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Leaders in Cannabis Formulations: Part 3 – RealSleep

By Aaron Green
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Sleep health is a large and growing global market. According to Statista, the global market value of the sleep market was $432B in 2019 with an expected CAGR of 6.3% from 2019 to 2024. Supplements are a growing category of popular sleep health products with common ingredients including melatonin, valerian root, and more recently cannabinoids such as CBD and CBN.

RealSleep is a cannabinoid formulation company developing personalized products to improve sleep outcomes. RealSleep’s product strategy has been developed by top scientists and sleep experts, and clinically tested to aid individuals seeking to fall asleep faster, sleep deeper and cut down on sleep disturbances. Their studies have shown that 90% of people taking RealSleep have reported experiencing better sleep immediately

We spoke with Michael Kamins, co-founder and partner of OpenNest Labs and RealSleep, about RealSleep’s innovation in personalized formulations for better sleep. Kamins founded RealSleep as an incubated company under OpenNest Labs, where he is also a founding partner. Michael is the Chief Community Officer of the Wholistic Research and Education Foundation, and just led the world’s largest study on CBD and general health with Wholistic and Radicle Science, where he is also an advisor. Prior to RealSleep, Michael worked in tech where he was an early employee at Musical.ly (now TikTok) building brand partnerships.

Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?

Michael Kamins, co-founder and partner of OpenNest Labs and RealSleep.

Michael Kamins: I got into the industry professionally about two and a half years ago, but my relationship with the plant goes back to high school. Prior to jumping into this space, I was working primarily in digital media. I was an early employee at Musical.ly, (eventually rebranded as TikTok), leading global music partnerships and growth. I helped grow that business by leveraging the social capital of music artists and celebrities and doing partnerships with record labels. At the end of 2018, I really saw the opportunity in the cannabis space. One of my best friends in Los Angeles, Dr. Jeff Chen, someone I did my MBA with at UCLA, became the founder and executive director of cannabis research at UCLA Medical. Seeing all the clinical research that he was doing and the objective health outcome data coming out of that research was really a huge inspiration to me. I saw a massive whitespace and opportunity to help build that bridge between the medical community and the cannabis marketplace. There’s been almost a century of cannabis prohibition setting back our scientific understanding of the plant. We know more about the rivers and plants in the Amazon than we do about the composition and compounds within the cannabis plant with regards to their wellness benefits.

I met my partners, Tyler Wakstein, Kris Bjornerud and Max Goldstein and we started a cannabis venture studio called OpenNest Labs, which is building out a diversified portfolio of cannabis consumer brands. We are focused on leveraging our collective experience at building ventures and communities and rallying those communities around a brand.

Over the last two and a half years, it’s been super exciting building brands that you see on shelves. We’re still in the early stages right now of building brand loyalty. A lot of cannabis consumers are still going into dispensaries and asking, “what is the cheapest product that I can buy with the highest potency?”

Green: Tell me about RealSleep, how did you come up with the idea and what is the basic concept for the end user?

Kamins: RealSleep comes from the passion that I had developed for medicinal aspects of the cannabis and hemp plant, thinking about not only THC and CBD – which are two major cannabinoids in the plant – but also thinking about the other 120 plus cannabinoids, each with their own unique properties.

It turns out that half the world’s population suffers from one poor night of sleep a week, and sleep issues lead to the highest rate of other comorbidities. We were thinking about the addressable sleep market, with ourselves being a part of that market, and wanting to build products that would help not only ourselves, but the countless other people around the world that suffer from poor sleep too, as it impacts their daily lives.

I’ve had issues with sleep myself. I have a genetic hearing condition called tinnitus. It’s a ringing in your ears that other people can experience environmentally from exposure to loud noises. I’ve had loud ringing in my ears my entire life even in quiet situations, like right before I go to sleep. I’ll often be lying in bed awake for an hour or two unable to sleep with the ringing. Everyone else on the team has had their own sleep issues and realized the profound negative impact of lack of sleep on other areas of health and wellness, whether it be next day energy or immunity.

We felt that by leveraging our access to the medical research community and even running clinical research on our own to validate the efficacy of the product relative to other products on the shelves, we could create a product that was safe and effective. We came across a clinical trial on insomnia and CBD by one of our research partners, the Wholistic Research and Education Foundation. What we saw from a lot of that anecdotal data was that CBD, and hemp in general, really helps to provide restful and restorative sleep.

CBD and CBN are two highly effective compounds for sleep and melatonin is by far the most widely researched and used over the counter sleep aid. We are sourcing clinical research on other ingredients such as valerian root, L-Theanine and GABA, and the list of ingredients goes on. We were interested in formulating a product that incorporates these safe and effective ingredients.

We noticed from our research and our access that sleep is as unique to an individual as their fingerprint. Take brainwave patterns when you are sleeping as an example. No one person’s patterns are the same. You could essentially identify an individual based on those patterns. One solution, or one product, is not going to help everyone. So, we worked with UCLA and the head of their laboratory of sleep and circadian medicine, a gentleman by the name of Dr. Chris Colwell, to understand the science of sleep. He is one of the most renowned sleep researchers in the world and is the head of our scientific advisory board for RealSleep. We’ve done clinical studies with over 900 people and 10,200 nights of sleep and used this data to develop a personalization engine in the form of a quiz that takes 90 seconds and allows us to map ingredients to specific answer selections. From these answers we deliver products that are customized to the individual consumer specific to their unique needs

We’re proud of the journey that we’ve gone on to understand the science and research behind sleep and to develop this personalization engine variations of products that work for each individual and their unique needs.

Green: Tell me how the questionnaire and personalization engine works. I understand the ingredient profile will change based on the customer’s responses?

Kamins: Sleep impacts an individual’s general health and wellness. For me, if I don’t sleep well, my next day is filled with anxiety, and that anxiety leads to worse sleep; it’s a vicious cycle. For other people, it could be a metabolic issue that leads to poor sleep or poor sleep that leads to weight issues. The list of other health issues and diseases linked to poor sleep goes on. So, while we’re looking at combating sleep to prevent other health issues down the road, one person who’s looking to get better sleep to improve one aspect of their life could be different from another person and the area of life they are looking to improve upon.

The quiz is essentially a combination of validated, reliable and flexible measures of patient reported outcomes. We use a combination of gold standard patient reported sleep questionnaires, one of which is called the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index, another being the RAND MOS scale, and others. We also work with our scientific advisory board and machine learning experts to advise us on customizing these questions with logic. We then use the responses to generate the appropriate formulations for our customers.

The questions cover everything from very specific questions on sleep, like sleep latency (the time it takes to get the bed) or sleep fragmentation (the number of times you wake up in the middle of the night) sleep duration, sleep quality, and then other areas of health that you’re looking to improve upon. Examples include metabolism, cardiovascular health, skin health, anxiety and stress. So, all these things factor into the different ingredients that we layer into the formulation.

Let’s say you don’t have a problem getting to sleep, but you wake up a lot of times in the middle of the night. Your formulation might be very different from someone who has trouble getting to sleep, but they don’t wake up in the middle of the night. Overall, one of our big goals with the formulation of all these products is that they increase your next day cognitive alertness by giving you that high sleep quality and restorative sleep. We don’t want to make anyone groggy the next day. Because overall, what you’re trying to achieve with sleep is you want to be ready to go the next day and be able to perform at your peak.

Green: So, you mentioned CBD, CBN and melatonin already as ingredients. Are there any other ingredients?

Kamins: Depending on what your answer selections are for the quiz, we will layer in L-Theanine, valerian root, Ashwagandha and even some of the other novel cannabinoids like CBC (cannabichromene). We have about 24 different ingredients that we can layer in, so it just depends. When you look at all the permutations and combinations of formulations and dosages, it’s in the trillions. From a supply chain standpoint, we’ve simplified it in a way that makes it very easy to funnel people into one of many predefined combinations of ingredients and dosage levels.

Our algorithm is an unstructured machine learning algorithm. The more people that take the quiz and the more people that provide feedback on their sleep score makes our programming and our personalization engine smarter.

Green: How does your manufacturing and packaging work?

Kamins: We have a strong relationship with a pharmaceutical partner that we have been growing even before RealSleep. It is a pharmaceutical manufacturing facility underneath a regional health care provider in the state of California. Everything they do is incredible. It’s a state-of-the-art facility and focused on complete transparency and building the products with the highest efficacy and safety profiles. They’re based in LA, and they’ve been such a pleasure to build our supply chain with.

Green: What kind of trends are you looking at in the formulation space?

Kamins: From a cannabinoid side, there’s been a bit more of a look towards some of the novel cannabinoids that have traditionally catered to a niche consumer base that is educated on cannabis. From being inside the industry, it’s very easy for me to talk about all the different cannabinoids, but a lot of people still don’t even know the difference between THC and CBD.

Our goal overall is to build efficacious products and educate people on all the different formulations and the different ingredients going in. Outside of cannabis, this year we’ve seen a large boom in consumer demand for Ashwagandha. There’s just so much hype around it in terms of how it impacts stress and energy and even libido, which is interesting. It’s probably the hottest non-cannabinoid ingredient that we’ve seen. Specific to sleep, the combination of L-Theanine and GABA and how they potentiate each other is impactful. Then there’s valerian root, which has been a big one over the last few years for sleep.

Green: Last question. What are you most interested in learning about?

Kamins: A personal interest of mine over the last few years is understanding from a scientific perspective, each of the cannabis compounds in greater detail. I think part of it is just really the curiosity to know the unknown. We’re at a point in the industry where there are still so many unknowns on the science-side of cannabinoids.

My passion for science has led me to support medical researchers in the space, so much so that I am an advisor and chief community officer to a nonprofit medical research organization called the Wholistic Research and Education Foundation, which to date has funded over six and a half million dollars in human clinical trials with cannabinoid rich therapeutics. One we’re currently conducting at UC San Diego is studying the impact of CBD on autism and other neurological conditions. That’s given me incredible exposure to research in the space. I am also a strategic advisor to a for profit medical research organization called Radicle Science, which is a very swiftly running clinical research for CBD and other cannabis brands in the space.

All in all, I’m driven by the possibilities that come with continuing to unlock the science behind the plant. By doing so, we can innovate products with efficacy and can educate people who are uninformed about the therapeutic benefits of cannabis, which will in turn benefit the industry and society. Striving for research breakthroughs and being transparent about our findings is going to help us destigmatize cannabis and legitimize the industry. 

Green: That concludes the interview. Thanks, Michael!

Kamins: Thanks, Aaron.

Flower-Side Chats Part 7: A Q&A with Max Goldstein, CEO of Union Electric and Founding Partner at OpenNest Labs

By Aaron Green
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In this “Flower-Side Chats” series of articles, Green interviews integrated cannabis companies and flower brands that are bringing unique business models to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses integrate innovative practices in order to navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulations, supply chain and consumer demand.

The California legal flower market is the largest in North America. According to recent BDSA data, monthly cannabis sales in January 2021 were $243.5 million. Flower sales represented 35.6% of overall sales, or about $87 million, representing a $1 billion yearly run rate for 2021 flower sales in California.

