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The Story of 5th House Farms: Economic Empowerment & Equity in Cannabis

By Aaron G. Biros
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Based in Rochester along the I-5 corridor in western Washington is 5th House Farms, a black-owned cultivation and processing company. Founded in 2016 by a BIPOC family with a tier three producer license, the company has quietly built an impressive brand success story in the state. 

Coming from an economically-disadvantaged background, Carlondo Mitchell, owner of 5th House Farms, persevered through adversity to build a successful cannabis business in Washington state. By influencing consumer behavior at the retail level with branding, they are trying to turn the concept of social equity on its head.

As a family owned and operated business since its launch, they have embodied the idea of economic empowerment in the cannabis industry. As of this writing, 5th House Farms has sold over one million vape carts, reaching the top 10 in sales for that product category in Washington and their products are sold in about 35% of dispensaries in the state. 

From Section 8 to Venture Capital

Carlondo Mitchell, Owner of 5th House Farms,

After cutting his teeth in the state’s medical cannabis market back in 2012, Carlondo Mitchell later grew in the cannabis space as a farm worker and sales representative. He ultimately took over operations of 5th House Farms in 2019, building on the same entrepreneurial and family-focused legacy that the company started with. “I learned a lot as a trimmer and sales rep,” says Mitchell. “I was the guy who would work 18-hour shifts for you, whatever you needed.” 

This month marks five years in the Washington adult use cannabis market for him. “I come from a single parent, low-income household so it was important to have an entrepreneurial mindset,” says Mitchell. Coming from humble beginnings in Section 8 housing, he has grown 5th House Farms into a multimillion-dollar business. “Now I own the company, I own the land, my family is there and we have twenty employees,” says Mitchell. 

The business has definitely become a success story, to the point that the state of Washington is working with 5th House Farms as a case study for economic empowerment and social equity. “For some people in this industry with a lot of opportunities, the path to success is pretty short and wide,” says Mitchell. “For me, and a lot of others, it’s been a lot more narrow, long and thorny. Through 5th House Farms, we want to show people what’s possible. We’re trying to show people that it is possible.” 

Innovating & Differentiating

Back in 2018, it was tough to compete in a marketplace dominated by flower, so Mitchell went in a different direction and started pouring vape carts by hand. “There wasn’t room for me at the table, so I thought I’d try and do carts and chase that. It was a day-by-day effort. He says you need to know you must work twice as hard to get noticed. “You have to prepare to be disregarded. Getting in the first store was the hardest step; you had to go through ten stores who said no to get one who said yes.” Their success came through partnering with retailers, building strong relationships, understanding consumer trends, identifying their needs and working closely with budtenders. 

Some of the product offerings from 5th House Farms

He says they treat people how they want to be treated. They sell products that they themselves would want to buy, by offering good, consistent products that are high quality and for a reasonable price. “Before you knew it, we had a prototype on the market and it took off. I do believe fundamentally that on the ground, consumers make choices with their morality. Some of our biggest retailers didn’t even know we’re a black owned business just a few months ago.” 

Economic Empowerment from the Bottom Up

Typically, when people in this industry think of social equity, they think of this top-down policy approach that tends to rely on lawmakers and regulators to develop things like social equity funds, a minimum number of licenses reserved for minority owners, license fees for equity programs and other policy approaches. Through 5th House Farms, Mitchell and his team are working on a different approach starting with the consumer. “We’re not only fighting for social equity, but also fighting to use cannabis to create equity,” says Mitchell. “Now that people are identifying us as a black farm, it’s a cool opportunity to show people what is possible. The equity is starting to come from people caring about how they spend their money.” 

Social equity, while a relatively new concept to the cannabis industry, has garnered attention in state legislatures, legalization initiatives, conferences and talking points, proving to people that they’re an ally of BIPOC stakeholders and those harmed by the War on Drugs. “To me, social equity is really about giving everyone a seat at the table. Not just trying to make things fair, but reversing this cycle of extracting from communities and instead, uplifting them.” He wants to eliminate the idea that social equity is about taking from one side of the fence and giving to the other side, rather it is about removing that fence altogether. 

5th House Farms is currently working with BIPOCANN on a product badge to be displayed on product packaging, identifying it as sold by a black-owned business. “We need a tactful way to show people where their investment is going,” says Mitchell. By influencing purchasing behavior at the retail level with branding and packaging, they are essentially trying to turn the concept of social equity on its head. 

Looking Back & Forward

In the chaos of chasing a dream and building a business, people tend to move quickly. “I would tell the version of me that’s ten years younger to slow down and trust the process,” says Mitchell. “As a young man, I was always looking for the cheat code.” He says his success came from losses, but they were also valuable lessons. When states began legalizing cannabis, it created real opportunity and real hope for a lot of people, but Mitchell says you need to stay vigilant and be mindful. “Try not to be so excited for the opportunity that you forget that you need to put in the work. I would tell others in this industry the same thing: to take your time in your process.”

Looking ahead, Mitchell says the plan for 5th House Farms was always sustained growth, to go national and then international. They’re in discussions with companies in other states about moving beyond Washington and they’re building a lifestyle brand. “The dream is to sell 100 million carts.” In talking about his future plans for the company, Mitchell spoke of Tyler Perry’s success story, going from sleeping in his car in the 90s to owning the largest production studio in the country today. “He didn’t have a seat at the table so he created his own table. We are intent on creating tables everywhere we can.” 

3 Ways to Increase Cannabis Market Accessibility via Diversity

By Dale Sky Jones
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Entrance into the cannabis industry is not equally accessible; it’s no secret it tends to be easier for those who are male and white. As a business leader, why should you take on the problem of equal market entrance opportunities? This just may become your company’s competitive advantage.

As a female entrepreneur with a first name associated with being male (and white, maybe a rancher in Wyoming), I have been accidentally invited to and witnessed the consequential shock of more than one exclusive, male-centric event, where any ladies were intended to be accessories and not present for business-talk with the boys. After enjoying their discomfort (and getting over my own), I see these moments as opportunities to advocate for inviting diversity into their discussion, seeking to make small changes to open doors for exponential progress. After all, it wasn’t so bad to have invited the woman, albeit accidentally; it was actually better because it happened.

In a dynamic and challenging industry, increasing diversity access is how to become future-ready. As will be discussed, companies see measurable financial performance and adaptability improvements with relatively small changes in leadership makeup. Here are three overarching tactics for you to increase cannabis market accessibility and champion diversity.

  1. Facilitate Access to Capital for Cannabusinesses with Diverse Perspectives

The past two years of pandemic hardship have posed unique challenges for women, especially Black, Latina, and Indigenous women, who have had to put careers on pause to pick up additional heavy burdens of caregiving. Women’s unemployment is four times higher than men’s, and according to Forbes, the situation is worse for women of color.

Overall deal activity for female-founded companies is discouraging and downright dismal for Black female founders, who receive less than 1% of all venture capital investment. This is particularly vexing when considering that women-led or co-founded start-ups generated 78 cents of revenue compared to 31 cents for male-only-led startups over five years. EBIT margins were nine percentage points higher than companies with below-average diversity on their management teams. Relatively small changes exponentially improve operating earnings over operating sales.

Relatively small changes exponentially improve operating earnings over operating sales. 

It’s always been difficult for women to access capital. Women have historically been cordoned into home-keeping and caregiving roles and are often still expected to balance those capacities alongside a full-time career. Accordingly, female entrepreneurs receive fewer invitations to extra-work events and business relationship-building opportunities, such as pursuing financing, mergers, or joint ventures.

Companies with diverse leadership teams have reported nearly twenty percent higher revenue from innovation. Investors would do well to recognize these are the businesses better able to respond and adapt to changes in customer demand quickly.

  1. Increase Diversity Awareness and Facilitate Equal Opportunity

While financial investments are imperative, consider the following non-pecuniary methods of support as part of a full-picture, equitable accessibility solution.

Invite Activity, Provide Mentorship

Businesspeople can play a critical role in accelerating inclusion by actively seeking out people they do not already know. Employers can do this through the non-financial investment of time and resources to grow the pipeline of underrepresented people with skills to serve on investment teams. When under-invested groups bolster one another, the likelihood that investment pans out increases.

Mentoring must be a part of this process, as it provides essential guidance and support for individuals looking to enter or advance within these fields. By creating opportunities for mentorship and collaboration, you can play an active role in breaking down barriers and building a more inclusive economy for everyone.

