: What trends are you following in the industry?
Stevenson: In the world of edibles and ingestibles, I’m extremely interested in exploring onset times and bioavailability technologies, as well as trends in ingredients. More of our clients are interested in rapid onset times so that consumers feel the effects within minutes of consumption, removing some of the stereotypical hesitation around edibles and wondering when “it’ll hit.” It’s also fascinating to explore and integrate minor cannabinoids as well as active and functional ingredients and how they interact together in an ingestible.
I’m also extremely interested in keeping up with changing regulatory policy around consumption lounges and access in recently recreational states. Open consumption lounges are a fantastic solution to further normalizing cannabis usage and decentralizing alcohol in our culture, as consumer behavior is increasingly reflecting a move away from alcohol towards more health-conscious choices.
Green: What are you most interested in learning about?
Stevenson: Efficacy research is the most interesting aspect of industry research to me. Most of us cannabis professionals are passionate about the plant, and anecdotally know how cannabis can be used to improve quality of life. However, the scientific and academic community needs to see hard evidence. As we build the industry in a post-prohibition era, there is more access to research grants to evaluate the efficacy and safety of cannabis. The National Institute of Health (NIH) has identified four (4) key areas of cannabis research eligible for grant funding: (1) cannabinoid research (2) cannabidiol research (3) endocannabinoid system, ECS research, and (4) therapeutic effects of cannabinoids. It’s the latter two, ECS and therapeutic effects, that really spark my curiosity. At VERTOSA, we’re spending a lot of time and resources with our Scientific Advisory board to help accelerate this research, and I’m personally excited about the forthcoming discoveries we make, which will help our entire industry grow and thrive!
With 2022 comes a new year for cannabis. Mid-term elections, political forces shifting and several cannabis-related bills in the legislature make federal legalization seem like a reality closer than ever before. On the cannabis market’s side of things, disruptions are always occurring. Consumer spending on different product categories, new technologies for extraction processes, new cannabinoid and medical research and entirely new types of products including things like nanoemulsion tech have all been playing a role in market trends.
As our readers have probably noticed, we’ve been publishing conversations with industry leaders from every corner of the market. For this piece, we wanted to do something different. Instead of showing you a conversation with one individual, we asked the same question to seven different leaders in the cannabis space during interviews. The idea here is to see what interests people most in the cannabis industry. Are they excited about new research? Or new product development trends? Or do they believe a certain market is headed in a new direction?
So, what trends are you following in the industry? Below you’ll find seven responses to that question from various leaders in the cannabis space. We also want to hear from you though. What trends are you following? Leave a comment at the bottom of the article and let us know!
What trends are you following in the cannabis industry?
Brooke Butler, VP of Partnerships at Simplifya
Butler: I am obsessed at this point with the new states that have legalized, especially on the East Coast, like New Jersey and New York. I’m interested in the local jurisdictions and what’s going on with people opting out or opting in and how that’s playing out. The interesting thing about the pandemic is we had so much more cannabis reform than anybody expected. We went fast because suddenly, jurisdictions now need more money. They have budget shortfalls that they’ve got to account for, and I think they’re starting to realize that cannabis is a great way to do that. If I’m in New York, and I don’t have an adult use store, but New Jersey is about to open all their adult use stores, everybody’s going to be driving across state lines and giving that tax revenue to New Jersey. So why not regulate it and make it safe for your constituents, and get tax revenue for your jurisdiction that you can then put to use for education, or community centers and things like that? So, we’re really seeing the evolution of that change and California is a great example of that. We’ve seen a lot of jurisdictions where when the state first legalized back in 2018, they were like, “there’s no way we’ll ever do it,” and they’ve started coming around. That for me is really exciting. I love watching people’s minds shift and trying to figure out what’s really driving that.
Arthur Jaffee, Founder & CEO of ECS Brands
Jaffee: I’m following the regulatory landscape closely. There’s a lot of confusion and complexity around that topic. There are different cannabinoid conversion procedures for delta eight now and all these other derivatives to THC have made things much more complicated from a regulatory standpoint. There’s also been an increase in production of cannabinoids from non-cannabis sources where there’s no evidence at all yet in terms of proving safety. At least with cannabis, we have decades of public use, safety and consumption data that really supports a generally safe product profile. With some of these synthetically derived cannabinoids, people just assume that “bio-identical” guarantees being safe, but there’s no evidence and therefore should absolutely not be assumed. Synthetic cannabinoids require extensive research because the slightest modification in molecular composition can be very dangerous. Evidence is key, and it just doesn’t exist yet. We know that cannabinoids that are naturally existing and derived from the plant are safe, and ultimately designed for the body. when you start manipulating the molecular composition it may be hurtful.
Ricardo Willis, CEO at Hanu Labs
Willis: Hotels and restaurants are a big thing for me. I talked to a few people last night who own a restaurant in Oklahoma, and they’ve gotten one of the first permits to be able to include cannabis offerings in their restaurant. Our products fit well in resort, hotel, or restaurant settings, especially when you want to offer customers a safer device to use. Having been a chef, I can just imagine all this food on the table and then having a vaporizer that is portable flip over on the table, ruining everything. So, I want something that’s stationary. It’s right there, as the centerpiece. Also, people are going to use cannabis in these places, like hotels no matter what. So, do I want somebody using a blowtorch to light their rig? Or do I want someone using a safe device that has automatic shut off and things of that nature. So that’s important.
Lastly, pricing is a trend that I’m following closely. We’ve seen a huge dip in the pricing in California flower. I want to see if that trend is going to matriculate over to the concentrates, which is one of my favorite spaces because I’m a dabber. I know that vape carts are losing some steam in the pricing categories. We saw one-gram carts that were $60, several months ago. Now companies are offering one-gram carts at $28. It’s going to affect the industry.
