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Leaders in Cannabis Formulations: Part 3 – RealSleep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Green: How does your manufacturing and packaging work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Green: That concludes the interview. Thanks, Michael!

Kamins: Thanks, Aaron.

Flower-Side Chats Part 9: A Q&A with Andrew Thut, Chief Investment Officer of 4Front Ventures

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

4Front Ventures Corp. (CSE: FFNT) ( OTCQX: FFNTF) is a multi-state operator active in Washington, Massachusetts, Illinois, Michigan and California. Since its founding in 2011, 4Front has built a reputation for its high standards and low-cost cultivation and production methodologies earned through a track record of success in facility design, cultivation, genetics, growing processes, manufacturing, purchasing, distribution and retail. To date, 4Front has successfully brought to market more than 20 different cannabis brands and nearly 2,000 unique product lines, which are strategically distributed through its fully owned and operated Mission dispensaries and retail outlets in its core markets.

We interviewed Andrew Thut, chief investment officer of 4Front Ventures. Andrew joined 4Front in 2014 after investing in the company in 2011. Prior to 4Front, Andrew worked in investment banking and later moved on to public equity where he was a portfolio manager at BlackRock.

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

Andrew Thut: I came at it from the investment side of things. I started my career as a junior investment banker right out of school and then I was a public equity analyst and Portfolio Manager. I ran small-cap growth portfolios for BlackRock where I was on the team for a better part of 11 years.

Andrew Thut, Chief Investment Officer of 4Front Ventures

One of my friends, Josh Rosen, who came from the finance industry, got interested in the cannabis industry really in 2008. He founded 4Front as a consulting company officially in 2011 and I came in as an investor. After that original investment, I left BlackRock and I was looking for something different to do. I was tired of chasing basis points and running public market portfolios. Josh said to me “This industry needs more talent,” and I became more and more involved at 4Front as the years went on. In 2014, I came into the business full time. Originally, I was someone that was kind of the gray hair in the room when we were applying for licenses. We had to go to different municipalities and convince them that we were going to be responsible license holders. I also spent a lot of time on the capital raising side for our business leveraging my career in corporate and more traditional public finance. These are incredibly complex businesses that require a fair amount of capital in some places. So, that’s how I originally got into the business.

These are complicated businesses in a lot of cases. The “sausage making” in cannabis is incredibly complicated. There’s friction at every step along the way. As an example, when you’re buying a building where you want to cultivate your product, you can’t get a mortgage from a typical bank.

While those of us that have been in the industry like to gripe and complain about it, this friction is also the opportunity. Because more traditional investors can’t invest in this industry yet, it allows us more time to build our businesses and have some protective moats around it from a competition standpoint until those folks do come in. So, all this friction is a pain and it’s brutal, but it’s also the opportunity here in cannabis.

Green: Can you speak to the transformation of 4Front from consulting to MSO?

Thut: The original business was consulting. Our original investor was sensitive about touching the plant – it’s one thing to offer services to a federally illegal business, it’s another thing to directly run a federally illegal business. For example, 4Front would have consulting clients that were interested in acquiring a license in Massachusetts. Because of our expertise and our standard operating procedures, we could apply for licenses in limited license states on behalf of our clients and help them show regulators competence and give the regulator’s confidence that these operators knew what they were doing. So, we would help our clients win the licenses and then once those licenses were won, our operations folks would come in and help them get up running.

When I came into the business we said, “well, geez, we have quite a track record helping clients win licenses and get open. If we’re good at winning these licenses and getting them open, why aren’t we just doing this on our own behalf?” So, in 2015, we shifted the business from consulting to being a multi-state operator. We leveraged our capabilities in regulatory compliance and winning licenses to go and get those on our own behalf. We also leveraged our financial expertise in M&A to add to our portfolio, so what we ended up with was a seven-state portfolio at the time.

Green: Chief Investment Officer is an uncommon title, even in the MSO space. What does your day-to-day look like?

Thut: I spend an awful lot of time helping management plot our strategy, and then figuring out how we are going to pay for our growth. Not only structuring finances for the company, but also having contact with our existing and new investors.

I spend a lot of my day to day thinking about where we want to be as a business and what geographies we want to be in. If you look at cannabis longer term, we have less interest in being cultivators or farmers. We think that’s going to be the most quickly commoditized piece of the value chain. We like retail as a business, but I think that we have less interest in managing hundreds of retail locations scattered across the country. We ultimately want to be a finished goods manufacturer. What we think is going to matter longer term is establishing low-cost production.

There is a lot of price elasticity in the end markets for cannabis meaning if you get customers a quality product at a much better price than the competitor, you’re going to take outsize market share. To offer that lower price, you have to be efficient. Over the years, we have figured out how to bring the labor cost out of our production. We have 25 different brands with 1000s of different SKUs of products that have dominant market share in states like Washington. And we’re now putting them into Illinois, Massachusetts, California, Michigan, and hopefully New Jersey.

Green: Do you have a preference towards acquisition, or do you seek growth through internal investments?

Thut: We are always weighing build versus buy. We want our products to have dominant market share, or very strong market share in every state we are in, and we have a lens towards what gets us there faster and most efficiently. For instance, we have two cultivation facilities and one production facility here in Massachusetts – about 15,000 square feet of canopy in the state. That will just about serve our three retail locations in Massachusetts.

Back to our bigger investment thesis, we believe that we should be a finished goods wholesaler in every state that we’re in. We know our products are incredibly well received and we know that consumers love our price point. In Massachusetts, for instance, we’re currently evaluating if we need more capacity from a cultivation standpoint and a production standpoint. And if we do where do the lines cross in terms of whether we should build versus buy that additional capacity?

We are currently in five states, including our facility in Washington has dominant market share in one of the toughest markets in the world for cannabis – somewhere close to 9% market share in Washington. Our brands are in the top 10 of every single category from flower to vapes, to edibles everything across the board. And what we’re doing our strategy is simple. It’s taking those tried-and-true products and operating procedures that have been so effective in Washington, and we’re replicating them in other states where we have licenses: Massachusetts, Illinois, and Michigan, California and hopefully New Jersey. We’re looking for more state, but we want to be deep in the states we’re in.

We also have a lot of confidence that you know, having been having translated some of these, having been able to effectively take our Washington success story and port it to other states. We’re looking for other states to sort of bring into the portfolio because we feel like we’re in a position now to stamp it out.

At our facility in Washington, which is the number one edibles manufacturer in that state, we produce the edible Marmas which is our the number one selling gummy in Washington. We produce 3,500 boxes of those in one shift using 25 people in Washington. Our facility is one of the lowest cost producers in the country.

We are opening what we think is going to be a very disruptive facility in Southern California right now. The facility is 170,000 square feet of purely automated finished goods production. So, rather than making 3,500 boxes of our gummy squares in one shift using 25 people, with the automation that we have in California, we can make 30,000 boxes. So, 10x one shift for the same number of people. We look more like the Mars Candy Company than most investors would think of when they see a typical cannabis company. We’re bringing that kind of scale and automation.

