Due to quick progressions in legalization, today’s cannabis industry bears little resemblance to the industry of five years ago. As the cannabis space gains mainstream acceptance, it resembles more “traditional” industries closely. In turn, how we consume cannabis has changed dramatically within this novel legal framework.
A brief visit to a cannabis dispensary quickly illuminates just how much the industry has changed in the past few years.
Within the dynamic of modern cannabis, perhaps no vertical has seen the same advancements as cannabis extracts. It’s precisely the growth of the concentrate category that has given rise to the many branded products that define the legal market.
To give a clear picture of how advancements in extraction have stimulated the concentrate category’s growth, we put together this brief exploration.
Standards & Technology
Before legalization, the production of cannabis extracts was a shady affair done in clandestine and often dangerous ways. Especially concerning BHO (Butane Hash Oil), home-based laboratories have long since been notorious fire hazards. Even more, with a total lack of regulation, black-market extracts are infamous for containing harmful impurities.
In the few short years that cannabis has been legal in Nevada, Washington and other states, extract producers have adopted standards and technology from more professional arenas. By borrowing from the food and pharmaceutical industries, concentrate companies have achieved excellence undreamed of a decade ago.
Good Manufacturing Practices
One of the essential elements in the extracts vertical advancements is the adoption of good manufacturing practices. According to the World Health Organization website, “Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) is that part of quality assurance which ensures that products are consistently produced and controlled to the quality standards appropriate to their intended use.”
When adult-use cannabis was legalized in markets such as Colorado, cannabis companies were able to come out of the shadows and discuss GMPs with legit businesses. In doing so, they implemented professional controls on extract manufacturing in accordance with “quality standards” of state regulatory agencies.
Supercritical CO2 Extraction
As cannabis businesses adopted GMP from other industries, extract producers also embraced more sophisticated technology. Of these, supercritical CO2 has pushed the cannabis concentrates vertical into the future.
According to the equipment manufacturer Apeks Supercritical, “CO2 is considered to be a safer method of extraction because the solvent is non-volatile. The extract is purer because no trace of the solvent is left behind. It is also versatile and helps protect sensitive terpenes, by allowing cold separation.” By deriving methods from food production, supercritical equipment manufacturers have given cannabis companies a viable option for the commercial production of extracts.
Supercritical technology has helped push the concentrates vertical forward by providing a clean and efficient way to produce cannabis extracts. Nonetheless, supercritical CO2 equipment is highly sophisticated and carries a hefty price tag. Producers can expect to pay well over $100,000 for commercial supercritical CO2 extraction setup.
Just as standards and technology have evolved in the cannabis extracts vertical, we have also seen products rapidly mature. Notably, the legal environment has allowed manufacturers to exchange ideas and methods for the first time. In turn, this dialogue has led to the development of new products, like isolates and live resin.
Just as the name implies, isolates are concentrates made from a singular, pure cannabinoid. In today’s market, CBD isolates have grown increasingly popular because people can consume pure CBD without ingesting other cannabinoids or plant materials, including the legal 0.3% THC found in hemp.
Isolates are made by further purifying cannabis extracts in the process of purification, filtration and crystallization. As seen with other concentrates, isolates are used as the base for many cannabis products, such as gummies.
There is also growing interest in CBG isolate, which is another non-psychoactive cannabinoid when consumed orally.
The cannabis concentrate live resin has taken the industry by storm over the past few years. Live resin is a form of extract that is originally sourced from freshly harvested and frozen cannabis plants. The primary selling point behind this extract is the fact that fresh flowers produce much more vibrant aromas and flavors than dried cannabis. Interestingly, this pungency is tied to the preservation of terpenes in live resin.
To make live resin, producers “flash freeze” fresh cannabis plants immediately after harvest. Valuable cannabinoids and terpenes are then extracted from the fresh, frozen plant material using hydrocarbon solvents. This whole process is done at extremely cold temperatures, ensuring no thermal degradation to the precious and volatile terpenes.
In lieu of these intricate steps to preserve the flower and extracts, live resin has continuously gained popularity. Namely because vaping with live resin is the best way to sample fresh cannabis terpene profiles in its most authentic fashion
It is amazing to see how much cannabis extracts have grown and progressed with legalization. Due to such amazing advancements in standards, technology, and products, the concentrates category has exploded on the dispensary scene. In today’s market, flowers have been largely sidelined in favor of concentrate-based products like gummies. These products now adorn dispensary shelves in beautiful packaging replete with purity and testing specifications.
It’s an often-overlooked fact that the purity standards of the legal extracts have made reliable cannabis brands possible in the first place. You cannot develop a cannabis brand without consistent products that customers can rely on; all things considered, it can be said that advancements in extraction have not only stimulated the concentrate category but the entire industry as we know it today.
Carbon Dioxide (CO2) extraction is a processing technique whereby CO2 is pressurized under carefully controlled temperatures to enable extraction of terpenes, cannabinoids and other plant molecules.
Green Mill Supercritical is a Pittsburgh-based manufacturing and engineering company focused on cannabis and hemp extraction. The company offers a range of CO2 extraction equipment where users can tune and control their extraction methods.
We spoke with Wes Reynolds, CEO of Green Mill Supercritical. Wes recently joined Green Mill as CEO and investor in the company after a long career at the Coca-Cola Company in senior sales and general management roles.
Aaron Green: Wes, thank you for taking the time to chat today. How did you get involved in Green Mill?
Wes Reynolds: I came out of a 20-year career at Coca-Cola, where I lived and worked around the world. I was a sales and general management guy with Coke, and learned a lot about running businesses and how to drive growth. I left Coke in 2017. After that successful career I wanted to be in the cannabis space. I felt like cannabis was a growing space with a lot of opportunity and a lot of misperceptions out there, particularly around the foundations of what I would call the “evil reputation” of cannabis. I just found that abhorrent and wanted to be part of changing it.
So I ran the Florida operations for Surterra, which is now called Parallel, for a year out of Tampa, and we did a great job of growing that business in Florida. As the president of the Florida operation for Surterra, I saw everything seed-to-shelf for the industry. We had a 300,000-square-foot greenhouse in Central Florida, we had dispensaries, we had all the production, distribution and all the marketing. I was really able to learn the industry top to bottom.
When I left Surterra, I started looking at various investment opportunities and thinking about what I might want to do next. I came across Green Mill out of Pittsburgh, and was really impressed with the technology that they had put together. Having run a company where we used CO2 extraction, I had experiences with systems that didn’t work when they were supposed to or didn’t work the way they were promised, which led to lots of downtime, lots of frustration and lots of babysitting. I was impressed with Green Mill’s engineering approach and decided that I’d like to be involved with them. I originally considered just being an investor, but more and more conversations led to a greater understanding of some basic business administrative needs that they had as well. One thing led to another and I agreed to come on as the CEO, and I’m also an investor.
I’m excited about what we’re doing at Green Mill. I think that bar none, we make the best supercritical CO2 extraction equipment out there. We continue to innovate on that every day. We want to push CO2 beyond known limits, which is our stated goal as a company. We believe in CO2 and we’re living our goal in that we really are pushing it beyond known limits. There are new things we’re uncovering every day where we go, “Oh, my God, I didn’t know we can do that with CO2!” So, that’s kind of fun.
Aaron: Can you tell me just a high-level overview of how CO2 extraction works?
Wes: A supercritical CO2 extraction system is a collection of extraction vessels and fractionation vessels or collection vessels. In our case fractionation because we’re doing multiple collections through a single run. Then you need a system of pumps and valves and tubing, etc. to move the solvent in a supercritical state through the packed biomass, and then move the extracted compounds into a set of collection vessels. It sounds very easy. But the key to supercritical CO2 extraction is controlling temperature, flow rate and pressure. The better you can control temperature, flow rate and pressure, the more precise of an outcome you’re going to get. For example, say you run a three-hour extraction run, and you want to run it at 3500 psi. Well, you know, a competitive system might fluctuate 300 to 400 psi on either side of 3500. Whereas our system currently fluctuates more like five to 10 psi on either side of the 3500. So, there is much more control and precision.
