With climate and cultivation methods explored, today, we cover the third leg in the primary stool, genetics. Some would say good genetics is all that you need and anyone can be successful with good genetics. We all know that this is not experience talking. Things can go wrong, even with great genetics. Here are some inputs how to pick great genetics so you have them on your side.
Hybrids & Strains
Everything successful cultivators grow is aligned to their consumer audience. This is hard to predict as the desires in your market will migrate over time as one variety will be highly popular and poof, it’s not, so constant change is necessary. Finding the right flower at the right time is the trick.
The first thing to decide in your pursuit of the ideal phenotype (or pheno-hunt) are your target customers. Assuming you’ve made the choice to go “top-shelf” for aeroponic or hydroponic flower, your variety selection comes down to filial breeder seeds or stable strains from suppliers you know.
Filial hybrids are developed by professional breeders. Two distinct inbred strains are repetitively crossed until their traits are highly consistent. At this point, these carefully inbred lines are crossed to selectively mix the two well defined sets of traits. Filial hybrids are stable and you can usually rely on the robust nature of these seeds.
Strains, on the other hand, are the cross of two strains but they may not be inbred stable filial strains. Sometimes this results in something amazing, but just as randomly, the traits can morph into something disappointing.
Our advice here is to pay the premium and start with high quality reliable stock.
Consistency? Will you grow one variety or multiple varieties per room and per harvest; will they grow well together? Do they grow and test out in a consistent manner (plant size, color, bud size & yield, tested terpene profiles, aroma, disease resistance or tolerance). Are you growing for top shelf flower or bulk extraction? I will focus this discussion on top shelf flower. Premium seeds from professional filial hybrids are not a guarantee, but they are designed to be stable and consistent in their growth and results targeting high performance.
Here, experience counts and reliable seed vendors tend to be well established with filial lines that are worth the investment. Once you acquire your genetics, how to leverage that investment?
What traits does your consumer want? Initial searches usually target THC or CBD levels and they evolve to special terpene profiles or pleasing aromas. Flower or bud shape, color, size, density, and stickiness are also traits that can differentiate your genetics. As a producer, you also want to target yield including tall or stretching genetics, or short and fast flowering, germination rates (sometimes they don’t) and percentage of likely hermaphroditing (seldom zero). The qualitative aspects (smoking characteristics) of your production flower that deliver a unique customer experience, both real and imagined, wrap up your brand experience.
So, as you can guess, one size does not fit all types of consumers. Very high yielders that are immediately targeted for extraction offer very different values than perhaps a smaller yielding very potent top shelf smokeable bud. It is a good strategy to plan for a handful of strains that you can bring to market so you have something that will hit the sweet-spot when you deliver your harvests.
Seeds with documented guarantees from reliable sources eliminate the characteristic risk, and with the right testing reports, they guarantee no pathogens as well.
The challenge of seeds can be genetic variation, as discussed above, depending on the stability of the commercial breeder. This potential variance can lead to surprises and disappointment. Starting from seed also takes more time to germinate the seeds, exterminate the males, grow mother plants, take cuttings, and start the cycle. This can add 12-16 weeks to your go-green targets for your flower rooms. Be sure to integrate this cycle time planning into your production cycle.
Insourced clones are the fastest way to go green and move through veg to produce flowering plants and bud harvest. Clones are created by taking a branch cutting from a “mother” plant and typically “rooting” that cutting using an aeroponic cloning system. This clone process can take a few days or weeks depending on the grow environment and aeroponics process. A rooted clone maintains the genetic characteristics and phenotype of the mother plant.
The typical way smaller grow shops get started is through buying clones that are made from these rooted branch cuttings. The combination of mother plants, clones, and sometimes “veg” plants are gathered together in a “nursery”. Nurseries need to be stable for long periods of time to produce the veg growth necessary for cuttings. This time delay makes it harder for the nursery provider to keep the area sterile, without disease, and without pests. If the mothers carry a disease, they are likely to transfer that biologic over to the cuttings. If the media that the clones are grown in picks up root gnats, they will travel with the clones into your facility. The short answer is source your clones from professionally run operations. This trust is worth every penny.
Insourcing clones allows you to avoid the cost and complexity of running a “nursery”, but this also moves the pest management and quality of mother stock and clones outside of your control zone. In other words, you depend on the clone supplier for both healthy plants AND availability. No clone available from your supplier means no flower in your grow rooms. Your production revenue depends on the reliability of your clone supplier in many ways.
In some grow operations, the nursery is extended to cover the vegetative growth stage of cannabis plants or “veg.” In other approaches, a flower room is occupied for an additional week or two for veg growth. We at AEssenseGrows are strong advocates of running all cloning and vegging activity in a vertical aeroponic nursery in parallel to your flower rooms
Mothers, clone, and veg stages all grow with a vegetative growth light schedule (18 hours on, 6 hours off). The typical process is to take a cutting from a mother plant, place that in an aeroponic “cloner” for 10-12 days until a healthy set of roots is formed for the cutting. That clone is then typically pinched off at the top of the plant at which point the veg stage can begin. Light intensity is gradually increased and the plants are typically vegged for an additional 2 weeks, at this point, you have a bushy veg plant that is ready for a 12/12 light cycle and flowering.
In aeroponics, all of this is done in nursery space. If you choose to use soil or grow media approaches, a series of increasingly larger buckets or rockwool cubes are needed to manage the veg stage and the transition to flower. This can be done in a dedicated veg room or for the first week or two in the flower rooms
Another method for creating your young plants is tissue culture. This is the method of harvesting genetic material from an existing plant with desired characteristics. These genetic samples can be contamination free and even supplied by a genetic bank. A portion of these tissues are cultured in a gel grow tray and the plant will develop roots with a stalk that reaches upward for light energy.
These plant starts are hardened in a similar method to cloning and typically, these starts are grown into mothers that supply your cuttings for the clone cycle. This is an advanced method, so plan for research and development with expected delays to the front end of your sourcing cycle if you choose this path.