Green: What are some of the industry trends that you’re watching closely?

Thut: We keep a close eye on limited license states. States like Massachusetts and Illinois. For various reasons Massachusetts is very tough to get zoned. So, there’s going to be a limited number of players in a state like Massachusetts, which means you can have pretty good moats around your business and pricing will hold up over several years. We love limited license states like that, where price is going to hold up. On the other hand, we’re not afraid to enter a state like California where we think our low-cost production expertise uniquely qualifies us to go into a huge market like that and be disruptive and take a lot of the pie.

“You’re starting to see the market expand. There’s some anecdotal evidence that we’re taking a fair amount of share from the beer industry.”What we’re seeing in terms of industry trends, particularly on the THC side of this business, has just been phenomenally strong. You’ve had robust medical markets where, by and large, we’re seeing those dominoes start to fall quickly and going recreational. When that happens, the size of the market increases – call it from 2% of the population to as much as 10% of the population. So, from a state regulatory standpoint, having states go form medical to adult use is a huge deal in terms of the market opportunity.

We’re also seeing states get a lot more comfortable with the idea of selling cannabis. I’ve been around for close to seven years in this industry. When I started and I went into a municipality, and I said we wanted to open a cannabis store you’d have people following me to my car with pitchforks. As these municipalities open and public acceptance comes around, people are realizing that these stores are providing jobs and providing a good tax base for communities. So, the acceptance of cannabis has a snowballing effect that just continues to roll.

It’s not just the ultra-frequent users of cannabis who are totally driving the bus in terms of the demand growth for your business. You’re starting to see the market expand. There’s some anecdotal evidence that we’re taking a fair amount of share from the beer industry. So, the fundamentals of this industry are phenomenal. I think that we’re probably in the second inning of what is a mega-trend of legalization of cannabis and the investment opportunity here.

Green: I think one of the interesting things about the fundamentals is you’ve got this hardship of 280E, that all the companies are facing, and yet you still have groups that are surviving, profitable and growing. What are your thoughts on 280E’s effect on cannabis businesses? Do you foresee anything happening there?

Thut: There was a huge liquidity crunch in cannabis in 2019, meaning it was hard for people to come up with capital to grow their businesses. You had a bunch of companies that had licenses who didn’t really know how to operate and weren’t really focused on profitability. That liquidity crunch of 2019 made people get religious about being profitable and being efficient with capital allocation. Fast forward to 2021 and if you look at the top 10 cannabis MSOs in the US, I think we’re all profitable.

So, here you have an industry with accelerating top line growth and they’re already profitable. That profitability should only improve as you’re able to leverage your operating expenses and that’s a unique thing. When the internet craze was started in 1999 you had companies that a weren’t profitable, didn’t have business models, and no one really knew what they wanted to be. You have companies here in cannabis that are growing the top line 50% a year, and they’re profitable, and they’re trading at under 10 times EBITDA, which is totally disjointed.

Sen. Schumer unveiling the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act

So, that leads me to your question on to 280E. 280E has been a problem. Banking has been a problem. Having to list our companies over the counter instead of on exchanges like the NASDAQ and NYSE – that’s been a problem in terms of attracting capital. But the good news is Senator Schumer, Senator Booker and others have put out some bold initiatives on what they want to achieve from a legalization standpoint. From an investment standpoint, the biggest thing that investors should be focused on is access to banking, which is included in the senators’ proposed legislation.

Once we get access to banking services, the federal government is basically acknowledging cannabis as an industry will be able to not only have more traditional financing for our growth, but it will also lead to uplift into exchanges and real institutions like the Fidelity’s and the BlackRock’s of the world being able to come and invest in these companies. It also acknowledges 280E is an antiquated law. Getting rid of 280E will give us a much lower tax rate and will allow us to have a bigger proportion of our pretax cash flow into growing our businesses rather than having to go outside for that funding. My crystal ball is probably no better or worse than others in the industry, but if you fast forward 18 months to two years, I have a tough time seeing 280E still in place.

Green: Last question here. What’s the thing you’re most interested in learning about in the cannabis industry?

Thut: I’m just fascinated to see how these various business models will play out. People are placing bets on picks and shovels. People are placing bets on whether being a finished goods manufacturer works. People are placing bets on whether a retailer business model is going to win the day.

If you look at the leadership in the cannabis industry today, it’s totally different than it was four years ago. People that were foregone winners four years ago like MedMen had to do significant recaps. I put Acreage in that sort of bucket too. The leadership had shifted and so I’m really curious to see just from an intellectual standpoint, how this business evolves.

I sometimes scratch my head, you know, do you really want to be a cannabis company with 200 retail locations? You’re going to have a tough time growing same store sales in three to five years in 200 retail locations. So, I’m just most curious in proving out our thesis of being finished goods producers and low cost finished goods producers in the value chain. I’m most curious in seeing how that plays out. I think we are seeing our strategy play out in the most competitive markets in the world. We have a high degree of conviction that we’re on the right track here, but our eyes are always open and we’re always making little pivots here and there trying to make sure to stay on top of the sweet spot in the value curve.

If you describe the cannabis industry generically and you didn’t say cannabis, you said “widget” I think it’s the most fascinating Business School case ever presented. If you’re taking this market that already exists, it’s just illegal. So, all it needs to do is switch from the black market to the legal market and then you’re always trying to plot a course and steer the ship towards where the highest value creation can be. So, I’m fascinated to see how it’s going play out here.

Green: That concludes the interview. Thanks Andrew!

Thut: Thanks Aaron.

Flower-Side Chats Part 8: A Q&A with Andreas “Dre” Neumann, Chief Creative Director of Jushi Holdings Inc.

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

Jushi Holdings Inc. (OTCMKTS: JUSHF | CSE: JUSH) is a multi-state operator with a national footprint and core markets in Illinois, Pennsylvania and Virginia, with developing markets in California, Nevada, Massachusetts and Ohio. In addition, Jushi maintains offices in Colorado, New York and Florida. In Q1 2021 they posted $42M in revenue representing 30% growth over Q4 2020 and 77% of their sales were conducted online. Jushi brands include Beyond / Hello, The Bank, The Lab, Tasteology, Sēchē, Nira CBD and Nira+ Medicinals.

We interviewed Andreas “Dre” Neumann, Chief Creative Director of Jushi Holdings. Dre joined Jushi in February 2020 after connecting to the founders through a colleague and running a large user experience research project. Prior to Jushi, Dre cut his teeth in advertising and branded entertainment. He was a startup founder at TalentHouse.com and a Partner at Idean, which he later sold to Capgemini.

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

Andreas Neumann: I’m a guy who has been interested in many genres – I’m always looking for the next big thing. I started out in advertising and then I faded into branded entertainment when the traditional advertising wave was kind of shaky due to the digital attack of the internet with platforms like Facebook and Myspace.