Open the Door to Accessing Opportunities

Businesses can increase diversity awareness and facilitate equal entry into the cannabis industry by opening the door to events that help connect underrepresented candidates to professional development and capital.

Hosting free webinars is a great way to facilitate learning, conversation, and the exchange of empowering ideas. Webinars allow attendees to ask personalized questions and present your business with a stage from which you can speak about the importance of equity and inclusion.

Consider attending, sponsoring, or running a job fair with a focus on diversity hiring. Diversity hiring practices help businesses identify qualified candidates from different backgrounds, leading to a less homogenous workforce.

Make Continued Education Central

As the President of Oaksterdam University, I see firsthand the importance and empowering quality of ongoing education. I also recognize that not everyone can afford or receives equal access to continued education and accordingly offer this advice to help bolster equitable educational opportunities.

Make partnerships with educational institutions to offer your workforce chances to learn, and ensure they have paid working time to do so. If you can reduce the burden of learning for candidates with extra-work responsibilities, they have a greater chance of absorbing and putting that information into practice. If you have an employee with an incredible entrepreneurial idea, boost them up by offering to pay for a capital-raising class or a fundamental business course they may not be able to afford otherwise.

No one solution will “fix” equal access to education. Every step from open-source databases and free webinars to full college degrees is an incremental movement toward increased cannabis industry participation for traditionally disadvantaged populations.

  1. Realize Social Equity Programs Are Not a Catch-All

Rather than focusing on any one aspect of diversity, the goal should be to invest in and build diverse teams across many dimensions.

Even the best-intentioned social equity program cannot accommodate every disadvantage a potential candidate will encounter. Take women as an example: There are many accommodations to consider for female-identifying participants, as they are at a more significant disadvantage in the licensing/permitting and job preparedness process. Some call for women participants qualifying for cannabis equity program services to receive additional funds and services (e.g., funding for childcare) to ensure equal access to opportunity.

The cannabis industry cannot atone for all the damages of the drug war, nor can a nascent industry that is not federally legal pay to uplift all of society. With that said, cannabis industry investors, executives, and workers might be the tipping point back toward baking justice, equity, and access to the laws we operate under. Better yet, we can raise expectations of one another as we do business and ask, “What do you do to increase fair play, diversify your leadership team, and address the imbalance?”

A Person is Not Diverse, But the Cannabis Industry Can Be

Addressing social equity and the concept of diversity can feel amorphous and confusing. Above all, it’s imperative to remember that a single person is not diverse; rather, a group of people is. A team can be diverse, and within your team is a great place to begin shaping the industry you wish to see. Rather than focusing on any one aspect of diversity, the goal should be to invest in and build diverse teams across many dimensions. Value comes from a range of differences, such as the national origin of executives, the variety of industry backgrounds, education levels, ages, and finding gender balance. The goal is that these different people feel they belong.

Equal market accessibility is not a problem you can solve passively — it must constantly be spoken of, worked toward, and embodied within each business decision and entrepreneurial move. An industry full of entrepreneurs making such decisions will undoubtedly result in a more equitable market than the one we’ve built so far. You will find yourself in a room of folks just like this. Lean into the awkward and invite the unfamiliar in – you will find you and your company are better for it.

A Q&A with Brandon Barksdale, CEO of Dalwhinnie Enterprises LLC

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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Dalwhinnie Enterprises is a cannabis brand that started in Ridgeway, Colorado. Based in the San Juan Mountains in Western Colorado, the company includes brands like Dalwhinnie Farms Cannabis, Shift Cannabis, Ridgway Hemp Company and the Dalwhinnie Farms Boutique in Aspen, Colorado.

Brandon Barksdale has about a decade of experience in cannabis. He has worked for small startups and large multi-state operators. Most recently, he has worked with CohnReznick’s Advisory Practice. At CohnReznick, he worked alongside the Dalwhinnie team, helping them launch their boutique in Aspen. Since joining the team as their new CEO, Barksdale has shifted his focus to expansion, scalability and operational excellence, using things like GMPs and other certifications to improve quality and consistency.

We caught up with Barksdale to learn about his experience, his new role, entrepreneurship, social equity and what it means to be a minority leader in the cannabis space.

Cannabis Industry Journal: You have an impressive background before joining the cannabis industry full time. What made you take the leap into this space? Tell us about your background.

Brandon Barksdale: The majority of my background is driven around transforming businesses cross functionally, specifically in operations and finance. When it comes to the cannabis industry, it still lacks maturity; so being able to apply key performance indicators, benchmarking, controls and analytics can drive the industry, and more specifically, our organization, to operational excellence.

Brandon Barksdale, CEO of Dalwhinnie Enterprises LLC

While I was in the professional service space, I was an advisory leader within our cannabis industry group. I was able to be involved and work with organizations at differing levels of maturity, guiding corporate strategy and functional and operational improvement before fully jumping in to lead this organization. Dalwhinnie was the perfect opportunity to use my previous experience to instill value to the company as it continues to scale and grow.

CIJ: With a such a big portfolio of cannabis clients, why leave all that behind to take the reins at Dalwhinnie?

Barksdale: Simply put, I was eager to roll up my sleeves and drive a single organization through its growth lifecycle. When you’re working with and cycling through multiple clients, you’re supporting them from a strategic perspective and providing value and direction but the execution is left to the operational teams internally to follow through. No matter how detailed the plan or deeply you are involved you are still third-party. During scope changes and ramping up and down there’s always some momentum that gets lost. I want to focus on one company, to really tie myself to its DNA, so that I can better be in the driving seat toward success and operational excellence.

Dalwhinnie stands out because of their unwavering focus on quality and the integrity of the brand. To that end, I want everyone within the organization to succeed and to nurture a healthy company ecosystem that allows for professional development, training and being an industry leader. We have a really big opportunity here to set the standard for what quality looks like going forward and what it means to really care about the product that you’re putting out into the marketplace.

CIJ: Dalwhinnie Farms has a cool location in Ridgway, Colorado at the base of the San Juan Mountains and sustained by the snowmelt from the Uncompahgre River.  How does this make Dalwhinnie cannabis different?

Barksdale: There is no doubt that growing at a high elevation with different seasonalities is a challenge. However, every region on Earth presents its own benefits and challenges as it relates to cultivation. You can use the comparison to different regions of wines. Wine from Bordeaux and wine from Napa are going to have different profiles because of all the unique factors of climate, water, humidity, aging practices, etc.

Dalwhinnie Farms in the Sun Juan Mountains

This is one of the things that will make the future of cannabis very interesting. There are multiple elements and variables that help tell the story of the product through its experience of growth. Just like there are tons of wine regions and varietals, there are hundreds of cannabis strains and exponentially more crosses where one can discuss multiple facets of what makes that particular product unique. It is one of the things that will continue to evolve in the cannabis market and one of the most exciting components—knowing that we are still on the way to creating a unique and original marketplace!

CIJ: The Dalwhinnie Farms retail store in Aspen is a unique cannabis dispensary. What is the retail strategy moving forward?

Barskdale: Every cannabis wholesaler, and most markets, are feeling the pressure of price volatility and retail is one of the best-known ways to help stabilize an organization. Our strategy is to stay as nimble and creative as we can, focusing on continuing to build out the success of our flagship Aspen dispensary as well as partnering and entertaining retail expansion opportunities. Our strategy is not to ignore that fact, but to act as perceptively as we can to broaden our retail footprint.

The Dalwhinnie Boutique in Aspen, CO

CIJ: Tell us about your short-term goals for Dalwhinnie.

Barksdale: When I came onboard with Dalwhinnie, I hit the ground running. I had some history with Dalwhinnie and the family of companies so I was lucky to have a head start and insight toward necessary changes. Short term goals included attention to production expansion initiatives, operational changes that moved us closer to excellence, and fine-tuning our GMPs. My eye is also focused on company culture, performance management, and constantly pushing the envelope on quality. While always of importance, we want to continue as a pioneer on cultivation and manufacturing standards as it relates to quality in organics.

CIJ: And what are your long-term goals for the company?

Barksdale: Mentioned as a short-term goal, I want to move toward GMP and GACP manufacturing standards and create a continual cycle of improvement as we move through our expansion and growth plans. In the future, multi-state operations and partnerships are also a big part of our strategic direction. We aim to continue to provide an elevated cannabis retail experience at our flagship location and to expand our retail footprint in the marketplace.

CIJ: There’s been a focus on racial disparities in the cannabis space and the need to improve social equity and opportunities for minorities. How do you hope to support equity and help drive change?

