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Hardware Platforms in Cannabis: A Q&A with Mike McDonald, President and CEO of Ammonite

By Aaron Green
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More and more we are seeing the development of proprietary hardware platforms in cannabis. With proprietary technology in hand, manufacturers often lean on MSOs, LPs and other brand partners to grow their business through existing sales channels.

We spoke with Mike McDonald, President and CEO at Ammonite, to learn more about the history of the Dablicator™ platform and Ammonite’s North American brand partner strategy. Mike formed Ammonite as a spin-off company from Jetty Extracts after getting to know the founders in a real estate transaction. Prior to Ammonite, Mike was an operator in the manufacturing and product development space, having helped to launch the Giant bicycle brand as well as growing and eventually selling the Atlas Snowshoe Company to K2 Sports.

Aaron: How did you get involved in cannabis?

Mike: Well, like a lot of folks in the industry, my background is pretty eclectic. I come primarily from an operator’s perspective – I’ve been in manufacturing, product development and company growth for my whole career. I lived in Taiwan for several years and helped to launch the Giant bicycle brand worldwide. I was also involved with a ski business that was started at Stanford as a thesis project called Atlas Snowshoe Company. Fast-forward, we built it into the largest snowshoe brand and activity in the US and later sold it to K2 Sports. So, I’ve always been involved in the growth of product-related businesses.

Mike McDonald, President and CEO at Ammonite

I’ve also done some real estate development as well; I actually sold our building to the Jetty guys, which is how we met. In that process, I got involved with their company, helped Jetty reorganize its business model, raise some money, and then just got addicted to the whole industry and really found it fascinating. I liked the team at Jetty and couldn’t resist jumping in, and now I’ve been full-time in the business for over three years.

Aaron: How did you get involved in Ammonite?

Mike: Ammonite is actually a spin out company from Jetty Extracts, which is one of the largest brands in California. Our main Ammonite product is called the Dablicator™ Oil Applicator, which was originally invented at Jetty as a medical device for cancer patients. We saw a big demand for it as a private label partnership product, so we decided to spin out a separate hardware company and really focus on developing unique IP and CBD and cannabis related hardware.

Aaron: What trends are you following in the industry?

Mike: Certainly the MSOs of the world are really expanding and the top three to five are making a mark with growth and more sophistication in the market. I think the social equity movement is really a big component that we’re all excited about in the industry. You’re seeing the larger players really put their money where their mouth is around that. We’ve always been a big part of that in California.

Specifically, regarding trends in the cannabis space, Colorado and California are probably the two most mature markets. We generally say what’s happening in California and Colorado eventually make their way out to the rest of the world. Vaping was invented in California and Colorado, and now it’s a huge part of the business where before, four or five years ago, the market was mostly flower-centric.

There’s a trend away from inhalables, with more awareness around lung-related illnesses and of course COVID, so we’re seeing a big growth in edibles, drinks and so forth. Interestingly enough, although it’s an inhalable, infused pre-rolls are a big growth sector as well. Jetty is actually launching an infused pre-roll program in February.

Folks are looking for ways to get their medicine without smoking – and this has definitely led to a growth in the oil application business. Oil application has traditionally been delivered via a syringe. Dablicator™ oil applicator is essentially an improved, more convenient syringe. On the medical side, patients have been taking oil sublingually, putting it in food and drink and so forth for years because a lot of them can’t smoke. As that trend transfers over to the adult use market, oil application is becoming really big. You can take it sublingually; you can put it in your food or beverage. On the recreational side, you can add it to your loose flower or joints, or of course, dab it directly onto your rig via the heat resistant tip.

Further, you’re probably familiar with a lot of these portable dab rigs that are taking off, like the G Pen Roam and the Puffco Peak and a variety of others. So now you can dab on the go with your standard wax and shatter in a jar. It’s just not the most convenient way if you’re up on a hike or on a mountain bike ride. So now, with a portable dab rig and something like the Dablicator™ oil applicator, you can have a really convenient mess-free way to enjoy cannabis. The big growth in concentrates and areas that aren’t necessarily inhalables is where our product hardware really fits in.

Aaron: How did you come up with the idea for the Dablicator?

Mike: The Jetty team had a friend that had brain cancer. He was doing a lot of chemotherapy and was having trouble eating and keeping weight on and he couldn’t smoke. So, the guys at Jetty began to bring him cannabis oil, which he was able to use ingesting it from a spoon initially and it really helped him with his pain, his anxiety and his appetite. In that process, we realized that there wasn’t really a great way to deliver oil. Syringes were there, but they were kind of sketchy and they weren’t convenient.

So, the Jetty team developed a better mousetrap. Several iterations later, this Dablicator™ product was ready for patients. In fact, it became a big part of the Jetty Shelter Project, a non-profit where the team delivers cannabis to cancer patients, and it was a very much sought-after product delivery device in that world. So, it was developed inside of a need on the medical side and it’s really sort of grown inside the expansion on the adult-use side.

Aaron: Can you explain how the Dablicator™ oil applicator works from a perspective of form and function?

Mike: Pre-Dablicator™ you would use a syringe type product – for direct oil application, sublingual application, or as an add on to your flower. The difference between Dablicator™ oil applicator and a traditional syringe is that Dablicator™ is a twist and plunge product. Imagine a pen filled with oil, but instead of inhaling it, you’re able to dispense it through a tip that is heat resistant, which means you can apply directly to your dab rig nail. You’re able to put it in your pocket without fear of cannabis oil leakage. It’s discreet, precise, compact and portable.

Aaron: How does the user dose using Dablicator™ oil applicator?

Mike: Basically, there’s measurements on the plunger of 55 milligrams apiece – one click is 55 milligrams, and you can dispense as many clicks as you like. What’s cool about the product itself is if you’ve clicked too many times accidentally, you can back it off and the excess oil won’t dispense. You can go to dablicator.com and see demo videos as well.

Aaron: Dablicator™ oil applicator started as a Jetty Extracts spin-off. I see you are now white labeling for other oil brands. How do you go about selecting your partners?

Mike: We call it our brand partner program. It’s not too dissimilar to what other hardware manufacturers, like PAX and GPen, are doing. We’ve got a patented and innovative device where our brand partners, MSOs and leading brands throughout the US and Canada, can take their existing vape and tincture oils and offer them in Dablicator™ oil applicator hardware.

Our focus is signing up major, well respected brands and MSOs on to the “platform,” meaning they are able to immediately offer between six and ten new SKUs to their consumers. They take their existing oils, put them into a custom branded Dablicator™ hardware unit and add their custom branded packaging. It’s a full turnkey solution. For example, one of our partners, 710 Labs, is developing their RSO and were shopping for a delivery method specifically geared towards medical patients. Within eight weeks, we had a custom program for them and delivered hardware, and we assisted on the packaging front as well.

Our partners have to be reputable folks that are interested in developing or delivering oil in a unique and innovative way. Frankly, our early partners are those that see where the growth is. 710 Labs is on the platform, as well as Surterra in Florida, Ancient Roots in Ohio, and we’ve got multiple conversations going to some of the other MOSs and the LPs in Canada.

Aaron: Are the brand partners loading the oil applicator themselves?

Mike: We customize the product for them and then ship them unassembled and empty. In their lab, they use the same machinery and equipment they use to fill their vape cartridges. They then fill their Dablicator™, assemble it, package it and ship it out just like any other product that they’re processing and manufacturing.

Aaron: What kind of oils are suitable for Dablicator™?

Mike: Pretty much any oil that’s going into a vape cart is suitable and then some. Some of our customers, including Jetty, started out with a THC distillate. Live resin is becoming a big product category in California as well as solventless oils. Dablicator™ oil applicator can accommodate everything from distillate to live resin to solventless to RSO and even full spectrum CBD. If it can flow, if it doesn’t crystallize up like shatter and sugars and diamonds, you can put it into Dablicator™, even the thickest of oils. It’s designed to contain any kind of liquids that are flammable.

Aaron: What geographies are you currently in?

Mike: We’re in multiple states throughout the US and actually just signed up with an LP in Canada. We only launched the program in August of 2020, and today we’ve got partners California, Colorado, Ohio, Arizona, Missouri, Florida, soon to be Michigan, Illinois, and throughout Canada.

Aaron: Any plans for international expansion beyond North America?

Mike: We’re getting inquiries on a regular basis from all over the place, including internationally. We’re in conversations with some folks down in Brazil. Spain is actually a big cannabis market and we’re having some conversations with some folks there. The inquiries are coming in faster than we can process the relationships, but right now our major focus is on North America.