I’ve also been fascinated by digital which led me to move into Silicon Valley. I had a startup called TalentHouse.com which was like LinkedIn for creative people. I learned a lot there about building a company in Silicon Valley. It was the first time I was confronted with experienced customer and user experience people. CX and UX was already kind of a thing in Silicon Valley at the time. My last company I was a partner in was a company called Idean, a Silicon Valley-based user experience company which we sold to a French company called Capgemini about four years ago.

I continue to be involved in the entertainment industry as kind of a creative outlet. I’m working with a lot of big rock bands like The Foo Fighters and Queens of the Stone Age. I just did the last Foo Fighter album. Photography is my last domain of total creativity where I can do whatever I want specifically in the rock business.

Andreas “Dre” Neumann, Chief Creative Director of Jushi Holdings Inc.

Coming to the cannabis point, I was actively looking for a partner to do a cannabis brand with The Queens of the Stone Age. I met Jushi through a very interesting coincidence. I was on the way to do a shoot in Silicon Valley with a guy called Les Claypool, who is from a famous band called Primus. I shot Les there and I was driving through Silicon Valley and remembered I had a friend nearby I should talk to. So, I called him and he was in Singapore. He called me right back (he never calls back normally) and said “You’ve got to talk to Jushi! You’ve got to talk to these guys Jim Cacioppo and Erich Mauff (two of the founders). They are starting something very exciting. They could be your partners.”

This is where the conversation started. It was my first time confronting a cannabis MSO and understanding how this works. I had just exited from my last agency and put together the best people from my previous endeavor to create a new sort of “creative collective” of UX and marketing experts. We did a test project for Jushi, a big research project on cannabis for California in retail, which was super interesting. It was a 200-page document – the first phase of user experience of the process before you build something – and through that I saw this as a big opportunity. I spoke to the founders again and came fully onboard in February 2020, just before the pandemic hit. From then on, it’s been a real amazing journey with me and the team. And it was the right moment to jump on the Jushi train as it was just about to leave the station.

Green: Can you talk about some of the geographies you are active in?

Neumann: Jushi is a multi-state operator. The most important state for Jushi is Pennsylvania. That’s where we have the most stores and we are building more stores there this year as well, very aggressively. We currently have 13 Beyond / Hello medical cannabis dispensaries in the state with many more to come, bringing an unmatched in-store experience, coupled with online reservations and in-store express pick-up.

The next important market for us is Virginia. We have a unique position there in Manassas with a cultivation facility and manufacturing and extraction facility, with the license for up to six stores. We started store number one in the facility, and we are rolling it out in HSA II. We are the only ones who can open stores in HSA II and this is straight on the border to Washington D.C. We call Virginia the “sleeping giant.” So much happened in the last year in Virginia around regulation and the industry, and now flower is finally legal.

Then we have Illinois – super interesting stores there. We have two flagship stores located straight on the border of Missouri, basically in East St. Louis. They are our biggest performers in the whole network because of the location. You have people coming over from Missouri, which is really in the beginnings of a medical market, and Illinois, which is now adult use. It was a super cool experience to see a medical market change to adult-use and be part of that change.

In other states, we recently announced the acquisition of Nature’s Remedy in Massachusetts, where we will have cultivation, processing and stores there. In Nevada, we have a grower-processor and we’re looking at opportunities in retail as well. At the moment, we have all our brands launched there. We are also continuing to build out our processing and cultivation capabilities in Ohio.

Last but not least is California. I’m based in California and the whole creative team is here. It’s a vanity market and it’s very competitive, but you’re in the capital of the world of cannabis in terms of brands and retail. California is in the future compared to the other states. So, we need to be here. It’s just like a soccer team. You must compete against good people or you’re not going to grow. So, that’s why competing here in California is key.

Green: How do you think about brand development, specifically in the cannabis CPG space?

Neumann: California is the king of brands. There are more products than brands in the cannabis industry at the moment. The products may have nice packaging, but brands aren’t really out there yet. The only states where you have “brands” as I would call them are California, Colorado and Oregon. I think we are just about to get to the place where the first rush is over and people with more experience about brands come in and build on the story of the brand. The myths, the cult, the legend of that story is important, and I think this is just about to get started.

Our brands, The Bank and The Lab, have good stories. They have been around a long time. We acquired them from a company in Colorado and we rolled them out in Nevada with a total revamp of look and feel as well as story. The Bank is celebrating this kind of roaring 20s idea. We have a lot of images, from black and white prohibition-style photos to this black-gold, very high-end, adult use tailored brand.

Vaping products from The Lab brand in Colorado

The Lab is a solid vaping brand from Colorado, and one of the 8th best-selling vape brands of all time. We revamped The Lab image to “take the lab out of the lab.” So basically, take the hairnet and the lab coat out of the vibe and add a whole new energy, with symmetry and nature in a leading role.

Tasteology, which is one of our self-made, self-created brands, was all based on customer research. In Pennsylvania, we have thousands of people we can communicate with, and we can test our brands. So, we’ve done focus groups and testing to see what sticks, and the name Tasteology came out of a huge research project with hundreds of names.

The last brand comes back to your question “Where are the brands going?” I think our brand Sēchē is the first one of our own creation and has this total lifestyle feel. It’s fine grind flower which normally might make its way to extraction. We treat it well and then we sell the raw flower, as well as a pre-roll line. It’s this kind of a young, cost effective, very affordable pre-roll and pre-ground brand, which is fabulous. And Sēchē really gets a lot of traction – flies off the shelves in Pennsylvania. It is a great product.

So, this is now the first stage where brands are created, but I think overall, there’s not many brands yet. They have to find their stories and their real purpose, I think. But California is ahead of it. And there’s some of them coming out now. So, I think there’s a new wave coming. It always goes in phases.

Green: How do you think about brand partners?

Neumann: We did the first step towards outside partnerships recently. We just partnered with Colin Hanks, Tom Hanks’ son, on his handkerchief line called Hanks Kerchiefs and we’re going to sell these in our stores. Hanks Kerchiefs has nothing to do with cannabis, but it takes our stores to a place where it’s not only cannabis products, it’s more the retail scene, the lifestyle scene. If we go into future partnerships with people, we would partner with big talent agencies to create something special. Maybe it’s limited editions, maybe it’s something more story-driven, but it doesn’t have to be there forever. I see using outside partnerships for more “drops,” as we call it. But we will see. You cannot force these collaborations. They have to come at the right time and need to be real. That’s what people feel. If it’s real you can feel it.

Green: Do you notice any differences in consumer preferences between the states you’re in and do you have to tailor your messaging differently?

Neumann: This is a super interesting question. I’ve been working in Europe, and you have all these different countries, so every market is different. Every market gets different messages. Every market gets different commercials. It’s the same in cannabis in the United States! The only difference is that it’s so regulated. I could launch a gummy in Virginia and all Virginia would know about it. It would become a household name, and everybody uses that gummy. But in California, no one will hear about it. No one would care about it. And the same vice versa, right?