Marc Lakmaaker, SVP of Capital Markets at Audacious
Lakmaaker: I’m looking at how brands develop in markets and what kind of what products resonate. You’ve got the cannacurious coming in, you’ve got new demographics coming in. And then you’ve got the existing cannabis culture. For companies that are authentic, it’s very important to have that connection to the culture. It’s more than just about cannabis, it’s about lifestyle. But then on the other end, there’s a lot of people that are coming in for a variety of reasons, the medical, recreational, whatever. So, what I’m trying to look at is what is resonating with which target groups. What kind of products really hit this spot in terms of branding, but also the actual product offering and trying to see if we’re seeing a movement towards either form factors, or entourage effect kind of products, terpenes, etc. so you know, what do people want.
I’m seeing that increasingly, if they’re cannacurious that are coming in and get acquainted with cannabis over certain period of time, they’ll probably go for a lot of value options. But then same as with certain alcohol cool brands, or fashion or whatever, we are now seeing a movement where the people that have been in the market for six months to a year are I slowly move into the higher ends. I think that’s something that’s happening, where people who have been in cannabis for a while are now becoming more discerning in the products that they’re going for, and how do those mechanisms work.
Sam Andras, AIA, Principal of MJ12 Design Studio and Executive Vice President of Professional Services at urban-gro (Nasdaq: UGRO)
Andras: One of the most fascinating things to me about this industry is everyday there seem to be 10 new technologies. Eventually, one of those technologies is likely to be successful. You’ve got things like grow pods, you got Agra fi, modular, rooms, modular driver, and semi. This industry is filled with trending technology. And I think one of the greatest challenges as an architect is to understand how to work with the client, to really understand their philosophy and what they’re trying to accomplish and working with their grower. It is important not to restrict a grower to one specific cultivation method, but to explore how you can design a facility that allows a client to modify a cultivation methodology down the road. Designing flexible facilities that can adapt and adopt the future technologies is critical.
Derek Smith, Executive Director of Resource Innovation Institute (RII)
Smith: So, I see the need for MSOs and certainly publicly listed companies, to report on ESG. We are essentially the “E” of the ESG. We have the environmental data on energy, emissions, water and waste, to support the MSOs with that data need. That to me is a perfect storm where there’s pressure to do the reporting and we have a tool and an infrastructure that’s broadly supported, recognized by governments, by utilities, by cultivation operations, supported by the supply chain. We’re here to help serve that need. We’re a non-profit. We’ll protect the data of the companies, and then they can get in the queue to be recognized as leaders for being part of this effort. That to me is an exciting trend right now. Everybody wants to make a commitment and show progress on sustainability and we’re going to help them be able to do that.
Tyler Williams, CTO and Founder at CSQ
Williams: I think the big one right now is the delta-8 THC, especially on the CSQ side. We’re watching that and looking at how we need to adjust our standard. On November 1, we have our next Technical Advisory Committee meeting, and we’re going to be talking about the next revisions to the standard. Delta-8 is going to be one of the things we’re going to be talking about and something that we’ve been watching and trying to educate ourselves on, because there’s not just going to be delta-8, there’s other ones that are coming on the market that are going to be, you know, essentially the same as delta-8, where they’re in this gray area. We don’t want just the government to say, “Nope, you can’t do this at all.” Hopefully we can help the industry a little bit by at least providing some standardization there. That’s probably the biggest trend that we’ve been watching.
Cannabis and hemp derived concentrates are a rapidly growing product category. Formed by extracting cannabis using a variety of methods including ethanol, butane hash oil and CO2, concentrates find their way into consumer packaged goods as ingredients for infused products or as stand-alone products such as resins, rosins, distillates and hash.
Precision Extraction Solutions (Precision) was founded in 2014 to provide equipment and services to cannabis and hemp processors. In October 2021, Agrify (NASDAQ: AGFY) purchased Precision in a $50M cash and stock deal. The move positions Agrify to offer end-to-end infrastructure solutions for cannabis cultivators and processors.
We interviewed Nick Tennant, SVP of Innovation at Precision, now a division of Agrify. Nick founded Precision after seeing a need for quality equipment in concentrate processing. Prior to Precision, Nick was involved in a vertically integrated cannabis business in Michigan where he gained experience in cultivation, extraction and retail.
Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Nick Tennant: I’ve been in cannabis about 17 years now. I had family in Colorado and California who I started to interface with around 2006. Around 2008, Michigan passed their cannabis law, and we were one of the first businesses to get licensed. The subsequent five years from that law getting passed, up to 2013, I did pretty much everything in terms of commercial cannabis – cultivation, retail, edible manufacturing, you name it. Concentrates didn’t really exist in a meaningful way; the products definitely were there, but the technology wasn’t. I looked at technology at the time and it was very primitive, so we made a shift to focusing on concentrates. We launched Precision in 2014 and we basically shot out of a cannon, doing a million dollars in sales in our first 90 days. Since then, we grew the company up to 60 employees and substantial amounts of revenue. We sold Precision to Agrify in October of this year.
Green: Tell me about that transition from a cannabis products company to an equipment manufacturer.
Tennant: It was a gradual transition. As I started to see the extraction niche expand, I really started to put more time and resources into it. When we launched Precision and were met with such success in just the first 90 days, I knew that I had to abandon everything else I was doing to focus on this. My former partners took over the businesses, like the grows. We worked out individual circumstances regarding how I was going to leave those businesses and focus full time at Precision.
Green: So, big news recently with the acquisition, congratulations on that! Tell me about Agrify and why a deal with Agrify made sense to you.
Tennant: The strategic rationale is that we are providing an end-to-end infrastructure solution. They have the horticultural aspect, an excellent public vehicle, and plenty of cash on the balance sheet to continue to scale the business and acquire additional constituents within the cannabis infrastructure. Getting to the point where you can exit the businesses, it’s a long road, and our business is very niche. We were seeking to partner with t a bigger player in the industry with more resources that would help us to scale what we were trying to do, and Agrify was the perfect fit.
