Remember those heady days of the Green Rush a decade ago, when markets were small and it seemed everyone had a chance? Now it’s more of a mad rush to get some green in the form of investment capital.
The majority of states in the country now have some type of legal cannabis market. Businesses in those states operate in spite of regulations that are restrictive, confusing and make it very difficult to make a profit. Meanwhile, heavy tax burdens, differences in enforcement techniques and varying degrees of oversight are other factors that influence bottom lines in the cannabis industry.
Inflation also continues to be a prominent force across world markets. Sales of cannabis products have fallen as consumers adjust to inflation and post-COVID supply chain issues that are causing higher prices on necessary staples like food and gas. An oversaturation of cannabis flower is becoming a perennial problem in some states and another factor causing industry distress.
When cash flow slows to a trickle, companies of all sizes seek out investment funding to keep their momentum. But catching the eye of an investor group requires more than just sticking your hand out.
What Attracts Potential Investors?
A company is best positioned to attract those interested in cannabis investment opportunities when it appears serious about its growth plans. That means being well positioned with a solid upper-management foundation and so much the better if there’s an advisory board in place too. A company built with a diverse group of talent—ideally from consumer packaged goods companies—presents an attractive opportunity for investors.
Top-quality and industry savvy finance employees who maintain sound financial books and establish a solid banking arrangement are also important. If the company’s financial scenario is robust enough to provide confidence in case of an audit and the books are in good shape with auditable METRC logs investors will be far more inclined to put money on the line.
A cannabis company with full inclusion (or seed to sale) is often a smart choice for investment. The vertical integration of cultivation, processing/manufacturing and retail allows them to sell their own products while also stocking other brands’ products on the floors of their dispensaries. If their products are respected and the brand is held in high regard, even better. Similarly, a cultivation enterprise that can grow crops for multiple brands can also be very attractive. The ability to pivot and adjust production to reflect the market and consumer demands indicates a strong business foundation.
Despite the current headwinds and saturated markets, other chances for growth exist. When a local municipality finally decides to “opt-in” to adult-use cannabis sales, there’s opportunity for both established brands and startups. It’s a matter of being ready for those opportunities and having a plan to leap in whenever new licenses become available.
What Businesses Will Struggle to Attract Investment?
Culture is key here. Poor employee relations and weak cohesion across departments are indicative of deeper problems. Do people actually want to work for the business? Do they feel supported by human resources? A company with underdeveloped or non-existent workers’ compensation policies and a management team that is not respected by its employees is not going to look good in the eyes of potential investors.
Non-diversified cannabis businesses are also at a major disadvantage when seeking investors. Cultivators of one type of product or service are locked into a single operation geared to do one thing. Any changes to market whims or problems with the supply chain can wreak havoc on a business based around a single product.
Stick to Business Basics
The cannabis industry is unique, but the basics of running a business well enough for success still apply. Strictly adhering to the traditional methods that any successful organization follows is extra important in cannabis. Businesses that are active in their community and make a real effort to be involved will be held in higher regard by investors. They want to see cannabis businesses that are not just setting up shop to make a quick buck, but are dedicated to bettering their community. That indicates a relationship with customers that involves mutual respect and promotes business longevity and financial stability.
Aeroponic & hydroponic systems grow plants at a highly accelerated rate. A “clean room” type of construction approach is the best way to manage this type of grow operation. Starting with a facility that is completely void of any kind of wood or materials that are porous is a good start. Cellulose materials collect moisture and encourage mold and mildew formation no matter how good the sealant.
We have seen cultivation spaces built out of dry wall over wooden post construction and studs that look sealed and solid on the outside of walls but when repaired for plumbing or other expansion work, they are black inside and covered with nasty mold that no one wants near their grow space.
Panel construction over steel frames or steel studs with skins is a safer, more sterile approach than retrofitting a wooden structure. Panel construction offers the added benefit of rapid assembly and minimal labor costs. We have seen 300 light rooms assembled in a few days so it is both very cost effective and safely sealed for protected growth.
Room Sizes & Count
If you have unlimited space, temperature and humidity management should determine the room sizes in your facility. Room sizes that are square in dimensions tend to be easier to maintain from an environmental standpoint. Long narrow rooms are good for fan airflow but tend to be more expensive from a cooling and dehumidification point of view. The larger the room, the more likely that you will get “microclimates” within the room which can challenge yield optimization.
Now, of course, many grows are retrofits of existing structures so compromises can be necessary. We have found that cultivators that have both very large and mid-size rooms in the same facility (200 lights versus 70 lights) are consistently more successful in the 70 light rooms. These “smaller rooms (~1,500 ft2) out-yielded and out-performed the larger rooms using the same genetics and grow plans. Compartmentalization also minimizes the risk in the case that a calamity (i.e. pest infestation) strikes the room. In a large room scenario, the losses can damage your operation. For this reason, we recommend 70-100 light/tub rooms as a standard.
Rooms should also follow your nursery economics. Structuring your nursery to produce just enough clones/veg plants for your next flower room avoids wasted plant material and resources. Breaking a larger space down into individual rooms means that you need fewer veg plants to fill your flower room that week. The best way to optimize this is to have a number of rooms that are symmetrical with the number 8 (typical 8-week cycle genetics).
With 8 rooms running flower, you are able to plant one room per week for 8 weeks. In the 9th week, you start over on room 1. This continuous harvest process is highly efficient from a labor standpoint and it minimizes the size of your mothers room (cost center). Additional space can be applied to your flower rooms. If you do not have infinite space, even divisors work just as well; 2 or 4 rooms can be planted in sequence for the same optimization (for 2-room structures, harvest and replant 1 room every 4 weeks for example). The optimal structure (8, 16, 24, or more rooms) enables you to optimize your profitability. If any of this needs further explanation, please just ask.
Within your room choice, movable rows or columns of tubs/lights also provides optimal yields. Tubs/plants can be moved together for light usage efficiency and one 3-foot aisle can be opened for plant maintenance. Racking systems or movable trays/tubs make this convenient nowadays.
Concrete floors offer pockets for bacteria to collect and smolder. As such, they have to be sealed. Proper application of your sealant choice is required so that it does not peal up or crack after sealing. There are many benefits to sealed floors that is discussed in the white paper. Floor drains are the equivalent of a portal to Hell for a sterile grow operation. Avoid them at all costs.