So, different states, different brands. With our acquisitions, we are acquiring new brands, which then live only in those states. Then we have to support that. If the data would show we should then we do it. When we acquire something we consumer test in many states, and specifically in the states where the acquisition happened.

Overall, you can say flower is always what people want. But in markets like Virginia, we cannot sell flower at the moment. In Pennsylvania you have flower, but you can’t have edibles. Do Pennsylvanians want edibles? Of course, they want it but it’s not allowed yet. So, there’s always this to consider.

Green: What are some of the forward-looking opportunities that you see to merge product with technology?

Neumann: It’s interesting that flower, the most old-fashioned thing you could have, is the biggest thing. If you get into it, it’s pure, you can smell it, you can trust it. Flower has its own charm.

The Beyond / Hello retail location in Scranton, PA

So, asking about merging technology and product is like asking what technology comes with drinking wine. There’s lots of stuff around it. I think in the end the technology will be more about how you can create a product which delivers high THC, fast and controlled. The technology that goes into making stuff like live resin has a big future, because not everybody can make it. It has a very complicated process of freezing the product within four hours after the harvest, and then cold extraction. So, I think technology there has a big impact and gets the experience of the consumption right.

In the consumer world, people have tried a lot of things with technology. For example, limiting doses and inserting flower into a device. There are people trying all kinds of stuff. Common sense is always the key. What do you want to use most? Do you want to have a pre-roll and just enjoy it? A long one when you have friends around? A short one if you’re alone walking a dog? I think you have to keep it simple. That’s the most difficult thing most of the time.

Green: Final question here. What are you most interested in learning about? This can be personal life or cannabis.

Neumann: When I entered the cannabis industry, I hadn’t been a consumer since I was 18. I was more of an alcohol guy, but then later I stopped drinking alcohol, so I was totally clean the last 15 years until I entered the cannabis industry.

When I do something like making films about a jet fighter, I have to fly the jet fighter. If I make a film about jumping out of a plane, I have to jump out of the plane. So, if I work in the cannabis company, I have to consume cannabis. I cannot not consume it. So, I started professionally consuming cannabis every day. From day one when we started research, every day I tried other products and I became a real user. Not during the day, but in the evening when it’s the right time.

First of all, I compare it a lot with music. It’s like a feeling. Everybody feels it differently. I think what it does – and this fascinates me about it and it’s why I love to be in this industry – is it seems to be slowing down the world a little bit and your desperation. This slowing down of desperation actually opens you up to receive and when and you receive good stuff it comes to you kind of effortlessly. Not only is it great for medical use – it has helped me for pain as well – but also as a receiver of energy. I think it clears a lot of the “signal.” I’m always interested in learning more about this incredible plant.

Green: Thanks Dre, that concludes the interview.

Neumann: Thanks Aaron.

Leaders in Cannabis Testing – Part 1: A Q&A with Milan Patel, CEO and Co-Founder of PathogenDx

By Aaron Green
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In this “Leaders in Cannabis Testing” series of articles, Green interviews cannabis testing laboratories and technology providers that are bringing unique perspectives to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses integrate innovative practices and technologies to navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory constraints and B2B demand.

PathogenDx is an Arizona-based provider of microbial testing technologies. Since their inception in 2014, they have broadened their reach to 26 states in the US. In addition to cannabis product testing, PathogenDx also provides technologies for food safety testing, environmental testing and recently started offering human diagnostics testing to support COVID-19 response efforts.

We interviewed Milan Patel, CEO and co-founder of PathogenDx. Milan founded PathogenDx as a spin-off from one of his investments in a clinical diagnostics company testing for genetic markers in transplant organs. Prior to PathogenDx, Milan worked in finance and marketing at Intel and later served as CFO at Acentia (now Maximus Federal).

Aaron Green: What’s the history of PathogenDx?

Milan Patel: PathogenDx was effectively a spin-off of a clinical diagnostics company that my partner Dr. Mike Hogan, the inventor of the technology, had founded when he was a professor at the University of Arizona, but previously at Baylor Medical College back in 2002. I had invested in the company back then and I had realized that his technology had a broad and wide sweeping impact for testing – not just for pathogens in cannabis specifically, but also for pathogens in food, agriculture, water and even human diagnostics. In the last 14 months, this became very personal for every single person on the planet having been impacted by SARS-CoV-2, the viral pathogen causing Covid-19. The genesis of the company was just this, that human health, food and agricultural supply, and the environment has and will continue to be targeted by bacterial, fungal and viral pathogens impacting the safety and health of each human on the planet.

We founded PathogenDx and we pivoted the company from its original human organ transplant genetics market scope into the bigger markets; we felt the original focus was too niche for a technology with this much potential. We licensed the technology, and we repurposed it into primarily cannabis. We felt that achieving commercial success and use in the hands of cannabis testing labs at the state level where cannabis was first regulated was the most logical next step. Ultimately, our goal was and is to move into markets that are approved at the federal regulatory side of the spectrum, and that is where we are now.

Green: What year was that?

Milan Patel, CEO and Co-Founder of PathogenDx
Photo credit: Michael Chansley

Patel: 2014.

Green: So, PathogenDx started in cannabis testing?

Patel: Yes, we started in cannabis testing. We now have over 100 labs that are using the technology. There is a specific need in cannabis when you’re looking at contamination or infection.

In the case of contamination on cannabis, you must look for bacterial and fungal organisms that make it unsafe, such as E. coli, or Salmonella or Aspergillus pathogens. We’re familiar with recent issues like the romaine lettuce foodborne illness outbreaks at Chipotle. In the case of fungal organisms such as Aspergillus, if you smoke or consume contaminated cannabis, it could have a huge impact on your health. Cannabis regulators realized that to ensure public health and safety there was more than just one pathogen – there were half a dozen of these bugs, at a minimum, that could be harmful to you.

The beauty of our technology, using a Microarray is that we can do what is called a multiplex test, which means you’re able to test for all bacterial and fungal pathogens in a single test, as opposed to the old “Adam Smith” model, which tests each pathogen on a one-by-one basis. The traditional approach is costly, time consuming and cumbersome. Cannabis is such a high value crop and producers need to get the answer quickly. Our tests can give a result in six hours on the same day, as opposed to the two or three days that it takes for these other approved methods on the market.

Green: What is your business model? Is there equipment in addition to consumables?

Patel: Our business model is the classic razor blade model. What that means is we sell equipment as well as the consumables – the testing kits themselves.

The PathogenDx technology uses standard, off-the-shelf lab equipment that you can find anywhere. We didn’t want to make the equipment proprietary so that a lab has to buy a specific OEM branded product. They can use almost any equipment that’s available commercially. We wanted to make sure that labs are only paying a fraction of the cost to get our equipment, as opposed to using other vendors. Secondly, the platform is open-ended, meaning it’s highly flexible to work with the volumes that different cannabis labs see daily, from high to low.

One equipment set can process many different types of testing kits. There are kits for regulated testing required by states, as well as required environmental contamination.