Green: You’ve got several areas of focus at Precision ranging from ethanol extraction, distillation, and butane hash oil (BHO) extraction. Where are you focusing the business going forward?
Tennant: Going forward we want to provide that end-to-end one-stop shop infrastructural solution for any cannabis products company. We want Agrify to become the dominant and fastest growing player in the cannabis industry for infrastructural solutions, whether that’s horticulture or extraction. We’re continuing to expand our product portfolio into other niches so that if you’re building a cannabis facility, you only need to come to one company and the process is as simple as possible.
Green: What kinds of products are you seeing the consumer gravitate towards?
Tennant: I think that cannabis will remain to be very artisanal because of the uniqueness of the plant. If you look at similar industries, I could compare it to craft beer or winemaking. I think that hydrocarbon and water hashes will continue to play a substantial role. I also think that ethanol and distillate-based products will hold market share just like the Budweiser and Kendall Jacksons of the world.
People love the native sort of essence of the plant, that this is a plant sort of bestowed upon us by the universe with all these unique healing and restorative properties. I think that trying to capture those properties and that native essence of what’s going on within the genome of the plant and translate that into a product is going to be the theme that continues to dominate, and I think that for several reasons. For the same reason somebody will go to Whole Foods, and they’ll buy the local organic grown fruit or vegetables, people are going to gravitate towards artisanal cannabis products. People that consume cannabis, generally speaking, are more naturalistic or homeopathic than most.
Green: Precision has technology for a range of extraction methods where the focus has been on cannabis. Are you seeing any new markets outside of cannabis?
Tennant: Yes. We’ve dealt with varieties of different botanical extraction companies over the years, but they’re a very small segment of our business. We’re a cannabis business. Non-cannabis extraction may make up less than 1% of our business so it’s very small.
Green: What trends are you following in the cannabis industry?
Tennant: Consolidation, I would say, is a big one. MSOs are consolidating and buying up the small players. The second major trend is regulation, and what’s going on in DC. Beyond that, you obviously have new states coming online, shifting consumer trends, things like that. I would say these last two are less impactful from a macro standpoint, but nonetheless, still things that we follow.
Green: Following up on consolidation, do you see a demand for larger systems now?
Tennant: I’d say 95% of what we do is under 2000 pounds a day, which we consider artisanal. You’re not going to see large scale production consolidation because you have fragmentation by state. It would be most efficient for a cannabis manufacturer to manufacture everything in one location but it’s just not possible with the state laws. It’s very fragmented. Somebody like a Trulieve might have 20 different manufacturing operations, all running similar processes. Perhaps we will see more upon national legalization and the opening of state borders.
Green: What in your personal life or in the cannabis industry are you most interested in learning about?
Tennant: I am constantly learning. That’s just how my brain is, and the type of person that I am. I’m interested in a variety of topics, but I think I’m most interested in how capital markets are going to materialize and substantiate around the federal legalization because we’re in this weird space of cannabis. It’s weird, because you have a boom industry that’s generating massive amounts of revenue and massive amounts of tax dollars, but you must remind yourself that there is no real liquidity in this market, meaning you can’t finance things. A typical cannabis company that wants to go out and get capital is getting rates between 16 to 18%. There’s just a capital restriction since cannabis is a Schedule I substance, and these large lenders don’t want to play into that.
The question in my head and the big catalyst for the entire industry is: what happens when we get a descheduling, decriminalization and/or legalization on a federal level? How does that affect the large funds sentiment to deploy this zero-interest rate capital that we’re seeing in the rest of the world? We’re seeing it in mortgages. We’re seeing it in every aspect of the world. There’s free money printing, but it’s not flowing into cannabis because those federal laws are prohibiting it as such. Ultimately, as more infrastructure comes online, these companies are not going to have to scrape by to build a $3 million lab. They can finance it at a reasonable interest rate, and the infrastructure can come online.
That’s going to be better for the consumer. There will be more infrastructure, more products, more research and development, more retail locations. Everything gets better, more convenient, and more robust. I would think that finance interest rates are the largest lever within the industry right now, and because of that, you’ll likely see cannabis capital markets go pretty crazy when legalization comes around.
Managing compliance for cannabis companies remains a challenge in the United States with a constantly evolving set of regulations that differ at the federal, state, county and city level. Regulators can either fine or force non-compliant companies to cease operations resulting in setbacks for investors and operators.
Simplifya is a software as a service company specializing in cannabis quality and regulatory compliance. The company’s suite of products takes the guesswork out of confusing and continually changing state and local regulations. Featuring SOPs, badge tracking, document storage, tailored reporting and employee accountability features, the company’s custom audit software reduces the time clients spend on compliance by up to 45 percent.
We interviewed Brooke Butler, VP of Partnerships at Simplifya. Prior to joining Simplifya, Brooke worked internationally as a macroeconomic analyst.
Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Brooke Butler: My story is a little crazy. I was working as a macroeconomic investment research analyst for developing countries and wanted to move back to the US after being gone for a long time. Oddly enough, I had gotten malaria a few times when I was living in Nigeria, and I was very sick. They couldn’t figure out anything to help me. Cannabis of all things, which was illegal there, but very easy to find, was the only thing that was able to help me eat and gain enough weight to be a functioning, healthy human again.
So, I wanted to move back to the US. I have this very unique and strange skill set for figuring out regulatory and policy regimes, and translating that into advice for business owners and investors. Serendipitously, the last place I worked at was Sri Lanka and the CEO of Simplifya is from Sri Lanka. We met just based on me wanting to be friends with somebody in Denver who was from Sri Lanka. It happened that he had just started a compliance company in partnership with the present-day Vicente Sederberg law firm out of Colorado. And the rest is history. Five years later, I’m still with the company. We’ve grown from one state to now helping licensed operators of any kind in 23 states, it’s been a lot of fun.
