In every industry, there’s an underlying threat and worry that as AI advances, jobs will be at risk. This programming is deeply instilled in labor workers who have grown accustomed to income security to maintain their expenses or quality of life. But what if we’re looking at robots all wrong?
Instead of seeing a robot job apocalypse, what if they’re the machines to lift us to our highest degree? Robots are already proving to improve efficiency and cut company costs, so it’s inevitable they’ll come to a job near you soon.
For the budding cannabis industry, everything is fresh and new as the market is in its infancy. That means new systems and new workers have the opportunity to implement robotics to get ahead of the competition and boost morale earlier than most.
So, here, let’s de-program the way we think about robots today and cover the top three ways robots can help, not hurt, the cannabis industry—and the livelihoods of its workers too!
#1 Labor Shortage Gaps Need To Be Filled
Let’s get real—the cannabis industry is feeling the labor shortage just as much as anyone. Even more, it’s extremely difficult in this day and age to only pay a minimum wage to workers. This is true from coast to coast, but especially in lucrative cannabis markets like California, which have a higher cost of living for workers to meet.
“Robots aren’t here to hurt the cannabis industry, they’re here to help”Another predicament for facility owners? You can’t pay more for low-level repetitive tasks without significantly decreasing margins for your company while remaining competitive in such a bustling market. Moreover, humans just aren’t built to sit in closed, highly regulated areas, repeating the same motions over and over, to fill pre-rolls, vape carts, package jars and beyond.
By implementing robotics and automation tools, cannabis industry owners can not only fill labor shortage gaps but also alleviate labor costs for an improved bottom line. In addition, this will allow executives to better leverage labor costs towards more valuable positions that are more rewarding for employees too.
#2 Human Productivity Declines Over Extended Periods of Time
You know how you move with speed and precision when you first begin a repetitive task? Think exercising. When you first start your set of mountain climbers, your body moves mechanically, hitting the steps on point, repeatedly. But by the end, you’re struggling to get 1 or 2 last pushes in to hit your reps.
Manual labor and repetitive tasks are no different. In fact, there are companies in the world that hire workers to pack cases for just one hour a day. Why? Because their analytics have shown that after just one hour of work, the employees zone out and lose focus, which decreases productivity over time and increases the chance of human error.
In cannabis, someone has to fill the pre-rolls, and someone has to pack the jars into boxes. But, scheduling one worker for one hour shifts all day every day is a logistical nightmare to get the most productivity from the time you have. With no creative minds of their own (sorry, not sorry), robots are quite literally built for this type of labor and produce accurate results, too.
This allows cannabis owners to pay one up-front investment for the ’employee’ and can rest assured, financially and operationally, that the position will always be filled with no wage raises to consider.
#3 – More Robots Allows For More Rewarding Roles
Last but not least, there are few people in the world who actually desire or dream of the manual labor that’s required to keep the cannabis industry’s momentum moving upward for good reason. The human mind is meant to explore, create and evolve by putting it to use day in, and day out.
Hence, the uptick in investments towards upskilling in the cannabis industry and the passion for retraining employees for more technical roles. For employees, they’re more fulfilling and hold higher value. For employers, you have more human minds at work towards what matters versus the tasks that just need to get done.
Implementing robots in cannabis facilities for these mundane, repetitive, and low-level tasks help open the doors for more fulfilling roles for employees that share an interest in the plant. In the end, allowing them to put that passion and their unique skills, ideas and creativity towards helping your company prosper.
The Bottom Line – Cannabis Robots Are Here to Stay
With any new trend or shift in the labor and job landscape, it’s natural to be cautious of how it may affect you or your workers, both personally and professionally. However, as you can see, robots aren’t here to hurt the cannabis industry, they’re here to help.
As cultivators and other manufacturers struggle to turn a profit, now is the time for the overwhelmingly cottage industry to go big or go home. Because, whether you like it or not, there’s one thing we can all agree on: robots are the future of manufacturing, the cannabis industry included.
Coda Signature is a leading cannabis edibles company that has won countless awards for their creations. Founded in 2015 in Trinidad, Colorado, a small town just north of the New Mexico border, the women-led company has since become a fixture of the infused products market. Coda Signature prides itself on its innovative lens, focusing on what consumers want and framing their products around a luxury experience.
Lauren Gockley co-founded the brand in 2015 after a 20-year culinary career that started with professional training in France, working in Michelin-starred restaurants and Parisian pastry shops. They launched their first line of products in March of 2016 and three weeks later, the awards started coming in. Today, the company is a leader in the cannabis industry and constantly raising the bar. Last year they rolled out products with nanoemulsions, offering fast-acting edibles with a shortened onset time. In May of this year, Coda Signature debuted their low dose Fruit Notes, their foray into microdose formulations.
We caught up with Lauren Gockley to see what inspires her, hear the story of how the business came to be and get some insights on what’s next for the cannabis space.
Cannabis Industry Journal: I saw that you have a culinary background. Can you tell me about your background and how you got involved in the cannabis industry?
Lauren Gockley: I have been working in the culinary world for almost 20 years. I have been blessed to have a wealth of different experiences from my professional training in France at Valrhona’s L’Ecole Du Grand Chocolat and the Parisian pastry shops of Pierre Hermé, to the fine dining restaurants of Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Thomas Keller. I also spent several years as a raw vegan chocolatier where I gained a totally new understanding of chocolate and flavor creation using unconventional ingredients.
The transition into cannabis was an unexpected turn in my culinary career, especially considering the level of acceptance of cannabis in its early legalization period. I had been living in New York for almost eight years. I was working two jobs and trying to start a chocolate business. One night, my partner (and fellow co-founder), Brien Sauchelli, brought over a cannabis chocolate bar. At the time, I was not terribly familiar with cannabis edibles, but I sure was familiar with chocolate! I tasted the chocolate bar, and thought, “this tastes pretty good, but what if I could do it better?” The idea of elevating the cannabis edibles experience to the same caliber of excellence that we revere food made so much sense.
CIJ: Tell us how you co-founded and started Coda Signature. I’d like to hear the origin story
Lauren: Well, like so many cannapreneurs, I started in my kitchen with a crockpot, a Ziploc bag of trim and a massive amount of research. Fast-forward a few months to March 2015, and my partner and I are traveling across the country to Trinidad, Colorado—the new home of Coda Signature. Once unpacked, we dedicated almost a full year to product development, raw material sourcing, packaging design, facility construction, and most importantly we defined the mission, vision and core values of Coda Signature. One of our most significant core values is legacy. This was not meant to be an aspirational statement about the impact we hoped to have many years into the future, but rather an opportunity for us in every moment to ask, “What will my legacy be today?” We launched our first products in March of 2016. Three weeks later, we won the High Times Cannabis Cup for Best Edible with our Crescendo truffle collection.
CIJ: Your job title is Chief Innovation Officer – How is your company innovating the cannabis product space? What does your day-to-day look like?
Lauren: When it comes to innovation, we have identified four key areas of focus for Coda Signature products:
1) Flavor. We are leaning into our brand legacy of bold flavors and aromas, quality ingredients and impeccable craftsmanship. This legacy is reinforced by industry data. According to BDSA Trending Consumer Insights, flavor is the No. 1 driver of consumer purchase decisions, and second is brand loyalty.
2) Microdosing. According to BDSA Consumer Research, 73% of adults nationwide are now “bought in” to consuming cannabis. Understanding that much of this population is still getting acquainted with cannabis-infused products, we believe strongly that microdosed products are an essential factor for safe and customized experiences. We are one of the few infused products companies to defy the industry “standard serving size” with our new 1mg THC Fruit Notes.
3) Minor cannabinoids. We define the Coda experience through the integration of minor cannabinoids such as CBN, CBG, CBC and most recently THCV. This is no longer a market solely driven by milligrams of THC per dollar. Products innovating with minor cannabinoids are rapidly taking top-selling positions in both brand share and the market as a whole.
4) Fast-acting. After two years of intense R&D, Coda launched our first “Fast Acting” products in Q3 of 2021. “Fast Acting” decreases not only the onset time from 1-2 hours to 15-20 minutes, but also shortens the overall duration. This technology is a strong example of the incredible innovation redefining the cannabis edibles experience.
To answer your second question: My day-to-day is a blend of hands-on product creation; ongoing research into industry trends and new technologies; working with my colleagues in operations, quality and compliance to ensure our systems and procedures continue to deliver safe and consistent products; brand development and expansion; and of course, eating a lot of chocolate! The past few weeks have been particularly exciting for me as I have been back in the kitchen revitalizing our signature truffles that will be returning this holiday season.
