Coda Signature is a leading cannabis edibles company that has won countless awards for their creations. Founded in 2015 in Trinidad, Colorado, a small town just north of the New Mexico border, the women-led company has since become a fixture of the infused products market. Coda Signature prides itself on its innovative lens, focusing on what consumers want and framing their products around a luxury experience.
Lauren Gockley co-founded the brand in 2015 after a 20-year culinary career that started with professional training in France, working in Michelin-starred restaurants and Parisian pastry shops. They launched their first line of products in March of 2016 and three weeks later, the awards started coming in. Today, the company is a leader in the cannabis industry and constantly raising the bar. Last year they rolled out products with nanoemulsions, offering fast-acting edibles with a shortened onset time. In May of this year, Coda Signature debuted their low dose Fruit Notes, their foray into microdose formulations.
We caught up with Lauren Gockley to see what inspires her, hear the story of how the business came to be and get some insights on what’s next for the cannabis space.
Cannabis Industry Journal: I saw that you have a culinary background. Can you tell me about your background and how you got involved in the cannabis industry?
Lauren Gockley: I have been working in the culinary world for almost 20 years. I have been blessed to have a wealth of different experiences from my professional training in France at Valrhona’s L’Ecole Du Grand Chocolat and the Parisian pastry shops of Pierre Hermé, to the fine dining restaurants of Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Thomas Keller. I also spent several years as a raw vegan chocolatier where I gained a totally new understanding of chocolate and flavor creation using unconventional ingredients.
The transition into cannabis was an unexpected turn in my culinary career, especially considering the level of acceptance of cannabis in its early legalization period. I had been living in New York for almost eight years. I was working two jobs and trying to start a chocolate business. One night, my partner (and fellow co-founder), Brien Sauchelli, brought over a cannabis chocolate bar. At the time, I was not terribly familiar with cannabis edibles, but I sure was familiar with chocolate! I tasted the chocolate bar, and thought, “this tastes pretty good, but what if I could do it better?” The idea of elevating the cannabis edibles experience to the same caliber of excellence that we revere food made so much sense.
CIJ: Tell us how you co-founded and started Coda Signature. I’d like to hear the origin story
Lauren: Well, like so many cannapreneurs, I started in my kitchen with a crockpot, a Ziploc bag of trim and a massive amount of research. Fast-forward a few months to March 2015, and my partner and I are traveling across the country to Trinidad, Colorado—the new home of Coda Signature. Once unpacked, we dedicated almost a full year to product development, raw material sourcing, packaging design, facility construction, and most importantly we defined the mission, vision and core values of Coda Signature. One of our most significant core values is legacy. This was not meant to be an aspirational statement about the impact we hoped to have many years into the future, but rather an opportunity for us in every moment to ask, “What will my legacy be today?” We launched our first products in March of 2016. Three weeks later, we won the High Times Cannabis Cup for Best Edible with our Crescendo truffle collection.
CIJ: Your job title is Chief Innovation Officer – How is your company innovating the cannabis product space? What does your day-to-day look like?
Lauren: When it comes to innovation, we have identified four key areas of focus for Coda Signature products:
1) Flavor. We are leaning into our brand legacy of bold flavors and aromas, quality ingredients and impeccable craftsmanship. This legacy is reinforced by industry data. According to BDSA Trending Consumer Insights, flavor is the No. 1 driver of consumer purchase decisions, and second is brand loyalty.
2) Microdosing. According to BDSA Consumer Research, 73% of adults nationwide are now “bought in” to consuming cannabis. Understanding that much of this population is still getting acquainted with cannabis-infused products, we believe strongly that microdosed products are an essential factor for safe and customized experiences. We are one of the few infused products companies to defy the industry “standard serving size” with our new 1mg THC Fruit Notes.
3) Minor cannabinoids. We define the Coda experience through the integration of minor cannabinoids such as CBN, CBG, CBC and most recently THCV. This is no longer a market solely driven by milligrams of THC per dollar. Products innovating with minor cannabinoids are rapidly taking top-selling positions in both brand share and the market as a whole.
4) Fast-acting. After two years of intense R&D, Coda launched our first “Fast Acting” products in Q3 of 2021. “Fast Acting” decreases not only the onset time from 1-2 hours to 15-20 minutes, but also shortens the overall duration. This technology is a strong example of the incredible innovation redefining the cannabis edibles experience.