Our whole goal, when we’re talking about pushing CO2 beyond known limits, is how do we continue to chase that holy grail of perfect control of temperature, flow rate and pressure? One of our advances so far is a proprietary pump, for example, that’s a liquid displacement pump that we engineer and build. It ensures a very even and consistent flow, independent of the pressure setting. So, that flow rate doesn’t change in our system compared to what you would see with another system. It sounds like a minor thing, except that at the end of a run, if you expected to get a certain set of molecules, you’re going to get a different set of molecules if your temperature and flow rate and pressure are varying, because what you’re doing is disrupting the density of the CO2 as it flows.
It’s about building a system that is precise in that way, I think, that requires enormously skilled engineering effort and design effort on the front end, and then requires us to have advanced production and manufacturing capabilities in our shop in Pittsburgh. Our customers are clearly impressed with the levels of consistency that they’re getting out of their system.
Aaron: You talked about precision and consistency as two items. Is there anything else that makes Green Mill different?
Wes: I’m a brand guy. I believe in brands. I came out of a 20-year Coca-Cola career.
The way that the cannabis industry is going in total, in my opinion, is the consumer is going to get more and more discerning along the way. Up until this point, everybody thinks “oh, we have THC and CBD and we have intensity.” But the more sophisticated and educated consumers get, the more discerning they’re going to be about what products they want to put in their bodies.
What makes Green Mill different is that we’re building a system that allows the operator of that system to create differentiated products for the marketplace. So, it’s not simply “CBD is CBD.” It’s: what plant did you start with? How can you maintain as many of the characteristics of that plant as possible?
We’re going to create the most sophisticated tool possible to allow the operator to create products that can be differentiated in the marketplace for a discerning consumer at a premium price. That way, you can create a market where there might not have been a market before, instead of just “hey, I’ve got X pounds of biomass that I need to extract. Give me your bluntest instrument and let me extract.”
We currently make five different systems. First is the SFE Pro. We make a seven and a half liter and a 10-liter version, with two-vessel configurations of each of those. Then we have what we call a Parallel Pro, which has four 10-liter vessels and two pumps, with two streams running parallel to each other and emptying into shared collectors. It doubles the extraction rate, and you don’t expand the footprint very much. But 10-liter vessels are the biggest vessels we use. Because when you go too large with the vessel, you are giving up something in terms of the ability to control temperature, flow rate and pressure. Your efficiency starts to drop with higher vessel volume.
One of the things that makes Green Mill different is our extraction rate. Our Parallel Pro can do 145 pounds a day of biomass. We think that’s a significant amount, given the demand that’s out there for unique products. What we’re advocating for is multiple extraction systems instead of giant permanent installations of extraction systems, that end up limiting your flexibility. Big systems also prevent you from creating redundancies in your operating system. So, when your extraction system goes down, you’re done. Versus in our universe, we would say, you might want to have three or four extraction systems in different locations, running different products. Our price points are such that that’s very doable.
Aaron: How does the breakdown look between your cannabis and hemp clients?
Wes: A lot of that is legislative frankly. It has to do with what the environment is like at the moment. About 60% of our customers are small hemp farmers. And then we have the other 40% in the cannabis space that are medical or adult use producers.
CO2 extraction has a lot of applications beyond cannabis. We have a couple of customers using our system for hops extraction, for example. We see an enormous opportunity out there for non-cannabis botanical extraction, but our primary focus is cannabis. That is what we’re designing this system to do.
We find that small hemp farmers love our system because it is reliable and very automated. We have proprietary software that operates the whole system. You load and run various “recipes,” at least we call them recipes. What you are doing is setting flow rate, setting temperatures, setting pressures, etc., then that proprietary software has an unbelievable ability to control everything through the process. I’ve talked to several different operators who have used other machines, and then found themselves on a Green Mill system and couldn’t believe how easy, but also feature-rich it was.
I talk about it like it’s like an oven, you know, you set the oven at 375 degrees. And a really good oven stays right at 375. You still need to be a good chef to be able to make that perfect cheesecake. But without that oven, your hands are tied, so you are constantly trying to check those, “is it still 375? I don’t know!” With our system, if it says 375, it holds at 375. So we’re pretty excited about that.
And we’re going to continue to innovate. For example, we have a proprietary heat exchanger that we use on our systems. It’s actually 3D printed stainless steel. It’s about a 20-pound piece of steel that’s been printed to have a special tubing shape in the center only possible with 3D printing that allows us to heat CO₂ very quickly.
Aaron: That’s very cool. I’m noticing a lot actually, the innovations in cannabis are creating these adjacent market opportunities in botanicals. So, I think that’s interesting you point that out. You mentioned terpenes are one of the things you collect out of the CO2 extraction. Can you talk about the crude that comes off and how people are either monetizing or formulating that crude?
Wes: Our goal is to produce the “purest crude” possible. So, we want “less crude” crude. I think that we’re at the beginning of this, Aaron. We’re nowhere near the end, which is what I find so exciting, because all of our innovation, all of our continued development and all of our experimentation is designed to keep thinking, how do we push this further and further and further and get a more refined crude.
We just welcomed Jesse Turner to our team as Director of R&D, who is a well-known extraction guy in the industry. He came from Charlotte’s Web and Willie’s Reserve, and has been doing independent consulting. He’s just a rock star. He’s already off and running on experimenting with different stuff.
I think that we are just at the beginning of seeing more and more of that opportunity to help people realize, “Oh, my gosh, I did not know you could do this!” Terpenes are a good example. I think we are only scratching the surface of what terpenes can do. I mean, a cannabis plant has 400 plus molecules and we know a good bit about probably 10 or 12 of them. So, what are we going to find out about the other 390? And as we do, the Green Mill system will be ideal for separating those molecules that we don’t know today are valuable. So, I think that’s part of what we’re chasing as well.
Aaron: So where do you see CO2 extraction fitting into the cannabis and hemp supply chain?
Wes: For any product on the market that is not a smokable flower it helps to have an extraction process. There may be some products that come out that we don’t know about yet that are not going to qualify in that category. Whether you are talking about vape cartridges, or lozenges, or gummy bears, or whatever it is, they are going to start with extract. I think what consumers want is zero adulteration of their product. So if you take any botanical product, and if it is GMO-free, does not have any pesticides, maybe it is all organic, etc. — there is real consumer appeal to that. Whether you agree with it or not, it is what consumers want.
We believe that we can continue to push CO2 so that there’s no requirement for introduction of any other materials than just CO2, which is a completely inert gas. It’s got no residual effect whatsoever on the product. If we get where we want to go, then eventually you are talking about a pure botanical experience.
Initial upfront capital is higher than you are going to see with ethanol and butane extraction solutions for the same size equipment, but ongoing operating costs of those are much higher, when you weigh it out over a period of time. I think what we are going to find is that people are going to keep coming to CO2 because they realize there are things they can do with it that they can’t do any other way.
The end consumer is really who we want to keep in mind. I think for a long time, this industry was very demand driven. “I have X acres of cannabis product, whether that’s hemp, sativa, indica, whatever it is, and I need to extract this many pounds a day over this period of time.” And we keep asking the question, well, who’s going to buy that product on the other side? What do you want it to look like when you put it out on the market? As opposed to how much raw plant matter do you have? What’s the demand? And that was a difficult conversation. We’re starting to see more people come around to that conversation now. But I think that’s the question we want to keep answering is how do we create those products that are differentiated in the marketplace and that can pass muster in any regulatory environment? People are going to want to know what’s in their product.
Aaron: What trends are you following in the industry?
Wes: As the CEO, I’m particularly interested in the overall development of the landscape of the industry in terms of who’s playing, who’s winning, what’s happening with legislation, MSOs versus SSOs. I’m also interested in the international environment. We have a good bit of interest from multiple countries that have either ordered Green Mill systems or are talking to us about Green Mill systems, including Canada and Latin American countries, some European countries, Australia and New Zealand.“We’re really committed to educational efforts with a very rigorous scientific foundation, but in language that is approachable and people can understand.”
The trends that I’m particularly interested in are more on the business side of the equation, in terms of how this business is going to shake out particularly from a capitalization perspective, as banking laws continue to change, which is a big deal, and the legislative environment gets a little more predictable and a little more consistent.
Aaron: Okay, last question. So what are you personally interested in learning more about?
