Businesses often require outside capital to finance operating activities and to enable scaling and growth. Financing in the cannabis industry is notoriously challenging with regulatory obstacles at the local, state and federal levels. Recent market dynamics pose additional challenges for both financiers and cannabis operators.
We sat down with Matt Hawkins, Founder and Managing Partner of Entourage Effect Capital (EEC) to learn more about EEC and to get his perspective on recent market trends.
Aaron Green: In a nutshell, what is your investment/lending philosophy?
Matt Hawkins: Entourage Effect Capital’s long history and experienced leadership allow us to access and construct high potential later-stage growth investments with sought-after industry leaders. We want to get ahead of what is happening on the regulatory and federal level to build scale with our investments.
Green: What types of companies are you primarily financing? What qualities do you look for in a cannabis industry operator or operating group?
Hawkins: Essentially, we are focused on investing in companies that will benefit the most when legalization occurs. We are currently working on multiple such deals, and separately, we are excited by how our newly minted, early-stage focused Arcview Ventures Seed Fund will provide a pipeline to the next generation of leading growth opportunities. When evaluating opportunities, we always look for the potential for scale and a strong management team.
Green: Capital market dynamics have led to significant public cannabis company revaluations in 2022. How has this affected your business?
Hawkins: As an industry, we all want companies to be valued for what they are worth, and right now, there are a lot of companies where that’s not the case due to the downturn in valuation. For us, it works the other way, because we are now able to invest at lower valuations with the hope of more upside when valuations reset.
Green: Debt on cannabis companies balance sheets have increased significantly in recent years. What is your perspective on that?
Hawkins: Debt is at its highest in industry. Operators don’t want to take equity capital at this point because valuations have come way down. However, we are lucky to have been in this business for a long time so that we can create our own deals. Our reputation precedes us — as a result, combined with the strength of our portfolio, people want us in their capital stack.
Green: How does the lack of institutional investor participation in the cannabis industry affect your business?
Hawkins: The lack of institutional capital in the industry makes it difficult for a large chunk of companies to grow and scale. For the industry to grow, there needs to be a different type of investor, investors who are not scared to go through the peaks and valleys we go through as an industry, whereas retail investors take their losses and move on. Everybody’s competing for the same small pool of money; managing cash is the most important factor for operators, whether private or public, big or small.
Green: What would you like to see in either state or federal legalization?
Hawkins: The illicit market still has a strong presence, and until we get regulatory reform, it’s going to continue. Reducing the tax burden on legalized markets would bring more revenue to both operators and the government because they’d reduce the market share of the illicit market, with the price offset trickling down to the retail customer.
Passing the SAFE Banking Act would create consequential changes for the cannabis industry. There is also a small chance that the New York Stock Exchange and the Nasdaq could start listing legal plant-touching businesses. If that happens, more institutional capital would enter the market and flush the industry with cash, with market caps going way up. There is a lot of unease and uncertainty with retail investors that prop up the stocks in the space, and it will continue until there is regulatory movement, even on the private side.
Green: What trends are you following closely as we head towards the end of 2022?
Hawkins: I don’t see anything happening unless the SAFE Banking Act passes. Otherwise, things are status quo, especially with public companies. For private companies, we’re going to see a lot more consolidation, especially in California.
The Boston Beer Company, Inc., known for brands like Sam Adams, Truly, Twisted Tea and Dogfish Head, has announced their entry into the cannabis market. According to the press release, the craft beer company is launching TeaPot, a new brand of cannabis infused-iced teas. Your cousin from Boston is getting into the cannabis game.
The line of canned, THC-infused beverages will hit stores in Canada this July. The cannabis beverages will be produced at Peak Processing Solutions in Windsor, Ontario and distributed by Entourage Health based in Toronto, Ontario.
The first product of the brand is called Good Day Iced Tea and is strain-specific. It will be formulated with lemon black tea and infused with “Pedro’s Sweet Sativa,” a strain grown by Entourage Health in Ontario. More products will be announced in the next few months, the company says.