Union Electric was founded in California in 2020 as one of OpenNest Labs’ first incubator brands. Its model is uniquely asset-light, and focused on filling an area of opportunity with a consumer-first approach, aimed at an underserved market: the working-class customer. The name Union Electric was inspired by the punching-in and punching-out aspect of working a union job — more specifically, the average cannabis user’s job. The name also represents the brand’s union of stakeholders: Customers, cultivators and retailers alike, working together to provide affordable, quality products.

Max Goldstein is the CEO of Union Electric and Founding Partner at OpenNest Labs. Max incubated Union Electric at OpenNest Labs, a cannabis venture studio he helped co-found, and launched the brand in 2020 the day after COVID lockdowns began in California. Prior to Union Electric, Max worked at Google managing a 90 person, 12-market partnerships team.

Aaron Green: How did you get into the cannabis industry?

Max Goldstein: I’ve had a fun entrepreneurial and professional journey.  I started my career in my 20s with Google working in the marketing department sitting at the intersection of new product development and customers. During that time, I really learned the ins and outs of bringing products to market and building brands. I had to understand how to value and champion the customer, or the user. At Google, I was sitting at the intersection of people building products that are affecting billions of people’s lives and users and customers that potentially have really cool insights and feedback. It was an incredible learning experience. I was able to focus on what I’m good at, which is that early stage of businesses and most importantly, listening to the consumer and developing products and services that they ultimately really want.

Max Goldstein, CEO of Union Electric and Founding Partner at OpenNest Labs

Near the end of 2018, I co-founded OpenNest Labs, a cannabis venture studio. We came together as a four-person partnership to form OpenNest, as an assortment of skill sets, with all of us contributing an area of focus that we could really combine our experiences to take focused and concerted efforts at building brands that resonate with different consumers across various form factors in cannabis and health. My partner Tyler Wakstein has been in the cannabis industry for several years and helped launch the brand, hmbldt (which is now Dosist) and a number of other projects in the cannabis space.

Green: Was Union Electric an incubation project out of OpenNest?

Goldstein: Yes. Union Electric is the first project we incubated out of OpenNest. We launched the day after the pandemic. So, it was interesting timing.

At Union Electric we’re focused on the core, everyday consumer of cannabis. I think a lot of folks, particularly the new money that have come into the industry, have often focused on new form factors or things that they think the new cannabis consumer is going to enjoy or appreciate. Because quite frankly, that’s their level of familiarity with the industry. For us at Union Electric, we want to hit the end of the market with exactly what they want and that is high-potency, affordable flower with a brand that really stands for something and has values.

Union Electric is positioned as an advocate for the legal cannabis industry as a whole. We look at the stakeholders and the work that needs to be done across the board. The idea of just being one member of the value chain and not trying to ultimately uplift and elevate everyone in that value chain, it’s just not going to work in cannabis. We’ve seen a lot of people trying to go at this alone and I think the pandemic, if anything, showed that you’re only as good as your partners. We truly believe that the investment in our partners, in the local communities and everyone that’s really touching this industry is critical to ultimately building success for one company because a rising tide raises all ships.

Green: How did you settle on the name Union Electric?

Goldstein: One of the things that we wanted to do was focus the brand on who we see as the core consumer, which is somebody that is working hard, like a shift worker punching in and punching out and putting in the long hours on a daily basis and using cannabis as a critical part of their personal wellness and relief. There are elements of that which we certainly want to tap into. The “Union” represents our stakeholder approach, which is, all of us are in this together and our tagline “roll together” represents that. The “Electric” part is what we’ve seen cannabis sort of representing culturally, and for people more broadly. This is an exciting product that’s going to change a lot of people’s lives and, and I just don’t think there’s anything else in our lifetimes that we’re necessarily going to be able to work on from a consumer-packaged goods perspective, that’s going to change as many people’s lives. It’s electric. That’s how we came up with the name.

The coloring and a lot of the brand elements that we focused on were about providing transparency and simplicity to the marketplace: big font and bold colors. There are little nuances with our packaging, like providing a window just so people can see the flower on our bags. We look at the details and made sure that we’re ultimately out of the way of the consumer and what they want, but providing that vehicle that they’re really comfortable with.

Green: You have an asset-light business model, focusing on brand and partnerships. How did you come to that model?

Goldstein: I think everyone who’s operating and working in cannabis right now is looking at strategy and what the model is that’s going to work for them. We’re ultimately going to find out what works, which is why this industry is so fun and exciting. Our specific approach is really under the assumption that vertical integration in a market that’s maturing as quickly as California is going to be hard, if not impossible – it’s just too competitive. There are too many things going on in order to be successful in California. You have to be really good at cultivation, really good at manufacturing, really good at distribution, and then ultimately, you have to be able to tell a story of that process to ensure sell-through and that you really resonate with the consumer.

I think the big, missed opportunities that we’re seeing are that a lot of great cultivators are not marketers or storytellers. They really do need people that are there to help amplify and provide transparency to their stories. There are amazing stories out there of sacrifice and what cultivators have done to create a new strain. We all enjoy Gelato. What’s the process to make that happen or to create any other new strain? It’s fascinating. It’s too hard for a lot of these cultivators to go out and tell that story themselves. So, we act as a sales and marketing layer on top of the supply chain to provide visibility, transparency and trust with the consumer so that they know who grew their product, how it was grown, when it was cultivated and that they can build a real strong relationship with that cultivator as well.

It’s also hard to be a brand that’s using 19 different suppliers, selling the same genetics and expecting the same results. As an example, we’ve gotten Fatso from one of our partners, Natura. We’ve also gotten Fatso from Kind Op Corp (fka POSIBL). We renamed one of the strains – by adding a number on the end – just so that the consumer knew that we’re not saying that this is the same product, because it’s not. It’s from a different farmer and there’s going to be differences. While it does create a little bit more complexity for the consumer, we ultimately believe that every consumer has a right and will expect to know that type of information in the future.

Green: You launched Union Electric one day after the COVID lockdowns began in California. How did you navigate that landscape?

OpenNest Labs Logo

Goldstein: A lot of praying to the cannabis gods! It was really an incredibly challenging and difficult time. We were all concerned about the impacts of the virus. There were moments where we didn’t even know if dispensaries would be open, particularly in states that just legalized. You went from something being completely illegal to an essential business in 12 months. As a team, we were just trying to hold on to our hats and focus on product and partnerships.

Fortunately, with a brand like ours and the price point that we’re operating at, we just needed to consistently be on the shelves and available, and to be present with the bud tenders. So, we focused on that and shoring up our supply chain and just trying to wait it out. COVID forced a lot of cannabis companies to make a lot of decisions quickly and I think in some ways, because we have not been in the market for 24 months under one paradigm, we were pretty quick to be able to adjust and keep the team super lean to fit the emerging and rapidly changing environment. We learned a lot. We focused on partnerships and we leaned into the model that we set out to build which is being asset-light and focusing on the sell-through.

Green: I understand you have a 2% giveback program. Tell me about that.

Goldstein: The 2% giveback program was something that we wanted to put on the bag from day one. It’s on every bag that we made and put out into the market. We’ve seen a lot of cannabis companies come in and invest tens and hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure. Then, month 24 they realize “oh, crap, I gotta figure out what I’m going to do to get back and actually tap into the issues that are most important to cannabis consumers.” These are issues like social equity, equitable development of the industry, and ensuring that cannabis companies and its owners are active, responsible members of society.

What we’re going to focus on with our giveback program is working with our supply chain partners. We highlight the local communities, because when you look at the landscape in California, two thirds of its municipalities still don’t allow cannabis operations. We’re in a heart and minds battle still, even here in California, just proving that the operators here are not criminals and that they’re not going to bring negativity to local communities.

As we scale in California and scale to other states, the giveback program for us is a platform and a medium to work with our supply chain partners to make sure that we’re giving back and investing every step of the way. As founders and operators, it’s how we show that we are being mindful of the importance of equitable development of the industry. Ultimately, prosperity is going to come if everyone is getting a piece of the pie.

Green: What are you most interested in learning about?

Goldstein: I’m a student of history (I was a history major) and I was very fortunate to be part of a big evolution of technology development starting in 2011 working at Google and other tech companies. In some ways, this is the second generational industry that I’ve been a part of, and I have a lot of regrets about how the first one developed – not that I necessarily was the chief decision maker. The idea that large tech companies would always act responsibly (i.e. “Don’t be evil”) didn’t really pan out. I think it was an ignorant thought process as a person in my young 20s.

What I’m most interested in learning is: Can the cannabis industry develop consciously? Can you keep the greed and the things that bring industries down at bay? How can I, as an operator, be the best facilitator of that future? I’m always thinking how I can continue to bring in the people around us and around me as the CEO of Union Electric to ensure that we’re always focused on that.

Green: Great, that concludes the interview. Thank you, Max.

Goldstein: Thanks Aaron. 

From Union Electric: Union Electric Cannabis will be offering their first Regulation CF crowdfund raise in an effort to give everyday consumers a stake in one of California’s fast growing cannabis brands. Due to the ever-evolving legal status of cannabis in the US, there have been very few opportunities for individuals to invest early on in American cannabis brands. This decision to give everyday cannabis smokers access to investing in their favorite cannabis brand (for as little as $100) is a natural manifestation of Union Electric’s mission: Collective power and championing accessibility for the plant. You can learn more about their raise by visiting https://republic.co/union-electric

A Q&A with Rob Sechrist, President of Pelorus Equity Group and Manager of the Pelorus Fund

By Aaron Green
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The cannabis industry in the United States represents about a $50 billion asset class making it one of the largest new asset classes in the country. Commercial real estate lending is a key enabler for companies seeking to expand and scale. Pelorus Equity Group is one of the largest commercial lenders in cannabis with over $170 million deployed since its first cannabis transaction in 2016.

Since 1991, Pelorus principals have participated in more than $1 billion of real estate investment transactions using both debt and equity solutions. Pelorus offers a range of transactional solutions addressing the diverse needs of cannabis related business operators. While most cannabis private equity lenders focus on real estate acquisition and refinancing, Pelorus has leveraged its experience in more than 5,000 transactions of varying size and complexity to offer value-add loans, a rarity in the industry.

We spoke with Rob Sechrist, president of Pelorus Equity Group and manager of the Pelorus Fund. Rob joined Pelorus in 2010 after several years in the California real estate market. In 2018, Pelorus launched the Pelorus Fund where Rob is currently the manager. The Fund converted to an REIT in 2020.

Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?

Rob Sechrist: Pelorus is a value-add bridge lender. We’ve been lending for a long time, originally in the non-cannabis space. We’ve done 5000 transactions for over a billion dollars – more than a lot of banks.

In 2014, our local congressman Dana Rohrabacher passed the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment that defunded the Department of Justice from prosecuting any cannabis related business in a medically licensed state. We were a supporter of that legislation and once that passed, we took a serious look at utilizing our expertise in being a value-add lender and applying it to the largest asset class of real estate that is newly coming about today. That cannabis related asset class is about $50 billion.

Rob Sechrist, president of Pelorus Equity Group and manager of the Pelorus Fund

We decided that we had the expertise to move into this space and to build these facilities out for our borrowers so that the cannabis use tenants would have a fully stabilized facility and make it operate. After the amendment passed in 2014, by 2016 we had originated our first transaction. Since that time, we’ve originated 51 transactions in the cannabis space for over $177 million so far. It wasn’t that big of a pivot when you’re just providing the value-add loan.