Tuning or optimizing you grow rooms for ideal flowering operation depends on your location. Our advice is that you build and optimize your facility in phases with the expectation that nothing is perfect and you will learn improvements in every phase of expansion. The immediate benefit is production that you can promote to your sales channels and revenue that starts as soon as possible to improve your profitability. This is also an excellent learning curve to apply to subsequent rooms. Our happiest customers are those that learned construction improvements in early rooms that were able to be applied to following rooms without headache. The ability to focus on one or two rooms also allows you to get the recipe correct rather than just relying on “winging it”.
Don’t Be In A Rush To Go Green
Validate your water supplies and their stability. Verify that the water in your aeroponic or hydroponic feeds that get to your plants are clean and sterile. This is much easier in a step-by-step fashion than in a crisis debug mode once production is in progress. Be very cautious about incoming clone supplies. We will talk about this more in the next chapter on Integrated Pest Management but incoming clones are a top pest vector that can contaminate your entire facility.
Warehouse Versus Greenhouse Cultivation Spaces
As we started out, controlling your environment is your most important concern. We have seen success in both indoor rooms and greenhouses. The defining success factor is controlling humidity and temperature. Modern sealed controlled environment (CEA) greenhouses do this well and CEA is somewhat of a given for indoor grows. More details on this in the white paper.
Packaging these recommendations gets you to the perfect body for your Formula 1 race car. Now, you are ready to look at some of the mechanics of protecting your operation from pesky little critters and biologicals that can derail your operation and weaken your engine.
Before we sign off this week, I wanted to highlight the ultimate build-out that we have seen so far. Of course, there are many challengers that have done this well but at this point, FarmaGrowers in South Africa has the best thought out facility we have seen. They acquired Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) & Good Agricultural & Collection Practice (GACP) certification early in their operations due to very well-thought-out designs. They are exporting to global markets without irradiation today. Certainly, many successful customers have beautifully thought-out operations and there are several upcoming facilities that offer amazing planning that will challenge for this crown, but for now. FarmaGrowers leads the pack in this aspect. See here for a walkthrough.
Ideal cannabis profits come from high demand/high selling prices and low production costs. The spread between those two, or margin, can determine the life or death of your business. We want to share this series of articles so that your next investment can be highly successful and high margin out-of-the-box.
Regardless of the grow method (soil, coco, rockwool, hydro or aero), every plant performs best in its own ideal environmental conditions. Experienced growers gained success through hard work, and just that, experience. Many have tried more advanced grow technologies, but shied away due to early trial failures or the complexity of maintaining chemistry across a grow facility. The wonderful thing now is that precision sensors and software controls eliminate the risk to robust healthy plants and harvest success. Growers are now able to both manage production while performing research in line with their operations.
We have learned a great deal working with our grow partners over the last 6 years. Every grow facility and location are different due to local weather, business environment and scale. This series of articles and guide, authored by our expert, Christopher Wrenn, will include recommendations of the most successful approaches we have seen here in North America and all over the world.
Building top-quality cultivation facilities is no simple task. Cultivators are also looking for new help as they shift from older soil or media approaches to more efficient grow methods. One powerful method is aeroponics, which is very good at growing any type of plant in air in a sterile environment, with labor, nutrient and water savings.
Where possible, we will share key vendors that support healthy grow operations and (since it is World Series Time), customer examples that are knocking it out of the park. In today’s competitive business environment, it is critical to do what we can to increase profitability and survival in the face of steep headwinds. We want you to crush it and be “the last man standing.”
So, let’s get to it.
Climate: Environmental Control
We begin with a critical leg in your environment. The process of photosynthesis is more than just light, plant and moisture. We want to do more than just grow plants. We want to grow highly profitable plants. That means we have to accelerate photosynthesis so we are growing faster, bigger and more potent than our competitors.
The Vapor Pressure Deficit (VPD) is the amount of “drying power” available in the air surrounding your plants. This is a useful way to understand the amount of moisture your atmosphere can remove from your plants as they digest carbon dioxide and aspirate water and oxygen into the air around your plants. A higher vapor deficit is a good thing for growth; It is also a measurement of how much nutrient you can uptake into the plant roots and convert into size and potency in the canopy. We recommend that you have resources in your grow rooms to maintain your environment to within 5% of both your humidity and temperature targets for ideal results.
In our Top Quality Cultivation Facilitywhite paper, we review environmental settings for temperature and humidity for mother, clone/veg and flower rooms for day and night light cycles from early cuttings through to end of harvest flush. Day temperatures can be up to 20% higher than night temperatures for example.
Managing temperature may seem straight-forward but the heat generated by LED lights, HPS lights or the sun will vary across rooms, time exposure and with the distance of the light source from the plants. Measurement sensors should be distributed across rooms to monitor and trigger temperature resources.
This is a topic that can be underappreciated by cultivators. It is important to slowly transition humidity as you move plants from cuttings to clones, to veg and to flower. Beginning in a very humid stage to motivate root start, humidity will be stepped down from an opening near 90% down to an arid 50% in your end of flush flower rooms. We detail the transitions in 5% increments in the white paper.
Relative Humidity (RH) and the related VPD are the key metrics to accelerating growth throughout the stages. Not sizing dehumidifiers correctly is one of the most common mistakes our grow partners learn about as they move to full production. In the first phase of turning cuttings from healthy mothers into rooted clones, hitting your target VPD to motivate root growth is the number one success factor. This will require the addition of humidity into your clone room. It is also typical to require raise the humidity of your flower rooms when you transition clone/veg plants from the high humidity clone/veg room into an initially dry flower room, otherwise the plants may go into shock as a result of the dramatic change.
As flowering begins, if humidity remains high, and the VPD is below target, the plants will not be moving nutrients and transpiring moisture. We have seen lowering the humidity from 70% in a flower room down to 50%, results in a yield increase from 50 grams to 90 grams of dry trim bud per plant, so a smooth transition can both accelerate growth and have a big impact on your margins and profitability.
Plants in aeroponics can truly have explosive growth. This means that they will also transpire moisture at an accelerated rate. Fast automated growth in aeroponics means increased humidity output. Sizing these critical systems for humidification/dehumidification are a critical part of the design process.
