The bar-like establishments add a new dimension of potential revenue — and risk — to an industry that is expected to add almost $100 billion to the U.S. economy this year. This new and emerging segment within cannabis isn’t happening in every legal state, but more are starting to enact regulations to provide for some type of on-site consumption.
These new ventures need insurance policies tailored to address the risks of serving cannabis products, which could be looked at similarly to liquor liability for bars and restaurants.
Whether it’s alcohol or cannabis, these products impair people’s judgment, meaning everyone reacts differently to them. But how do you know when to cut someone off?
Cannabis lounges could be held liable & run risk of being sued for overserving
If a cannabis lounge faced a lawsuit alleging that it overserved a patron, leading to a third-party bodily injury, the business’ Commercial General Liability (CGL) Insurance and Products Liability Insurance could potentially cover costs such as legal defense, medical expenses and settlement amounts. Until such a case occurs, it is not yet known how exactly these lawsuits would be covered by insurance.
Because of the short history of cannabis lounges in the U.S., something like this is largely untested, making it hard to speak to exactly how a scenario would play out. Many of the existing cannabis insurance policies are highly exclusionary, meaning it could exclude a loss that is deemed to have arisen out of the use of cannabis.
Recent liquor liability lawsuits have shown the potential for a significant loss is clear. In early April 2022, a $20 million lawsuit was filed against a nightclub in Houston, Texas, alleging it overserved customers and allowed underage drinking, contributing to a drunk driving crash that killed a teenager.
In December 2021, a jury in Texas awarded the family of two drunk driving victims over $301 billion after a lawsuit alleged the driver was overserved at a bar before the accident; though largely symbolic, the settlement marked the largest personal injury award in U.S. history.
With these cannabis lounge establishments more or less encouraging intoxication of patrons on their premises, it’s very similar to a liquor liability type situation. If someone overindulges at a lounge, leaves and causes a crash resulting in injury or death, that could come back to the establishment.
While it remains to be seen how cannabis overserving lawsuits could play out in American courts, it’s worth noting Canada forbids on-site consumption of cannabis products and any loss or damage will not be covered by their insurance policies – despite it being legal country-wide.
Lawsuits possible over product issues, budtender advice
Even cannabis operations that do not allow on-site consumption can face liability related to the products they sell, making Products Liability Insurance and Product Recall Insurance necessary for growers and retailers. They should also consider Employment Practices Liability (EPL) Insurance to cover staffing-related allegations such as discrimination and ask their insurance broker whether budtender liability is included in their CGL Insurance policy.
Budtenders, or individuals who work at cannabis retailers, are not allowed to offer medical advice to consumers. They must walk a fine line between giving advice versus general information on products. Although we are not aware of lawsuits that have been filed over a budtender’s advice, it would ultimately be up to the courts and lawyers as to how those proceedings would play out.
Budtender liability is not very different from professional liability insurance, and it’s more like an incidental coverage based off the budtender’s informal advice. There are, indeed, insurance carrier partners today that offer that service.
CGL Insurance can also cover in-store slip-and-falls and other third-party injuries and property damage. Because most cannabis retail stores are fairly small, these incidents have been rare, but GCL cannot be overlooked. Businesses must be prepared for anything to happen – and need to know that no risk is too small.
Theft, vandalism among top threats to cannabis businesses
Whether or not a cannabis business includes a lounge for cannabis use, any business in this industry may be more vulnerable to certain risks, including theft and vandalism.
In the U.S., where many cannabis companies operate on a cash-only basis because of banking difficulties tied to recreational products being federally illegal, a recent surge in cannabis shop robberies has led to calls for a new banking bill. Some of these incidents have even turned deadly, including an April 30 dispensary robbery in Los Angeles, California, during which one man was reportedly shot and killed.
Large amounts of cash are on-hand daily at these premises, and workers might have to make multiple bank runs throughout the day, leaving a heightened exposure and risk for robberies.
From robberies and vandalism to fires and flooding, Commercial Property Insurance is a key protection for cannabis retailers. Equipment Breakdown Insurance may also be needed, particularly when the stores contain expensive refrigeration equipment. The potential loss is large in this industry, especially at growing facilities, and there’s a lot at stake with such high-value equipment.
Security systems, employee training can help reduce risks
Many insurance carriers require business owners to install alarm systems, video monitoring equipment or safes to help reduce potential property losses, and employees should be trained to use the alarm systems consistently. Policyholders and business owners should also know there is a lot they can do to curb some of the risks, such as businesses doing background checks on every hire and taking steps to ensure they are hiring individuals they can trust.
Installing bars on glass windows and doors is another loss prevention measure that is strongly encouraged because it adds an additional layer of security to get through – it won’t be an easy or quick process to break-in and will trigger the alarm system.
The importance of working with an insurance broker
Working with an insurance broker who is specialized in the cannabis industry can help business owners better explore available coverage options. With cannabis or any type of risk, you should always work with someone who has knowledge and expertise in that area. When you work with someone who knows the ins-and-outs of the regulations, you can have more peace of mind.
Understanding your policy in its entirety is also essential, as these policies have any number of different limitations and exclusionary forms that could preclude you from collecting if you had not understood and followed the language of the policy.
In a transportation situation, for example, you might have a risk warranty that always requires two drivers in that vehicle, or GPS monitoring on the vehicle. In the event of a claim, if the investigation determines the business did not have those items present at the time of loss, that claim will not be covered.
In a rapidly growing and changing industry, business owners should not underestimate the value of working with a team of insurance experts who keep a close pulse on the quickly evolving industry. Brokers are aware of the different legal environments in each state or even each city or county. Cities and counties can add different levels of compliance matters, so as a buyer, you can be confident that you have the most recent information and are in compliance with state law and any insurance requirements that may be present. Being able to explain the differences between the markets and the coverage options is beneficial to any business owner in this ever-changing industry.
According to a press release published last week, SC Labs is in the midst of a multi-state expansion under new leadership. The company hired Jeff Journey as their new CEO, coming from a VP position at Thermo Fisher Scientific.
Last year, in what seemed like an initial move to establish the lab on a coast-to-coast level, SC Labs developed a hemp testing panel that covers a number of contaminants on a national regulatory level. The hemp testing panel they developed purportedly meets testing standards in states that require contaminant levels below a certain action limit.
In the press release that was published last week, they hinted at another announcement coming soon: a new partnership with Michigan-based Can-Lab. This, coupled with hints at further expansion and their current presence in California, Colorado and Oregon, means Journey will have his hands full and his sights set on nationwide cannabis testing.
