Coda Signature is a leading cannabis edibles company that has won countless awards for their creations. Founded in 2015 in Trinidad, Colorado, a small town just north of the New Mexico border, the women-led company has since become a fixture of the infused products market. Coda Signature prides itself on its innovative lens, focusing on what consumers want and framing their products around a luxury experience.
Lauren Gockley co-founded the brand in 2015 after a 20-year culinary career that started with professional training in France, working in Michelin-starred restaurants and Parisian pastry shops. They launched their first line of products in March of 2016 and three weeks later, the awards started coming in. Today, the company is a leader in the cannabis industry and constantly raising the bar. Last year they rolled out products with nanoemulsions, offering fast-acting edibles with a shortened onset time. In May of this year, Coda Signature debuted their low dose Fruit Notes, their foray into microdose formulations.
We caught up with Lauren Gockley to see what inspires her, hear the story of how the business came to be and get some insights on what’s next for the cannabis space.
Cannabis Industry Journal: I saw that you have a culinary background. Can you tell me about your background and how you got involved in the cannabis industry?
Lauren Gockley: I have been working in the culinary world for almost 20 years. I have been blessed to have a wealth of different experiences from my professional training in France at Valrhona’s L’Ecole Du Grand Chocolat and the Parisian pastry shops of Pierre Hermé, to the fine dining restaurants of Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Thomas Keller. I also spent several years as a raw vegan chocolatier where I gained a totally new understanding of chocolate and flavor creation using unconventional ingredients.
The transition into cannabis was an unexpected turn in my culinary career, especially considering the level of acceptance of cannabis in its early legalization period. I had been living in New York for almost eight years. I was working two jobs and trying to start a chocolate business. One night, my partner (and fellow co-founder), Brien Sauchelli, brought over a cannabis chocolate bar. At the time, I was not terribly familiar with cannabis edibles, but I sure was familiar with chocolate! I tasted the chocolate bar, and thought, “this tastes pretty good, but what if I could do it better?” The idea of elevating the cannabis edibles experience to the same caliber of excellence that we revere food made so much sense.
CIJ: Tell us how you co-founded and started Coda Signature. I’d like to hear the origin story
Lauren: Well, like so many cannapreneurs, I started in my kitchen with a crockpot, a Ziploc bag of trim and a massive amount of research. Fast-forward a few months to March 2015, and my partner and I are traveling across the country to Trinidad, Colorado—the new home of Coda Signature. Once unpacked, we dedicated almost a full year to product development, raw material sourcing, packaging design, facility construction, and most importantly we defined the mission, vision and core values of Coda Signature. One of our most significant core values is legacy. This was not meant to be an aspirational statement about the impact we hoped to have many years into the future, but rather an opportunity for us in every moment to ask, “What will my legacy be today?” We launched our first products in March of 2016. Three weeks later, we won the High Times Cannabis Cup for Best Edible with our Crescendo truffle collection.
CIJ: Your job title is Chief Innovation Officer – How is your company innovating the cannabis product space? What does your day-to-day look like?
Lauren: When it comes to innovation, we have identified four key areas of focus for Coda Signature products:
1) Flavor. We are leaning into our brand legacy of bold flavors and aromas, quality ingredients and impeccable craftsmanship. This legacy is reinforced by industry data. According to BDSA Trending Consumer Insights, flavor is the No. 1 driver of consumer purchase decisions, and second is brand loyalty.
2) Microdosing. According to BDSA Consumer Research, 73% of adults nationwide are now “bought in” to consuming cannabis. Understanding that much of this population is still getting acquainted with cannabis-infused products, we believe strongly that microdosed products are an essential factor for safe and customized experiences. We are one of the few infused products companies to defy the industry “standard serving size” with our new 1mg THC Fruit Notes.
3) Minor cannabinoids. We define the Coda experience through the integration of minor cannabinoids such as CBN, CBG, CBC and most recently THCV. This is no longer a market solely driven by milligrams of THC per dollar. Products innovating with minor cannabinoids are rapidly taking top-selling positions in both brand share and the market as a whole.
4) Fast-acting. After two years of intense R&D, Coda launched our first “Fast Acting” products in Q3 of 2021. “Fast Acting” decreases not only the onset time from 1-2 hours to 15-20 minutes, but also shortens the overall duration. This technology is a strong example of the incredible innovation redefining the cannabis edibles experience.
To answer your second question: My day-to-day is a blend of hands-on product creation; ongoing research into industry trends and new technologies; working with my colleagues in operations, quality and compliance to ensure our systems and procedures continue to deliver safe and consistent products; brand development and expansion; and of course, eating a lot of chocolate! The past few weeks have been particularly exciting for me as I have been back in the kitchen revitalizing our signature truffles that will be returning this holiday season.
CIJ: Where do you think cannabis will innovate next? What excites you about the future of product innovation in this market?
Lauren: Innovation in the cannabis industry can be particularly challenging due to the ongoing legalization limitations. However, like most life forms in nature, it is through limitations that we adapt, grow stronger and defy expectations. The fact that 73% of adults nationwide are open to the idea of cannabis means that we are just scratching the surface of innovation with this incredibly powerful plant.
Post-pandemic, I think a lot about our social habits. As a chef, there is a level of social intimacy I identify with food that I feel is not fully present in cannabis. I get very excited about the opportunities for more open cannabis consumption and how that will elevate and inspire the Coda product experience.