Barksdale: We are at a turning point in the industry where substances are becoming legal, yet so many people are still suffering from nonviolent, non-serious offenses related to cannabis. It is unavoidably apparent and it is something that deserves significant attention and commitment. Every company that is operating in this space should take a level of responsibility to help address or support reparations in some fashion whether that be through jobs, access, and/or partnerships.

There should be an obligation to support some type of social equity improvement project as it relates to the cannabis industry. Some legacy states and now new states coming online, are attempting to course correct by making it a part of the compliance or access components for licenses.

There is still a lot of work to be done. I am working through the strategies that work for us as a company. I am actively exploring how to incorporate opportunities into our operating and business model.

As a women-owned company and myself being a minority leader, it is on the forefront of our priority list to come up with a comprehensive plan and commitment to supporting social and equities in this space.

A Conversation with the Founders of Veda Scientific: Part Two

By Aaron G. Biros
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This is the second piece in a two-part conversation with the founders of Veda Scientific, CEO Leo Welder and CSO Aldwin M. Anterola, PhD. To read part one, click here.

In part one, we chatted about their backgrounds, their approach to cannabis testing, their role in the greater industry and how they came into the cannabis industry.

In part two, we’re going down a few cannabis chemistry rabbit holes and realizing that what we don’t know is a lot more than what we do know. Join us as we delve into the world of volatile compounds, winemaking, the tastes and smells of cannabis, chicken adobo and much more.

Aaron: Alright so you mentioned the GCxGC/MS and your more advanced terpene analysis. How do you envision that instrument and that data helping your customers and/or the industry? 

Leo: Some of the things that we envision will help is a better understanding of what compounds and what ratios will lead to desirable outcomes, things like better effects, aroma and flavor. By better understanding these things it’ll help the industry create better products.

I have a personal connection to this. My wife has some insomnia and she’s always had to take various forms of OTC pharmaceuticals to help with sleep. She tried using a 1:1 vape pen and it was a miracle worker for her for several months. The local dispensary had a sale on it, and she bought some extra. Unfortunately, even though she used it the same way as before, she got very serious anxiety, which obviously didn’t help her sleep. Every time she used the vapes from this same batch, she felt the same extreme anxiety. Sadly, she now had a lot of this product that she couldn’t use because it kept her awake rather than helping her sleep, so she went back to trying other OTC solutions. That’s a problem for both consumers and the industry at large. If people find something that works and provides a desired effect, they need to be able to rely on that consistency every time they purchase the product, leading to similar outcomes and not exaggerating the problem. That’s why I think consistency is so important. We’re taking two steps forward and one back when we have inconsistent products. How do we really grow and expand the availability of cannabis if we lose trust from our consumer base? What a lab can do and what we can do is provide data to cultivators and manufacturers to create that consistency and ultimately allow the market to expand into other demographics that are currently wary and less tolerant of that variance.

Vials of cannabis samples being prepped for collaborative research with the CESC

On a similar note, we have been having a lot of discussions with the CESC [Clinical Endocannabinoid System Consortium] down in San Diego. They are an advanced cannabis research group that we have been working with for over a year. We’ve started looking at the idea of varietals. To be more specific, because I’m not a wine connoisseur, varietals are the pinot noirs, the cabernets and sauvignon blancs of the industry. In the cannabis industry, consumers have indica and sativa, though we still argue over what that concept really means, if anything. But for the sake of argument, let’s say we have this dichotomy to use as a foundational decision tool for consumers- call it the red and white wine of the cannabis industry. How inaccessible would wine be if we just had red or white? Imagine if you went to a dinner party, really liked the wine you were drinking, and the host could only tell you that it was a red wine. You can’t go to a wine store and expect to find something similar to that wine if the only information you have is “red.” At a minimum, you need a category. So that’s what varietals are, the categories. The data that we can produce could help people in the industry who identify and establish the varietals based on their expertise as connoisseurs and product experts to find what those differences are chemically. Similarly, we’re also looking at appellation designations in California. So, we want to help provide tools for farmers to identify unique characteristics in their flower that would give them ability to claim and prove appellation designation.

Aldwin: The GCxGC/MS allows us to find more things besides the typical terpene profile with 20 or 40 terpenes. It allows us to go beyond those terpenes. The issue sometimes is that with a typical one-dimensional GC method, sure you could probably separate and find more terpenes, but the one dimension is not enough to separate everything that coelutes. And it’s not just terpenes. Some terpenes coelute with one another and that’s why people can see this inconsistency. Especially if you use a detector like an FID, we can see the compound limonene on the chromatogram, but there’s another terpene in there that is unknown that coelutes with limonene. So, this instrument is helping us get past the coeluting issue and solve it so that we know what peaks represent what terpenes.

The other bonus with our GCxGC/MS is that the coeluting compounds that were masked behind other terpenes are now revealed. There is a second dimension in the chromatogram where we can now detect some compounds in cannabis that would be hiding behind these large peaks if it were just a one-dimensional GC. Besides terpenes, we’ve found esters, alkanes, fatty acids, ketones, alcohols and aldehydes, as well as thiols. The terpenes are so plentiful in cannabis that these other compounds present at lower levels cannot be seen with just one-dimensional GC. There are just so many compounds in cannabis that the ones in small amounts are often masked. My analogy to highlight the importance of these minor compounds is like a dish; I am from the Philippines and I like chicken adobo. My father does it differently from my mom and someone else will do it differently in a different region. The base of the sauce is vinegar and soy sauce, but some people will do it differently and maybe add some bay leaf, garlic, pepper, or a touch of another spice. It’s still chicken adobo, but it tastes differently. Just like in cannabis, where yes, you have the same amount of THC in two different plants, but it’s still giving you a different experience. Some people say it’s because of terpenes, which is true in a lot of cases, but there are a lot of other volatile compounds that would explain better why certain dishes taste different.

2-D chromatogram showing four peaks separated by the GCxGC. With a traditional 1-D chromatogram, these peaks would coelute and not separate.

Leo: There’s been some recent developments too here that show it’s very significant. It’s like the difference between bland and spicy. And it could be the thiol. We identified a thiol in cannabis at the same time as other scientists reported an article that just came out on this subject.

Aldwin: Thiols are sulfur containing compounds that produce very powerful odors, giving cannabis the skunky smell. Skunks also produce thiols. It is very potent; you only need a little bit. It turns out that yes, that paper described thiols and we also saw them in our GCxGC/MS. These are the kinds of things that the GCxGC can show you. Those very tiny amounts of compounds that can have a very powerful impact. That’s one that we know for sure is important because it’s not just us that’s finding out that GCxGC can detect this.

Not everything is about THC or the high amount of the compounds in the flower. This paper and our concurrent findings indicated that the skunkier smelling strains contained very small amounts of thiols and you can recognize their presence quite readily. It’s not a terpene, but it’s producing a distinct flavor and a powerful smell.

Aaron: Okay, so why is this useful? Why is it so important?

Leo: I would say two things in particular that we know of that are issues currently, both related to scents. We mentioned this earlier. We do know that farmers with breeding programs are trying to target particularly popular or attractive scent profiles, whether it be a gas or fruity aroma. Right now, when they get the flower tested and review the terpene profile, it isn’t enough information to help them identify what makes them chemically distinct. We hear time and again that farmers will say their terpene profile is not helpful in identifying specific scents and characteristics. They are looking for a fingerprint. They want to be able to identify a group of plants that have a similar smell and they want a fingerprint of that plant to test for. Otherwise, you have to sniff every plant and smell the ones that are most characteristic of what they’re targeting. For larger operations, walking through and smelling thousands of plants isn’t feasible.

Once we can identify that fingerprint, and we know which compounds in which ratios are creating the targeted aroma, we can run tests to help them find the best plants for breeding purposes. It’s about reproducibility and scalability.

Another value is helping people who are trying to categorize oils and strains into particular odor categories, similar to the varietals concept we’ve been talking about. Currently, we know that when manufacturers send multiple samples of oils with the same or similar scent to be tested, the results are coming back with significantly different terpene profiles. There is not enough data for them to chemically categorize products. It’s not that their categories are wrong, it’s just that the data is not available to help them find those boundaries.

Those are two issues that we know from conversations with customers that this particular piece of equipment can address.