Wes: Everything, is the short answer! I constantly run this little challenge of trying to understand enough of the science. I’m not a scientist, I’m a sales guy. That was how I grew up: general management and sales. I’ve made my living over many years being wowed by the pros. Depending on the scientists and the very specialized folks to help provide the right answers to things. I’m fascinated by the chemistry and I’m fascinated by the mechanical engineering challenges of what we do at Green Mill. So, I’m always interested in learning about that.
I think there’s a need, and it is helpful to be able to talk about those things in language that the layperson can understand, as opposed to explaining everything in scientific language. I think what I am trying to do is help people put it into a language that they can get, but that is not simple. Language that is correlative to reality. I think there’s so much misunderstanding about how these things work and what’s happening. We’re really committed to educational efforts with a very rigorous scientific foundation, but in language that is approachable and people can understand.
Aaron: Okay, that’s it. Thank you for your time Wes!
Cannabis extraction and manufacturing is big business in California with companies expanding brands into additional states as they grow. This is the fifth and final article in a series where we interview leaders in the California extraction and manufacturing industry from some of the biggest and most well-known brands.
In this week’s article, we talk with Kristen Suchanec, VP of Production at Island. Kristen converted her experience in traditional consumer packaged goods to cannabis to help create a brand that is sought after by many. The interview with Kristen was conducted on August 21, 2020.
Aaron Green: Good afternoon Kristen, I am glad we were able to put this interview together. I know you have been very busy!
Kristen Suchanec: I’m so sorry this took so long to actually work! Thank you for bearing with me. I’m happy we are able to talk.
Aaron: Great! I like to start off the conversation with a question that helps our readers get to know you a little better. So, Kristen can you tell me how you got involved at Island?
Kristen: My background is in manufacturing and planning for consumer packaged goods. I had a friend of a friend and we were just at a happy hour and I asked what he was up to. He was actually our VP of Finance at Island and he handed me a box of pre-rolled joints. They were our Island Minis and I thought it was a great customer experience. I loved the brand and packaging which made it a consumer product versus, you know, this was a few years back where cannabis wasn’t necessarily commoditized or branded. I got really excited about that because I feel like cannabis should be traditional CPG and it should appeal to different people and it should have different brands that appeal to those different groups. So I literally just started a conversation. His brother is our founder and CEO and they needed someone to run production so that was my background and it all kind of lined up and I ended up being employee number five at Island!
Aaron: Wow, employee number five – awesome! OK, great. That is some nice background about how you got involved at the company. The next questions get into product development and manufacturing. The first question is: what’s your decision process for starting a new product?
Kristen: Yea, we are right now owning the lane between cultivation and distribution. So, getting those raw materials for whether it be concentrates or flower and then converting them into that final packaging for everything. So that is what we focus on and spend all of our time with automation and trying to make that process as efficient as possible.
When we’re looking at a new product we’re not necessarily creating a new extraction, we are really looking at the market and the end consumer and what people want. At Island we’ve really focused on vape, pre-roll and packaged flower. Those are the three categories we are working on right now. We are expanding and looking to move more towards vape and live resins and specialty concentrated products that we haven’t really had in our portfolio before. What we would like to do is make sure we have the capability to manufacture that and then take a look at where we think the market is going. We are trying to go in the flower, pre-roll and vape because that is where we spent so much of our time getting pieces of automation so not everything we are bringing in house is manual.
Aaron: Now when you say the capability to manufacture that are you talking about from a packaging perspective or…?
Kristen: Yes, so we won’t do any extraction on site. It’s getting distillate, shatter and flower and then we take that and convert that either into pre-rolled joint, a package of flower or any other final product. So, we are looking at automating that packaging piece.
Aaron: Got it. OK, so the next question — and I think you kind of touched on this as well — are you involved in manufacturing to the extent that you are manufacturing the packaging?
Kristen: Yes absolutely. My whole team’s manufacturing is based out of Oakland. That’s where we do all the conversion of products. I oversee that entire team and have been really involved in a lot of the equipment that we have sourced and iterations that we’ve gone through to make sure that we’re able to automate as much as possible. We’ve really focused on the issue of weighing the material. For our flower line everything is weighed and put into a jar, capped, sealed and labeled for it to come off our lines. We don’t have anyone in packing or anything like that. Our pre-rolls manufacturing is an automated machine where it actually weighs the flower before going into the cone so we’re not having to weigh after the fact and take into account the weight of the cone because that’s so variable so we know that the customer is getting consistency. Then for the vapes, it’ssame thing – the volumetric doses everything.
I have to give my credit to everyone on the floor who is doing the day to day, they find so many new solutions since they are the ones that are hands on. I am really involved in what new equipment we need, what problems we are looking to solve and what’s causing our bottlenecks so we can continue to improve our process week over week and year over year.
Aaron: We’ll dig into some of those problems in a bit. What is your process for not just starting new product but for developing a new product?
Kristen: Yeah, absolutely. So, I think it’s really interesting to see where the market is going. What’s selling really well and especially over the past year pre rolls have been a huge growth platform for us. And especially now, we’ve seen some changes because of COVID as well. We have single joints. But then we have our Minis, which I’ve mentioned before, which are half gram joints. We’re seeing sales on those actually increased because I think people are sharing joints as people want individual things because of this pandemic.
When we go through this process, we’re really – again – we’re so focused on what the consumer wants, and what we think is going to add to our portfolio. Then when marketing and our product team comes to me, we really focus on our machinery, what we can do with it currently, and if we would need something additional. So,we’re excited about expanding into 510s right now. We’re looking at how we can automate the process of capping – we can fill right now, but not cap. And then we also take a look at packaging.
I think it’s a little different than creating like a whole new product, extraction or anything like that, but we were looking at more sustainable options for packaging for child resistance because we’re trying to move away from barrier bags as much as possible. We’re looking at, okay, how many stickers do we need to put on there? What is the labor time going into each piece of product? And again, how are we eventually going to get some consistency across product lines, etc.
So, it’s really taking all three of those components, making sure we’re getting out the customer that feels like they want. I’m having it either fit into our process or again, then go through and look at what automations meanand automation equipment investment you want to make for long term future investments.
Aaron: Are you developing new products internally, or are you relying on outside manufacturers for that?
Kristen: Not everything we do is internal. We have a big network of, you know, cultivators and extractors we work with, but we’re in the midst of getting our own cultivation and manufacturing in house by working with other companies. So with that we’re doing everything.
Aaron: Do you ever bring in external product development consultants for helping out with your processes?
Kristen: No, we don’t bring in consultants. But we have brought in another brand into our fold via a brand called Neutron Genetics. That is part of our overall portfolio. We work very closely with the founder because he has a lot of trade secrets, a lot of his own processes to make sure you’re getting the best product for that specific brand.
Aaron: In your product development, what does getting stuck look like to you?
Kristen: That’s a good question. I think one of the biggest challenges is working with the plant itself, because it’s not consistent and it’s not homogenous. You could get the same strain from the same cultivator, but it’ll be a different batch. It might be a little stickier or a little larger, etc. When you’re looking at traditional manufacturing and automation, you want consistency, homogenized liquids, same viscosity every time, and we don’t have that because the plant itself is natural and is going to have all these different expressions depending on the batch and how it was grown and how it was trimmed even.“I think it’s really the proper equipment, the proper training and then, again, continuing to evolve as a team.”
So, getting stuck means finding an off-the-shelf solution that might work for, you know, nuts and bolts or some kind of food production and then you’re going to have to convert it to actually work with the cannabis plant. So that’s what makes it so challenging, but also really exciting. In the bud, humidity and air can really throw off a manufacturing process which is really different than just doing beverages for example.
Getting stuck means really having to work with the plant concentrates specifically if you think about just the nature of those whether it be shatter, distillate or very sticky product. So again, working with machinery isn’t always what goes hand in hand. So, getting stuck is dealing with all those different formats and inconsistency using the same product day after day.
Aaron: It sounds like consistency is kind of a main topic here?
Kristen: Yeah, I think it depends on what product format we have. For example, about a year ago, we launched infused pre-rolls for Neutron where we’re putting flower, kief and shatter into a joint. So that’s going to perform differently on a piece of machinery than just straight flower.