Natural cannabinoid distillates and isolates are hydrophobic oils and solids, meaning that they do not mix well with water and are poorly absorbed in the human body after consumption. By formulating these ingredients using a patented delivery system technology, trademarked VESIsorb®, Geocann has overcome common obstacles associated with fat-soluble active ingredients, including poor stability, bioavailability, absorption, and solubility. In addition, Geocann has peer-reviewed, published evidence of the dramatic improvements in Cmax, AUC, and Tmax (“time to peak absorption” directly related to “fast-acting” benefits).
Geocann is a cannabis formulation company with its headquarters in Fort Collins, Colorado, and additional offices in Chicago, Illinois and Zurich, Switzerland. The company is led by an impressive leadership team of scientists, pharmacists, researchers and natural product industry leaders. Geocann’s technology platform has been successfully applied to a wide range of cannabis product applications, including soft gel and hard-shell capsules, functional foods (e.g. gummies) and beverages, powder systems, tinctures, sublingual sprays and topically applied formulations. Brand partners in the U.S. utilizing Geocann’s technology for hemp applications include Nestlé Health Science, Cannaray and Onnit, and brand partners for medical and adult-use cannabis applications include Curaleaf, Sunderstorm and CannaCraft, among others.
We spoke with Jesse Lopez, CEO and Founder of Geocann, about their product formulation technology in cannabis and how they work with brand partners in the U.S and internationally. Lopez started Geocann in 2018 alongside the success he’s experienced at SourceOne Global Partners (founded in 2003 by Lopez), a leading formulation company in the nutraceuticals space with a reputation for pioneering innovative products that combine science-backed ingredients with patented drug delivery system technologies to address the most pressing consumer health concerns, such as heart health, cognitive function, inflammatory response, metabolic syndrome and type II diabetes, among others.
Aaron Green: Jesse, first off, how did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Jesse Lopez: Our focus at SourceOne Global Partners has been on natural products for nearly two decades. Some of the folks involved with our natural products business decided that they would get involved in the cannabis business and they asked for my support at the Advisory Board level. I agreed to serve and figured I better learn about the cannabis industry! We realized that there was a tremendous opportunity for utilizing our drug delivery system technology to enhance the value of these cannabis-based products. Due to the regulatory environment, strategic legal counsel and new investments necessary to take an immediate leadership position in the cannabis industry we launched Geocann in 2018 with an office in a fully legal state at the time, Colorado.
Green: How do you select the natural products you work with at SourceOne?
Lopez: We really focus on science-backed natural product ingredients that may require high doses to reach therapeutic blood levels. By combining these science-backed ingredients with patented technologies – which we own the global rights to – these products offer desirable differentiation for leading brands, such as dramatically improved absorption and bioavailability, patent protection and trademarked “intel inside” branding.
Green: What are some of the other natural products you have experience with?
Lopez: We work with a range of some of the most popular nutraceuticals such as coenzyme Q10 and omega-3 fish oil to the more innovative natural products like resveratrol. We also work with vitamin D, and other immunity-based ingredients that can be enhanced using our delivery system technology to deliver greater benefits to the people that are taking those products.
Green: What is the technology and how does it work?
Lopez: I think it’s important to recognize our technology partner, Vesifact, in Zurich, Switzerland, who is the inventor of the VESIsorb® technology platform and serves as the scientific research, technical support, production, and product development arm of SourceOne and Geocann. We are very proud of this symbiotic relationship where our role at Geocann and SourceOne is to provide the commercial development, sales, marketing and strategic distribution infrastructure. We promote our partnership openly on our website and in our marketing materials because of their unrivaled leadership position in the global marketplace.
They have consistently been recognized as a top 10 global organization for health-related nanotechnology patent activity, ahead of many of the most well-known pharmaceutical companies in the world. It is an intellectual property portfolio that has been used to provide solutions to the most difficult product formulation challenges over the years in pharmaceuticals, medical devices, nutraceuticals, cosmetics, and now cannabis applications. Together, our focus has been on delivering novel solutions in these diverse fields of use and product applications based upon VESIsorb® formulation technology.
Each active compound identified with its own set of formulation, absorption and bioavailability challenges requires a customized solution that allows the full potential health benefits to be realized from success in the lab to commercial scale up. This is the process and we have successfully delivered unmatched solutions for close to twenty years from coenzyme Q10 to now both psychoactive and non-psychoactive cannabinoid product formulations in a wide range of product applications.
We saw the exploding interest in CBD with our nutraceutical partners and demanding consumers worldwide but chose to start Geocann to keep the markets served separate. We were confident that the VESIsorb® technology would provide much needed solutions for CBD as a wellness product, but also adult-use and medical cannabis products regarding “fast acting” and “product stability” needs.
Green: What’s the problem in cannabinoid bioavailability that Geocann’s technology helps to solve?
Lopez: It is well-recognized in the scientific literature that CBD, THC and other cannabinoids, in general, show limited bioavailability due to their lipophilicity, poor aqueous solubility and extensive first-pass metabolism.
Our VESIsorb® technology was designed to address the poor bioavailability of drugs and natural bioactives like cannabinoids exhibiting poor water solubility but high membrane permeability (Biopharmaceutical Classification System: Class II compounds). The VESIsorb® technology is a lipid-based formulation that self-assembles on contact with an aqueous phase into a colloidal delivery system. This colloidal solubilization improves the transport of the cannabinoids through the aqueous phase of the GI-lumen to the absorptive epithelium, dramatically improving bioavailability.