The U.S. cannabis beverage market is certainly lagging behind our neighbors to the North, mostly stymied by slow state-by-state legalization, patchwork regulations and restrictive federal policies. Of the beverage giants and companies that have entered the space, most are doing so cautiously.
Dave Burwick, CEO of the Boston Beer Company, hinted at their desire to enter the U.S. market, but says they’ll focus on Canada in the meantime. “As we await further progress on U.S. regulations, we’ll continue to develop an exciting product pipeline in the federally regulated market of Canada,” says Burwick. “While beer is our middle name, we’ve also introduced successful hard teas, hard ciders, hard seltzers, and canned cocktails. We’re encouraged by the continued growth of the cannabis beverage category and we believe it’s one of the next innovation frontiers.”
The scent of pine from your Christmas tree. The fragrance of a ripe summer peach at the farmer’s market. The whiff of eucalyptus and lavender that greets you when you enter a spa.
Aroma is a keystone in how we experience the world. In any given environment, aroma can help shape your mood, solidify memories and instantly transport you to another place or time.
I have focused my career on studying the fascinating compounds that are often behind these powerful aromas: terpenes. They form the largest class of natural products (compounds produced by living organisms), found in nearly all living beings. There are around 50,000 currently known terpenes in nature — with potentially thousands yet to be discovered.
Terpene-rich plants you might be most familiar with are lavender, mint, oranges (in the peel), and yes, cannabis. In recent years, terpenes have rightfully become a central discussion in the recreational cannabis world. This is because terpenes — not THC level, not “Indica-Sativa” classification — are a key determinant of cannabis’s effect, both psychoactive and non-psychoactive. But the current lack of prioritization and understanding of the crucial role terpenes play may put the collective quality of U.S. cannabis at risk.
At this crucial inflection point for legal cannabis, on its path to becoming a $70 billion dollar global industry by 2028, we need to ensure that everyone across the cannabis space, from breeders to testers, growers and consumers, understands which traits to prioritize for a cannabis world brimming with diversity and predictable effects.
What the cannabis industry has to lose
What do we lose if the cannabis industry continues to scale without a clear understanding of the compounds that define the uniqueness of each variety?
There is a ripple effect across the ecosystem. For cannabis testing labs, focusing on only twenty of the most dominant terpenes means we are missing out on tapping into potentially over a hundred of less common terpenes in cannabis. For the cannabis consumer, lack of understanding on the breeding and testing side may make it difficult to find cannabis that delivers on its promised effect time and time again. And, most detrimentally for breeders, not understanding the direct correlation between genetics and the formation of terpenes means we will have increasingly fewer terpene profiles and combinations to work with, especially when the industry-dominant focus has been on cannabinoid potency.
Let’s explore some misconceptions related to potency. In recent years, many breeders have prioritized high THC levels over genetic diversity. Consumers often associate high THC levels and that telltale strong “skunky” aroma with a strain’s quality and effect, when in reality, these are poor indicators of potency. (In fact, recent research indicates that this specific cannabis aroma is caused by a family of sulfur compounds.) Terpene profiling is a much more accurate way to determine a variety’s given effect. In focusing too much on increasing THC, breeders miss out on the true potency powerhouse: tapping into the terpene diversity that’s out there.
To illustrate the impact of breeding practices that prioritize crop yield over product quality, I first have a question for you: When was the last time you enjoyed a really good tomato?
If you’re lucky enough to have a great farmer’s market nearby, maybe you purchased an heirloom tomato at peak freshness last August. It was likely fragrant, flavorful and didn’t need much preparation to be enjoyable.
Or maybe you can’t remember the last time you’ve eaten a good tomato, as the last standard grocery store tomato you purchased was watery, tasteless and essentially scentless.
Tomatoes are a prime example of what is unfortunately true for a whole host of traditional crop plants in the U.S. When yield is the goal, flavor and aroma profiles often suffer. The culprit: lack of genetic diversity in the breeding process. The tragedy of the tomato serves as a harbinger for the cannabis industry — and we can draw parallels to what we’ve seen happen to cannabis.