Green: So, you joined back in 2016?
Butler: I actually joined in the middle of 2017.
Green: Can you speak to Simplifya’s product and process?
Butler: Absolutely. Simplifya was started because we noticed that when Colorado went adult use you had all these new licensees coming into the space that wanted to run a good business. They didn’t want to get shut down. They wanted to have great operations, but they didn’t know how to read through 800 pages of legal narrative and extract from that what they can and can’t do. Vicente Sederberg was going out and doing on-site compliance checks for these guys and telling them, “Hey, you need to fix these 10 or 15 things.” They’d come back in six months, and the operators were like, “Well, yeah, we still didn’t fix it, because we didn’t know how to fix it and they changed the rules again.” So, it was this constantly evolving thing.
We wanted to find an easy-to-understand set of regulatory checklists that any operator could use to gauge if they had any problem areas in their business. When they did have an inspector come by, we wanted to make it so that operators weren’t sweating bullets or worried about things like, “Well, do we have our cameras pointed in the right direction? Do we have enough video backlog? Are my employee badges in the right place? Are we having our restricted access area in the right place?” All those crazy little minute details that they have to worry about. So, that’s kind of how we got started. We were just trying to find a way to make it simpler and more affordable for anyone that’s brave enough to get a license and really operate in the legal market – not just survive – but really be able to thrive and spend more time on their business and building world-class products and less time worrying about waste disposal and how to do all these crazy things that they’re up against.
Then we moved into helping with standard operating procedures. We have these templates that we tie to the state regulations so operators can then add their proprietary steps and know that it’s built on top of a compliant foundation. But probably the most important thing we have is a great document management system that gives them a cheat sheet.
California is particularly nasty, as operators have well over 100 documents that they’re required to keep for a long time. Again, we’re trying to make sure that they have an easy way to verify that all their i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed when it comes to the million compliance requirements that they have. A lot of people, especially new entrants, think that compliance is just inventory management and as long as they take care of that, they’re good. Unfortunately, I wish that was true, but they’ve got four or five hundred very minute things that they must worry about. If they don’t take care of those, they could get shut down, or lose their license and business.
Green: Is your document management system proprietary?
Butler: We’re a software as a service company. It’s very easy to use. We wanted to make sure that whether it was a budtender or a trimmer, anyone at your company is not only going to be able to use our software very easily but understand the rules. We write everything at a 12th grade reading level. It’s distilled out of all that legal jargon that a regular businessperson doesn’t understand – and shouldn’t have to, they’re not a lawyer – and written in really simplified terms that anyone could understand. Our position for cannabis is that compliance is having all your employees do the exact same thing, every single day, the right way. And that’s not easy. It must be from the top down. Everyone on your team must be doing things the right way. Even if it’s not fun, and not very cool, they must follow all these rules and be compliant. This is how we get the privilege to actually run a cannabis business, and grow, manufacture or run a retail store.
Green: So you mentioned SOPs. Is there also a quality aspect to the service?
Butler: There is, yes. One of my favorite things about what we’ve been able to do is that our clients have been our biggest assets, because they’re telling us, “Here’s our problem areas, or what we need help with.” And what we’ve seen is, as states mature after legalization, there’s a lot more quality control, a lot more quality management. That not only just becomes important, but also gets written into the regulations. So, we do work with a lot of the quality teams to make sure that their recipes are being followed and are tied to what the state regulators have said that they’re supposed to be doing.
Green: Do you support GMP and GAP?
Butler: Yes. It’s really exciting. A couple of our technical analysts have received GMP training and certifications. As of now, we cover five states that have GMP-compliant SOPs, California being the largest one of them. All our SOPs for manufacturers in California, and in places like Massachusetts, Maryland, Nevada and Michigan are written with full GMP compliance. Those get married with all the crazy state, city and county rules.
Green: Do you provide auditing as well or is that outsourced?
Butler: We give them a tool so they can self-audit. Then we also have an audit tool that third party auditors can use. So, let’s say that you’re a manufacturer, and you want a lawyer or consultant to come and do a check on your facility. Because you’re so close to the audit, you want to make sure you don’t miss anything. You can use our software to quickly do that. The beauty of the audit reports is that they’re consistent and they make it easy to see if you have any issues as well as how to remediate them, and then how to prove that it was fixed. So, if you do have a regulator come by, you’re able to say, “Look, we’re doing our best. We are fixing issues when we find them. We have documented that all our employees are trained on these.” So, when the operators do get audited, everything should be in good standing.
Green: You have 23 different states that you’re in and hundreds of city and county jurisdictions. How do you manage change between all the jurisdictions as they’re constantly evolving?
“How do we help social equity applicants get loans and financing?”Butler: It’s constantly evolving. That’s why we’ve built Simplifya and made it a software subscription company. We will notify you when, let’s say Oakland, decides to update its waste management policy, or their security regulations. That will prompt you to log in. We make it very easy for you to see what regulations are new so you can run through and check on those things very quickly and make sure you get into compliance. It’s not easy.
Most of our staff and our team are lawyers, or regulatory analysts. They probably have the worst job in cannabis because they are literally just sifting through constant sets of regulations. They’re on the phone with regulators trying to get clarification when something changes. A lot of it is a manual process with our team, but we do have proprietary technology systems set up to help us monitor. It’s kind of a dual effort, using technology to help us as well as trying to get clarity and stay ahead of city meetings or state regulatory meetings on what changes are coming down the pipe so we’re not surprised when there are new regulation changes coming out.
Green: What in your personal life or in cannabis are you most interested in learning about?