VESIsorb® is typically characterized as a SEDDS (self-emulsifying drug delivery system). What’s unique about our VESIsorb® SEDDS is the long history of safe and effective use worldwide and the large number of products that, over the years, we’ve successfully developed. With decades of experience delivering novel formulation solutions, there is significant and valuable “know how” that we bring to each formulation challenge. This “know how” allows us, for example, to develop cannabinoid formulations that provide lymphatic absorption pathway advantages in addition to standard gastrointestinal absorption, therefore optimizing therapeutic blood levels for maximum benefits.
Needless to say, there are various methods that attempt to address the poor cannabinoid bioavailability. Unfortunately, too often, companies make claims that they have water soluble cannabinoids but offer little evidence to validate their claims. The popular misconception is that some degree of water solubility will consistently translate to improved bioavailability. This is clearly not accurate. We know scientifically that pharmacokinetic performance is highly variable. A review paper I read recently comparing water soluble delivery system formulation types illustrated this fact. There was greater than an eight-fold difference in bioavailability amongst the various water-soluble formulations.
Green: Can you tell me some details about your global license with Vesifact?
Lopez: Our technology exclusivity is based upon given categories. So, when we say we have global exclusivity for nutraceuticals, that can be as I’ve already mentioned, omega-3, coenzyme Q10, or resveratrol as examples, and this business is managed by SourceOne. With regards to our global exclusivity for cannabinoids and terpenes– whether we formulate these ingredients to create a functional drink, or we’re creating a gummy, or creating a softgel capsule or powder-filled hard-shell capsule, or sublingual, or topical – all of those product applications are covered by ourexclusivity for the technology and is managed by Geocann.
The beauty of our technology is that we’ve already achieved success with all of those product applications. That’s one of the big advantages of our technology versus some other approaches trying to address the challenges of cannabinoid bioavailability.
Green: What kind of validation and clinical studies have you done so far in the cannabinoid space?
Lopez: We were the first to have stability data with creating our formulation in a soft gel capsule with CBD. We recently submitted to the European market for novel food application. We invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in proprietary safety studies that are required to achieve novel food status in Europe and FDA GRAS in the U.S. We have proprietary stability data as well as proprietary toxicology data from multiple, self-funded clinical studies. Many companies that submit for the EU novel food application are only referencing the existing scientific literature about the pharmacokinetics of cannabinoids, whereas we have our own peer-reviewed, published study. In our study, we compared our VESIsorb®-CBD formulation to the industry standard MCT Oil-CBD formulation in a crossover design where we were able to demonstrate how we could dramatically improve the bioavailability of CBD.
Green: Can you talk about the benefits of your technology with regards to bioavailability and onset time?
Lopez: When you start talking about onset time we move into a broader discussion relative to cannabinoids. We’ve been very successful with marijuana, especially as it relates to THC, because of the dramatic improvement in time to Tmax, and how much faster we reach Tmax than a standard THC formula. Our formulation is generally four times faster compared to standard formulations.
When it comes to area under the curve and Cmax, we show improvements of four to six times a standard THC or CBD product. Further, when we start looking at the differences between other studies that have been published, we show an even greater improvement based upon study comparisons to what other people have done, even compared to products like GW Pharmaceuticals’ Sativex Oromucosal Spray.
Green: Can you address the SEDDS formulation and liver metabolism?
Lopez: We’ve dramatically overcome challenges with the first-pass effect. We have also formulated our products to address lymphatic absorption. So, we’re coming at it from a number of different angles.
We disagree with people who talk about water solubility as an end-all be-all solution. When you look at the range of published studies, whether it’s nanoparticles or liposomal systems or micro-emulsions, they all are water soluble systems, but yet the data shows there’s dramatic differences in the real efficacy of those approaches, and what the actual improvement in blood levels are. Ultimately, those blood levels represent the efficacious nature of the products whether we’re talking about CBD, or talking about THC.
Green: As a Colorado-based company you work with cannabis partners across the US. Can you tell me about your relationship with marijuana product formulators and brands and how you structure your licensing agreements across state boundaries?
Lopez: In a recent article about the leading fast acting gummies, the two companies they focused on were Sunderstorm with the Kanha Nano gummies and Curaleaf with their Select Fast Acting Nano gummies. Both of those companies use our VESIsorb® technology. We’re very proud of our relationship and the success they’re having as leaders in most dominant states with that particular product application.
Onset time has always been a challenge with gummies. And we’ve dramatically improved onset. Actually, we’ve shown statistically significant improvements for all measured pharmacokinetic parameters in a recent peer-reviewed published study. We demonstrated much higher total absorption in maximum plasma concentration (Cmax), total exposure [area under the curve (AUC)]) and the time to reach the peak concentration (Tmax).
We say powered by VESIsorb® technology the product is faster, stronger, longer.
Green: How does the experience differ from a standard oil- or isolate-based formulation?