Fans combined with your cooling/heating/humidity/dehu systems need to mix the air in a room to break the boundary layer at the leaf surface for transpiration. As we covered, VPD is critical to growth success. A dry surface motivates the plants to transpire moisture. We recommend flow rates across the canopy in a 0.5-1.5 meter/second rate to align to your genetics and where you are in the flowering process.
Airflow and flowering means rich beautiful aromas are generated. Every facility has to consider odor control. If you are in a populated area, you will have ordinances and neighbors to satisfy. The best way to do this is to minimize the amount of air that exits a facility. This is also the cheapest approach.
Sterile HEPA filters and scrubbing systems clean air of pathogens and odor but they also need to circulate and “condition” air to the correct temperature and humidity levels before it can be recirculated into a room. Oftentimes, this is a good place to also recapture humidity and reinject it into your pure water cleaning systems.
Key vendors to talk to about sizing air treatment systems are SURNA, Quest, Desert Aire and AGS. Each of these vendors have specialties and tend to be superior partners in different regions of the world. We would be happy to introduce you to excellent support resources for air management systems.
Having a well-built grow room with adequate lighting, the ability to properly control the environment, proper nutrient feedings, a good pest management plan, well trained employees and an experienced cultivation manager are very important to the overall output of cannabis plants. However, even if you have all those measures in place, there’s no guarantee of success. One factor that is often overlooked is how many harvests you can get per year, as clearly the more harvests you can get in a given time period, the more likely your chances of success are in this competitive industry. This is why having a good cultivation plan in place, with proper foresight and planning, is so essential to success.
Increasing yield or production output in a cannabis cultivation facility can often be as simple as having the right cultivation plan in place to ensure that you are harvesting the maximum number of times per year. All it requires is a well thought out plan, and best of all, that does not cost any money if you have someone with enough cultivation experience assisting you and will earn back more than the cost of paying a consultant to get such a plan in place.
In this article I will explain why changing nutrients, grow media or even a cultivation manager may not necessarily increase yield, quality or your chance of success. What you should be focusing on is your cultivation plan and the scheduling of your cultivation cycles.
Why changing nutrient companies may not necessarily increase your yield
For the most part, nutrient companies use the same ingredients in their product lines and often buy them from the same source, but they combine them in different forms and ratios to create their “unique” product. You can go to a grow store, pick five different nutrient products, read the labels and compare the different nutrients in each one. You will find for the most part that they are very similar. Generally speaking, you could pick any one of those five nutrient companies and have great results. Mixing nutrients into a nutrient tank needs to be done precisely and if your employees are not doing it properly this can lead to plant health issues. In larger cultivation facilities, often nutrient dosers are used to inject fertilizer into the irrigation lines without having to mix nutrients. However, if the dosers are not set to the proper ratios, this can also lead to plant health issues.
There are a few companies that I really like that have a different approach to plant nutrition, which saves time and can prevent human error associated with mixing and applying liquid nutrients. Soilscape solutions, Organics Alive and Beanstock Agriculture all have nutrient lines that are intended to be used with soil or soilless media that can be amended into the soil which provide a slow steady release of nutrients that the plants can uptake as needed. This avoids the risk of human error in repeatedly applying liquid nutrients to the plants.
Why changing grow medium and nutrients will not necessarily improve your yield but may increase yourquality
Whether it is rock wool, coco fiber, a soilless mix or living soil, everything has a limit. Giving your plants the proper amount of water and the frequency at which you water, along with having sufficient room for the roots to grow are key factors to ensuring plant health. If your plants aren’t getting watered properly, no matter what media you are growing in, you will be having problems. Changing things like grow media won’t result in instant success, as there will always be a learning curve when making changes to your cultivation. If you cannot adapt quickly enough, you can quickly create major problems.
You would be better off to master the grow media you are currently working; you will have more chance of success making slight alterations to your current media than you will if you switch your grow media altogether. There are so many different nutrient lines, soil companies, coco coir companies and the truth is any of them can lead to success.
Changing grow media and nutrients do play a large role in quality though. With cannabis being legalized in many states, the overall quality of cultivation inputs have increased, especially nutrients. However, in general, with some exceptions, the quality of cannabis has not necessarily increased along with the increase in quality of nutrients. One exception: I would argue that switching from salt nutrients and rock wool, to organic living soil will result in an improvement to the flavor, quality and terpenes of the cannabis.
A lot of people use rock wool with salts because it’s easier to scale up than if you are growing in soil, but some quality is also sacrificed. Soil is heavy and messy and most people throw their soil away which takes a lot of money and labor to do. Reusing your soil is one of the best ways to save time, money and increase quality. I had a friend that grew the same variety, same lights, same ventilation but grew hydroponically with salt-based nutrients and he would always say the cannabis I grew, organically, tasted better. The same was true when we grew the same variety outdoors. He used salt-based fertilizer, I used amended soil with water. There wasn’t really a comparison in flavor and the yield was not compromised either! This was his opinion not mine.
I think the vast majority of consumers have not seen the type of quality that someone in Northern California who has been smoking and growing for 20 plus years has seen. Quality is relative to what you have been able to acquire. Most people especially nowadays will never see the quality that used to be common when we didn’t treat the sacred herb like a commodity. When you do it for the love of the plant it shows. Remember, quality is relative to your experience and if salty weed is all you know, you are probably missing out.
Why changing your Cultivation manager may not necessarily increase your yield
Every cultivation facility should have an experienced cultivation manager who is knowledgeable in the areas of nutrient requirements, pest management, environmental requirements, managing employees and overall facilities operations. If a grow room cannot sustain the proper environmental set points, blaming the problems and issues that arise on the cultivation manager is not fair. It is a common problem in the cannabis industry – the owners of a company are not seeing the results that they want and think that by replacing the cultivation manager it will solve all their problems. In reality, often the problem results from upper management or owners of the company not providing the cultivation manager the tools necessary to perform their job at the highest level. Another common problem is when owners fire the cultivation manager and replace them with lower-level employees to manage the facility. The problem with this is those employees do not have enough experience nor the attention to detail to successfully run a cultivation facility. The result is that yield and quality suffer tremendously.