Aldwin: Let’s start from what we find, meaning if you are using the GCxGC/MS, we are finding more terpenes that nobody else would be looking at. We have data that shows, for example, that certain standards are accounting for 60% or so of total terpene content. So a large percent is accounted for, but there is still quite a bit missing. For some strains there are terpenes that are not in common reference standards. Being able to know that and identify the reason why we have different terpenes in here unaccounted for is big. There are other things there beyond the standard terpenes.

Dr. Anterola working with the GCxGC/MS

What excites me sometimes is that I see some terpenes that are known to have some properties, either medical or antibacterial, etc. If you find that terpene looking beyond the list, you’ll find terpenes that are found in things like hardwood or perfumes, things that we don’t necessarily associate with the common cannabis terpenes. If you’re just looking for the limited number of terpenes, you are missing some things that you might discover or some things that might help explain results.

Leo: It’s also absolutely necessary for the medical side of things. Because of the federal limitations, cannabis hasn’t been researched nearly enough. We’re missing a lot of data on all of the active compounds in cannabis. We are finally starting to move into an era where that will soon be addressed. In order for certain medical studies to be successful, we need to have data showing what compounds are in what plants.

Drs. John Abrams and Jean Talleyrand of the CESC launched the Dosing Project in 2016. They have been studying the impact of cannabis flower for indications such as pain mitigation and sleep improvement, and now more recently mood, and appetite modulation. They categorize the THC & CBD content as well as flower aroma into 3 cannabinoid and 3 odor profiles. They are able to acquire quite a bit of data about how odor correlates with the outcomes. Because they were initially limited in terms of underlying natural product content data, they contacted us when they found out we acquired this equipment in 2020, and have stated that they are certain the data we will now be producing will take their research to the next level of understanding.

Aldwin: For quality control you are looking at specific things that would reflect properties in cannabis. There should be a 1:1 correspondence between properties observed and what we are measuring. The current assumption is that the terpenes we are looking at will tell us everything about how people would like it, with regards to flavor and smell preference. But we know for a fact that the limited terpenes most labs are measuring do not encapsulate everything. So, it is important for QC purposes to know for this particular strain or product, which everyone liked, what is it in there that makes everybody like it? If you just look at the typical terpene profile, you’ll find something close, but not exact. The GCxGC/MS shows us that maybe there’s something else that gives it a preferred property or a particular smell that we can explain and track. In one batch of flower, the consumer experiences it a certain way, and for another batch people experience it another way. We’d like to be able to understand what those differences are batch to batch so we can replicate the experience and figure out what’s in it that people like. That’s what I mean by consistency and quality control; the more you can measure, the more you can see.

Aldwin: Speaking to authenticity as well, in a breeding example, some growers will have this strain that they grew, or at least this is what they claim it to be, but what are the components that make those strains unique? The more analytes you can detect, the more you can authenticate the plant. Is this really OG Kush? Is this the same OG Kush that I’ve had before? Using the GCxGC/MS and comparing analytes, we can find authenticity in strains by finding all of the metabolites and analytes and comparing two strains. Of course, there is also adulteration- Some people will claim they have one strain that smells like blueberries, but we find a compound in it that comes from outside of cannabis, such as added terpenes. Proving that your cannabis is actually pure cannabis or proving that something has added terpenes is possible because we can see things in there that don’t come from cannabis. The GCxGC/MS can be used as a tool for proving authenticity or proving adulteration as well.  If you want to trademark a particular strain, we can help with claiming intellectual property. For example, if you want to trademark, register or patent a new product, it will be good to have more data. More data allows for better description of your product and the ability to prove that it is yours.

Leo: One thing that I think is a very interesting use case is proving the appellations. It is our understanding that California rolled out a procedure for growers to claim an appellation, but with strict rules around it. Within those rules, they need to prove uniqueness of growing products in specific regions. The GCxGC/MS can help in proving uniqueness by growing two different strains in two different regions, mapping out the differences and seeing what makes a region’s cannabis unique. It’s valuable for growers in California, Oregon, Colorado to be able to prove how unique their products are. To prove the differences between cannabis grown in Northern California versus plants grown along the Central Coast. And of course, for people across the world to be able to really tell a story and prove what makes their cannabis different and special. To be able to authenticate and understand, we need to have more comprehensive data about properties in those strains. It could be terpenes, it could be esters or thiols. That’s what we’re excited about.

Aaron: From your perspective, what are some of the biggest challenges and opportunities ahead for the cannabis industry?

Aldwin: Getting ready for federal legalization is both a challenge and opportunity. A challenge because when it is federally legal, there will be more regulations and more regulators. It is also a challenge because there will be more businesses, more competition, that might get into the industry. It is opening up to other players, much bigger players. Big tobacco, mega labs and massive diagnostic testing companies might participate, which will be a challenge for us.

But it’s also an opportunity for us to serve more customers, to be more established at the federal level, to move to interstate commerce. The opportunity is to be ready here and now while other people are not here yet.

Another challenge and opportunity is education. Educating consumers and non-consumers. We have to realize and accept that cannabis is not for everybody, but everyone is a stakeholder, because they are our neighbors, parents or part of the medical establishment. It would be a disservice not to educate the non-consumers.

The medical establishment, they don’t have to be consumers but they need to know about cannabis. They don’t know as much as they should about cannabis and they need to know more, like how it could affect their patients for better or for worse, so they know how to help their patients better. There could be drug interactions that could affect the potency of other drugs. They need to know these things. Educating them about cannabis is a challenge. It’s also an opportunity for us to now come in and say that cannabis is here to stay and be consumed by more and more people, so we better know how to deal with it from a medical perspective.“This bucking bronco of a growth style will throw a lot of people off. We need to figure out what we can grab on to and ride out these waves.”

Law enforcement needs to be educated too. What THC level in the blood indicates impairment? It is still a challenge because we’re not there yet, we don’t have that answer quite yet. And it’s an opportunity to help educate and to find more answers for these stakeholders, so we can have regulations that make sense.

Leo: To Aldwin’s point, the biggest opportunity comes along with federal legalization as well as expanding the customer base beyond the traditional market. Since adult use was legalized in CA, we haven’t yet seen the significant expansion of the consumer population. We’re primarily seeing a legal serving of the market that already existed before legalization.

The reality is cannabis can be used in different ways than what we think of. We know it has medical benefits and we know it is enjoyed recreationally by people looking for high THC content and the highest high. But there is also this middle ground, much like the difference between drinking moonshine and having a glass of wine at dinner. The wine at dinner industry is much bigger than the mason jar moonshine industry. That’s really where the opportunity is. What’s the appeal to the broader market? That will be a big challenge, but it’s inevitable. It comes from everything we’ve talked about today, consistency in products, educating people about cannabis, normalizing it to a certain degree, varietals and appellations.

As an entrepreneur, I’m looking at this from a business perspective. Everyone talks about the hockey stick growth chart, but it is a very wavy hockey stick. I expect to see very significant growth in the industry for a while, but it will have a lot of peaks and valleys. It’ll essentially be whiplash. We are seeing this in California right now, with sky high prices in flower last year down to bottom of the barrel prices this year. We have to all figure out how to hang on. This bucking bronco of a growth style will throw a lot of people off. We need to figure out what we can grab on to and ride out these waves. The good ones will be fun and the bad ones will be painful and we know they are coming again and again and again. That’s the biggest challenge. People say ‘expect tomorrow to look a lot like today,’ but you really can’t expect tomorrow to look anything like today in the cannabis industry. Tomorrow will be totally different from today. We need to figure out, within all this chaos, what can we hang on to and keep riding the upward trajectory without getting thrown off the bronco.

A Conversation with the Founders of Veda Scientific: Part One

By Aaron G. Biros
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Leo Welder, CEO of Veda Scientific, founded the business with Aldwin M. Anterola, PhD in July of 2019. A serial entrepreneur with experience in a variety of markets, he came to the industry with an intrigue for cannabis testing and analysis. After teaming up with Dr. Anterola, co-founder and chief science officer at Veda Scientific, they came together with the purpose of unlocking possibilities in cannabis. From the beginning, they set out with a heavy scientific interest in furthering the industry from a perspective of innovation and research.

Through discussing their clients’ needs and understanding their complex problems, the two realized they wanted to start a lab that goes well beyond the normal regulatory compliance testing. Innovation in cannabis looks like a lot of things: new formulations for infused products, better designs for vaping technology or new blends of genetics creating unique strains, to name a few. For the folks at Veda Scientific, innovation is about rigorous and concentrated research and development testing.