Selecting the best genetics for your market is an art form. Many choices abound. High yielding dense classic strains are Blue Dream, Skittles, Sour Diesel and Girl Scout Cookies. Each of these deliver a typical 18%-24% THC content from fast growing, medium height high plants that yield dense buds. Very potent THC genetics that are popular currently are various “OG” genetics, Bruce Banner, various “Cake” genetics and Kush options. Variants of these run from 25% to 35% THC content.
This Chapter’s Hero Award
Every customer produces great results for their markets but we are very impressed by the genetic selections by 420Kingdom in the central valley of California. Jeffrey Thorn is the owner there and continues to impress with a range of high potency genetics that demand premium prices and sell out regularly in their highly competitive market.
With good genetics for your consumers, you are positioned to be successful. Advanced cultivation methods like aeroponics and hydroponics can give you a lift and the right environment and nutrition helps you tie this all together. Our next and last chapter will cover consistency and repeatability through Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs).
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.
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.
The cannabis industry is approaching a crossroads. While cultivators must ensure they are getting the greatest yield per square foot, an increasingly competitive landscape and sophisticated consumer means growers must also balance the need for volume with quality, consistent and award-winning cannabis strains.
Tissue culture propagation represents a significant leap forward in cannabis cultivation, ultimately benefiting both the grower and the consumer. The proprietary technology behind our sterilization and storage process results in the isolation of premium cannabis genetics in a clean, contaminant-free environment. Since our inception, we’ve been focused on setting a higher standard in medical (and one day adult use) cannabis by growing craft cannabis on a commercial scale through utilization of this cutting-edge cultivation technique. When taken in total, Maitri boasts access to a library of 243 unique cannabis strains, one of the largest collections in the U.S.
Trouble with Traditional Cultivation
Pathogens, insects and cross contamination all threaten the viability and value of cannabis plants. In many ways, current cannabis cultivation techniques compound these issues by promoting grams per square foot above all else and packing plants into warehouse sized grows where issues can quickly spread.
In these close quarters, pests can swiftly move from plant to plant, and even from generation to generation when propagating from clones or growing in close quarters. Similarly, pathogens can leap between susceptible plants, damaging or killing plants and cutting into a cultivator’s bottom line.
Of particular concern is hop latent viroid. Originally identified in hops, a genetic relative of cannabis, this infectious RNA virus has torn through the cannabis industry, endangering genetics, causing sickly plants and reducing yields. Plants cloned using traditional methods from an infected mother are vulnerable to the disease, making hop latent viroid a generational issue.
Minimizing or even eliminating these threats helps to protect the genetic integrity of cannabis strains and ensures they can be enjoyed for years to come. That is where the sterilization stage in tissue culture cultivation stands out.
Like cloning, tissue culture propagation offers faster time to maturity than growing from seed, allowing for a quicker turnaround to maximize utility of space, without overcrowding grow rooms. However, it also boasts a clean, disease-free environment that allows plants to thrive.
Tissue Culture Cultivation
Tissue culture cultivation allows for viable plant tissue to be isolated in a controlled, sterilized environment. Flowering plants can then be grown from these stored genetics, allowing for standardization of quality strains that are free of contamination and disease from the very beginning. Tissue culture cultivation also takes up less room than traditional cloning, freeing up valuable square footage.
This propagation process begins with plants grown to just before flowering and harvested for their branch tips. These branch tips undergo a sterilization process to remove any environmental contamination. This living plant material (known as explants) gets fully screened and tested for potential contaminants.
If it passes, the sample is stabilized and becomes part of the Maitri genetic library for future cultivation. If any contamination is discovered, the plant is selected for meristem isolation, an intensive isolation technique at the near cellular level.
Once sterilized and verified to be clean, the samples — often just an inch tall — are isolated into individual test tubes in our proprietary nutrient-rich medium for storage indefinitely. The cuttings are held in these ideal conditions until tapped for cultivation. This process allows Maitri to maintain an extensive library of clean, disease-free cannabis genetics ready to be grown.
Benefits for Medical Cannabis Patients
One of the chief benefits of tissue culture propagation is that it creates exact genetic replicas of the source plant. This allows growers like Maitri to standardize cannabis plants, and thus the cannabis experience. That means patients can expect the same characteristics from Maitri grown strains every time, including effects, potency and even taste and smell. Keeping reliable, top quality strains in steady rotation ensures patients have access to the medicine they need.
Preserving Plant Genetics
Beyond the benefits that tissue culture cultivation provides for the patient, this approach to testing, storing and growing cannabis plants also goes a long way towards protecting cannabis genetics into the future.
Cannabis strains are constantly under assault from pests and disease, potentially destroying the genetics that make these strains so special. Over-breeding and a dwindling demand for heirloom strains also threatens the loss of some individual plant genetics. Having a collection of genetics readily available means we can quickly cultivate strains to best meet consumer demand. Additionally, maintaining a rich seed bank that features both legacy and boutique strains allows us to have options for future tissue culture cultivation or for future new strain development.
Advancing Cannabis Research
Due to federal prohibition, researching cannabis, especially at the university level, can be extremely difficult. Additionally, the cannabis material that researchers have access to is largely considered to be subpar and wildly inconsistent, placing another barrier to researching the physiological effects of the plant. Clean, safe and uniform cannabis is a necessity to generate reliable research data. Utilizing tissue culture cultivation is a smart way to ensure researchers have access to the resources they need to drive our understanding of the cannabis plant.