I think it all depends on the product. Usually it happens when it’s in that machine, you’re trying to get a good flow and a good consistency. You want to have time studies, you know how long it takes to make each batch. But if a certain flower mix is performing differently, it’s getting the settings of the machine dialed, right? It’s also properly training personnel so people know how to react when things get going. Sometimes things get physically stuck in the machine as well, so to be able to react on that.
I think it’s really the proper equipment, the proper training and then, again, continuing to evolve as a team. So for our pre-roll machine, we are now on our third version of it, just because we kept running into the same roadblocks and I’m hoping that continues to evolve and we just continue to get better equipment year after year.
Aaron: I see, do you ever hire outside consultants when you do get stuck?
Kristen: We’ve worked closely with vendors. I will say that we’re not a machine shop or engineering firm. So we’re not the ones creating a lot of what we use on the floor. We’ve partnered with various vendors, which has been helpful, but we haven’t used external consultants.“When you see the huge potential and then see how much is taken out from illegal activity right now, it is frustrating to see.”
Aaron: Okay, now imagine that you have a magic wand and somebody can come in and help you. What does your magic helper look like?
Kristen: I could probably make a really long list if I’m focusing on just my manufacturing and everything! I think the next thing which we’re already thinking about that magic wand is how to get a perfectly rolled joint without having so much manual human touch to it. And like I said, we’ve really attached to that weighing problem. And we’ve seen solutions out there that you know, claim to twist and have that “perfect roll” and you don’t need to even touch it. But I think the biggest challenge there is it depends how well it’s packed. You know, you don’t want it too tight. You don’t want it too loose for that customer experience. So getting that quality, if I could wave a magic wand where I’m putting in, you know, paper on one side and out comes perfectly rolled joints, that would be my magic wand for sure. Okay, I think there’s a lot of solutions out there but to get that quality and that consumer experience that we want, I haven’t seen working practice yet.
Aaron: Okay, What’s the what’s the most frustrating thing you’re going through with the business right now?
Kristen: Again, that could be a long list! I think from a more macro-level, it’s definitely the competition with the illicit market and just how there’s not enough outlets for legal cannabis right now in the state of California. When you see the huge potential and then see how much is taken out from illegal activity right now, it is frustrating to see. We’re going to get this growth and projection of the right number of dispensary licenses and things like that are definitely a huge frustration as well as with the tax structure right now because it’s obviously contributing to people going to the illicit market.
Aaron: So what are you following in the market? And what do you want to learn more about?
Kristen: Yeah, I think that’s a great question. I think the thing I’m most excited about for the larger population isjust more research to come out about the actual attributes of the plant, or how different cannabinoids react together and can have different effects. How terpenes can affect the high, how things can be used and distantly, recreationally, etc. And really, hopefully evolve and move away from strictly some sativa, hybrid,indica classifications, and really be able to educate the consumer more about the plant so people can have a more a personal relationship to understand how cannabinoids or specific terpenes are going to give them a different effect. And again, I think that’s so interesting because it could be used for therapeutic reasons that people do consume cannabis or it could just make it a better experience for people who want to take this as an escape or a way to relax and everything. So I’m really excited because more research is going to be able to get done and we can really learn more about how all of these things interact in the body and then people can take it to a whole new experience and be more educated all around.
Aaron: Alright that’s the end of the interview Kristen! Nice chatting and meeting you!
Cannabis extraction and manufacturing is big business in California with companies expanding brands into additional states as they grow. This is the fourth article in a series where we interview leaders in the California extraction and manufacturing industry from some of the biggest and most well-known brands.
In this week’s article we talk with Michael Schimelpfenig, head of R&D and BHO extraction manager at Bear Extraction House. Michael worked in the cannabis space for about five years prior to landing his role at Bear, having spent several years in the hills of Humboldt County. The interview with Michael was conducted on August 3, 2020.
In next week’s piece, we sit down with Kristen Suchanec, vice president of Production at Island. Stay tuned for more!
Aaron Green: Good morning Michael and thank you for taking the time to chat with me today!
Michael Schimelpfenig: Thanks, excited to be here!
Aaron: I like to start off the conversation with a question that helps our readers get to know you a little better. So, Michael can you tell me how you got involved at Bear Extraction House?
Michael: You know, I actually landed my role at Bear through a job search on LinkedIn. I had been working in the traditional market for five years and was getting tired of the irregular paychecks and general uncertainty of working in that market. You know, too many helicopter buzzes and all that. I felt like the risk vs reward just wasn’t there. I like Northern California and knew I wanted to find something up in Humboldt County where I had been fortunate to get experience out in the hills. After I applied on LinkedIn, I was contacted in twenty-four hours. I had an interview twenty-four hours after that and the next day I had a job! It’s been a big change going to a legal company. The possibilities are lightyears beyond what you can do in the traditional market. Lots of resources and equipment available that just aren’t there in the traditional market.
Aaron: Fascinating! I spent a week up on Humboldt last year and it is beautiful up there. The next questions will be focused on product development and manufacturing. What is your decision process for starting a new product?
Michael: We get feedback from a lot of different places. Sometimes a new product idea is coming from our CEO, Per. He comes to me with new ideas and asks if we can do something. Often it will start with a general question. Is it possible with the given capabilities? Is it scalable? Some of our new product ideas are based on market input and then others are based on employee input. Sometimes we have pre-existing ideas and just need to sit down to formalize them. Here at Bear we have the capability of making a lot from a little input.
We’re always playing with ideas. We have lively R&D meetings each week where we throw ideas around. Take byproducts from a product development run for example. Maybe it’s not a byproduct, but maybe a separate new product altogether! Sometimes we’ll start off wanting to make something and, in the process, create something unexpected that we are then able to turn into a product. Creating new products is just as important as improving optimizations. Ideas come from all over the place.
We focus these ideas through the R&D committee. Common questions include: How do we develop the product? What are the costs? Is it marketable? We have to view things from an economic standpoint and we won’t proceed until we can figure out what the product can be and what we can make money from. Our R&D committee is made up of our COO, Jeff, our lead extractor, our oven room manager and our post-production manager who focuses on product separation. When we kick a new project off It all takes lots of scheduling and coordination.
Aaron: Are you developing new products internally?
Michael: We do 100% in-house product development and manufacturing. We are formalizing and creating a more focused approach to R&D and are bringing in some academics now. They are young minds with backgrounds in organic chemistry and thermodynamics. This is important because it’s the science behind the process that helps to generate the products. We believe the added talent should help to provide some grounding to the R&D. Before we made a lot of products by accident. The ultimate goal is uniform manufacturing and that requires an understanding of molecular processes.
Aaron: Answer the next question however you like. What does being stuck look like for you?“If a product isn’t behaving the way we expect, we will do testing to determine cannabinoid and terpene levels to gain better understanding.”
Michael: Well, there are a couple ways to get stuck. Sometimes you can get stuck with a limited product portfolio. A year and a half ago all we made was live resin. Now we have different levels of live resin and six different vape carts. If you are not changing and developing new products, you are stuck.
When the web of production stops going that is definitely what I consider getting stuck. You can get stuck if sourcing material is difficult to find or cost prohibitive. We will pivot and adjust manufacturing material if that happens. We are also exploring best avenues for sourcing high quality trim and working with farmers to specifically grow strains and exotic genetics. But overall, getting stuck happens. Being stuck, on the other hand, is a lack of creativity.
Aaron: If you get stuck is it usually the same place? Or is it different each time?
Michael: We have redundancies for equipment and components. If we are getting stuck in the same place it is usually due to a lack of source material. Sometimes we get material that degrades prior to extraction. It’s a matter of contacting supplier to coordinate with them on the best approach forward. If a product isn’t behaving the way we expect, we will do testing to determine cannabinoid and terpene levels to gain better understanding. In the end, sometimes we just have to pivot to other products with things we have.
Aaron: Thanks for that. Now, imagine you have a magic wand that can take care of your issues. What does your magic helper look like?
Michael: My magic helper would be someone to help with reporting. Someone that can take care of METRC indexing and preparing final R&D reports. Like a magic data processor. Someone to handle the minutiae.
Aaron: What’s most frustrating thing you are going through with the business?
Michael: There’s never enough time! We continue to manufacture at full capacity all the time. With that demanding of a schedule it can be difficult to manage time between day-to-day processes and being able to look at bigger picture.
Aaron: Now for our final question: What are you following in the market and what do you want to learn about?
