On June 29, 2021, Cannabis Industry Journal is hosting the Cannabis Extraction Virtual Conference. From Noon to 5 pm EST, you’ll get access to five veterans of the extraction market discussing a variety of topics related to the ins and outs of extracting cannabis and hemp.
Hear from subject matter experts who will share their perspectives on cannabis and hemp extraction, supercritical CO2 extraction, post-processing, risk management, hazards and controls, optimization, closed loop hydrocarbon extraction, machine learning algorithms and more.
Alex Hearding, Chief Risk Management Officer at the National Cannabis Risk Management Association (NCRMA) will kick things off with a session exploring the Hazards and Controls of Extraction with Liquified Petroleum Gases. Dr. Markus Roggen, Founder & CEO of Complex Biotech Discovery Ventures, will follow that up with a discussion surrounding the kinetics and thermodynamics of cannabis extraction.
Other talks from the Cannabis Extraction Virtual Conference include:
The Quest to Discover the Limits of CO2 Extraction
Jeremy Diehl, co-founder & CTO of Green Mill Supercritical
The Future of Cannabis Concentrates: Developments in Hydrocarbon Extraction and Manufacturing
Michelle Sprawls, Laboratory Director at CULTA
Process Scale Up in the Cannabis/Hemp Industry
Darwin Millard, Committee ViceChair on ASTM International’s D37.04 on Processing & Handling of Cannabis
There are many factors that can lead to the challenges people face when scaling up their processes. These challenges are not unique to the cannabis/hemp industry, but they are exacerbated by the consequences generated from decades of Reefer Madness. In my time operating in the cannabis/hemp space, 15+ years, I have seen established equipment vendors and sellers of laboratory supplies, like Sigma-Aldrich (now Millipore-Sigma), Fisher-Scientific, Cerilliant, Agilent, and others, go from reporting individuals inquiring about certified reference materials to setting up entire divisions of their companies to service the needs of the industry. Progress. But we are still a fledgling marketplace facing many challenges. Let’s look at a few specific to process scale up.
Darwin Millard will deliver a presentation on this topic during the Cannabis Extraction Virtual Conference on June 29. Click here to learn more.Equipment Availability: Lack of available equipment at larger and larger process scales can severely impact project timelines. Making not only equipment acquisition difficult, but also limiting the number of reputable equipment manufacturers you can work with.
Non-Linear Expansion: NEVER assume your process scales linearly. Perhaps one of the most avoidable mistakes during process scale up. You will quickly find that for many processes you cannot just put in a larger unit and expect a proportional increase in output. This is because as process equipment increases so to must utilities and other supporting infrastructure, but not only that, process vessel geometry, proportions, and design are contributing factors to process efficiency as your scale of operations increases.
Hazardous Material Quantities: Just as important to the process as the equipment are the solvents and reagents used. As your scale of operations increases so does your demand and production of hazardous materials; solvents including carbon dioxide (CO2), ethanol, and liquid petroleum gases (LPG) like Butane and Propane are obvious hazards, but so too are the refrigerants used in the chillers, fuels used to power generators, steam created to heat critical systems, and effluents and wastewater discharged from the process and supporting systems. Not every municipality wants thousands of gallons of flammable substances and hazardous waste being generated in their backyard…
Contractor/Vendor Misrepresentation: Finding out in the middle of you project that your contractor or equipment vendor has never set up a system at this scale before is never a good feeling. Unfortunately, contractor and vendor misrepresentation of qualifications is a common occurrence in the cannabis/hemp space.
If all this was not bad enough, all too often the consequences of improper planning and execution are not felt until your project is delayed or jeopardized due to misallocation of funds or undercapitalization. This is especially true when scaling up your production capacity. Now let’s look at some ways to avoid these mistakes.
The Rule of 10
When scaling up your process, NEVER assume that a simple linear expansion of your process train will be sufficient. It is often the case that process scale up is non-linear. Using the Rule of 10 is one way of scaling up your process through a stepwise iterative approach. The Rule of 10 is best explained through an example: Say you are performing a bench-top extraction of a few grams and want to scale that up to a few thousand kilograms. Before jumping all the way to your final process scale, start by taking a smaller jump and only increase your bench-top process by a factor of 10 at a time. So, if you were happy and confident with your results at the tens of grams scale, perform the same process at the hundreds of grams scale, then the thousands of grams scale, tens of kilograms scale, and so forth until you have validated your process at the scale of operations you want to achieve. By using the Rule of 10 you can be assured that your process will achieve the same yields/results at larger and larger scales of operation.