“We’re looking forward to partnering with cannabis and hemp brands at every stage of the supply chain to share our innovative and forward-thinking scientific expertise so they can deliver safe products to the marketplace,” says Journey. “As cannabis legalization expands across the country, the testing industry is rapidly shifting and scaling to meet both market and regulatory demands.”
The leadership team will still have a few familiar faces, such as Jeff Gray as chief innovation officer and Josh Wurzer as chief operating officer. “The most important assets we can offer as a multi-state operator are scientific expertise, financial stability, and unquestionable integrity, the principles on which SC Labs has long stood for and will continue to provide to our valued customers,” says Journey.
Infused flower and infused pre-rolls are two segments of the cannabis flower market sought after by consumers for their high THC content. Moon rocks are a type of infused flower product made by infusing flower with sticky concentrate and then rolling the sticky flower in kief. THC content of moon rocks often exceeds 50%.
Presidential is one of the largest infused flower cannabis companies and the third largest pre-roll brand in California, with products available in over 400+ retail stores such as MedMen, Gorilla RX, Sherbinskis, La Brea Collective and Royal Greens. Presidential’s success and growth has primarily been organic through word of mouth. Presidential recently launched the Presidential Suite in WeHo, a speakeasy-style lounge with entrance through a subway car inside a NY-style pizzeria, Esco’s. The suite offers events including exclusive cannabis industry nights as well as “pizza parties” held jointly with Esco’s.
We interviewed Everett Smith, co-founder and CEO of Presidential. Everett co-founded Presidential in 2012 following a professional basketball career in Europe. He has a background in marketing and brand development.
Aaron Green: Everett, how did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Everett Smith: It was really just by chance. I was in Vegas after I was done playing ball overseas. I was working 9 to 5 at the convention center for a company called Freeman. I was out waiting for some clients and I met this guy who started talking to me about cannabis, about this company he was starting and how his friend was manufacturing the product for him. I didn’t love my job. I was looking for something exciting to do. So, I got their information, and I took him up on it and I called them every day for almost three months. Then it finally got together and long story short, we started.
Green: What year was that?
Smith: That was in 2012.
Green: So, you met this person in 2012 and then three months later had it up and going?
Smith: Long story short, yes. After three months, we finally got together and got all the parameters figured out and then we started to create the brand, get the packaging, get the product, and put it out to the street. That all probably took six to eight months.
Green: Presidential is known for moon rocks and infused pre-rolls. How did you hit upon the concept of infused flower? Why did you make that your focus?
Smith: The gentleman I was talking about before – he’s no longer our partner – was manufacturing for his friend and that’s what he did, so that’s what we got introduced to and then as soon as we started selling it, I just found ways that it could be improved. I listened to the customers we were selling to. My old partner wasn’t willing to do that due to the manufacturing time, so we took it into our own hands and got an investor, my partner now, John Zapp, and we figured out how to manufacture it ourselves. We had zero idea what we were doing and we figured it out. I have to give credit to John, he is the one who figured out the formula we are using right now. There was a lot of bumping our heads, a lot of trial and error, a lot of figuring it out. And luckily, we did.
Green: You mentioned you felt like other companies weren’t doing it right. What was the difference that Presidential brought to the table?
Smith: Quality. These other companies were focused on profit margin. They weren’t using quality products. They were using the same product twice in different things, which is the ultimate no-no. I just found that if you started with high-quality raw goods, and put them together, you are going to have an even better product.
Growing up my mom was kind of a hippy. We just like stuff from the earth. Good organic stuff. So, we were taking flower that I knew was being grown organically at the time and then infusing it and it created a better product. We packaged it better than anybody else’s packaging at the time. I have a background in marketing so at that time, I was just trying to create a product and a brand that my friends and I would like. I thought we were our target user at the time. I was working in my late 20s.
Green: Where were you located at the time?
Smith: We were in Los Angeles.
Green: What were some of the challenges of launching a brand in Los Angeles back in 2012?
Smith: Some of the challenges included: education of the consumer; getting clients in the door and making them feel safe to come into a dispensary and purchase medicine at the time; and the legalities – maneuvering all the different propositions that were coming down and being able to do it legally and safely. The legal issues were probably our biggest hurdle. Then there was the challenge of introducing people to Moon Rocks. Infused flower was a brand-new concept, so we had to find as many people as we could to introduce the product to.
Green: I’m just imagining back to 2012, I think Moon Rocks would have been completely new to me. How did you get customers over the hump of trying something new?
Smith: I would get big jars of Moon Rocks. They look crazy. We saw people walk by and just watched the reactions. It was like, “Whoa, what’s that? What in the world is that?” Then we use the tagline: “World’s Strongest”. We’re starting with nice, tasty flower. We’re putting 90% THC distillate on it and then when we’re taking kief in the mid 40s 50s (% THC), and we’re covering it. So we’re putting THC on top of THC of on top of THC.
Putting “The World’s Strongest” on there and just putting big jars out in front of as many people, at as many conventions, and at as many dispensaries that would let us set up a patient appreciation day. That’s how we did it.
Green: You are in retailers across California. What were the keys to your success in building out your distribution network?
Smith: Sales. Knocking on doors. My partner comes from the car business. He was a fixer-upper helping dealerships all over the country become more profitable. So, just having that mentality of going out every day and knocking on doors trying to get every single possible client. I want to say it was like being a car salesman and Hollywood, or something similar. At first it was me and John every day knocking on doors. Then the business built on itself.
We have the same process now. Knock on the doors and send our brand ambassadors in there to do customer appreciation. They get our product in front of people and it’s worked for us. The marketing money we do spend we spend in the stores, because we see a direct correlation there. At the end, it really goes back to the knocking on doors.
Green: Do you notice anything different between 2012 sales and prospecting versus today now that your brand awareness has changed?
Smith: Absolutely. Everything is very corporate now. Before 2014, you could knock on the door and the person that you needed to see was sitting right there. The owner was the buyer. Now, you have to get through layers of people to get to the actual decision-maker because they’ve become so corporate. So that’s the biggest difference I see, but I wouldn’t say it’s a negative. I would say that our industry has become more positive. We can guarantee regular pay. We can guarantee that the products are going to be on the shelves and we can cut or markup the pricing. Those are the changes I see and they’re not always easy, but I think they’re for the better.
Green: What does the future look like for Presidential? More broadly, what does the future look like for the industry in terms of infused flower and pre-rolls?
Smith: Right now, the infused flower market is one of the fastest-growing markets. I see that becoming the norm, and the same for pre-rolls. We’re looking at expansion and trying to become one of the national players in this game. We’re swinging for the fences.
Green: What geographies are you looking at?