Green: Do you provide any in-house or reference lab testing?

Patel: We do. We have a CLIA lab for clinical testing. We did this about a year ago when we started doing COVID testing.

We don’t do any kind of in-house reference testing for cannabis, though we do use specific reference materials or standards from Emerald Scientific, for example, or from NCI. Our platform is all externally third-party reference lab tested whether it’s validated by our external cannabis lab customers or an independent lab. We want our customers to make sure that the actual test works in their own hands, in their own facility by their own people, as opposed to just shrugging our shoulders and saying, “hey, we’ve done it ourselves, believe us.” That’s the difference.

Green: Can you explain the difference between qPCR and endpoint PCR?

Patel: The difference between PathogenDx’s Microarray is it uses endpoint PCR versus qPCR (quantitative real time PCR). Effectively, our test doesn’t need to be enriched. Endpoint PCR delivers a higher level of accuracy, because when it goes to amplify that target DNA, whether it’s E. coli, Salmonella or Aspergillus pieces, it uses all the primer reagent to its endpoint. So, it amplifies every single piece of an E. Coli (for example) in that sample until the primer is fully consumed. In the case of qPCR, it basically reaches a threshold and then the reaction stops. That’s the difference which results in a much greater level of accuracy. This provides almost 10 times greater sensitivity to identify the pathogen in that sample.

The second thing is that we have separated out how the amplified sample hybridizes to the probe. In the case of our assay, we have a microarray with a well in it and we printed the actual probe that has the sequence of E. coli in there, now driving 100% specificity. Whereas in the qPCR, the reaction is not only amplifying, but it’s also basically working with the probe. So, in that way, we have a higher level of efficiency in terms of specificity. You get a definite answer exactly in terms of the organism you’re looking for.

In terms of an analogy, let’s take a zip code for example which has the extra four digits at the end of it.  In the case of endpoint PCR, we have nine digits. We have our primer probes which represent the standard five digits of a zip code, and the physical location of the probe itself in the well which serves as the extra four digits of that zip code. The analyte must match both primary and secondary parts of the nine-digit zip code for it to lock in, like a key and a lock. And that’s the way our technology works in a nutshell.

Endpoint PCR is completely different. It drives higher levels of accuracy and specificity while reducing the turnaround time compared to qPCR – down to six hours from sample to result. In qPCR, you must enrich the sample for 24 to 48 hours, depending on bacteria or fungus, and then amplification and PCR analysis can be done in one to three hours. The accuracies and the turnaround times are the major differences between the endpoint PCR and qPCR.

Green: If I understand correctly, it’s a printed microarray in the well plate?

Patel: That’s correct. It’s a 96-well plate, and in each well, you’ve now printed all the probes for all targets in a single well. So, you’re not running more than one well per target, or per organism like you are for qPCR. You’re running just one well for all organisms. With our well plates, you’re consuming fewer wells and our patented foil-cover, you only use the wells you need. The unused wells in the well plate can be used in future tests, saving on costs and labor.

Green: Do you have any other differentiating IP?

The PathogenDx Microarray

Patel: The multiplex is the core IP. The way we process the raw sample, whether it’s flower or non-flower, without the need for enrichment is another part of the core IP. We do triplicate probes in each well for E. Coli, triplicate probes for Salmonella, etc., so there are three probes per targeted organism in each of the wells. We’re triple checking that you’re definitively identifying that bug at the end of the day. This is the cornerstone of our technology.

We were just approved by the State of New York, and the New York Department of Health has 13 different organisms for testing on cannabis. Think about it: one of the most rigorous testing requirements at a state level – maybe even at a federal level – and we just got approved for that. If you had to do 13 organisms separately, whether it’s plate culture or qPCR, it would become super expensive and very difficult. It would break the very backs of every testing lab to do that. That’s where the multiplexing becomes tremendously valuable because what you’re doing is leveraging the ability to do everything as a single test and single reaction.

Green: You mentioned New York. What other geographies are you active in?

Patel: We’re active in 26 different states including the major cannabis players: Florida, Nevada, California, Arizona, Michigan, New York, Oklahoma, Colorado and Washington – and we’re also in Canada. We’re currently working to enter other markets, but it all comes down to navigating the regulatory process and getting approval.

We’re not active currently in other international markets yet. We’re currently going through the AOAC approval process for our technology and I’m happy to say that we’re close to getting that in the next couple of months. Beyond that, I think we’ll scale more internationally.

I am delighted to say that we also got FDA EUA federal level authorization of our technology which drives significant credibility and confidence for the use of the technology. About a year ago, we made a conscious choice to make this technology federally acceptable by going into the COVID testing market. We got the FDA EUA back on April 20, ironically. That vote of confidence by the FDA means that our technology is capable of human testing. That has helped to create some runway in terms of getting federalized with both the FDA and the USDA, and certification by AOAC for our different tests.

Green: Was that COVID-19 EUA for clinical diagnostics or surveillance?

Patel: It was for clinical diagnostics, so it’s an actual human diagnostic test.

Green: Last couple of questions here. Once you find something as a cannabis operator, whether its bacteria or fungus, what can you do?

Patel: There are many services that are tied into our ecosystem. For example, we work with Willow Industries, who does remediation.

There’s been a lot of criticism around DNA based technology. It doesn’t matter if it’s qPCR or endpoint PCR. They say, “well, you’re also including dead organisms, dead DNA.” We do have a component of separating live versus dead DNA with a biomechanical process, using an enzyme that we’ve created, and it’s available commercially. Labs can test for whether a pathogen is living or dead and, in many cases, when they find it, they can partner with remediation companies to help address the issue at the grower level.

Another product we offer is an EnviroX test, which is an environmental test of air and surfaces. These have 50 pathogens in a single well. Think about this: these are all the bad actors that typically grow where soil is – the human pathogens, plant pathogens, powdery mildew, Botrytis, Fusarium – these are very problematic for the thousands of growers out there. The idea is to help them with screening technology before samples are pulled off the canopy and go to a regulated lab. We can help the growers isolate where that contamination is in that facility, then the remediation companies can come in, and help them save their crop and avoid economic losses.

Green: What are you most interested in learning about?

Patel: I would prefer that the cannabis industry not go through the same mistakes other industries have gone through. Cannabis started as a cottage industry. It’s obviously doubled every year, and as it gets scaled, the big corporations come in. Sophistication, standards, maturity all help in legitimacy of a business and image of an industry. At the end of the day, we have an opportunity to learn from other industries to really leapfrog and not have to go through the same mistakes. That’s one of the things that’s important to me. I’m very passionate about it.

One thing that I’ll leave you with is this: we’re dealing with more bugs in cannabis than the food industry. The food industry is only dealing with two to four bugs and look at the number of recalls they are navigating – and this is a multi-billion-dollar industry. Cannabis is still a fraction of that and we’re dealing with more bugs. We want to look ahead and avoid these recalls. How do you avoid some of the challenges around antimicrobial resistance and antibiotic resistance? We don’t want to be going down that road if we can avoid it and that’s sort of a personal mission for myself and the company.