You should be harvesting every 60-70 days
The reality is there is no one specific thing you can try or buy that will result in success. It is everything combined, the HVAC system, lights, genetics being grown, water quality, air quality, root zone temperature, ability to control environment, having a clean facility, disease free plants, knowledgeable cultivation manager etc. that are required to operate a successful cultivation.
But all of that is less important to yield than a good cultivation plan. Cultivation methods directly tie into the overall production of a facility. But, regardless of whether you’re growing in soil, hydroponics, using LED or HPS, have low or high plant counts, if you don’t have the ability to harvest a grow room, clean and replant within a very short amount of time (ideally one or two days) then you’re going to be losing out on profit.
If you’re cultivating strains that finish flowering in under 60 days you should be getting six harvests per year. If you are cultivating strains that finish flowering in 60 to 70 days you should be getting five harvests per year. To do this, you will need to have the appropriate amount of plants that are ready to be flowered to refill your grow room or greenhouse ready to flower. With a little bit of planning and foresight you will be able to do this, and you will be on your way to producing your highest yield potential.
If you are struggling to have enough plants that are ready to flower once you are done harvesting and cleaning your grow room, having trouble planning your cultivation schedule to maximize production, or struggling to maintain a mother and clone room to supply your own plants or planning for the appropriate amount of labor, contact Floresco Consulting and talk with one of our cultivation advisors to get you back on track. We can guide you to ensure you are harvesting, cleaning and replanting every 60 days. Contact us today to get your facility producing at its maximum potential.
In a press release published this week, AOAC International announced it has partnered with Signature Science, LLC as the test material provider for the new AOAC Cannabis/Hemp Proficiency Testing program. What makes this proficiency testing (PT) program so unique is that AOAC will be the only PT provider to offer actual cannabis flower as the matrix.
This month, the pilot round with twenty cannabis testing labs begins with hemp-only samples being shipped in early May. The first live round of the PT program is scheduled for November of this year and will offer participating labs the choice of cannabis flower samples or hemp samples.
The program will include one sample for cannabinoid and terpene profiles, moisture and heavy metals, as well as a second sample for pesticide residue testing. According to the press release, mycotoxins will be added to the mix soon.
The new PT program was developed by stakeholders involved with the AOAC Cannabis Analytical Science Program (CASP), including state regulatory labs, industry labs, state and federal agencies and accreditation bodies. Shane Flynn, senior director of AOAC’s PT program, says the program is a result of scientists coming to them with concerns about testing in the cannabis space. “AOAC has a long history of bringing scientists together to address emerging topics, so when stakeholders came to AOAC with their concerns and need for quality proficiency testing in the cannabis industry, AOAC acted,” says Flynn. “Stakeholders noted the analytical differences in testing cannabis versus hemp and had specific concerns around it and asked for a program that would provide actual cannabis samples in addition to hemp. This is truly a program that was created by the stakeholders, for the stakeholders.”
AOAC says they plan on introducing microbiology to the PT program, with microbial contamination tests in both cannabis and hemp samples. They are also considering adding additional matrices, like chocolate and gummies.
Signature Science is an ISO 17043 accredited proficiency test provider that also has a DEA-licensed controlled substances lab, making them an ideal candidate to partner with AOAC for the PT Program. They entered into a 3-year MoU with AOAC for the program. Their team developed and validated methods used to create the samples for the PT program at their DEA-licensed lab in Austin, Texas.
The 2022 Emerald Cup Awards will look a little different this year. The competition is adopting a new classification system for different strains of flower, going well beyond the conventional and outdated sativa and indica categories.
Developed by Napro Research in 2013 and supplemented with more than 250,000 terpene tests by SC Laboratories, the PhytoFacts® classification system uses the chemometrics of cultivars to categorize different strains of cannabis, largely based on terpenes, flavor and effects.
The classification system puts different cultivars into six different umbrella categories: Jacks and Hazes; Tropical and Floral; OGs and Gas; Sweets and Dreams; Dessert; and Exotics. “Terpenes, however, with their unfamiliar names and mysterious effects, have mostly added another layer of consumer confusion already complicated by overly broad Indica/Sativa/Hybrid terminology, whimsical strain names, irrelevant THC/CBD percentages, and other ambiguous factors that make the process of selecting the best or correct strain, a less-than-satisfying ordeal for even the most experienced cannabis connoisseurs,” reads the press release.
The names for the six different categories were decided on using current industry-standard terminology, expanded upon with tasting notes, effects common strains, and of course, the primary terpenes. The Emerald Cup believes this will help the industry move forward with a more accurate classification system, revolutionizing how we think about cannabis.
“Together we hope to empower a better way for consumers to understand the range of flavors, aromas and effects within Cannabis, and bridge the gap between what legacy has always known with regards to terpene content defining quality,” says Alec Dixon, co-founder of SC Laboratories. “We need to move away from this fixation that dispensary buyers and consumers have on delta-9 THC, which is currently blurring the lines between craft and corporate cannabis, and is homogenizing cannabis genetics and leading to the loss of biological diversity within Cannabis.”
Flower continues to be the dominant product category in US cannabis sales. In this “Flower-Side Chats” series of articles, Aaron 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.
Audacious (OCTQB: AUSA) is an Aurora (TSX: ACB) spinoff formerly known as Australis Capital, Inc. They have focused on an asset-light expansion strategy whereby they leverage their expertise in designing cannabis facilities in exchange for favorable cost plus arrangements for a percentage of the facilities’ production.
We interviewed Marc Lakmaaker, SVP of Capital Markets at Audacious. Prior to joining Audacious, Marc worked with Terry Booth at Aurora. His background is in investor relations.
Aaron Green: Marc, how did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Marc Lakmaaker: I was working for an investor relations agency. and one of my colleagues left and she had a cannabis client that I took over, which was Bedrocan, Canada. I started working with them. They were then acquired by Tweed, which became Canopy. The guy I was working with at the time at Bedrocan was Cam Battley, who then went to Aurora. As soon as he joined Aurora, he said, “I need some help.” So, I came in house and worked there until July 2019. When I left, I set up my own agency, but by that time, I’d been working with Terry Booth for a few years. Then, this past December, Terry got in touch with me and said he needed my help. It was after the concerned shareholders had won the shareholder battle around Australis and the rest is history. So, I’ve now been working with Audacious, which was Australis, since December of last year, roughly.