Smith: Right now we’re in California. We are in negotiations to launch in Nevada in July. We were getting ready to launch in Oklahoma, but had a deal fall through so now we are kind of switching gears. I would say by end of year we’ll be in Oklahoma, and my partner John is trying to close a deal for Michigan. So, those are the markets we have on the table right now. We’re looking to close those all before the end of the year.
Green: What trends are you following in the industry?
Smith: We have the number one selling blunt in California, but in terms of pre-rolls we are number four in terms of sales. The three companies ahead of us all sell minis and packs of minis, whereas we sell single 1 gram and 1.5 gram pre-rolls. So, in July, we’re launching three-packs of minis, so three 0.7 gram blunts and three 0.5 gram pre-rolls.
You can infuse the flower with pretty much any kind of concentrate the way that we do it. I’d like to come out with some diamond products, that’s hot right now. We’re following the wave and trends of the concentrates.
Green: What in your personal life or in cannabis are you most interested in learning about?
Smith: In my personal life, I’m interested in financial craftiness. You know, make your money and make your money work for you. I personally, in the business, would like to learn more about the smokeless form factors of cannabis. Things like beverages and capsules. I think that’s where the industry will end up going. So, I’m interested in learning more about the manufacturing of beverages and capsules and what it entails.
Green: Thanks Everett, that concludes the interview.
Canopy Growth Corporation, one of the largest cannabis companies in the world, announced the acquisition of Jetty Extracts this week for $69 million. Jetty Extracts was founded in 2013 and is now a leading cannabis brand in California and a top 5 brand in the vape category. The two companies plan to expand Jetty’s offerings in California, Colorado, New York and across the broder to Canada, according to a press release.
Canadian-based Canopy Growth is a massive international company that has been expanding its presence well beyond Canadian borders. For years now. Their medical arm, Spectrum Therapeutics, is a leading brand in Canada and Germany.
Late last year Canopy Growth announced a deal to acquire Wana Brands, the number one cannabis edibles brand based on market share in North America. The latest acquisition of Jetty Extracts this week follows the same pattern of increasing their North American footprint in the cannabis market considerably.
David Klein, CEO of Canopy Growth, says the cross-border potential excites them. “”Canopy Growth is building a house of premium cannabis brands with a focus on the core growth categories that will power the market’s path forward, now including Jetty – a pioneer of solventless vapes,” says Klein. “There are significant opportunities for Jetty to scale at the state-level across the U.S. by leveraging Canopy’s U.S. ecosystem, and we’re actively working on plans to bring the brand to the Canadian recreational market.”
The adult beverage industry, like any other category of consumer branded products, is driven by trends. If you’re old enough to remember Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers, you probably also remember Zima and Smirnoff Ice, and more recently “healthy” options like Skinny Girl and Michelob Ultra. The sensation that was craft beer saw many brands being acquired by Big Alcohol so that while the brands remain, ownership and production have changed significantly. Gin, tequila and vodka have had their moments in the sun and the current market is undeniably saturated with what is probably the largest current trend – hard seltzers. However, with the seltzer craze waning, many are wondering what’s next. And with the growing sober/California sober trends, some are betting it is cannabis-infused beverages.
Cannabis-infused beverages offer both an alternative method of consumption of cannabis and are also an attractive alternative to alcohol. Infused beverages are more appealing to the new demographic of casually curious cannabis consumers. i.e., consumers that may not be interested in smoking a joint or vaping, but are comfortable micro-dosing from a can or bottle, as they would a seltzer or beer. The same type of consumer may be moving away from alcohol consumption to eliminate hangovers or other negative health effects.
The emerging market and curious consumer group present an enormous opportunity right now for cannabis-infused beverage brands. Of course, with opportunity and growth come challenges. And while cannabis-infused beverages face a host of legal and regulatory challenges relative to sourcing, manufacturing, packaging, labeling, shipping, marketing, distribution and sale, one of the most critically important business assets to address at inception is the brand.
Lines are Blurring, Gaps are Being Bridged
The U.S. cannabis market is currently a geographic hamburger. Hear me out: Geographically, you have a relatively mature market out west and a relatively new and growing market along the east coast. These are the buns. You have a mixed bag in between, with some states coming online and allowing medical or adult use cannabis use and others that have not yet embraced any form of legalization. The landscape has lent itself to the development of regional brands, such that brands that are so similar they might otherwise confuse consumers, have been able to co-exist in different regions without issue, or because there is little to no trade channel or market overlap. Similarly, adult beverages and cannabis have historically been separate verticals, with an arguably low likelihood that a consumer would assume a particular cannabis product and adult beverage product emanate from the same source.
However, lines are blurring and gaps are being bridged. Walls are breaking down. The increasing number of states coming online with legalized cannabis, and the proliferation of multi-state operators (MSOs), means that cannabis brands can grow to be more than siloed regional brands. This will inevitably lead to brands that previously co-existed bumping into one another and there’s bound to be some pushing and shoving. The advent of infused beverages likewise bridges the gap between cannabis products and alcoholic beverages. While the respective industries were not historically per se related, competing, or overlapping, now you’ve got infused beverages that bridge the gap between the two, and traditional alcohol brands (e.g., Boston Beer Company, Molson Coors, Lagunitas, Pabst.) entering the market (albeit under different brands). This makes a strong argument that cannabis and alcohol (or, more generally, adult beverages) are within each other’s logical zones of expansion, for purposes of a likelihood of confusion analysis.
The growing pains infused beverage brands will experience are analogous to those craft beers saw in the 2000 – 2010s. Many craft brewers had catchy, cheeky names and brands that contributed to their ability to engage consumers and develop a following, but failure to clear and protect the brands prior to launch detracted from the brands’ market values. Localized use prior to expansion also led to many brands bumping into one another and stepping on each other’s trademark toes. This was significant as the brands sought investment dollars or an exit strategy, making clear that the brand itself contributed heavily to valuation.
Mitigating Risks and Overcoming Challenges: Search and Protect
The risks and challenges can be significantly mitigated and/or overcome with proper preliminary clearance searching and assessments, and by seeking and obtaining state or federal protection for the brand or brands, to the extent possible.
Of course, clearance searches and assessments come with their own challenges, as does federal protection. With respect to clearance searches, these typically look at U.S. federal and state trademark databases. These resources are not sufficient for purposes of clearing a proposed cannabis brand. Many brands are not recorded at the federal or state level and indeed may not even show up in a basic search engine. An appropriate search looks at social media resources like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and known cannabis resources like Leafly and Weedmaps. Additionally, the scope of the search should exceed cannabis products and services and at least look at alcohol and merchandise. Adoption and use of a brand for a cannabis-infused beverage is high risk if that brand is similar to a prior existing alcohol brand. A current example is Cointreau’s taking aim at Canopy’s adoption and use of QUATREAU for an infused beverage.