Scaling up your process through an iterative approach allows you to identify process issues that otherwise would not have been identified. These can include (but by no means should be considered an exhaustive list) improper heat transfer as process vessels increase in size, the inability to maintain process parameters due to inadequately sized utilities and/or supporting infrastructure, and lower yields than expected even though previous iterations were successful. However, this type of approach can be expensive, especially when considering custom process equipment, and not every processor in the cannabis/hemp space is going to be in the position to use tools like the Rule of 10 and instead must rely on claims made by the equipment vendor or manufacture when scaling up their process.
The Cannabis/Hemp Specific Process Equipment Trap
How many times have you heard this one before: “We have a piece of process equipment tailor-made to perform X,Y,Z task.”? If you have been around as long as I have in the cannabis/hemp space, probably quite a few times. A huge red flag when considering equipment for your expansion project!
Unless the equipment manufacturer is directly working with cannabis/hemp raw materials, or with partners who process these items, during product development, there is no way they could have verified the equipment will work for its purported use.
A good example of this are ethanol evaporation systems. Most manufacturers of evaporators do not work with the volumes of ethanol they claim their systems can recover. So how did they come up with the evaporation rate? Short answer – Thermodynamics, Heat Transfer, and Fluid Mechanics. They modeled it. This much surface area, plus this much heat/energy, with this much pressure (or lack thereof), using this type of fluid, moving through this type of material, at this rate of speed, gets you a 1000-gal/hr evaporator or some other theoretical value. But what is the real rate once an ethanol and cannabis/hemp solution is running through the system?
For a straight ethanol system, the theoretical models and experimental models are pretty similar – namely because humans like alcohol – extensive real-world data for ethanol systems exist for reference in designing ethanol evaporators (more accurately described as distillation systems, i.e. stills). The same cannot be said for ethanol and cannabis/hemp extract systems. While it is true that many botanical and ethanol systems have been modeled, both theoretically and experimentally, due to prohibition, data for cannabis/hemp and ethanol systems are lacking and the data that do exist are primarily limited to bench-top and laboratory scale scenarios.
So, will that 1000-gal/hr evaporator hit 1000-gal/hr once it is running under load? That’s the real question and why utilizing equipment with established performance qualifications is critical to a successful process scale up when having to rely on the claims of a vendor or equipment manufacturer. Except this is yet another “catch 22”, since the installation, operational, and performance qualification process is an expensive endeavor only a few equipment manufacturers servicing the cannabis/hemp market have done. I am not saying there aren’t any reputable equipment vendors out there; there are, but always ask for data validating their claims and perform a vendor qualification before you drop seven figures on a piece of process equipment on the word of a salesperson.
Improper design and insufficient data regarding process efficiencies on larger and larger scales of manufacturing can lead to costly mistakes which can prevent projects from ever getting off the ground.
Each aspect of the manufacturing process must be considered individually when scaling your process train because each element will contribute to the system’s output, either in a limiting or expansive capacity.
I go further into this topic in my presentation: Challenges with Process Scale Up in the Cannabis/Hemp Industry, later this month during Cannabis Industry Journal’s Extraction Virtual Conference on June 29th, 2021. Here I will provide real-world examples of the consequences of improper process scale up and the significance of equipment specifications, certifications, and inspections, and the importance of vendor qualifications and the true cost of improper design specifications. I hope to see you all there.
Environmentally conscious manufacturing has never been more important; for the survival of both the planet and your business. The internet makes CBD product comparisons quick and efficient, so consumers can interrogate every aspect of your product and processes before deciding to make a purchase. Sustainability credentials are now a primary decision making factor for your customers.
For business of all sizes, improving resource use and efficiency is a great place to start. This will reduce waste and improve your environmental impact, and has the added benefit of improving your return on investment!
I always recommend investing in stainless steel equipment for manufacturing and distributing CBD oils. Stainless steel is one of the most environmentally efficient raw materials, because of its durability and ability to be recycled. Vessels last an extremely long time, and even once their service life is over, they should never enter the waste stream. Many of our US customers transport their CBD products around the world in stainless steel vessels, which can then either be shipped back for re-use, or re-used at the recipient site.
In terms of finding your ideal equipment supplier, those who have won awards for their environmental initiatives are the cream of the crop; they can be a real asset to your business and will often collaborate on sustainability-themed social content, which is really valuable to get in front of your customers.
Once you’ve investigated the credentials of suitable suppliers, how do you make sure their blending equipment will perfectly meet your needs?
Here are my recommended four points for consideration:
Vessel Capacity: Vessel capacity must be considered in two ways; maximum and minimum working capacity. Standard vessels have their capacity listed as ‘brim full’ – suppliers tell you the total overall volume of space in the vessel. However, maximum capacity must allow for 10-20% free space below ‘brim full’, so that if product is being mixed and stirred, there is no overspill. For example; to blend 75L batches of CBD oil, it’s generally recommended to purchase a 100L mixing vessel.