To answer your second question: My day-to-day is a blend of hands-on product creation; ongoing research into industry trends and new technologies; working with my colleagues in operations, quality and compliance to ensure our systems and procedures continue to deliver safe and consistent products; brand development and expansion; and of course, eating a lot of chocolate! The past few weeks have been particularly exciting for me as I have been back in the kitchen revitalizing our signature truffles that will be returning this holiday season.
CIJ: Where do you think cannabis will innovate next? What excites you about the future of product innovation in this market?
Lauren: Innovation in the cannabis industry can be particularly challenging due to the ongoing legalization limitations. However, like most life forms in nature, it is through limitations that we adapt, grow stronger and defy expectations. The fact that 73% of adults nationwide are open to the idea of cannabis means that we are just scratching the surface of innovation with this incredibly powerful plant.
Post-pandemic, I think a lot about our social habits. As a chef, there is a level of social intimacy I identify with food that I feel is not fully present in cannabis. I get very excited about the opportunities for more open cannabis consumption and how that will elevate and inspire the Coda product experience.
Cannabis products and medicines are progressing rapidly, eating away at the market share of smokable flower. Currently, the general adult use cannabis market is split in three, in order of popularity: cannabis flower, vaporizers and ingestible products like edibles or capsules. In the medical market, flower is increasingly being replaced by alternative methods of delivery – and the same trend is now starting to be seen in the adult use market.
This is to be expected to some extent. Initially, only flower was available to medical cannabis users. On top of not everyone feeling comfortable with smoking, inhaling a combustible substance into the lungs is not the healthiest consumption method for those already suffering from a serious illness.
In the present day, there are new alternatives to smoking that come without the risk and actually have additional benefits. For example, there are now much more precise ways to measure your cannabinoid intake than weighing out the flower you’re about to burn. As technology develops, there is an expectation that – despite flower sales being fairly stable last year – we will see continued incremental growth in the non-flower category, especially on the medical side.
Oral Cannabinoid Delivery
Thankfully for those who want to use non-smokable products, there are a growing number of alternative oral products that are currently available in the market or are under development.
Cannabis edibles might be the first products to come to mind when you think about non-smokable products – but for many medicinal users, these are actually a fairly unpopular option. While having a cannabis-infused brownie or gummy might be quite discreet compared to smoking a joint, the need for patients to take in extra sugar or extra calories every time they need to take their medicine can be off-putting. Additionally, tradionally infused edibles can take between one to three hours to feel as the body needs time to digest.
Cannabinoid capsules or pills have recently emerged as an equally discreet alternative to edibles. These pills come in many forms, including hard capsules containing ground cannabis flower, softgel capsules containing measured doses of cannabis extract, and gelatin-free alternatives. Though these pills, like edibles themselves, do come with a relatively long onset time.
Pills and edibles are also both affected by first-pass metabolism. This means that the active cannabinoids will be processed through the digestive system and the liver before passing onto the brain or the other organs. During this process, some amount of CBD or THC will likely be broken down by the body before it can make its effect felt, leading to inaccuracies between the labelled dose of a product and the active dose that reaches the brain or target area in the body.
To avoid these problems with first-pass metabolism, some have turned to use sublingual cannabis oils and tinctures. By placing a measured dose of oil under the tongue using a dropper, this theoretically allows for the fast absorption of THC or CBD into the bloodstream without the product being processed by the digestive system. However, in practice, these sublingual tinctures need to be held under the tongue for around ten minutes before they are fully absorbed. This is fairly difficult to do without accidentally swallowing some amount of the tincture, and so this still introduces some amount of uncertainty with dosing.
Fast-acting absorption techniques and nano emulsions are also gaining in popularity. Nanotechnologies and techniques have been developed by many firms, and boast claims of increasing absorption through the digestive system in order to effectively double the volume of cannabinoids absorbed into the body. Nano emulsions are also promising, which come with claims of up to four to five times more improved absorption. Such technologies rely on cannabis oils being immiscible with water-based substances, and process these cannabis oils in such a way that they become nanoscale droplets suspended in a larger mixture. Because of their size, these small pockets of cannabis oil are able to be absorbed rapidly through the gastrointestinal tract and into the bloodstream.
Older liposomal and newer nano-liposomal combinations have also boasted similar claims. Liposomes are commonly used as a novel drug delivery system for pharmaceutical products to facilitate the absorption of drugs into the body, and the adaption of such techniques for the cannabis sector is also intended to dramatically improve the absorption of cannabinoids into the bloodstream. Given the marketing of these products, it can become confusing to know which is the best. The only way to know for sure is to have either a breath or blood analysis to see which style works and is best for the individual consumer.