Cannabis itself is so powerful, both medicinally as well as recreationally, and it can be beneficial for both consumers and industry image if we do the right things, and avoid future disasters, like the vaping crisis we went through 18 months ago because of bad GMPs. We must learn from those industries. We’re trying to make it better for the right reasons and that’s what’s important to me.

Green: Okay, great. That concludes the interview. Thank you, Milan.

Patel: Thank you for allowing me to share my thoughts and your time, Aaron.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OpenNest Labs Logo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Green: What are you most interested in learning about?

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

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

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

Goldstein: Thanks Aaron. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pelorus Equity Group, Inc. Logo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Green: What federal policies and trends are you monitoring?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Green: Great Rob, that concludes the interview.

Sechrist: Thanks Aaron.

Flower-Side Chats Part 6: A Q&A with Fabian Monaco, CEO of Gage Cannabis

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

Fabian Monaco, CEO of Gage Cannabis

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.

Trulieve is a dominant market force in Florida

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.

The Cookies flagship dispensary in Detroit, Michigan

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!

Monaco: Thanks, Aaron.

Flower-Side Chats Part 5: A Q&A with Bob Fireman, CEO of MariMed, Inc.

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

Multi-state operators (MSOs) are on the rise in the United States, navigating complex regulatory frameworks to drive profitability through economies of scale and scope. As an MSO and an early mover in the space, a significant part of MariMed’s current strategy is to complete the acquisition and consolidation of the licensed state cannabis businesses it has developed. It takes seasoned leadership to make that happen, and MariMed’s is led by one of the most experienced and successful MSO management teams in the industry. Over the last eight years, Bob Fireman and his colleagues have won 17 licenses in 6 states, and designed and developed over 300,000 square feet of cannabis cultivation, production and dispensing facilities.

MariMed has also developed a portfolio of award-winning cannabis brands and infused products which are licensed, manufactured and distributed in Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Nevada, Rhode Island and Puerto Rico. A recently announced $46 million financing for a facility with Hadron Healthcare Fund will help repay all MariMed debt other than mortgage-backed bank loans and one convertible note, as well as help upgrade and expand the company’s owned and managed cannabis facilities.

We spoke with Bob Fireman, CEO of MariMed. Bob started the foundations of MariMed in 2008 after getting into large-scale hydroponics for urban sustainable agriculture. Prior to MariMed, Bob served as a startup lawyer focused on tech and emerging industries.

Aaron Green: Bob, tell me about how you got started in the cannabis industry.

Bob Fireman: I practiced law for decades. Part of my practice was to help startups in all sorts of industries, particularly technology and new emerging markets. At one point, I was introduced to a fascinating sustainable food business opportunity – to build hydroponic farms on rooftops in cities across the country.

Bob Fireman, CEO of MariMed, Inc.

When one of our projects in San Francisco hit some roadblocks, our team there pivoted to what was becoming the Wild West of California cannabis. My friend and current MariMed CFO, Jon Levine, and I began investing and managing a cultivation site there. That’s where we built our early foundation of industry knowledge.

Fast forward a few years, and I was afforded the opportunity to be involved in the drafting of the proposed Massachusetts medical cannabis legislation.

Through that work, we met a team that had won one of three cannabis licenses in Rhode Island. We formed a real estate LLC and raised the capital to develop a seed to sale cannabis facility in Providence, which was later leased to the Slater Center, a not-for-profit medical cannabis licensed business. Today, the Slater Center is a nationally acclaimed operation that services over 10,000 medical patients.

From there, we took our know-how and formed a new entity that was the formal beginning of the company we now know as MariMed. Initially, we helped win licenses for clients in Massachusetts, Delaware, Maryland, Illinois and Nevada. We also provided management services, working capital and other necessities. Under our management, we organically built these businesses from the ground up, advancing best practices and somewhat quietly creating a network of best-in-class operations throughout the industry.

That led to the consolidation of those businesses that we’re focused on today as a core strategic pillar.

I’m incredibly proud of our team, the core of which has been at this for 10 years. We’ve watched other MSOs try different models of success, with varying degrees of success. For us, focusing on growth markets, building at a reasonable and scalable clip, attracting incredible talent at all levels of the company, and developing fantastic brands that customers love, are the ingredients that have translated to where we are now – strong performance and an exceptionally bright future. “Slow and steady wins the race” has become a mantra.

Green: What trends are you looking at right now? What’s on your radar?

Fireman: My radar has a singular focus, and that’s to create shareholder value. That’s why completing the consolidation of the cannabis licensed businesses we’ve developed and manage into our public company is so critical. Back in the day, the initial available licenses were in medical-only state programs where applicants were required to be not-for-profit state companies. Accordingly, we raised the capital in the real estate entity which leased facilities to the licensees. Our revenue was from rents, management services and licensing fees.

Panacea Wellness in Middleborough, MA is one of MariMed’s adult use cannabis dispensaries

In 2019, we implemented a new strategic plan to consolidate these businesses. While that translates to our being structured similarly to other MSOs in that we are a vertically integrated seed to sale company, we are distinct in our operational excellence, quality product portfolio, and strong balance sheet. Other MSOs have raised large amounts of capital to pay large sums to acquire licensed state cannabis businesses and have found themselves over-leveraged and challenged to assimilate other companies’ methodologies and cultures. By consolidating the businesses and talented people we developed and managed from day one and utilizing our best practices and processes system-wide, we realize enormous capital efficiencies.

Our strategy is paying off. Our core cannabis revenue in 2020 increased 207% to $50.9 million, and our 10k reported EBITDA of $16.3 million. And now we’re on track to double our revenue in 2021.

The last piece of the puzzle is to let the world know what we’ve been doing. Slow and steady has worked for us but gone are the days of doing so quietly. We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished and exceedingly bullish on what’s to come.

Green: What do you look for in an M&A target?

Fireman: When M&A makes sense for us, we first look for single operators and entrepreneurs in states where we are not active and look to partner with business leaders that had the vision and the courage to get into this industry and build solid cannabis businesses from the ground up. I’m looking for businesses that could benefit from being part of a larger, more experienced and well-capitalized company like MariMed. Obviously, as an MSO with a solid platform, MariMed is approached regularly by other MSOs and banks suggesting candidates for M&A opportunities. Lining up with a company that has complementary cannabis licenses in other states and who shares our vision and ethics could be a win-win situation. They must embrace our commitment to diversity, the environment and proper corporate governance. We have been somewhat reticent to do this until we see some increase in our share price and market capitalization.

Green: Are there any new products, or product trends that you’re looking at?

Fireman: Marimed looks to be the most trusted source of high-quality cannabis products that consistently delivers innovative health and wellness solutions to our patients and customers. Our lab scientists are constantly creating and testing new and innovative formulations of cannabinoid compounds including CBD, THCa, CBG, CBN and others that will improve the health and wellness of our customers.