Michael: I’m following the guys out there that are heavy into crystallization. There are some huge THCA diamonds coming from East Coast Gold. I would like to know what their solution is. What is their magic liquid and process? I am a big fan of diamond growth. You can grow extremely pure isolates that way. We grow our own diamonds and have had them tested greater than 99.99% THCA. I think high level purity THCA from diamonds is preferred versus distillate. There is a difference in the smoke between them too. Having a process for making large quantities of diamonds would open us up to sticking our foot in edibles and topicals too. There is control that comes with having a purity level like that. Dosage is difficult without it. I am also interested in improving extract purity and isolating terpenes. I like solvent-less products. It means it came from a high-quality source. I would be just as happy smoking good flower as concentrate derived from the same flower.
Aaron: Alright that concludes our interview! Thank you again for the time today, Michael!
Cannabis extraction and manufacturing is big business in California with companies expanding brands into additional states as they grow. This is the third article in a series where we interview leaders in the California extraction and manufacturing industry from some of the biggest and most well-known brands.
In this week’s article we talk with Joaquin Rodriguez, chief operations officer at GenX Biotech. Joaquin was introduced into the cannabis industry through a close personal relationship and has spent seven years researching and navigating the cannabis market before jumping into his career with GenX Biotech. The interview with Joaquin was conducted on August 4, 2020.
Next week, we’ll interview Michael Schimelpfenig, head of R&D and BHO extraction manager at Bear Extraction House. Stay tuned for more!
Aaron Green: Hi Joaquin! I appreciate you taking the time to chat today. I’m glad we were able to connect!
Joaquin Rodriguez: Absolutely! I’m looking forward to it.
Aaron: Me too! So, I like to start off the interview with a background question so people get a chance to know about you better. How did you get involved with GenX Biotech?
Joaquin: I went to school at Cal Poly for mechanical engineering and spent some time in the oil industry. In 2011 I was introduced to who would be the future founder of GenX Biotech, Shea Alderete. I spent 7 years diving into cannabis industry to better understand the landscape and Prop 215 (California’s Compassionate Use Act of 1996) and then Prop 64. In late 2017, I joined GenX Biotech to spearhead the acquisition of licensing and scale up distillate manufacturing.
Aaron: Awesome. My next questions are focused on product development. What is your decision process for starting a new product at GenX Biotech?
Joaquin: Our founder, Shea Alderete, is an innovator in product development. He specializes in formulations and new formulas for vape products. We are big on gathering empirical data. In any new product we will run a small batch and test first with heavy cannabis users to gauge their reaction to the product. We will then test with light cannabis users and finally new cannabis users so we get the full spectrum of user experiences. Throughout the process, we are gathering empirical data on things like taste and perceived therapeutic effects.
Aaron: Are you personally involved in manufacturing? Tell me about your process.
Joaquin: I am, yes. We specialize in large scale distillate manufacturing to make THC oil and we formulate batches using cannabis-derived terpenes. This what we call Sauce, a full spectrum high-terpene extract obtained from a butane hash oil (BHO) process. This is a separate extraction method from our alcohol extraction process.
Aaron: Very insightful! What is your process for developing new products?
Joaquin:GenX Biotech’s core mission is to bridge the gap between cannabis culture and the science behind cannabis. We focus more on therapeutic effects as well as recreational. We keep a pulse on the industry as a whole to see what people are doing and saying as well as new extraction methods. When we capture that data we evolve and adapt and create new formulations based on that preference and test it out. It’s a constant game of “does this look good? taste good? make you feel good? how is the potency?” It’s really a big collaboration with our end users.
We will also collaborate with other brands and manufacturers to stay ahead of the curve, share information that can make us a better company, more power in numbers is what we say. As an example, Wonderbrett is known for their high-quality flower. They have a high-end product and high-end brand recognition. We would, for example, strategize and collaborate together to utilize a unique cannabinoid and terpene profile and test that with our vape products in the market. It’s more of a collaboration than a white label relationship. In this way, Wonderbrett can expand into the extracts space via their brand. We do this with other brands as well where we’ll use their raw material and joint market the brands on the final product.
Aaron: Fantastic. Are you developing new products internally?
Joaquin: We develop all our products 100% internally.
Aaron: Do you ever bring in external product development consultants?
Joaquin: Not for products, however there are certain situations, like hardware development, where we will work with outside groups that specialize in equipment manufacturing to create something specific and one off for us. We are currently working on bringing to the market an FDA-approved inhaler technology device that is a non-combustible metered delivery device that we are really excited about. In addition, we have an incubator program with our LA partners to introduce new brands to the market which is a great asset for consulting brands looking for a home and multistate resources.
Aaron: Very cool, that’s the first I have head of inhalers in the market. For my next question feel free to answer however you like. What does being stuck look like for you?
Joaquin: Getting stuck can happen in a few different areas. With respect to manufacturing, the main bottleneck issues are consistent quality of the raw biomass materials. Mother nature does not duplicate the same results exactly every time and fluctuations can affect the cost and quality of raw goods. Other things like wear and tear on manufacturing equipment are not normally an issue as everything is stainless steel and pretty stable. But things like valves, gaskets and grommets tend to wear down with consistent use. When those fail, a whole operation can be shut down. We keep a stockpile of those on hand to make sure we stay in production.
“I support the leaders that help increase the overall knowledge for consumer and patents to know the difference between a quality product and a boof product.”Aaron: If you get stuck is it usually the same place? Or is it different each time?
Joaquin: Like I said, if we get stuck its usually in the sourcing of raw materials. Cultivators can have a bad crop or weather might affect their crop. It almost always comes down to the relationship with your cultivators. They fuel the industry and are the back bone of the whole supply chain. If they have any issues it affects everyone down line.
Aaron: Do you ever hire outside consultants when you get stuck?
Joaquin: Not really. We rely on our experience and years of operating and going through our own failures to navigate any issues with manufacturing. Collectively we work together to pivot and adapt to the ever-changing legal cannabis landscape. We do on occasion outsource to a 3rd party to help acquire raw goods. On the other hand, we separately consult for other people and groups looking to build out labs!
Aaron: That’s an excellent position to be in! For the next question imagine there’s a magic wand. What does your magic helper look like?
Joaquin: Someone that can come in and help with taxation. Triple taxation is tough. There’s the cultivation tax, manufacturing tax, state tax and local taxes. Long Beach recently lowered their local tax from six to one percent, so that is encouraging, but there needs to be a fair taxation for this industry to really thrive.
Aaron: What’s the most frustrating thing you are going through with the business?“I’m really excited for the continued education and deregulation of cannabis and its medical applications.”
Joaquin: I think that would be sales downline. With Prop 215 and the transition to prop 64, legal outlets have been heavily truncated. There are now approximately 600 legal retail outlets down from a high of about 4500 prior to prop 64. The competition landscape is really high and it’s hard to get product on the shelves without proper capital to keep the brand going. It is advantageous to partner with an established distro in order to get involved with their downline and run lean and mean.
Aaron: Now for our final question. What are you following in the market and what do you want to learn about?
Joaquin: I’m really excited for the continued education and deregulation of cannabis and its medical applications. It never should have been illegal to begin with, but with government corruption and greed it was targeted and use for multiple agendas. I support the leaders that help increase the overall knowledge for consumer and patents to know the difference between a quality product and a boof product. You have seen the results of the vape scare and there’s a good reason for it. Most people don’t want to pay the high ticket for legally compliant product so they turn to the illegal side where no regulation or testing is conducted to ensure they are getting safe, quality products.
In addition, the demand is so strong that illegal producers are able to put whatever they want in their products and sell them as if they are legit, provided they have the knock-off packaging, and those operators further harm those people because the state they are selling in hasn’t adapted to the times and has prohibited the availability of legal cannabis. Their inaction and support of the continued “war on cannabis” makes them just as guilty in the results of those people who have fallen ill or been hospitalized.
There have been lots of new studies published that are slowly making their way into social media and reaching consumers so that is encouraging. Another important element is the education of bud tenders because they are the face of the brand when the customer or patient is at a legal dispensary so they need to be educated on what makes for a quality product and how it can help or achieve a desired result for a customer or patient.
Aaron: Well, that concludes the interview Joaquin. Thanks for taking the time today to talk. This is all awesome feedback for the industry. Thanks so much for these helpful insights into product development in the cannabis industry.