What the cannabis industry should do: Tap into the diversity that’s out there
An important aspect of preventing cannabis from going the way of the tomato is to better understand the genes that generate these different terpene profiles. Different cultivars with varying aromas will hold different collections of genes. We as an industry must learn more about which terpenes correlate with desirable aromas, and then access already existing genetic diversity.
We have just begun to scratch the surface of the potential of terpenes in cannabis. With the right alignment across the industry and a stronger focus on genetics in breeding, we will see the rise of completely unique cannabis varieties. They will smell like lavender, lilac, orange peel or even brand-new aromas that have yet to be discovered. To ensure this future, we need to prioritize the right traits and the right genetics.
As cannabis markets continue to gain traction, inconsistent and largely unpredictable markets have left recreational consumers in an informational fog. Try as the industry may, or may not to inform consumers, the lack of knowledge was evident when an established Colorado hash company opened a second operation in California. Expecting high demand for their solventless concentrates, the demand for their solvent-based counterparts came as a surprise. Initially hoping to eliminate solvent extracts from their product line-up, the company was forced to devote about half their overall production to solvent extracts, until information spreads and attitudes start to change. Over the past year several companies have joined the solventless side of history, but consumer understanding remains largely stagnant. For those immediately overwhelmed by terminology, cannabis extracts, concentrates or hash are all interchangeable terms describing concentrated cannabis. Under these umbrella terms, two distinct categories emerge depending upon whether chemical solvents were or were not used to extract the hash. Hence: solvent or solventless. A brief overview of cannabis concentrates will help consumers to understand the evolution away from solvent extractions and toward a superior solventless future.
Before regulated cannabis markets, cannabis extracts had long been in use. These old-world methods of cannabis extraction use very basic solventless techniques to create more potent, concentrated forms of cannabis. Dry sifting is easily the oldest form of cannabis extraction and a prime example of one solventless technique. Something as simple as shaking dried cannabis over metal screens and collecting the residue underneath creates a solventless product called keif. Dark brown bubble-hash, made popular decades ago, is another ancient technique using only ice and water to perform extractions without chemical solvents. After decades of stagnant and limited old-world methods, changes in legislation allowed cannabis sciences to flourish. These old-world hash methods were quickly forgotten, replaced by the astonishing progress of modern solvent extractions.
The emergence of solvent extracts revolutionized cannabis around 2011, creating new categories of cannabis products that exploded onto the scene. Not only did solvent extracts produce the most potent and cleanest forms of hash ever seen at this point, it also created new possibilities for hash-oil vape cartridges and cannabis extract infused edibles. These solvent extracts use butane, propane, or other hydrocarbon solvents to extract, or “blast” cannabinoids from the plant. By running solvents through cannabis and then purging or removing leftover, residual solvents, a super-potent, premium hash product is achieved. Regulated markets require testing to ensure only a safe level, if any, of the solvent used in the extraction process remains in the final product. This technology ushered in the first wave of concentrates to medical and recreational markets under the descriptive titles of wax, shatter and crumble. While these effective and affordable products can still be found today, far superior products have largely replaced wax and shatter. Distillation techniques can further purify and isolate THC-a, while removing harmful residual solvents. For a time, Solvent-free was used to describe this ultra-purified distillate, but the needless term has fallen out of use. Solvent-free is still a solvent extraction using chemical solvents, don’t be fooled. Distillation and CO2 extractions have fallen into general disfavor as they destroy the flavorful terpenes and valuable cannabinoids, that when present create an “entourage effect.” This “entourage effect” happens when the medicinal and recreational properties are most effective, pronounced, and impactful due to a full range of terpenes and cannabinoids being present in the final product. With companies manually reintroducing terpenes to their final extracts, it’s an attempt to restore what was lost during solvent extraction processes. Many brands claim to use cannabis derived or food-grade terpenes to infuse or reintroduce terpenes into their purified hash oils. While this adds flavor and taste, especially to distillate cartridges, it’s far from an ideal solution. Armed with this new information, the informed consumer looks for a full profile of terpenes and cannabinoids in their hash.