Our brand portfolio is ever-expanding with new and better product offerings. Our award-winning Betty’s Eddies Fruit Chews brand is adding new SKUs of varieties and flavors for both medical and adult use programs. Our Nature’s Heritage flower and concentrates brand is adding a line of solventless concentrates, live rosin, as well as new formulations for RSO, an oil popular with medical patients. Kalm Fusion is expanding its successful line of powdered drink mixes as we see more movement in the cannabis beverage category.

Microdosing is hugely popular right now, and we’re rolling out products in the 2-5mg dosage range. Health and dietary concerns are top of mind as well, and we offer products that are vegan, sugar-free and gluten-free. Ultimately, we want to be sure that we have something on the shelves for every single consumer. The financial hardship created by the pandemic has made consumers more attracted to value added products such as popcorn buds.

Green: You recently announced an equity financing from Hadron. I’m curious to learn more about it from a nuts-and-bolts perspective if you can share any of that information.

Fireman: Over the last year, access to the capital markets for equity raises in cannabis public companies was difficult. The cost of debt was and is still high, and we were looking for a long-term financial partner that understood the industry and could assist us. Hadron Capital has been successful for several years investing in some of the most successful MSOs and they saw the value and potential in MariMed’s experienced management and great assets.

Hadron invested $46 million in equity in MariMed this March. Approximately $16 million was utilized to retire all our short- and long-term debt but for bank secured debt and one convertible note. $7 million is committed to funding our capex and expanding the capabilities of our facilities, enabling us to grow more flower and automate production. The balance of funding will support our consolidation strategy to fund two more roll ups of state licensed cannabis businesses into the public company.

Going forward, it is comforting to have a capital partner to assist us in future acquisitions and M&A opportunities.

Green: I’d love to learn more about your Nature’s Heritage brand, particularly as it relates to the cultivation and the flower products.

Fireman: Our COO Tim Shaw has assembled a cultivation and production team with expertise in all aspects of genetics, growing methodologies, extraction techniques, and packaging innovation. That’s provided us a rich collection of quality genetics that make up Nature’s Heritage, our top-selling flower, oil and concentrate brand in Massachusetts and Maryland. We’ve recently expanded the line to include Rick Simpson Oil (RSO) and solventless concentrates (including live rosin) and have been receiving stellar feedback.

Green: What are you interested in learning more about?

Fireman: Over the last decade, the MariMed core team has seen the emergence and amazing growth of the cannabis industry. The initial medical programs in California and Colorado have now led to some form of legal medical or adult use cannabis programs in over 33 states and districts.

We are most interested in learning and following the federal, state, and international laws and regulations. It is vital to know how these laws will affect our company and the industry as a whole. When might full federal legalization become a reality? What might different versions of the law be? Will state legal programs be protected as well as the companies that took the risk in investing in the industry at its nascent state and how? What will FDA requirements and regulations look like? What medical claims will companies be allowed to make, and what kind of research or trials will be required to put a product on the shelf? What are the ramifications of the MORE Act or the SAFE Banking Act?

Responsible MSOs need to be prepared to rise to or above the standards of care of other industries. A lot of this was impossible in the past because of federal prohibition laws. Soon, if not already, labs and manufacturing processes will need to be GMP certified and more. Consumer data will need to be HIPAA compliant. Cannabis companies have to be good corporate citizens: diversity and equal opportunity should be embedded in business decisions, and commitment to ESG and sound environmental and social policies with good corporate governance need to be in planning and implemented.

Following the laws and holding ourselves to the highest possible safety and business standards will allow the cannabis industry to finally become “mainstream.”

Green: Alright, great. Thank you, Bob. That concludes the interview!

Leaders in Cannabis Formulations: Part 2

By Aaron Green
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Editor’s Note: In Part 1 of this series, green sat down with Drew Hathaway, senior food scientist at Stillwater Brands. Click here to see Part 1.


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?

Jesse Lopez, CEO and Founder of Geocann

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!

A Q&A with Matt Hawkins, Co-Founder & Managing Partner at Entourage Effect Capital

By Aaron Green
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The cannabis industry saw close to $15.5B in deals across VC, private equity, M&A and IPOs in 2020 according to PitchBook data. Early and growth stage capital has been a key enabler in deal activity as companies seek to innovate and scale, taking advantage of trends towards national legalization and consolidation. Entourage Effect Capital is one of the largest VC firms in cannabis with over $150MM deployed since its inception in 2014. Some of their notable investments include GTI, CANN, Harborside (CNQ: HBOR), Acreage Holdings, Ebbu, TerrAscend and Sunderstorm.

We spoke with Matt Hawkins, co-founder and managing partner at Entourage Effect Capital. Matt started Entourage in 2014 after exiting his previous company. He has 20+ years of private equity experience and serves on the Boards of numerous cannabis companies. Matt’s thought leadership has been on Fox Business in the past and he has also recently featured on CNBC, Bloomberg, Yahoo! Finance, Cheddar and more.

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

Matt Hawkins: We’ve been making investments in the cannabis industry since 2014. We’ve made 65 investments to date. We have a full team of investment professionals, and we invest up and down the value chain of the industry.

I had been in private equity for 25 years and I kind of just fell into the industry after I’d had an exit. I started lending to warehouse owners in Denver that were looking to refinance their mortgages out of commercial debt into private debt, which would then give them the ability to lease their facilities to growers. I realized there would be a significant opportunity to place capital in the private equity side of the cannabis business. So, I just started raising money for that project and I haven’t looked back. It’s been a great run and we’ve built a fantastic portfolio. We look forward to continuing to deploy capital up to and through legalization.

Green: Do you consider Entourage Effect Capital a VC fund or private equity firm? How do you talk about yourself?

Hawkins: In the early stages of the industry, we were more purely venture capital because there was hardly any revenue. We’re probably still considered a venture capital firm, by definition, just because of the risk factors. As the industry has matured, the investments we make are going to be larger. The reality is that the checks we write now will go to companies that have a track record of not only 12 months of revenue, but EBITDA as well. We can calculate a multiple on those, and that makes it more like lower/middle-market private equity investing.

Green: What’s your investment mandate?

Matt Hawkins, Co-Founder and Managing Partner at Entourage Effect Capital

Hawkins: From here forward our mandate is to build scale in as many verticals as we can ahead of legalization. In the early days, we were focused on giving high net worth individuals and family offices access to the industry using a very diversified approach, meaning we invested up and down the value chain. We’ll continue to do that, but now we’re going to be really laser focused on combining companies and building scale within companies to where they’re going to be more attractive for exit partners upon legalization.

Green: Are there any particular segments of the industry that you focus on whether it’s cultivation, extraction or MSOs?

Hawkins: We tend to focus on everything above cultivation. We feel like cultivation by itself is a commodity, but when vertically integrated, for example with a single-state operator or multi-state operator, that makes it intrinsically more valuable. When you look at the value chain, right after cultivation is where we start to get involved.

Green: Are you also doing investments in tech and e-commerce?