CIJ: Where do you think cannabis will innovate next? What excites you about the future of product innovation in this market?
Lauren: Innovation in the cannabis industry can be particularly challenging due to the ongoing legalization limitations. However, like most life forms in nature, it is through limitations that we adapt, grow stronger and defy expectations. The fact that 73% of adults nationwide are open to the idea of cannabis means that we are just scratching the surface of innovation with this incredibly powerful plant.
Post-pandemic, I think a lot about our social habits. As a chef, there is a level of social intimacy I identify with food that I feel is not fully present in cannabis. I get very excited about the opportunities for more open cannabis consumption and how that will elevate and inspire the Coda product experience.
In 2002, Dale Katechis revolutionized craft beer. A seemingly simple packaging decision, putting craft beer in a can, sparked an international movement and put craft beer on the map.
Before the craft beer market really gained steam, consumers associated good beer with glass bottles and larger brands selling cheap beer with cans. Through education, creative marketing and a mission to put people over profits, Dale helped the craft beer market expand massively while sticking to his roots. He also managed to convince people to drink good beer from a can.
When Dale founded Oskar Blues about twenty years ago, he didn’t just succeed in selling beer. Through collaboration and information sharing, Dale propelled craft beer as a whole and lifted all boats with a rising tide. He’s hoping to achieve similar results with his new role in the cannabis space.
Veritas Fine Cannabis, the first craft cannabis cultivator in Colorado, announced that Dale joined the company’s leadership team. Jonathan Spadafora, partner and head of marketing and sales at Veritas, told us that he’s excited about working with Dale. He says Dale is already helping them open a whole world of branding and marketing opportunities. “This is our Shark Tank moment – we’ve got someone who’s been through the fire before and will help us keep differentiating, finding new avenues and new ways to solve problems,” says Spadafora.
His colleague, Mike Leibowitz, CEO of Veritas, shares the same sentiment. “Dale maintained company culture and quality as he grew Oskar Blues into a household name,” says Leibowitz. “Maintaining our unique company culture is paramount as we work to build Veritas Fine Cannabis into the same.”
Dale’s role in the leadership team at Veritas is about sticking to his roots. Through raising industry standards in the best interest of quality products and consumers, the team at Veritas hopes to expand the brand nationally, just like Oskar Blues did, while instilling a culture of disruption and innovation without compromising quality.
We caught up with Dale to learn more about his story and what he hopes to bring to Veritas, as well as the cannabis industry at large. And yes, I had a couple of Dale’s Pale Ales (his namesake beer) later that evening.
Aaron Biros: Your success with Oskar Blues is inspiring. Taking an amazing beer like Dale’s Pale Ale and putting it in a can sounds simple to the layperson, but you launched a remarkable movement to put craft beer on the map. How do you plan to use your experience to help Veritas grow their business?
Dale Katechis: I am hoping that I can apply some of the lessons that I’ve learned through making mistakes of growing a business from the ground up. There’s obviously a lot of road blocks in cannabis and that is certainly one of the qualities of Veritas – how they’ve grown and how they had to do it in an environment that is much more challenging than the beer space.
My experience in small business development could potentially help them navigate this next renaissance of the space. I’m going to help them compete and bring the industry to a level that helps everybody win. I certainly felt that way in the craft beer movement. It was very important to us to bring the whole industry along because we were educators, we weren’t salesmen. In doing that, lifting everyone to a level where the industry benefits as a whole is a part of small business growth. To me that’s the most fulfilling part. It wasn’t just about the Oskar Blues ego at the time, it was about the craft beer scene. And what’s happening in cannabis now is very similar to what happened in the nineties with the craft beer scene.
Aaron: How did you get interested in joining the cannabis industry? What made you choose Veritas?
Dale: Most of my life, I’ve been an enjoyer of cannabis. Very recently, in the last two years, I’ve been intrigued by getting involved in the space. I’ve been shopping around for opportunities and nothing really excited me until I met Jon Spadafora and Mike Leibowitz.
It was really the two of them, the comradery and how they treat their staff that was so similar to the culture at Oskar Blues. Call it a “passion play” if you will, but this was the best opportunity to get involved with a small company and hopefully be a value add for them being in the room and sharing ideas.
Aaron: As a pioneer and leader in the craft beer space, do you notice any commonalities between the growth of the craft beer market and the legal cannabis market?
Dale: It is kind of crazy how many similarities there are. Not just the industry as a whole, but specifically the commonalities between my business, Oskar Blues, and Veritas. Overall, that’s really what allowed me to want to lean in a bit more. I wasn’t in the place where I wanted to start anything on my own. I didn’t want to be involved in fixing anything. I’ve been involved in those situations before and I’m at a point in my life that I don’t want to fix anything. Thankfully there’s nothing that needed to be fixed at Veritas. That was an exciting piece of the equation for me.
Back to your question, how the consumer looks at cannabis versus how the consumer looks at beer in the craft beer space is very similar. There is a bit of an educational piece that’s happening where it’s almost a requirement in the cannabis industry and Veritas is leading that charge out front.
That’s what’s going to catapult Veritas and other companies if they follow suit. It’s their mentality and their philosophy of bringing the industry along as a whole, and I think it’s going to end up boding well for the consumer. The craft beer space was the same.
We had to educate people on a beer can and why we felt like a can of beer was important and exciting. The industry and the consumer associated cans of beer with large, industrial lagers and the can got a bad rap as a result. Not because it wasn’t a great package, but because they were putting bad beer in a good package. So, we had a long road of educating the consumer on the benefits of the can and I think what Veritas is doing with packaging now, how they use quality as such a fundamental pillar of their business, how they focus on the employee experience and the consumer experience sets them up for success, instead of just looking at the bottom line.
I’ve said it throughout my entire career, and at Oskar Blues, we never focused on the profits. You do the right thing for the biggest group of people moving the ball forward and the bottom line takes care of itself. Jon and Mike understand that so I don’t need to fight that battle. It’s another big similarity to the craft beer space.
Aaron: How can cannabis companies keep their craft? How can we, as an industry and as individual businesses, celebrate craft cannabis and follow in the footsteps of independent craft beer?
Dale: I believe that we’re starting to see some of that consolidation [that has been taking place in the craft beer market]. We’re at a time in the market right now where companies with such a solid foundation like Veritas don’t need to go that route to grow. I think we’ll start to see a lot more consolidation in the cannabis industry soon.
Back to the point of bonding together as an industry and as a whole. Championing some of the regulatory hurdles that are coming and sticking together is crucial. One company can’t do it. There’s going to have to be some comradery in the industry among everyone trying to hold the bar up high instead of racing to the bottom. You die by a thousand cuts. I’ve lived that life in craft beer and we saw what happened 6-7 years ago when the industry overexpanded because of exponential growth. A lot of egos got in the room, and a lot of breweries spent a lot of money building out capacity and then that same year the market popped out. Everyone who didn’t have a solid foundation, got washed out of the industry.
That’s why I appreciate what Jon and Mike are doing and how they built Veritas. It’s very similar to how we built Oskar Blues. We had humble beginnings; we didn’t spend money on things outside of our core competency. We focused on quality, employee experience, morale and holding on to the culture of Oskar Blues. That’s what Jon and Mike are doing with Veritas and I think that’s really important.
Regardless of their size, all consumer package brands spend a significant amount of money and resources on packaging to attract consumers’ attention. We are all very visually oriented and gravitate to items that pique our interests. Cannabis brands are no exception when it comes to branding their products. Packaging plays a big part in carrying their brand forward and standing out on the dispensary shelves. When I was in Las Vegas at a CBD tradeshow in early 2020, I visited a dispensary, and it was beautiful. I remember commenting to a colleague that was with me how spectacular the product packaging was in the glass cases. One had unique artwork on each different product they offered, and it was indeed art. Yes, I did purchase this one that pulled me in.
The cannabis industry in the United States presents a challenge to brands because there is no overall federal guidance for packaging. Each state is controlling the cannabis legislation and, with it, the packaging guidelines. So multi-state operators (MSOs) have to manage each state as a separate entity and abide by the packaging regulations, which is not very efficient and adds a cost burden. As the industry matures and becomes federally legal across the country, packaging regulations will be easier to implement.
Let’s take a look at counterfeit products across all product categories. There is a significant global problem with counterfeits, as articulated by the below statistics.
Fake luxury merchandise accounts for 60% to 70% of that amount, ahead of pharmaceuticals, entertainment products and representing perhaps a quarter of the estimated $1.2 trillion total trade in luxury goods.