Vessel Bottom Shape: Standard vessels have flat bottoms, which makes it difficult to drain them to completely empty. An experienced supplier such as Pharma Hygiene Products has the capability to modify standard vessels, to include a sloped bottom at 3 degrees, which reduces leftover product pooling when draining your oils. Vessels can also be custom-made with a cone or dish shaped bottom, whereby a valve can be positioned in the centre of the base to allow full draining, to reduce waste and increase profitability.
Stainless Steel Grade: Stainless steel blending vessels for CBD oils are generally offered in 304 or 316L pharmaceutical-grade material. A simple description of the difference is that 316L grade contains an extra 2% molybdenum, for additional corrosion-resistance. Increased regional and international legislation concerning CBD products has come hand-in-hand with tighter interrogation of hygiene practices. Contaminant-free materials such as stainless steel are ideal to ensure international pharma-quality compliance for your business’ blending processes. Critically, at Pharma Hygiene Products a comprehensive range of compliance certification is available to confirm the grade of material, to prove surface smoothness, and to guarantee that no cross-contamination from BSE or CJD diseases occurs.
Lastly, don’t forget to let your supplier know in advance if you have any special requirements for your product or vessel. Some common examples include:
With data forecasting expert BDSA predicting that the global cannabis market will reach $56B by 2026, there is no time to waste. Whether it’s Oklahoma, New York or even Macedonia, the frenzy is on. Investment decisions are immediate, and you have to be correct out of the box. This is where an expert like Andrew Lange and his company, Ascendant Management, come in. Andrew has designed more than 1.5 million square feet of cannabis facilities and moved them into profitable production in North America and Europe. One of his active customers is Onyx Agronomics in Washington. Bailee Syrek is the director of operations at Onyx and this is the story of the key points in designing a precision cannabis facility with state-of-the-art efficiency.
Andrew Lange, a navy veteran, runs a global cannabis consulting business based in Washington. With a “prove it to me” approach, he regularly tests the best new technologies in the facilities he designs. He integrates his knowledge of what works in practice into his subsequent facilities. One of his previous projects, Onyx Agronomics in Washington, started in 2014 and moved quickly into production in a retrofitted warehouse. Many of his best ideas started with Onyx, including some new innovations in the latest expansion there this month. Onyx is a tier 3 cannabis cultivator.
Bailee Syrek’s operation at Onyx currently produces 9,000 lbs. of dry trim bud per year in 8,000 square feet of canopy. She operates the state-of-the-art, clean room style, indoor grow facility around the clock, delivering 2.7 grams/watt from every square foot of canopy in her building. She runs a highly efficient facility.
Onyx has had an ongoing relationship with Ascendant Management and chose to leverage them again with their current expansion to increase their capacity further. Onyx uses a range of advanced technologies including aeroponic cultivation equipment and control software from AEssenseGrows to hit their metrics.
Precision, Quality & Consistency
“I look for ways that my clients can differentiate themselves,” says Lange. Maybe it’s his military background, but Andrew demands precision, quality and consistency in the operations he designs. “Cannabis is a just a plant really so we look for the highest performance grow methodology. I find that to be AEssenseGrows aeroponics,” says Lange. “The AEtrium Systems provides a good foundation to manipulate for grow recipes and business process. I add teamwork, communications, and operations procedures to that foundation.”
At Onyx, Bailee Syrek works closely with her channels. She invites her customers in regularly to review the Onyx cultivars and to cover their ideal requirements. These can range from bud size for their packaging to THC or terpene profiles (Yes, channels do want both higher and lower THC content for different consumers and price points). Based on that feedback, Bailee and Andrew work together to dial in the ideal grow recipe in the AEssenseGrows Guardian Grow Manager central control software. They push their target strains to optimize the results in the direction requested by their customers. For example, “How do you get the highest possible THC out of 9lb Hammer?” You’ll have to ask Andrew and Ascendant Management.
Driven by customer requests, Onyx is adding new strains to build on their innovative brand. Bailee expects to reach new levels of terpene bundles with Cheeseburger Jones, Koffee Breath, Shangri-La and OK Boomer. Utilizing Andrew’s expert knowledge, they can take typical sub-20% cannabinoid bundles and improve them using aeroponics and better controls, into standout aeroponic 30% packages.