Cannabis extraction and manufacturing is big business in California with companies expanding brands into additional states as they grow. This is the second article in a series where we interview leaders in the California extraction and manufacturing industry from some of the biggest and most well-known brands. Click here to see Part 1.
In this week’s article we talk with Matthew Elmes, director of product development at Cannacraft. After cutting his teeth in academic and industry research, Matthew was approached by Cannacraft leadership to bring a new perspective to their product development efforts. The interview with Matthew was conducted on July 22, 2020.
Next week, we’ll interview Joaquin Rodriguez, chief operating officer at GenX BioTech. Stay tuned for more!
Aaron Green: Hi Matthew, and thank you for taking the time to chat today, I understand you have a busy schedule!
Matthew Elmes: Thanks – yeah, last week was pretty insane!
Aaron: Well, I’m happy we found a chance to put this together. Let’s start from the beginning. How did you get involved at Cannacraft?
Matthew: I did my Ph.D in biochemistry at Stony Brook University on cannabinoid intracellular transport and metabolism. I then did a post-doc with Artelo Biosciences in endocannabinoid system modulation. While I was doing my post-doctoral research, Dennis Hunter, co-founder of Cannacraft, had learned about my work and reached out to offer me a position.
Aaron: Awesome, that’s a great feeling when people are reaching out to you! The next questions here will be focused on product development and manufacturing. What is your decision process for launching a new product?
Matthew: We do our best to anticipate what the market will want. A lot of our new product development comes from improving our current products. Things like improving stability, shelf-life and reducing bitterness. For brand-new products and technologies, we first get a lot of feedback from the marketing and sales teams and will then go into a planning session to decide what is feasible and what is not prior to moving forward.
Aaron: Do you personally get involved in manufacturing? Tell me about your process there.
Matthew: I do get involved in manufacturing. My main inputs are figuring out how much cannabis oil to use to hit a target potency around the size of a batch. This is the type of thing I do for all our beverage products like HiFi Hops, our Satori line of infused edibles, and the various gummy products sold under our brands Absolute Xtracts and Care By Design.
Aaron: Are you developing new products internally?
Matthew: For the most part we develop everything internally. We are very vertically integrated here at Cannacraft and we extract all of our oil in house. I don’t do the oil extractions myself. Most of our stuff is supercritical carbon dioxide extraction, but we have hydrocarbon and cryoethanol extraction facilities opening soon. For our gummies, we use distillate oils for the best flavor and for our droppers/vapes we use full-spectrum oils for a more sophisticated array of effects.
Aaron: In product development, what does getting stuck look like for you?
Matthew: Getting stuck happens a lot! You know, strict regulations make it challenging to source ingredients. Foods we’d like to source for a product are often too high in pesticides or heavy metals for the cannabis regulations. What’s good enough for the grocery store is very often not good enough to be compliant in the California cannabis industry. Fruits that are totally free from pesticides are hard to find. Our edibles brand Satori Chocolates actually might be the only player in the entire California cannabis industry that uses real whole fruit in our products rather than something artificial or a processed fruit paste. We actually had to source our strawberries from Italy to find ones that were both compliant in metals/pesticides and tasted good enough to meet our high standards! The same sort of challenges apply to sourcing biomass for oils.
Aaron: If you get stuck is it usually the same place? Or is it different each time?
Matthew: We’re so diversified. We have lots of different products. The process for each one can have its own issues. The problems you encounter with cannabis beverages are not the same ones that you’ll encounter with vapes, edibles, topicals or sublinguals, etc. We are one of the oldest players in the California cannabis industry (CannaCraft was founded in 2014, well before regulated recreational cannabis was a thing) so we have the advantage of working on all these issues for years longer than most of our competitors and we have largely figured out all the major ‘kinks’ already. A big part of it is also that we have assembled a great team of food scientists, chemical engineers, chemists, legal and regulatory experts, all with diverse specialties that allows us to quickly address any new ‘stucks’ and be fully confident in all of our products.
Aaron: Feel free to answer the next question however you like. What does your magic helper look like?
Matthew: I would love a magic helper! What would a magic helper look like to me? I think my magic helper is a recent undergrad with lab experience. I would have them take care of a lot of the quality and lab day to day activities. My responsibilities often make me too stuck to the computer screen where I don’t have time to get to all the experiments that I’d like to do…a trained magic helper could physically perform those experiments for me!
Aaron: OK, and now for our final question! What are you following in the market and what do you want to learn about?
Matthew: I am personally really interested in yeast grows and cannabinoid synthesis from biological organisms. We stick to only natural plant-derived cannabinoids for all our products, but it’s a new field that’s just fascinating to me. I also think that minor cannabinoids will have a bigger place in coming years. In particular I have my eye on THCV, ∆8-THC, CBG and THCP. THCP is a phytocannabinoid that was just discovered a year ago and exhibited very potent effects in preclinical models, but no one has been able to produce and purify it in appreciable amounts yet. We already manufacture and sell a ∆8-THC vape cart under our ABX brand, but for the others keep an eye out for new product announcements from us that are on the horizon.
Aaron: Well, that brings us to the end of the interview Matthew, this is all awesome feedback for the industry. Thanks so much for your time and insights into product development in the cannabis industry.
Cannabis extraction and manufacturing is big business in California with companies expanding brands into additional states as they grow. This is the first article in a series where we interview leaders in the California extraction and manufacturing industry from some of the biggest and most well-known brands.
In this week’s article we talk with George Sadler, President and Co-founder of House of Platinum. George and his son Cody started their cannabis journey in 2010 when they sold their dirt bikes and set up a 10×10 garage. They have since built the business into a $70 million dollar cannabis empire across California, Michigan and now Oklahoma. The interview with George was conducted on July 31, 2020.
Next week, we’ll interview Matthew Elmes, Director of Product Development at Cannacraft. Stay tuned for more!
Aaron Green: First off, George, congratulations on your recent announcement on the LOI from Red White & Bloom!
George Sadler: Thanks! The deal isn’t done yet but we’re looking at a sixty-five-million-dollar deal. Cody and I will be staying on as officers to oversee growth as we expand into new markets.
Aaron: That’s great news! I hope it all works out well for you and best of luck closing the deal. Now on to the interview questions we had planned. So first off, how did you get involved at House of Platinum?
George: My son Cody and I wanted to do extraction and have a vape company. Five or six years ago we climbed on a plane to China to speak with manufacturers. We started off with extraction equipment in a small room with a table top machine. After a time, we took year and a half off to get our licensing and do our buildout. We opened up again two years ago in June. At the time, China was the main resource for packaging, and everything really. We got hardware from another company and had our Chinese partners rework the hardware to address some of the issues we had. Cody and I spent a week in Shenzhen where we met with our Chinese partners. They first did cartridges, packaging and batteries.
Aaron: Thanks for that, George. The next questions will focus on product development and manufacturing. What is your decision process for starting a new product?
George: In the beginning, Cody and I would both be a part of new product development from beginning to end. Cody has taken lead now on the beginning phases so our new product development really starts with him. We collectively come up with the concept. Cody does the market research. The concept then goes to our design team for visuals and to do the artwork- this usually takes some time. After we are satisfied with the branding, we start the manufacturing process. We do everything start to finish and can go from design to package in less than two weeks. The only thing we still manufacture in China is hardware these days, so cartridges and batteries.
Aaron: Are you personally involved in manufacturing? Tell me about your process
George: Cody and I are both involved in manufacturing. In California, we have about a hundred employees at our facility. In Michigan we have another hundred, and Oklahoma has about thirty. In Michigan, we do carts only right now and are getting ready to launch chocolates and gummies. Oklahoma is also getting ready to do edibles and gummies.
Aaron: What is your process for developing new products? George: In manufacturing, when we start a new line of edibles, we’ll first do a full test batch of products before committing to full-scale manufacturing. We start small at first then scale into larger batches. If everything looks good, we’ll decide whether or not to invest in larger equipment.
Aaron: Are you developing new products internally?
George: Our California and Michigan production is done 100% in-house. In Oklahoma we have a licensing deal with a manufacturing partner.
Aaron: Do you ever bring in external product development consultants?
George: No. We do all of our product development internally.