Customs and Border Patrol confiscated $1.3 billion worth of counterfeit goods in the U.S. for Fiscal Year 2020. (The value of 2020’s seizures are actually down compared to the $1.5 billion worth of counterfeit goods seized by CBP in 2019).
Unfortunately, the figures above are concerning, and the cannabis industry will face the same counterfeit issues that will add to these stats in the future. What can be done to help fight the problem and alleviate the pain for cannabis brands? Smart technology.
The trend towards “smart technology” varies by sector, but the underlying concept involves building levels of technology systems designed to impede or limit the highly sophisticated counterfeiter from replicating or replacing products. These levels typically include a forensic level control on the product, digital systems to track the material and customer facing systems to articulate the underlying value to the consumer.
Building these levels of smart technology into cannabis-products and packaging allows consumers to authenticate real versus fake, and in the case often in cannabis, legal versus illegal. Molecular technology is one forensic level of control option that can be used as a unique identifier for product authentication. Each brand would get its unique identifier to apply to the raw materials that make up its product, such as oil or an isolate. Then a sample can be tested at the origin point and subsequent nodes in the supply chain using a remote testing device. All the digital data is captured in a secure cloud database for traceability and transparency to the end consumer, to show them the authenticity of the product they are consuming. The same molecular technology can be applied to the ink or varnish for packaging and labels. A great application to help combat counterfeits and product diversion across the globe.
Another engaging platform is called StrainSecure by TruTrace Technologies. Their SAAS platform allows cannabis manufacturers to track all their product batches and SKUs tied to a blockchain. It also facilitates the interaction between the manufacturer and third-party testing facilities to conduct product testing and reporting. The data is captured within the platform, and with easy access dashboard views, it provides the insights to authenticate products at any time.
A company out of Australia called Laava is producing a product called Smart Fingerprints. It’s the next evolution of QR codes. The Smart Fingerprints can be applied to each package, providing a unique identifier that consumers can read with a mobile phone application. The consumer is provided with information concerning the product’s authenticity and any additional information the brand wants to share with the user. Smart Fingerprints are a great example of customer engagement at the point of activity that is secure.
The above three solutions show the availability of advanced technologies the cannabis industry can implement on its packaging and products to ensure authentic and safe products are sold to consumers. It provides consumers with vital information and insights about products so they can make informed buying decisions. There is no one silver bullet solution that provides all the answers. As with every high value product, counterfeiters will work to create near duplicate versions of the original until it becomes unsustainable to do so. It will take a technology ecosystem to seamlessly connect and provide actuate and timely information between supply chain partners and ultimately the end consumer. As the US works to separate the legal from illegal production for both the adult use and medical supply of cannabis, the looming challenge will be on protecting and communicating authenticity, packaging will be the first step in this.
Natural cannabinoid distillates and isolates are hydrophobic oils and solids, meaning that they do not mix well with water and are poorly absorbed in the human body after consumption. By formulating these ingredients using a patented delivery system technology, trademarked VESIsorb®, Geocann has overcome common obstacles associated with fat-soluble active ingredients, including poor stability, bioavailability, absorption, and solubility. In addition, Geocann has peer-reviewed, published evidence of the dramatic improvements in Cmax, AUC, and Tmax (“time to peak absorption” directly related to “fast-acting” benefits).
Geocann is a cannabis formulation company with its headquarters in Fort Collins, Colorado, and additional offices in Chicago, Illinois and Zurich, Switzerland. The company is led by an impressive leadership team of scientists, pharmacists, researchers and natural product industry leaders. Geocann’s technology platform has been successfully applied to a wide range of cannabis product applications, including soft gel and hard-shell capsules, functional foods (e.g. gummies) and beverages, powder systems, tinctures, sublingual sprays and topically applied formulations. Brand partners in the U.S. utilizing Geocann’s technology for hemp applications include Nestlé Health Science, Cannaray and Onnit, and brand partners for medical and adult-use cannabis applications include Curaleaf, Sunderstorm and CannaCraft, among others.
We spoke with Jesse Lopez, CEO and Founder of Geocann, about their product formulation technology in cannabis and how they work with brand partners in the U.S and internationally. Lopez started Geocann in 2018 alongside the success he’s experienced at SourceOne Global Partners (founded in 2003 by Lopez), a leading formulation company in the nutraceuticals space with a reputation for pioneering innovative products that combine science-backed ingredients with patented drug delivery system technologies to address the most pressing consumer health concerns, such as heart health, cognitive function, inflammatory response, metabolic syndrome and type II diabetes, among others.
Aaron Green: Jesse, first off, how did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Jesse Lopez: Our focus at SourceOne Global Partners has been on natural products for nearly two decades. Some of the folks involved with our natural products business decided that they would get involved in the cannabis business and they asked for my support at the Advisory Board level. I agreed to serve and figured I better learn about the cannabis industry! We realized that there was a tremendous opportunity for utilizing our drug delivery system technology to enhance the value of these cannabis-based products. Due to the regulatory environment, strategic legal counsel and new investments necessary to take an immediate leadership position in the cannabis industry we launched Geocann in 2018 with an office in a fully legal state at the time, Colorado.
Green: How do you select the natural products you work with at SourceOne?
Lopez: We really focus on science-backed natural product ingredients that may require high doses to reach therapeutic blood levels. By combining these science-backed ingredients with patented technologies – which we own the global rights to – these products offer desirable differentiation for leading brands, such as dramatically improved absorption and bioavailability, patent protection and trademarked “intel inside” branding.
Green: What are some of the other natural products you have experience with?
Lopez: We work with a range of some of the most popular nutraceuticals such as coenzyme Q10 and omega-3 fish oil to the more innovative natural products like resveratrol. We also work with vitamin D, and other immunity-based ingredients that can be enhanced using our delivery system technology to deliver greater benefits to the people that are taking those products.
Green: What is the technology and how does it work?
Lopez: I think it’s important to recognize our technology partner, Vesifact, in Zurich, Switzerland, who is the inventor of the VESIsorb® technology platform and serves as the scientific research, technical support, production, and product development arm of SourceOne and Geocann. We are very proud of this symbiotic relationship where our role at Geocann and SourceOne is to provide the commercial development, sales, marketing and strategic distribution infrastructure. We promote our partnership openly on our website and in our marketing materials because of their unrivaled leadership position in the global marketplace.
They have consistently been recognized as a top 10 global organization for health-related nanotechnology patent activity, ahead of many of the most well-known pharmaceutical companies in the world. It is an intellectual property portfolio that has been used to provide solutions to the most difficult product formulation challenges over the years in pharmaceuticals, medical devices, nutraceuticals, cosmetics, and now cannabis applications. Together, our focus has been on delivering novel solutions in these diverse fields of use and product applications based upon VESIsorb® formulation technology.
Each active compound identified with its own set of formulation, absorption and bioavailability challenges requires a customized solution that allows the full potential health benefits to be realized from success in the lab to commercial scale up. This is the process and we have successfully delivered unmatched solutions for close to twenty years from coenzyme Q10 to now both psychoactive and non-psychoactive cannabinoid product formulations in a wide range of product applications.
We saw the exploding interest in CBD with our nutraceutical partners and demanding consumers worldwide but chose to start Geocann to keep the markets served separate. We were confident that the VESIsorb® technology would provide much needed solutions for CBD as a wellness product, but also adult-use and medical cannabis products regarding “fast acting” and “product stability” needs.
Green: What’s the problem in cannabinoid bioavailability that Geocann’s technology helps to solve?
Lopez: It is well-recognized in the scientific literature that CBD, THC and other cannabinoids, in general, show limited bioavailability due to their lipophilicity, poor aqueous solubility and extensive first-pass metabolism.
Our VESIsorb® technology was designed to address the poor bioavailability of drugs and natural bioactives like cannabinoids exhibiting poor water solubility but high membrane permeability (Biopharmaceutical Classification System: Class II compounds). The VESIsorb® technology is a lipid-based formulation that self-assembles on contact with an aqueous phase into a colloidal delivery system. This colloidal solubilization improves the transport of the cannabinoids through the aqueous phase of the GI-lumen to the absorptive epithelium, dramatically improving bioavailability.