Lopez: The only way that I can answer that question is we’ve had 100% success with the companies we work with in their initial trials. When someone tells me that a group of employees are going to try the product and they’re heavy users of cannabis and they are smokers, I think, “wow, you know, gummies have to be really successfully formulated for someone like that to be pleased with the high.” Then they come back and say, “that’s the best that I’ve had in four years!” and they’re totally blown away. That’s completely different than a peer reviewed published study, but for sure, that’s the kind of feedback and anecdotal evidence that we get. I think that’s why that application is growing so much faster now because we’ve overcome this onset issue.
Green: Do you give exclusive rights on a state-by-state basis?
Lopez: We’re very selective about who we work with. Exclusivity is always part of the discussion. But at the same time, it’s really more about protecting the investment in the people that we partner with and not cannibalizing a given market. So, there are some exclusive relationships in the U.S. and internationally, like Heritage Cannabis and Pathway Health Corp in Canada, but for the most part, I would say simply, we were very selective about who we do business with and open to new partnerships.
Green: What kind of support do you provide to your licensing partners?
Lopez: We provide 100% formulation and technical support. We provide the SEDDS and then they use their own legal, licensed cannabis and their own equipment. Our system requires no special equipment or investment in changes to their process. So, not only do we provide formulation expertise, but our system is really easy to use both in a lab environment as well as producing large scale commercial productions.
Green: What geographies are you in currently with the cannabinoid formulations?
Lopez: We are global in scope. We’ve been very fortunate to have success not only in the US and Canada, but Europe, Brazil and Australia as well. Our level of participation will vary whether we’re talking about medical marijuana, adult-use or hemp extract and CBD.
Green: If somebody is interested in learning more about your product or potentially becoming a license partner, how would they how would they reach out to you to set that up?
Lopez: If they went to our website, www.geocann.com, it’s pretty easy to reach us and I am grateful that so many companies are doing that.
Green: Great, thanks Jesse that concludes the interview!
Cannabis infused products manufacturing is quickly becoming a massive new market. With companies producing everything from gummies to lotions, there is a lot of room for growth as consumer data is showing a larger shift away from smokable products to ingestible or infused products.
This is the first article in a series where we interview leaders in the national infused products market. In this first piece, we talk with Keith Cich, co-founder of Sunderstorm, Inc. and the brand Kanha Gummies. Keith and his business partner, Cameron Clarke, started Kanha Gummies in 2015 after long careers outside of the cannabis industry. In 2015, they went all in and started the brand, which grew to be a major player and driving force in the California market.
Next week, we’ll sit down with Mike Hennesy, director of innovation at Wana Brands. Stay tuned for more!
Aaron Green: Keith, nice to meet you. Thank you for taking the time today. Tell me about how you got Sunderstorm off the ground and how you got involved in the company?
Keith Cich: Absolutely. So, my business partner, Cameron Clarke, is a lifelong friend. We met as undergraduates at Stanford University. I went on to work on Wall Street and did commercial real estate. Cameron has been a serial entrepreneur, from a much more technical side working in software. He was actually one of the first people to bring the Açai Berry to market and put it on the shelves of Whole Foods. So, he’s kind of the science and operations guy and I’m the finance and business guy. It’s been very synergistic.
By 2015 we had both traveled extensively and were big advocates of plant medicine and cannabis as another form of plant medicine. We also have a 15-year track record of going to Burning Man together. Really, explorations in consciousness and plant medicine were what tied us together. When cannabis came up as a business opportunity, we just kind of looked at each other and said, you know, we have a lot of business experience to bring to the table. We have a love of the plant and an appreciation for how it will impact society. So, we kind of went all in in 2015 under proposition D, and set up operations in Los Angeles at that time.
Aaron: How did you decide to get into infused products from the list of choices?
Keith: Yeah, we initially set up extraction, but we felt that cultivation and extraction would ultimately be commodities. However, if you could develop popular brands you could carve out valuable shelf space and have longevity.
We acquired a small gummy company in February 2016. In the beginning of it all – I call it “Cannabis 1.0.” At that time, a lot of the packaging was really oriented around men in their 20s focused on “high consumption.” The packaging was a lot of black and skull and crossbones, and it didn’t really represent who Cameron and I were as people. You know, we were a little bit older and well-traveled. And we just felt like when adult use would come in that brands would take a different pathway. So, we hired a branding person to come in and help with packaging.
We really focused on a product that would appeal to females because it was clear they were going to be 50% of the market – and packaging that would really appeal to older people, which we thought would come on board once the stigma of cannabis was reduced. And so, we really set up Kanha gummies, at that time in early 2016, to be this adult use product that would appeal to a wide spectrum, both medical users as well as adult users in the time that would come in the not too distant future.
Aaron: Yeah, that’s interesting. You talked about how you thought about differentiating in the early days getting off the ground. How do you think about differentiating today?
Keith: The two things that really set Sunderstorm apart from the crowd is automation and innovation. We were the first gummy company to invest hundreds of thousands in European confectionery equipment, which allowed us to scale our business, but more importantly, produce an identical product every time. The reason we hear people come back to Kanha gummies is that they have the same replicable experience every time, which is really the key to CPG companies. So, it’s really stringent automation that allowed us to develop precise dosing. In fact, in 2019, we won the award from CannaSafe, which is the largest lab in California, for the most accurately formulated edible. We dialed in manufacturing and that’s what set us apart in the early years.