As manufacturers progress from flower and basic products, the largest brands and more advanced medical companies are all producing ingestible products with fast absorption methods and additives. The difference is pronounced and significant enough that consumers and patients are starting to demand fast absorption products. As the market becomes more educated, you can expect that the market for fast absorption ingestible products will greatly outpace the older, more basic formulations. Of course, some emulsion additives will increase the operating costs for businesses, but over time, this difference will likely be fairly minimal.
Microencapsulation to boost cannabinoid absorption
Microencapsulation is another new method for producing drugs with high bioavailabilities, and the technique has recently made headlines in the cannabis industry.
Using a technique known as ionic gelation, or ionotropic gelation, scientists are able to trap drugs inside nano- or microscale capsules. These tiny capsules are robust enough to be able to protect the active drug ingredient–which in this case would be CBD or another cannabinoid–against the harsh environment of the gastrointestinal tract without necessarily limiting bioavailability.
Unlike the other oral dosing methods, cannabinoid microcapsules are not yet a commercially available product. However, there is early research indicating that this drug delivery technology could be a significant step forward in terms of improving cannabinoid bioavailability and absorption.
Published in the journal PLOS One, a new study from a team of Australian scientists reports that CBD microcapsules used in combination with a permeation-modifying bile acid can boost the peak concentration of CBD reaching the brain by 300 percent. These peak concentrations of CBD in the body also happened much earlier with the CBD microcapsules than with regular CBD oil, reflecting a faster absorption by the body.
This improved absorption and bioavailability addresses many of the limitations seen with traditional oral cannabinoid delivery. However, there is still potentially a very long road before these microcapsules are approved for general use in humans, making them an unrealistic option at present.
Metered Dose Inhalers
So far as innovative cannabis dosing technology that is currently available on the market goes, metered dose inhalers lead the way. Making up one-third of the market share, these devices are easy to use, discreet and are far less invasive than burning cannabis flower.
Heating and vaporizing a purified cannabinoid also exposes the user to fewer potentially harmful combustion products than smoking flower. Using vapes, manufacturers are also able to adjust the formulation of vape oils in order to deliver a truly consistent product. This can help the consumer to truly measure their intake of beneficial cannabinoids.
Vaporizers for general adult use are very common now and come in many forms and flavors. Until recently though, there were very few vaporizers that met the specific needs of the medical market, like being able to deliver very controlled doses of cannabinoids. Now, innovation in the sector has led to a number of companies developing special metered dose inhalers for this purpose. These devices use smart technology to only heat and vaporize a pre-set controlled dose of cannabis oil from their compatible cartridges, allowing for intake to be tracked more precisely. This is different from regular vapes, where the amount inhaled can vary depending on how deeply a person inhales, or other environmental factors.
Recently, Syqe Medical received approval from Health Canada for their metered dose cannabis vaporizer. There is already a similar registration for approval in the US and Europe that looks promising for similar devices.
Recreational acceptance of products, like these high-tech vaporizers, drives up spending on innovations that would otherwise just be novel ideas. The cannabis industry has a wealth of creative talent, and with the market beginning to tear away from flower and towards novel and innovative products, like vaporizers and fast acting ingestible products, now is the time for the medical market to invest in this talent and follow the demand and the money.
Cannabis infused products manufacturing is quickly becoming a massive new market. With companies producing everything from gummies to lotions, there is a lot of room for growth as consumer data is showing a larger shift away from smokable products to ingestible or infused products.
This is the fifth and final article in a series where we interview leaders in the national infused products market. In this final piece, we talk with Lisa McClung, CEO, and Glenn Armstrong, senior advisor at Coda Signature. Lisa got started with Coda in 2019 as a board member after transitioning from an executive role at Wrigley. She now heads up the company as CEO and President. Glenn has deep experience in product development and innovation with brands such as General Mills, Whirlpool and Wrigley.
Aaron Green: Okay, great let’s get started here. So we’ll start with Lisa. How did you get involved at Coda?
Lisa McClung: I was lucky. Based on my experience, I was originally asked to be on the board of Coda. I’ve served on nine company boards in addition to my career as an executive at General Electric and at the Wrigley Company where I was heavily involved with innovation. The Board then asked me to consider stepping in as CEO after I’d been working there for six months. I was just overwhelmingly complimented that they considered me and I feel incredibly lucky to be here.
Aaron:Okay, great. Glenn, how did you get involved in Coda?