Cross Contamination – noun – “inadvertent transfer of bacteria or other contaminants from one surface, substance, etc., to another especially because of unsanitary handling procedures. – (Mariam Webster, 2021). Cross contamination is not a new concept in the clinical and food lab industries; many facilities have significant design aspects as well as SOPs to deliver the least amount of contaminants into the lab setting. For cannabis labs, however, often the exponential growth leads to a circumstance where the lab simply isn’t large enough for the number of samples processed and number of analytical instruments and personnel needed to process them. Cross contamination for cannabis labs can mean delayed results, heightened occurrences of false positives, and ultimately lost customers – why would you pay for analysis of your clean product in a dirty facility? The following steps can save you the headaches associated with cross contamination:
Wash (and dry) your hands properly
Flash back to early pandemic times when the Tik Tok “Ghen Co Vy” hand washing song was the hotness – we had little to no idea that the disease would be fueled mostly by aerosol transmission, but the premise is the same, good hand hygiene is good to reduce cross contamination. Hands are often the source of bacteria, both resident (here for the long haul; attached to your hands) and transient (easy to remove; just passing through), as they come into contact with surfaces from the bathroom to the pipettor daily (Robinson et al, 2016). Glove use coupled with adequate hand washing are good practices to reduce cross contamination from personnel to a product sample. Additionally, the type of hand drying technique can reduce the microbial load on the bathroom floors and, subsequently tracked into the lab. A 2013 study demonstrated almost double the contamination from air blade technology versus using a paper towel to dry your hands (Margas et al, 2013).
Design Your Lab for Separation
Microbes are migratory. In fact, E. coli can travel at speeds up to 15 body lengths per second. Compared to the fastest Olympians running the 4X100m relay, with an average speed of 35 feet per second or 6 body lengths, this bacterium is a gold medal winner, but we don’t want that in the lab setting (Milo and Phillips, 2021). New lab design keeps this idea of bacterial travel in mind, but for those labs without a new build, steps can be made to prevent contamination:
Try to keep traffic flow moving in one direction. Retracing steps can lead to contamination of a previous work station
Use separate equipment (e.g. cabinets, pipettes) for each process/step
Separate pre- and post-pcr areas
Physical separation – use different rooms, add walls, partitions, etc.
Establish, Train and Adhere to SOPs
High turnover for personnel in labs causes myriad issues. It doesn’t take long for a lab that is buttoned up with cohesive workflows to become a willy-nilly hodgepodge of poor lab practices. A lack of codified Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) can lead to a lab rife with contaminants and no clear way to troubleshoot the issue. Labs should design strict SOPs that include everything from hand hygiene to test procedures and sanitation. Written SOPs, according to the WHO, should be available at all work stations in their most recent version in order to reduce biased results from testing (WHO, 2009). These SOPs should be relayed to each new employee and training on updated SOPs should be conducted on an ongoing basis. According to Sutton, 2010, laboratory SOPs can be broken down into the following categories:
Establish Controls and Monitor Results
It may be difficult for labs to keep tabs on positivity and fail rates, but these are important aspects of a QC regimen. For microbiological analysis, labs should use an internal positive control to validate that 1) the method is working properly and 2) positives are a result of target analytes found in the target matrix, not an internal lab contamination strain. Positive controls can be an organism of choice, such as Salmonella Tranoroa, and can be tagged with a marker, such as Green Fluorescent Protein in order to differentiate the control strain. These controls will allow a lab tech to discriminate between a naturally contaminated specimen vs. a positive as a result of cross-contamination.
Labs should, in addition to having good QC practices, keep track of fail rates and positivity rates. This can be done as total lab results by analysis, but also can be broken down into customers. For instance, a lab fail rate for pesticides averages 4% for dried flower samples. If, during a given period of review, this rate jumps past 6% or falls below 2%, their may be an issue with instrumentation, personnel or the product itself. Once contamination is ruled out, labs can then present evidence of spikes in fail rates to growers who can then remediate in their own facilities. These efforts in concert will inherently drive down fail rates, increase lab capacity and efficiency, and result in cost savings for all parties associated.
Continuous Improvement is the Key
Cannabis testing labs are, compared to their food and clinical counterparts, relatively new. The lack of consistent state and federal regulation coupled with unfathomable growth each year, means many labs have been in the “build the plane as you fly” mode. As the lab environment matures, simple QC, SOP and hygiene changes can make an incremental differences and drive improvements for labs as well as growers and manufacturers they support. Lab management can, and should, take steps to reduce cross contamination, increase efficiency and lower costs; The first step is always the hardest, but continuous improvement cannot begin until it has been taken.
Margas, E, Maguire, E, Berland, C. R, Welander, F, & Holah, J. T. (2013). Assessment of the environmental microbiological cross contamination following hand drying with paper hand towels or an air blade dryer. Journal of Applied Microbiology, 115(2), 572-582.
Milo, M., and Phillips, R. (2021). How fast do cells move? Cell biology by the numbers. Retrieved from http://book.bionumbers.org/how-fast-do-cells-move/
Robinson, Andrew L, Lee, Hyun Jung, Kwon, Junehee, Todd, Ewen, Perez Rodriguez, Fernando, & Ryu, Dojin. (2016). Adequate Hand Washing and Glove Use Are Necessary To Reduce Cross-Contamination from Hands with High Bacterial Loads. Journal of Food Protection, 79(2), 304–308. https://doi.org/10.4315/0362-028X.JFP-15-342
Sutton, Scott. (2010). The importance of a strong SOP system in the QC microbiology lab. Journal of GXP Compliance, 14(2), 44.
World Health Organization. (2009). Good Laboratory Practice Handbook. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/tdr/publications/documents/glp-handbook.pdf
In 2002, Dale Katechis revolutionized craft beer. A seemingly simple packaging decision, putting craft beer in a can, sparked an international movement and put craft beer on the map.
Before the craft beer market really gained steam, consumers associated good beer with glass bottles and larger brands selling cheap beer with cans. Through education, creative marketing and a mission to put people over profits, Dale helped the craft beer market expand massively while sticking to his roots. He also managed to convince people to drink good beer from a can.
When Dale founded Oskar Blues about twenty years ago, he didn’t just succeed in selling beer. Through collaboration and information sharing, Dale propelled craft beer as a whole and lifted all boats with a rising tide. He’s hoping to achieve similar results with his new role in the cannabis space.
Veritas Fine Cannabis, the first craft cannabis cultivator in Colorado, announced that Dale joined the company’s leadership team. Jonathan Spadafora, partner and head of marketing and sales at Veritas, told us that he’s excited about working with Dale. He says Dale is already helping them open a whole world of branding and marketing opportunities. “This is our Shark Tank moment – we’ve got someone who’s been through the fire before and will help us keep differentiating, finding new avenues and new ways to solve problems,” says Spadafora.