Aaron: What are your goals with Ammonite?

Mike: We are developing a category, right? So today, oil dispensing isn’t top of mind. Today, if you want oil, you go into a dispensary and say, “Hey, give me those syringes.” My goal is that a year from now, you can walk into Harborside in Oakland and you see a wall of different branded Dablicator™ oil applicators. The goal is to really turn the oil dispensing business into a category, and then position Dablicator™ oil applicator as the best and leading product in that category.

Aaron: What are you personally interested in learning more about?

Mike: Well, I’ve got two teenagers – two daughters, as a matter of fact, a freshman and a senior – and they’re being homeschooled right now. So that’s been quite an interesting development!

I think on the cannabis side, it’s just fascinating what it is as a business model. It’s the most recent multi-billion-dollar opportunity in consumer products. You only get a chance to participate in something like that maybe once in a lifetime. I’m really looking forward to seeing it become more adopted into the mainstream and it’s already becoming that way from a consumer perspective. I am watching the cannabis market become legal from a federal perspective, hoping that the social equity component of the industry really stays with it.

I’ve been in a lot of businesses over the years; I feel like one of the gray hairs in this business that is actually an operator versus someone who came over from the financial side. I am continuing to learn, grow and work with great people and this has been a really amazing experience for me.

Aaron: Okay, great. Mike, that’s the end of the interview. Thank you for your time today!

Green Mill Supercritical: An Interview with CEO Wes Reynolds

By Aaron Green
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Carbon Dioxide (CO2) extraction is a processing technique whereby CO2 is pressurized under carefully controlled temperatures to enable extraction of terpenes, cannabinoids and other plant molecules.

Green Mill Supercritical is a Pittsburgh-based manufacturing and engineering company focused on cannabis and hemp extraction. The company offers a range of CO2 extraction equipment where users can tune and control their extraction methods.

We spoke with Wes Reynolds, CEO of Green Mill Supercritical. Wes recently joined Green Mill as CEO and investor in the company after a long career at the Coca-Cola Company in senior sales and general management roles.

Aaron Green: Wes, thank you for taking the time to chat today. How did you get involved in Green Mill?

Wes Reynolds: I came out of a 20-year career at Coca-Cola, where I lived and worked around the world. I was a sales and general management guy with Coke, and learned a lot about running businesses and how to drive growth. I left Coke in 2017. After that successful career I wanted to be in the cannabis space. I felt like cannabis was a growing space with a lot of opportunity and a lot of misperceptions out there, particularly around the foundations of what I would call the “evil reputation” of cannabis. I just found that abhorrent and wanted to be part of changing it.

Wes Reynolds, CEO of Green Mill Supercritical

So I ran the Florida operations for Surterra, which is now called Parallel, for a year out of Tampa, and we did a great job of growing that business in Florida. As the president of the Florida operation for Surterra, I saw everything seed-to-shelf for the industry. We had a 300,000-square-foot greenhouse in Central Florida, we had dispensaries, we had all the production, distribution and all the marketing. I was really able to learn the industry top to bottom.

When I left Surterra, I started looking at various investment opportunities and thinking about what I might want to do next. I came across Green Mill out of Pittsburgh, and was really impressed with the technology that they had put together. Having run a company where we used CO2 extraction, I had experiences with systems that didn’t work when they were supposed to or didn’t work the way they were promised, which led to lots of downtime, lots of frustration and lots of babysitting. I was impressed with Green Mill’s engineering approach and decided that I’d like to be involved with them. I originally considered just being an investor, but more and more conversations led to a greater understanding of some basic business administrative needs that they had as well. One thing led to another and I agreed to come on as the CEO, and I’m also an investor.

I’m excited about what we’re doing at Green Mill. I think that bar none, we make the best supercritical CO2 extraction equipment out there. We continue to innovate on that every day. We want to push CO2 beyond known limits, which is our stated goal as a company. We believe in CO2 and we’re living our goal in that we really are pushing it beyond known limits. There are new things we’re uncovering every day where we go, “Oh, my God, I didn’t know we can do that with CO2!” So, that’s kind of fun.

Aaron: Can you tell me just a high-level overview of how CO2 extraction works?

Wes: A supercritical CO2 extraction system is a collection of extraction vessels and fractionation vessels or collection vessels. In our case fractionation because we’re doing multiple collections through a single run. Then you need a system of pumps and valves and tubing, etc. to move the solvent in a supercritical state through the packed biomass, and then move the extracted compounds into a set of collection vessels. It sounds very easy. But the key to supercritical CO2 extraction is controlling temperature, flow rate and pressure. The better you can control temperature, flow rate and pressure, the more precise of an outcome you’re going to get. For example, say you run a three-hour extraction run, and you want to run it at 3500 psi. Well, you know, a competitive system might fluctuate 300 to 400 psi on either side of 3500. Whereas our system currently fluctuates more like five to 10 psi on either side of the 3500. So, there is much more control and precision.

Our whole goal, when we’re talking about pushing CO2 beyond known limits, is how do we continue to chase that holy grail of perfect control of temperature, flow rate and pressure? One of our advances so far is a proprietary pump, for example, that’s a liquid displacement pump that we engineer and build. It ensures a very even and consistent flow, independent of the pressure setting. So, that flow rate doesn’t change in our system compared to what you would see with another system. It sounds like a minor thing, except that at the end of a run, if you expected to get a certain set of molecules, you’re going to get a different set of molecules if your temperature and flow rate and pressure are varying, because what you’re doing is disrupting the density of the CO2 as it flows.

It’s about building a system that is precise in that way, I think, that requires enormously skilled engineering effort and design effort on the front end, and then requires us to have advanced production and manufacturing capabilities in our shop in Pittsburgh. Our customers are clearly impressed with the levels of consistency that they’re getting out of their system.

Aaron: You talked about precision and consistency as two items. Is there anything else that makes Green Mill different?

Wes: I’m a brand guy. I believe in brands. I came out of a 20-year Coca-Cola career.

The way that the cannabis industry is going in total, in my opinion, is the consumer is going to get more and more discerning along the way. Up until this point, everybody thinks “oh, we have THC and CBD and we have intensity.” But the more sophisticated and educated consumers get, the more discerning they’re going to be about what products they want to put in their bodies.

What makes Green Mill different is that we’re building a system that allows the operator of that system to create differentiated products for the marketplace. So, it’s not simply “CBD is CBD.” It’s: what plant did you start with? How can you maintain as many of the characteristics of that plant as possible?

We’re going to create the most sophisticated tool possible to allow the operator to create products that can be differentiated in the marketplace for a discerning consumer at a premium price. That way, you can create a market where there might not have been a market before, instead of just “hey, I’ve got X pounds of biomass that I need to extract. Give me your bluntest instrument and let me extract.”

Green Mill Supercritical’s SFE Pro

We currently make five different systems. First is the SFE Pro. We make a seven and a half liter and a 10-liter version, with two-vessel configurations of each of those. Then we have what we call a Parallel Pro, which has four 10-liter vessels and two pumps, with two streams running parallel to each other and emptying into shared collectors. It doubles the extraction rate, and you don’t expand the footprint very much. But 10-liter vessels are the biggest vessels we use. Because when you go too large with the vessel, you are giving up something in terms of the ability to control temperature, flow rate and pressure. Your efficiency starts to drop with higher vessel volume.

One of the things that makes Green Mill different is our extraction rate. Our Parallel Pro can do 145 pounds a day of biomass. We think that’s a significant amount, given the demand that’s out there for unique products. What we’re advocating for is multiple extraction systems instead of giant permanent installations of extraction systems, that end up limiting your flexibility. Big systems also prevent you from creating redundancies in your operating system. So, when your extraction system goes down, you’re done. Versus in our universe, we would say, you might want to have three or four extraction systems in different locations, running different products. Our price points are such that that’s very doable.

Aaron: How does the breakdown look between your cannabis and hemp clients?

Wes: A lot of that is legislative frankly. It has to do with what the environment is like at the moment. About 60% of our customers are small hemp farmers. And then we have the other 40% in the cannabis space that are medical or adult use producers.

CO2 extraction has a lot of applications beyond cannabis. We have a couple of customers using our system for hops extraction, for example. We see an enormous opportunity out there for non-cannabis botanical extraction, but our primary focus is cannabis. That is what we’re designing this system to do.

We find that small hemp farmers love our system because it is reliable and very automated. We have proprietary software that operates the whole system. You load and run various “recipes,” at least we call them recipes. What you are doing is setting flow rate, setting temperatures, setting pressures, etc., then that proprietary software has an unbelievable ability to control everything through the process. I’ve talked to several different operators who have used other machines, and then found themselves on a Green Mill system and couldn’t believe how easy, but also feature-rich it was.