My partner is really geared towards science and implementing new delivery systems for cannabinoid products. We were the first company to come out with a nano edible about a year ago in 2019 and we are still the leader in offering consumers nano-molecular delivery systems. What does that mean? One of the common problems with edibles is that it takes 45 minutes to an hour for it to kick in. We all know friends who take a cookie and double up on the cookie and end up having too big of an experience. Rapid onset curbs that risk. Our nano gummy kicks in about 15 to 20 minutes, and it’s got just this really nice journey to it. We’ve separated the audience between the people that have our classic gummies, which takes longer to kick in, maybe a little bit stronger and the nano technology, which has a really fast onset, and really kind of a discrete journey. We stay ahead of the competition today, because of the nanotechnology that we’ve implemented in gummies.
As I always say, it’s not about how much vitamin C you take – it’s more about how much vitamin C gets in your blood stream. And it’s the same with cannabis, right? It’s how much THC and CBD or other molecules get in your system. So it’s about really having the highest bioavailability and the best performing products. And that’s what our customers have come to believe about Sunderstorm.
Aaron: You’ve talked about a couple new products from Kanha. At a high level, can you talk about your process for ideating and creating a new product?
Keith: Sure. I could use an example of a product that we’ve just kind of relaunched. It’s called the Tranquility gummy and it’s targeted for sleep. What we’ve discovered is there’s a whole host of medical reasons why people take cannabis – as well as the adults who take cannabis for entertainment – but sleep is a major issue for Americans of all ages. It’s surprising. It impacts 20 year olds and it impacts 60 year olds.
Part of the process of coming up with a product is trying to figure out what’s the need in the marketplace. So in this case, we really looked and said, hey, let’s target sleep and see if we can experiment and come up with a product. Our first round of Tranquility had a mix of CBD and THC in it because both of those are valuable for sleep. CBD is a chill-pill that kind of makes you calm so you can go to sleep. THC is often something that helps people stay asleep.
“We go through many iterations of a product before it actually hits the marketplace.”In that product, we also added 5-HTP, which is a serotonin booster, which once again, people take when they have anxiety or stress. So it’s kind of a stress reliever, and it helps you be calm, which again, I think a lot of the problems for people who have an issue with going to sleep, it’s having so much on their mind that they can’t stop the monkey mind to actually enter into sleep to begin with.
We also added just a small amount, one milligram, of melatonin. We know that Melatonin is a sleep aid, but you don’t want to take so much melatonin that your body stops producing melatonin because you’re taking the supplements. So at the end of the day, you want to just encourage and coax your body into healing and not overkill it with a pharmaceutical. Right?
So that was our first generation and we worked with that but my partner looks through a lot of research that’s occurring on different cannabinoid particles, and it became clear that CBN, which is kind of a new cannabinoid that’s hitting the press, actually had really strong properties for sedation and keeping people asleep. So, we added the largest dose of CBN in any gummy, and then re-launched that product a month or two ago. And we’re getting incredible feedback from shops that they’re selling out. It’s awesome, because people are actually taking the gummy and having the effect of falling asleep and staying asleep.
It’s the combination of the different factors. No one factor is so overwhelming like a pharmaceutical drug. But it’s the combination of the different factors together that make for a great product. And we fortunately have dozens of people in our company who are happy to do R&D for our new products. We also have some people outside the company that are consultants and experts as well. We go through many iterations of a product before it actually hits the marketplace. And that’s the second thing: it’s a lot of rigorous R&D testing of products before we launch it for the end consumer.
Aaron: Yeah, so if we can touch on that, can you tell me about your experience with your most recent product launch? Whether it’s the NANO5 or the Tranquility gummies? How did you think about preparing the market for the launch? Preparing your team for the launch? And then how did it go?
Keith: I’ll talk about our sublingual line called NANO5. Again, it’s a nano product where every molecule of CBD or THC is wrapped in a molecule of fatty lipids, so that when you spray it on your tongue, it tricks your body into absorbing it directly into the bloodstream and doesn’t actually go through the digestive tract and the liver. The bioavailability of these sublinguals is high and 70 to 80% of the cannabinoids actually get into your bloodstream.
We’ve done blood sampling tests versus your standard tincture. Your standard tincture is just MCT oil and cannabis, it’s pretty crude, kind of caveman-ish, quite frankly, when compared to the delivery of pharmaceuticals are today. NANO5 is a much more advanced delivery system.“We’re here to really try to educate people the best that we can.”
Now we have the product… right? This is a sophisticated product that’s challenging for bud tenders to explain when consumers come in with their medical needs. We had to create a lot of written brochures about how the product works, what the dosages are and that sort of stuff. Then our sales people go in and actually train the shops. They’ll pull bud tenders out and do training sessions and talk about NANO5, what makes it different from other tinctures, what medical conditions is it good for, etc. It’s kind of old fashioned, in-store training.
Then we finally have implemented a new piece, which is digital bud tender and consumer training. We are leveraging a platform for bud tender training, we talk with the shop, talk about the product and if the shop manager agrees we send a link out to all the bud tenders who take a quiz. The bud tenders get educated on an online platform, take a quiz, and then when they pass the quiz, they get a licensed sample of the product to try themselves so they have firsthand experience.
What we find in many shops is that the consumer is still not that educated about cannabis, particularly for medical uses, and particularly what I call the “new consumer” that hadn’t used cannabis in their lives, because it had such a high stigma to it and now with the reduction of the stigma it means a 40 or 50 year old woman might go into a store to find something to help with pain, or help with anxiety. Now, the bud tender can use the training that they’ve learned on NANO5, and understand that this could be a good product for them, and then talk about it intelligently and give some materials to the consumer before they walk away.