His colleague, Mike Leibowitz, CEO of Veritas, shares the same sentiment. “Dale maintained company culture and quality as he grew Oskar Blues into a household name,” says Leibowitz. “Maintaining our unique company culture is paramount as we work to build Veritas Fine Cannabis into the same.”
Dale’s role in the leadership team at Veritas is about sticking to his roots. Through raising industry standards in the best interest of quality products and consumers, the team at Veritas hopes to expand the brand nationally, just like Oskar Blues did, while instilling a culture of disruption and innovation without compromising quality.
We caught up with Dale to learn more about his story and what he hopes to bring to Veritas, as well as the cannabis industry at large. And yes, I had a couple of Dale’s Pale Ales (his namesake beer) later that evening.
Aaron Biros: Your success with Oskar Blues is inspiring. Taking an amazing beer like Dale’s Pale Ale and putting it in a can sounds simple to the layperson, but you launched a remarkable movement to put craft beer on the map. How do you plan to use your experience to help Veritas grow their business?
Dale Katechis: I am hoping that I can apply some of the lessons that I’ve learned through making mistakes of growing a business from the ground up. There’s obviously a lot of road blocks in cannabis and that is certainly one of the qualities of Veritas – how they’ve grown and how they had to do it in an environment that is much more challenging than the beer space.
My experience in small business development could potentially help them navigate this next renaissance of the space. I’m going to help them compete and bring the industry to a level that helps everybody win. I certainly felt that way in the craft beer movement. It was very important to us to bring the whole industry along because we were educators, we weren’t salesmen. In doing that, lifting everyone to a level where the industry benefits as a whole is a part of small business growth. To me that’s the most fulfilling part. It wasn’t just about the Oskar Blues ego at the time, it was about the craft beer scene. And what’s happening in cannabis now is very similar to what happened in the nineties with the craft beer scene.
Aaron: How did you get interested in joining the cannabis industry? What made you choose Veritas?
Dale: Most of my life, I’ve been an enjoyer of cannabis. Very recently, in the last two years, I’ve been intrigued by getting involved in the space. I’ve been shopping around for opportunities and nothing really excited me until I met Jon Spadafora and Mike Leibowitz.
It was really the two of them, the comradery and how they treat their staff that was so similar to the culture at Oskar Blues. Call it a “passion play” if you will, but this was the best opportunity to get involved with a small company and hopefully be a value add for them being in the room and sharing ideas.
Aaron: As a pioneer and leader in the craft beer space, do you notice any commonalities between the growth of the craft beer market and the legal cannabis market?
Dale: It is kind of crazy how many similarities there are. Not just the industry as a whole, but specifically the commonalities between my business, Oskar Blues, and Veritas. Overall, that’s really what allowed me to want to lean in a bit more. I wasn’t in the place where I wanted to start anything on my own. I didn’t want to be involved in fixing anything. I’ve been involved in those situations before and I’m at a point in my life that I don’t want to fix anything. Thankfully there’s nothing that needed to be fixed at Veritas. That was an exciting piece of the equation for me.
Back to your question, how the consumer looks at cannabis versus how the consumer looks at beer in the craft beer space is very similar. There is a bit of an educational piece that’s happening where it’s almost a requirement in the cannabis industry and Veritas is leading that charge out front.
That’s what’s going to catapult Veritas and other companies if they follow suit. It’s their mentality and their philosophy of bringing the industry along as a whole, and I think it’s going to end up boding well for the consumer. The craft beer space was the same.
We had to educate people on a beer can and why we felt like a can of beer was important and exciting. The industry and the consumer associated cans of beer with large, industrial lagers and the can got a bad rap as a result. Not because it wasn’t a great package, but because they were putting bad beer in a good package. So, we had a long road of educating the consumer on the benefits of the can and I think what Veritas is doing with packaging now, how they use quality as such a fundamental pillar of their business, how they focus on the employee experience and the consumer experience sets them up for success, instead of just looking at the bottom line.
I’ve said it throughout my entire career, and at Oskar Blues, we never focused on the profits. You do the right thing for the biggest group of people moving the ball forward and the bottom line takes care of itself. Jon and Mike understand that so I don’t need to fight that battle. It’s another big similarity to the craft beer space.
Aaron: How can cannabis companies keep their craft? How can we, as an industry and as individual businesses, celebrate craft cannabis and follow in the footsteps of independent craft beer?
Dale: I believe that we’re starting to see some of that consolidation [that has been taking place in the craft beer market]. We’re at a time in the market right now where companies with such a solid foundation like Veritas don’t need to go that route to grow. I think we’ll start to see a lot more consolidation in the cannabis industry soon.
Back to the point of bonding together as an industry and as a whole. Championing some of the regulatory hurdles that are coming and sticking together is crucial. One company can’t do it. There’s going to have to be some comradery in the industry among everyone trying to hold the bar up high instead of racing to the bottom. You die by a thousand cuts. I’ve lived that life in craft beer and we saw what happened 6-7 years ago when the industry overexpanded because of exponential growth. A lot of egos got in the room, and a lot of breweries spent a lot of money building out capacity and then that same year the market popped out. Everyone who didn’t have a solid foundation, got washed out of the industry.
That’s why I appreciate what Jon and Mike are doing and how they built Veritas. It’s very similar to how we built Oskar Blues. We had humble beginnings; we didn’t spend money on things outside of our core competency. We focused on quality, employee experience, morale and holding on to the culture of Oskar Blues. That’s what Jon and Mike are doing with Veritas and I think that’s really important.
Plant genetics are an important consideration for cultivators planning to grow cannabis crops. Genetics can affect how well a plant grows in a particular environment under various conditions and have a major impact on the production of cannabinoids, terpenes as well as other molecules and traits expressed by the plant.