VESIsorb® is typically characterized as a SEDDS (self-emulsifying drug delivery system). What’s unique about our VESIsorb® SEDDS is the long history of safe and effective use worldwide and the large number of products that, over the years, we’ve successfully developed. With decades of experience delivering novel formulation solutions, there is significant and valuable “know how” that we bring to each formulation challenge. This “know how” allows us, for example, to develop cannabinoid formulations that provide lymphatic absorption pathway advantages in addition to standard gastrointestinal absorption, therefore optimizing therapeutic blood levels for maximum benefits.
Needless to say, there are various methods that attempt to address the poor cannabinoid bioavailability. Unfortunately, too often, companies make claims that they have water soluble cannabinoids but offer little evidence to validate their claims. The popular misconception is that some degree of water solubility will consistently translate to improved bioavailability. This is clearly not accurate. We know scientifically that pharmacokinetic performance is highly variable. A review paper I read recently comparing water soluble delivery system formulation types illustrated this fact. There was greater than an eight-fold difference in bioavailability amongst the various water-soluble formulations.
Green: Can you tell me some details about your global license with Vesifact?
Lopez: Our technology exclusivity is based upon given categories. So, when we say we have global exclusivity for nutraceuticals, that can be as I’ve already mentioned, omega-3, coenzyme Q10, or resveratrol as examples, and this business is managed by SourceOne. With regards to our global exclusivity for cannabinoids and terpenes– whether we formulate these ingredients to create a functional drink, or we’re creating a gummy, or creating a softgel capsule or powder-filled hard-shell capsule, or sublingual, or topical – all of those product applications are covered by ourexclusivity for the technology and is managed by Geocann.
The beauty of our technology is that we’ve already achieved success with all of those product applications. That’s one of the big advantages of our technology versus some other approaches trying to address the challenges of cannabinoid bioavailability.
Green: What kind of validation and clinical studies have you done so far in the cannabinoid space?
Lopez: We were the first to have stability data with creating our formulation in a soft gel capsule with CBD. We recently submitted to the European market for novel food application. We invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in proprietary safety studies that are required to achieve novel food status in Europe and FDA GRAS in the U.S. We have proprietary stability data as well as proprietary toxicology data from multiple, self-funded clinical studies. Many companies that submit for the EU novel food application are only referencing the existing scientific literature about the pharmacokinetics of cannabinoids, whereas we have our own peer-reviewed, published study. In our study, we compared our VESIsorb®-CBD formulation to the industry standard MCT Oil-CBD formulation in a crossover design where we were able to demonstrate how we could dramatically improve the bioavailability of CBD.
Green: Can you talk about the benefits of your technology with regards to bioavailability and onset time?
Lopez: When you start talking about onset time we move into a broader discussion relative to cannabinoids. We’ve been very successful with marijuana, especially as it relates to THC, because of the dramatic improvement in time to Tmax, and how much faster we reach Tmax than a standard THC formula. Our formulation is generally four times faster compared to standard formulations.
When it comes to area under the curve and Cmax, we show improvements of four to six times a standard THC or CBD product. Further, when we start looking at the differences between other studies that have been published, we show an even greater improvement based upon study comparisons to what other people have done, even compared to products like GW Pharmaceuticals’ Sativex Oromucosal Spray.
Green: Can you address the SEDDS formulation and liver metabolism?
Lopez: We’ve dramatically overcome challenges with the first-pass effect. We have also formulated our products to address lymphatic absorption. So, we’re coming at it from a number of different angles.
We disagree with people who talk about water solubility as an end-all be-all solution. When you look at the range of published studies, whether it’s nanoparticles or liposomal systems or micro-emulsions, they all are water soluble systems, but yet the data shows there’s dramatic differences in the real efficacy of those approaches, and what the actual improvement in blood levels are. Ultimately, those blood levels represent the efficacious nature of the products whether we’re talking about CBD, or talking about THC.
Green: As a Colorado-based company you work with cannabis partners across the US. Can you tell me about your relationship with marijuana product formulators and brands and how you structure your licensing agreements across state boundaries?
Lopez: In a recent article about the leading fast acting gummies, the two companies they focused on were Sunderstorm with the Kanha Nano gummies and Curaleaf with their Select Fast Acting Nano gummies. Both of those companies use our VESIsorb® technology. We’re very proud of our relationship and the success they’re having as leaders in most dominant states with that particular product application.
Onset time has always been a challenge with gummies. And we’ve dramatically improved onset. Actually, we’ve shown statistically significant improvements for all measured pharmacokinetic parameters in a recent peer-reviewed published study. We demonstrated much higher total absorption in maximum plasma concentration (Cmax), total exposure [area under the curve (AUC)]) and the time to reach the peak concentration (Tmax).
We say powered by VESIsorb® technology the product is faster, stronger, longer.
Green: How does the experience differ from a standard oil- or isolate-based formulation?
Lopez: The only way that I can answer that question is we’ve had 100% success with the companies we work with in their initial trials. When someone tells me that a group of employees are going to try the product and they’re heavy users of cannabis and they are smokers, I think, “wow, you know, gummies have to be really successfully formulated for someone like that to be pleased with the high.” Then they come back and say, “that’s the best that I’ve had in four years!” and they’re totally blown away. That’s completely different than a peer reviewed published study, but for sure, that’s the kind of feedback and anecdotal evidence that we get. I think that’s why that application is growing so much faster now because we’ve overcome this onset issue.
Green: Do you give exclusive rights on a state-by-state basis?
Lopez: We’re very selective about who we work with. Exclusivity is always part of the discussion. But at the same time, it’s really more about protecting the investment in the people that we partner with and not cannibalizing a given market. So, there are some exclusive relationships in the U.S. and internationally, like Heritage Cannabis and Pathway Health Corp in Canada, but for the most part, I would say simply, we were very selective about who we do business with and open to new partnerships.
Green: What kind of support do you provide to your licensing partners?
Lopez: We provide 100% formulation and technical support. We provide the SEDDS and then they use their own legal, licensed cannabis and their own equipment. Our system requires no special equipment or investment in changes to their process. So, not only do we provide formulation expertise, but our system is really easy to use both in a lab environment as well as producing large scale commercial productions.
Green: What geographies are you in currently with the cannabinoid formulations?
Lopez: We are global in scope. We’ve been very fortunate to have success not only in the US and Canada, but Europe, Brazil and Australia as well. Our level of participation will vary whether we’re talking about medical marijuana, adult-use or hemp extract and CBD.
Green: If somebody is interested in learning more about your product or potentially becoming a license partner, how would they how would they reach out to you to set that up?
Lopez: If they went to our website, www.geocann.com, it’s pretty easy to reach us and I am grateful that so many companies are doing that.
Green: Great, thanks Jesse that concludes the interview!
National Agriculture Day (March 23, 2021), is an annual event held by the Agriculture Council of America (ACA), a not-for-profit 501-c (6) organization, to increase the public awareness of agriculture’s vital role in our society.
The ACA believes that every American should:
Understand how food and fiber products are produced.
Appreciate the role agriculture plays in providing safe, abundant and affordable products.
Value the essential role of agriculture in maintaining a strong economy.
Acknowledge and consider career opportunities in the agriculture, food and fiber industry.
We investigated how the hemp and cannabis industry is disrupting agriculture in positive ways, from automated trimming, to controlled environment agriculture, to water conservation and beyond. We interviewed Aaron McKellar, CEO and President of Eteros Technologies, parent company of Mobius Trimmer and Triminator, Mark Doherty, Executive Vice President of Operations, urban-gro, Inc. and Derek Smith, Executive Director at Resource Innovation Institute (RII) to get their perspective on agricultural innovation.
Aaron McKellar, CEO and President of Eteros Technologies
Aaron Green: Why is hand-trimming inefficient at scale?
Aaron McKellar: Hand-trimming is inefficient at scale because it is so labor-intensive and time-consuming, not to mention repetitive and frankly boring. It’s hard to stay fully engaged as a worker trimming by hand, so the consistency of your finished product isn’t reliable with a crew of hand-trimmers.
A hand-trimmer can produce good quality trim on about 2 or 3 pounds per day. A scaled-up facility running just one Mobius M108S Trimmer can realize up to 120 pounds per hour, replacing many dozens, or even into the hundreds of hand-trimmers. The HR nightmare this presents, and all the associated costs of paying and facilitating dozens of employees (parking, washrooms, lunchrooms, PPE and gowning, etc) is simply unworkable. And that’s before COVID.
Green: How does automated trimming benefit large producers and how does the quality compare to hand-trimming?
McKellar: Not all automated trimmers are created equal. Any of the machines out there will help to reduce the need for hand-trimmers by taking off the bulk of the leaf, leaving a small team of “hand-polishers” to finish it up. The Mobius Trimmer is the only automated trimmer on the market today that leaves the technology of the original machines in the past and employs next-gen technology to truly mimic hand-trimmed quality with stunning through-put rates.