With the help of some very sophisticated analytical chemistry instruments, their team is working on better understanding how volatile compounds play a part in the chemometrics of cannabis. From varietals and appellations to skunky smells, their research in the chemistry of cannabis is astounding – and they’ve only begun to scratch the surface.

In this two-part series, we discuss their approach to cannabis testing, their role in the greater industry as a whole and we go down a few cannabis chemistry rabbit holes and find out that what we don’t know is a lot more than what we do know. In part one, we get into their backgrounds, how they came into the cannabis industry and how they are carving out their niche. Stay tuned for part two next week where we delve deep into the world of volatile compounds, winemaking, the tastes and smells of cannabis and chicken adobo.

Aaron G. Biros: Tell me about how you and your team came to launch Veda, how you entered the cannabis space and what Veda’s approach is to the role of testing labs in the broader cannabis industry. 

Leo Welder, CEO of Veda Scientific

Leo Welder: I’m an entrepreneur. This is my third significant venture in the last fifteen years or so. So, I was intrigued by cannabis legalization broadly, because it is such a unique time in our history. I was always interested in participating in the industry in some way, but I didn’t see where would be a good fit for me. I used to meet monthly with a group of friends and fellow entrepreneurs for dinner and discussions and one member started working on the software side of the industry. He mentioned the testing element of cannabis in one of our meetings. I latched on to that and was intrigued by the concept of testing cannabis. I began to research it and found the role that testing plays in the cannabis industry is really significant. I found out that regulators rely pretty heavily on labs to make sure that products are safe, labels are accurate and that consumers have some protections. So, I thought that this is a space that I thought I could really find a calling in.

So, from that point I knew I needed to find a subject matter expert, because I am not one. I have business skills and experience in some technical fields but I am not a cannabis testing expert by any means. So, with that I started to look at a few different markets that I thought may have opportunity for a new lab, and I came across Aldwin’s business; he had a cannabis testing lab in Illinois at that time. I reached out to him, talked to him about my vision for the space and his thoughts and his vision and we really started to come together. From there, we researched various markets and ultimately chose to approach Santa Barbara County as our first foray together into the cannabis testing market.

Aldwin M. Anterola: As Leo mentioned, he was looking for a subject matter expert and I am very much interested in plant biochemistry. Which means I like to study how plants make these compounds that are very useful to us. For my PhD [in plant physiology], I was studying how cell cultures of loblolly pine produce lignin. Our lab was interested in how pine trees produce lignin, which is what makes up wood. Wood comes from phenolic compounds. You’ve probably heard of antioxidants and flavonoids – those are phenolic compounds. After my PhD, I wanted to do something different so I decided to work with terpenes.

I picked a very important terpene in our field, an anti-cancer compound called Taxol, produced from the bark of the yew tree. You have to cut trees to harvest it. We have ways of synthesizing it now. But at that time, we were trying to figure out how the tree produces that terpene. Of course, I’m interested in any compound that plants make. My interest in terpenes led me to cannabinoids which turn out to be terpenophenolics, thus combining the two interests in my professional field.

Aldwin M. Anterola, PhD, Co-Founder and Chief Science Officer at Veda Scientific,

So that’s the scientific and intellectual side of why I became interested in cannabis, but practically speaking I got into cannabis because of a consulting offer. A company was applying for a cultivation license, wanted to have a laboratory component of their business in their application, and hired me to write that part of their application. I was very familiar with HPLC, and had a GC/MS in the lab. I also have a background in microbiology and molecular biology so I can cover every test required at that time, and I knew I could research the other analytical techniques if necessary.

So, they did not get the license, but I figured I’d take what I wrote, once I received permission, and set up an independent laboratory together. But it’s hard to run a lab and be a professor at the same time. Also, the busines side of running a lab is something that I am not an expert in. Fortunately, Leo found me. Before that, I really got excited about this new industry. The concept of cannabis being now accessible to more people is so interesting to me because of how new everything is. I wanted to be involved in an industry like this and help in making it safe while satisfying my curiosity in this new field of research. As a scientist, those are the things that excite us: the things we didn’t have access to, we can now do. It opens up a whole new room that we want to unlock. It was my intellectual curiosity that really drove me. This opened up new research avenues for me as well as other ventures if you will. How can I be more involved? I thought to myself.

SIU boasts an impressive cannabis program, thanks largely to Dr. Anterola’s work there.

Back in 2014, I introduced cannabis research to our university [Southern Illinois University] and set up an industrial hemp program, which was DEA-licensed I gathered faculty that would be interested in studying hemp and cannabis and we now have a whole cannabis science center at the university. I teach a course in cannabis biology and because I also teach medical botany to undergraduate students, I was able to introduce [premed] students to the endocannabinoid system. Anyway, I can go on and on.

Outside of that I became involved with the AOAC and ASTM, and became a qualified assessor for ISO 17025:2017. I have been a member of the American Chemical Society since 2000 but there were no cannabis related activities there yet until relatively recently. But when they had the new cannabis chemistry subdivision, I am happy to participate in there as well . There are many avenues that I took to begin dabbling with cannabis, be it research, nonprofits, teaching, testing and more. Cannabis has basically infiltrated all areas of what I do as an academic.

Leo: I read his resume and I was like this is the guy! So back to your question, what’s Veda’s role as a testing lab in this space? What are we trying to build? We spent a lot of time trying to figure out what we wanted to be in this space. We came to understand that labs are not the tip of the spear for the market; that would be the growers, the retailers and the processors. We are a support, a service. We see ourselves as a humble, but competent guide. We provide the data for the tip of the spear, the people pushing the industry forward with support, data and the services to make sure they have the tools they need to build these great companies and great products with good cultivation practices and more, leading everyone to the next level of the cannabis industry. Our job is to support innovation, to provide quality compliance testing, to of course ensure safety, while also providing great R&D to these innovative companies.

Aldwin: I’d like to add a bit to that thought. Okay so that’s who we are, but what are we not? Because as Leo said I had a testing lab before we met [Advanced Herbal Analytics]. From there, I approach it as safety testing, making sure that before it gets to the end consumer, we are sort of like gate keepers keeping consumers safe. That’s one side to it, but we are not the people who are trying to make sure that none of the products get to the market. For some, that’s how we’re treated as.

People often look at testing labs like the police. We are not the people trying to limit products to market. Our approach is not to find faults. There is another way of being a testing lab that is less about finding faults in products and more about finding uniqueness. What makes your product different? With this new approach, we are much more focused on helping the best products make it to the shelves.

Aaron: Given that all state licensed labs have to provide the same tests as the other labs in that state, how does Veda differentiate itself?

Leo: Location was the first thing. We picked Santa Barbara County intentionally. We knew that some of the biggest operators, some of the most forward-thinking innovators were setting up shop here. Looking down the road, not just this year or next year but very long term, we wanted to start building a great, sustainable company. We wanted to build a brand that those kinds of companies would be receptive to. Building better and greater products. There’s one other lab in the county and that’s it. Whereas there are clusters of labs in other parts of the state. Part of the draw to Santa Barbara for us was that it is such a small, tight-knit community. We have worked very hard to build relationships in our community and to understand their challenges, helping them however we can.

Location and relationships. Getting to know the challenges that different size customers face, be it our greenhouse customers versus outdoor customers, or large-scale operations versus smaller manufacturing operations, the challenges are all different. Some people care about turnaround times, some more about R&D. If we understand our client’s problems, then we can provide better service. We see ourselves as problem solvers. We lean heavily on our technical team members like Aldwin, who not only have tremendous amounts of experience and education, but also great networks to utilize when a customer needs help, even when it falls outside of our local expertise.

The GCxGC/MS instrument, used for Veda’s advanced R&D testing

Last but certainly not least is the advanced R&D testing that we do. When we first started, we started talking to farmers and manufacturers trying to understand their challenges. What data were they not getting? How would a testing lab better serve them? So, we started investing strategically in certain instruments that would allow us to better serve them. We’ll get into this later as well, but we invested in a GCxGC/MS, which allows us to get more visibility into things beyond the typical panels, like more terpenes and other volatile compounds including thiols and esters. We did that because we knew there is value in that. The data our customers were getting prior just wasn’t enough to put together really great breeding programs or to manufacture really consistent products, you know, to move toward that next level of innovation in the industry.

Aldwin: Leo mentioned advanced R&D and it’s basically the same approach that I mentioned before. It’s not just telling you what you can and cannot do. It’s about asking them what do you want to do and what do you want from a lab? If we have a problem, let’s see if we can solve it. That’s how the GCxGC/MS came into play because we knew there was a need to test for many terpenes and other volatile compounds. The common complaint we received was why two terpene profiles differ so much from each other, even from the same genetics.