Glenn Armstrong: We’ve known each other for a long time at Wrigley. I was in innovation for the confectionery side and worked very closely with Lisa. When she became a board member, she asked me to do some advising for her. I’m new to the cannabis industry so, I was really excited about doing something different. When Lisa became CEO, she asked me if I would help her.
Aaron: How do you think about differentiating in the market?
Glenn: I spent 90% of my career on the innovation side working with companies like General Mills, Quaker Oats and Amway. When I think about how to differentiate almost any company I always focus on innovation. In the cannabis industry, everybody’s got gummies and chocolates but you’ll hear people talking about “gummies are going away.” No, you’ve just got to innovate, right? It’s like the carrot peeler from 20 years ago. It used to sell for about 25 cents, and it was all steel and now they sell for $10.99. Who would have known?
I believe anything can be innovative. When I looked at the gummies I asked, “what we learned at Wrigley, can we bring into Coda that currently is not in this industry?” Think about various gums and how they can change flavors over time like Juicy Fruit which dissipates really quickly and that’s just how the flavor is.
Or, there are other ways like spearmint. You can get an initial boost and then extend that flavor by encapsulations. I don’t see much of that in the cannabis industry. It’s just taking what’s out there from flavor companies that people like and getting them into this market.
Aaron: Awesome. Do you have any particular technologies or work or products from other industries that really interest you?
Glenn: I would say it’s going to be from the pharmaceutical industry. You think about THC and CBD being so hydrophobic. With chocolate, it’s not such a hard thing to get into. If you try to get those kinds of compounds into aqueous solutions though it can be a challenge, the drug industry has been doing it for years! So, to me, delving into some of their patents and some of their ideas, that’s one of the most powerful industries I see where we could utilize their technologies to advance the industry. I expect big pharma to get into this. We can start looking at what they’re doing that we can leverage quickly to get into Coda products.
Lisa: We’re not necessarily a pharmaceutical brand, but we are committed to helping people live and feel better. It really is about how you weave cannabis into everyday life?
We have a platform of very indulgent products, which is our chocolates ranging from truffles to bars. We also are building our non-chocolate portfolio to include other ways to enjoy cannabis in their daily life. And then to Glenn’s point, I think there’s ideas and technologies from the pharmaceutical area, there’s also things that have been in the food industry for years that provides sensations and experiences.
I think part of our goal is “how many of the five senses can we touch from people in creating product?” The feel of something in your mouth heating, cooling. Not just the psychoactive aspect of it, but the complete end-to-end experience.
These are all dynamics of us delivering the “live and the feel” piece of it. Then people can either use them from a lifestyle perspective for enjoyment, or a medical perspective. Our job is to provide consumers choices and options that provide those type of experiences.
Glenn: If you have a product that’s supposed to “reduce anxiety” why not start with the slight warming of the mouth? Something that feels calming long before the THC or CBD kicks in? Then have a flavor come up that just feels warm and comfortable. By combining all five senses, you have a product that really does something for your consumer.
Aaron: Thanks for that! What’s your process for creating a new product at Coda?
Lisa: Well, I think everybody talks about brainstorming sessions like innovation is something that just pops up. I think innovation has three legs to it. One is really customer-driven. So, we have to produce products that help our retailers make money, and that deliver really good experiences to consumers that we jointly serve.
The second piece of it is thinking about the discipline of innovation. So, when we make a product, what technologies do we bring to bear, can we scale them, and can we produce them at the right price point and delivery?
Then the last piece is the fun piece, trying to listen to what is and isn’t being said in the market to really try to be a solutions company.
We spend a lot of time listening and watching the market to figure out where we can anticipate things. We used to call it “problem detection” at Wrigley.
One project that Glen and I worked on was a mint that was designed really around adult usage in more professional situations. So, meaning the shape of the mint needs to be tucked in your cheeks so you couldn’t see it. And the packaging of it was something you could surreptitiously pop underneath the desk because we were designing it for people to use as really a business tool. You don’t think of mints as a business tool, but they really are, they give you more confidence with breath-freshening and you don’t necessarily want to hold that out with everybody else.
Some problems are about how to make a product more fun with our fruit. I can put pineapple jalapeño in my mouth and have a literal popping experience, which adds to my enjoyment of that experience.
The last piece is not to do too many products. One of the things that I think of in cannabis is that everybody’s still learning. It’s such a wide-open space, in some cases, that you also have to kind of pick what you do well. So, sticking close to our brand and what we stand for is also something that we’re trying to do. We’ve actually pulled in our SKUs recently and are trying to focus on a platform of indulgent experiences and of lifestyle products. We try not to do everything that we see out in the market and focus only on the things that we do well that solve problems for our consumers.