A U.S. federal trademark registration presents its own unique challenges, but is incredibly valuable and beneficial to a brand since it provides the owner with a nationwide presumption of ownership and validity in a trademark, and can also secure priority for the owner with a constructive first use in commerce date that is years before actual use of a mark begins. The U.S. Trademark Office categorically denies protection of brands that violate its “lawful use” rule, and will treat as per se unlawful any applied for mark that covers marijuana, or that covers foods, beverages or pharmaceuticals that contain CBD. With respect to brands that cover products containing THC, since it is federally scheduled, use of the brand would violate the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). With respect to brands that cover CBD or products containing CBD, these may be lawful pursuant to the Farm Bill and the U.S. Trademark Office’s subsequent allowance of marks that claim CBD “solely derived from hemp with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis,” however under the Food Drug Cosmetics Act (FDCA) it is currently federally unlawful to introduce CBD – even if it fits the definition above – into foods or beverages.
Even if cannabis is not specifically claimed in a trademark application, cannabis brands have a natural gravitation toward names and logos that can do some of their marketing for them, and announce to the world they cover cannabis. This increases the chances that a trademark application for the brand will get push-back from the U.S. Trademark Office, and if not at the initial review stage, then at the point in time when the brand must submit to the U.S. Trademark Office a sample of (lawful) use of the applied-for mark. While this all sounds like bad news for cannabis-infused beverages, all is not lost.
There are typically ancillary and federally lawful products and services cannabis companies offer under their brands that can be covered in a U.S. federal trademark application, and arguments to be made that registered protection of a brand for the ancillary items should be sufficient to enforce against third parties using the same or confusingly similar brands in their space. Some cannabis brands’ lawful ancillary products are actually product lines (e.g., beverages) offered under the same brand that contain no cannabis. Others may be more causally related, like online forums and blogs. The former is closer to the actual product, and the latter would be more beneficial to a brand that is inherently stronger and more distinctive. One note of caution: A trademark application and eventual registration that expressly disclaim cannabis (THC or CBD) may be difficult to enforce against a third party using the same or a similar mark on and in connection with cannabis. So, while there is a natural inclination to follow a U.S. Trademark Office request to disclaim coverage of cannabis, there may be enforcement consequences down the road.
The cannabis-infused beverage market is poised for explosive growth. The brands that survive – and succeed – will be those that position themselves for growth by clearing and buttoning up their brands as early as possible. The market leaders will be those that select strong and distinctive brands, with geographic and market space around them for growth and expansion; and those that protect and enforce their brands, to the extent possible, at the federal and/or state levels.
This week, three companies in the cannabis testing space announced a partnership: Agricor Laboratories, its sister company Botanacor Laboratories and SC Laboratories will join forces to work together on comprehensive cannabis and hemp testing throughout the United States. The press release says that this partnership creates the foundation for a national testing network, offering comprehensive cannabis and hemp lab testing.
Agricor and Botanacor laboratories, founded in 2014, are sister companies headquartered in Denver, Colorado. SC Labs, founded in 2010, is based out of Santa Cruz, California. They say the partnership will bring value to cannabis and hemp industry stakeholders by offering a broader range of testing resources, better data collection and delivery, instrument redundancy, increased testing capacity and improved turnaround times.
“Agricor, Botanacor, and SC Laboratories have well-earned reputations for delivering high-efficacy results, through a ‘science-first’ approach to product quality, safety, and compliance,” says Dr. Carl Craig, CEO of Agricor and Botanacor. “With operations in Colorado, California, and Oregon, the newly combined operation is uniquely positioned to support multi-state cannabis operators, as well as hemp producers within the U.S. and throughout the world.”
Each lab is ISO 17025 accredited and have become known as leaders in the hemp testing market, offering a wide range of tests to meet state regulations in every corner of the United States. Last year, SC Labs debuted their comprehensive hemp testing panel, claiming they could meet testing standards in every state in the country.
“This combination creates the largest specialized resource in North America that is committed to delivering exceptional testing results that empower smarter growing, manufacturing, and consumer decision making,” says Jeff Gray, CEO of SC Labs. “By combining these reputable science organizations, we’ve taken major steps toward creating a laboratory network that is dedicated to improving the safety of cannabis products for all consumers, globally.”
According to Gray and the press release, the team is setting their sights on the global market, beyond just the United States. “The organization is focused on continued expansion via acquisition and organic entry to new markets – all with the focus on best serving customers’ needs across North America and supporting a growth market where testing can help deliver confidence to consumers,” reads the press release.
In the cannabis industry, it’s crucial to be able to predict the future, to adapt and survive in a competitive industry that is arguably regulated more closely than any other.
From licensing to buildout, there are a growing number of barriers to entering the cannabis industry as a cultivator. Those who are lucky to successfully establish a grow operation are well aware that one of the crucial hurdles is managing space to maximize facility efficiency and capacity.
To stay profitable, the more plants you can grow and harvest at a time in a continuous cycle, the better. From an economic and environmental perspective, managing cost, space and time comes down to automation and efficiencies. One of the most efficient ways we optimize is through the practice of vertical farming.
Vertical farming maximizes canopy square footage while minimizing Cost of Goods Sold (COGs) to produce high-quality cannabis at scale year-round, and the industry is slowly finding that this method is an incredibly efficient and profitable way to maximize cannabis output.
Yellow Dream Farm is our family-owned cannabis cultivation, manufacturing and distribution company based in San Bernardino County, California, often known as the Silicon Valley of cannabis. Our craft, boutique-style cannabis is grown from floor to ceiling in the 30,000-square-foot facility. We’re using cutting-edge technology that’s only come to market in the last five years and using a variety of sustainable practices. With environmental and feeding efficiencies, we’re able to harvest 300 pounds per week when compared to 150 pounds per week from a facility of the same size.
Vertical Farming for Space Optimization
Like any medical field, cannabis has seen large numbers of outside investments into the space, bringing ideologies and efficiencies from other time-tested industries. One such efficiency is vertical farming – a practice already seen in large-scale agriculture.
We choose vertical farming to maximize our canopy square footage and minimize COGs to produce high-quality cannabis at scale. The barrier to entry into the cannabis industry is expensive, and you must utilize every square inch to stay profitable. We believe vertical farming is the most efficient and most profitable way to maximize output and our numbers can back that up; for example, we can produce double the amount of flower than the average single-tier room with the same square footage, without doubling the cost.
Our rooms contain double stacks to double room capacity by using ceiling heights instead of square footage. Even though vertical farming has larger start-up costs, we can maximize square footage and output, allowing us to get a better and faster ROI. Vertical farming can be done in many different ways but the way we built our facility was always with a sustainable outlook. We also look to improve and remove human error; with full irrigation control and crop steering technologies, we can recalibrate sensors, irrigation media and environmental sensors when needed based on successes, challenges or environmental constraints. Additionally, we have a few other sustainable practices that make a difference.