It can be intimidating for consumers to go into a shop, you know, it’s a new experience. It’s like going to the doctor’s office, you don’t always hear what they say, because you’re kind of nervous. So giving them the written materials, and even a test to follow up on online really allows for a form of education that is in tune with the user needing to learn at their own speed and really to just take away what’s important for them.
Aaron: Did I hear you correctly? The user – the end consumer – can also do a quiz?
Keith: Yes. Sunderstorm is about science and education. There’s a lot of assumptions in the marketplace that may not be correct. So, we’re here to really try to educate people the best that we can. And we really believe the rest of the world acts in a digital manner for education. In some ways, cannabis is a little bit behind the times because it’s difficult to advertise on Facebook and traditional venues. So we have one hand tied behind our back when we’re dealing with the digital world. But we at Sunderstorm are big believers that digital will be the way that cannabis consumers learn about brands, learn about products and learn about cannabinoids, and we want to be at the forefront of that education process.
Aaron: OK, we talked about some challenges. One of the challenges I hear a lot is about sourcing ingredients for infused products. How do you go about sourcing ingredients in your infused product lines?
Keith: Our primary ingredient that we source is distillate. And starting back in prop 215 days, we have a zero parts per billion policy on pesticides. What we discovered is before lab testing and licensure came in place is that 80 to 90% of the oil out there actually had pesticide levels that were way beyond safe. It really took licensing and the implementation of lab testing to change that regime. We now buy distillate from third party extractors and we have a handful of really big, really solid players onboard who provide that oil to us. The key is that if there’s any detectable trace of pesticides, we send it back and they replace it with a not-detect batch. So for us, that’s really the key to the whole supply chain: starting with oil that’s clean and really good quality.“Delivering the product in a compliant manner has been one of our logistical challenges, but one that I think we’ve done quite well at day in and day out.”
Fortunately, we’re one of the bigger brands in the industry so we have a little clout to make sure that the people that give us our oil are giving us their top shelf, and not their bottom shelf. We then have also made it a point to use only natural flavoring and natural coloring in our gummies. Believe it or not some of the red coloring actually is derived from beets and beet juice. We use spirulina as a source for our blue green colors. All of the gummies that we produce, not only have no pesticides, but they have no artificial flavors and no artificial coloring, which is of course standard in mainstream gummies that you buy at CVS or the local drugstore. So we really feel like we want to put out a healthy product and Cameron and I always look at each other, like, ‘we wouldn’t sell a product that we wouldn’t put into our own bodies.” And we’re very health conscious, you know, buying organic produce and not wanting pesticides to be inside us.
Aaron: Can you give me an example of a challenge you run into frequently, and this could be a business challenge, a marketing challenge, financials… something that you run into frequently?
Keith: Yeah, so we not only manufacture our products in California, but we also do self-distribution to over 500 retailers, meaning in store dispensaries and delivery services throughout California. With these 500 customers, we have two distribution points, one in LA and one in the Bay Area where I’m located. It’s an amazing challenge logistically. Not only are we running a manufacturing operation that requires precision – and it’s highly regulated – but we run a distribution company that’s highly regulated. For us the challenge is how do we efficiently deliver product to the Oregon border when we’re manufacturing in LA? We’ve had to spend a lot of time developing protocols for logistics and distribution to be able to basically meet demand throughout the state. And we’ve been growing like crazy. We add 10 new shops probably every week.
Delivering the product in a compliant manner has been one of our logistical challenges, but one that I think we’ve done quite well at day in and day out.
Aaron: What kind of trends are you looking at in the industry? And what keeps you excited?
Keith: I think COVID-19 has touched every aspect of our lives and it is impacting how we consume cannabis. Because it’s a respiratory disease, I think people have been wanting to shy away from smoking flower or vaping to keep their lungs healthy as a precaution in case they get it. So edibles have been kind of a natural choice for that. As well as the simple act of sharing something; sharing a joint raises a lot of safety risks, especially during the pandemic. It’s a lot easier to share a single gummy out of a bag safely.
Secondly, what I’ve noticed is that parents have their kids at home and yet they still want to consume cannabis as they did before. Edibles have been big because of discretion. So mom or dad can pop a gummy and have a spritzer before dinner and enjoy the night and my theory is happy parents make happy kids. So discretion has been critical.
Then I think there’s a whole round of new entrants that I mentioned before. These are people that maybe smoked weed in college or high school and haven’t touched it for 20 years and now that the stigma has been reduced, they’re coming back to the marketplace and wanting to explore. They may try a vape product, but very few of them want to smoke, as the country is generally pretty anti-smoking.
I think edibles and gummies have been a way for new cannabis consumers, particularly those who are older, to come and enjoy the positive effects, the medical effects and the social lubricant that cannabis offers, while being safe and discreet at the same time. I think COVID has definitely changed the way that that people think about consuming cannabis.
Aaron: Okay, awesome! Lastly, what would you like to learn more about? What are you interested in?
Keith: I have a degree in philosophy and religion. I’m a big fan of the evolution of consciousness. I think that is the container of the story through which we view human civilization and I honestly think we’re at a turning point for how humans in Western society view plant medicine.