Glenn: From my perspective — I am not a big process person — I think the best way to do it is to say, “okay, we’ve got these products. We could look at technology, we could look at something else, but let’s just go scour what’s out there. And let’s get outside of our industry.” Look outside your own game, and see what you can use.
Discovering how to use these technologies in a gummy or chocolate as opposed to just drugs isn’t rocket science. My biggest avenue is looking outside and finding what you can apply as opposed to trying to reinvent everything.
Aaron: We’ve focused on the front end of innovation. Can you articulate on the back-end how that moves into product development, manufacturing and commercial launch?
Lisa: We have a new product pipeline with a Stage-Gate process where we will have a number of ideas and whittle them down on certain criteria.
Sometimes the ideas start with the technology and not the market. Glenn will find something and say, “Hey, this is going on, should we be thinking about this in cannabis?” It allows our each of our teams to come up with how they can make it work.
Then, as that product passes through the next stage-gate, we’re looking at the actual economics of the product, and how it fits relative to our other products all while we’re getting consumer input.
We get to that point in the process when we start trialing with consumers to help decide. And sometimes you get the best idea in the world, and then it’s not going to work so in some cases so you put it back in the pantry.
I never like to say that we don’t take an idea forward, even products that we may have taken off the market, we say “we freeze products, we don’t cut products!” because our goal is to have options. Our discipline is around a Stage-Gate process tied to our business goals and objectives. It’s also about playing around with concepts and seeing what materializes.
Glenn: There is this whole notion of a process, there’s a Stage-Gate, but before that, it’s a lot of playing around. What Lisa and I’ve recently worked on was making innovation a way of life so that every time you see something, you say something.
“We don’t think of innovation solely as the next flavor that’s going to be on the shelf.”We always gave people permission to play in the web.The reason brainstorming sessions don’t tend to work, is we expect people to become innovative in these next five hours.
So, if you think of innovation as a way of life, then it becomes what you do daily, and you look at things differently. I like to say when you’re driving home, go a different route, because you never know what you’re going to see. When you get out of that habitual mindset, you’ll think about your business differently, almost naturally. Innovation — this way of life — is one of our buzzwords.
Lisa: I think building that innovative culture is a responsibility, but also a challenge for a company like Coda. I mean, we’re not new. We’ve been around five, six years and we have some of the leading chocolate bars out there. We’re known for flavor systems.
Where our goal is to create a culture of innovation, you get these little pockets of creativity and innovation, and then it starts snowballing. You build on it, get people excited about it, and move it forward. That’s how everybody gets involved in innovation.
One of the goals of that pipeline process is to combine inspiration and discipline. But you don’t just want to be innovative in the next flavor. That isn’t doing enough for our consumers. We’ve educated them on the potential flavors could bring. But now we really want to be much more innovative across the board and see what kind of culture of innovation Coda can do.
We’re looking at the packaging, how we interact with retailers, how we use digital messaging to support our retailers and support our products. We don’t think of innovation solely as the next flavor that’s going to be on the shelf.
Aaron: From a supply chain perspective, how do you go about sourcing ingredients?
Lisa: We have some wonderful partners that have been with us at Coda. People that bring us chocolate from other parts of the earth.
We continue to keep building our ecosystem of partners. We look at different flavor houses and different food type researchers to be partners with us to broaden our ecosystem. It’s something that’s very much top of mind, even more so during COVID, because we’re feeling very fragile about our supply chains.
Glenn: Yeah, I think Lisa, that’s one thing you and I bring, not only to Coda, but I think to the cannabis industry, is the whole CPG discipline of how we look at suppliers and procurement. We need to go out there find some smaller flavor labs with incredibly creative folks.
I think the whole notion of expanding the supplier and vendor base, is pretty unique in this industry and that’s one of the strengths we bring to Coda.
Lisa: Our goal is to really create an ecosystem of different suppliers. I just think that that’s something other industries — you talked about pharmaceuticals earlier — have done. Cannabis is just starting to get there, but that’s where you get exponential opportunities.
We’re really looking at cross-functional and interdisciplinary teams with outside partners. Cannabis is at the stage now where I think it’s looking for more sophisticated technologies and new ways of deploying. We’re also really interested, as Glenn said, in some of the younger, more entrepreneurial firms that want to possibly expand their reach into cannabis as well.
Aaron: Okay, great. So my next question is can you give me an example of a challenge that you run into frequently? And this can be either a cannabis challenge or a business challenge?