Water Conservation, Lighting and Automation
Being a California-based grower, water conservation is a key part of our operations. With San Bernardino County being located in the heart of the high desert, conserving water is not only a requirement but a competitive advantage. Our practices provide cost savings which we then pass along to our customers. Each cannabis plant on average requires between a half gallon and one gallon of water per day, which we then recirculate through condensate water from our A/C and dehumidifiers. All runoff nutrient water is re-filtered and reused to get the most out of our nutrients before discarding waste. Our freezer panel walls hold temperatures at consistent rates, and we have a fully automated system to dial in specific needs at any given time.
Lighting is another major environmental and capital cost. Our primary lighting system is LED technology, and we use LED spectrums to find which spectrum benefits the plant most. With LEDs, our energy consumption is 30 percent less.
Vertical Farming Is the Future of Cannabis and Agriculture
Vertical farming has been hailed as the future of many agricultural industries and cannabis is no different. We already see large vertical farms in most legal states, but surprisingly it’s still not a common style of growing. As the price per pound steadily declines in California, being able to keep COGs down will allow vertical farmers to sustain and thrive in this volatile industry.
In order to adapt, grow and leave a positive mark on the industry, we must pave the way for new styles of growing and utilizing new technology and science that was not available to growers in the past. We can use these advanced new technologies to make real-time changes to each sector of our facility and optimize both people power, and energy efficiency. And most importantly, we’ll be able to produce top-quality cannabis for adults to enjoy at affordable prices.
This is the second piece in a two-part conversation with the founders of Veda Scientific, CEO Leo Welder and CSO Aldwin M. Anterola, PhD. To read part one, click here.
In part one, we chatted about their backgrounds, their approach to cannabis testing, their role in the greater industry and how they came into the cannabis industry.
In part two, we’re going down a few cannabis chemistry rabbit holes and realizing that what we don’t know is a lot more than what we do know. Join us as we delve into the world of volatile compounds, winemaking, the tastes and smells of cannabis, chicken adobo and much more.
Aaron: Alright so you mentioned the GCxGC/MS and your more advanced terpene analysis. How do you envision that instrument and that data helping your customers and/or the industry?
Leo: Some of the things that we envision will help is a better understanding of what compounds and what ratios will lead to desirable outcomes, things like better effects, aroma and flavor. By better understanding these things it’ll help the industry create better products.
I have a personal connection to this. My wife has some insomnia and she’s always had to take various forms of OTC pharmaceuticals to help with sleep. She tried using a 1:1 vape pen and it was a miracle worker for her for several months. The local dispensary had a sale on it, and she bought some extra. Unfortunately, even though she used it the same way as before, she got very serious anxiety, which obviously didn’t help her sleep. Every time she used the vapes from this same batch, she felt the same extreme anxiety. Sadly, she now had a lot of this product that she couldn’t use because it kept her awake rather than helping her sleep, so she went back to trying other OTC solutions. That’s a problem for both consumers and the industry at large. If people find something that works and provides a desired effect, they need to be able to rely on that consistency every time they purchase the product, leading to similar outcomes and not exaggerating the problem. That’s why I think consistency is so important. We’re taking two steps forward and one back when we have inconsistent products. How do we really grow and expand the availability of cannabis if we lose trust from our consumer base? What a lab can do and what we can do is provide data to cultivators and manufacturers to create that consistency and ultimately allow the market to expand into other demographics that are currently wary and less tolerant of that variance.
On a similar note, we have been having a lot of discussions with the CESC [Clinical Endocannabinoid System Consortium] down in San Diego. They are an advanced cannabis research group that we have been working with for over a year. We’ve started looking at the idea of varietals. To be more specific, because I’m not a wine connoisseur, varietals are the pinot noirs, the cabernets and sauvignon blancs of the industry. In the cannabis industry, consumers have indica and sativa, though we still argue over what that concept really means, if anything. But for the sake of argument, let’s say we have this dichotomy to use as a foundational decision tool for consumers- call it the red and white wine of the cannabis industry. How inaccessible would wine be if we just had red or white? Imagine if you went to a dinner party, really liked the wine you were drinking, and the host could only tell you that it was a red wine. You can’t go to a wine store and expect to find something similar to that wine if the only information you have is “red.” At a minimum, you need a category. So that’s what varietals are, the categories. The data that we can produce could help people in the industry who identify and establish the varietals based on their expertise as connoisseurs and product experts to find what those differences are chemically. Similarly, we’re also looking at appellation designations in California. So, we want to help provide tools for farmers to identify unique characteristics in their flower that would give them ability to claim and prove appellation designation.
Aldwin: The GCxGC/MS allows us to find more things besides the typical terpene profile with 20 or 40 terpenes. It allows us to go beyond those terpenes. The issue sometimes is that with a typical one-dimensional GC method, sure you could probably separate and find more terpenes, but the one dimension is not enough to separate everything that coelutes. And it’s not just terpenes. Some terpenes coelute with one another and that’s why people can see this inconsistency. Especially if you use a detector like an FID, we can see the compound limonene on the chromatogram, but there’s another terpene in there that is unknown that coelutes with limonene. So, this instrument is helping us get past the coeluting issue and solve it so that we know what peaks represent what terpenes.
The other bonus with our GCxGC/MS is that the coeluting compounds that were masked behind other terpenes are now revealed. There is a second dimension in the chromatogram where we can now detect some compounds in cannabis that would be hiding behind these large peaks if it were just a one-dimensional GC. Besides terpenes, we’ve found esters, alkanes, fatty acids, ketones, alcohols and aldehydes, as well as thiols. The terpenes are so plentiful in cannabis that these other compounds present at lower levels cannot be seen with just one-dimensional GC. There are just so many compounds in cannabis that the ones in small amounts are often masked. My analogy to highlight the importance of these minor compounds is like a dish; I am from the Philippines and I like chicken adobo. My father does it differently from my mom and someone else will do it differently in a different region. The base of the sauce is vinegar and soy sauce, but some people will do it differently and maybe add some bay leaf, garlic, pepper, or a touch of another spice. It’s still chicken adobo, but it tastes differently. Just like in cannabis, where yes, you have the same amount of THC in two different plants, but it’s still giving you a different experience. Some people say it’s because of terpenes, which is true in a lot of cases, but there are a lot of other volatile compounds that would explain better why certain dishes taste different.