I talk about it like it’s like an oven, you know, you set the oven at 375 degrees. And a really good oven stays right at 375. You still need to be a good chef to be able to make that perfect cheesecake. But without that oven, your hands are tied, so you are constantly trying to check those, “is it still 375? I don’t know!” With our system, if it says 375, it holds at 375. So we’re pretty excited about that.

And we’re going to continue to innovate. For example, we have a proprietary heat exchanger that we use on our systems. It’s actually 3D printed stainless steel. It’s about a 20-pound piece of steel that’s been printed to have a special tubing shape in the center only possible with 3D printing that allows us to heat CO₂ very quickly.

Aaron: That’s very cool. I’m noticing a lot actually, the innovations in cannabis are creating these adjacent market opportunities in botanicals. So, I think that’s interesting you point that out. You mentioned terpenes are one of the things you collect out of the CO2 extraction. Can you talk about the crude that comes off and how people are either monetizing or formulating that crude?

Wes: Our goal is to produce the “purest crude” possible. So, we want “less crude” crude. I think that we’re at the beginning of this, Aaron. We’re nowhere near the end, which is what I find so exciting, because all of our innovation, all of our continued development and all of our experimentation is designed to keep thinking, how do we push this further and further and further and get a more refined crude.

Green Mill Supercritical’s Parallel Pro

We just welcomed Jesse Turner to our team as Director of R&D, who is a well-known extraction guy in the industry. He came from Charlotte’s Web and Willie’s Reserve, and has been doing independent consulting. He’s just a rock star. He’s already off and running on experimenting with different stuff.

I think that we are just at the beginning of seeing more and more of that opportunity to help people realize, “Oh, my gosh, I did not know you could do this!” Terpenes are a good example. I think we are only scratching the surface of what terpenes can do. I mean, a cannabis plant has 400 plus molecules and we know a good bit about probably 10 or 12 of them. So, what are we going to find out about the other 390? And as we do, the Green Mill system will be ideal for separating those molecules that we don’t know today are valuable. So, I think that’s part of what we’re chasing as well.

Aaron: So where do you see CO2 extraction fitting into the cannabis and hemp supply chain?

Wes: For any product on the market that is not a smokable flower it helps to have an extraction process. There may be some products that come out that we don’t know about yet that are not going to qualify in that category. Whether you are talking about vape cartridges, or lozenges, or gummy bears, or whatever it is, they are going to start with extract. I think what consumers want is zero adulteration of their product. So if you take any botanical product, and if it is GMO-free, does not have any pesticides, maybe it is all organic, etc. — there is real consumer appeal to that. Whether you agree with it or not, it is what consumers want.

We believe that we can continue to push CO2 so that there’s no requirement for introduction of any other materials than just CO2, which is a completely inert gas. It’s got no residual effect whatsoever on the product. If we get where we want to go, then eventually you are talking about a pure botanical experience.

Initial upfront capital is higher than you are going to see with ethanol and butane extraction solutions for the same size equipment, but ongoing operating costs of those are much higher, when you weigh it out over a period of time. I think what we are going to find is that people are going to keep coming to CO2 because they realize there are things they can do with it that they can’t do any other way.

The end consumer is really who we want to keep in mind. I think for a long time, this industry was very demand driven. “I have X acres of cannabis product, whether that’s hemp, sativa, indica, whatever it is, and I need to extract this many pounds a day over this period of time.” And we keep asking the question, well, who’s going to buy that product on the other side? What do you want it to look like when you put it out on the market? As opposed to how much raw plant matter do you have? What’s the demand? And that was a difficult conversation. We’re starting to see more people come around to that conversation now. But I think that’s the question we want to keep answering is how do we create those products that are differentiated in the marketplace and that can pass muster in any regulatory environment? People are going to want to know what’s in their product.

Aaron: What trends are you following in the industry?

Wes: As the CEO, I’m particularly interested in the overall development of the landscape of the industry in terms of who’s playing, who’s winning, what’s happening with legislation, MSOs versus SSOs. I’m also interested in the international environment. We have a good bit of interest from multiple countries that have either ordered Green Mill systems or are talking to us about Green Mill systems, including Canada and Latin American countries, some European countries, Australia and New Zealand.“We’re really committed to educational efforts with a very rigorous scientific foundation, but in language that is approachable and people can understand.”

The trends that I’m particularly interested in are more on the business side of the equation, in terms of how this business is going to shake out particularly from a capitalization perspective, as banking laws continue to change, which is a big deal, and the legislative environment gets a little more predictable and a little more consistent.

Aaron: Okay, last question. So what are you personally interested in learning more about?

Wes: Everything, is the short answer! I constantly run this little challenge of trying to understand enough of the science. I’m not a scientist, I’m a sales guy. That was how I grew up: general management and sales. I’ve made my living over many years being wowed by the pros. Depending on the scientists and the very specialized folks to help provide the right answers to things. I’m fascinated by the chemistry and I’m fascinated by the mechanical engineering challenges of what we do at Green Mill. So, I’m always interested in learning about that.

I think there’s a need, and it is helpful to be able to talk about those things in language that the layperson can understand, as opposed to explaining everything in scientific language. I think what I am trying to do is help people put it into a language that they can get, but that is not simple. Language that is correlative to reality. I think there’s so much misunderstanding about how these things work and what’s happening. We’re really committed to educational efforts with a very rigorous scientific foundation, but in language that is approachable and people can understand.

Aaron: Okay, that’s it. Thank you for your time Wes!

Facility Considerations for Cultivation & Manufacturing: A Case Study

By David Vaillencourt
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The cannabis industry is growing and evolving at an unprecedented pace and regulators, consumers and businesses continually struggle to keep up.

Cannabis businesses: How do you maintain an edge on the market, avoid costly mistakes?

Case Study: Costly Facility Build Out Oversights

David Vaillencourt will be joining a panel discussion, Integrated Lifecycle of Designing a Cultivation Operation, on December 22 during the Cannabis Quality Virtual Conference. Click here to register. A vertically integrated multi-state operator wants to produce edibles. The state requires adherence to food safety practices (side note – even if the state did not, adherence to food safety practices should be considered as a major facility and operational requirement). They are already successfully producing flower, tinctures and other oil derivatives. Their architect and MEP firm works with them to design a commercial kitchen for the production of safe edibles. The layout is confirmed, the equipment is specified – everything from storage racks, an oven and exhaust hoods, to food-grade tables. The concrete is poured and walls are constructed. The local health authority comes in to inspect the construction progress, who happens to have a background in industrial food-grade facilities (think General Mills). They remind the company that they must have three-compartment sinks with hot running water for effective cleaning and sanitation, known as clean-out-of-place (COP). The result? Partial demolition of the floor to run pipeline, and a retrofit to make room for the larger sinks, including redoing electrical work and a contentious team debate about the size of the existing equipment that was designed to fit ‘just right.’

Unfortunately, this is just one more common story our team recently witnessed. In this article, I outline a few recommendations and a process (Quality by Design) that could have reduced this and many other issues. For some, following the process may just be the difference between being profitable or going out of business in 2021.

The benefits of Quality by Design are tangible and measurable:

  1. Reduce mistakes that lead to costly re-work
  2. Mitigate inefficient operational flow
  3. Reduce the risk of cross-contamination and product mix-ups. It happens all the time without carefully laid out processes.
  4. Eliminate bottlenecks in your production process
  5. Mitigate the risk of a major recall.

The solution is in the process

Regardless of whether you fall in the category of a food producer, manufacturer of infused products (MIP), food producers, re-packager or even a cultivator, consider the following and ask these questions as a team.

People

Food processing and sanitation
By standardizing and documenting safety procedures, manufacturers mitigate the risk of cannabis-specific concerns

For every process, who is performing it? This may be a single individual or the role of specific people as defined in a job description.

Does the individual(s) performing the process have sufficient education and training? Do you have a diverse team that can provide different perspectives? World class operations are not developed in a vacuum, but rather with a team. Encourage healthy discourse and dialogue.

Process

Is the process defined? Perhaps in a standard operating procedure (SOP) or work instruction (WI). This is not the general guidance an equipment vendor provided you with, this is your process.

How well do you know your process? Does your SOP or WI specify (with numbers) how long to run the piece of equipment, the specification of the raw materials used (or not used) during the process, and what defines a successful output?