Butler: I am most interested in the finance side of things. How can we help more of these companies get an actual bank account at reasonable rates that won’t kick them out in six months? How do we help social equity applicants get loans and financing? That’s a huge challenge that people don’t really like to talk about, but that is a big issue out there. How do we get insurance companies to cover all the things that need to be covered for a regular business that aren’t currently allowed for cannabis, again, and at reasonable rates?
As a consumer, I want an easier way to pay. I don’t want to have to worry about going to the ATM and worrying if I’ve got enough money to buy whatever new product I want. Payment processing, I think, is something that’s really interesting. We’re moving into that space at Simplifya. We’re really excited about it. We’re launching our payments product called TENDR, in November. We have some great large institutions that are excited to get back into or get into the cannabis space for the first time that I think is going to really excite people. If we can show people that these businesses are compliant, and now we can make the compliance requirements for them, the financial institutions easier, then we’re going to see better access for consumers to these types of products.
Green: Thanks Brooke. That concludes the interview.
The cannabinoid industry has faced an uphill battle from the beginning due to a lack of reliable scientific awareness about cannabinoids, fueled by decades of the hemp plant’s status as an illegal Schedule 1 drug. Today, scientists finally are free to explore the hemp plant’s 115+ cannabinoids and their relationships with the body’s endocannabinoid system. One cannabinoid, THCV, is currently undergoing scrupulous research.
ECS Brands is an established provider of whole-plant extracts. In the first-ever clinical trial for an organic THCV-rich extract, ECS received support from the National Institutes of Health and guidance from the Mayo Clinic to assess its potential for weight loss, anxiety treatment and other therapies using Nitro-V Hemp Extract, an ECS Brands product containing high concentrations of THCV, CBDV and other cannabinoids. Early outcomes of the 90-day, randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled human study were recently released. 100 out of 100 people lost weight, making no changes to exercise while taking the product for 90 days.
We interviewed Arthur Jaffee, Founder & CEO of ECS Brands. Prior to founding ECS, Arthur was co-founder of Elixinol, a company manufacturing and distributing industrial hemp-based products. Arthur took Elixinol public on the Australian stock exchange in 2018.
Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Arthur Jaffee: I originally was planning on starting a fitness equipment company. I got introduced to my partner at Elixinol, Gabriel, who my old physical therapist at University of Colorado said I had to meet. By the end of our lunch meeting, we shook hands in agreement to partner up on the fitness equipment concept. The timing happened where he got this opportunity to distribute CBD just following our handshake partnership. I didn’t know what it was at the time. He asked me if I wanted to join and get involved. I did my research into the benefits and discovered CBD’s anti-inflammatory and neuro-protective benefits, which for me was relevant given my football experience. I quickly realized what the vast potential CBD could offer with inflammation, neuroprotection and so many of the health and safety concerns arising from contact sports at the time. So, ultimately the opportunity presented itself through a friend of a friend in Australia who had a supply chain in Europe. This was right when CBD first appeared in the media in 2014. It was almost like it just fell into my lap.
I’ve been fortunate to really see that transition, and the evolution of the industry. Back then was probably the most valuable time because growth was so slow. Nobody knew what CBD was back in 2014. The primary demographic was cancer patients and epilepsy patients which presented a significant challenge to develop sales and marketing materials and communicate compliantly. Our first hire was a Medical Doctor to communicate in a more compliant fashion. I had to learn everything there was about the science and the medical research that existed at that time. For me, that was very valuable.
The valuable learning experiences from the early days of the industry is what laid the foundation today with ECS brands where we are focused on education promoting awareness of the endocannabinoid system to take it a step beyond just CBD because in order to understand what constitutes a quality product, or why CBD can have all these various benefits for people, you must first understand how the body is naturally configured to receive and respond to these amazing phytochemicals such as CBD. CBD is just one of hundreds of phytonutrients that the human body is designed to use. The endocannabinoid system is so significant in the grand scheme of things, because once you start accepting that the system is your overarching regulatory system in the body, we can start to look at the endless therapeutic potential.
Green: Being an early player in the CBD space, how would you say you’ve evolved over time to where you’re at today?
Jaffee: Innovation. That’s what really drove me to start ECS brands. Back in 2014, I originally co-founded Elixinol. After we took Elixinol public on the Australian exchange in the very beginning of 2018, there was a shift in direction away from innovation. Nearly all emphasis was placed on just doing what we’re doing better – meaning improving margins. In such a new and young industry and being a pioneer, you don’t get many opportunities to discover and create something for the first time. So, the past three years with ECS brands is with a heavy focus on innovation and technology.
Green: How do you think about innovation for the endocannabinoid system?
Jaffee: One of the early discoveries for me that was most inspiring, was research that evaluated endocannabinoid receptor sites, basically little keyholes for cannabinoids to perfectly fit in – that are made for cannabinoids. When evaluating the number of receptor sites in different individuals experiencing stress and illness it showed there was a higher concentration of receptor sites in those that were sick and experiencing systemic stress. To me, that was that was powerful because if that doesn’t communicate the body’s need for cannabinoid nourishment to heal and restore back to homeostasis as a natural and involuntary response really motivated me to play a part in getting quality cannabinoid products out to the masses and specifically those in most critical need. Our first interaction with cannabinoids is in mother’s breast milk, the cannabinoids that our bodies naturally produce. After breastfeeding, our diets are completely stripped of virtually all cannabinoids, leaving the endocannabinoid system starving, and likely leading to many of the most common and chronic health deficiencies that causes detriment to so many. Rather than cannabinoids, we then get introduced to pharmaceuticals. The writing is on the wall – this must get accepted and integrated into our society.