Leo: There’s been some recent developments too here that show it’s very significant. It’s like the difference between bland and spicy. And it could be the thiol. We identified a thiol in cannabis at the same time as other scientists reported an article that just came out on this subject.
Aldwin: Thiols are sulfur containing compounds that produce very powerful odors, giving cannabis the skunky smell. Skunks also produce thiols. It is very potent; you only need a little bit. It turns out that yes, that paper described thiols and we also saw them in our GCxGC/MS. These are the kinds of things that the GCxGC can show you. Those very tiny amounts of compounds that can have a very powerful impact. That’s one that we know for sure is important because it’s not just us that’s finding out that GCxGC can detect this.
Not everything is about THC or the high amount of the compounds in the flower. This paper and our concurrent findings indicated that the skunkier smelling strains contained very small amounts of thiols and you can recognize their presence quite readily. It’s not a terpene, but it’s producing a distinct flavor and a powerful smell.
Aaron: Okay, so why is this useful? Why is it so important?
Leo: I would say two things in particular that we know of that are issues currently, both related to scents. We mentioned this earlier. We do know that farmers with breeding programs are trying to target particularly popular or attractive scent profiles, whether it be a gas or fruity aroma. Right now, when they get the flower tested and review the terpene profile, it isn’t enough information to help them identify what makes them chemically distinct. We hear time and again that farmers will say their terpene profile is not helpful in identifying specific scents and characteristics. They are looking for a fingerprint. They want to be able to identify a group of plants that have a similar smell and they want a fingerprint of that plant to test for. Otherwise, you have to sniff every plant and smell the ones that are most characteristic of what they’re targeting. For larger operations, walking through and smelling thousands of plants isn’t feasible.
Once we can identify that fingerprint, and we know which compounds in which ratios are creating the targeted aroma, we can run tests to help them find the best plants for breeding purposes. It’s about reproducibility and scalability.
Another value is helping people who are trying to categorize oils and strains into particular odor categories, similar to the varietals concept we’ve been talking about. Currently, we know that when manufacturers send multiple samples of oils with the same or similar scent to be tested, the results are coming back with significantly different terpene profiles. There is not enough data for them to chemically categorize products. It’s not that their categories are wrong, it’s just that the data is not available to help them find those boundaries.
Those are two issues that we know from conversations with customers that this particular piece of equipment can address.
Aldwin: Let’s start from what we find, meaning if you are using the GCxGC/MS, we are finding more terpenes that nobody else would be looking at. We have data that shows, for example, that certain standards are accounting for 60% or so of total terpene content. So a large percent is accounted for, but there is still quite a bit missing. For some strains there are terpenes that are not in common reference standards. Being able to know that and identify the reason why we have different terpenes in here unaccounted for is big. There are other things there beyond the standard terpenes.
What excites me sometimes is that I see some terpenes that are known to have some properties, either medical or antibacterial, etc. If you find that terpene looking beyond the list, you’ll find terpenes that are found in things like hardwood or perfumes, things that we don’t necessarily associate with the common cannabis terpenes. If you’re just looking for the limited number of terpenes, you are missing some things that you might discover or some things that might help explain results.
Leo: It’s also absolutely necessary for the medical side of things. Because of the federal limitations, cannabis hasn’t been researched nearly enough. We’re missing a lot of data on all of the active compounds in cannabis. We are finally starting to move into an era where that will soon be addressed. In order for certain medical studies to be successful, we need to have data showing what compounds are in what plants.
Drs. John Abrams and Jean Talleyrand of the CESC launched the Dosing Project in 2016. They have been studying the impact of cannabis flower for indications such as pain mitigation and sleep improvement, and now more recently mood, and appetite modulation. They categorize the THC & CBD content as well as flower aroma into 3 cannabinoid and 3 odor profiles. They are able to acquire quite a bit of data about how odor correlates with the outcomes. Because they were initially limited in terms of underlying natural product content data, they contacted us when they found out we acquired this equipment in 2020, and have stated that they are certain the data we will now be producing will take their research to the next level of understanding.
Aldwin: For quality control you are looking at specific things that would reflect properties in cannabis. There should be a 1:1 correspondence between properties observed and what we are measuring. The current assumption is that the terpenes we are looking at will tell us everything about how people would like it, with regards to flavor and smell preference. But we know for a fact that the limited terpenes most labs are measuring do not encapsulate everything. So, it is important for QC purposes to know for this particular strain or product, which everyone liked, what is it in there that makes everybody like it? If you just look at the typical terpene profile, you’ll find something close, but not exact. The GCxGC/MS shows us that maybe there’s something else that gives it a preferred property or a particular smell that we can explain and track. In one batch of flower, the consumer experiences it a certain way, and for another batch people experience it another way. We’d like to be able to understand what those differences are batch to batch so we can replicate the experience and figure out what’s in it that people like. That’s what I mean by consistency and quality control; the more you can measure, the more you can see.
Aldwin: Speaking to authenticity as well, in a breeding example, some growers will have this strain that they grew, or at least this is what they claim it to be, but what are the components that make those strains unique? The more analytes you can detect, the more you can authenticate the plant. Is this really OG Kush? Is this the same OG Kush that I’ve had before? Using the GCxGC/MS and comparing analytes, we can find authenticity in strains by finding all of the metabolites and analytes and comparing two strains. Of course, there is also adulteration- Some people will claim they have one strain that smells like blueberries, but we find a compound in it that comes from outside of cannabis, such as added terpenes. Proving that your cannabis is actually pure cannabis or proving that something has added terpenes is possible because we can see things in there that don’t come from cannabis. The GCxGC/MS can be used as a tool for proving authenticity or proving adulteration as well. If you want to trademark a particular strain, we can help with claiming intellectual property. For example, if you want to trademark, register or patent a new product, it will be good to have more data. More data allows for better description of your product and the ability to prove that it is yours.
Leo: One thing that I think is a very interesting use case is proving the appellations. It is our understanding that California rolled out a procedure for growers to claim an appellation, but with strict rules around it. Within those rules, they need to prove uniqueness of growing products in specific regions. The GCxGC/MS can help in proving uniqueness by growing two different strains in two different regions, mapping out the differences and seeing what makes a region’s cannabis unique. It’s valuable for growers in California, Oregon, Colorado to be able to prove how unique their products are. To prove the differences between cannabis grown in Northern California versus plants grown along the Central Coast. And of course, for people across the world to be able to really tell a story and prove what makes their cannabis different and special. To be able to authenticate and understand, we need to have more comprehensive data about properties in those strains. It could be terpenes, it could be esters or thiols. That’s what we’re excited about.
Aaron: From your perspective, what are some of the biggest challenges and opportunities ahead for the cannabis industry?