Lisa: I think one of the challenges that cannabis faces in general is educating consumers about our market. One of the opportunities we have is to bring people into the market. We’re at the same time developing products for people who are in the cannabis space and are active users and have varying degrees of understanding of how they’re using the category in their daily lives.
We’re also trying to create products and education to invite people into the cannabis market. That’s a different challenge than if you’ve had an Oreo cookie, and people kind of understand cookies. They understand Oreos, and then they understand organic Oreos and all the other permutations of two chocolate cookies with a vanilla thing in between. Our goal is to expand the ability for people to access cannabis in their lives.
That is a very unique business problem. And it does represent a bit of a screen, are you going to do some of your products for more sophisticated users and others for less sophisticated users? Cannabis has consumers that have been taught essentially to think about milligrams; there’s one of the key components of choice. People will look at the product and flavor, and then they look at the milligrams and the price point.
That’s very unique to what we would find on CPG. You don’t necessarily look at dollars per milligram when you buy a cookie. So, if you’re trying to make a premium product with premium flavors, how do you say, “Well, yeah, there’s dollars per milligram, but this product has all these other technologies to create the warming or whatever.” “Innovation in products and new categories is critical to get the industry beyond common confections.”
So you kind of have a dual issue. You’re trying to get people educated on a new category and how they use it. But the education of the consumer in terms of the potential and the possibilities that they can access is going to be very important.
Aaron: What trends are you following in the industry?
Lisa: Beyond paying close attention to legalization progress across the country and monitoring how states are setting up their regulatory standards, we’re focused on which consumer demographics are incorporating cannabis into their wellness and self-care practices—and how Coda Signature products fit into their daily routines.
Glenn: For edibles, “fast acting” is probably beyond a trend and it will be interesting to see where this nets out. Consumers appear to be balking at the slightly higher price point for fast-acting gummies, but there may be a market for after-dinner dessert items. In other trends, use of minor cannabinoids and terpenes for specific benefits appears to be a solid consumer need, but this is going to require solid science to see if these products truly work. Innovation in products and new categories is critical to get the industry beyond common confections.
Aaron: Okay great! Lastly, what would you like to learn more about?
Lisa: We’re fascinated by the technological advances being made in the cannabis industry, and how those achievements may enrich the consumer experience moving forward. We’re also interested in the growing body of scientific research around how cannabis products can enhance people’s health and wellness.
Glenn: U.S. legalization and the constant changes in regulations require someone to distill the information and do a weekly report on changes.
Aaron: Thank you both! That concludes the interview!
Editor’s Note: Part 3 will be an interview with Liz Conway, Regional President of Florida at Parallel. In part 4 we’ll sit down with Stephanie Gorecki, vice president of product development at Cresco Labs.
Cannabis infused products manufacturing is quickly becoming a massive new market. With companies producing everything from gummies to lotions, there is a lot of room for growth as consumer data is showing a larger shift away from smokable products to ingestible or infused products.
This is the second article in a series where we interview leaders in the national infused products market. You can find the first piece here. In this second piece, we talk with Mike Hennesy, vice president of innovation at Wana Brands. Mike started with Wana in 2014 after moving to Colorado and leveraged his science background to transition into product development and innovation where he has helped develop one of the best-known brands in Colorado.
Next week, we’ll sit down with Liz Conway, Regional President of Florida at Parallel. Stay tuned for more!
Aaron Green: Thank you for taking the time today. Just to start off, can you walk me through how you got involved at Wana Brands?
Mike Hennesy: Thanks Aaron. I got involved in the cannabis industry pretty intentionally. After graduating college in 2012, I was determined to get involved. I moved to Colorado from the east coast. I’m originally from Virginia. I moved out here in 2013 and started with Wana in 2014.
I got involved in the sales side of the business originally – as the company was just starting to emerge into the legal recreational market – and oversaw growth here at Wana during significant changes in the industry. Over time, my role transitioned into innovation and R&D where I am leaning on my background in science.
I now lead new product development and education as Vice President of Innovation, and I’m also completing a master’s degree in cannabis science and therapeutics.
Aaron: So, what does innovation mean to you?
Mike: Innovation for the cannabis industry is pretty unique and interesting. We are just beginning to unpack the pharmacopeia of the cannabis plant as well as starting to understand our own bodies endocannabinoid system.
Innovation spans from genetics of plants and how they are grown to how you deliver cannabinoids to the body and what different ratios and blends of cannabinoids and terpenes you are actually putting in there. So, innovation is not a one size fits all category for cannabis.