When it comes to innovation surrounding the public system it requires research and requires scientific evidence. It requires functional products because you can have all these great benefits, but if you don’t have efficient and effective ways of delivering these chemicals to the body, it can almost be meaningless. It’s a delicate balance between consumer appeal, functionality and efficiency when it comes to the delivery into the body. We’re focusing on delivery systems, making things more bioavailable and integrating other natural botanicals that react and influence the system in similar ways as there are more than just cannabis-derived cannabinoids that can create positive impact and ultimately alter the way that the endocannabinoid system can regulate.
Green: An important aspect of innovation is clinical validation. How do you think about clinical trials and designing clinical trials for products?
Jaffee: Clinical trials are instrumental and required to validate claims because otherwise, it’s just speculation. Directional application without the clinical evidence to support in the appropriate way is setting yourself up for failure. Designing a clinical trial is just as important as performing the trial. If it’s not set up right, it can be a waste of time and money. Trials really need to be held to the gold standard of double-blind placebo controlled and thoughtfully organized.
We did organize a clinical trial at the beginning of this year, and it was incredible. We learned so much about a unique extract of ours that’s naturally rich in THCV and CBDV. We intentionally set it up to be a very broad and encompassing study. I personally wanted to see the different mechanisms and how the endocannabinoid system responded and worked together with other systems in the body. We evaluated a broad range of measurements, with complete safety tox study – blood panels to test every organ – measuring kidney enzymes, liver enzymes, ALT, AST, ALP, bilirubin, albumin, creatinine as well as cholesterol – with HDL, LDL and triglycerides, GFR and Complete Blood Count. We also measured blood sugar hemoglobin A1C and five major inflammatory markers of IL-1, IL-6, C-Reactive protein, Homocysteine and TNF. In addition to performing a full safety run-up of the product, we also measured weight, BMI, girth, questionnaires for anxiety, appetite, pain, mood and finally – we bought brand new Fitbit Versa 3’s for all 125 study participants which gave us objective measurements for REM sleep, deep sleep, awake time, systolic/diastolic BP, SpO2 blood oxygen levels and daily caloric output values – which was really cool because it provided tangible objective evidence that participants weren’t going out and secretly exercising. So, we had 100 people taking the product and then 25 on placebo.
Green: Was this a safety trial?
Jaffee: Yes. The primary endpoint study was safety. That’s how we enrolled participants – as a general product safety study for a natural product. I decided to include a lot of additional efficacy measurements, including weight loss, measuring body mass index as well as heart rate for all the blood markers that we looked at. In addition to that we purchased brand new Fitbit Versa 3’s for the entire study group, which was great because they gave us objective measurements for three different sleep readings, deep sleep, REM sleep and rest asleep as well as lower output and blood oxygen levels.
We saw everything kind of working together. We saw deep sleep improve 300% within two weeks. We saw blood sugars come down significantly from those that are considered high, pre-diabetic ranges of hemoglobin A1C. You saw inflammatory markers reduce to normal levels, with 92% efficacy, which basically just means that those who were experiencing inflammation by means of these major inflammatory markers, after 90 days, 92% of subjects were reduced to nominal ranges. So, it was really fascinating to see how, with all the different measurements. that we can correlate different objective measurements. Then, we did subjective measurements too. We had standardized questionnaires for anxiety and pain, as well as an internally developed appetite and cravings questionnaire.
Green: Based on the results of that safety study, are there particular disease states you want to target going forward?
Jaffee: Moving forward, we are interested to look at each blood sugar and Hb A1C. I think one of the most exciting and popular successes of the study was the fact that we had 100 out of 100 participants lose weight without diet and exercise. Because we incorporated the Fitbit, we were able to obtain objective evidence that participants weren’t going and secretly working out. The Fitbit provided a caloric output value. It is basically an algorithm taking the number of steps taken, stairs climbed, heart rate, movement, etc. to populate a caloric expenditure value, which remained completely stable in our study population. Subjects were specifically instructed NOT to change any lifestyle behavior – specifically diet, exercise, and sleep, and that if any changes were to occur naturally that was acceptable. What this ultimately told us is that diets changed, and metabolisms increased, and we were able to support that notion with the appetite and cravings questionnaire that we had participants fill out where cravings did reduce and desire for sugary foods reduced 63%. These were questions that we internally developed for the appetite and cravings questionnaire, which were based on feedback that we received prior to the study.
Green: What are in your personal life or in cannabis are you most interested in learning about?
Jaffee: It’s changed a little bit over the years. My biggest passion I would say is performance. I think the hemp plant has so much to offer when it comes to superior nutrition and healing. Once I learned about the benefits and the potential of hemp with its food applications and specific protein composition – the powerful oxygenating properties of Hemp Seed Oil, the brain health properties it encompasses, and of course the cannabinoid potential… It got me very motivated to commit myself to this plant. It wasn’t long before learning all the incredible industrial applications and solution the plant also offers – such as plastics, textiles, biofuel, building materials – and as an environmental science major – learning about these amazing applications got me that much more excited, but knowing and trusting that CBD would be the first stepping stone in an industry that needs to evolve into all the amazing sustainable applications because it’s all it’s all very real. It will get there, but it won’t be easy.
Green: Thanks Arthur, that concludes the interview.
Conduction heating is a method used in most dab rigs and vape pens that relies on heating concentrate or flower on a metal surface to vaporize cannabis compounds for consumption. Care must be taken with conduction heating to avoid overheating the material, resulting in combustion or decomposition. Convection heating (think of heating food in an oven) can also be used to vaporize cannabis compounds and has the benefit of being able to control the heating temperature of the material more precisely.
Hanu Labs recently announced the launch of their Hanu Labs EVO Petra. The tabletop device leverages their convection heat-based Perpetual Heat Thermal Technology, which avoids combustion while efficiently extracting the desired compounds from cannabis flower or concentrates.