With terpene preservation a new priority, all aspects of hash making were reevaluated. By using fresh-frozen cannabis flower, solvent extractions quickly reached new heights. Using the same techniques as prior solvent extractions, the cannabis plant is frozen immediately upon harvesting, rather than trimming and drying the crop as usual. Freezing the plant preserves valuable terpenes helping to create a new category for hydrocarbon extracts under the general label of live resins. This live resin, containing vastly greater profiles of terpenes and cannabinoids than earlier waxes, shatters or crumbles is sold as live-resin sauce, sugar, badder, frosting, diamonds and more. Many versions of live resin re-use previous terms that describe consistencies. These live resin solvent extracts outperform the wax, crumble and shatters of old, and are priced accordingly. Some of the best solvent extracts available today use butane to extract hash oil, which forms THC-a crystals and diamonds seen in live resin sauces. Having learned the value of terpenes and cannabinoids, early efforts to purify THC were clearly misled. The industry defining use of fresh-frozen cannabis flowers greatly improved the quality of all extracts having realized the psychoactive effects are largely dependent on the various profiles of cannabinoids and terpenes. Pure THC-a crystals and isolates are easily achieved with solvent extractions but, produce inferior effects both medicinally and recreationally. Discovering the “entourage effect” as described earlier, these elements of cannabis allowed old-world solventless techniques to be re-inspired and reinvigorated with the benefit of healthy genetics and a hearty understanding of past mistakes.
Having gone full circle, solventless techniques are again at the forefront of the cannabis industry, having attained near perfection for our current understanding of cannabis anatomy.
Using the lessons and tendencies of prior extractions, the solventless method, in all its final forms, begin with the same initial process to make ice-water hash oil. Often referred to as solventless hash oil (SHO), fresh-frozen flowers are submerged in ice and water, soaked and agitated before the water is filtered through mesh screens. As these mesh screens are measured by microns, the increasingly finer mesh works to separate and extract microscopic trichomes that break free from the cannabis plant. The 120- and 90-micron mesh screens usually collect pristine trichome heads. After scraping the remaining material from the screens, its sieved onto trays where the hash can dry using modern techniques of sublimation. The results are beyond phenomenal and are sure to shock even life-long cannabis consumers. This technique isolates only the most potent and psychoactive parts of the plant, to produce white to clear solventless ice water hash. When done with precision 6-star ice water hash is formed. The hash can be sold and consumed as is or undergo additional solventless techniques to produce hash-rosin. Not to be confused with live-resins, rosin uses pressure and slight heat to squeeze ice-water hash, into hash-rosin. Some companies have elected to whip their rosins into a solventless badder or allow their hash rosins to undergo a cold cure process that creates textures and varieties like hash rosin sauce. Regardless of the final solventless product, they all begin as ice water extractions. These simple, natural methods of extraction are quickly being adopted by companies known for live resin. As solventless extracts are safer, cleaner and superior in quality to solvent chemical extractions, the race is on as the industry shifts toward a solventless future.
While I’d be happy to never see another solvent extract again, without the miraculous breakthroughs and advances in all aspects of cannabis manufacturing and production we may have not yet arrived where we are today. When using solvents to extract, the trichomes, which contain the full spectrum of terpenes and cannabinoids, are dissolved by the solvent, which is then evaporated off, leaving behind dissolved trichomes. In solventless hash, these trichomes remain whole and are never dissolved or broken down. Instead they are broken free by agitation in ice and water, separating the trichome heads from their less-active stems. These valuable trichomes heads contain everything pertinent and are never destroyed, dissolved or melted like solvent-extractions are forced to do. The benefit of keeping the heads of these trichomes whole results in a far superior product expressing the full profile of terpenes and cannabinoids the way mother nature intended. This natural profile of trichomes lends itself directly to the entourage effect that solvent extracts were found to be missing.
Extraction techniques are not equal and depend upon whether quality or mass production is the aim. Solvent extracts have quickly begun to represent the old-guard of mass-produced cannabis concentrates, with the solventless new-guard focusing on quality, small batch, hash-rosin excellence.
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