Front Range Biosciences is a hemp and cannabis genetics platform company, leveraging proprietary next generation breeding and Clean Stock® tissue culture nursery technologies to develop new varieties for a broad range of product applications in the hemp and cannabis industries. FRB has global reach through facilities in Colorado, California and Wisconsin, and a partnership with the Center for Research in Agricultural Genomics in Barcelona, Spain. FRB is headquartered in Lafayette, Colorado.
We spoke with Jonathan Vaught, Ph.D., CEO and co-founder of Front Range Biosciences. Jonathan co-founded Front Range in 2015 after a successful career in the diagnostics and food testing industries.
Jonathan Vaught: This was a collaborative project between the BioServe group at the University of Colorado Boulder, which is a part of their aerospace engineering program. They do research on the International Space Station, and they have for quite some time. We partnered with them and another company, Space Technology Holdings, a group that’s working on applications of space travel and space research. We teamed up to send tissue culture samples to the space station and let them sit in zero gravity at the space station for about a month, and then go through the reentry process and come back to Earth. We brought them back in the lab to perform some genomic analyses and try to understand if there’s any underlying genetic changes in terms of the plants being in that environment. We wanted to know if there was anything interesting that we could learn by putting these plant stem cells and tissue cultures in an extreme environment to look for stress response, and some other possible changes that might occur to the plants by going through those conditions.
Aaron: That’s an interesting project! Are there any trends that you’re following in the industry?
Jon: We’re excited to see ongoing legalization efforts around the world. We’ve seen continued progress here in the United States. We still have a long way to go, but we’re excited to see the additional markets coming onboard and regulations moving in the right direction. Also, we’re excited to see some of the restorative justice programs that have come out.
Aaron: How did you get involved at Front Range Biosciences?
Jon: It really starts with my background and what I was doing before Front Range Biosciences. I’ve spent more than 15 years developing commercializing technologies in human diagnostics, food safety and now agriculture.
I started my career during graduate school in biotech at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where I helped develop some of the core technology for a human diagnostic startup company called Somalogic here in Colorado. I went to work for them after finishing my dissertation work and spent about six years there helping them grow that company. We ended up building the world’s largest protein biomarker discovery platform primarily serving pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and doctors, with personalized medicine and lab tests for things like early detection of chronic illness, cancer, heart disease and inflammation.
I then went to another startup company called Beacon Biotech, that was interested in food safety. There I helped develop some similar technologies for detecting food-borne illness — things like salmonella, listeria and E. coli. That was my introduction to big food and big agriculture. From there, I went to help start another company called Velocity Science that was also in the human diagnostic space.
Along the way, I started a 501(c)3 nonprofit called Mountain Flower Goat Dairy, a dairy and educational non-profit that had a community milk-share, which included summer camps and workshops for people to learn about local and sustainable agriculture. I became more and more interested in agriculture and decided to take my career in that path and that’s really what set me up to start Front Range Biosciences.
Aaron: Do you have any co-founders?
Jon: I have two other co-founders. They both played various roles over the last four years. One was another scientist, Chris Zalewski, PhD. He currently works in the R&D department and helps oversee several different parts of the company including pathology and product development. My other co-founder, Nick Hofmeister served as chief strategic officer for the last few years, and has helped raise the majority of our funding. We’ve raised over $45 million dollars, and he played a big role in that.
Aaron: What makes you different from other cannabis seed companies?
John: We’ve built the first true cannabis genetics platform. What I mean by that is we built a platform that allows us to develop and produce new plant varieties that support both the hemp and the cannabis markets. To us, it’s all cannabis. Hemp and cannabis are scientifically the same plant. They just have different regulatory environments, different products and different markets, but we stay focused on the plant. Our platform is built on several different pillars. Genetics are one of the core pieces, and by genetics I mean, everything from molecular based breeding to marker assisted breeding to large germplasm collections. We collect different varieties of germplasm, or seed, from all over the world and use those to mix and match and breed for specific traits. We also have large nursery programs. Another one of our pillars of the platform includes greenhouse nursery production — everything from flowering cannabis plants to producing cannabis seeds to cloning and producing mother plants and rooted cuttings or clones.
Then tissue culture is another part of the platform, it’s basically the laboratory version of a greenhouse nursery. It’s housed in a sterile environment and allows us to produce plants that are clean and healthy. It’s a much more effective, modern way to manage the nursery. It’s part of our clean stock program, where we start clean, stay clean, and you can finish clean. It’s really built on all of those different pieces.
We also have capabilities in analytical chemistry and pathology, that allow us to better understand what drives performance and the plants, and both different regions as well as different cannabinoid products or terpene products. All of the science and capabilities of the platform are what allow us to create new varieties faster, better, stronger.
Aaron: It sounds like you’re vertically integrated on the front-end of cannabis cultivation.
Jon: Absolutely, that’s a great way to think about it.
The last piece I’d say is that we have areas of research and development that cover the full span of multiple product lines. We think about it from an ingredient perspective. Cannabinoids and terpenes are certainly what drive a large part of the cannabis market in terms of edibles, smokable flower, vapes and extracts and the different effects and flavors that you get. We also are looking at other ingredients, like plant-based protein and hemp as a viable protein source and the ability for hemp to produce valuable fiber for textiles, as well as industrial building materials and applications.
Lastly, there are additional small molecules that we’re working on as well from a food ingredients perspective. There are all kinds of interesting compounds. Everybody talks about the cannabinoids and terpenes, but there are also things like flavonoids, and some other very interesting chemistries that we’re working on as well.
Aaron: What geographies are you currently in?
Jon: Colorado and California primarily and we have a small R&D partnership in Barcelona.
Aaron: Do you have plans for expansion beyond that?
Jon: Our current headquarters are out of Colorado, and most of our Colorado operations right now are all hemp. Our hemp business is national and international.
We work with a licensed cannabis nursery partner in California which is our primary focus for that market, but we will be expanding the cannabis genetics and nursery program into Colorado next year. From a regulated cannabis perspective, that’s the first move. Beyond that, we’re in conversations with some of the multi-state operators and cannabis brands that are emerging to talk about how to leverage our technology and our genetics platform across some of the other markets.