Aaron: Sounds like an interesting role! At Wana Brands, and in your role in innovation, how do you think about differentiating in the market with your products?
Mike: I would describe the way we perceive differentiation as going beyond simple developments, such as product forms or new flavors. We see the future of product development trending towards what active ingredients and in what ratios we are putting into products. For example, what kinds of cannabinoids and terpenes are we using? What kinds of drug delivery systems might we be harnessing? How do we put all of these ingredients and technologies into a product to make it more effective?
A simple way to think about all of this is: how is our product going to work better for the consumer? Because that is really the key here. Tasting great is important, but we are delivering a product that provides an experience. We want to continue to make a better experience and a better way for customers to enhance their life.
Aaron: I think that leads nicely into our next question, which is, when you’re thinking about creating a new product for the consumer, what’s your process for creating a new product?
Mike: We have a very full pipeline of new products, and many of these ideas come from networking and speaking with innovators and following the research and science for inspiration and direction. We take this information and start brainstorming as a team. We have a decade of experience in the cannabis space that provides us with a unique lens on how we apply new research to our product development.
From there, we build a product development pipeline of potential ideas and start to prioritize, looking at the feasibility of each of these ideas and their market readiness. Sometimes we have a great idea for a product, but a lack of consumer knowledge may mean we don’t move forward with launching.
Aaron: Can you expand a bit on what you mean by education and how you guys think about education to the end consumer?
Mike: Since product innovation must move with consumer knowledge and cannabis is so new, education is critical. We have a very robust education platform with topics that range from cannabis 101 to the endocannabinoid system, to lessons on terpenes and CBD, as well as trainings on our products themselves. We have both bud tender-facing and consumer-facing trainings. The consumer trainings are on our website, and bud tender trainings are hosted through dispensaries.
Aaron: Is that training electronic training or written material?
Mike: Both, but the primary platform is online in the form of interactive training courses. We also have printed flip book training material in dispensaries and offer in-person presentations, but with the pandemic, we’ve been heavily leaning on the online training content.
Aaron: Alright. So, we’re going to take a different direction here on questions. From your perspective, at the innovation level, can you walk me through your experience with your most recent product launch?
Mike: Most recently, we launched the line of Wana Quick Fast-Acting Gummies. I am extremely excited and proud of this line. They have absolutely exploded in popularity!
The idea for these products started a few years ago as we were learning cannabinoids are not very bioavailable. This means most of the cannabinoids that you consume from an edible do not end up in the bloodstream. Edibles also have a delayed onset and undergo a conversion of THC in the liver, called first pass metabolism, that gives a heavier sedating high. This slow onset and difference in effects with edibles can be a turn off for some consumers, leading us to the idea of developing a fast acting gummie that works differently.
It was about two years of research looking at technologies developed by pharma and nutraceutical companies to improve bioavailability and bypass first pass metabolism. We started looking into nano-emulsions and encapsulation of cannabinoids that help with bioavailability and reduce the onset time. These technologies envelop the cannabinoids like a disguise that tricks the body into absorbing the oily compounds more easily. The encapsulation bypasses the liver and is absorbed into the bloodstream quickly, so their effect starts within five to fifteen minutes. Since they are not processed in the liver, they deliver delta-9 THC instead of 11-hydroxy-THC, giving an effect I describe as a “smoker’s high.”
We trialed and tweaked many technologies before we landed on one that is truly effective and worked with our line of gummies. With this revolutionary technology inside, we then crafted delicious flavors and a new triangular shape to differentiate them from our classic gummies. Because they take effect so quickly and only last about three hours, we thought the Quick Fast-Acting Gummies were the perfect product to use during happy hour. So, we have Happy Hour inspired flavors like Pina Colada, Strawberry Margarita and Peach Bellini.
We launched in March, and already right now, these SKUs in Colorado are #4, #7 and #11 out of all edibles sold in Colorado. And overall, Wana produces eight out of the ten top SKUs in Colorado. That’s according to BDSA, so a pretty impressive achievement!
Aaron: Okay, great, I’d say so! The next question here goes deeper in the supply chain. How do you go about sourcing for the ingredients?
Mike: I am going to start with the cannabis side of things. As I mentioned earlier, cannabis is unique. It is not just one ingredient. It’s many different compounds like the cannabinoids THC, CBD and others, but also terpenes and other beneficial compounds. To make the most effective edibles we partner with growers that care about their genetics, how they are growing, and how they are extracting to create high quality cannabis extracts.