Aldwin: Getting ready for federal legalization is both a challenge and opportunity. A challenge because when it is federally legal, there will be more regulations and more regulators. It is also a challenge because there will be more businesses, more competition, that might get into the industry. It is opening up to other players, much bigger players. Big tobacco, mega labs and massive diagnostic testing companies might participate, which will be a challenge for us.
But it’s also an opportunity for us to serve more customers, to be more established at the federal level, to move to interstate commerce. The opportunity is to be ready here and now while other people are not here yet.
Another challenge and opportunity is education. Educating consumers and non-consumers. We have to realize and accept that cannabis is not for everybody, but everyone is a stakeholder, because they are our neighbors, parents or part of the medical establishment. It would be a disservice not to educate the non-consumers.
The medical establishment, they don’t have to be consumers but they need to know about cannabis. They don’t know as much as they should about cannabis and they need to know more, like how it could affect their patients for better or for worse, so they know how to help their patients better. There could be drug interactions that could affect the potency of other drugs. They need to know these things. Educating them about cannabis is a challenge. It’s also an opportunity for us to now come in and say that cannabis is here to stay and be consumed by more and more people, so we better know how to deal with it from a medical perspective.“This bucking bronco of a growth style will throw a lot of people off. We need to figure out what we can grab on to and ride out these waves.”
Law enforcement needs to be educated too. What THC level in the blood indicates impairment? It is still a challenge because we’re not there yet, we don’t have that answer quite yet. And it’s an opportunity to help educate and to find more answers for these stakeholders, so we can have regulations that make sense.
Leo: To Aldwin’s point, the biggest opportunity comes along with federal legalization as well as expanding the customer base beyond the traditional market. Since adult use was legalized in CA, we haven’t yet seen the significant expansion of the consumer population. We’re primarily seeing a legal serving of the market that already existed before legalization.
The reality is cannabis can be used in different ways than what we think of. We know it has medical benefits and we know it is enjoyed recreationally by people looking for high THC content and the highest high. But there is also this middle ground, much like the difference between drinking moonshine and having a glass of wine at dinner. The wine at dinner industry is much bigger than the mason jar moonshine industry. That’s really where the opportunity is. What’s the appeal to the broader market? That will be a big challenge, but it’s inevitable. It comes from everything we’ve talked about today, consistency in products, educating people about cannabis, normalizing it to a certain degree, varietals and appellations.
As an entrepreneur, I’m looking at this from a business perspective. Everyone talks about the hockey stick growth chart, but it is a very wavy hockey stick. I expect to see very significant growth in the industry for a while, but it will have a lot of peaks and valleys. It’ll essentially be whiplash. We are seeing this in California right now, with sky high prices in flower last year down to bottom of the barrel prices this year. We have to all figure out how to hang on. This bucking bronco of a growth style will throw a lot of people off. We need to figure out what we can grab on to and ride out these waves. The good ones will be fun and the bad ones will be painful and we know they are coming again and again and again. That’s the biggest challenge. People say ‘expect tomorrow to look a lot like today,’ but you really can’t expect tomorrow to look anything like today in the cannabis industry. Tomorrow will be totally different from today. We need to figure out, within all this chaos, what can we hang on to and keep riding the upward trajectory without getting thrown off the bronco.
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.
Leo Welder, CEO of Veda Scientific, founded the business with Aldwin M. Anterola, PhD in July of 2019. A serial entrepreneur with experience in a variety of markets, he came to the industry with an intrigue for cannabis testing and analysis. After teaming up with Dr. Anterola, co-founder and chief science officer at Veda Scientific, they came together with the purpose of unlocking possibilities in cannabis. From the beginning, they set out with a heavy scientific interest in furthering the industry from a perspective of innovation and research.
Through discussing their clients’ needs and understanding their complex problems, the two realized they wanted to start a lab that goes well beyond the normal regulatory compliance testing. Innovation in cannabis looks like a lot of things: new formulations for infused products, better designs for vaping technology or new blends of genetics creating unique strains, to name a few. For the folks at Veda Scientific, innovation is about rigorous and concentrated research and development testing.
With the help of some very sophisticated analytical chemistry instruments, their team is working on better understanding how volatile compounds play a part in the chemometrics of cannabis. From varietals and appellations to skunky smells, their research in the chemistry of cannabis is astounding – and they’ve only begun to scratch the surface.
In this two-part series, we discuss their approach to cannabis testing, their role in the greater industry as a whole and we go down a few cannabis chemistry rabbit holes and find out that what we don’t know is a lot more than what we do know. In part one, we get into their backgrounds, how they came into the cannabis industry and how they are carving out their niche. Stay tuned for part two next week where we delve deep into the world of volatile compounds, winemaking, the tastes and smells of cannabis and chicken adobo.
Aaron G. Biros: Tell me about how you and your team came to launch Veda, how you entered the cannabis space and what Veda’s approach is to the role of testing labs in the broader cannabis industry.
Leo Welder: I’m an entrepreneur. This is my third significant venture in the last fifteen years or so. So, I was intrigued by cannabis legalization broadly, because it is such a unique time in our history. I was always interested in participating in the industry in some way, but I didn’t see where would be a good fit for me. I used to meet monthly with a group of friends and fellow entrepreneurs for dinner and discussions and one member started working on the software side of the industry. He mentioned the testing element of cannabis in one of our meetings. I latched on to that and was intrigued by the concept of testing cannabis. I began to research it and found the role that testing plays in the cannabis industry is really significant. I found out that regulators rely pretty heavily on labs to make sure that products are safe, labels are accurate and that consumers have some protections. So, I thought that this is a space that I thought I could really find a calling in.
So, from that point I knew I needed to find a subject matter expert, because I am not one. I have business skills and experience in some technical fields but I am not a cannabis testing expert by any means. So, with that I started to look at a few different markets that I thought may have opportunity for a new lab, and I came across Aldwin’s business; he had a cannabis testing lab in Illinois at that time. I reached out to him, talked to him about my vision for the space and his thoughts and his vision and we really started to come together. From there, we researched various markets and ultimately chose to approach Santa Barbara County as our first foray together into the cannabis testing market.
Aldwin M. Anterola: As Leo mentioned, he was looking for a subject matter expert and I am very much interested in plant biochemistry. Which means I like to study how plants make these compounds that are very useful to us. For my PhD [in plant physiology], I was studying how cell cultures of loblolly pine produce lignin. Our lab was interested in how pine trees produce lignin, which is what makes up wood. Wood comes from phenolic compounds. You’ve probably heard of antioxidants and flavonoids – those are phenolic compounds. After my PhD, I wanted to do something different so I decided to work with terpenes.