Aaron: How do you think about genetics in your products?
Jon: Genetics means a lot of things to different folks depending on your vantage point and where you sit in the supply chain. Our business model is based on selling plants and seeds. At the end of the day, we don’t develop oils, extracts and products specifically, but we develop the genetics behind those products.
For us, it’s not only about developing genetics that have the unique qualities or ingredients that a product company might want like CBD, or other minor cannabinoids like THCV for example, but also about making sure that those plants can be produced efficiently and effectively. The first step is to introduce the ingredient to the product. Then the second step is to make sure that growers can grow and produce the plant. That way they can stabilize their supply chain for their product line. Whether it’s for a smokable flower product, or a vape product, or an edible product, it’s really important to make sure that they can reproduce it. That’s really how we think about genetics.
Aaron: What is a smart plant? That’s something I saw on your website.
Jon: It’s really about plants that perform under specific growing regions, or growing conditions. For example, in hemp, it’s one thing to produce CBD or CBG. It’s another thing to be able to produce it efficiently in five different microclimates around the U.S. Growing hemp in Florida or Alabama down on the Gulf Coast versus growing on the Pacific Northwest coast of Washington, or Oregon are two very different growing conditions that require smart plants. Meaning they can grow and thrive in each of those conditions and still produce the intended product. Generally, the different regions don’t overlap. The genetics that you would grow in Pacific Northwest are not going to do as well as some better selected varieties for the South East.
It’s not only different outdoor growing regions, but it’s different production styles too. When you think about regulated cannabis the difference between outdoor and indoor greenhouse is mixed light production. Even with hydroponic type growing methods, there are lots of different ways to grow and produce this plant and it’s not a one size fits all. It’s really about plants that perform well, whether it’s different regions in the United States in outdoor production or different indoor greenhouses with mixed lights and production methods.
Aaron: You market CBG hemp as a product line. What made you start with CBG? Is that a pull from the market or something you guys see trending?
Jon: So I think it’s a little bit of both. We offer CBD dominant varieties and CBG dominant varieties of hemp. We also now have other cannabinoids in the pipeline that we’ll be putting out in different varieties next year. Things like CBC as well as varins, or propyl cannabinoids. Also things like CBDV, CBCV, or CBGV, which are the propylcannabinoid versions of the more familiar compounds.
There was a lot of market demand for CBG. It was a fairly easy cannabinoid to produce as a single dominant cannabinoid similar to CBD or THC. There’s a lot of up-and-coming demand for some of the other minor cannabinoids. Up until a few years ago, CBD was considered a minor cannabinoid. It wasn’t until Charlotte’s Web in the Sanjay Gupta story that it became a major cannabinoid. So I think we see some level of market pull across the category.
On the flip side of that, we have one of the world’s largest R&D teams and consolidated expertise in terms of cannabis. We see the potential for minor cannabinoids, and even terpenes and other compounds like flavonoids to have wide ranging implications in human health. Everything from wellness products, to active pharmaceutical ingredients, to recreational products. From our perspective, that’s the reason why we’re pushing these ingredients. We believe that there are a lot of good products that come out of this work and the genetics that produce these minor cannabinoids.
Aaron: Okay, great. And then last question, is there anything you’re interested in learning more about?
Jon: I think the most exciting thing for me, given my background in clinical diagnostics and human health, is to see more data around how all of these different compounds of the plant can support improved wellness, health and nutrition. I think we’ve only scratched the tip of the iceberg. This type of research and data collection takes years, even decades, especially to see outcomes over time of people using these products. I’m really excited to see more of that and also hopefully be able to make stronger conclusions about some of the benefits that can be had from this plant.
Aaron: That’s the end of the interview, thanks Jon!
If you missed the Cannabis Industry Journal’s 3rd Annual Infused Products Virtual Conference last week, one of the speakers, Ellice Ogle, founder and CEO of Tandem Food presented on Food Safety Culture in the Cannabis Industry. An overview of the information in the presentation can be found here, Concentrate On a Food Safety Culture In Your Workplace. Below are answers to some of the post-presentation questions we received, but were unable to answer during the Q&A session. To get your additional questions answered or for a complimentary consultation for your company, specially provided to readers of Cannabis Industry Journal, contact Ellice Ogle at Ellice@tndmfood.com.
Question: What are some recommended digital programs for internal auditing?
Ellice Ogle: Before looking at the tools for conducting an internal audit, understand the goal of the internal audit. One key aspect of internal auditing is knowing which standard(s) to audit against. For example, regulatory audits for cGMP certification are different than optional third-party certifications such as any GFSI scheme (SQF, BRC, PrimusGFS, etc). While the standards ultimately have the same goal of food safety with varying focuses, it is important to have an experienced food safety specialist conduct the audit as realistically as possible. The experienced specialist will then be able to recommend an appropriate tool for internal auditing moving forward, whether it is software such as FoodLogiQ, SafetyChain, Safefood 360°, among many others, or simply providing a template of the audit checklist. Overall, the risk of foodborne illnesses can be minimal, but it takes persistence and commitment to achieve a successful food safety culture. Metrics can assist in assessing the commitment to food safety and, as a result of these efforts, you will minimize the risk of compromising the health and safety of your guests, employees, foods and business. If you want a specific example, I’d like to direct you to a case study in partnership with Heylo LLC in Washington state, posted on the Tandem Food website.
Q: What are examples of ways to share environmental monitoring results to enhance a good edible safety culture?
Ellice: In the Control of Listeria monocytogenes in Ready-To-Eat Foods: Guidance for Industry Draft Guidance (2017), the FDA states that “a well-designed environmental monitoring program promotes knowledge and awareness of the environmental conditions that could result in product contamination and is a more effective program than product testing alone.” In other words, environmental monitoring programs and results can identify environmental conditions within a facility that could cause potential contamination. Publishing these findings, for example in the form of a case study or sharing the details of the practice, can enhance the food safety culture in the specific niche industry. For example, to borrow from the meat industry, Tyson Foods, Inc developed and shared environmental monitoring programs that are used by their peers, promoting a unified food safety culture, rather than competitive, guarded secrecy.