This is something that would actually give the customer, the cultivator or the manufacturer: data about their product that they can actually use. For consistency, for better marketing and other reasons. We are trying to help them answer the questions of ‘how can I make my product better?’

You know, for example, clients would tell us they want something that has a specific taste or smells a certain way. Nobody is telling them what makes the flavor or smell. There is a need there that we can fill. We are trying to provide data that they, the customers, need so that they can improve their breeding programs or their formulations. Data they can use, not just data they need in order to comply with regulations. They would ask us what we can do. We listen to our customers and we try and help as best we can. We don’t know every answer. We are discovering there is a lot more to terpenes than what you can find on a traditional one dimensional gas chromatogram. Some of the terpene data that our clients had previously is not really actionable data, which is where the GCxGC/MS is helping us.


In part two, we delve deep into the world of volatile compounds, winemaking, the tastes and smells of cannabis and chicken adobo. Click here to read part two. 

Canopy Growth Acquires Wana Brands: An Interview with Nancy Whiteman

By Aaron G. Biros
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On October 14, Canopy Growth announced their plans to acquire Wana Brands, the number one cannabis edibles brand based on market share in North America. The two companies entered into an agreement that gives Canopy the right to acquire 100% of the membership interests of Wana Brands (a call option to acquire 100% of each Wana entity) once a “triggering event,” such as when plant-touching companies begin trading on major US stock exchanges or full federal legalization, occurs.

As part of the agreement, Canopy Growth makes an upfront payment of $297.5 million to Wana Brands. Until the United States moves on cannabis legalization or companies can start trading on U.S. exchanges and Canopy uses the call option to acquire Wana Brands, they don’t get any voting or economic interest in Wana Brands. The two companies are essentially operating completely independently of each other until the US legalizes cannabis.

Nancy Whiteman co-founded Wana Brands in 2010 and since then the company has expanded significantly. Following the legalization of adult-use cannabis in Colorado, their sales skyrocketed. Over the next few years, Whiteman oversaw the company’s expansion into a number of new states. In 2016, they moved into Oregon’s market and quickly grew their brand presence, seemingly overnight. Then they expanded into Nevada, Arizona and Illinois in 2017. After that the company made a major East Coast push, expanding into Maryland, Florida and Massachusetts, with other major northeast markets expected to be added soon. The brand now has products available in twelve US states and nine Canadian provinces, with plans to add four additional states by the end of the year.

Nancy Whiteman, CEO & Co-Founder of Wana Brands

Shortly after the announcement, we sat down together over coffee in Las Vegas to discuss Whiteman’s journey to success, her plans for the company’s expansion and what the future might hold for Wana Brands.

Aaron G. Biros: First of all, congratulations on the acquisition. As a co-founder and CEO, it must be amazing to see the success of your company and all you’ve accomplished. How do you feel?

Nancy Whiteman: I feel ecstatic. I am so excited and so proud of what Wana has accomplished. Just all around a great feeling.

Biros: What was it like leading up to this moment? From the inception of the business, did you ever have any doubts you’d make it this far?

Whiteman: A thousand times. Absolutely. Anyone in cannabis that tells you they didn’t have any doubts is probably not being very honest. I had been thinking about partnership for a while. I felt the timing was right because of a variety of reasons, but also the possibility of federal legalization. I wanted to make sure that Wana was really going to be well positioned for future growth. One of the things that I said in our employee meeting – I quoted the old proverb of ‘If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.’ We’ve been going it alone for eleven years and we’ve gone very fast. But I want Wana to continue to be a major player in the industry and to go far. I really felt that this was the time in the industry to strike a partnership.

So that’s a little bit of the thinking behind it. I think when there is federal legalization, there is going to be a host of competitors entering the industry that are going to be unlike anything we’ve faced before. I think it’s going to be challenging for independent brands to scale as rapidly as they’re going to need to scale to compete against all of this new competition on their own. So that’s the why behind the timing of it.

Canopy_Growth_Corporation_logoIn terms of why Canopy, I’ve known Canopy for quite a while. I met them when we were looking for partners about three and a half years ago. We did not end up putting together a deal at that point in time, but I did get to know the company quite a bit. Since then that company has changed significantly with leadership changes and became a very different company with the Constellation Brands investment behind them.

When I think about the future of the industry and particularly post-legalization, I have certain things that I am looking for in partners. Of course, I am looking for financial strength in a partner. I was really looking for a company that has a very long-term perspective on the industry, with both the proper resources and the proper mindset to make long-term investments for the future. And then my belief is that post-legalization, we’re going to see radical changes in the industry including where products are cultivated in a global market, more distribution outside of dispensaries – and I think liquor stores could be a likely form of distribution at some point in time, so the relationship with Constellation was very interesting and appealing to me. But all of those things wouldn’t mean as much to me if I didn’t feel we didn’t have a good fit in terms of our shared values and how we saw the industry. We spent a lot of time talking about that and I think one of the aspects that really attracted me to Canopy was that we are very aligned on how we see the future of the industry shaping up. Certainly, I think there is a wonderfully viable position for cannabis as an alcohol replacement, however we also have a lot of focus on innovation and the health and wellness aspects of cannabis. I was really looking for a partner that felt the same, and it ended up that we really were aligned on those values.

Biros: What does it look like going forward? Since you’re staying on board, how will your new role change?

Whiteman: My new role doesn’t change at all actually. I woke up last Monday—the week after the big announcement–and it felt very normal getting back to work and having my usual meetings. This was my fifteen minutes of fame and thankfully its diminishing so now it’s just back to work as usual.

But moving forward, we have big plans. Wana is launching in four new markets over the next couple of months, we’re in discussions to launch in an additional six markets, and we have very robust innovation pipeline. So, we’re just really busy right now just executing on our strategy. I am looking forward to getting to know our new colleagues at Canopy better and exploring different collaboration possibilities.

I feel very optimistic. I was thrilled our employees were delighted with the news and morale is very high. The feedback from the rest of the industry has been really positive and overall, I am feeling very good about this decision.

Biros: So you mentioned some expansion plans for four new markets in the next few months. How does the acquisition help Wana Brands expand?

Whiteman: You know we haven’t announced the new states so I can’t speak to those publicly yet. They were all in the works before this deal and are currently in the process of being onboarded. Where it will get interesting is how this deal impacts new states that we move into. Until Canopy decides to exercise the call option [to acquire 100% of membership interests in each Wana entity], we are still an independently owned and run company. So we are still going to be looking for the best partners that we can find in new markets, and the Canopy connection will certainly be helpful to us. But to your point about the plans, we’ll be announcing those new market expansions in the coming weeks.

Biros: As a woman leader with an extremely significant position in the cannabis industry, do you have any advice for young aspiring entrepreneurs, women leaders or other women in the cannabis space?

Whiteman: I do. I posted something on LinkedIn the other day and I’m going to make the same comment to you as I made in that post because I think it’s important and particularly important for young women. People have said a lot of nice things about me in the past couple of weeks and of course everybody loves to hear nice things about themselves. But the truth is, some of them are not true. And one of them that is definitely not true is that I am somehow fearless. And I guess what I would say to women and young entrepreneurs is that fearlessness is a myth.

Being an entrepreneur is hard. You’re putting your money on the line, you’re putting your time on the line, you’re putting your reputation, you’re potentially putting your family’s, your friends’ and your investors’ money on the line. Who would not be afraid against that backdrop? We all have times of feeling fearful, of feeling anxious, of having sleepless nights. So, what I would say is don’t aspire to be fearless. There are other aspirations that are much more useful. For example, aspire to be resilient, aspire to be persistent, aspire to be of service to other people, aspire to be very true to your values and your strategy. Don’t let this mythology of what a “leader” is supposed to look like make you feel bad about your emotions. It’s not about having those emotions, it’s what you do with them.

That’s what I would say to young entrepreneurs and especially to women. Because I do believe that women hold themselves to a very high standard a lot of the time and have a lot of misconceptions of what they’re supposed to be living up to when it comes to leadership.

Biros: What an incredible perspective to have. Okay, one last question for you: what are you doing to celebrate?

Whiteman: So far, I’ve been too busy to celebrate! This just happened so recently. I would like to take a great trip with my kids. I don’t really know I have not had time to figure that out. People tell me I need to go to Disney. But right now, it’s still taking a little while to let it all sink in. 