Do you have a system in place for when things deviate from the process? Processes are not foolproof. Do not get hung up on deviations from the process, but don’t turn a blind eye to them. Record and monitor them. In time, they will show you clear opportunities for improvement, preventing major catastrophes.

Materials

What are the raw materials being used? Where are they coming from (who is your supplier and how did you qualify them)?

Start with the raw materials that create your product or touch your product at all stages of the process. We have seen many cases where cannabis oils fail for heavy metals, specifically lead. Extractors are quick to blame the cultivator and their nutrients, as cannabis is a very effective phytoremediator (it uptakes heavy metals and toxins from soil substrate). The more likely culprit – your glassware! Storing cannabis oil, both work in process or final product in glass jars, while preferred over plastic, requires due diligence on the provider of your glassware. If they change the factory in which it is produced, will you be notified? Stipulate this in your contract. Don’t find yourself in the next cannabis lead recall that gets the attention of the FDA.

Savings is gained through simple control of your raw materials. Variability in your raw material going into the extractor is inevitable, but the more you can do to standardize the quality of your inputs, the less work re-formulating needs to be done downstream. Eliminate the constant need to troubleshoot why yields are lower than expected, or worst case, having to rerun or throw an entire batch out because it was “hot” (either too much THC in the hemp/CBD space or pesticides/heavy metals). These all add up to significant downstream bottlenecks – underutilized equipment, inefficient staff (increase in labor cost) all because of a lack of upstream controls. Use your current process as a starting point, but implement a quality system to drive improvement in operational efficiency and watch your top line grow while your bottom-line decreases.

Consistency in quality standards requires meticulous SOPs

Have you tested and confirmed the quality of your raw material? This isn’t just does it have THC and is it cannabis, but is it a certain particle size, moisture level, etc.? Again, define the quality of your raw materials (specifications) and test for it.

Rememberranges are your friend. It is much better to say 9-13% moisture than “about 10%”. For your most diligent extractor, 11% will be unacceptable, but for a guy that just wants to get the job done, 13% just may do!

Test your final product AFTER the process. Again, how does it stack up against your specifications? You may need to have multiple specifications based on different types of raw material. Perhaps one strain with a certain range of cannabinoids and terpenes can be expected for production.

Review the data and trend it. Are you getting lower yields than normal? This may be due to an issue with the equipment, maybe a blockage has formed somewhere, a valve is loose, and simple preventive maintenance will get you back up and running. Or, it could be that the raw biomass quality has changed. Either way, having that data available for review and analysis will allow you to identify the root cause and prevent a surprise failure of your equipment. Murphy’s law applies to the cannabis industry too.

  1. You are able to predict and prevent most failures before they occur
  2. You increase the longevity of your equipment
  3. You are able to predict with a level of confidence – imagine estimating how much product you will product next month and hitting that target – every time!
  4. Business risks are significantly mitigated – a process that spews out metal, concentrates heavy metals or does not kill microbes that were in the raw material is an expensive mistake.
  5. Your employees don’t feel like they are running around with their hair on fire all the time. It’s expensive to train new employees. Reduce your turnover with a less stressed-out team.

Takeaways

Maintaining a competitive edge in the cannabis industry is not easy, but it can be made easier with the right team, tools and data. Our recommendations boil down to a few simple steps:

  1. Make sure you have a chemical or mechanical engineer to understand, optimize and standardize your process (you should have one of these on staff permanently!)
  2. Implement a testing program for all raw materials
    1. Test your raw materials – cannabis flower, solvents, additives, etc. before using. Work with your team to understand what you should and should not test for, and the frequency for doing so. Some materials/vendors are likely more consistent or reliable than others. Test the less reliable ones more frequently (or even every time!)
  3. Test your final product after you extract it – Just because your local regulatory body does not require a certain test, it does not mean you should not look for it. Anything that you specified wanting the product to achieve needs to be tested at an established frequency (and this does not necessarily need to be every batch).
  4. Repeat, and record all of your extraction parameters.
  5. Review, approve and set a system in place for monitoring any changes.

Congratulations, you have just gone through the process of validating your operation. You may now begin to realize the benefits of validating your operation, from your personnel to your equipment and processes.

Surprise! A Major Cannabis Stakeholder Pushes for Ethical Marketing Standards

By Jeff Baerwalde
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As more nations across the globe embrace the benefits of legal cannabis, to say the business is booming is an understatement. But with cannabis going corporate in a big way and marketing standards still hit or miss, the reality of unethical marketing practices that manipulate consumers and run roughshod over small businesses threatens to do harm if not brought under control.

Enter Cresco Labs, a major player in the international cannabis industry. Contrary to what you might expect, and bringing in a breath of fresh air, this giant is pushing to install marketing standards that protect the ethical interests of all cannabis businesses.

In this article, we will take a look at some key elements of ethical advertising in the cannabis industry and explore the Cresco Labs proposal.

This dispensary ad appeared on Variety.com

The Power of Advertising

Advertising is a powerful medium for rebranding and influencing public perception. The messages conveyed by ads reflect the changing moral, ethical, and consumer opinions of society – and often create them in the first place. For cannabis, an industry rife with stereotypes, ads present a strong opportunity to change the popular face and perception of cannabis as nothing more than a vehicle to get high.

Today’s numbers tell a different story with a full 19% using it for pain relief and another 37% to relax. Even one successful ad campaign can change the mind of a skeptical consumer. So how to ethically harness this power?

Cannabis rebranding generally works best when it draws on four main elements:

  • Emphasize health and wellness benefits. Most new customers who are interested in cannabis these days are attracted by the inspiring health and wellness possibilities that cannabis products present. By redefining cannabis as a medical product suitable for families, the elderly and patients suffering from various ailments, and not simply as a way to get high, cannabis companies can target the audiences that will most benefit from their products.
  • Replace typical “juvenile” imagery with sophisticated graphic design approaches. With so many options for how to use and consume cannabis these days, it is no wonder that brands are embracing trendy, sophisticated, contemporary design techniques. Logos featuring minimalist and elegant fonts more accurately express the narrative behind products such as cannabis teas, cannabis-infused oils and edibles.
  • Highlight the science behind the products. For those naysayers still determined to limit cannabis to its recreational usages only, to the exclusion of its many health benefits, exploring the science is vital. By citing legitimate research studies and findings, and explaining the scientific processes at play when using cannabis, ads can debunk false myths while educating the public.
  • Tell a compelling, relatable story. Like all good advertising, the narrative is key to engaging audiences. Framing cannabis within the powerful context of a compelling story is a strong approach to making a memorable impact on consumers.

Wild West Advertising

Because cannabis is such a new industry, only recently becoming legal in many states (and countries), advertising agencies have been reticent to sign on with these companies. The lack of regular advertising standards means that cannabis advertising has been compared to the “wild west,” where anything goes. While some companies struggle to promote a more wholesome, consumer-friendly image of cannabis, marketing to broad audiences, other companies embrace stoner stereotypes and industry myths, often resulting in ads that depict unethical content.

An example of a warning letter the FDA sent to a CBD company making health claims

Unofficial social media ads may target underage customers, with slogans featuring symbols like Santa Clause, or presenting underage people in their ads next to cannabis products, as in a recent Instagram ad from one brand, Dogwalkers. The ad shows a person holding a pre-rolled joint on the beach with a caption that reads “let the good times (pre) roll.” The image also features young-looking surfers in the background, an implied invitation to underage consumers to sample these products.

Without regulation, businesses are also free to create advertisements rife with false claims. Vulnerable people, patients with chronic illnesses, senior citizens and others may be susceptible to the claims presented in these ads. The FDA has recently begun to crack down on this spread of misinformation, but putting in place industry-wide advertising standards would also have a strong effect.

Cresco Standards

Operating in nine states in the U.S., Cresco Labs is a vertically integrated, publicly traded company that has recently released a proposal for establishing marketing rules for the cannabis industry. The proposal, entitled “Responsible Advertising and Marketing Standards for the U.S. Cannabis Industry” outlines a vision to hold the U.S. cannabis industry to a higher professional and ethical standard than is the current norm, thus legitimizing the industry.

Some specific rules in the proposal stipulate that ads depicting over-consumption as a fun or desirable outcome should violate industry standards. Additionally, the widespread adoption of this proposal would ban any marketing approaches that target underage consumers, ensuring that companies are better able to enforce legal age restrictions.

The company, alongside other large cannabis organizations, has released this proposal as part of an attempt to normalize the industry, allowing it to bring in top ad companies to help promote their brands. While cannabis retains the pop culture imagery of stoner culture and its associations with reckless behavior and teenage cannabis usage, regular advertising sources will remain skeptical about getting involved.