Q: Are the food safety requirements the same for retail and manufacturing?
Ellice: The food safety requirements are not exactly the same for retailers and manufacturers. The difference is inherent that retailers are working with finished product while manufacturers are working with raw ingredients and the manufacturing process to develop the finished product. Let’s take a closer look at cannabis regulation in Washington state. Chapter 314-55-104(12) states “Processors creating marijuana extracts must develop standard operating procedures (SOPs), good manufacturing practices (GMPs), and a training plan prior to producing extracts for the marketplace.” Compare this to the requirements for retailers, 314-55-105(11) which states “A marijuana producer, processor or retailer licensed by the WSLCB must conduct the production, processing, storage, and sale of marijuana-infused products using sanitary practices.” While SOPs and GMPs are not explicitly mentioned for retailers as they are for manufacturers, sanitary practices could be documented as Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures (SSOPs). Proper storage practices can also be an overlapping food safety concern with respect to temperature control or pest management systems. Overall, food safety should remain a top priority in maintaining the integrity of the products throughout the supply chain.
Q: To your knowledge, has there been a food safety outbreak associated with a cannabis-based product?
Ellice: One possible cannabis-related death investigated in 2017 uncovered deadly pathogens in medical cannabis. However, to my knowledge, I have not seen a food safety outbreak associated with a cannabis-based product. There might be any number of reasons that this is so, for example, possibly because a food safety outbreak associated with a cannabis-based product might not have had a large impact to make headlines. Although, with the cannabis industry already misunderstood and a stigma so prevalent to even promote fake news, it is better to prevent an outbreak from ever occurring. One thing to note is that ultimately cannabis is just another ingredient in existing products, of course with special properties. So, the common food safety offenders are present: listeria, Salmonella, E. Coli, among others. On the plant, cannabis food product manufacturers must minimize the risk of mycotoxins produced by molds, pest contamination, and pesticide contamination. For products that contain cannabis infusions or extractions as an ingredient, there is the possibility of the growth of Botulism toxin. Many of these pathogens can be minimized by appropriate heat treatment or maintenance of refrigeration, testing, and by practicing preventive measures. Arguably, the largest potential for pathogenic contamination is due to improper employee handling. To refer to what we discussed earlier, employee training is key, as well as proper enforcement. Having a strong food safety culture ensures that people have the knowledge of food safety risks and the knowledge of preventing outbreaks.
Q: Do any of the panelists know of any efforts to develop a food safety-oriented standard for the cannabis industry?
Ellice: Yes, Tandem Food LLC is positioned to consult on cGMP certification for manufacturing facilities in the cannabis industry. First, a gap assessment can be conducted to obtain useful actionable data for you, rather than be an intimidating experience. Working from the identified baseline, Tandem Food will work with you to create and implement all related documentation and programs, providing training as necessary. Overall, with the right commitment, cGMP certification can take 6-12 months.
The journal Frontiers in Plant Science recently shared an important article from researchers at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, highlighting the “Pathogens and Molds Affecting Production and Quality of Cannabis Sativa.”
As a chemist focused on the science of preventing and mitigating mold in greenhouse and indoor cannabis grow facilities, this piece was fascinating to me. Like many others, it details and explains prevalent mold like Penicillium, Cladosporium and Aspergillus – things I see in grows every day.
But wait, there’s more fungi
The research and resulting article also brought up another type of fungi – endophytic mold. Endophytic mold usually lives symbiotically with plants, or is at least beneficial for both plant and fungi.
But not always.
In the past, the industry has believed that damaging mold spores were found on the outside of the flower. When moved, that flower would release the spores and send them flying – often creating massive cross-contamination issues for indoor grows.
“While cannabis is an incredibly powerful plant in terms of its medicinal properties, it is unfortunately highly susceptible to many pest and pathogens,” says Hope Jones, PhD, CEO, Adivina & ECS. “And it is this susceptibility that is so challenging to many inexperienced or undisciplined grow operations.”
Now, however, we know that there’s another culprit to add to the list: the inner parts of the plant can also be a source of endophytic cross contamination and mold.
Since it grows inside of the plant, this fungus creates high spore counts that can cross contaminate from outside, into the flower.
Treating mold in a facility
Here’s the good news:
This seemingly bad news – that there’s a new fungus to worry about, and it is inside the flower – may actually help cannabis grows struggling with mold, and those who are following the proper protocols already.
Effective mitigation protocols can include things like treating HVAC systems, controlling humidity, using products like chlorine dioxide to treat irrigation lines, enforcing protective clothing and shoe covers for employees, reducing the amount of in-and-out for employees around grow rooms.
These are important upstream and environmentally-focused integrated pest management (IPM) programs that will usually keep facilities clean and relatively mold-free.
But if these programs are in place, and there’s still an issue, Endophytic fungi may be to blame.
If you are having ongoing mold issues but have ruled out cross-contamination and a facility without proper protocol, look to the mother plant.
“Small mistakes in agricultural practices are amplified with cannabis,” Dr. Jones continues. “And today’s propagation practices of traditional cloning add to this vulnerability. Cannabis is an annual plant and by keeping mothers in a perpetual state of vegetative growth for years, and taking repetitive cuttings produces clones in a highly stressed state. This stressed state diminishes genetic potential and weakens a plant’s ability to fight disease and pests.”
Testing for and addressing endophytic fungi
If these concerns are ringing a bell, remember, there is also a way to test for Endophytic mold.
Checking cuttings from suspected mother plants over a period of time is the best way to see if the Endophytic mold is present.
A section of the mother plant cutting is placed into a solution (for example, as outlined by the article, a very concentrated hypochlorite followed by 70% Ethanol) that will kill all of the microorganisms that are present on the surface of the plant tissues.
From there, an unadulterated dissection of the internal tissues can be extracted and cultured for quantification and identification of endophytic fungi.