Aaron: In product development or manufacturing, what does being stuck look like for you?
George: That depends on what phase of the process we’re talking about. One challenge is getting the recipe dialed and then figuring out how to move into large scale. Take chocolate for example: going from a one spout pour on chocolate to a three-spout pour. That process can take a while to figure out. Any time you are trying to move forward in your manufacturing process, if there isn’t existing equipment available you may need to purchase it. There isn’t a lot of information out there to gauge on the cannabis side what is relevant.
Aaron: How about source materials for your products?
George: We pride ourselves on doing a deep dive on all of our suppliers. That includes packaging, chocolate, sugar, and flower. The advantage of longevity in this industry, we have keen radar on those doing premium work.
Aaron: What’s the most frustrating thing you are going through with the business?
George: I think a majority of people would agree that there’s lack of understanding of what’s happening with licensing. Legacy market products and unlicensed stores are frustrating. Inconsistency on testing is also frustrating. The states aren’t really doing anything to correct inconsistent testing. But banking is the number one industry pain point. We have a handle on the rest. Banking we don’t have any help.
Aaron: Feel free to answer the next question however you like. Imagine you could have someone come in and wave a magic wand to solve your problems. What does your magic helper look like?
George: Hah! Not sure what a magic helper would look like. Distribution is our biggest headache. Distribution is a different animal that is outside cannabis product development. We do all of our distribution in-house and it can be a pain.
Aaron: Now for my final question: What are you following in the market and what do you want to learn about?
George: We’re semi-new in the CBD space. Anything up and coming is something we are looking at. We’re focused on going big and multi-state. Arizona is the next state we are looking at. Nevada is after that. The partnership with Red White and Bloom is going to grow the brand into other states with them. Growth continues in that direction. Recently we’ve been going back to cultivation and doing cultivation deals. We started as cultivators and a lot has changed in the past several years. We are trying to pick up new knowledge.
Aaron: Well, thanks for that George, this is all awesome feedback for the industry. That concludes the interview! Thanks so much for your time and congrats again on your recent announcement with Red White & Bloom.
Here is the good news: There are beginning to be regional- and country-specific guidelines on at least one widely grown cannabis crop internationally. This includes a range of regs on the medical side (GMPs) but they are also expanding for the “other” cannabis crop too. Namely, hemp.
Now, here is the bad news: The regulation that is developing in different regions is frustratingly not uniform, and can still differ greatly in critical areas. Most notably, for some reason, while the U.S. Farm Bill of 2018 created a new national standard for the amount of THC that could be contained in American hemp crops (0.3%), the same conversation in Europe during the same period of time led to a decision to set the level of allowable THC in hemp plants and products at a slightly lower one: 0.2%. As a further confusing muddle, Switzerland has set its THC limits at 0.1% (Switzerland is not in the European Union), and other countries across the region have also attempted to limit the THC in industrial hemp production to no more than this level, no matter what regulators rule at the EU level.
Beyond a lack of scientific reasoning obvious in the same, by definition, this creates a natural trade barrier between hemispheres. If U.S. farmers are looking for export opportunities to Europe (for example) not to mention other states, they have to worry about both local as well as destination standards – which on the surface at least, are currently incompatible.
It is also creating some frustrating issues for anyone who is in the market for hemp as either a buyer or seller.
Other Issues In The Mix Markets are driven by many factors – including regulations but also cost and of course consumer demand for a product within a certain price range. Certainly, the CBD industry if not the recreational THC one right behind it (even in Europe now) desperately wants to attract those who are known euphemistically as “daily consumers.”
This means that both the price point and consumer opportunities must hit a mainstream distribution norm. While the recreational market will continue to be distorted by delayed, but inevitable discussions about reform across Europe, the medical market is beginning to set some groundwork that is also bleeding into the entire discussion. Namely, that extracts will play a large role here.
What does this wrinkle mean in a world where the agricultural cultivation standards are different?
Biomass And Extracts Are Gaining In Importance For those in the strictly “flower” game, the market at least in the U.S., will remain a place where pretty flower crops will gain premium prices as long as they meet local spec.
However, this is a limited proposition, even now – especially in the CBD business. The edibles market, for one, has created a huge potential for vast quantities of industrially produced, outdoor grown hemp, bound for extraction and downstream, a vast variety of end products across a wide spectrum of niches – from wellness to purely cosmetic. So is the burgeoning medical market in Europe.
This means two things. The first is that consumer-facing products with any amount of cannabinoid (take your pick) can be produced to order, no matter the cannabinoid concentrations of the original plant. The second, by definition, means that biomass bound for extraction, particularly export, will gain an increasingly larger share of the wholesale market.
Does it really matter, in other words, to a European extractor, that the source product is of higher THC concentrate than is allowed for B2C sale in Europe? No. Indeed, all it means is that they have to buy lower amounts of biomass. The rest is merely a mechanical problem.
Playing The Regulatory Game For an increasingly competitive hemp market in the United States, in other words, foreign exports are absolutely an intriguing option for revenue right now, and will continue to be as long as price competitiveness and overall quality issues remain high. Furthermore, there will be almost no pressure to regulate the market globally to the same standards, particularly if CBD itself is descheduled in December by the WHO.
In other words, the regulatory disconnect between the U.S. and Europe right now, and certainly for certain kinds of unfinished bulk product, could therefore open a new niche in the market that is unlikely to be “fixed” anytime soon.
The e-cigarette or vaping use-associated lung injury (EVALI) outbreak of 2019 caught the attention of many, and has brought with it the scrutiny of both regulators and plaintiffs’ attorneys eager to act as “civil prosecutors.” As Tolkien would say, the Eye of Sauron has now turned its gaze towards the cannabis vapor industry.
With the misinformation and negative publicity that the EVALI outbreak brought to the industry, vaporizer device manufacturers should expect more lawsuits to be filed against them through 2020 and beyond. The cannabis vapor industry should also expect the theories of defect alleged against their products to become more sophisticated as more plaintiffs’ attorneys enter the arena.
One theory of defect you should expect plaintiff’s attorneys to pursue in 2020 is what I generally refer to as “temperature control litigation.”
Here is the problem:
Typical additives in cannabis oil, while once thought to be safe, can degrade at higher temperatures into toxic chemicals. For example, the Vape Crisis of 2019 was largely attributed to a cannabis oil additive known as vitamin E acetate. While typically regarded as safe for use in nutritional supplements or hand creams, when used in cannabis oil, investigators believe vitamin E acetate can degrade into a toxic chemical when vaped—and is responsible for causing mass pulmonary illness for thousands of consumers.
Researchers do not fully understand how this process occurs, but chemists from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland found in a recent study that the key is understanding how temperatures affect chemicals when vaping. Through a process known as pyrolysis, the study found that vitamin E acetate can possibly degrade into ketene when vaped at higher temperatures—depending on the type of coil resistance, voltage and temperature configuration used in a vaporizer device. (Ketene has a high pulmonary toxicity, and can be lethal at high concentrations, while low concentrations can cause central nervous system impairment.) Similar studies have also shown that additives like Propylene Glycol (PG), Vegetable Glycerin (VG), and Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) can degrade into toxic chemicals at high temperatures—which has led Colorado to ban the use of PEG for inhalable cannabis products altogether.
More shocking, is that such temperature control issues are not limited to additives. It is very common for experienced users to experiment with low to high temperatures when vaping cannabis; it is believed that vaping cannabis at low temperatures (325-350°F) results in a mild high, while vaping cannabis at higher temperatures (400-430°F) results in a more euphoric feeling and intense high. But when cannabis is vaped at even higher temperatures (450°F +), industry experts do not really know if or how cannabinoids and terpenes degrade, which combinations of cannabinoids and terpenes affect degradation and what the health risks could be. It’s anyone’s guess.
These temperature control issues are further complicated due to the universal 5/10 thread. Most consumers purchase cannabis oil through pre-filled “carts” (cartridges)—that are compatible with 90% of vaporizer batteries on the market because of universal 5/10 thread connectors. But vaporizer batteries can operate anywhere from sub-300 degrees to 800 degrees and above. Coupled with varying battery voltages, ceramic coil quality and oil quality, vaporizer batteries can produce a wide range of operating temperatures. Consequently, it is possible users could connect a cart to a vaporizer battery (set at too high a temperature configuration) and risk pyrolysis, change the chemicals inside their cannabis cart, and cause unknown harm to themselves.