“Value-add” in the loan business means that a portion of the loan amount, let’s just say is a million dollars, maybe 250,000 of that, is a pre-approved budget to go back into the property. In cannabis property those are typically tenant improvements and/or equipment to fully stabilize that tenant. So, we’re the first fully dedicated lender in the nation exclusively to cannabis and we’ve done more transactions than anybody else in the nation.

Green: What are some challenges of cannabis lending compared to traditional lending?

Sechrist: The number one challenge in cannabis is that you must disclose to your investors that you’re originating the loans to cannabis use tenants. Many people have concerns that lending indirectly might be federally illegal. If you did not disclose that to your investors when you form that capital stack to fund these transactions, you’re going to run into issues. So, you would need to create a vehicle where you disclose to your investors that you’re intending to lend into cannabis and it’s still federally illegal. Doing one-off stand-alone transactions deal by deal is not sustainable if you’re going to be a large lender.

There are other challenges. Because cannabis is still federally illegal, it gives insurers and other third parties the ability to deny a claim, or certain lender protections. Some examples include errors and omissions insurance, title insurance, property insurance, etc. and all of them say in those policies that if you’re doing something federally illegal, then the policy is null and void. So, you must think your way through very carefully all the things that could potentially be an issue. You also have to disclose to those third parties and find a way to get them to acknowledge it to make sure you have the coverage if you ever have to make a claim. That’s a very difficult process.

Green: How has the investor profile in cannabis lending changed over time?

Sechrist: Our fund was structured to allow for institutional capital from the inception. We were able to do that because we are completely non-plant touching. Our fund only lends to the owners of commercial real estate. We do not lend to any cannabis licensed operator directly whatsoever. Our borrowers – the owners of the properties – would then have a lease agreement with the cannabis use tenant. Even if it’s an owner-operator, those are separate entities. That’s how we’ve distinguished ourselves.

Pelorus Equity Group, Inc. Logo

Regarding the investor profile, the first $100 million plus we raised was primarily from retail investors who were individuals writing checks up to a million dollars. Once we had three years of audited track record and our fund was $100 million, we then pivoted over to family offices and institutional investors and pension funds. We’re now working primarily with those types of investors.

The reason that we started with retail investors is that it’s very easy for me to explain our model to a single decision maker and answer their questions. Once I move into family offices or institutional investors, the opportunity goes to a credit committee where I’m relying on some other party to educate the investor about our investment. It’s enormously challenging at that point if it’s not me doing the talking. I know the answers, but I’m having to rely on somebody else to answer questions. We’ve tried to educate everybody we speak with and craft our documentation in such a way that even when it’s not myself answering the questions directly, people can understand how we thread the needle through some of the legal hurdles.

Green: How do you prioritize deal flow, and what are the qualities of a successful loan applicant?

Sechrist: We typically maintain a pipeline of around $150 million in transactions at any one time.

Applicants must have real estate. We’re not doing business loans or operator loans directly to tenants or business operations. So, that’s the starting point. We want a real estate piece of collateral where we feel more than comfortable with the loan-to-value and ratios and the loan to cost and other figures, that we feel that this transaction is going to be a success for our borrower and ultimately the tenant.

Next, we will only work with very experienced operators who have a proven track record where this is not their first transaction. Ideally, we are working someone who is looking to expand their operations and who is ready to either move from being a tenant of their previous facility and buying their next facility.

The next aspect that we’re looking for is the strength of the borrower’s guarantor. They must be able to qualify to support that transaction. Many of our transactions are millions or 10s of millions of dollars. You must have a sponsor that can support that size of a transaction.

Green: What sort of value-adds should a cannabis property owner look for in their lender?

Sechrist: Most people that are looking for loans are only familiar with getting loans for themselves on their owner-occupied house. Most loans have points, they have a rate and a term, loan-to-value and things like that.

“We wanted to make sure that when we underwrite the transaction, that every single piece of capital is necessary to get that facility all the way to where that tenant can start generating their first crops and make their lease payments.”When you move into construction loans or value-add lending, there are other elements that are more important than the pricing of the loan. The number one thing is to get that property fully stabilized and built as quickly as possible. Cannabis tenants are generating 10 to 15 times more revenue per month than non-cannabis tenants.

If you go to a bank and borrow money it may be a third of what it costs to borrow from us, but they process draws maybe once a month. So, if you’re having to advance the money for improvements of the property, and then the bank reimburses once a month, at a certain point you’re not going to be able to advance any more money until you get reimbursed. The project comes to a stop. So, in your mind, you might have saved an enormous amount on the pricing of the rate, but it’s costing you dearly in revenue and opportunity costs. We typically process 50 to 100 draws post-closing on transactions, and we get that facility built and the money reimbursed to all the contractors on a multiple-times-a-week basis. It’s happening in real flow all the time.

A typical problem for a tenant is that the tenant improvements are orders of magnitude higher than a non-cannabis tenant – anywhere from $150 to $250 per square foot. In addition, the equipment is often enormously expensive as well. It’s tough to put money into a buildout for a building that you may not own. Our vision at Pelorus was, let’s not force these tenants – the cannabis operators – to raise equity at the worst possible time when they’re not generating revenue through the facility. Let’s shift that capital balance for those tenant improvements and equipment from the from the tenant to the owner of the building, which is where it’s secured and adds value to that building anyway. Our vision was to shift that money from the balance sheet of the tenant over to the owner of the real estate so the tenant didn’t have to sell equity to come up with that money. Then the tenant is paying for the improvements in the lease rate and the borrower is paying for improvements in the note rate. And so we’ve shifted tenant improvements from being an equity component to now it’s just priced in the debt. This way you know what the terms are and you know what your total exposure is there.

We wanted to make sure that when we underwrite the transaction, that every single piece of capital is necessary to get that facility all the way to where that tenant can start generating their first crops and make their lease payments. Most of our peers in the space don’t look at it that way. They just do the acquisition or the refinance. They don’t do anything for the tenant improvements. They don’t do anything for the equipment. The tenant is left out there to either raise that equity or the borrower – the owner of the real estate – is having to come up with that additional capital on their own. We think you’re set up for failure in that circumstance. So, we blend all that into one capital stack. It’s important that the tenants can get all the way up to being able to cash flow and support that facility and be fully stabilized so they can refinance into a lower cost bank or credit union transaction.

Green: What federal policies and trends are you monitoring?

Sechrist: First, I think that it’s important to remind people that the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment has protected everybody from any prosecution. So, there’s no jeopardy out there that exists. The second thing I like to tell people is there are 695 banks on FinCEN’s website of cannabis Tier 1 depositors, and of those, we’re tracking numerous FDIC insured state banks and credit unions that are lending directly. We’ve been paid off by banks.

So, there’s this massive misconception that there’s no banking at all and that everything is happening by cash. The only cash buildup that happens is at the retail dispensary level because credit cards aren’t allowed for retail sales at the dispensaries. Out of the 2,000 transactions that we’ve either processed or reviewed, not one has ever not had banking set up. So, it is a big misnomer that there’s no depositor relations for Tier 1 banking, which is plant touching.

Tier 2/3 depositors are ancillary, which is what we are at Pelorus. There are 100 private lenders and dozens and dozens of state and federal credit unions or state banks and credit unions, not federal, that are FDIC insured and lending. Those banks are difficult to get loans from because they only want to do urban environments. They want to do fully stabilized companies and they want to use alternative views and the facility has to have seasoning for cash flow. It’s difficult to qualify for them. So, banking and lending exists out there, and most people are not aware of that.

Green: What are you most interested in learning about? This could be either in cannabis or in your personal life.

Sechrist: My two passions are snowboarding and racetrack driving. I just came back from the Mille Miglia race in Italy, and I do a lot of driving on the racetracks. I’m always looking to learn from those experiences.

In the cannabis sector, social equity programs are happening across the nation and cannabis licenses are being issued to operators. We would like to help participate in some system of educating these applicants that win the awards. Lending to an owner of a property who just won a license but has no experience is going to be problematic. Somebody needs to be thinking that out and making sure that these people that win have enough experience and education to set them up for success. Cannabis is one of the most complicated businesses ever, and they’ve got this license as their ticket, but they need to know how to make sure they’re going to be successful.

Green: Great Rob, that concludes the interview.

Sechrist: Thanks Aaron.

Heat-Not-Burn: A Q&A with Mike Simpson, CEO and Co-Founder of Omura

By Aaron Green
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Heat-not-burn is a non-combustion technology consisting of a heating source and either an oven that the user packs cannabis into or a stick pre-filled with cannabis. The cannabis is heated to a lower temperature than a combusted joint or bowl to create an aerosol that the user inhales. Heat-not-burn in this way is distinct from traditional vaping where a liquid or oil is heated to become a vapor and inhaled.

Omura is a design company that has developed a platform product for the heat-not-burn market.

We spoke with Mike Simpson, CEO and co-founder of Omura. Mike co-founded Omura in 2018 after an international design career where he spent much of his time in Japan working with consumer products.

Aaron Green: Mike, what trends are you following in the market?

Mike Simpson: I’m always tracking trends in the heat-not-burn space. Because of my background, I know that the tobacco industry inspires a lot of the technology in the cannabis space. If you look at all the vape pens, that technology was initially developed for big tobacco, which then later was adopted by cannabis. I’m always looking to stay educated on what’s happening in the tobacco industry, as I know it’s directly tied to my work in cannabis.

I’m also looking at what’s happening all over the world with legislation. I’ve been studying it for years, but this past year has been phenomenal. Seeing five new states go to some level of legalization, the federal law and new states legalizing cannabis in the 2020 Election. I believe the Biden/Harris victory will have a major impact on the industry, however we still have to see what happens with the Senate. These next couple of years are going to be very interesting to see how things shape out for cannabis.

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

Mike Simpson, CEO and co-founder of Omura

Mike: I am interested in learning how the world is going to behave next year with this new life that’s been thrusted upon us. How effective is the new vaccine going to be? How are people going to retrospectively look at this year, and the lifestyle that they used to have before going into COVID? How much of it’s going to become permanent? How much of this Zoom life will we continue to enjoy? In the future, will office spaces become obsolete? How much will we still be using home deliveries? Do we actually want to go to restaurants again? That’s what I’m very interested in learning about is how human behavior and the world will change because of what’s happening right now.

Aaron Green: How did you get started at Omura?

Mike Simpson: Great question. I moved to Japan as a designer working for Lego and set up their design office for Lego toys. After Lego, I started working instead with Nike and Adidas designing performance sneakers and apparel for a couple of years until I found Big Tobacco — which is where my Omura story begins. I rapidly found myself in a position where I was creating new technologies, for the consumption of nicotine and tobacco. While working on an early project, I was asked if I knew any science fiction writers. Thanks to Lego, I just so happened to know Syd Mead, the designer for popular sci-fi films including BladeRunner, Tron and Aliens. So, I called him and we worked on a project which was aimed at setting the future of the smoking industry. Obviously, this was a brilliant project for someone like myself to get involved in. We came up with several scenarios that depicted the future of what tobacco consumption would look like, and each of them essentially included vaporization. This was before the vaporization days which made it kind of a difficult sell. I spent many years working on where we could use existing technologies in order to execute some of these scenarios. Ten years later, I moved to California, and I started studying the cannabis space for Big Tobacco which ultimately led me to Omura.