Changing Tides

As the industry continues to evolve and expand, more regulation will be useful in terms of establishing dominant narratives to help redefine how cannabis appears in the popular imagination and what kind of clientele is attracted to cannabis products. But by redefining the acceptable standards of advertising, there is also a risk that cannabis will lose some of the intrigue and novelty that currently makes it a popular, trending topic.

Still, if rebranding campaigns can shift the story so that cannabis appeals to the masses, then everyone in the cannabis industry ultimately benefits.

Leaders in Extraction & Manufacturing: Part 5

By Aaron Green
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Cannabis extraction and manufacturing is big business in California with companies expanding brands into additional states as they grow. This is the fifth and final article in a series where we interview leaders in the California extraction and manufacturing industry from some of the biggest and most well-known brands.

In this week’s article, we talk with Kristen Suchanec, VP of Production at Island. Kristen converted her experience in traditional consumer packaged goods to cannabis to help create a brand that is sought after by many. The interview with Kristen was conducted on August 21, 2020.

Aaron Green: Good afternoon Kristen, I am glad we were able to put this interview together. I know you have been very busy!

Kristen Suchanec: I’m so sorry this took so long to actually work! Thank you for bearing with me. I’m happy we are able to talk.

Aaron: Great! I like to start off the conversation with a question that helps our readers get to know you a little better. So, Kristen can you tell me how you got involved at Island?

Kristen Suchanec, VP of Production at Island

Kristen: My background is in manufacturing and planning for consumer packaged goods. I had a friend of a friend and we were just at a happy hour and I asked what he was up to. He was actually our VP of Finance at Island and he handed me a box of pre-rolled joints. They were our Island Minis and I thought it was a great customer experience. I loved the brand and packaging which made it a consumer product versus, you know, this was a few years back where cannabis wasn’t necessarily commoditized or branded. I got really excited about that because I feel like cannabis should be traditional CPG and it should appeal to different people and it should have different brands that appeal to those different groups. So I literally just started a conversation. His brother is our founder and CEO and they needed someone to run production so that was my background and it all kind of lined up and I ended up being employee number five at Island!

Aaron: Wow, employee number five – awesome! OK, great. That is some nice background about how you got involved at the company. The next questions get into product development and manufacturing. The first question is: what’s your decision process for starting a new product?

Kristen: Yea, we are right now owning the lane between cultivation and distribution. So, getting those raw materials for whether it be concentrates or flower and then converting them into that final packaging for everything. So that is what we focus on and spend all of our time with automation and trying to make that process as efficient as possible.

When we’re looking at a new product we’re not necessarily creating a new extraction, we are really looking at the market and the end consumer and what people want. At Island we’ve really focused on vape, pre-roll and packaged flower. Those are the three categories we are working on right now. We are expanding and looking to move more towards vape and live resins and specialty concentrated products that we haven’t really had in our portfolio before. What we would like to do is make sure we have the capability to manufacture that and then take a look at where we think the market is going. We are trying to go in the flower, pre-roll and vape because that is where we spent so much of our time getting pieces of automation so not everything we are bringing in house is manual.

Aaron: Now when you say the capability to manufacture that are you talking about from a packaging perspective or…?

Kristen: Yes, so we won’t do any extraction on site. It’s getting distillate, shatter and flower and then we take that and convert that either into pre-rolled joint, a package of flower or any other final product. So, we are looking at automating that packaging piece.

Aaron: Got it. OK, so the next question — and I think you kind of touched on this as well — are you involved in manufacturing to the extent that you are manufacturing the packaging?

Kristen: Yes absolutely. My whole team’s manufacturing is based out of Oakland. That’s where we do all the conversion of products. I oversee that entire team and have been really involved in a lot of the equipment that we have sourced and iterations that we’ve gone through to make sure that we’re able to automate as much as possible. We’ve really focused on the issue of weighing the material. For our flower line everything is weighed and put into a jar, capped, sealed and labeled for it to come off our lines. We don’t have anyone in packing or anything like that. Our pre-rolls manufacturing is an automated machine where it actually weighs the flower before going into the cone so we’re not having to weigh after the fact and take into account the weight of the cone because that’s so variable so we know that the customer is getting consistency. Then for the vapes, it’ssame thing – the volumetric doses everything.

I have to give my credit to everyone on the floor who is doing the day to day, they find so many new solutions since they are the ones that are hands on.  I am really involved in what new equipment we need, what problems we are looking to solve and what’s causing our bottlenecks so we can continue to improve our process week over week and year over year.

Aaron: We’ll dig into some of those problems in a bit. What is your process for not just starting new product but for developing a new product?

Kristen: Yeah, absolutely. So, I think it’s really interesting to see where the market is going. What’s selling really well and especially over the past year pre rolls have been a huge growth platform for us. And especially now, we’ve seen some changes because of COVID as well. We have single joints. But then we have our Minis, which I’ve mentioned before, which are half gram joints. We’re seeing sales on those actually increased because I think people are sharing joints as people want individual things because of this pandemic.

When we go through this process, we’re really – again – we’re so focused on what the consumer wants, and what we think is going to add to our portfolio. Then when marketing and our product team comes to me, we really focus on our machinery, what we can do with it currently, and if we would need something additional. So,we’re excited about expanding into 510s right now. We’re looking at how we can automate the process of capping – we can fill right now, but not cap. And then we also take a look at packaging.

I think it’s a little different than creating like a whole new product, extraction or anything like that, but we were looking at more sustainable options for packaging for child resistance because we’re trying to move away from barrier bags as much as possible. We’re looking at, okay, how many stickers do we need to put on there? What is the labor time going into each piece of product? And again, how are we eventually going to get some consistency across product lines, etc.

So, it’s really taking all three of those components, making sure we’re getting out the customer that feels like they want. I’m having it either fit into our process or again, then go through and look at what automations meanand automation equipment investment you want to make for long term future investments.

Aaron: Are you developing new products internally, or are you relying on outside manufacturers for that?

Kristen: Not everything we do is internal. We have a big network of, you know, cultivators and extractors we work with, but we’re in the midst of getting our own cultivation and manufacturing in house by working with other companies. So with that we’re doing everything.

Aaron: Do you ever bring in external product development consultants for helping out with your processes?

Kristen: No, we don’t bring in consultants. But we have brought in another brand into our fold via a brand called Neutron Genetics. That is part of our overall portfolio. We work very closely with the founder because he has a lot of trade secrets, a lot of his own processes to make sure you’re getting the best product for that specific brand.

Aaron: In your product development, what does getting stuck look like to you?

Kristen: That’s a good question. I think one of the biggest challenges is working with the plant itself, because it’s not consistent and it’s not homogenous. You could get the same strain from the same cultivator, but it’ll be a different batch. It might be a little stickier or a little larger, etc. When you’re looking at traditional manufacturing and automation, you want consistency, homogenized liquids, same viscosity every time, and we don’t have that because the plant itself is natural and is going to have all these different expressions depending on the batch and how it was grown and how it was trimmed even.“I think it’s really the proper equipment, the proper training and then, again, continuing to evolve as a team.”

So, getting stuck means finding an off-the-shelf solution that might work for, you know, nuts and bolts or some kind of food production and then you’re going to have to convert it to actually work with the cannabis plant. So that’s what makes it so challenging, but also really exciting. In the bud, humidity and air can really throw off a manufacturing process which is really different than just doing beverages for example.

Getting stuck means really having to work with the plant concentrates specifically if you think about just the nature of those whether it be shatter, distillate or very sticky product. So again, working with machinery isn’t always what goes hand in hand. So, getting stuck is dealing with all those different formats and inconsistency using the same product day after day.

Aaron: It sounds like consistency is kind of a main topic here?

Kristen: Yeah, I think it depends on what product format we have. For example, about a year ago, we launched infused pre-rolls for Neutron where we’re putting flower, kief and shatter into a joint. So that’s going to perform differently on a piece of machinery than just straight flower.

I think it all depends on the product. Usually it happens when it’s in that machine, you’re trying to get a good flow and a good consistency. You want to have time studies, you know how long it takes to make each batch. But if a certain flower mix is performing differently, it’s getting the settings of the machine dialed, right? It’s also properly training personnel so people know how to react when things get going. Sometimes things get physically stuck in the machine as well, so to be able to react on that.

I think it’s really the proper equipment, the proper training and then, again, continuing to evolve as a team. So for our pre-roll machine, we are now on our third version of it, just because we kept running into the same roadblocks and I’m hoping that continues to evolve and we just continue to get better equipment year after year.