We have high-end producers using Mobius Trimmers whose own QC department cannot discern Mobius-trimmed flower from hand-trimmed flower. Hand polishing crews tend to be far smaller when using a Mobius vs first-gen machinery, and many Mobius users don’t touch up at all, instead going straight to market right out of the trimmer. For a look at how our technology differs from the rest of the field, check out this look under the hood.
Mark Doherty, Executive Vice President of Operations, urban-gro, Inc.
Aaron Green: What is controlled environment agriculture?
Mark Doherty: Cannabis cultivators understand growing indoors because, prior to legalization, they had been doing it for years in the gray market. It is by way of that experience that cultivators learned how to manipulate a highly-valuable, complex plant in an indoor setting. As cannabis legalization spread across the United States, many government regulators required that it be cultivated indoors according to strict regulatory protocols. Fast forward 10 years, and we have an industry that is keenly aware of the indoor environmental conditions required to be successful. Critical factors like heating, cooling, ventilation, dehumidification, and how to best mimic Mother Nature’s energy through lighting are all deliberately optimized.
With cannabis cultivation driving the advancements of controlled environment agriculture, market and regulatory forces demanded higher efficiency, reduced energy and resource consumption, and clean crops. In most states, cannabis crops have more stringent testing than food crops. For instance, the lettuce in Massachusetts will not pass the standards for cannabis in Massachusetts. It’s through rapid innovation and technology adoptions that the cannabis industry has paved the way for lettuce to be profitably grown indoors.
Green: How can controlled environment agriculture help alleviate supply chain stresses?
Doherty: By growing food closer to the consumer, you reduce food miles; meaning, that link in the food supply chain gets a lot shorter and is less prone to disruption. Whether you have hyper small cultivation facilities on every street corner, or a larger cultivation facility geographically close to consumers, you can grow 24/7/365. Furthermore, growing locally allows for better prediction of facility output—10 boxes of greens on Monday, 50 boxes of greens on Tuesday, and five boxes of greens on Thursday. This eliminates harvesting a large crop before it is ripe and likely requiring cold storage. The controllability of controlled environment ag is that consistent, reliable contribution to the food supply chain and shortening that path to the consumer.
Derek Smith, Executive Director at Resource Innovation Institute (RII)
Derek Smith: Until this report, if you searched for cannabis water usage, you’d basically find one cited statistic. It was “six gallons per plant per day.” We knew this was from a model based on one extreme illicit market scenario. Based on the data we were seeing and the conversations we were having, this number seemed way off. So, we pulled together a multidisciplinary Water Working Group as part of our Technical Advisory Council. The objective of the Water Working Group was to establish a scientific understanding of how, and how much, water is used for cannabis cultivation so that cultivators have confidence in taking steps to be more efficient, and so that industry leaders, governments and media can be accurately informed about the range of water practices of today’s regulated market.
Green: What key points should cannabis cultivators take away from the report? What key points should regulators and policymakers take away from the report?
Smith: As the cannabis industry matures, water use efficiency will become more important, as it has for other agricultural crops. Pressures to use water efficiently will mount from multiple channels including – reducing input and energy cost, protecting the environment, meeting regulatory standards and simply being good stewards. We recommend that industry and regulators focus efforts on the following areas:
When grown outdoors, water for cannabis production should be assessed like any other agricultural crop and be subject to state and local regulations that apply to other crops. Our research indicates that cannabis neither uses a massive share of water nor uses more water than other agricultural crops. Applying the same standards to cannabis as to other agricultural crops will correctly categorize outdoor grown cannabis as an agricultural crop.
In areas where there may be conflict between water use for cannabis and environmental concerns, regulators and the industry should focus (1) on the timing of water use and (2) the potential of storage to mitigate environmental conflict. Our results show that in many parts of the country legal cannabis farmers have ample water storage to satisfy their needs. In areas where storage is insufficient, increasing storage should be a priority for farmers and regulators.
Our research shows there are still massive differences between cannabis production techniques. As farmers continue to experiment and improve, we expect to see water use be a more important part of cannabis farming decisions and expect new plant varieties and growing techniques to be developed that increase water use efficiency. Yet more data from actual farms and facilities are needed to point the way toward the technologies and techniques that drive optimal efficiency and productivity. It is recommended that producers benchmark their performance and governments consider requiring energy and water reporting by producers. The Cannabis PowerScore can assist in these efforts.
As indoor production continues to grow, especially in areas that have unfavorable climatic conditions for outdoor growing, we expect more cannabis users to rely on municipal water sources. Yet, it is unclear if municipal water suppliers are equipped to work with the cannabis industry. We suggest outreach efforts between the cannabis industry and municipal water suppliers to incentivize efficiency where possible.
The culture of the cannabis industry is filled with passion that many envy, and for valid reasons. The roots of the cannabis plant go back thousands of years. As of this writing, there are no documented human deaths that were caused by a phytocannabinoid overdose. However, it is not all rainbows and unicorns.
Before breaking ground, fundraising, proper facility design, competitive application and permitting requirements are just the start. Once operating, businesses struggle to stay current with regulations that continue to evolve. Cannabis cultivators struggle to scale while mitigating pest infestations, which is a part of life in the conventional agricultural industry. A lack of consistent products frustrates consumers, while regulators and policy makers continue to struggle on the best way to regulate a commodity that has seemingly endless demand. The reality is dizzying!
However, amidst all of the challenges and opportunities, a continually overlooked tool stands out: a Quality Management System (QMS). Merriam-Webster defines a system as “an organized set of doctrines, ideas, or principles usually intended to explain the arrangement or working of a systematic whole.”
A QMS documents processes, procedures and responsibilities that ultimately direct an organization’s activities to meet customer and regulatory requirements as well as continually improve its effectiveness and efficiency. In other words – it steers innovation through the collection of data while ensuring products are safe for the consumer. For further reading, the American Society for Quality (ASQ), now over 70 years old, is an excellent resource and provider of resources and formal training programs that are recognized and revered around the world.
Step 1: Define your stakeholder requirements
This all starts with knowing your stakeholder (e.g., customer, regulatory body) requirements. For simplicity’s sake, let’s start with your customer; at a fundamental level, they expect safe, consistent and reliable products that impart a certain experience.
How does that translate into specifications? Let’s look at them one at a time.
What does “safe” mean? For an edible, safe means the product is free of physical, chemical and microbial hazards. Knowing what potential impurities could be in your product requires understanding your raw materials (inputs) and the manufacturing process. To take a deeper dive, some of the aspects of safety and quality, product specifications and testing considerations are discussed in this recent Cannabis Industry Journal article by Dr. Roggen and Mr. Skrinskas here.
What does “consistent” mean? This builds off and complements the safety profile. It could mean a consistent fill level, an acceptable range of cannabinoid concentration, and so on. For example, in the US Pharmacopeia’s peer-reviewed article about quality attributes of cannabis inflorescence (commonly known as flower or bud), they recommend 20% as the acceptable variance in cannabinoid content. For a product labeled as having 25% THC, the product will actually test to between 20% and 30%. This may be surprising, and discomforting for some, but the reality is that products on the market consistently fail to meet label claims.
What does “reliable” mean? That could mean that you always have inventory of certain products on the shelves at your dispensary. Defining “always” as a SMART goal – perhaps it means that you will have your top 3 products in stock at least 90% of the time. Customers need to feel like they can rely on your business to provide them with the products they want. Take the time to capture the data on what your customers want and work to satisfy their needs and you’ll watch your business really accelerate.
Step 2: Build your processes to meet these expectations
This is where your written standard operating procedures (SOPs), forms and records come into play. Your SOPs serve to memorialize your operations for consistency. Most SOPs in the cannabis industry are not written by the actual operators of a process. Rather, they are written by the legal and compliance team without review by the operators to confirm that what they are stating reflects operational reality. The audience needs to be the operators. Without effective SOPs that are utilized by your employees, your business will struggle to meet the established specifications. Cannabis businesses in Colorado, the oldest regulated adult-use cannabis market in the United States, continue to see 1 in 8 of their products fail final product testing! Cannabis businesses that understand their processes, document them in SOPs and have records to prove they follow their SOPs (see Step 3) are able to reduce errors that ultimately lead to costly rework and product failures.