Prior to becoming the CEO of Hanu, Ricardo worked in sales at Jetty Extracts where he helped to build the Northern California territory. Ricardo is also a classically trained French chef who used to run a cannabis tourism company in California.
Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Ricardo Willis: I moved to California in 2016. I was a professional chef at the time and had just finished up my master’s degree after eight years of schooling. My business partner and I decided we wanted to get into the cannabis space. So, we started a cannabis tourism business. Cannabis tourism wasn’t in the Bay Area at the time. We were kind of first and we were about two years ahead of legalization. We ran a few tours and we started to get into the cannabis game. I found out I didn’t know as much as I thought I did about cannabis. So, I decided to go and work for Jetty Extracts and that eventually led to where I’m at today.
Green: What was your motivation for joining Jetty?
Willis: Education. I knew about flower, but I did not know as much about the manufacturing process. I was first exposed to concentrates in San Francisco and I was really fascinated by it. I wanted to learn more, because I knew that this was going to be the wave at the time. Coming from the east coast, I had never seen a vape pen. So, I come out to Cali, and I see all these different dabs and I’m like, “I need to know more about this.” Jetty was an opportunity for me to educate myself while also helping them build their Northern California division that had only been around for a few years, and they were trying to expand. It was a great opportunity working for those guys, I learned a lot.
Green: I got a chance to see the Petra in action last night. It’s a bit different from your standard dab rig. Can you talk about the standard dab conduction heating versus the Petra and convection heating?
Willis: Think about your standard dab rig in the sense of taking a hot plate and dropping your dab onto that hot plate. It just sits there and begins to bubble and then evaporate from the heat. With the Petra, you take in all those same components, but you’re putting the concentrate into this mica-encapsulated chamber, where you have an all-glass air path that is one of the best surfaces for heating, and one of the safest. Those components with our perpetual heating system allow the dab rig, when we drop that nail in or we drop a basket for flower, that convection air circulates around the actual product. The oil begins to sublimate, or the vapor begins to make it through the flower, and it releases all those molecules that are found in the cannabis plant. And because of our glass air hydro tubes, when you pop those on, it basically filters it through water, and gives you one of the fastest and cleanest hits you’ve ever experienced.
Green: You mentioned flower as well as concentrates. Am I correct in hearing that you can also use flower with the Petra?
Willis: Yes. Dual functionality was one of the things found in our original model, the Vape Exhale that we first released nine years ago. I think that that’s very important for products. If a customer is going to spend anywhere between $300 to $500 retail, you need to give them more bang for their buck. Being able to vaporize flower and concentrates fits for the markets that we’re going into. People are consuming flower and concentrates at about the same percentage rate. So, we want to make sure that our devices can give the customer the ability to do both, either at home or on the go.
Green: So, you worked in the cannabis tourism industry. One of the trends we’ve got coming up in California is consumption lounges. How do you see the consumption lounges evolving over time? What are the challenges you see in California?
Willis: It’s a little different in Southern California versus Northern California. We’ve had consumption lounges in San Francisco, as well as Oakland for the past three years. We outfitted the entire lounge with VapeExhales at Barbary Coast, one of our early clients that we work with, which is downtown San Francisco. For us, we knew this is a space that would be thriving.
I’m a big fan of the lounges, because I think people need a safe place where they can go to smoke. Those lounges offer that to people. It also gives them a chance to experiment with different technology and actually test it out before purchasing. Because of my hospitality and restaurant background, I’m always looking for the opportunity for people to become repeat customers. If you offer these things like consumption lounges, instead of people going to bars, they end up at your lounge after work. I think that is something that’s going to continue to grow.
I do think some of the challenges are going to be around single servings. A person doesn’t need to buy a full gram. Maybe they just need to buy a quarter of a dab or something like that. Companies will need to identify those potential pain points in that process, and then offer those smaller products that can be enjoyed while at the lounge.
Green: There’s a certain experience around the Petra. Where it’s really like a centerpiece of the table. How did you think about designing the user experience and designing around that conviviality?
Willis: That’s a great question. For the Petra, what we decided to design was slightly different from the VapeExhale. With the VapeExhale, the purpose of the device wasn’t super obvious, but the Petra has more of a centerpiece design. I’m a big fan of technology, so when I was designing the Petra, I was thinking about the KitchenAid mixer. That may seem strange, but the KitchenAid mixer is something that as a cook, either at home or in a restaurant, they own these things literally for 20 years. It has a very long product life. I wanted the Petra to be the same. I wanted it to look more like an appliance, I wanted it to be built with stability and durability so that when the customer purchases that product, it becomes a centerpiece that they can set up. If your grandkids come in, they see your vaporizer, it becomes more of an educational opportunity, and less about feeling embarrassed about your cannabis pieces. So, for me, design is all about ease of use, but also being appealing to the eye. The Petra is its own show, and it deserves to make a splash.
Green: What in your personal life or in cannabis are you most interested in learning about?
Willis: I am very interested in the customers. I started off in customer service when I was around 16 years old. The one thing that I learned is that the customer is the most important part of the sales cycle. I think that sometimes people focus on the B2B side and making our business partners happy, but my focus is, and always will be on the customers. I need to understand what customers want and how they want it. I’m intrigued by the science behind customer acquisition and want to learn more about how to make my customers happy. If they want cheaper pricing, I’m going to find a way to develop products to give them what they want at the price point they want. There is always going to be a customer who wants premium, or mid-tier or a customer who just wants something fully functional. Maybe they want something that provides the right experience for them, and they don’t have to break the bank to get it.
Green: Thanks Ricardo. That concludes the interview.
Controlled environment agriculture (CEA) is a hot area of investment right now for the USDA, holding the promise of improved efficiencies and productivity for indoor growing operations. The cannabis industry, long accustomed to indoor growing has emerged as a spearhead in CEA innovation.