I think cannabis is just the first to come along and be legalized. They’ve been doing phase II and III clinical trials on psilocybin and end of life anxiety. People, particularly war veterans, are using ecstasy or MDMA for depression.
What we’re discovering is that what we think we know about the mind is only the tip of the iceberg on how the mind works. I’m interested in exploring how these plant medicines impact individually with our psyche. Secondly, what happens to society when we reach a tipping point and a majority or at least some significant portion are taking these plants and medicines on a regular basis? It opens us up to a whole new perspective on ourselves, on society and on the universe that we live in. So I read a lot in those fields. And that’s what really excites me.
Aaron: Great. So that’s the end of the interview. Thank you for that.
The past year has been another strong year in cannabis. Investors continued to pour money into the burgeoning industry — surpassing 2018 investment totals in just 40 weeks — and new markets opened up for recreational and medical cannabis. And following the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, CBD has proliferated and become one of the hottest health supplements in the country.
But as the year winds down, the industry appears to be poised for a more challenging shift in the new year, as once-heady expectations for some big companies don’t pan out and some states clamp down, rather than loosen up, certain regulatory hurdles.
Here are some financial trends to keep an eye on in cannabis over the next year:
Finding New Capital Investment Will Be Tougher
After an initial investment boom in recent years, cannabis investors are realizing not everything colored green turns to gold. With public cannabis companies not performing as well as hoped and restrictive tax laws still plaguing the industry, investors are growing more cautious when it comes to cannabis. Add in other macroeconomic trends that are pointing to a global economic slowdown, and 2020 is shaping up to be a tough year to find cannabis capital.
That’s not to say funding will completely dry up, but operators and business owners must be aware that investment deals that perhaps closed in a matter of days in previous years, likely will take weeks or months while investors dig deeper into books and perform higher levels of due diligence before inking a deal. This means cannabis businesses must carefully plan and watch their cashflow and pursue fresh capital or investment earlier rather than later.
Expect More M&A and Consolidation
With the green rush reaching a crest of sorts, reality is setting in for some smaller cannabis operators. Expect to see more consolidation with smaller dispensaries and cultivators being bought up and absorbed by the big kids. More limited capital and investment options coupled with continued regulatory and legal uncertainties mean unsustainable operating costs for independent and smaller operators, which means the only way to survive may be to sell to a larger player.
New Markets & Regulations
The new year brings new states opening up to recreational or medical cannabis sales, as well as newer or altered regulations in existing markets. Cannabis firms must keep an eye on these new markets and regulations to best determine whether they plan to expand or not.
How stringent or lenient regulations are written and executed will determine the size and viability of the market. One state may severely limit the number of licenses it issues, while others may not put any limit. For example, Oklahoma issues unlimited licenses to grow hemp at $1,500 a piece. While that sounds promising for smaller hemp producers, it also could potentially lead to an oversaturation in the market. On the flip side, a more restrictive (and costly) licensure structure could lead to a far more limited market where only the industry’s largest players will be able to compete.
Cannabis businesses also should keep an eye out for new regulatory hurdles in existing cannabis markets. For instance, California is raising its excise tax on cannabis beginning Jan. 1. That will result in higher costs for both consumers and cannabis companies. High state and local taxes have been a challenge industrywide because they make legal operators less competitive with the illicit market. Also, a proposed rule in Missouri could ban medical cannabis operators from paying taxes in cash. Such a rule would prove problematic for an industry that has had to rely on cash because of federal banking regulations.
Credit Card Payments
While cannabis businesses may face several new and recurring hurdles in 2020 on the financial front, at least one looming change should make business easier: credit card payment processing. Because of cannabis’ continued banking woes, dispensaries and other plant-touching operations have not been able to accept credit cards. Though federal banking limitations remain in place, in 2020 we will see payment processors introduce new, creative and less expensive ways to navigate current banking limitations that will allow cannabis sellers to take credit cards. Opening up payments in this way will not only make transactions and record keeping easier for customers and businesses alike, it also will attract consumers who don’t use cash.
While some of these trends may prove challenging, in many ways they are signs that the cannabis industry is shifting and maturing as we enter a new decade. Many hurdles remain, but the size and momentum of the industry will only continue to grow in 2020 and beyond.
Editor’s note: This article should serve as a foundation of knowledge for yeast and mold in cannabis. Beginning in January 2018, we will publish a series of articles focused entirely on yeast and mold, discussing topics such as TYMC testing, preventing yeast and mold in cultivation and treatment methods to reduce yeast and mold.
Cannabis stakeholders, including cultivators, extractors, brokers, distributors and consumers, have been active in the shadows for decades. With the legalization of recreational adult use in several states, and more on the way, safety of the distributed product is one of the main concerns for regulators and the public. Currently, Colorado1, Nevada and Canada2 require total yeast and mold count (TYMC) compliance testing to evaluate whether or not cannabis is safe for human consumption. As the cannabis industry matures, it is likely that TYMC or other stringent testing for yeast and mold will be adopted in the increasingly regulated medical and recreational markets.
The goal of this article is to provide general information on yeast and mold, and to explain why TYMC is an important indicator in determining cannabis safety.