Aaron: I see, do you ever hire outside consultants when you do get stuck?

Kristen: We’ve worked closely with vendors. I will say that we’re not a machine shop or engineering firm. So we’re not the ones creating a lot of what we use on the floor. We’ve partnered with various vendors, which has been helpful, but we haven’t used external consultants.“When you see the huge potential and then see how much is taken out from illegal activity right now, it is frustrating to see.”

Aaron: Okay, now imagine that you have a magic wand and somebody can come in and help you. What does your magic helper look like?

Kristen: I could probably make a really long list if I’m focusing on just my manufacturing and everything! I think the next thing which we’re already thinking about that magic wand is how to get a perfectly rolled joint without having so much manual human touch to it. And like I said, we’ve really attached to that weighing problem. And we’ve seen solutions out there that you know, claim to twist and have that “perfect roll” and you don’t need to even touch it. But I think the biggest challenge there is it depends how well it’s packed. You know, you don’t want it too tight. You don’t want it too loose for that customer experience. So getting that quality, if I could wave a magic wand where I’m putting in, you know, paper on one side and out comes perfectly rolled joints, that would be my magic wand for sure. Okay, I think there’s a lot of solutions out there but to get that quality and that consumer experience that we want, I haven’t seen working practice yet.

Aaron: Okay, What’s the what’s the most frustrating thing you’re going through with the business right now?

Kristen: Again, that could be a long list! I think from a more macro-level, it’s definitely the competition with the illicit market and just how there’s not enough outlets for legal cannabis right now in the state of California. When you see the huge potential and then see how much is taken out from illegal activity right now, it is frustrating to see. We’re going to get this growth and projection of the right number of dispensary licenses and things like that are definitely a huge frustration as well as with the tax structure right now because it’s obviously contributing to people going to the illicit market.

Aaron: So what are you following in the market? And what do you want to learn more about?

Kristen: Yeah, I think that’s a great question. I think the thing I’m most excited about for the larger population isjust more research to come out about the actual attributes of the plant, or how different cannabinoids react together and can have different effects. How terpenes can affect the high, how things can be used and distantly, recreationally, etc. And really, hopefully evolve and move away from strictly some sativa, hybrid,indica classifications, and really be able to educate the consumer more about the plant so people can have a more a personal relationship to understand how cannabinoids or specific terpenes are going to give them a different effect. And again, I think that’s so interesting because it could be used for therapeutic reasons that people do consume cannabis or it could just make it a better experience for people who want to take this as an escape or a way to relax and everything. So I’m really excited because more research is going to be able to get done and we can really learn more about how all of these things interact in the body and then people can take it to a whole new experience and be more educated all around.

Aaron: Alright that’s the end of the interview Kristen! Nice chatting and meeting you!

Kristen: Alright, thanks Aaron!

Accelerate Your Business Growth with Great Product Packaging

By Ashlee Brayfield
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The cannabis industry is booming. Just the medical segment of the industry is expected to generate $22 billion in the next four years.

Today, 36 of the 50 states allow patients to use medical cannabis with a prescription. But there’s a lot of competition in the cannabis industry. To succeed, you must stand out from the rest with custom branded packaging for your cannabis and CBD offerings.

In fact, some of the most successful companies in the industry have built multi-billion dollar businesses based on a strong brand identity, including compelling packaging design for their cannabis and CBD products.

Here’s what you should keep in mind when designing packaging for your cannabis or CBD products:

Cannabis packaging should attract your target customers

Compelling and high-quality product packaging plays a big role in a customer choosing one cannabis or CBD product over another.

But, before you can create packaging solutions for your cannabis and CBD products, you must understand your target market, your prospective customers and the experience you want to promote.

Here are a few customer profiles for you to consider:

Luxury cannabis and CBD customers

A product is considered a luxury when the brand status is elevated in the eyes of the customer.

Luxury clients expect top quality products and packaging. And, as far as most customers are concerned, if a product is perceived as better than others – it is.

To aid in this perception, packaging options for premium products should be high quality, clean and minimal or luxe, and over-the-top.

Just some of the many CBD products on the market today.

And, the packaging should always deliver on the implied promises defined by the manufacturer or dispensary. In fact, if you want to start a cannabis dispensary, you should be thinking about the overall experience for your customers and how the products and packaging offered in your dispensary will stand out from others.

When designing packaging options for customers looking for luxury cannabis and CBD products, be sure to consider:

  1. Quality: Luxury consumers expect high-value, designer packaging that functions impeccably.
  2. Sense: Luxury product packaging should provide a heightened, tactile user-experience.
  3. Taste: Luxury product packaging should forgo the typical stereotypes associated with cannabis.

Millennial cannabis and CBD customers

Millennials are drawn to authenticity. They’re burnt out on traditional advertising, coercive marketing and carefully cultivated facades.

But they’re open to trendy design, and unique product uses and experiences. And, they’re generally receptive to following celebrity and influencer endorsements from people they perceive to have values that align with their own.

When designing packaging for Millennials, be sure to consider:

  1. Simplicity: Minimal, unadorned custom branded packaging appears authentic and trustworthy. This type of packaging represents the product within, without frills or facades.
  2. Sustainability: Millennials tend to value environmental consciousness. They value sustainable packaging that offers alternatives to plastics. You’ll get extra points if the packaging is made from renewable or plant-based materials.
  3. Limited Edition: Millennials want something not everyone can have. This is why scarcity marketing via special edition products is wildly popular.

Customers looking for relief

All medical cannabis customers have a medical need for cannabis and CBD products. A recent study found that approximately two-thirds of medical cannabis patients define chronic pain as their chief reason for treatment.

Patients looking for pain relief for medical issues will be drawn to custom branded packaging that promises what they desire, without making unsubstantiated health claims. So, an emphasis on the efficacy of your product and the relief they will enjoy will be very persuasive for that audience.

When designing packaging for customers looking for relief, be sure to consider:

  1. Medical symbols: Packaging design should make it clear that your product delivers health benefits. Some brands choose to do this through logos pairing cannabis leaves with medical symbols. But, with so many medical cannabis brands hitting the market, that concept will be quickly played out and overdone; making it hard for your brand to stand out. So, think of other ways you can convey your product’s medical value to set your brand apart.
  2. Text: Use clear, concise copy describing your product and its benefits. Pain relief should be a focal point of the package messaging.
  3. Simple design: Clean package graphics and labels with ample white space will ensure that consumers can read the product packaging and find the necessary information with ease.

Cannabis packaging should inform

The best custom branded packaging design successfully balances design and information. Custom packaging for any product must include basic product information on a custom printed label – preferably in a design that makes your product look appealing.

Effective packaging design can be simple

The overall design is an important element in the success of your products. As we emphasized in our guide on how to start a business, a strong brand identity is more important today than it has ever been.

But, medical cannabis packaging carries a heavier informational burden. Guidelines, which vary state by state, require that your packaging must include dosing information and instructions for safe use, as well as batch numbers and expiration details.

For reference, here is our handy content checklist for cannabis packaging. It is also important to be sure your packaging solutions meet state laws. If you already have packaging for your cannabis and CBD products but are struggling to increase sales, perhaps it’s time to consider rebranding your company and your packaging.

Cannabis packaging should protect the product

When choosing cannabis packaging materials, consider both appearance and function.

The best marketing and package graphics in the world won’t hold much value if the product inside isn’t properly protected.

Child-resistant packaging can look aesthetically pleasing with the right design

Keep the following protection guidelines in mind when developing your custom packaging:

  1. Proper seal: Packaging for products that are not single-use must be resealable and generally should be smell proof. Containers with lids, adhesive closures, ziplock packaging and boxes with interlocking closures are all options – which is right for your product?
  2. Child safety: Packaging must be difficult for children to open – it must be child-resistant (such as pop-top bottles that require some dexterity to open). Packages must adhere to the Poison Prevention Packaging Act.
  3. Tamper evident: Much like over-the-counter drugs, medical cannabis packaging must be designed in such a way that it is evident if the package has been tampered with.
  4. Sturdy materials: Select packaging that is sturdy enough to protect the product inside. Different products will present differing packaging requirements based on the level of protection they require.
  5. Edibles and beverages: States laws involving medical cannabis and consumable products are not created equal. In the states that do allow edibles and infused beverages, the packaging must be opaque.

With all products, it’s important to remember that the package is the first thing people will see. Great packaging design elevates your product and tells a story about who you are as a company.

But medical cannabis packaging must also work to build trust and confidence in the efficacy of your product. Use these strategies to create the best packaging for your product and cannabis customers will buy over and over again.