The Resource Innovation Institute has been supporting cannabis enterprises as a non-profit entity since 2016, providing a benchmarking platform called Power Score to help cannabis cultivators be more efficient with resources in their growing practices. Recently, RII submitted a proposal to the USDA to bring best practices from the cannabis industry to other CEA crop producers. They have also recently been responding to the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, providing comments to frame an energy and environmental policy framework for future federal regulation.
We interviewed Derek Smith, executive director of Resource Innovation Institute (RII). Derek engages RII’s advisory bodies, including the Strategic Advisory Council and Technical Advisory Council Leadership Committees and develops global partnerships and oversees the organization’s policy work. Prior to RII, Derek was CEO of Clean Energy Works and policy advisor to the City of Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.
Aaron Green: What are RII’s plans for the USDA? I understand you’ve also been working on the CAOA recently?
Derek Smith: We’ve been working in cannabis for five years, publishing best practices and capturing data to inform governments and utilities on how much energy is being used. Our mission is to help producers become more efficient in their use of resources. In addition to informing policies that support producers, we also engage utilities to help them evaluate efficient technologies, so they can put incentives on them and so they can help buy down the cost for cannabis producers to install more efficient technologies.
We submitted a proposal to the USDA, saying we’ve been doing all that in cannabis. This was under the banner of a Conservation Innovation Grant, which is an innovation funding mechanism from the USDA. They specifically wanted something related to indoor agriculture and energy and water efficiency. So, we essentially said, we’ll give you a three-year project that will basically be the blueprint for the controlled environment agriculture (CEA) industry to transform itself toward a more sustainable production path. This applies to both the urban vertical farms growing leafy greens, as well as the growing greenhouse sector that is producing a range of crops, from tomatoes, to berries, to leafy greens to mushrooms, hemp, etc.
We’re essentially taking the Power Score benchmarking platform that we’ve been serving cannabis producers with to help them understand how competitive they are relative to the rest of the data set that we have on energy use and on water use and opening that platform so that more producers of other types of crops can use it. It also feeds into their Environment, Social & Governance (ESG) reporting needs.
We’re going to write a series of best practices guidance for CEA producers, covering a number of topics: facility design and construction, lighting, HVAC, irrigation and water reuse, controls and automation. This will all be very similar to what we’ve done in cannabis. These best practices guides are peer reviewed by subject matter experts throughout the supply chain. A lot of the supply chain in cannabis is the same in CEA. So, we’re bringing them all together to give this kind of good guidance to the producer community.
Green: You started with cannabis and created these white papers. Now you’re branching out into the larger CEA space?
Smith: Exactly. The federal government is literally funding us to develop a green building rating system like LEED, or like the Living Building Challenge, but for the CEA industry for indoor agriculture. The cannabis industry can leverage this federal investment and basically ride right alongside of it so that we can create a “LEED for weed” type of certification system.
That’s one of the main features in our comments to the CAOA when they asked, “what else should we be thinking about on any number of topics as it relates to federal cannabis regulations?” We proposed an energy and environment policy framework for federal cannabis regulation. We did that in partnership with a group called the Coalition for Cannabis Policy Education and Regulation (CPEAR). We just held a webinar two weeks ago. Hawthorne Gardening Company was featured on there as well. They’re very supportive of the federal government playing a “carrots rather than sticks” role as it relates to cannabis energy and environmental policy issues.
That’s essentially our platform at the federal level. The stuff that the USDA is funding us to do will come back and benefit the cannabis industry, because we’ll have this broader set of best practices guidance, data, etc. And then we’ll be able to leverage the federal investment into a certification system for the cannabis industry.
Green: The specific comments you made to the CAOA were primarily related to this energy efficiency certification system work you’ve been doing?
Smith: Yes. It’s more resource efficiency – it’s broader than just energy efficiency. Well, it was three things. So, I’ll just unpack this quickly. One, is learn from the states that have already initiated some form of regulation or support on helping producers be more efficient. Massachusetts is one example. They put lighting requirements on the industry that don’t explicitly mandate LEDs, but it comes close to that. California passed an energy code that will take effect on January 1 of 2023, that also has lighting requirements.
Green: Is this applied to all greenhouse growers?
Smith: Yes, at a certain size and level of energy usage. In California, it’s the first market where their Title 24 regulations apply not just to cannabis, but to all horticultural operations. Yes. So that’s what we’re seeing is that cannabis is sort of the tip of the spear for the way governments are thinking about policy for indoor agriculture more broadly. We’re trying to get them to focus more on having the federal government play a supportive role. The states are doing the regulation, the federal government can be more focused on carrots, not sticks, right?
So, back to the list of three things. Number one is learn from the states. Don’t add regulatory stuff, just learn what’s going on, and then decide about how to act. Number two is recognizing the need for data. So, supporting state requirements on energy and water reporting like Massachusetts, Illinois, California – a lot of states have either enacted reporting requirements, so the producers must tell the state how much energy and water they’re using and they’re using the Power Score benchmarking platform, which has a compliance function for free to do that reporting. Then what we’re doing is helping everybody understand what the aggregate data is telling us. We protect the producer’s confidentiality, and we’re building this valuable data set that’ll inform the market about what is the most efficient path going forward.
Then the third thing is focused on carrots, not sticks. For example, support the development of a certification system that recognizes leadership, that’s based on a market driven voluntary action by a producer where they say, “I’ll be transparent with my data, because I’d like to be showcased as a leader and get recognition for the good work I’ve done to create an efficient operation.” Then there’s valuation through the real estate transaction as well because you even have a plaque on your building that says this is certified to this agricultural standard.
That’s all the vision that we’re laying out, and we’re looking for partnerships at the MSO level to join in and be recognized and get in the queue as leaders for the investments they’ve made in efficiency.
Green: Great, thank you Derek. That concludes the interview.
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