“Tissue culture offers a form of genetic rebooting returning the plant to its natural genetic potential and thereby strengthening its natural ability to defend against environment assault,” says Dr. Jones. “It also allows the breeder to conduct pathogenic disease testing which provides the entire industry with a higher level of scientific certainty and analysis.”
If you find this mold inside of the mother plant, your facility’s mold problem could be a systemic issue, not an environmental one.
If you do find that Endophytic mold is causing issues, of course, you may have to destroy the mother plant.
This should not mean the end of a strain. Tissue culture on a cutting is an option that can eliminate the unwanted fungi and save the genetics. Using those genetics to regrow a mother will start fresh and avoid the intrinsic mold that was plaguing the strain prior.
The practice of checking mother plants for Endophytic mold is not yet commonplace in cannabis, but the hemp business is leading the way.
They’re testing to create very clean plants, so you don’t have issues during cultivation.
Major growers in the U.S. could save millions in lost harvests with mold mitigation. If your current IPM program isn’t doing the trick, you may want to follow in hemp’s footsteps and look inside the plant.
Microbial contamination on cannabis products represents one of the most significant threats to cannabis consumers, particularly immunocompromised patients who are at risk of developing harmful and potentially fatal infections.
As a result, regulatory bodies in the United States and Canada mandate testing cannabis products for certain microbes. The two most popular methods for microbial safety testing in the cannabis industry are culture-based testing and quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR).
When considering patient safety, labs should choose a method that provides an accurate account of what is living on the sample and can specifically target the most harmful microbes, regardless of the matrix.
1. The Method’s Results Must Accurately Reflect the Microbial Population on the Sample
The main objective of any microbial safety test is to give the operator an indication of the microbial population present on the sample.
Culture-based methods measure contamination by observing how many organisms grow in a given medium. However, not all microbial organisms grow at the same rate. In some cases, certain organisms will out-compete others and as a result, the population in a post-culture environment is radically different than what was on the original sample.
One study analyzed fifteen medicinal cannabis samples using two commercially available culture-based methods. To enumerate and differentiate bacteria and fungi present before and after growth on culture-based media, all samples were further subjected to next-generation sequencing (NGS) and metagenomic analyses (MA). Figure 1 illustrates MA data collected directly from plant material before and after culture on 3M petrifilm and culture-based platforms.
The results demonstrate substantial shifts in bacterial and fungal growth after culturing on the 3M petrifilm and culture-based platforms. Thus, the final composition of microbes after culturing is markedly different from the starting sample. Most concerning is the frequent identification of bacterial species in systems designed for the exclusive quantification of yeast and mold, as quantified by elevated total aerobic count (TAC) Cq values after culture in the total yeast and mold (TYM) medium. The presence of bacterial colonies on TYM growth plates or cartridges may falsely increase the rejection rate of cannabis samples for fungal contamination. These observations call into question the specificity claims of these platforms.
The Live Dead Problem
One of the common objections to using qPCR for microbial safety testing is the fact that the method does not distinguish between live and dead DNA. PCR primers and probes will amplify any DNA in the sample that matches the target sequence, regardless of viability. Critics claim that this can lead to false positives because DNA from non-viable organisms can inflate results. This is often called the Live-Dead problem. However, scientists have developed multiple solutions to this problem. Most recently, Medicinal Genomics developed the Grim Reefer Free DNA Removal Kit, which eliminates free DNA contained in a sample by simply adding an enzyme and buffer and incubating for 10 minutes. The enzyme is instantaneously inactivated when lysis buffer is added, which prevents the Grim Reefer Enzyme from eliminating DNA when the viable cells are lysed (see Figure 2).
2. Method Must Be Able to Detect Specific Harmful Species
Conversely, qPCR assays, such as the PathoSEEK, are designed to target DNA sequences that are unique to pathogenic Aspergillus species, and they can be run using standard qPCR instruments such as the Agilent AriaMx. The primers are so specific that a single DNA base difference in the sequence can determine whether binding occurs. This specificity reduces the frequency of false positives in pathogen detection, a frequent problem with culture-based cannabis testing methods.
Additionally, Medicinal Genomics has developed a multiplex assay that can detect the four pathogenic species of Aspergillus (A. flavus, A. fumigatus, A. niger, and A. terreus) in a single reaction.
3. The Method Must Work on Multiple Matrices
Marijuana infused products (MIPs) are a very diverse class of matrices that behave very differently than cannabis flowers. Gummy bears, chocolates, oils and tinctures all present different challenges to culture-based techniques as the sugars and carbohydrates can radically alter the carbon sources available for growth. To assess the impact of MIPs on colony-forming units per gram of sample (CFU/g) enumeration, The Medicinal Genomics team spiked a known amount of live E. coli into three different environments: tryptic soy broth (TSB), hemp oil and hard candy. The team then homogenized the samples, pipetted amounts from each onto 3M™ Petrifilm E. coli / Coliform Count (EC) Plates, and incubated for 96 hours. The team also placed TSB without any E. coli onto a petrifilm to serve as a control. Figures 3 and 4 show the results in 24-hour intervals.
This implies the MIPs are interfering with the reporter assay on the films or that the MIPs are antiseptic in nature.
Many MIPs use citric acid as a flavoring ingredient which may interfere with 3M reporter chemistry. In contrast, the qPCR signal from the Agilent AriaMx was constant, implying there is microbial contamination present on the films, but the colony formation or reporting is inhibited.
This is not an issue with DNA-based methods, so long as the DNA extraction method has been validated on these matrices. For example, the SenSATIVAx DNA extraction method is efficient in different matrices, DNA was spiked into various MIPs as shown in Table 1, and at different numbers of DNA copies into chocolate (Table 2). The SenSATIVAx DNA extraction kit successfully captures the varying levels of DNA, and the PathoSEEK detection assay can successfully detect that range of DNA. Table 3 demonstrates that SenSATIVAx DNA extraction can successfully lyse the cells of the microbes that may be present on cannabis for a variety of organisms spiked onto cannabis flower samples.
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