How to Name and Brand Your Cannabis Business

By Grant Polachek
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Once you have your product and your business model conceived in the legal cannabis industry, it’s time to brand your endeavor. Branding is what will differentiate your company from others in the same cannabis space. It’s a reflection of what you value and why customers should care about your company.

Build brand identity

When branding your cannabis business, the first place to start is defining your brand identity. Working off your original business plan, you need to determine what your company stands for and how this reflects the services or products you provide. Formalizing your brand will create a foundation for all of your marketing materials, collateral, imagery, packaging and design. This will allow you to better reach your target market and build customer loyalty in the competitive cannabis marketplace. Brand identity includes your company’s voice, tone, visuals, values, and mission. These core components work together to demonstrate how customers perceive your brand. It can help to personify your brand and illustrate its personality.

From healthcare to leisure, there are many emerging markets within the cannabis industry. It’s important to know the subtle differences between each type of cannabis business. Knowing your market will help define your identity.

Formulate the first impression

Your business name is your first impression on customers. Landing on a memorable name that speaks to your customers is a crucial decision that affects your bottom line. Reports have demonstrated that a strong name performs up to 33 percent better on the stock market than weaker names. These marginal advantages cannot be ignored in an industry that continues to ramp up. It’s important to select a name that will be both powerful and overcome any social stigma associated with the cannabis industry.The cannabis industry is fresh and innovative and so should your brand and name.

One of the first steps in this process is to review naming constructs. Most brands fit into one of five styles: classic, clever, pragmatic, emotional or modern. The style needs to reflect your brand’s tone and values. It should also appeal to your dedicated audience. Using what you produced about your cannabis company’s identity, you should begin the brainstorming process. You can utilize online tools such as a brand name generator to spark the brainstorm. Squadhelp’s generator is powerful in that it analyzes the accessibility, depth and functionality of each name idea.

Think creatively

The cannabis industry is fresh and innovative and so should your brand and name. Creative names are what customers respond to. It’s what will set you apart from the bland and sterile. Remember your name doesn’t solely have to describe your product or service. Your brand’s name should, however, evoke genuine emotion.

According to Motley Fool, here is a list of the 10 largest cannabis stocks in 2020:

  1. Canopy Growth
  2. GW Pharmaceuticals
  3. Curaleaf Holdings
  4. Cronos Group
  5. Aurora Cannabis
  6. Green Thumb Industries
  7. Tilray
  8. Aphria
  9. Trulieve Cannabis
  10. Harvest Health & Recreation

The majority of these names involve nomenclature and cannabis buzzwords. But they also include names completely unrelated to the industry, proving an original name can drive success.

Feedback is key

Love at first name is real. It’s easy to fall for a name relying heavily on personal preference. But that’s why audience testing is so important. Through proper audience testing, you can gauge whether your favorite name resonates with your key demographic or if there’s another name that better hits the mark. You may also discover that your name is actually offensive or politically incorrect, a fail you truly want to avoid in today’s cancel culture.

The company Bodega changed their name to Stockwell in 2018, after worldwide backlash to the tone-deaf name

One example of this was a startup called Bodega, a San Francisco company that specialized in tech-enabled vending machines. The founders believed the name was a nod to corner stores heavily established throughout New York’s boroughs. Instead, the company received extreme backlash for exploitation and cultural appropriation of these beloved mom and pop stores. In 2017, The Verge said that “Bodega is either the worst-named startup of the year, or the most devious.” Tapping into diverse audience surveys and polls provides valuable feedback to avoid catastrophic launches such as this.

Check for functionality

When you finally settle on a name you want to be sure that you’ve run through a final functionality checklist.

There are three main parts of functionality to review when naming your cannabis business:

  • Read to Speak – Can customers easily say the name aloud after reading it? Do they pronounce the name correctly?
  • Hear to Spell – Can someone easily spell your name after hearing it? Would they be able to Google search it after hearing it once or look your business up on social media?
  • Speak to Hear – Does your name pass the “crowded bar test”? Meaning, would somebody be able to clearly understand your brand name even if it was spoken in a crowded bar? Would whoever heard it be able to repeat the name back in the same situation?

A highly functional name are ones that are easily remembered and often referred to in conversations.

The time is now

The industry as a whole can be a complicated space to understand. Creative branding is an opportunity to educate potential customers about this novel industry as well as debunk myths. After all, two in three Americans support the legalization of recreational cannabis, according to a 2018 Gallup poll. This illustrates that there’s still a population that needs additional cultivation.

By following these steps, your impactful brand name will promote interest and stand out in an industry that shows no sign of slowing down.

7 Factors to Consider When Choosing Cannabis Software

By Ella Alpina
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These days, there are countless choices for cannabis operators when it comes to software. There are general tools like Trello, Airtable, Hubspot and Mailchimp. And then there is industry-specific software built just for cannabis operators.

The cannabis industry is fast-paced and highly regulated. So, there are certainly additional factors to consider in the search for software.

Because no two systems are exactly alike, it’s important to set up a decision-making framework in order to do a clean side by side comparison. Consider the following factors when evaluating software. Specifically, think about each one’s importance to the team and its ultimate goals.

1. Functionality

Functionality is the most important factor in the evaluation process. But, before the demos begin, take the time to identify the problems this new software should solve for the company.

Will it help you automate or optimize your processes or just offer basic features that won’t make a meaningful impact on the bottom line? (The whole point!)

2. Customer Support

For some, the level of customer support is an afterthought. The team that will use the software needs prompt, attentive support both during onboarding and after.

How does one evaluate the level of customer service a software company offers?

Questions like these will gather the info needed to make a decision:

  • How many support specialists are there vs how many total customers?
  • What’s the turnaround time for a support ticket?
  • Can I schedule one-on-one calls after the onboarding period?
  • Describe your onboarding process – how many sessions or hours do we get with your team?

Ideally, the software company takes support very seriously. Because if they don’t, here’s what happens: the team won’t use it or worse, costly mistakes will be made.

Another aspect seldom considered is the company’s industry expertise. Software vendors that stay up to date on changing regulations can provide much more value than those who don’t. Test their knowledge and see whether they would make a solid resource for you.

Software built for the cannabis industry is likely to provide this kind of support. Some industry-specific vendors, that provide cannabis cultivation software for instance, are able to answer their customers’ ongoing Metrc questions. They can become your right hand in solving compliance and, oftentimes, operational challenges.

3. Ease of Use

Always keep in mind who the end user will be. Is it someone who’s tech-driven or not at all?

The trick is to balance complexity with ease of use. If complexity is feared, there’s a risk for selecting software too simple. In this case, the value of automation and cost savings isn’t gained.

At the same time, it’s important to stay mindful of how complicated or difficult it will be for the team to adopt and use.

What does a typical day look like for employees and will the software be an approachable, useful tool for them?

4. Credibility

In a new, growing industry, there are many software vendors. How long have they been in business? Some have been around for years while others only months.

The last thing you want is for the software company to disappear off the face of the earth just when your team is on-boarded and trained. Also, beware of huge corporations that have turned their attention to the Green Rush and created a separate business unit just for cannabis. A lack of industry knowledge can be felt in the software application. If it’s being repurposed for our industry, chances are it won’t seamlessly work for our workflows.

Finally, ask what companies are currently using the software. Bonus points for recognizing any of them! It shows that established companies trust this vendor. In making the decision for which software to go with, this validation holds weight for many.  Before signing a contract and implementing the new software, make sure to read the fine print!

5. Cost vs Value

At the top of everyone’s mind is price. In these tumultuous times, we’re all worried about the bottom line.

That said, review a software company for the value it can bring to your cannabis business. How much labor time will the software save due to its automation and streamlining? Is it quantifiable?

Budgeting for a more expensive software might actually make sense if the value is there. Crunch the ROI, to the best of your abilities, to see the impact its set of features can make.

6. Enhancements

How quickly and how often does the software provider innovate its product? Ask the company for examples of how they’ve listened and addressed requests for changes or additions to their software.

Also ask what their road map looks like for the year. What new features and changes will they be making?

Without updates, software can quickly become outdated and irrelevant. A perfect solution today is not a perfect solution two years from now. Select a vendor who’s committed to regular improvements.

7. Exit Strategy

Before signing a contract and implementing the new software, make sure to read the fine print!

Some companies will try to lock in a multi-year contract. Beware of contracts that will charge for early termination if you change your mind down the road.

Get the fine print and ask for clear terms of the commitment. In a fast-paced industry like ours, priorities and needs change often. Contract lock-up is not optimal.