Aaron: Can you give me a reference point on the date when you were back in California?

Mike: I came here eight years ago, and I was in Japan pretty much 10 years prior to that.

Essentially what I realized when I got to California was that cannabis was perfect for heat-not-burn because of all the cannabinoids and the terpenes. You heat it up, and you get all of the good properties out of it without the need for combustion. There were already hundreds of products in the market, which validated that people love doing it.

However, there was a ritual: you needed to buy the flower, grind it, pack the device, select the temperature and then use the same mouthpiece repeatedly. And it doesn’t stop there. When the session is finished, you dig out the used flower with a metal spatula or brush. After every 10 or 15 times you have to clean it with rubbing alcohol to get rid of any existing residue from those sessions. This is just a big messy job with a massive amount of inconsistency and variability. For me, it was mind blowing that people would even go through this procedure. With Omura, I knew we needed to simplify that process. Our product comes with a pre-filled flower stick with an exact dose, that you place in the device very simply. You then use the stick as the mouthpiece and when you’re finished, throw the flower stick in the trash. It’s compostable and biodegradable. So we eliminated all of those pain points.

Aaron: Great! Where are you guys based out of?

Mike: Venice, California.

Aaron: So, what makes the Omura vaporizer different from other heat-not-burn products? You mentioned you have the disposable cartridge. Is there a design philosophy around it that you can talk more about?

Mike: Omura comes with 12 flower sticks in child-proof packaging. What makes us different is that we have our proprietary flower stick and device that work together. With our heat-not-burn technology, you get all the terpenes, but when you set fire to it, as you would with other products, you mask that with smoke. Our product is different from anything else in the market, because it has simplified the user experience through efficiency, user interaction and also through design as well.

The other founders come from deep design and technology backgrounds, designing technologies for Apple and Philips Electronics, so it was an important focus for us with Omura. Our newest device, the Series X was designed by Michael Young, a world-renowned industrial designer who has built an impressive portfolio of innovative products.

The Omura Series X

With Omura, we’re bringing sophistication of the design world into the cannabis world. It’s not just about simplifying the experience and making a great kind of efficient method of consumption, it’s also about creating something for everyday use that is beautifully designed and easy to use.  

Aaron: The Series X is Omura’s latest device. Can you tell me what changes you’ve implemented to make it better than the first version?

There are a few differences between the Series 1 and Series X: First, the new design fits in the palm of your hands so it’s discreet. It comes with a USB-C charging base that automatically connects with magnets. We’ve also improved the efficiency of the oven. The first device boiled 94% of the cannabinoids, this one now boils 99%. We’ve increased user-efficiency, by removing the button from the Series 1 making it so all you have to do is put the flower stick in and the device starts automatically. Additionally, we wanted to give users an option between a hotter or cooler experience so we added an extra heat curve, as we recognize that some of our CBD users prefer more of a terpene experience.  

Aaron: Can the user modify that with an app?

Mike: It is a very simple switch on the bottom of the device that allows you to toggle between the higher and lower temperature curves

Aaron: Okay, cool. Can we talk about your supply chain a little bit here? Do you manufacture everything in Los Angeles? Or do you have partners? 

Mike: Everything is designed in the US and manufactured in China. Which is fairly common throughout the industry. Shenzhen is well known for making products for the vaping industry. We create empty tubes filled in a batch production process. All the flower is grown here in the US. To clarify, we aren’t a plant-touching company. We don’t have a cannabis license. When it comes to THC, we have partnership deals. We work with select cannabis brands which is how we are able to sell in dispensaries. On the other hand, our CBD model is split. We have two brands of our own. Libertine, which is more of a male-focused Gen Z brand. Then we have Oriel, which is more of a wellness brand, catered to women.

Aaron: So how would an aspiring brand get on your platform?

Mike: Good question. Any brand or company who is interested in partnering with Omura can contact us through our website, www.omura.com, on Instagram @Omura or via email: hello@omura.com. We would then assess them to see if they’re a good fit. Currently we’re looking to span quite a large kind of demographic as far as appeal. So, if these prospective partners are in a territory, whether it be California or another state, have good market share and high-quality flower, then we would be very open to having a conversation.

Aaron: That’s the end of the interview — thanks Mike!

Leaders in Infused Products Manufacturing: Part 5

By Aaron Green
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Cannabis infused products manufacturing is quickly becoming a massive new market. With companies producing everything from gummies to lotions, there is a lot of room for growth as consumer data is showing a larger shift away from smokable products to ingestible or infused products.

This is the fifth and final article in a series where we interview leaders in the national infused products market. In this final piece, we talk with Lisa McClung, CEO, and Glenn Armstrong, senior advisor at Coda Signature. Lisa got started with Coda in 2019 as a board member after transitioning from an executive role at Wrigley. She now heads up the company as CEO and President. Glenn has deep experience in product development and innovation with brands such as General Mills, Whirlpool and Wrigley.

Aaron Green: Okay, great let’s get started here. So we’ll start with Lisa. How did you get involved at Coda?

Lisa McClung, CEO of Coda Signature

Lisa McClung: I was lucky. Based on my experience, I was originally asked to be on the board of Coda. I’ve served on nine company boards in addition to my career as an executive at General Electric and at the Wrigley Company where I was heavily involved with innovation. The Board then asked me to consider stepping in as CEO after I’d been working there for six months. I was just overwhelmingly complimented that they considered me and I feel incredibly lucky to be here.

Aaron: Okay, great. Glenn, how did you get involved in Coda?

Glenn Armstrong: We’ve known each other for a long time at Wrigley. I was in innovation for the confectionery side and worked very closely with Lisa. When she became a board member, she asked me to do some advising for her. Im new to the cannabis industry so, I was really excited about doing something different. When Lisa became CEO, she asked me if I would help her.

Aaron: How do you think about differentiating in the market?

Glenn: I spent 90% of my career on the innovation side working with companies like General Mills, Quaker Oats and Amway. When I think about how to differentiate almost any company I always focus on innovation. In the cannabis industry, everybody’s got gummies and chocolates but you’ll hear people talking about gummies are going away.” No, youve just got to innovate, right? It’s like the carrot peeler from 20 years ago. It used to sell for about 25 cents, and it was all steel and now they sell for $10.99. Who would have known?

Glenn Armstrong, Senior Advisor at Coda Signature

I believe anything can be innovative. When I looked at the gummies I asked, what we learned at Wrigley, can we bring into Coda that currently is not in this industry?” Think about various gums and how they can change flavors over time like Juicy Fruit which dissipates really quickly and thats just how the flavor is.

Or, there are other ways like spearmint. You can get an initial boost and then extend that flavor by encapsulations. I don’t see much of that in the cannabis industry. It’s just taking what’s out there from flavor companies that people like and getting them into this market.

Aaron: Awesome. Do you have any particular technologies or work or products from other industries that really interest you?

Glenn: I would say it’s going to be from the pharmaceutical industry. You think about THC and CBD being so hydrophobic. With chocolate, it’s not such a hard thing to get into. If you try to get those kinds of compounds into aqueous solutions though it can be a challenge, the drug industry has been doing it for years! So, to me, delving into some of their patents and some of their ideas, that’s one of the most powerful industries I see where we could utilize their technologies to advance the industry. I expect big pharma to get into this. We can start looking at what they’re doing that we can leverage quickly to get into Coda products.

Lisa: We’re not necessarily a pharmaceutical brand, but we are committed to helping people live and feel better. It really is about how you weave cannabis into everyday life?

Coda’s line of chocolate bars

We have a platform of very indulgent products, which is our chocolates ranging from truffles to bars. We also are building our non-chocolate portfolio to include other ways to enjoy cannabis in their daily life. And then to Glenn’s point, I think there’s ideas and technologies from the pharmaceutical area, theres also things that have been in the food industry for years that provides sensations and experiences.

I think part of our goal is how many of the five senses can we touch from people in creating product?” The feel of something in your mouth heating, cooling. Not just the psychoactive aspect of it, but the complete end-to-end experience.

These are all dynamics of us delivering the live and the feel” piece of it. Then people can either use them from a lifestyle perspective for enjoyment, or a medical perspective. Our job is to provide consumers choices and options that provide those type of experiences.

Glenn: If you have a product that’s supposed to “reduce anxiety” why not start with the slight warming of the mouth? Something that feels calming long before the THC or CBD kicks in? Then have a flavor come up that just feels warm and comfortable. By combining all five senses, you have a product that really does something for your consumer.

Aaron: Thanks for that! Whats your process for creating a new product at Coda?

Lisa: Well, I think everybody talks about brainstorming sessions like innovation is something that just pops up. I think innovation has three legs to it. One is really customer-driven. So, we have to produce products that help our retailers make money, and that deliver really good experiences to consumers that we jointly serve.

The second piece of it is thinking about the discipline of innovation. So, when we make a product, what technologies do we bring to bear, can we scale them, and can we produce them at the right price point and delivery?

Coda Signature Fruit Notes

Then the last piece is the fun piece, trying to listen to what is and isnt being said in the market to really try to be a solutions company.

We spend a lot of time listening and watching the market to figure out where we can anticipate things. We used to call it problem detection” at Wrigley.

One project that Glen and I worked on was a mint that was designed really around adult usage in more professional situations. So, meaning the shape of the mint needs to be tucked in your cheeks so you couldn’t see it. And the packaging of it was something you could surreptitiously pop underneath the desk because we were designing it for people to use as really a business tool. You don’t think of mints as a business tool, but they really are, they give you more confidence with breath-freshening and you don’t necessarily want to hold that out with everybody else.

Some problems are about how to make a product more fun with our fruit. I can put pineapple jalapeño in my mouth and have a literal popping experience, which adds to my enjoyment of that experience.

The last piece is not to do too many products. One of the things that I think of in cannabis is that everybody’s still learning. It’s such a wide-open space, in some cases, that you also have to kind of pick what you do well. So, sticking close to our brand and what we stand for is also something that we’re trying to do. We’ve actually pulled in our SKUs recently and are trying to focus on a platform of indulgent experiences and of lifestyle products. We try not to do everything that we see out in the market and focus only on the things that we do well that solve problems for our consumers.

Glenn: From my perspective — I am not a big process person — I think the best way to do it is to say, okay, we’ve got these products. We could look at technology, we could look at something else, but let’s just go scour what’s out there. And let’s get outside of our industry.” Look outside your own game, and see what you can use.

Discovering how to use these technologies in a gummy or chocolate as opposed to just drugs isnt rocket science. My biggest avenue is looking outside and finding what you can apply as opposed to trying to reinvent everything.

Aaron: Weve focused on the front end of innovation. Can you articulate on the back-end how that moves into product development, manufacturing and commercial launch?

Lisa: We have a new product pipeline with a Stage-Gate process where we will have a number of ideas and whittle them down on certain criteria.