Step 3: Monitor and improve
You have your requirements, you have your process, but how do you know that they are being adhered to? By the time you have results from a third-party lab, it’s too late. Look internally. Records and logs that show preventive maintenance was performed, room and canopy temperature and humidity checks, inventory reports, production records, extraction equipment report and employee training records shouldn’t be filled out only to be filed away. These records are data, which is your most valuable tool. Unfortunately, records are one of the most overlooked assets in today’s cannabis business. A team independent from operations (typically a Quality Unit) should be regularly reviewing these for inconsistencies and trends that can alert you to catastrophic failures before they occur.
Initially, the additional expenditure and learning curve may make this seem like an added burden, but keep in mind that succeeding in today’s cannabis industry requires long-term customer retention. By biting off one piece at a time, you can slowly implement a QMS that will improve your business, increase customer satisfaction, and ensure your brand is a staple for years to come. Remember, quality and compliance is a journey, not a “set it and forget it” situation.
The definition of a Quality Management System includes ‘continuous improvement’. Look forward to a future article which will discuss the importance of tools like a CAPA Program – Corrective Action Preventive Action (which all cannabis license holders in Colorado are required to have in place as of January 1, 2021) and how they complete your QMS, keeping you compliant and mitigating your business risks!
Heat-not-burn is a non-combustion technology consisting of a heating source and either an oven that the user packs cannabis into or a stick pre-filled with cannabis. The cannabis is heated to a lower temperature than a combusted joint or bowl to create an aerosol that the user inhales. Heat-not-burn in this way is distinct from traditional vaping where a liquid or oil is heated to become a vapor and inhaled.
Omura is a design company that has developed a platform product for the heat-not-burn market.
We spoke with Mike Simpson, CEO and co-founder of Omura. Mike co-founded Omura in 2018 after an international design career where he spent much of his time in Japan working with consumer products.
Aaron Green: Mike, what trends are you following in the market?
Mike Simpson: I’m always tracking trends in the heat-not-burn space. Because of my background, I know that the tobacco industry inspires a lot of the technology in the cannabis space. If you look at all the vape pens, that technology was initially developed for big tobacco, which then later was adopted by cannabis. I’m always looking to stay educated on what’s happening in the tobacco industry, as I know it’s directly tied to my work in cannabis.
I’m also looking at what’s happening all over the world with legislation. I’ve been studying it for years, but this past year has been phenomenal. Seeing five new states go to some level of legalization, the federal law and new states legalizing cannabis in the 2020 Election. I believe the Biden/Harris victory will have a major impact on the industry, however we still have to see what happens with the Senate. These next couple of years are going to be very interesting to see how things shape out for cannabis.
Aaron: What are you personally interested in learning more about?
Mike: I am interested in learning how the world is going to behave next year with this new life that’s been thrusted upon us. How effective is the new vaccine going to be? How are people going to retrospectively look at this year, and the lifestyle that they used to have before going into COVID? How much of it’s going to become permanent? How much of this Zoom life will we continue to enjoy? In the future, will office spaces become obsolete? How much will we still be using home deliveries? Do we actually want to go to restaurants again? That’s what I’m very interested in learning about is how human behavior and the world will change because of what’s happening right now.
Aaron Green: How did you get started at Omura?
Mike Simpson: Great question. I moved to Japan as a designer working for Lego and set up their design office for Lego toys. After Lego, I started working instead with Nike and Adidas designing performance sneakers and apparel for a couple of years until I found Big Tobacco — which is where my Omura story begins. I rapidly found myself in a position where I was creating new technologies, for the consumption of nicotine and tobacco. While working on an early project, I was asked if I knew any science fiction writers. Thanks to Lego, I just so happened to know Syd Mead, the designer for popular sci-fi films including BladeRunner, Tron and Aliens. So, I called him and we worked on a project which was aimed at setting the future of the smoking industry. Obviously, this was a brilliant project for someone like myself to get involved in. We came up with several scenarios that depicted the future of what tobacco consumption would look like, and each of them essentially included vaporization. This was before the vaporization days which made it kind of a difficult sell. I spent many years working on where we could use existing technologies in order to execute some of these scenarios. Ten years later, I moved to California, and I started studying the cannabis space for Big Tobacco which ultimately led me to Omura.
Aaron: Can you give me a reference point on the date when you were back in California?
Mike: I came here eight years ago, and I was in Japan pretty much 10 years prior to that.
Essentially what I realized when I got to California was that cannabis was perfect for heat-not-burn because of all the cannabinoids and the terpenes. You heat it up, and you get all of the good properties out of it without the need for combustion. There were already hundreds of products in the market, which validated that people love doing it.
However, there was a ritual: you needed to buy the flower, grind it, pack the device, select the temperature and then use the same mouthpiece repeatedly. And it doesn’t stop there. When the session is finished, you dig out the used flower with a metal spatula or brush. After every 10 or 15 times you have to clean it with rubbing alcohol to get rid of any existing residue from those sessions. This is just a big messy job with a massive amount of inconsistency and variability. For me, it was mind blowing that people would even go through this procedure. With Omura, I knew we needed to simplify that process. Our product comes with a pre-filled flower stick with an exact dose, that you place in the device very simply. You then use the stick as the mouthpiece and when you’re finished, throw the flower stick in the trash. It’s compostable and biodegradable. So we eliminated all of those pain points.
Aaron: Great! Where are you guys based out of?
Mike: Venice, California.
Aaron: So, what makes the Omura vaporizer different from other heat-not-burn products? You mentioned you have the disposable cartridge. Is there a design philosophy around it that you can talk more about?
Mike: Omura comes with 12 flower sticks in child-proof packaging. What makes us different is that we have our proprietary flower stick and device that work together. With our heat-not-burn technology, you get all the terpenes, but when you set fire to it, as you would with other products, you mask that with smoke. Our product is different from anything else in the market, because it has simplified the user experience through efficiency, user interaction and also through design as well.
The other founders come from deep design and technology backgrounds, designing technologies for Apple and Philips Electronics, so it was an important focus for us with Omura. Our newest device, the Series X was designed by Michael Young, a world-renowned industrial designer who has built an impressive portfolio of innovative products.
With Omura, we’re bringing sophistication of the design world into the cannabis world. It’s not just about simplifying the experience and making a great kind of efficient method of consumption, it’s also about creating something for everyday use that is beautifully designed and easy to use.
Aaron: The Series X is Omura’s latest device. Can you tell me what changes you’ve implemented to make it better than the first version?
There are a few differences between the Series 1 and Series X: First, the new design fits in the palm of your hands so it’s discreet. It comes with a USB-C charging base that automatically connects with magnets. We’ve also improved the efficiency of the oven. The first device boiled 94% of the cannabinoids, this one now boils 99%. We’ve increased user-efficiency, by removing the button from the Series 1 making it so all you have to do is put the flower stick in and the device starts automatically. Additionally, we wanted to give users an option between a hotter or cooler experience so we added an extra heat curve, as we recognize that some of our CBD users prefer more of a terpene experience.
Aaron: Can the user modify that with an app?
Mike: It is a very simple switch on the bottom of the device that allows you to toggle between the higher and lower temperature curves
Aaron: Okay, cool. Can we talk about your supply chain a little bit here? Do you manufacture everything in Los Angeles? Or do you have partners?
Mike: Everything is designed in the US and manufactured in China. Which is fairly common throughout the industry. Shenzhen is well known for making products for the vaping industry. We create empty tubes filled in a batch production process. All the flower is grown here in the US. To clarify, we aren’t a plant-touching company. We don’t have a cannabis license. When it comes to THC, we have partnership deals. We work with select cannabis brands which is how we are able to sell in dispensaries. On the other hand, our CBD model is split. We have two brands of our own. Libertine, which is more of a male-focused Gen Z brand. Then we have Oriel, which is more of a wellness brand, catered to women.
Aaron: So how would an aspiring brand get on your platform?
Mike: Good question. Any brand or company who is interested in partnering with Omura can contact us through our website, www.omura.com,on Instagram @Omura or via email: email@example.com. We would then assess them to see if they’re a good fit. Currently we’re looking to span quite a large kind of demographic as far as appeal. So, if these prospective partners are in a territory, whether it be California or another state, have good market share and high-quality flower, then we would be very open to having a conversation.
Aaron: That’s the end of the interview — thanks Mike!
Cannabis infused products manufacturing is quickly becoming a massive new market. With companies producing everything from gummies to lotions, there is a lot of room for growth as consumer data is showing a larger shift away from smokable products to ingestible or infused products.