I picked a very important terpene in our field, an anti-cancer compound called Taxol, produced from the bark of the yew tree. You have to cut trees to harvest it. We have ways of synthesizing it now. But at that time, we were trying to figure out how the tree produces that terpene. Of course, I’m interested in any compound that plants make. My interest in terpenes led me to cannabinoids which turn out to be terpenophenolics, thus combining the two interests in my professional field.
So that’s the scientific and intellectual side of why I became interested in cannabis, but practically speaking I got into cannabis because of a consulting offer. A company was applying for a cultivation license, wanted to have a laboratory component of their business in their application, and hired me to write that part of their application. I was very familiar with HPLC, and had a GC/MS in the lab. I also have a background in microbiology and molecular biology so I can cover every test required at that time, and I knew I could research the other analytical techniques if necessary.
So, they did not get the license, but I figured I’d take what I wrote, once I received permission, and set up an independent laboratory together. But it’s hard to run a lab and be a professor at the same time. Also, the busines side of running a lab is something that I am not an expert in. Fortunately, Leo found me. Before that, I really got excited about this new industry. The concept of cannabis being now accessible to more people is so interesting to me because of how new everything is. I wanted to be involved in an industry like this and help in making it safe while satisfying my curiosity in this new field of research. As a scientist, those are the things that excite us: the things we didn’t have access to, we can now do. It opens up a whole new room that we want to unlock. It was my intellectual curiosity that really drove me. This opened up new research avenues for me as well as other ventures if you will. How can I be more involved? I thought to myself.
Back in 2014, I introduced cannabis research to our university [Southern Illinois University] and set up an industrial hemp program, which was DEA-licensed I gathered faculty that would be interested in studying hemp and cannabis and we now have a whole cannabis science center at the university. I teach a course in cannabis biology and because I also teach medical botany to undergraduate students, I was able to introduce [premed] students to the endocannabinoid system. Anyway, I can go on and on.
Outside of that I became involved with the AOAC and ASTM, and became a qualified assessor for ISO 17025:2017. I have been a member of the American Chemical Society since 2000 but there were no cannabis related activities there yet until relatively recently. But when they had the new cannabis chemistry subdivision, I am happy to participate in there as well . There are many avenues that I took to begin dabbling with cannabis, be it research, nonprofits, teaching, testing and more. Cannabis has basically infiltrated all areas of what I do as an academic.
Leo: I read his resume and I was like this is the guy! So back to your question, what’s Veda’s role as a testing lab in this space? What are we trying to build? We spent a lot of time trying to figure out what we wanted to be in this space. We came to understand that labs are not the tip of the spear for the market; that would be the growers, the retailers and the processors. We are a support, a service. We see ourselves as a humble, but competent guide. We provide the data for the tip of the spear, the people pushing the industry forward with support, data and the services to make sure they have the tools they need to build these great companies and great products with good cultivation practices and more, leading everyone to the next level of the cannabis industry. Our job is to support innovation, to provide quality compliance testing, to of course ensure safety, while also providing great R&D to these innovative companies.
Aldwin: I’d like to add a bit to that thought. Okay so that’s who we are, but what are we not? Because as Leo said I had a testing lab before we met [Advanced Herbal Analytics]. From there, I approach it as safety testing, making sure that before it gets to the end consumer, we are sort of like gate keepers keeping consumers safe. That’s one side to it, but we are not the people who are trying to make sure that none of the products get to the market. For some, that’s how we’re treated as.
People often look at testing labs like the police. We are not the people trying to limit products to market. Our approach is not to find faults. There is another way of being a testing lab that is less about finding faults in products and more about finding uniqueness. What makes your product different? With this new approach, we are much more focused on helping the best products make it to the shelves.
Aaron: Given that all state licensed labs have to provide the same tests as the other labs in that state, how does Veda differentiate itself?
Leo: Location was the first thing. We picked Santa Barbara County intentionally. We knew that some of the biggest operators, some of the most forward-thinking innovators were setting up shop here. Looking down the road, not just this year or next year but very long term, we wanted to start building a great, sustainable company. We wanted to build a brand that those kinds of companies would be receptive to. Building better and greater products. There’s one other lab in the county and that’s it. Whereas there are clusters of labs in other parts of the state. Part of the draw to Santa Barbara for us was that it is such a small, tight-knit community. We have worked very hard to build relationships in our community and to understand their challenges, helping them however we can.
Location and relationships. Getting to know the challenges that different size customers face, be it our greenhouse customers versus outdoor customers, or large-scale operations versus smaller manufacturing operations, the challenges are all different. Some people care about turnaround times, some more about R&D. If we understand our client’s problems, then we can provide better service. We see ourselves as problem solvers. We lean heavily on our technical team members like Aldwin, who not only have tremendous amounts of experience and education, but also great networks to utilize when a customer needs help, even when it falls outside of our local expertise.
Last but certainly not least is the advanced R&D testing that we do. When we first started, we started talking to farmers and manufacturers trying to understand their challenges. What data were they not getting? How would a testing lab better serve them? So, we started investing strategically in certain instruments that would allow us to better serve them. We’ll get into this later as well, but we invested in a GCxGC/MS, which allows us to get more visibility into things beyond the typical panels, like more terpenes and other volatile compounds including thiols and esters. We did that because we knew there is value in that. The data our customers were getting prior just wasn’t enough to put together really great breeding programs or to manufacture really consistent products, you know, to move toward that next level of innovation in the industry.
Aldwin: Leo mentioned advanced R&D and it’s basically the same approach that I mentioned before. It’s not just telling you what you can and cannot do. It’s about asking them what do you want to do and what do you want from a lab? If we have a problem, let’s see if we can solve it. That’s how the GCxGC/MS came into play because we knew there was a need to test for many terpenes and other volatile compounds. The common complaint we received was why two terpene profiles differ so much from each other, even from the same genetics.
This is something that would actually give the customer, the cultivator or the manufacturer: data about their product that they can actually use. For consistency, for better marketing and other reasons. We are trying to help them answer the questions of ‘how can I make my product better?’
You know, for example, clients would tell us they want something that has a specific taste or smells a certain way. Nobody is telling them what makes the flavor or smell. There is a need there that we can fill. We are trying to provide data that they, the customers, need so that they can improve their breeding programs or their formulations. Data they can use, not just data they need in order to comply with regulations. They would ask us what we can do. We listen to our customers and we try and help as best we can. We don’t know every answer. We are discovering there is a lot more to terpenes than what you can find on a traditional one dimensional gas chromatogram. Some of the terpene data that our clients had previously is not really actionable data, which is where the GCxGC/MS is helping us.
In part two, we delve deep into the world of volatile compounds, winemaking, the tastes and smells of cannabis and chicken adobo. Click here to read part two.
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