Sometimes the ideas start with the technology and not the market. Glenn will find something and say, Hey, this is going on, should we be thinking about this in cannabis?” It allows our each of our teams to come up with how they can make it work.

Then, as that product passes through the next stage-gate, we’re looking at the actual economics of the product, and how it fits relative to our other products all while were getting consumer input.

We get to that point in the process when we start trialing with consumers to help decide. And sometimes you get the best idea in the world, and then it’s not going to work so in some cases so you put it back in the pantry.

I never like to say that we don’t take an idea forward, even products that we may have taken off the market, we say we freeze products, we don’t cut products!” because our goal is to have options. Our discipline is around a Stage-Gate process tied to our business goals and objectives. It’s also about playing around with concepts and seeing what materializes.

Glenn: There is this whole notion of a process, there’s a Stage-Gate, but before that, it’s a lot of playing around. What Lisa and Ive recently worked on was making innovation a way of life so that every time you see something, you say something.

“We dont think of innovation solely as the next flavor that’s going to be on the shelf.”We always gave people permission to play in the web.The reason brainstorming sessions don’t tend to work, is we expect people to become innovative in these next five hours.

So, if you think of innovation as a way of life, then it becomes what you do daily, and you look at things differently. I like to say when you’re driving home, go a different route, because you never know what you’re going to see. When you get out of that habitual mindset, you’ll think about your business differently, almost naturally. Innovation — this way of life — is one of our buzzwords.

Lisa: I think building that innovative culture is a responsibility, but also a challenge for a company like Coda. I mean, we’re not new. We’ve been around five, six years and we have some of the leading chocolate bars out there. We’re known for flavor systems.

Where our goal is to create a culture of innovation, you get these little pockets of creativity and innovation, and then it starts snowballing. You build on it, get people excited about it, and move it forward. That’s how everybody gets involved in innovation.

One of the goals of that pipeline process is to combine inspiration and discipline. But you don’t just want to be innovative in the next flavor. That isn’t doing enough for our consumers. Weve educated them on the potential flavors could bring. But now we really want to be much more innovative across the board and see what kind of culture of innovation Coda can do.

We’re looking at the packaging, how we interact with retailers, how we use digital messaging to support our retailers and support our products. We dont think of innovation solely as the next flavor that’s going to be on the shelf.

Aaron: From a supply chain perspective, how do you go about sourcing ingredients?

Lisa: We have some wonderful partners that have been with us at Coda. People that bring us chocolate from other parts of the earth.

We continue to keep building our ecosystem of partners. We look at different flavor houses and different food type researchers to be partners with us to broaden our ecosystem. It’s something that’s very much top of mind, even more so during COVID, because we’re feeling  very fragile about our supply chains.

Glenn: Yeah, I think Lisa, that’s one thing you and I bring, not only to Coda, but I think to the cannabis industry, is the whole CPG discipline of how we look at suppliers and procurement. We need to go out there find some smaller flavor labs with incredibly creative folks.

I think the whole notion of expanding the supplier and vendor base, is pretty unique in this industry and that’s one of the strengths we bring to Coda.

Lisa: Our goal is to really create an ecosystem of different suppliers. I just think that that’s something other industries — you talked about pharmaceuticals earlier — have done. Cannabis is just starting to get there, but that’s where you get exponential opportunities.

We’re really looking at cross-functional and interdisciplinary teams with outside partners. Cannabis is at the stage now where I think it’s looking for more sophisticated technologies and new ways of deploying. We’re also really interested, as Glenn said, in some of the younger, more entrepreneurial firms that want to possibly expand their reach into cannabis as well.

Aaron: Okay, great. So my next question is can you give me an example of a challenge that you run into frequently? And this can be either a cannabis challenge or a business challenge?

Lisa: I think one of the challenges that cannabis faces in general is educating consumers about our market. One of the opportunities we have is to bring people into the market. We’re at the same time developing products for people who are in the cannabis space and are active users and have varying degrees of understanding of how they’re using the category in their daily lives.

We’re also trying to create products and education to invite people into the cannabis market. That’s a different challenge than if you’ve had an Oreo cookie, and people kind of understand cookies. They understand Oreos, and then they understand organic Oreos and all the other permutations of two chocolate cookies with a vanilla thing in between. Our goal is to expand the ability for people to access cannabis in their lives.

That is a very unique business problem. And it does represent a bit of a screen, are you going to do some of your products for more sophisticated users and others for less sophisticated users?  Cannabis has consumers that have been taught essentially to think about milligrams; there’s one of the key components of choice. People will look at the product and flavor, and then they look at the milligrams and the price point.

That’s very unique to what we would find on CPG. You don’t necessarily look at dollars per milligram when you buy a cookie. So, if you’re trying to make a premium product with premium flavors, how do you say, Well, yeah, there’s dollars per milligram, but this product has all these other technologies to create the warming or whatever.” “Innovation in products and new categories is critical to get the industry beyond common confections.”

So you kind of have a dual issue. You’re trying to get people educated on a new category and how they use it. But the education of the consumer in terms of the potential and the possibilities that they can access is going to be very important.

Aaron: What trends are you following in the industry?

Lisa: Beyond paying close attention to legalization progress across the country and monitoring how states are setting up their regulatory standards, were focused on which consumer demographics are incorporating cannabis into their wellness and self-care practices—and how Coda Signature products fit into their daily routines.

Glenn: For edibles, fast acting” is probably beyond a trend and it will be interesting to see where this nets out. Consumers appear to be balking at the slightly higher price point for fast-acting gummies, but there may be a market for after-dinner dessert items. In other trends, use of minor cannabinoids and terpenes for specific benefits appears to be a solid consumer need, but this is going to require solid science to see if these products truly work. Innovation in products and new categories is critical to get the industry beyond common confections.

Aaron: Okay great! Lastly, what would you like to learn more about?

Lisa: Were fascinated by the technological advances being made in the cannabis industry, and how those achievements may enrich the consumer experience moving forward. Were also interested in the growing body of scientific research around how cannabis products can enhance peoples health and wellness.

Glenn: U.S. legalization and the constant changes in regulations require someone to distill the information and do a weekly report on changes.

Aaron: Thank you both! That concludes the interview!

Leaders in Infused Products Manufacturing: Part 4

By Aaron Green
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Cannabis infused products manufacturing is quickly becoming a massive new market. With companies producing everything from gummies to lotions, there is a lot of room for growth as consumer data is showing a larger shift away from smokable products to ingestible or infused products.

This is the fourth article in a series where we interview leaders in the national infused products market. In this third piece, we talk with Stephanie Gorecki, vice president of product development at Cresco Labs. Stephanie started with Cresco in 2019 after transitioning from an award-winning career in traditional foods CPG. She now heads up product development where she manages R&D for Cresco, a multi-state operation with tremendous SKU variety.

Next week, we’ll sit down with Lisa McClung and Glenn Armstrong from Coda Signature. Stay tuned for more!

Aaron Green: Stephanie, how did you get involved at Cresco Labs?

Stephanie Gorecki: A few years ago, CBD became the most talked about ingredient in the food industry. CBD-infused food headlines appeared in most of the trade magazines. I have always been curious about working in the cannabis space, and not just with CBD, but THC and other cannabinoids. I researched technical seminars and came across the cannabis infused edibles short course put on by the Institute of Food Technologists.

Stephanie Gorecki, Vice President of Product Development at Cresco Labs

I attended the short course in April of 2019. I realized that to be hands-on with cannabis in the near future, I would need to join an organization that was already in the space. The space was highly regulated which meant that research in the mainstream food and beverage space was limited.

Immediately following that seminar, I began to look for opportunities near where I lived. That’s when I came across the Cresco Labs career opportunity. The Director of Food Science position appeared to be a good match. I applied for the position and went through the interview process. Approximately two months after attending that seminar, I joined Cresco Labs.

Aaron: Awesome! It’s a cool story. In your role, how do you think about developing products that differentiate in the market?

Stephanie: There are many opportunities for brand differentiation in cannabis right now. There is a focus on high bioavailability and water solubility and how that translates to onset times once consumed. Many of these technologies utilize ingredient technologies and systems that I have experience with from my past work in the flavor industry.

Gummies and jellies are a great infusion matrix to start with because of their shelf-life stability. There are a variety of formulation techniques that can be used to deliver on product differentiations. There is an abundance of flavor varieties, colors, processing steps and cannabinoid ratios that can be baked into a formula to make that product line unique.

Here in the cannabis space, SKU variety is essential. It’s exciting to be a part of a company where we develop products that appeal to a variety of customer wants and needs.

Aaron: In that vein, what’s your process then for creating a new product?

Stephanie: I’ll start with how we develop an edible. Most of my background is in this type of product development, but the same process is applied to how we develop and extract vape, topical, flower SKU, or ready-to-smoke type products. We follow a similar stage/gate process utilized by most CPG companies.

Marketing typically presents our product development team with a brief on a new concept based on how they’ve read the needs of the market. There are opportunities for us to come to marketing with ideas for innovation, too. The product development team regularly works in our processing facility, so we as a team are aware of the different capabilities of each state and production line. During the briefing phase, we determine what is needed to be achieved and the parameters that the team would like the new product to deliver on.

For edibles, we begin our development work at The Hatchery. The Hatchery is our non-infused product development space that we utilize outside of our processing facility. In this space, we have several pieces of pilot equipment that allow us to scale and create prototypes that are highly representative of what our finished product will look like. For vapes, flower SKUs and RTS (ready-to-smoke) products, development and processing trials happen within our cultivation center.

All infusions are conducted in our licensed processing center. We also conduct stability testing and analytical testing in-house on our products. Our analytical lab is amazing – we have talented chemists and the ability to run GCMS, HPLC, microbiological testing, and many other analytical tests that are important for ensuring consistency and product uniformity.

Aaron: Can you expand on a point about testing? How do you think about testing at the different points in your manufacturing or production process?

Stephanie: Testing comes in several forms. We focus heavily on analytical testing since that does not involve product consumption. Potency uniformity and consistency is critical for edibles. For infused products, we have one shot at hitting our potency – infusion science is extremely important for us. Our gummies and chocolates cannot be re-worked, so hitting our potency range on the first attempt is important. If we miss the target, the product has to be destroyed.

We have methods developed to conduct in-process potency testing where we can. With the processes and infusion methods that we have implemented, we are rarely outside of our targeted potency ranges.

Aaron: Okay, awesome, then, can you walk me through your experience with one of your most recent product launches?

Stephanie: We recently launched Mindy’s Dark Chocolate Peppermint Bark, a limited time offering for our Mindy’s chocolate line. There’s a series of commercialization trials that we will conduct prior to launch. We use these trials as an opportunity to train our production teams on the new manufacturing instructions and processes.

When it comes to launching products, our technical teams are very hands on with new product introductions. Since we cannot manufacture product in one state and ship it to another state, we have to build processing centers and secure the proper licenses in every state that we’d like to operate in. When we have a new product ready to launch in a new state, our team works with Operations on the tech transfer piece. We’re there on-site during launches to oversee and train on the entire process until our teams are comfortable with manufacturing and packaging the new SKUs.