Biros: Wonderful! And Nancy, thank you so much for your time I really appreciate it.

Whiteman: And thank you! So nice to see you in person.

Flower-Side Chats Part 4: A Q&A with Adrian Sedlin, CEO & Founder of Canndescent

By Aaron Green
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Flower continues to be the dominant product category in US cannabis sales. 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 navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory, supply chain and consumer demand.

Canndescent is a vertically integrated flower brand based out of Santa Barbara, CA with grow operations in Desert Hot Springs. Having opened the first municipally-permitted cultivation in California, Canndescent has pioneered luxury branding in the cannabis space with a focus on user friendliness. They were the first cultivator to market cannabis using effects like Calm, Cruise Create, Connect, and Charge rather than the strain name. Canndescent also recently launched a social equity brand, Justice Joints, with 100% of all profits going to cannabis-related expungement and re-entry programs.

We spoke with Adrian Sedlin, CEO and founder of Canndescent to learn more about his transition from tech to cannabis, how he thinks about product positioning and the company’s motivation for getting into Justice Joints. Adrian founded Canndescent in 2015 after being approached by his brother-in-law who ran a legacy cultivation operation. Prior to Canndescent, Adrian was an entrepreneur and worked in startup turnarounds.

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

Adrian Sedlin: I started looking at the industry from a professional perspective in 2015, and once I came to understand how cannabis affects the endocannabinoid system, I became absolutely fascinated by the opportunity to build a world class cannabis company that prioritized consumers. Particularly, I became interested in the adult-use market because I see cannabis as an automobile compared to the horse and buggy of alcohol. Cannabis is a superior adult use solution from a health and society perspective, yet, the entire positioning of the industry at the time was sub-prime, non-aspirational and inaccessible. With Canndescent, the core idea was to counterprogram the existing paradigm and deliver cannabis in a way that was beautiful. To bring the power of the plant to more people, we had to reposition the category and simplify the shopping experience. Moreover, there were too many unsolved consumer problems. For example, in 2015 people said cannabis was a commodity but any stoner knows there are as many dimensions to consider as there are with wine. The opportunity to deliver consumer solutions in a nascent industry that desperately needed advocates while helping to improve the world was enough to get me out of retirement.

Green: Just curious, what was your background prior to cannabis?

Adrian Sedlin, CEO and founder of Canndescent

Sedlin: I’m a lifelong entrepreneur. I started my first company when I was still in college. After graduation, I ran that business for another four and a half years, sold it, and went back to business school and got my MBA. After Harvard, most of my career was spent in early-stage growth companies, turnarounds and pivots. When someone had $10 million invested in an enterprise or their company wasn’t growing at the rate they wanted, that’s when my phone would ring.

I was lucky enough to shepherd a number of companies to a successful exit several times. During my professional journey, I’d taken a year and a half off between 2004 and 2006, and then pre-cannabis in 2015 I had taken three years off and was getting a little itchy. I didn’t think I was permanently retired; I was just sort of waiting for the next thing to get excited about. And cannabis definitely was the first time I can say in my life that I finally understood what I was put on planet earth to do.

Green: I understand that Canndescent was the first municipally permitted cultivator to open in California?

Sedlin: Desert Hot Springs was the first city to legalize cultivation, and we were the first ones to operate in the city.

Green: How did that come about?

Sedlin: The city had conditional use permits, but a lot of people were trying to do ground up builds. We decided to do a retrofit of an existing facility. So, we were the first ones to get the regulatory permit and cultivate in a way that was truly compliant with MCRSRA which eventually became MAUCRSA.

It took lots of tolerance for ambiguity and incredible patience. There’s an off-putting expression that goes, “pioneers take the arrows.” Well, we took a lot of arrows along the way. A perfect example is within our first year of operation, the fire department sent us five cease-and-desist orders to turn off our CO2. Not because we were doing anything wrong, but because they changed their regulations and then they wanted us to immediately comply as opposed to giving us a transition period. You just got to learn to roll with it. I’d say anyone who got into the regulated cannabis market early – and there’s a bunch of us who are still standing – you just learn to roll with it, be patient and yet, apply boundless energy and passion to the process.

Green: Did you know you wanted to be in Desert Hot Springs? Or did it just turn out to be the permit that was the easiest to get?

Sedlin: That was a binary choice for us. The simple choice for Desert Hot Springs was that it was the only choice. We were doing a professional execution. We were taking investment dollars, and I couldn’t have any ambiguity of being in the gray market. This was before adult use legislation passed in California, so we were functioning under California’s Medical Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act (MCRSA). The only way to be compliant with MCRSA at the time and be a medical cannabis cultivator was to get city-based permission or county-based permission, and the first region to authorize that was Desert Hot Springs. From our team’s perspective, wanting to build a truly compliant company from day one, that was the only choice available.

Green: I understand your facilities are powered by solar?

Sedlin: We have several facilities. One of them is a greenhouse that has light supplementation. We have an indoor facility that is powered by solar. When we opened the facility, it didn’t have a solar project on it. After we opened it, about a year and a half later, we did this full solar retrofit. We found the solar panels offset 38% of our energy consumption.

Green: Your product marketing is effect-forward. How did you come to that positioning for the brand and for the products?

Sedlin: The idea is to simplify life for consumers and unburden them from having to understand the 6,000 different strain names that are out there which have no consistency from cultivator to cultivator.  Before Apple popularized the graphical user interface for computers, the standing orthodoxy among engineers at the time was that everyone should have to learn how to code. Everyone who wanted to use a computer needed to go through the mind-numbing MS-DOS process. But computers didn’t scale that way. Apple’s genius is that it built technology to serve humans with a GUI and didn’t put humans in service of the technology. Similarly, you shouldn’t have to learn 6,000 strains, 100+ terpenes and 100+ cannabinoids to make your first purchase. Our goal has always been to put cannabis in service of consumers as opposed to having the consumer in service of cannabis.

To be clear, Apple doesn’t dumb things down. Apple makes things easier, so that more people adopt them, so those things can then get better. And, that’s really how we’ve always viewed it. At the end of the day, I’m not sure if a consumer needs to know that he or she loves AK-47 when one can understand loosely, “How do I want to feel? Am I trying to relax? What am I trying to achieve?” It’s about prioritizing the consumer over the engineer, or in this case the cultivator or breeder, who covets naming rights. We operate with a consumer-centric philosophy and our company is in service of the consumer.

Green: You have a social equity brand called Justice Joints. What was your motivation for that line?

Sedlin: We have the luxury and privilege of participating in a legal cannabis industry, but there are many people who were never afforded that choice and suffered a steep cost.  With this in mind, we need to put our dollars and sweat into helping communities most impacted and marginalized by the war or drugs and doing our part to address some of the damage.  Justice Joints (JJ), our brand where 100% of the profits go to cannabis-related social equity and expungement programs invites the cannabis community, dispensaries and consumers to vote with their dollars for a better world. “Here’s a vehicle where 100% of the profit goes to cannabis related social justice causes. Are you in? Or are you out?” It gives consumers a platform where they can participate in positive change with their dollars.  It’s what the plant is about.

JJ was the right answer for Canndescent because we wanted to build a self-sustaining economic engine for social justice. We launch world class cannabis brands so building one for social justice was the right choice for us and provided a way for all 250 of our employees to give back and feel proud each and every day.  Justice Joints isn’t a side project; it’s hardwired into the daily activities of Canndescent and will hopefully evolve into an industry-wide, give back platform.

Green: What’s one thing in the world that you want to change or inspires you the most?

Sedlin: The thing I’m most interested in professionally is popularizing the practice of gratitude into the broader business and social fabric. Canndescent is the first company that I know of to incorporate gratitude as a core value. We do so because we believe that happiness is a mindset and a choice, not an outcome. It’s not how many likes you get on your social media, or how much money you make. It’s how you frame your experience to yourself that makes you happy.

On any given day, there’s 100 things I can bitch about, but that just becomes poison ivy that itches and that would make me angry, frustrated and depleted. Living and acting in gratitude, we can move our minds to a peaceful and productive place where we have control and can be our best self for those around us. For example, I just lost my dad on Thursday but I’m focused on gratitude not sorrow. My dad was awesome, died peacefully at age 89, had a 60-year marriage, and loved and gave love. Naturally, there is sadness, but instead of sinking into that, I focus on the blessing of him and meditate on the good. Operating from a happy place, I’m freed up mentally to be there for my mom, sister, wife, children, employees and investors.