Green: Just quickly on Australis: So, Audacious is basically a spin off of Aurora, correct?
Lakmaaker: Correct. So, at the time, Aurora had a couple of US assets on its balance sheet, a piece of land an annuity through a company Michigan. We were listed on the TSX. We were going to list or had just listed on the NYSE and were arranging for loan facility with a syndicate of banks. They said, “even though these assets are dormant, you can’t have any US assets on your balance sheet.” So, we spun Australis off – a little bit how Canopy had spun off Canopy Rivers. But it was really the idea that Australis is going to become the foothold for Aurora in the US cannabis market because Aurora has back-in rights.
The management team was put in place and started making some investments in the cannabis space, but kind of drifted away, sort of more into FinTech. First, it was FinTech related to cannabis and then FinTech, full stop. That’s when the shareholders were like, “we don’t agree with this.” Then the proxy battle started in which the dissident shareholders, or the concerned shareholders, won overwhelmingly. The Board left. The management team left. A new management team was put in place, a new Board in place, and it was kind of a restart.
So, we feel like we’re a bit of a startup. But a very rapidly moving startup. We’ve done an incredible amount of work in just the last seven to ten months. There was a lot of housekeeping to do. A lot of stuff related to restructuring the company, dealing with the departing management teams, dealing with bringing new management, etc. There were some deals that had to be unwound… Housekeeping if you will.
Green: Australis went down the FinTech route. What are the plans for Audacious now?
Lakmaaker: We’ve already started. We pivoted right away. In early January, we announced two acquisitions. One of ALPS, and the other one of Green Therapeutics. ALPS is really what is enabling us to execute on our strategy. It’s a very different strategy. It’s an asset light model, because we figured out that in order to grow quickly in this market without spending huge amounts of shareholder money, you need to be able to get into markets in a capital-light fashion. ALPS is the world’s preeminent greenhouse design company. Not just greenhouses, but also indoor facilities. They’ve got a 35-year track record in fruits and vegetables. They’ve got an eight-year-plus track record in cannabis – and built some of the best facilities in the world. They’ve got a lot of IP.
The proof point of that is our relationship with Belle Fleur. It’s a social equity license holder in Massachusetts. We helped them build their facility. We’re not contractors, but we do the design and engineering. We help them with partner selection. We do the construction management. We bring in a general contractor. Then we do the commissioning, and optionally, post-commissioning services, making sure that the facilities are dialed in. In return for all that IP, because what people know that what they get at the end of it is high quality, consistent cannabis and very low operating costs, we ask our clients to dedicate a certain percentage of their canopies to grow with our cultivars. Those we will buy back on a cost plus arrangement and we use that to launch our brands into whatever jurisdiction.
So, in Massachusetts, we’re working with Belle Fleur. We’re getting 10% of their canopy. We’re buying it back at cost plus 5%. So, we don’t have to sink money into building the facility. We’re not carrying the cost of capital there. We’re also not paying wholesale prices. And these relationships are locked in for a long time. I can’t remember if it was five or 10 years. So, it’s a very, it’s a different strategy, but it’s not contrarian – it’s very de-risked, that allows us to launch into new countries.
Then for Green Therapeutics, we’ve got a number of award-winning brands like Provisions and Tsunami. We’re kind of phasing out GT Flowers and there will be something else in its place. We also acquired Loose, which caters to a younger demographic, with a high potency shot beverage line that is now for sale in California.
We also have a partnership with PBR, the Professional Bull Riders Association. There’s some statistics around that that just absolutely blew me away – 83 million permanent fans! That’s 25% of the US population. I think the average income is $70,000. That’s well above the national average and the general split is fairly even too; it’s 53/47, male/female. Proper American sport! They have hundreds of hours of exposure on CBS. They’ve got 2 billion imprints on social media. So, with PBR, we launched Wreck Relief, which has several recognized and approved pain products in the lineup.
Green: What markets are you in right now?
Lakmaaker: Right now we’re in Nevada with cannabis products. This is our home market where our head offices are in Las Vegas. We’re in California. We just bought a dispensary in San Jose that comes with a partnership with Eaze. On top of that, we’re operationalizing in Missouri and Oklahoma, and officially building in Massachusetts.
Then through ALPS because they does both cannabis and non-cannabis, we’re in a number of states. We’re looking to get more of the supply deals. We’re also doing a lot of vegetable facilities throughout the entire world. We’re in Europe, we’re in Asia, in the Middle and in North America, we build these facilities from the desert up to the Arctic.
There’s a big movement right now to produce food that is safe and has a smaller carbon footprint. So, our facilities are kind of inherently more sustainable. They use up to 95% less water, less labor, less energy, they are less prone to disease, crop failure, everything. And because you are local producing for local communities, you reduce the transport carbon footprint.
Green: What in your personal life or in cannabis are you most interested in learning about?
Lakmaaker: I really like the sciences. I’m a chemical engineer by training. I think what is going to take an incredible flight in the years to come is the application of medical scientific research that’s being done right now. To me, that’s fascinating because the cannabis plant is something special. It’s got such a broad utility that we know, anecdotally. I think we’re moving towards a world where we’re going to see a lot of breakthroughs on the medical side.
I’m very excited about the other end too – cultivation. I think tissue culture is going to play an incredible and important role.
bioMérieux, a leader in the in vitro diagnostics space and a supporter of the cannabis testing market, announced last month that they have achieved the first ever AOAC International approval for PCR Multiplex Detection of STEC and Salmonella in cannabis flower for their GENE-UP® PRO STEC/Salmonella Assay. The performance tested method approval for their new assay accomodates simultaneous enrichment and detection of STEC (Shiga Toxigenic Escherichia coli) and Salmonella spp. in cannabis samples.
The method is aimed at increasing efficiency in cannabis testing labs by reducing sample preparation time for microbiological testing. With the single enrichment and real-time multiplex PCR detection, bioMérieux says their new assay can provide reliable detection of STEC and Salmonella in 24 hours using just a single test.