Custom Designed Packaging: Is it Right for Your Cannabis Product?

By Danielle Antos
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There are numerous plastic bottle and closure manufacturers in the cannabis industry today. And, there is a significant quantity of common bottle and closure styles as well. Many companies manufacture the same or similar products as their competition. But what if you’re searching for something different? Something unique that no one else has? A plastic bottle that will make your cannabis product stand out from your competition. Where can you find that package that is truly “something special?” Something that will elevate your brand?

It doesn’t matter if your cannabis business is a start-up in its infancy or a mature company with an established loyal customer following, creating attention-grabbing packaging is essential to your success. The packaging is the all-important and critical first impression. While the primary function of any packaging is to contain, protect and market your cannabis products, your packaging is a reflection of your company in the eyes of the consumer. In many ways, the package is the product. Using creative plastic packaging is a great way to differentiate your cannabis products from those of your competitors.

Finding the right manufacturing partner is the first step. Look for a company that has custom design capabilities and understands your vision for the perfect cannabis packaging.

When is Custom Bottle Design the Right Choice?

Sometimes, an off-the-shelf stock bottle and closure will work just fine. But if you are introducing a brand-new product that is unique to the industry, or if you are using a new product to introduce the fresh new look of your brand, it makes sense to develop plastic packaging that is distinct and eye-catching. You want your brand and products to look special and stand out on the shelf. There could also be filling equipment, regulatory, labelling, light sensitivity or other packaging requirements you must address as well.

Start every custom cannabis bottle project with a trusted manufacturer who thoroughly understands how you want the plastic packaging to look and the specifications it must meet. Ensuring that these qualitative and quantitative details are discussed will lead to on-time, on-budget and on-target custom cannabis packaging solution.

Achieving the Look You Want

Depending on your requirements, there could be several solutions to achieving the special look and specifications of your custom packaging. Discuss all of the design options that meet the needs of your product with your manufacturing partner; they should help you decide on the best direction for your packaging.

Selecting the right materials for your custom plastic bottle and closure is a big part of the process. Select materials that will provide the necessary aesthetics, chemical resistance, light transmission, bottle capacity and weight requirement that will protect your product.

Your manufacturer should also be able to guide you through the production process: should the bottle be blow molded or injection molded? Should it be made on IBM (Injection Blow Molding) equipment or EBM (Extruded Blow Molding) equipment? Answering these questions will ensure that the plastic bottle will be made efficiently and to the correct specifications.

Flawless Closure Integration for Your Cannabis Packaging

Designing the bottle is important, but you must also consider what type of closure will work best. Both items must be engineered to work seamlessly with each other. If the closure doesn’t work properly with the bottle, it can compromise the product it contains. Closures must always seal perfectly to ensure the integrity of the product inside. They must also be designed to function efficiently and meet the requirements of your filling operation.

A detailed CAD drawing should be provided, outlining every critical dimension of your HDPE or PET bottle and plastic closure. The CAD drawing provides the direction needed to create the manufacturing mold for your custom design. It also serves as a reference check to ensure that the product is produced according to your specs.

Ensure Quality through the Manufacturing Process

Ensure that your packaging partner has quality checks in place throughout the manufacturing process. Error detection systems, random sampling and testing will safeguard 100% conformity. It’s also important that manufacturers adhere to cGMP best practices and certifications under a globally recognized accredited program. This represents their commitment to continuously improving manufacturing processes and quality systems. It also helps minimize waste and manufacturing errors while increasing productivity. Risk of product contamination and other errors will be alleviated, and product efficacy and shelf life expectancy will be met.

Responsive Customer Service and Support

Many packaging manufacturers claim to provide exceptional customer service, but few actually rise up to that level. This is an important aspect of your project and you need to know that your questions will be answered and that your producer will keep you informed of any changes. Knowing that you can trust your supplier allows you to concentrate on other aspects of your business, like growth and profitability.

Reinforce Your Brand with Customized Packaging

In today’s competitive cannabis market, it’s more important than ever to have your product stand out from the competition. Your brand should help build awareness and develop consumer loyalty. When you deliver a consistently reinforced message, consumers will instantly recognize your brand. This consistency is a key factor in encouraging consumers to purchase your product over the competition — even when they want to try something new. Consistency makes your brand feel more dependable and people gravitate towards things they trust.

Your brand consists of more than just your logo and company name. Your brand identifies who you are, what your company stands for and the integrity of your product. Customized cannabis packaging will reinforce your brand and attract consumers to your products. Take time to find the right cannabis packaging partner who can help differentiate your brand and products from your competitors with special, eye-catching plastic packaging.

Thinking of Hiring a Cultivation Consultant? Here’s What You Can Expect

By David Perkins
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Hiring an experienced cultivation consultant is yet another cost, amongst the laundry list of never-ending expenses in the setup of a regulated, recreational grow. However, in the big picture it can actually save you a significant amount of time and money by providing you with the information you need to formulate a realistic budget, profitable cultivation site and a well-trained workforce. This article will explore just some of the many benefits a cultivation consultant can provide to your company.

An experienced consultant will have a vast array of knowledge to ensure the success of your company. One important area they can advise you on is budgeting. With years of experience cultivating, in both medical and recreational markets, an experienced consultant will have knowledge of not only start-up costs, but also hidden costs you must prepare for in advance. They will also be able to advise you on strategies to avoid future costs and problems. There may also be expenses in the build-out of your cultivation site you have not considered. For example, you may need a waste water treatment plan if you have any fertilizer run off that will flow to a sewage drain. It is important to know all possible costs when securing your investment or planning out your budget for the year.

Setting up a large-scale cultivation site in a regulated market can be extremely costly. Gone are the days of putting up a few lights in a closet; growing in a regulated market requires a larger scale, and therefore, larger costs and more complications. A consultant experienced in design and implementation of such large-scale, intricate cultivation plans will provide you with the knowledge you need to properly set-up and maintain your facility in order to ensure your company’s success. They will also know the tips and tricks to save you money along the way.

Something as simple as a centralized irrigation distribution zone can save you a lot of time and money.

A good consultant will be able to advise you on the design of your facility to ensure that the layout supports productivity, and that there is a proper workflow. It is important to hire a consultant before you get started with the build out of your facility, as it will be much more costly to have to correct mistakes in your design later on down the road. An experienced consultant will implement superior facilities layout and design to avoid future problems at the outset. Something as simple as a centralized irrigation distribution zone can save you a lot of time and money.

Once you have created the proper space, cultivation planning is important to avoid unnecessary problems from arising, which will ultimately delay profit. A well thought out cultivation plan will help you plan for success. A consultant will know what does and doesn’t work. For example, some equipment will run off an app on your phone; while convenient, there are some that don’t perform well which could end up costing the entire crop. These are things you want to know and work around, before you spend money unnecessarily.

An experienced consultant will have previously worked in various types and scales of cultivation sites, and from that experience will be able to teach you which processes and techniques work, and which ones don’t. Someone with less experience may believe that watering plants by hand would be an easy method to keep your garden irrigated, but it is actually the most time-consuming labor task (and therefore extremely costly), while an automated watering system can be very simple and cost-effective to install.

Some equipment will run off an app on your phone; while convenient, there are some that don’t perform well which could end up costing the entire crop

A skilled consultant can provide necessary training for your employees. Let’s face it, this is an entirely new industry, and therefore, most people applying for entry-level jobs at a cultivation site are unskilled. However, the best path to success when dealing with large-scale cannabis cultivation is to have skilled, happy employees. Educating and properly training your employees is essential. It helps to teach employees not only how to complete a task, but to help them understand why they are doing a given task. This will give your staff the skills and confidence they need to complete the task properly. Unskilled hands in your garden can jeopardize the success of your cultivation.

Don’t make the same mistakes others have made. Hiring a cultivation consultant can help you to avoiding problems before they occur. A professional consultant has the knowledge required to predict issues and problems before they occur, or implement a solution when corrective measures are necessary. Oftentimes issues can be avoided just by knowing the cause and effect of decisions and the potential outcomes they will have.

A cultivation consultant should also have a wide network of professional contacts to help you address any issues or problems that arise. Having a network of professionals to employ when necessary is critical for ensuring the success of every project. For example, wholesale contacts for cultivation equipment can help you not only to get the best price, but also ensure you are using the best equipment possible for your situation.

If you are still unsure about whether or not you need a cultivation consultant to help plan out your grow, or fix your grow if you’ve encountered problems, feel free to contact me to discuss your needs. I assure you there are ways I can save you money, improve your yields, and help your company be more successful in this ever-changing market.