We monitor launches carefully to ensure product looks as it should before and after leaving our facility for sale in licensed dispensaries across the state. When there are opportunities to optimize a process post-launch, we will do what we can to make the process work as well as possible for the teams producing our products.

Aaron: Okay, so next question is, how do you go about sourcing ingredients for your infused products?

Stephanie: We manufacture our oils and extracts in house, and then source other ingredients externally. We have a supplier quality assurance process for new supplier approval, and we have documentation needs that we need each supplier to be able to deliver on.

Several of our suppliers have invested in research and development of products that will help us to meet our deliverables in the cannabis industry. Our suppliers, at times, have provided applications support in order to help with our speed to market and early phase prototyping. These types of partnerships are essential to us being able to make quick modifications and decisions on ingredients such as flavors and colors.

Aaron: Can you give me an example of a challenge that you run into frequently? This could be a business challenge or a cannabis-related challenge.

 “I’m a scientist at heart. I look forward to more spending on cannabis research to show how THC and other cannabinoids can be used to treat a variety of conditions.”Stephanie: A big challenge for us and other multi-state cannabis operators are the variations in compliance regulations state-to-state. We have compliance managers in every state who work to ensure we are meeting all of the state regulations. Our packaging reviews are in-depth because of all the language that needs to be included on our packaging.

Each state needs its own packaging with proper compliance labeling. Some states require a cannabis warning symbol of a certain type. If we sell Mindy’s Gummies in 8 flavors and THC mg SKUs in four states, that is 32 different pieces of artwork that need to be managed and cross-checked for accuracy. We have 32 separate pieces of packaging for this one line of products. We have many lines of products with multiples strains (flower and vapes) and flavors (edibles).

Aaron: You mentioned packaging, do you do all of your packaging in house?

Stephanie: We design our packaging artwork in-house. We have a creative team who works on our product artwork, and then a team of cross-functional members tasked with packaging editing and review. Packaging reviews go through multiple rounds before being released for printing. We source a variety of packaging depending on the needs of the product going into the packaging. For edibles, our packaging has to be opaque. Product cannot be seen through the packaging in most states. This is great for our products that are made with natural colors that may be light sensitive.

All of our packaging needs to be child resistant. This limits the amount of packaging variety that we have, but this is a big opportunity for packaging developers. We want and need more sustainable forms of packaging that are differentiated from other packaging forms currently on the market.

Aaron: What trends are you following in the industry personally?

Stephanie: Cannabis trends that are of interest to me personally are fast-onset and water solubility technology. There have also been many discussions surrounding minor cannabinoids and how those can be blended together to drive customer experience.

There are traditional food trends that also impact how we formulate. Our Mindy’s Edibles line is flavor forward. The flavors are sophisticated. In the Mindy’s line, you won’t find a generic orange or grape flavor. Instead, you’ll find a Lush Black Cherry or Cool Key Lime Kiwi Flavor. This flavor development work starts with Mindy Segal, who is the face and talented James Beard award-winning chef behind our Mindy’s Edibles line of products.

Aaron: Okay, so the last question I have for you is, what are you interested in learning more about?

Stephanie: I’m a scientist at heart. I look forward to more spending on cannabis research to show how THC and other cannabinoids can be used to treat a variety of conditions. People use cannabis for many reasons: to relax, to ease aches or pains, etc. It’s exciting to lead part of our technical team during a period of time where cannabis is rapidly growing and is of great interest and increasing acceptance across our country and in the world.

Aaron: Okay. So that’s it. That’s the end of the interview!

Leaders in Infused Products Manufacturing: Part 2

By Aaron Green
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Editor’s Note: Part 3 will be an interview with Liz Conway, Regional President of Florida at Parallel. In part 4 we’ll sit down with Stephanie Gorecki, vice president of product development at Cresco Labs. 


Cannabis infused products manufacturing is quickly becoming a massive new market. With companies producing everything from gummies to lotions, there is a lot of room for growth as consumer data is showing a larger shift away from smokable products to ingestible or infused products.

This is the second article in a series where we interview leaders in the national infused products market. You can find the first piece here. In this second piece, we talk with Mike Hennesy, vice president of innovation at Wana Brands. Mike started with Wana in 2014 after moving to Colorado and leveraged his science background to transition into product development and innovation where he has helped develop one of the best-known brands in Colorado.

Next week, we’ll sit down with Liz Conway, Regional President of Florida at Parallel. Stay tuned for more!

Aaron Green: Thank you for taking the time today. Just to start off, can you walk me through how you got involved at Wana Brands?

Mike Hennesy: Thanks Aaron. I got involved in the cannabis industry pretty intentionally. After graduating college in 2012, I was determined to get involved. I moved to Colorado from the east coast. I’m originally from Virginia. I moved out here in 2013 and started with Wana in 2014.

Mike Hennesy, Vice President of innovation at Wana Brands

I got involved in the sales side of the business originally – as the company was just starting to emerge into the legal recreational market – and oversaw growth here at Wana during significant changes in the industry. Over time, my role transitioned into innovation and R&D where I am leaning on my background in science.

I now lead new product development and education as Vice President of Innovation, and I’m also completing a master’s degree in cannabis science and therapeutics.

Aaron: So, what does innovation mean to you?

Mike: Innovation for the cannabis industry is pretty unique and interesting. We are just beginning to unpack the pharmacopeia of the cannabis plant as well as starting to understand our own bodies endocannabinoid system.

Innovation spans from genetics of plants and how they are grown to how you deliver cannabinoids to the body and what different ratios and blends of cannabinoids and terpenes you are actually putting in there. So, innovation is not a one size fits all category for cannabis.

Aaron: Sounds like an interesting role! At Wana Brands, and in your role in innovation, how do you think about differentiating in the market with your products?

Mike: I would describe the way we perceive differentiation as going beyond simple developments, such as product forms or new flavors. We see the future of product development trending towards what active ingredients and in what ratios we are putting into products. For example, what kinds of cannabinoids and terpenes are we using? What kinds of drug delivery systems might we be harnessing? How do we put all of these ingredients and technologies into a product to make it more effective?

A simple way to think about all of this is: how is our product going to work better for the consumer? Because that is really the key here. Tasting great is important, but we are delivering a product that provides an experience. We want to continue to make a better experience and a better way for customers to enhance their life.

Aaron: I think that leads nicely into our next question, which is, when you’re thinking about creating a new product for the consumer, what’s your process for creating a new product?

Mike: We have a very full pipeline of new products, and many of these ideas come from networking and speaking with innovators and following the research and science for inspiration and direction. We take this information and start brainstorming as a team. We have a decade of experience in the cannabis space that provides us with a unique lens on how we apply new research to our product development.

From there, we build a product development pipeline of potential ideas and start to prioritize, looking at the feasibility of each of these ideas and their market readiness. Sometimes we have a great idea for a product, but a lack of consumer knowledge may mean we don’t move forward with launching.

Aaron: Can you expand a bit on what you mean by education and how you guys think about education to the end consumer?

Mike: Since product innovation must move with consumer knowledge and cannabis is so new, education is critical. We have a very robust education platform with topics that range from cannabis 101 to the endocannabinoid system, to lessons on terpenes and CBD, as well as trainings on our products themselves. We have both bud tender-facing and consumer-facing trainings. The consumer trainings are on our website, and bud tender trainings are hosted through dispensaries.

Aaron: Is that training electronic training or written material?

Mike: Both, but the primary platform is online in the form of interactive training courses. We also have printed flip book training material in dispensaries and offer in-person presentations, but with the pandemic, we’ve been heavily leaning on the online training content.

Aaron: Alright. So, we’re going to take a different direction here on questions. From your perspective, at the innovation level, can you walk me through your experience with your most recent product launch?

Mike: Most recently, we launched the line of Wana Quick Fast-Acting Gummies. I am extremely excited and proud of this line. They have absolutely exploded in popularity!

The idea for these products started a few years ago as we were learning cannabinoids are not very bioavailable. This means most of the cannabinoids that you consume from an edible do not end up in the bloodstream. Edibles also have a delayed onset and undergo a conversion of THC in the liver, called first pass metabolism, that gives a heavier sedating high. This slow onset and difference in effects with edibles can be a turn off for some consumers, leading us to the idea of developing a fast acting gummie that works differently.

It was about two years of research looking at technologies developed by pharma and nutraceutical companies to improve bioavailability and bypass first pass metabolism. We started looking into nano-emulsions and encapsulation of cannabinoids that help with bioavailability and reduce the onset time. These technologies envelop the cannabinoids like a disguise that tricks the body into absorbing the oily compounds more easily. The encapsulation bypasses the liver and is absorbed into the bloodstream quickly, so their effect starts within five to fifteen minutes. Since they are not processed in the liver, they deliver delta-9 THC instead of 11-hydroxy-THC, giving an effect I describe as a “smoker’s high.”

We trialed and tweaked many technologies before we landed on one that is truly effective and worked with our line of gummies. With this revolutionary technology inside, we then crafted delicious flavors and a new triangular shape to differentiate them from our classic gummies. Because they take effect so quickly and only last about three hours, we thought the Quick Fast-Acting Gummies were the perfect product to use during happy hour. So, we have Happy Hour inspired flavors like Pina Colada, Strawberry Margarita and Peach Bellini.

We launched in March, and already right now, these SKUs in Colorado are #4, #7 and #11 out of all edibles sold in Colorado. And overall, Wana produces eight out of the ten top SKUs in Colorado. That’s according to BDSA, so a pretty impressive achievement!

Aaron: Okay, great, I’d say so! The next question here goes deeper in the supply chain. How do you go about sourcing for the ingredients?

Mike: I am going to start with the cannabis side of things. As I mentioned earlier, cannabis is unique. It is not just one ingredient. It’s many different compounds like the cannabinoids THC, CBD and others, but also terpenes and other beneficial compounds. To make the most effective edibles we partner with growers that care about their genetics, how they are growing, and how they are extracting to create high quality cannabis extracts.

We also understand terpenes are so important in the entourage effect, and that different terpene blends synergize with cannabinoids to produce different effects. Some can be energizing while others are more relaxing. Wana has innovated the terpenes we use by formulating proprietary blends of thirty terpenes or more that replicate indica, sativa and hybrid strains.

We did this by strain hunting the best cannabis in each class and analyzing the strains to understand their profiles. Then using organic, botanically derived terpenes, we build blends in the ratios they are found in the plant and reintroduce them into our edibles. This means Wana edibles match the terpenes that you will find in cannabis, unlike other products that just use distillates where the terpenes are degraded and lost in extraction. This also means we can replicate these blends with our partners in other states, so when you consume a Wana indica or sativa product you’re going to have the same terpene blends and the same experience and feeling every time.

Beyond cannabis and terpenes, we are extremely selective in all of our ingredients. And in the near future we’re implementing an optimized recipe that is all-natural, with no high-fructose corn syrup, as well as moving towards organic ingredient sourcing.

Aaron: Can you give me an example in your role of a challenge that you run into frequently?

Mike: I think that is the exciting thing about working in R&D and new products: there is always a new challenge. I guess I would say if you are not making mistakes, you are not really trying to push the envelope in product development.