This is the fifth and final article in a series where we interview leaders in the national infused products market. In this final piece, we talk with Lisa McClung, CEO, and Glenn Armstrong, senior advisor at Coda Signature. Lisa got started with Coda in 2019 as a board member after transitioning from an executive role at Wrigley. She now heads up the company as CEO and President. Glenn has deep experience in product development and innovation with brands such as General Mills, Whirlpool and Wrigley.
Aaron Green: Okay, great let’s get started here. So we’ll start with Lisa. How did you get involved at Coda?
Lisa McClung: I was lucky. Based on my experience, I was originally asked to be on the board of Coda. I’ve served on nine company boards in addition to my career as an executive at General Electric and at the Wrigley Company where I was heavily involved with innovation. The Board then asked me to consider stepping in as CEO after I’d been working there for six months. I was just overwhelmingly complimented that they considered me and I feel incredibly lucky to be here.
Aaron:Okay, great. Glenn, how did you get involved in Coda?
Glenn Armstrong: We’ve known each other for a long time at Wrigley. I was in innovation for the confectionery side and worked very closely with Lisa. When she became a board member, she asked me to do some advising for her. I’m new to the cannabis industry so, I was really excited about doing something different. When Lisa became CEO, she asked me if I would help her.
Aaron: How do you think about differentiating in the market?
Glenn: I spent 90% of my career on the innovation side working with companies like General Mills, Quaker Oats and Amway. When I think about how to differentiate almost any company I always focus on innovation. In the cannabis industry, everybody’s got gummies and chocolates but you’ll hear people talking about “gummies are going away.” No, you’ve just got to innovate, right? It’s like the carrot peeler from 20 years ago. It used to sell for about 25 cents, and it was all steel and now they sell for $10.99. Who would have known?
I believe anything can be innovative. When I looked at the gummies I asked, “what we learned at Wrigley, can we bring into Coda that currently is not in this industry?” Think about various gums and how they can change flavors over time like Juicy Fruit which dissipates really quickly and that’s just how the flavor is.
Or, there are other ways like spearmint. You can get an initial boost and then extend that flavor by encapsulations. I don’t see much of that in the cannabis industry. It’s just taking what’s out there from flavor companies that people like and getting them into this market.
Aaron: Awesome. Do you have any particular technologies or work or products from other industries that really interest you?
Glenn: I would say it’s going to be from the pharmaceutical industry. You think about THC and CBD being so hydrophobic. With chocolate, it’s not such a hard thing to get into. If you try to get those kinds of compounds into aqueous solutions though it can be a challenge, the drug industry has been doing it for years! So, to me, delving into some of their patents and some of their ideas, that’s one of the most powerful industries I see where we could utilize their technologies to advance the industry. I expect big pharma to get into this. We can start looking at what they’re doing that we can leverage quickly to get into Coda products.
Lisa: We’re not necessarily a pharmaceutical brand, but we are committed to helping people live and feel better. It really is about how you weave cannabis into everyday life?
We have a platform of very indulgent products, which is our chocolates ranging from truffles to bars. We also are building our non-chocolate portfolio to include other ways to enjoy cannabis in their daily life. And then to Glenn’s point, I think there’s ideas and technologies from the pharmaceutical area, there’s also things that have been in the food industry for years that provides sensations and experiences.
I think part of our goal is “how many of the five senses can we touch from people in creating product?” The feel of something in your mouth heating, cooling. Not just the psychoactive aspect of it, but the complete end-to-end experience.
These are all dynamics of us delivering the “live and the feel” piece of it. Then people can either use them from a lifestyle perspective for enjoyment, or a medical perspective. Our job is to provide consumers choices and options that provide those type of experiences.
Glenn: If you have a product that’s supposed to “reduce anxiety” why not start with the slight warming of the mouth? Something that feels calming long before the THC or CBD kicks in? Then have a flavor come up that just feels warm and comfortable. By combining all five senses, you have a product that really does something for your consumer.
Aaron: Thanks for that! What’s your process for creating a new product at Coda?
Lisa: Well, I think everybody talks about brainstorming sessions like innovation is something that just pops up. I think innovation has three legs to it. One is really customer-driven. So, we have to produce products that help our retailers make money, and that deliver really good experiences to consumers that we jointly serve.
The second piece of it is thinking about the discipline of innovation. So, when we make a product, what technologies do we bring to bear, can we scale them, and can we produce them at the right price point and delivery?
Then the last piece is the fun piece, trying to listen to what is and isn’t being said in the market to really try to be a solutions company.
We spend a lot of time listening and watching the market to figure out where we can anticipate things. We used to call it “problem detection” at Wrigley.
One project that Glen and I worked on was a mint that was designed really around adult usage in more professional situations. So, meaning the shape of the mint needs to be tucked in your cheeks so you couldn’t see it. And the packaging of it was something you could surreptitiously pop underneath the desk because we were designing it for people to use as really a business tool. You don’t think of mints as a business tool, but they really are, they give you more confidence with breath-freshening and you don’t necessarily want to hold that out with everybody else.
Some problems are about how to make a product more fun with our fruit. I can put pineapple jalapeño in my mouth and have a literal popping experience, which adds to my enjoyment of that experience.
The last piece is not to do too many products. One of the things that I think of in cannabis is that everybody’s still learning. It’s such a wide-open space, in some cases, that you also have to kind of pick what you do well. So, sticking close to our brand and what we stand for is also something that we’re trying to do. We’ve actually pulled in our SKUs recently and are trying to focus on a platform of indulgent experiences and of lifestyle products. We try not to do everything that we see out in the market and focus only on the things that we do well that solve problems for our consumers.
Glenn: From my perspective — I am not a big process person — I think the best way to do it is to say, “okay, we’ve got these products. We could look at technology, we could look at something else, but let’s just go scour what’s out there. And let’s get outside of our industry.” Look outside your own game, and see what you can use.
Discovering how to use these technologies in a gummy or chocolate as opposed to just drugs isn’t rocket science. My biggest avenue is looking outside and finding what you can apply as opposed to trying to reinvent everything.
Aaron: We’ve focused on the front end of innovation. Can you articulate on the back-end how that moves into product development, manufacturing and commercial launch?
Lisa: We have a new product pipeline with a Stage-Gate process where we will have a number of ideas and whittle them down on certain criteria.
Sometimes the ideas start with the technology and not the market. Glenn will find something and say, “Hey, this is going on, should we be thinking about this in cannabis?” It allows our each of our teams to come up with how they can make it work.
Then, as that product passes through the next stage-gate, we’re looking at the actual economics of the product, and how it fits relative to our other products all while we’re getting consumer input.
We get to that point in the process when we start trialing with consumers to help decide. And sometimes you get the best idea in the world, and then it’s not going to work so in some cases so you put it back in the pantry.
I never like to say that we don’t take an idea forward, even products that we may have taken off the market, we say “we freeze products, we don’t cut products!” because our goal is to have options. Our discipline is around a Stage-Gate process tied to our business goals and objectives. It’s also about playing around with concepts and seeing what materializes.
Glenn: There is this whole notion of a process, there’s a Stage-Gate, but before that, it’s a lot of playing around. What Lisa and I’ve recently worked on was making innovation a way of life so that every time you see something, you say something.
“We don’t think of innovation solely as the next flavor that’s going to be on the shelf.”We always gave people permission to play in the web.The reason brainstorming sessions don’t tend to work, is we expect people to become innovative in these next five hours.
So, if you think of innovation as a way of life, then it becomes what you do daily, and you look at things differently. I like to say when you’re driving home, go a different route, because you never know what you’re going to see. When you get out of that habitual mindset, you’ll think about your business differently, almost naturally. Innovation — this way of life — is one of our buzzwords.
Lisa: I think building that innovative culture is a responsibility, but also a challenge for a company like Coda. I mean, we’re not new. We’ve been around five, six years and we have some of the leading chocolate bars out there. We’re known for flavor systems.
Where our goal is to create a culture of innovation, you get these little pockets of creativity and innovation, and then it starts snowballing. You build on it, get people excited about it, and move it forward. That’s how everybody gets involved in innovation.
One of the goals of that pipeline process is to combine inspiration and discipline. But you don’t just want to be innovative in the next flavor. That isn’t doing enough for our consumers. We’ve educated them on the potential flavors could bring. But now we really want to be much more innovative across the board and see what kind of culture of innovation Coda can do.
We’re looking at the packaging, how we interact with retailers, how we use digital messaging to support our retailers and support our products. We don’t think of innovation solely as the next flavor that’s going to be on the shelf.