Hawkins: We’ve made some investments in supply chain, management software, ERP solutions, things like that. We’re not really focused on e-commerce with the exception of the only CBD company we are invested in.

Green: How does Entourage’s investment philosophy differ from other VC and private equity firms in cannabis?

Hawkins: We really don’t pay attention to other people’s philosophies. We have co-invested with others in the past and will continue to do so. There’s not a lot of us in the industry, so it’s good that we all work together. Until legalization occurs, or institutional capital comes into play, we’re really the only game in town. So, it behooves us all to have good working relationships.

Green: Across the states, there’s a variety of markets in various stages of development. Do you tend to prefer investing in more sophisticated markets? Say California or Colorado where they’ve been legalized for longer, or are you looking more at new growth opportunities like New York and New Jersey?

Hawkins: Historically, we’ve focused on the most populous states. California is obviously where we’ve placed a lot of bets going forward. We’ll continue to build out our portfolio in California, but we will also exploit the other large population states like New Jersey, New York, Arizona, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio and Illinois. All of those are big targets for us. 

Green: Do you think legalization will happen this Congress?

Hawkins: My personal opinion is that it will not happen this year. It could be the latter part of next year or the year after. I think there’s just too much wood to chop. I was encouraged to see the SAFE Banking Act reappear. I think that will hopefully encourage institutional capital to take another look at the game, especially with the NASDAQ and the New York Stock Exchange open up. So that’s a positive.

I think with the election of President Biden and with the Senate runoffs in Georgia going Democrat, the timeline to legalization has sped up, but I don’t think it’s an overnight situation. I certainly don’t think it’ll be easy to start crossing state lines immediately, either.

Green: Can you explain more about your thoughts on interstate commerce?

Hawkins: I think it’s pretty simple. The states don’t want to give up all the tax revenue that they get from their cultivation companies that are in the state. For example, if you allow Mexico and Colombia to start importing product, we can’t compete with that cost structure. States that are neighbors to California, but need to grow indoors which is more expensive, are not going to want to lose their tax revenues either. So, I just think there’s going to be a lot of butting heads at the state level.

The federal government is going to have to outline what the tax implications will be, because at the end of the day the industry is currently taxed as high as it ever will be or should be. Anything North of current tax levels will prohibit businesses from thriving further, effectively meaning not being able to tamp down the illicit market. One of the biggest goals of legalization in my opinion should be reducing the tax burden on the companies and thereby allowing them to be able to compete more directly with the illicit market, which obviously has all the benefits of reduced crime, etc.

Green: Do you foresee 280E changes coming in the future?

Hawkins: For sure. If the federal illegality veil is removed – which means there’ll be some type of rescheduling – cannabis would be removed from the 280E category. I think 280E by definition is about just illegal drugs and manufacturing and selling of that. As long as cannabis isn’t part of that, then it won’t be subject to it.

Green: What have been some of the winners in your portfolio in terms of successful exits?

Hawkins: When the CSC started allowing companies in Canada to own U.S. assets, the whole landscape changed. We were fortunate to be early investors in Acreage and companies that sold to Curaleaf and GTI before they were public. We are big investors in TerrAscend. We were early investors in Ebbu which sold to Canopy Growth. Those were huge wins for us in Fund I. We also have some interesting plays in Fund II that are on the precipice of having similar-type exits.

You read about the big ones, but at the end of the day, the ones that kind of fall under the radar – the private deals – actually have even greater multiples than what we see on some of the public M&A activity.

Green: Governor Cuomo has been hinting recently at being “very close” on a deal for opening up the cannabis market in New York. What do you think are the biggest opportunities in New York right now?

Hawkins: If it can get done, that’s great. I’m just concerned that distractions in the state house right now in New York may get in the way of progress there. But if it doesn’t, and it is able to come to fruition, then there isn’t a sector that doesn’t have a chance to thrive and thrive extremely well in the state of New York.

Green: Looking at other markets, Curaleaf recently announced a big investment in Europe. How do you look at Europe in general as an investment opportunity?

Hawkins: We have a pretty interesting play in Europe right now through a company called Relief Europe. It’s poised to be one of the first entrants to Germany. We think it could be a big win for us. But let’s face it, Europe is still a little behind, in fact, a lot behind the United States in terms of where they are as an industry. Most of the capital that we’re going to be deploying is going to be done domestically in advance of legalization.

Green: What industry trends are you seeing in the year ahead?“We’re constantly learning from other industries that are steps ahead of us to figure out how to use those lessons as we continue to invest in cannabis.”

Hawkins: Well, I think you’ll see a lot of consolidation and a lot of ramping up in advance of legalization. I think that’s going to apply in all sectors. I just don’t see a scenario wherein mom and pops or smaller players are going to be successful exit partners with some of the new capital that’s coming in. They’re going to have to get to a point where they’re either selling to somebody bigger than them right now or joining forces with companies around the same size as them and creating mass. That’s the only way you’re going to compete with companies coming in with billions of dollars to deploy.

Green: How do you see this shaking out?

Hawkins: That’s where you start to look into the crystal ball. It’s really difficult to say because I think until we get to where we truly have a national footprint of brands, which would require crossing state lines, it’s going be really difficult to tell where things go. I do know that liquor, tobacco, beer, the distribution companies, they all are standing in line. Big Pharma, big CPG, nutraceuticals, they all want access to this, too.

In some form or fashion, these bigger players will dictate how they want to go about attacking the market on their own. So, that part remains to be seen. We’ll just have to wait and see where this goes and how quickly it goes there.

Green: Are you looking at other geographies to deploy capital such as APAC or Latin America regions?

Hawkins: Not at this point. It’s not a focus at all. What recently transpired here in the elections just really makes us want to focus here and generate positive returns for investors.

Green: As cannabis goes more and more mainstream, federal legalization is maybe more likely. How do you think the institutional investor scene is evolving around that? And is it a good thing to bring in new capital to the cannabis market?

Hawkins: I don’t see a downside to it. Some people are saying that it could damage the collegial and cottage-like nature of the industry. At the end of the day, if you’ve got tens of billions of dollars that are waiting to pour into companies listed on the CSC and up-listing to the NASDAQ or New York Stock Exchange, that’s only going to increase their market caps and give them more cash to acquire other companies. The trickle-down effect of that will be so great to the industry that I just don’t know how you can look the other way and say we don’t want it. 

Green: Last question: What’s got your attention these days? What’s the thing you’re most interested in learning about?

Hawkins: We’re constantly learning about just where this industry is headed. We’re constantly learning from other industries that are steps ahead of us to figure out how to use those lessons as we continue to invest in cannabis. We all saw the correlation between cannabis and alcohol prohibition. The reality is that the industry is mature enough now where you can see similarities to industries that have gone from infancy to their adolescent years. That’s kind of where we are now and so we spend a lot of time studying industries that have been down this path before and see what lessons we can apply here.

Green: Okay, great. So that concludes the interview!

Hawkins: Thanks, Aaron.