We also understand terpenes are so important in the entourage effect, and that different terpene blends synergize with cannabinoids to produce different effects. Some can be energizing while others are more relaxing. Wana has innovated the terpenes we use by formulating proprietary blends of thirty terpenes or more that replicate indica, sativa and hybrid strains.
We did this by strain hunting the best cannabis in each class and analyzing the strains to understand their profiles. Then using organic, botanically derived terpenes, we build blends in the ratios they are found in the plant and reintroduce them into our edibles. This means Wana edibles match the terpenes that you will find in cannabis, unlike other products that just use distillates where the terpenes are degraded and lost in extraction. This also means we can replicate these blends with our partners in other states, so when you consume a Wana indica or sativa product you’re going to have the same terpene blends and the same experience and feeling every time.
Beyond cannabis and terpenes, we are extremely selective in all of our ingredients. And in the near future we’re implementing an optimized recipe that is all-natural, with no high-fructose corn syrup, as well as moving towards organic ingredient sourcing.
Aaron: Can you give me an example in your role of a challenge that you run into frequently?
Mike: I think that is the exciting thing about working in R&D and new products: there is always a new challenge. I guess I would say if you are not making mistakes, you are not really trying to push the envelope in product development.
We are working with plant matter, terpenes and encapsulation technologies, things that don’t always taste good, and putting them all into edibles. That means we frequently run into the challenge of figuring out how to put the right ingredients for effect in a product, but still make it taste delicious. We are very selective in what ingredients we use and how we’re introducing them to make sure the product still tastes good. We oftentimes come across a great technology—such as a terpene blend or a quick onset delivery system—that does the job, but is not optimal for a gummie recipe, such as the resulting consistency or taste.“These developments are all heading in the direction of delivering consistent repeatable experiences for consumers, which is what I see as the future of cannabis.”
Aaron: Would it be correct to say that formulation is a common thing you run up against in terms of challenges?
Mike: Yes, especially because a lot of the ingredients and technologies we are working with are new. There isn’t a guidebook for how to incorporate encapsulated cannabinoids into a gummy, for example.
That’s the novel aspect of a lot of this: how do you take a terpene blend that’s designed to mimic the cannabis plant and put it in your gummies? What’s the right way to introduce it so they’re not degraded by heat? Formulating with cannabis is about problem solving, and is the backbone to what we do in R&D
Aaron: We’re getting towards the end of the conversation here. And these questions are more geared towards you individually. So, what trends are you following in the industry right now?
Mike: I’ve got to have my eyes on a lot of things. That’s how you innovate in this industry!
I would say No. 1 is still terpenes. We are already innovating there, but I think we’re just scratching the surface of where we’re going to go. I think terpenes are going to unlock a lot of potential in cannabis products in the future, and Wana is going to be innovating there, leading the pack.
Next is minor cannabinoids. Through decades of an illicit black-market, the genetics have skewed towards high THC strains, but the cannabis genome actually allows for many other cannabinoids to be formed. Through the right cultivation and breeding programs, we are going to see a lot more CBG, CBN, CBC, and even more rare cannabinoids like THCV and others. These currently rare cannabinoids are going to be important for new product development as we learn more about their therapeutic effects.
Then there is continued innovation on delivery systems and bioavailability, functional ingredient blends and more natural products. These developments are all heading in the direction of delivering consistent repeatable experiences for consumers, which is what I see as the future of cannabis.
Aaron: Awesome. What are you interested in learning more about? This could be cannabis related or business related.
Mike: Well, fortunately, I am working on a master’s degree right now and so I get to learn a lot every day. I am most curious to see where science takes us with the endocannabinoid system. It was pretty much unheard of until a few decades ago, and now we understand that it interacts with almost every other system in the body. It is like missing the elephant in the room when you are talking about human biology. The amount of information that we’re going to unlock about how the ECS interacts and regulates our body is going to continue to revolutionize the industry There’s a lot more to be understood around how different compounds interact with the ECS and affect us, and I think we are going to learn how we can use it to tailor other products for outcomes such as sleep, pain, anxiety, energy and focus.
Aaron: Just a clarification there. What are you working on for your master’s?
Mike: I’m getting a Master’s in Medical Cannabis Science and Therapeutics from the School of Pharmacy at the University of Maryland. It is the very first master’s level program of its kind, and is taught by doctors and pharmacists, so we discuss cannabis as a drug and how it effects the brain and the body. It has been really exciting and I’m looking forward to continuing learning more about this amazing plant!
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