Yeast & Mold
Yeast and mold are members of the fungi family. Fungus, widespread in nature, can be found in the air, water, soil, vegetation and in decaying matter. The types of fungus found in different geographic regions vary based upon humidity, soil and other environmental conditions. In general, fungi can grow in a wide range of pH environments and temperatures, and can survive in harsh conditions that bacteria cannot. They are not able to produce their own food like plants, and survive by breaking down material from their surroundings into nutrients. Mold cannot thrive in an environment with limited oxygen, while yeast is able to grow with or without oxygen. Most molds, if grown for a long enough period, can be detected visually, while yeast growth is usually detected by off-flavor and fermentation.
Due to their versatility, it is rare to find a place or surface that is naturally free of fungi or their spores. Damp conditions, poor air quality and darker areas are inviting environments for yeast and mold growth.
Cannabis plants are grown in both indoor and outdoor conditions. Plants grown outdoors are exposed to wider ranges and larger populations of fungal species compared to indoor plants. However, factors such as improper watering, the type of soil and fertilizer and poor air circulation can all increase the chance of mold growth in indoor environments. Moreover, secondary contamination is a prevalent risk from human handling during harvest and trimming for both indoor and outdoor-grown cannabis. If humidity and temperature levels of drying and curing rooms are not carefully controlled, the final product could also easily develop fungi or their growth by-product.
What is TYMC?
TYMC, or total yeast and mold count, is the number of colony forming units present per gram of product (CFU/g). A colony forming unit is the scientific means of counting and reporting the population of live bacteria or yeast and mold in a product. To determine the count, the cannabis sample is plated on a petri dish which is then incubated at a specific temperature for three to five days. During this time, the yeast and mold present will grow and reproduce. Each colony, which represents an individual or a group of yeast and mold, produces one spot on the petri dish. Each spot is considered one colony forming unit.
Why is TYMC Measured?
TYMC is an indicator of the overall cleanliness of the product’s life cycle: growing environment, processing conditions, material handling and storage facilities. Mold by itself is not considered “bad,” but having a high mold count, as measured by TYMC, is alarming and could be detrimental to both consumers and cultivators.
The vast majority of mold and yeast present in the environment are indeed harmless, and even useful to humans. Some fungi are used commercially in production of fermented food, industrial alcohol, biodegradation of waste material and the production of antibiotics and enzymes, such as penicillin and proteases. However, certain fungi cause food spoilage and the production of mycotoxin, a fungal growth by-product that is toxic to humans and animals. Humans absorb mycotoxins through inhalation, skin contact and ingestion. Unfortunately, mycotoxins are very stable and withstand both freezing and cooking temperatures. One way to reduce mycotoxin levels in a product is to have a low TYMC.
Yeast and mold have been found to be prevalent in cannabis in both current and previous case studies. In a 2017 UC Davis study, 20 marijuana samples obtained from Northern California dispensaries were found to contain several yeast and mold species, including Cryptococcus, Mucor, Aspergillus fumigatus, Aspergillus niger, and Aspergillus flavus.3 The same results were reported in 1983, when marijuana samples collected from 14 cannabis smokers were analyzed. All of the above mold species in the 2017 study were present in 13 out of 14 marijuana samples.4
Aspergillus species niger, flavus, and fumigatus are known for aflatoxin production, a type of dangerous mycotoxin that can be lethal.5 Once a patient smokes and/or ingests cannabis with mold, the toxins and/or spores can thrive inside the lungs and body.6, 7 There are documented fatalities and complications in immunocompromised patients smoking cannabis with mold, including patients with HIV and other autoimmune diseases, as well as the elderly.8, 9, 10, 11
For this reason, regulations exist to limit the allowable TYMC counts for purposes of protecting consumer safety. At the time of writing this article, the acceptable limit for TYMC in cannabis plant material in Colorado, Nevada and Canada is ≤10,000 CFU/g. Washington state requires a mycotoxin test.12 California is looking into testing for specific Aspergillus species as a part of their requirement. As the cannabis industry continues to grow and advance, it is likely that additional states will adopt some form of TYMC testing into their regulatory testing requirements.
Centre for Disease control and prevention. 2004 Outbreak of Aflatoxin Poisoning – Eastern and central provinces, Kenya, Jan – July 2004. Morbidity and mortality weekly report.. Sep 3, 2004: 53(34): 790-793
Cescon DW, Page AV, Richardson S, Moore MJ, Boerner S, Gold WL. 2008. Invasive pulmonary Aspergillosis associated with marijuana use in a man with colorectal cancer. Diagnosis in Oncology. 26(13): 2214-2215.
Szyper-Kravits M, Lang R, Manor Y, Lahav M. 2001 Early invasive pulmonary aspergillosis in a leukemia patient linked to aspergillus contaminated marijuana smoking. Leukemia Lymphoma 42(6): 1433 – 1437.
Verweii PE, Kerremans JJ, Voss A, F.G. Meis M. 2000. Fungal contamination of Tobacco and Marijuana. JAMA 2000 284(22): 2875.
Ruchlemer R, Amit-Kohn M, Raveh D, Hanus L. 2015. Inhaled medicinal cannabis and the immunocompromised patient. Support Care Cancer. 23(3):819-822.
McPartland JM, Pruitt PL. 1997. Medical Marijuana and its use by the immunocompromised. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. 3 (3): 39-45.
Hamadeh R, Ardehali A, Locksley RM, York MK. 1983. Fatal aspergillosis associated with smoking contaminated marijuana, in a marrow transplant recipient. Chest. 94(2): 432-433.
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