PCR technology is one of the most widely utilized testing methods for detecting pathogens in a variety of matrices. bioMérieux claims it is easy to use, scientifically robust and reduces costs, time spent testing and errors.
Maria McIntyre, cannabis strategic operations business manager at bioMérieux, says that AOAC performance tested method approval is setting the bar for cannabis testing laboratories and furthering cannabis science. “AOAC International impacts cannabis science by setting analytical method standards that act as the benchmark for method validation,” says McIntyre. “This simplifies the validations needed by cannabis laboratories and assures the utmost confidence in product safety and human health.”
In this “Flower-Side Chats” series of articles, Green interviews integrated cannabis companies and flower brands that are bringing unique business models to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses integrate innovative practices in order to navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulations, supply chain and consumer demand.
The California legal flower market is the largest in North America. According to recent BDSA data, monthly cannabis sales in January 2021 were $243.5 million. Flower sales represented 35.6% of overall sales, or about $87 million, representing a $1 billion yearly run rate for 2021 flower sales in California.
Union Electric was founded in California in 2020 as one of OpenNest Labs’ first incubator brands. Its model is uniquely asset-light, and focused on filling an area of opportunity with a consumer-first approach, aimed at an underserved market: the working-class customer. The name Union Electric was inspired by the punching-in and punching-out aspect of working a union job — more specifically, the average cannabis user’s job. The name also represents the brand’s union of stakeholders: Customers, cultivators and retailers alike, working together to provide affordable, quality products.
Max Goldstein is the CEO of Union Electric and Founding Partner at OpenNest Labs. Max incubated Union Electric at OpenNest Labs, a cannabis venture studio he helped co-found, and launched the brand in 2020 the day after COVID lockdowns began in California. Prior to Union Electric, Max worked at Google managing a 90 person, 12-market partnerships team.
Aaron Green: How did you get into the cannabis industry?
Max Goldstein: I’ve had a fun entrepreneurial and professional journey. I started my career in my 20s with Google working in the marketing department sitting at the intersection of new product development and customers. During that time, I really learned the ins and outs of bringing products to market and building brands. I had to understand how to value and champion the customer, or the user. At Google, I was sitting at the intersection of people building products that are affecting billions of people’s lives and users and customers that potentially have really cool insights and feedback. It was an incredible learning experience. I was able to focus on what I’m good at, which is that early stage of businesses and most importantly, listening to the consumer and developing products and services that they ultimately really want.
Near the end of 2018, I co-founded OpenNest Labs, a cannabis venture studio. We came together as a four-person partnership to form OpenNest, as an assortment of skill sets, with all of us contributing an area of focus that we could really combine our experiences to take focused and concerted efforts at building brands that resonate with different consumers across various form factors in cannabis and health. My partner Tyler Wakstein has been in the cannabis industry for several years and helped launch the brand, hmbldt (which is now Dosist) and a number of other projects in the cannabis space.
Green: Was Union Electric an incubation project out of OpenNest?
Goldstein: Yes. Union Electric is the first project we incubated out of OpenNest. We launched the day after the pandemic. So, it was interesting timing.
At Union Electric we’re focused on the core, everyday consumer of cannabis. I think a lot of folks, particularly the new money that have come into the industry, have often focused on new form factors or things that they think the new cannabis consumer is going to enjoy or appreciate. Because quite frankly, that’s their level of familiarity with the industry. For us at Union Electric, we want to hit the end of the market with exactly what they want and that is high-potency, affordable flower with a brand that really stands for something and has values.
Union Electric is positioned as an advocate for the legal cannabis industry as a whole. We look at the stakeholders and the work that needs to be done across the board. The idea of just being one member of the value chain and not trying to ultimately uplift and elevate everyone in that value chain, it’s just not going to work in cannabis. We’ve seen a lot of people trying to go at this alone and I think the pandemic, if anything, showed that you’re only as good as your partners. We truly believe that the investment in our partners, in the local communities and everyone that’s really touching this industry is critical to ultimately building success for one company because a rising tide raises all ships.
Green: How did you settle on the name Union Electric?
Goldstein: One of the things that we wanted to do was focus the brand on who we see as the core consumer, which is somebody that is working hard, like a shift worker punching in and punching out and putting in the long hours on a daily basis and using cannabis as a critical part of their personal wellness and relief. There are elements of that which we certainly want to tap into. The “Union” represents our stakeholder approach, which is, all of us are in this together and our tagline “roll together” represents that. The “Electric” part is what we’ve seen cannabis sort of representing culturally, and for people more broadly. This is an exciting product that’s going to change a lot of people’s lives and, and I just don’t think there’s anything else in our lifetimes that we’re necessarily going to be able to work on from a consumer-packaged goods perspective, that’s going to change as many people’s lives. It’s electric. That’s how we came up with the name.
The coloring and a lot of the brand elements that we focused on were about providing transparency and simplicity to the marketplace: big font and bold colors. There are little nuances with our packaging, like providing a window just so people can see the flower on our bags. We look at the details and made sure that we’re ultimately out of the way of the consumer and what they want, but providing that vehicle that they’re really comfortable with.
Green: You have an asset-light business model, focusing on brand and partnerships. How did you come to that model?
Goldstein: I think everyone who’s operating and working in cannabis right now is looking at strategy and what the model is that’s going to work for them. We’re ultimately going to find out what works, which is why this industry is so fun and exciting. Our specific approach is really under the assumption that vertical integration in a market that’s maturing as quickly as California is going to be hard, if not impossible – it’s just too competitive. There are too many things going on in order to be successful in California. You have to be really good at cultivation, really good at manufacturing, really good at distribution, and then ultimately, you have to be able to tell a story of that process to ensure sell-through and that you really resonate with the consumer.
I think the big, missed opportunities that we’re seeing are that a lot of great cultivators are not marketers or storytellers. They really do need people that are there to help amplify and provide transparency to their stories. There are amazing stories out there of sacrifice and what cultivators have done to create a new strain. We all enjoy Gelato. What’s the process to make that happen or to create any other new strain? It’s fascinating. It’s too hard for a lot of these cultivators to go out and tell that story themselves. So, we act as a sales and marketing layer on top of the supply chain to provide visibility, transparency and trust with the consumer so that they know who grew their product, how it was grown, when it was cultivated and that they can build a real strong relationship with that cultivator as well.