We are working with plant matter, terpenes and encapsulation technologies, things that don’t always taste good, and putting them all into edibles. That means we frequently run into the challenge of figuring out how to put the right ingredients for effect in a product, but still make it taste delicious. We are very selective in what ingredients we use and how we’re introducing them to make sure the product still tastes good. We oftentimes come across a great technology—such as a terpene blend or a quick onset delivery system—that does the job, but is not optimal for a gummie recipe, such as the resulting consistency or taste.“These developments are all heading in the direction of delivering consistent repeatable experiences for consumers, which is what I see as the future of cannabis.”

Aaron: Would it be correct to say that formulation is a common thing you run up against in terms of challenges?

Mike: Yes, especially because a lot of the ingredients and technologies we are working with are new. There isn’t a guidebook for how to incorporate encapsulated cannabinoids into a gummy, for example.

That’s the novel aspect of a lot of this: how do you take a terpene blend that’s designed to mimic the cannabis plant and put it in your gummies? What’s the right way to introduce it so they’re not degraded by heat? Formulating with cannabis is about problem solving, and is the backbone to what we do in R&D

Aaron: We’re getting towards the end of the conversation here. And these questions are more geared towards you individually. So, what trends are you following in the industry right now?

Mike: I’ve got to have my eyes on a lot of things. That’s how you innovate in this industry!

I would say No. 1 is still terpenes. We are already innovating there, but I think we’re just scratching the surface of where we’re going to go. I think terpenes are going to unlock a lot of potential in cannabis products in the future, and Wana is going to be innovating there, leading the pack.

Next is minor cannabinoids. Through decades of an illicit black-market, the genetics have skewed towards high THC strains, but the cannabis genome actually allows for many other cannabinoids to be formed. Through the right cultivation and breeding programs, we are going to see a lot more CBG, CBN, CBC, and even more rare cannabinoids like THCV and others.  These currently rare cannabinoids are going to be important for new product development as we learn more about their therapeutic effects.

Then there is continued innovation on delivery systems and bioavailability, functional ingredient blends and more natural products. These developments are all heading in the direction of delivering consistent repeatable experiences for consumers, which is what I see as the future of cannabis.

Aaron: Awesome. What are you interested in learning more about? This could be cannabis related or business related.

Mike: Well, fortunately, I am working on a master’s degree right now and so I get to learn a lot every day. I am most curious to see where science takes us with the endocannabinoid system. It was pretty much unheard of until a few decades ago, and now we understand that it interacts with almost every other system in the body. It is like missing the elephant in the room when you are talking about human biology. The amount of information that we’re going to unlock about how the ECS interacts and regulates our body is going to continue to revolutionize the industry There’s a lot more to be understood around how different compounds interact with the ECS and affect us, and I think we are going to learn how we can use it to tailor other products for  outcomes such as sleep, pain, anxiety, energy and focus.

Aaron: Just a clarification there. What are you working on for your master’s?

Mike: I’m getting a Master’s in Medical Cannabis Science and Therapeutics from the School of Pharmacy at the University of Maryland. It is the very first master’s level program of its kind, and is taught by doctors and pharmacists, so we discuss cannabis as a drug and how it effects the brain and the body. It has been really exciting and I’m looking forward to continuing learning more about this amazing plant!

Aaron: Okay, that concludes our interview!

Leaders in Extraction & Manufacturing: Part 1

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 first article in a series where we interview leaders in the California extraction and manufacturing industry from some of the biggest and most well-known brands.

In this week’s article we talk with George Sadler, President and Co-founder of House of Platinum. George and his son Cody started their cannabis journey in 2010 when they sold their dirt bikes and set up a 10×10 garage. They have since built the business into a $70 million dollar cannabis empire across California, Michigan and now Oklahoma. The interview with George was conducted on July 31, 2020.

George Sadler, President and Co-founder of House of Platinum

Next week, we’ll interview Matthew Elmes, Director of Product Development at Cannacraft. Stay tuned for more!

Aaron Green: First off, George, congratulations on your recent announcement on the LOI from Red White & Bloom!

George Sadler: Thanks! The deal isn’t done yet but we’re looking at a sixty-five-million-dollar deal. Cody and I will be staying on as officers to oversee growth as we expand into new markets.

Aaron: That’s great news! I hope it all works out well for you and best of luck closing the deal. Now on to the interview questions we had planned. So first off, how did you get involved at House of Platinum?

George: My son Cody and I wanted to do extraction and have a vape company. Five or six years ago we climbed on a plane to China to speak with manufacturers. We started off with extraction equipment in a small room with a table top machine. After a time, we took year and a half off to get our licensing and do our buildout. We opened up again two years ago in June. At the time, China was the main resource for packaging, and everything really. We got hardware from another company and had our Chinese partners rework the hardware to address some of the issues we had. Cody and I spent a week in Shenzhen where we met with our Chinese partners. They first did cartridges, packaging and batteries.

Aaron: Thanks for that, George. The next questions will focus on product development and manufacturing. What is your decision process for starting a new product?

George: In the beginning, Cody and I would both be a part of new product development from beginning to end. Cody has taken lead now on the beginning phases so our new product development really starts with him. We collectively come up with the concept. Cody does the market research. The concept then goes to our design team for visuals and to do the artwork- this usually takes some time. After we are satisfied with the branding, we start the manufacturing process. We do everything start to finish and can go from design to package in less than two weeks. The only thing we still manufacture in China is hardware these days, so cartridges and batteries.

Aaron: Are you personally involved in manufacturing? Tell me about your process

George: Cody and I are both involved in manufacturing. In California, we have about a hundred employees at our facility. In Michigan we have another hundred, and Oklahoma has about thirty. In Michigan, we do carts only right now and are getting ready to launch chocolates and gummies. Oklahoma is also getting ready to do edibles and gummies.

Aaron: What is your process for developing new products?

George: In manufacturing, when we start a new line of edibles, we’ll first do a full test batch of products before committing to full-scale manufacturing. We start small at first then scale into larger batches. If everything looks good, we’ll decide whether or not to invest in larger equipment.

Aaron: Are you developing new products internally?

George: Our California and Michigan production is done 100% in-house. In Oklahoma we have a licensing deal with a manufacturing partner.

Aaron: Do you ever bring in external product development consultants?

George: No. We do all of our product development internally.

Aaron: In product development or manufacturing, what does being stuck look like for you?

George: That depends on what phase of the process we’re talking about. One challenge is getting the recipe dialed and then figuring out how to move into large scale. Take chocolate for example: going from a one spout pour on chocolate to a three-spout pour. That process can take a while to figure out. Any time you are trying to move forward in your manufacturing process, if there isn’t existing equipment available you may need to purchase it. There isn’t a lot of information out there to gauge on the cannabis side what is relevant.

Aaron: How about source materials for your products?

George: We pride ourselves on doing a deep dive on all of our suppliers.  That includes packaging, chocolate, sugar, and flower.  The advantage of longevity in this industry, we have keen radar on those doing premium work.

Aaron: What’s the most frustrating thing you are going through with the business?

George: I think a majority of people would agree that there’s lack of understanding of what’s happening with licensing. Legacy market products and unlicensed stores are frustrating. Inconsistency on testing is also frustrating. The states aren’t really doing anything to correct inconsistent testing. But banking is the number one industry pain point. We have a handle on the rest. Banking we don’t have any help.

Aaron: Feel free to answer the next question however you like. Imagine you could have someone come in and wave a magic wand to solve your problems. What does your magic helper look like?

George: Hah! Not sure what a magic helper would look like. Distribution is our biggest headache. Distribution is a different animal that is outside cannabis product development. We do all of our distribution in-house and it can be a pain.

Aaron: Now for my final question: What are you following in the market and what do you want to learn about?

George: We’re semi-new in the CBD space. Anything up and coming is something we are looking at. We’re focused on going big and multi-state. Arizona is the next state we are looking at. Nevada is after that. The partnership with Red White and Bloom is going to grow the brand into other states with them. Growth continues in that direction. Recently we’ve been going back to cultivation and doing cultivation deals. We started as cultivators and a lot has changed in the past several years. We are trying to pick up new knowledge.

Aaron: Well, thanks for that George, this is all awesome feedback for the industry. That concludes the interview! Thanks so much for your time and congrats again on your recent announcement with Red White & Bloom.

George: Thanks.

The Year in Cannabis (So Far)

By Joshua Weiss
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At the outset of 2020, the cannabis industry appeared poised for a series of incremental changes: a number of states were considering decriminalization and legalization measures, and support was growing for federal legislation allowing cannabis businesses access to banks and financial services. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, which disrupted state legislative sessions (and legislative priorities), obstructed signature gathering for ballot initiatives, and reshuffled federal priorities. However, despite all of these changes, the cannabis industry has seen significant developments across the country. Beyond of course the many challenges and losses brought by the pandemic and its aftermath, in some ways, it may prove a boon for the industry.

Legalization and Decriminalization

Currently around a dozen states have legalized cannabis for recreational use, while just under two dozen states allow use of medicinal cannabis. With support for legalization measures steadily growing in most states, a number of major states seemed poised to pass legislation legalizing recreational cannabis, including large potential markets in the Northeast such as New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. And in many other states, advocacy groups were well underway gathering signatures to qualify legalization measures for the November 2020 ballot. When the pandemic hit, however, state legislatures largely suspended their normal operations, and signature gatherers were stymied by stay-at-home orders and social distancing requirements.

Despite these major obstacles, legalization and decriminalization legislation has continued to move forward in a number of states, and still others will have legalization referenda on the ballot for November’s election. Perhaps more important than these initiatives themselves are the diverse states that are moving toward loosening of restrictions around cannabis: rather than being limited to a handful of especially liberal states, cannabis advocates are seeing tangible progress is every geographic area, among states whose political leanings span the spectrum.

Whether through the legislature or directly by the ballot, it seems likely some states will legalize adult use this year

While the Northeast corridor had planned to undertake legalization efforts in a coordinated fashion this year, those results were put on hold given the seriousness of initial COVID-19 outbreaks in the greater New York area. However, the New Jersey General Assembly nevertheless passed decriminalization legislation, though the matter has not yet cleared the New Jersey Senate, and the appetite for full-scale legalization remains strong there, with a ballot initiative going directly to voters in advance of the New Jersey Legislature considering the issue. The Commonwealth of Virginia enacted decriminalization legislation also, and a legislative caucus in Virginia has pledged to introduce recreational legalization legislation this summer when Virginia convenes a special legislative session. Voters in Mississippi and South Dakota will be able to vote on ballot initiatives to legalize recreational cannabis, and similar ballot initiatives are underway or likely in Arizona and Nebraska. Advocates in Arkansas and Oklahoma had also hoped to bring initiatives to the ballot, but have encountered practical and legal obstacles to gathering the required signatures in time for this year’s election.

These myriad initiatives reflect a strong shift toward legalization of recreational cannabis across the country, and the ability to continue gathering signatures and momentum despite stay-at-home orders and social distancing underscores the growing popularity of the movement. Whether through the legislature or directly by the ballot, it seems all but certain that the number of states permitting recreational cannabis will grow significantly this year.

COVID-19 Business Closures

As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the early months of 2020, most states instituted various forms of stay-at-home orders that required the closure of nonessential businesses. While these policies had—and continue to have—serious impacts on businesses of every type, cannabis companies have largely seen strong economic growth notwithstanding.