Unquestionably, all of the above will result in lawsuits. Companies that manufacture cannabis oil will be sued for failing to conduct emissions testing to properly evaluate safe temperature settings for use of their carts. Vaporizer device manufacturers will be sued for failing to publish warnings, instructions and adequate owner’s manuals regarding the same. And the rallying cry against the cannabis vapor industry will be damaging. Plaintiff’s attorneys will accuse the industry of choosing profits over safety: “The cannabis vapor industry knew cannabis oils could turn into toxic chemicals when heated at high temperatures, but instead of conducting long-term emissions testing to evaluate those concerns, the industry chose profits over safety. As long as the industry made money, no one cared what dangers arose from elevated temperatures—and consumers paid the price.”
With the above as background, it is critical for the cannabis vapor industry to get serious about product testing. The industry needs to know if and why certain cannabinoids, terpenes and additives can turn into toxic chemicals when they are vaporized at high temperatures—and how the industry can guard against such dangers. And to cover their bases, the industry needs to publish proper warnings and owner’s manuals for all products. The time to act is now.
Back in late 2016, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) legalized delivery for cannabis products. Since then, dispensaries could offer a delivery option for their customers to purchase cannabis products without leaving the comfort of their home. Up until quite recently, that market was dominated by a handful of dispensaries who also conduct business at their physical location, offering delivery as an option while conducting most sales in-person.
Enter Pot Mates. Founded in 2018 by Hammond Potter, the company embarked on the long regulatory road towards licensing and beginning operations. On April 20, 2020, Pot Mates opened for business, starting their engines to take on the fledgling cannabis delivery market in Portland.
Pot Mates is a tech startup through and through. The founders are former Apple employees. Hakon Khajavei, the chief marketing officer at Pot Mates, founded Blackline Collective, a business and marketing consultancy, which is where he joined the Pot Mates team. The other co-founder of Pot Mates and chief technology officer, Jason Hinson, joined after serving in the US Navy as an electronics technician maintaining satellite communications networks.
With the sheer amount of regulations for cannabis businesses, coupled with the new delivery-based business model, Pot Mates had to focus on technology and automation from the get-go.
Not Just an Online Dispensary
For the cannabis companies already offering delivery in the Portland metro area, their websites seem to mimic the in-person dispensary experience. They offer dozens of products for each category, like concentrates, edibles and flower, making a customer pour through options, all at different price points, which can get confusing for the average consumer.
Pot Mates does things a little differently. “Our start up process was thinking through how do we make this the best experience possible, how do we get rid of the unnecessary junk and how do we do things that only an online dispensary can do,” says Khajavei. They have flat pricing across the board. In each category, almost every product is priced the same, moving away from the common tiered-pricing model. This, Khajavei says, removes the decision barriers customers often face. Instead of choosing the right price point, they can choose the delivery mechanism and effect they desire uninhibited by a difference in cost.
It all comes back to focusing on the simplest way for someone to buy cannabis. “Shopping online is just very different,” says Khajavei. “Our process focuses on the customer journey and limits the number of products we offer. We have a mood system, where we tag our products from reviews to typify moods that you experience with different products.” All of that requires a lot of back-end technology built into their website.
The Long Regulatory Road
Technology has been a strong suit for Pot Mates since they opened their doors, and well before that too. Making the decision to be an online-only delivery cannabis company pushed them to pursue a very unique business model, but regulations dictate a lot of the same requirements that one might see in dispensaries.
The same rules apply to them when Pot Mates submitted their license application. You need to have a signed lease, extreme security measures, detailed business plans, integrated seed-to-sale traceability software (Metrc in Oregon) and much more. “During the months leading up to getting our license, we were able to iron out a lot of the regulatory details ahead of time,” says Khajavei. A lot of that was about security and tracking their products, which is why technology plays such a huge role in their ongoing regulatory compliance efforts. “We built in a lot of automation in our system for regulatory compliance,” says Khajavei. “Because of our technology, we are a lot faster.”
In the end, their licensing process through the state of Oregon as well as the city of Portland took about nine months. Once they had the license, they could finally get down to business and begin the process of building their website, their POS system, their inventory and reaching out to partners, producers, distributors and growers.
For any cannabis company, there are a number of regulations unique to their business. “We need to report every product movement in house through Metrc,” says Khajavei. “Every time something is repackaged it needs to be reported. We focus so much on our technology and automation because these regulations force us to do so.” But delivery companies are required to report even more. Pot Mates needs to report every single movement a product makes until it reaches the customer. Before the delivery can leave the shop, it is reported to Metrc with an intended route, using turn-by-turn directions. It complicates things when you make two or more deliveries in one trip. Reporting a daisy chain of deliveries a vehicle makes with turn-by-turn directions to regulatory authorities can get very tedious.
As far as regulations go for delivery parameters, they can legally deliver anywhere inside Portland city limits. “It is our job to figure that out, not the customer’s job; so we don’t have any distance limits, as long as it is residential,” Khajavei says. “We programmed customized technology that allows us to handle really small orders.” Without a minimum order policy or a distance limit, Pot Mates can reach a much bigger group of consumers.
Launching in the Midst of a Global Pandemic
Luckily, the Pot Mates team received their license just in time. About two weeks after they submitted their application, Oregon put a moratorium on any new dispensaries.
They went forward with their launch on April 20 this year, despite the coronavirus pandemic impacting just about every business in the world, including their marketing efforts tremendously. With cannabis deemed essential by the state, they could operate business as usual, just with some extra precautions. What’s good for PotMates is that they don’t need to worry about keeping social distancing policies for customers or curbside pickup, given the lack of storefront.
Advertising Cannabis in a Pandemic is No Easy Task
“The marketing aspect is where covid-19 really hurt us,” says Khajavei. “There are so many regulations for cannabis companies advertising already. Unlike other products, we can’t just put up advertisements anywhere. We have to follow very specific rules.” So, in addition to the normal marketing woes in the cannabis industry, the team then had to deal with a pandemic.
Pot Mates had to scrap their entire marketing strategy for 2020 and redo it. “We wanted to begin with a lot of face-to-face marketing at events, but that didn’t quite work out so well.” Without any concerts, industry events or large gatherings of any kind, Pot Mates had to pivot to digital marketing entirely. They started building their SEO, growing their following on social media, producing content in the form of blogs and education around cannabis and the local laws.
On an Upward Trajectory
Obviously, the short-term problem for a new cannabis company is reaching people, especially during the COVID-19 crisis. “We have a good trajectory though, we know we are growing our business, but we still have a ways to go,” says Khajavei. It doesn’t help that social media companies have nonsensical policies regarding cannabis. Their Facebook page was recently removed too.
But the bigger issue here is kind of surprising when you first hear it: “It’s not even a matter of customer preference, a lot of people just have no idea that delivery is even legal.”
It’s pretty evident that cannabis delivery has not really gone mainstream yet. “We’ve told people about our business in the past and a common answer we get is, ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t even know we could get cannabis delivered.’” It’s never crossed their mind that they can get cannabis delivered to their home. It’s an awareness problem. It’s a marketing problem. But it’s a good problem to have and the solution lies in outreach. Through educational content they post on social media and in their blog, Khajavei wants to spread the word: “Hey, this is a real thing, you can get cannabis delivered.”
As the market develops and as consumers begin to key in on cannabis delivery, there’s nowhere to go but up. Especially in the age of Amazon and COVID-19 where consumers can get literally anything they can dream of delivered to their front door.
Moving forward, Pot Mates has plans to expand as soon as they can. Right now, they’re limited to Portland city limits, but there’s a massive population just outside of Portland in towns like Beaverton, Tigard and Tualatin. “We are so close to these population centers but can’t deliver to them now because of the rules. We want to work with OLCC about this and hopefully change the rules to allow us to deliver outside of the city limits,” says Khajavei. In the long term, they plan to expand out of state, with Washington on their north border being first on the docket.
To the average person, one would think launching a delivery cannabis business in the midst of a global pandemic would be a walk in the park, but Pot Mates proved it’s no easy task. As the market develops and the health crisis continues, it seems the Oregon market will react positively to the nascent delivery market, but first they need to know it is even an option.
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