It’s also hard to be a brand that’s using 19 different suppliers, selling the same genetics and expecting the same results. As an example, we’ve gotten Fatso from one of our partners, Natura. We’ve also gotten Fatso from Kind Op Corp (fka POSIBL). We renamed one of the strains – by adding a number on the end – just so that the consumer knew that we’re not saying that this is the same product, because it’s not. It’s from a different farmer and there’s going to be differences. While it does create a little bit more complexity for the consumer, we ultimately believe that every consumer has a right and will expect to know that type of information in the future.
Green: You launched Union Electric one day after the COVID lockdowns began in California. How did you navigate that landscape?
Goldstein: A lot of praying to the cannabis gods! It was really an incredibly challenging and difficult time. We were all concerned about the impacts of the virus. There were moments where we didn’t even know if dispensaries would be open, particularly in states that just legalized. You went from something being completely illegal to an essential business in 12 months. As a team, we were just trying to hold on to our hats and focus on product and partnerships.
Fortunately, with a brand like ours and the price point that we’re operating at, we just needed to consistently be on the shelves and available, and to be present with the bud tenders. So, we focused on that and shoring up our supply chain and just trying to wait it out. COVID forced a lot of cannabis companies to make a lot of decisions quickly and I think in some ways, because we have not been in the market for 24 months under one paradigm, we were pretty quick to be able to adjust and keep the team super lean to fit the emerging and rapidly changing environment. We learned a lot. We focused on partnerships and we leaned into the model that we set out to build which is being asset-light and focusing on the sell-through.
Green: I understand you have a 2% giveback program. Tell me about that.
Goldstein: The 2% giveback program was something that we wanted to put on the bag from day one. It’s on every bag that we made and put out into the market. We’ve seen a lot of cannabis companies come in and invest tens and hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure. Then, month 24 they realize “oh, crap, I gotta figure out what I’m going to do to get back and actually tap into the issues that are most important to cannabis consumers.” These are issues like social equity, equitable development of the industry, and ensuring that cannabis companies and its owners are active, responsible members of society.
What we’re going to focus on with our giveback program is working with our supply chain partners. We highlight the local communities, because when you look at the landscape in California, two thirds of its municipalities still don’t allow cannabis operations. We’re in a heart and minds battle still, even here in California, just proving that the operators here are not criminals and that they’re not going to bring negativity to local communities.
As we scale in California and scale to other states, the giveback program for us is a platform and a medium to work with our supply chain partners to make sure that we’re giving back and investing every step of the way. As founders and operators, it’s how we show that we are being mindful of the importance of equitable development of the industry. Ultimately, prosperity is going to come if everyone is getting a piece of the pie.
Green: What are you most interested in learning about?
Goldstein: I’m a student of history (I was a history major) and I was very fortunate to be part of a big evolution of technology development starting in 2011 working at Google and other tech companies. In some ways, this is the second generational industry that I’ve been a part of, and I have a lot of regrets about how the first one developed – not that I necessarily was the chief decision maker. The idea that large tech companies would always act responsibly (i.e. “Don’t be evil”) didn’t really pan out. I think it was an ignorant thought process as a person in my young 20s.
What I’m most interested in learning is: Can the cannabis industry develop consciously? Can you keep the greed and the things that bring industries down at bay? How can I, as an operator, be the best facilitator of that future? I’m always thinking how I can continue to bring in the people around us and around me as the CEO of Union Electric to ensure that we’re always focused on that.
Green: Great, that concludes the interview. Thank you, Max.
Goldstein: Thanks Aaron.
From Union Electric: Union Electric Cannabis will be offering their first Regulation CF crowdfund raise in an effort to give everyday consumers a stake in one of California’s fast growing cannabis brands. Due to the ever-evolving legal status of cannabis in the US, there have been very few opportunities for individuals to invest early on in American cannabis brands. This decision to give everyday cannabis smokers access to investing in their favorite cannabis brand (for as little as $100) is a natural manifestation of Union Electric’s mission: Collective power and championing accessibility for the plant. You can learn more about their raise by visiting https://republic.co/union-electric
In this “Flower-Side Chats” series of articles, Green interviews integrated cannabis companies and flower brands that are bringing unique business models to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses integrate innovative practices in order to navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory, supply chain and consumer demand.
The Michigan cannabis market is making pace with big time cannabis players like California (#1) and Colorado (#2). For the first quarter of 2021, combined cannabis sales in Michigan were nearly $360 million. At that pace, Michigan could see combined sales of $1.4 billion — well outpacing 2020 sales of $984 million.
Gage is the exclusive cultivator and retailer of world-leading cannabis brands including Cookies, Lemonnade, Runtz, Grandiflora, SLANG Worldwide, OG Raskal, and its own proprietary Gage brand portfolio in Michigan. The company recently secured a $50M investment in an oversubscribed round which included a $20M investment from JW Asset Management.
We spoke with Fabian Monaco, CEO of Gage Cannabis. Fabian started Gage in 2017 after meeting his operating partners in Michigan. Prior to Gage, Fabian worked as an investment banker racking up a number of firsts in cannabis industry financing and M&A transactions.
Aaron Green: Tell me how you got involved in the cannabis industry.
Fabian Monaco: My background is in investment banking – specifically 10 years of capital market experience. I was fortunate enough to be part of the initial team that brought Tweed, now Canopy Growth public. In fact, I worked on a lot of firsts in the industry: the first acquisition, the first $100 million financing, the first IPO in the space. Shortly after that, I went to XIB Financial, which co-founded Canopy Rivers with Canopy Growth. I was working on that when I encountered these two phenomenal operators. At the time, I had visited over 100 of these cultivation facilities and these were some of the best operators in the business. So that led me to start Gage in 2017.
Green: Where is Gage currently operating?
Monaco: In the U.S., we are purely operating in Michigan. We do have a licensing agreement with a small producer in Canada, so you will see the brand there.
Green: Tell me about your choice to settle the company in Michigan initially?
Monaco: If you look at Michigan as a historical cannabis market, it was the second largest cannabis market from a medical card holder standpoint for nearly a decade, only behind California. This was probably the case until 2019, where they went to adult use. So, for us, we knew this medical base was going to be a great platform to an outsized adult-use market. And already we see that April was $154 million in sales, adding up to over a $1.8 billion dollar run rate. That’s the third highest run rate in the country, only behind California and Colorado.