One of the most important developments in this space came in the context of state and local governments designating certain businesses as “essential” for purposes of business closure orders. In nearly every state to consider the issue—Massachusetts being the main outlier—state and local governments recognized cannabis companies as essential, which allowed them to operate during the shutdown.

The “essential” designation largely carried between both recreational and medicinal cannabis jurisdictions. And this matters because of what it means for the industry. State and local governments clearly realize the important medicinal role that cannabis plays for patients dependent on it for treatment, and the overlapping customer bases of mixed dispensaries further contributed to keeping cannabis companies open during the pandemic. Even in states where certain dispensaries operate solely in a recreational capacity, those jurisdictions recognized the importance of allowing access to a safe recreational substance, like alcohol, during prolonged stay-at-home orders.

Similarly, likely as a result of those same stay-at-home orders, cannabis companies largely saw significant increases in sales revenue. More customers visited retail establishments, and those customers often purchased more product per visit. This resulted in better-than-expected sales revenue for cannabis companies, and also produced increased tax revenues for state and local governments.

The cannabis industry saw more than just increased sales, however. In the process of issuing emergency rules for the cannabis industry during quarantine, a number of state and local jurisdictions either began to allow cannabis deliveries or expanded its availability, a shift in policy that may stick around well after the pandemic subsides.

One final impact of the pandemic may also help push legalization initiatives forward in the coming years: decreased tax revenue and major budget gaps. Due both to a decrease in economic activity like shopping and dining, as well as the unexpected health care costs associated with responding to the COVID-19 crisis, state and local budgets are expected to see significant shortcomings for years to come. In response, state and local governments are starting to see cannabis as a significant and viable source of tax revenue. For example, various cities in California that had previously been reluctant to permit recreational cannabis are beginning to welcome cannabis companies in hopes of making up for lost tax revenue. Similarly, in New Mexico, where legalization has remained a heated topic of discussion, Gov. Lujan Grisham has explicitly expressed her regret that the state failed to legalize cannabis, recognizing that tax revenues from the industry could have reached upwards of $100 million. Other state and local governments are coming to similar realizations, which should help propel expanded access to legal cannabis in coming years.

Federal Changes

Major changes in the cannabis industry in 2020 have not been limited to the states. In the midst of changes and crises across the country, the federal government has been making meaningful progress in two major respects, COVID-19 notwithstanding.

SAFE Banking Act language included in COVID-19 relief package legislation

First, cannabis companies are edging closer to having full access to banks, bank accounts and related financial services. The SAFE Banking Act, championed by Rep. Perlmutter, has made it through the House of Representatives and is currently in the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. However, as Congress continues to toil away at future COVID-19 relief legislation, political signals from Washington, D.C., suggest there is a reasonable likelihood that the protections of the SAFE Banking Act will be included, in some form, in the next round of major COVID-19 legislation out of Congress. The enactment of these banking provisions will provide substantial relief to cannabis companies who have largely been excluded from opening bank accounts and utilizing the services major banks provide. Additionally, allowing access to banks and their services should further facilitate the rapid growth in the cannabis economy we are witnessing elsewhere, and this movement could further legitimize the industry as part of a broader push for federal legalization.

Second, after a four-year delay, the DEA has finally proposed draft rules to expand the DEA’s limited cannabis research program. For decades, all cannabis research to date has relied on limited supplies of cannabis grown at the University of Mississippi. Now the DEA is finally following through on its promise to further develop, refine and expand its research program by allowing additional suppliers and market participants to play a role in cannabis research. While the rules proposed are not without detractors and critiques—and the rules themselves have not been finalized—this marks an important step forward to a better understanding of the effects of THC on consumers, not only because more research is needed to understand a substance consumed by millions annually, but also because the limited supply of cannabis on which researchers currently rely has been shown to differ substantially in appearance, consistency and chemical composition from cannabis that is commercially available in states across the country. With an expanded research regime comes the hope that scientists will be able to develop new and innovative cannabis-derived medications, while also furthering our understanding of how THC affects health and the body.

At every level of government, the year in cannabis so far has proven to be far more eventful than many predicted. And the COVID-19 crisis has not slowed progress. There appears to be continued momentum to further mature how cannabis is treated at every level of government, which signals that significant changes are on the horizon. Industry observers will be closely focused on how the rest of the year proceeds, especially with a presidential election on the horizon.


Editor’s Note: This article was revised to clarify that New Jersey has not yet decriminalized marijuana. A decriminalization bill passed the New Jersey General Assembly, but the New Jersey Senate has not acted as of this writing.

Why Employee Training is Your Key to Financial Success

By Shannon Tipton
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So, there you are, pondering your finances, there are many expenses and costs that go into running your business and when your budget is already tight, should you add or increase training to the expense list? Why frustrate yourself, looking for ways to train people, when you could be focusing on things like technology, product development or sales that help with business growth?

We all know that product development and sales are important. But what differentiates training from other expenses is that while on the surface training might appear as an expense, it’s not.

Think about this analogy: We know one achieves a greater plant quality and yield by using advanced cultivation practices. That said, the quality of the plants also greatly depends on the lighting, the nutrients and the nurturing they receive. The training and development of your people depends on the quality of effort you give them. Therefore, it is not so much a cost as it is an investment in the growth of your people, and when your people grow, you experience business growth.

Why invest in continual training?

The answer as to why continual training is important can be summed up in four points:

  1. Well trained employees = happy and loyal employees.
  2. Happy employees = educated and happy customers.
  3. Happy and educated customers = customer loyalty.
  4. Customer loyalty = increased business revenue

Any break in the chain breaks the relationship with the customer. There isn’t any business right now that can afford to lose a customer over something as intuitive as keeping people knowledgeable and happy.

This approach does, however, come with a caveat. Your training needs to be amazing and it needs to stick. You need to be willing to give your people the tools they need to succeed, and amazing training doesn’t come with a low-price tag. It requires not only a monetary investment but the investment of time and energy of the entire team.

Consider this, according to a Gallop research paper, happy and well-trained employees increase their value, and dedicated training and development fosters employee engagement, and engagement is critical to your company’s financial performance.

In short, this means your happy people will be earners for you. They will help you exceed industry standards, sell more and hang around longer. This means lower turnover costs.

Who doesn’t want that?

Educated and loyal employees lead to increased financial results

According to another Gallup study, businesses that engaged workgroups in continual development saw sales increase and profits double compared to workgroups that weren’t provided with development opportunities. The pressure to succeed among competitors of the cannabis industry is intense and rewards high. Having a good product is a start, but if your customer does not trust you or your employees…then what?

You can have the best product in the world, but if you can’t sell it, you still have it.

Can your business survive without trained people and loyal customers? The growth rate for legalized cannabis will be $73.6 billion with a CAGR of 18.1% by 2027. Plus, total sales of illicit cannabis nationwide were worth an estimated $64.3 billion in 2018, projections call for the U.S. illicit market to reduce by nearly $7 billion (11%) by 2025.

Those customers are going somewhere, will they be coming to you? Are you and your people prepared to earn potential customer trust and build critical relationships? Can you afford to miss being a part of this growth because your people were not carefully trained and your customers were uninformed about you, your product and your services?

A common adage is, “What if I train them and they leave? What if you don’t and they stay?” – where does your business stand?

Time for non-traditional approaches for high-impact training

With the rapid growth of the industry with ever changing regulations, new types of edibles, better product with exponentially more options – your customers will demand higher quality standards and expect your people to be in-the-know. This requires “just-in-time” knowledge as opposed to formalized training delivery.

Disappointingly, only 34% of businesses feel their overall training is effective. So, as the industry continues to evolve, it is important to know how to make your programs as effective as possible for your people. The traditional training that has failed corporate America is not the answer for this non-traditional cannabis industry. The need for new and non-traditional training methods will be critical for your people to be efficient, productive and adaptable to react to fluctuating business needs.

Six areas to focus your non-traditional training

1) Build a strategy

As the gap begins to widen and the competitive “cream of the crop” starts rising to the top, you will need to take the initiative in training and upskilling employees. This means planning future training efforts and reimagining current ones.

The steps involved in creating a training plan begins with establishing business goals. Ask yourself what business factors and objectives you hope to impact through training? You will also need to decide what critical skills are needed to move the business forward. Start your training focus with high-impact skills. These are the skills, if mastered, that will lead to customer loyalty and education. Ultimately impacting your bottom-line.

2) Target skills that build relationships

Building relationships is often placed in the category of, “soft skills.” However, this is a misnomer; “soft-skills” are core strengths you will need for your business to stand apart from your competition. This goes beyond smiling at the customer. Your business requires adaptable, critical thinkers who can problem solve and communicate effectively. Soft skill training is never “finished.” Therefore, consider how reinforcement is going to be delivered and how coaching will evolve.

3) Personalize training to individuals

Many traditional training programs approach people with a “one size fits all” mentality. Just put all the people in all the classes. This is a common failed approach. Each person on your team has individual skills and needs that require attention. This means creating and planning the delivery of training programs to address specific strengths and skills challenges. Not everyone will be at the same level of knowledge. If you are hiring for culture (which you should) rather than specific skills this means providing ongoing support at different times. This requires developing a training plan that allows people to choose their training path.

4) Create digital learning spaces

Ensuring employees make time for learning was the number one challenge talent development teams faced in 2018. One way to combat this challenge is putting training in the hands of people through platforms they are already using. Most notably, their cell phones and mobile applications.

Training should be created and delivered through multiple platforms (mobile and on-demand), where the training can be personalized, and offer ongoing job support. For example: Consider training to be delivered through mobile apps, text messaging or instant messenger. This type of training is targeted, direct, can be tracked and supports “just-in-time” delivery of help. Help when the people need it and when the business needs them to have it.

5) Make training interesting through gamification

There is a general misunderstanding about how gamification and training programs work. Many business owners discard the idea of gamification because they believe it means turning training programs into video games. Understandably, owners do not want critical and regulatory compliance training to be like a game of Candy Crush. What is important to realize is that gamification is a process of building a reward system into training that imitateschallenge games. Allowing people to “level-up” based on skill or knowledge acquisition. The use of badges, points and leaderboards encourage participation in online experiences. Thus, making training interesting and more successful.

6) Plan to educate your customers

As stated, providing customer training around your products or services is a fantastic way to differentiate yourself from competitors. It also boosts customer engagement, loyalty and enables them to gain more value from you.

Customer training is now considered a strategic necessity for businesses in every industry and within the cannabis industry, education programs will play a critical role in attracting new customers. Although, keep in mind your new customers do not need “training.” They need educational awareness. Consider the education you are providing customers as an onboarding process. Thoughtfully designed educational content can help customers make the right decisions for them, and you are there every step of the way.

Choose a different path for your training efforts

Your business needs a non-traditional training plan to help your people to be better, smarter, faster than your competitors and to gain customer trust and loyalty. Cannabis is a non-traditional industry, why box your business into traditional corporate training models proven to be unsuccessful? Your business and your people deserve better.

Contact Learning Rebels to learn more about what we can do for you to help you develop training tools and resources that will make your people stand above the rest.