So that’s what I’m passionate about. It’s not so much something I want to learn about as much as it is something that I want to cultivate in the world. There would just be more happiness in the world if humanity exercised the muscle of perspective–gratitude. It’s the greatest time in human history to be alive. To listen to the world around us, it’s natural to forget that. But, I’ll take Covid-19 over the Black Plague and Spanish Influenza anyday. “Yes, shit happens, but are you a shit talker and complainer, or are you the type to say, let’s clean this up.” It’s a choice. Canndescent wants to project light and build a world of gratitude.

Green: That concludes the interview, thanks Adrian!

The Evolution of Cannabis Entrepreneurship

By Jonathan Monk
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Cannabis presents a plethora of challenges for entrepreneurs not seen in more traditional industries. Akin to the dot-com boom of the early 2000s, the cannabis industry has seen an astonishing flurry of business over the past decade. Within this dynamic landscape, new cannabis companies come and go on a near-daily basis.

To capitalize on novel markets’ potential, hopeful entrepreneurs from all walks of life have “jumped headfirst” into the cannabis space. This new breed of entrepreneurs must not only be smart, but they must also be challenging. Yet, as the cannabis industry evolves under the forces of legalization and innovation, our understanding of what defines cannabis entrepreneurs continues to change.

Cannabis businesses are shaped by the regulations, challenges and opportunities of specific market niches. As such, cannabis entrepreneurs have evolved with the environments in which they do business.

California & Proposition 215   

California paved the way for the industry of today by legalizing medical cannabis in 1995. Since the passage of historic Proposition 215, cannabis has continued to gain momentum across the globe. This progress has happened through the visions and hard work of small business owners.

The early days of legal cannabis in California are now criticized for their lack of regulation. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, all you needed to start a cultivation business in California was a place to grow a garden. While early dispensaries did need local business licenses, they could legally purchase and sell untested products from unlicensed growers.

The genealogy of the modern cannabis industry can be traced directly back to the days of California’s Prop 215. During this era, the first cannabis dispensaries were founded – this model has since been replicated thousands of times. Also, the Prop 215 model gave rise to America’s first legal, commercial cannabis farms.

Cannabis entrepreneurs in California’s medical space focused primarily on developing the blueprints for a brand-new industry. To this end, they did not have the time or luxury to finetune the businesses for such things as operational efficiency and brand awareness. Even more, these people did not have to deal with such complexities as employee screening, product testing and seed-to-sale tracking.

Medical Cannabis Entrepreneurs

New medical markets stand in stark contrast to those seen in the early days of California. To this end, today’s medical markets operate within a web of stringent government regulations. For entrepreneurs, these rules set forth major emphases on both compliance and technology.

The Pennsylvania medical cannabis industry provides an excellent platform for understanding how the regulatory system of a market shapes entrepreneurial paths. For instance, medical cannabis cards are only issued to patients that meet the minimum criteria of 23 qualifying conditions, including severe conditions like aids, cancer and epilepsy. Beyond that, cannabis dispensaries in Pennsylvania must meet a slew of challenging criteria to operate and pay large sums of money in licensing fees.

To handle the regulatory requirements in places like Pennsylvania and remain profitable, medical cannabis entrepreneurs are incredibly dependent on technology. To this end, dispensaries utilize point-of-sale (POS) and seed-to-sale software to track inventory and stay compliant carefully. Even more, they use state-of-the-art security systems to safeguard their operations.

Cannabis entrepreneurs in medical markets must be able to run compliant operations and support their businesses with requisite technology. These elements stand in stark contradiction to the “wild west” mentality that pervaded the early industry. As such, it’s safe to assume that the rules of today’s markets force entrepreneurs to be more professional than in the days of CA Prop 215.

Adult-Use Cannabis Entrepreneurs

The most considerable difference between medical and adult-use cannabis companies has to do with their available customer base. Importantly, adult-use cannabis companies are only bound by minimum age requirements and state borders. Furthermore, limited restrictions on licensing create highly competitive markets that require sophisticated sales and marketing operations.

As there are no limits on potential customers, and limited regulations on license counts, business opportunities in adult-use markets are primarily directed by supply and demand rules. Because competition is the driving force in adult-use markets, entrepreneurs in this vertical have a good deal in common with peers outside the cannabis industry.

Perhaps the most defining characteristic of adult-use entrepreneurs is an emphasis on branding and marketing. As adult-use markets mature in places like Colorado, a phenomenon known as “brand concentration” occurs when a few companies come to dominate a majority of the market. As smaller companies fight for market share, they must develop professional brands that appeal to a broad customer base.

Cannabis entrepreneurs in adult-use markets must master the skills required in medical cannabis while also expanding their knowledge base in modern business dealings. Of these, the development of professional brands is one of the most defining characteristics of adult-use entrepreneurs.

It’s astonishing to see how much the cannabis industry has grown and matured looking back just a few short years. As business opportunities come about with new legalization efforts, entrepreneurs quickly rise to take advantage of untapped markets. As the cannabis business continues to evolve with the times, entrepreneurs must pivot to stay compliant, relevant and successful.

While the early Prop 215 market in California barely resembles today’s industry, it’s important to remember where we came from. Namely, our understanding of the contemporary cannabis business results from everyone who came before us. As the industry progresses, we will continue to complement established best practices with the requisite innovations that come with new opportunities.

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Being an American Cannabis Entrepreneur in Europe

By Michael Sassano
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I have heard everything from “No one in their right mind would spend the energy in Europe when the U.S. has the most developed infrastructure in the world and $13 billion in sales” to “Is it even legal there?”. And yes, when you come from the West Coast cannabis world, it’s hard to imagine anywhere else but the West Coast of the U.S.A. 

Europe has taken an infrastructural leap forward by starting off the pharmaceutical, medical and GMP supplements path. As an American-European from the West Coast cannabis world, remembering how the U.S. started/progressed, remaining patient and stretching the grey matter crossing the thresholds of pharmaceutical manufacturing, is serious.

Costs to Do Business

Which country you choose to begin operations in decides if cannabis is more or less expensive cap-x and opp-x to the U.S. And don’t forget the Euro conversion. Clearly, working near main cities like Berlin and Geneva will be expensive both for land and competition for talented staff. I chose Portugal, which greatly reminds me in terms of geography to a mini-California on the coast of Europe. Portugal also boasts the most progressive cannabis rules and is home to large cannabis producers like Tilray and Clever Leaves paving the way in the EU market. Greece is also one of our top locations, due to being cannabis friendly and another coastal country with great talent and reasonable costs to live and operate. 

Excitement

The coast of Portugal

All of Europe is buzzing with cannabis. Somai Pharmaceuticals tracks over 387 star-ups in cannabis around Europe, South America, Australia and Asia. The excitement when Colorado first announced cannabis legalization in 2014 is the same feeling in Europe now. Most groups are collaborative yet guarded at the same time with the uncertainty of how EU cannabis plays out. Patient demand exists, and similar government wills are at play, but all in the direct backyard of big pharma. 

Right now you see huge companies that will always exist and small companies that will always be a part of competition. It’s likely that Europe will shake out to be 30% large to medium company mix and 70% medium to small companies. So, the feeling of room for everyone exists there. This is not surprising considering the legal market in the world is $17B in sales while the illegal market is estimated at ten times that market. And new demographics from around the world are opening up to cannabis for pain relief, sleep and other ailments for new age groups. 

Brand New Infrastructure

european union states
Member states of the European Union

Conforming to standard guidelines like pharmaceutical manufacturing, GMP supplement manufacturing and GACP farming is just plain normal. U.S. state-by-state expansions really missed the boat on this, and state rules without federal guidelines aren’t good for businesses left guessing or consumers. Eventually, with federal legalization, some infrastructure rebuilding will be needed to conform to standard procedures. I am unsure if the systems are even capable of handling tens of thousands of operating facilities with or without regulation, but starting off at the highest level of pharmaceutical grade is a good way to build consumer and regulator confidence. Learning pharmaceutical and supplement GMP manufacturing is a precise and studied endeavor coming from the U.S. cannabis market. The US hemp industry is embracing this on a supplement level. I now curl up to online courses and formulation books.

In time, all of Europe’s 741 million population will have access to cannabis related products. With standardized processes, new infrastructures and good-old fashioned entrepreneur energy Europe will be a massive market. Sure, the early adopters will need to struggle through regulations and rule creation, but the lifestyle in Southern Europe is the envy of West Coast USA, where laid-back lifestyle and organic food is the minimum standard.