Green: What is it that makes Michigan different? You talked about medical cannabis already. Is there anything else about the demographics in Michigan or the consumer base that makes Michigan special in that sense?
Monaco: In Michigan, over 70% of the population is old enough to consume. So, when you take a look at how much of the population is 21-years-old plus, relative to other markets, the total addressable market in Michigan is just huge. Then when you take a look at their consumption habits, especially when it comes to flower, Michigan is consuming some of the highest amounts on a per capita basis. Those two stats set up a scenario where we foresaw the potential of the market. To be honest, the market has exceeded our expectations. We didn’t think it would be this strong this quickly. Right now, the state is looking to be a $3 billion market by 2024 – and it could easily surpass that.
Green: Any plans for expansion beyond Michigan?
Monaco: We’ve been to eight or so different states in the past 60 or 75 days really trying to educate ourselves on the licensing structure, the markets there and the key players in those respective markets. What are some of the costs, in terms of acquisitions? We really want to branch out the Gage brand into other states across the US. The thing is, we believe in the model that Trulieve deployed. They really focus on being the number one player in a very, very big market. For instance, Trulieve is obviously one of the top players in Florida. We’re trying to mimic that strategy.
Once we have that deep market penetration, that market share, then we’ll start to get into other states. But for now, why would you want to go and rush out to another state when you’re already in the third largest market in the country?
Green: Are there any criteria you look for in a potential expansion state?
Monaco: We look at consumption habits. We want states with similar demographics to Michigan. Close proximity states also allows us to quickly go from one state to the other without having to take a multi-hour flight to get there. States we’re considering are Northeast and Midwest states, like Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Maryland.
Green: What kind of consumer trends are you seeing in Michigan as it relates to products?
Monaco: Flower continues to dominate. In a market like Michigan, we have some of the top flower consumers in the country on a per capita basis. We specialize in flower and flower only, so this created a perfect scenario where we are able to ramp up our brand quite quickly, from a flower standpoint.
Now that we have that brand equity, that brand power, we are going to potentially delve into other categories, including extract-based products, such as vape carts and concentrates. You hear talk about these new beverages, but we’re not seeing that take off in this market as much as people think it would. Flower still remains at the top and that’s something we highly anticipate going after for quite some time.
Green: Can you tell me about your vertical integration strategy?
Monaco: We’re one of the larger retail portfolios in Michigan right now. We have 13 locations. Nine are operational. So, we’re really in a great spot overall in terms of how big of a platform we do have – one of the larger ones – and, frankly, in one of the larger markets in the country.
We actually have a little bit of a unique scenario on the cultivation side of things. We have our own three cultivation assets that are going to be producing, on average, about 1,000 pounds of product over the next couple of months as they fully ramp up. We’ve actually contracted out a lot of our cultivation. Cultivation is time consuming, and it’s also very, very costly to build out. Luckily for us, we’re a really well-established and strong brand. We had the opportunity to contract out our growing. So, we have 10 different contract growth partners. These are phenomenal cultivators, again, some of the best in the state. They grow Gage and Cookies branded product for us. We have a great breakdown from a financial standpoint. We share the retail revenue with them on a 50/50 basis. They pay a little bit too, for packaging and testing. So, basically for $0 we’re getting product on the shelf where we’re achieving 50% plus gross margins. It’s a phenomenal setup for us on the cultivation side where we went from two cultivation assets in the latter half of last year to now eight different cultivation assets, moving to 13 by the end of the year.
On the processing side, we’re just actually finishing our processing lab. We should have extract-based products launched in Q3. We’re really excited to have our own line of extract-based products. We plan to focus on vape carts to start – a very popular category in Michigan on the retail side of things.
Green: Are those cultivations all indoor?
Monaco: Yes, we’re big proponents of indoor flower. It allows us to control the quality of our flavors and consistency in our strains when we grow indoors. From our consumers, there is a very strong demand for indoor grown high-premium, high-quality products.
Green: What sets Gage apart from other competitors in Michigan?
Monaco: I think focus. We just focused on our flower. We focus on our post-production process. We hang dry everything, we hand trim everything, and we hand package everything. That’s a little bit more time consuming. It’s a little more costly. But all that effort shows in the end product which is key.
A lot of people think you can grow great quality product, you cut it down, you dry it and put it in the pack and it’s going to be great. You really need a strong attention to detail, especially in a big consuming market like Michigan, because again, they are a refined consumer. They’re looking for the best. They’ve already been consuming some of the best quality products in the country for many years now. So for us, we put a painstaking process in place for flower production, not only from the growing standpoint, but also through the end of that post production process.
Ancillary to our cultivation process is also consistently providing new varieties of flavors on the flower side of things to the consumers. When you look at the successful brands in California, what makes them special is that they’re consistently pheno hunting, coming out with new flavors. This is similar to the wine industry where the best wineries come out with a new kind of grape or mix and consumers get excited, they rush out and buy half a dozen bottles or a dozen bottles.
It’s a very similar scenario in the cannabis industry. I hate when people say that cannabis is a commoditized industry. It’s so far from the truth. You look at brands like us or Cookies, Jungle Boyz and you can see their constant innovation, their constant drive. They are always bringing something new for the consumers to try. That’s what really sets apart the best brands.
Green: What’s got your attention in the cannabis industry? What are you interested in learning more about?
Monaco: I’m always intrigued with new ways of consuming. Across the U.S. and well-developed markets like California and Colorado, you see all these interesting new ways to consume the product. You’ve got patches, sublingual strips, etc. There are so many unique ways. I am currently seeing how they play out. Are they fads? Do people get excited about them initially, and then go back to their vape carts, pens and typically dried flower pre-rolls? I’m always trying to educate myself to see what’s on the market. What’s new? Who has a new drink? How does it hit? Are people excited about it?
Also, I am constantly learning about new brands that come out. There are so many new small brands that don’t necessarily have the scale or the capital to really expand, but are producing some of the best products in the country in a cool, unique form of packaging, etc..
Green: Alright, great. That concludes the interview!
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