Aaron: From a supply chain perspective, how do you go about sourcing ingredients?
Lisa: We have some wonderful partners that have been with us at Coda. People that bring us chocolate from other parts of the earth.
We continue to keep building our ecosystem of partners. We look at different flavor houses and different food type researchers to be partners with us to broaden our ecosystem. It’s something that’s very much top of mind, even more so during COVID, because we’re feeling very fragile about our supply chains.
Glenn: Yeah, I think Lisa, that’s one thing you and I bring, not only to Coda, but I think to the cannabis industry, is the whole CPG discipline of how we look at suppliers and procurement. We need to go out there find some smaller flavor labs with incredibly creative folks.
I think the whole notion of expanding the supplier and vendor base, is pretty unique in this industry and that’s one of the strengths we bring to Coda.
Lisa: Our goal is to really create an ecosystem of different suppliers. I just think that that’s something other industries — you talked about pharmaceuticals earlier — have done. Cannabis is just starting to get there, but that’s where you get exponential opportunities.
We’re really looking at cross-functional and interdisciplinary teams with outside partners. Cannabis is at the stage now where I think it’s looking for more sophisticated technologies and new ways of deploying. We’re also really interested, as Glenn said, in some of the younger, more entrepreneurial firms that want to possibly expand their reach into cannabis as well.
Aaron: Okay, great. So my next question is can you give me an example of a challenge that you run into frequently? And this can be either a cannabis challenge or a business challenge?
Lisa: I think one of the challenges that cannabis faces in general is educating consumers about our market. One of the opportunities we have is to bring people into the market. We’re at the same time developing products for people who are in the cannabis space and are active users and have varying degrees of understanding of how they’re using the category in their daily lives.
We’re also trying to create products and education to invite people into the cannabis market. That’s a different challenge than if you’ve had an Oreo cookie, and people kind of understand cookies. They understand Oreos, and then they understand organic Oreos and all the other permutations of two chocolate cookies with a vanilla thing in between. Our goal is to expand the ability for people to access cannabis in their lives.
That is a very unique business problem. And it does represent a bit of a screen, are you going to do some of your products for more sophisticated users and others for less sophisticated users? Cannabis has consumers that have been taught essentially to think about milligrams; there’s one of the key components of choice. People will look at the product and flavor, and then they look at the milligrams and the price point.
That’s very unique to what we would find on CPG. You don’t necessarily look at dollars per milligram when you buy a cookie. So, if you’re trying to make a premium product with premium flavors, how do you say, “Well, yeah, there’s dollars per milligram, but this product has all these other technologies to create the warming or whatever.” “Innovation in products and new categories is critical to get the industry beyond common confections.”
So you kind of have a dual issue. You’re trying to get people educated on a new category and how they use it. But the education of the consumer in terms of the potential and the possibilities that they can access is going to be very important.
Aaron: What trends are you following in the industry?
Lisa: Beyond paying close attention to legalization progress across the country and monitoring how states are setting up their regulatory standards, we’re focused on which consumer demographics are incorporating cannabis into their wellness and self-care practices—and how Coda Signature products fit into their daily routines.
Glenn: For edibles, “fast acting” is probably beyond a trend and it will be interesting to see where this nets out. Consumers appear to be balking at the slightly higher price point for fast-acting gummies, but there may be a market for after-dinner dessert items. In other trends, use of minor cannabinoids and terpenes for specific benefits appears to be a solid consumer need, but this is going to require solid science to see if these products truly work. Innovation in products and new categories is critical to get the industry beyond common confections.
Aaron: Okay great! Lastly, what would you like to learn more about?
Lisa: We’re fascinated by the technological advances being made in the cannabis industry, and how those achievements may enrich the consumer experience moving forward. We’re also interested in the growing body of scientific research around how cannabis products can enhance people’s health and wellness.
Glenn: U.S. legalization and the constant changes in regulations require someone to distill the information and do a weekly report on changes.
Aaron: Thank you both! That concludes the interview!
Small cannabis dispensaries face different challenges than those seen with large, multi-state operators. To this end, massive companies like MedMen and Grassroots Cannabis need to accommodate multi-state operations’ compliance challenges. Conversely, small dispensaries must learn to compete with the big box retailers of the cannabis industry.
Small cannabis dispensaries must figure out how to make their size an advantage against larger business entities to stay competitive. To this end, they must critically assess the corporate structure of large cannabis companies like Green Thumb Industries to look for operations and marketing opportunities still “left on the table” for smaller operators.
Luckily, owning and operating a small cannabis dispensary affords creativity and innovation in the workplace. Namely, because small businesses can quickly implement change and pivot to the demands of the ever-changing cannabis landscape. Conversely, due to corporate structures’ difficult navigation, their larger counterparts must go through far more effort to implement operational changes. To better understand how small dispensaries can stay competitive in today’s market, we put together some criteria to examine.
Cross-Training Employee Teams
The fact that small cannabis dispensaries do not have many employees significantly reduces operating costs. However, to capitalize on the savings of a small employee team, you must cross-train your staff. Because if a small team can handle all the required tasks of a shift, you will never waste money on over-staffing your dispensary operation.
Looking at the specific jobs of a small cannabis dispensary, business owners should ensure that budtenders are trained to handle nearly every business task. To illustrate, you should train budtenders to open and close the store, conduct inventory work, recommend products and operate seed-to-sale software. Not only does this cross-training keep you from overstaffing your dispensary when it is slow, but it also insulates your business during busy market fluctuations.
Please note, once you train budtenders to handle a variety of tasks, you should also pay them more than the industry average. In doing so, you insulate yourself from the high turnover rate that plagues the cannabis space.
Lean Operating Principles
Lean operating is a practice that has exploded in popularity across the business world. To help teach lean operating principles, specialty training companies offer Six Sigma certifications. These certifications help business owners and executives save money on operational efficiencies. Methods taken from Six Sigma can be incredibly impactful for small cannabis dispensary businesses.
According to the ASQ professional training website, “Lean Six Sigma … drives customer satisfaction and bottom-line results by reducing variation, waste, and cycle time, while promoting the use of standardization and flow, thereby creating a competitive advantage.”
Lean Six Sigma principles can be beneficial with inventory control in small cannabis dispensaries. To this end, these businesses should apply analytics to track consumer behavior within their stores. After that, they can use data to create precise sales forecasts and conduct highly accurate product procurement. The end goal being to increase liquidity by reducing money tied up in a bloated inventory of unsold cannabis products.
Due to their small size, single dispensaries have the luxury of customizing the retail shopping experience. As such, without the added pressures of corporate oversight, small operators have the creative freedom to make for highly memorable shopping experiences within their stores. In going the extra mile on things like interior design, small dispensaries can help ensure customer retention and benefit from word-of-mouth marketing.
For example, Barbary Coast Dispensary in San Francisco, CA, has the look and feel of a high-end speakeasy, making it the perfect match for the Bay Area’s aesthetic sensibilities. The dispensary interior is decorated with a 19th-century touch and features a dab bar, where clients can enjoy the surreal atmosphere while consuming some of California’s best cannabis. A visit to a small dispensary like this will likely leave a lasting impression.
Memorable retail shopping experiences often translate directly to customer loyalty. In turn, this dynamic directly impacts your bottom-line concerning marketing expenses. Notably, a steady base of loyal customers will sustain your business, significantly reducing your marketing costs. In the end, marketing can be directed at retaining clients through loyalty programs and customer engagement – both can be mainly handled “in house” and relatively inexpensively.
Small dispensaries can utilize product differentiation to stay competitive in today’s market. To this end, small operators are blessed with the ability to pivot quickly with new product offerings. Conversely, large dispensary chains with corporate structures must go through rigorous steps before launching new products at their stores.
Small cannabis dispensaries can immediately “get out ahead” on new product trends as they arise. For example, you can offer rare cannabis strains or boutique extracts that none of the larger dispensaries carry.
By the time the larger dispensaries in your area catch up on the current trends, you can move on to the next one. We recommend making alliances with some of the top craft growers in your area to make this possible.
Every year, the cannabis industry grows more competitive. As this business evolves from an underground affair to a multi-billion-dollar enterprise, the scope and sophistication of cannabis dispensary operations grows exponentially. Within this ever-changing dynamic, many small dispensaries fear the wayside will leave them.
Yet, if you approach the market with creativity and zeal, you can make the additional market pressure work to your benefit. By focusing on critical facets like cross-training employees, lean operating principles and product differentiation, you can build a profitable and sustainable cannabis dispensary by making small size a competitive advantage.
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