The Onyx Vision
Bailee Syrek believes this is the most exciting time yet for Onyx. Delivering premium grade cannabis as a white label flower supplier for years, Onyx is a profitable and successful business. But even with doubling capacity every year, they are still having trouble keeping up with customer demand. Bailee wants to get to the point where she can always say yes and accept an order from their white label customers. With this objective, she again engaged Ascendant and Andrew to get beyond 15,000 lbs. of output in 2021 to make her customers happier. Beyond that basic expansion, she is also ambitious and is preparing plans for additional lines of revenue with their own proprietary flower, oil and derivative products.
“This expansion will be a new challenge,” says Syrek. “Flower production is in our wheelhouse. We have tighter operations, with the most consistent bud size, terpenes and test results in our state. These new products will require that same quality but now in new areas.”
Her Path to Leadership
Bailee started with Onyx in a compliance position that grew out of the constant demands for government licensing and reporting. In that compliance role, she had the opportunity to work a bit in every department, giving her a good understanding of all of the facility operations and workflows. All of that experience led her to eventually take over the operations leadership role. She instills care and effort to maintain the cleanest and most efficient operations possible. “With aeroponics, we don’t have to lug soil from room to room or in and out of the facility. This saves us a ton of work that we can redirect to plant health and maintenance,” says Syrek. “Medical precision and GMP quality is a given. Each room on average is 105 lights and one room manager and one cultivation technician take the room from clone/veg transfer to harvest as a two-person team.”
Bailee prides herself with results. “Medical grade precision is normal for us. We use medical grade SOPs for every aspect of our production.” Bailee has designed these guides into their control system that runs on the Guardian Grow Manager software. From sensor tracking, to performance graphs to time cards; everything is integrated in her performance monitoring.
A quality focus is very apparent in every Onyx flower room. Every watt of light energy is transferred to the pristinely manicured canopy. Naked stems feed nutrients up to the fat buds at the trained canopy surface. Fan leaves are removed and all possible energy turns into bud weight and potency. The room technician has a passion for plant health, table care and plant maintenance all the way through to the harvest bonanza.
What is the biggest challenge for Bailee as she drives the operation? Even at 105-110 grams per square foot per harvest, they are sold out. “Every customer wants to buy beyond our capacity. It is a good problem to have,” Bailee says. “Customers want our quality and love the consistency. This is the most exciting thing about our expansion. We will finally be able to make additional channels happy with high quality supply.”
This is where Andrew credits Onyx’s performance. “Most well running operations deliver 1.1-1.8 grams of dry trim bud per watt of electricity used in powering a grow room,” says Andrew. The Onyx grow formula results leave this in the dust. Running Fluence SPYDR 2i grow lights and the AEtrium System aeroponics, Onyx plants are delivering just shy of 4 lbs. per light with every harvest cycle. At 630 watts max output, that delivers ~2.7 grams/Watt, the most efficient operation he has seen. The Onyx process and execution works.
“Bailee is a great example as a professional. She builds a motivated team that executes better than her competition,” says Andrew.
At the same time, Onyx runs a highly space efficient nursery with just enough mother plants feeding energetic cuttings into the 4-layer stacked AEtrium-2.1 SmartFarms in their environmentally controlled clone room. They produce more than enough healthy clones to jump from veg to flower in the span of a week. Grow time, harvest turn time and no veg space, results in very efficient use of power in the complete operation.
Mirroring Onyx for Medical Grade Cannabis in Europe
Andrew Lange’s current passion is a green-field project in Portugal. Self-funded, Andrew says that this facility will be one of the first that is pure enough in operations to supply non-irradiated clean-room-level-quality cannabis beyond the precise standards required by European regulators. Current importers have not been able to clear the European standards for cleanliness without irradiating their buds. Other companies like Aurora have abandoned efforts to access the market due to the precision requirements. Typical methods used for fruit imports use gamma radiation to get bacterial counts down. This was tried with cannabis to sterilize buds, but the problem with cannabis is this degrades the quality of the flower.
Andrew’s Portugal facility will be using a sterile perimeter surrounding his grow space (mothers, clones/veg, flower rooms) and harvest and processing areas (dry, trim, packaging). Andrew creates a safe environment for healthy production. A steady harvest cleaning regimen is built into his operational designs from the beginning. All operators are trained in procedures to exclude pathogens and limit all possible transmission (airborne, physical/mechanical touching, or water carried). Every area is cleaned during and between harvests. Andrew is confident he will reach a consistent level of accuracy and purity beyond European requirements because it is routine in all of his designs.
Certified Efficiency is the Message
Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) and Good Agricultural and Collection Practices (GACP) are required for certification and access to European markets. Andrew always builds tight operations, but in this case, his Portugal facility is designed with the fit and finish to be GMP and GACP compliant from day one with advanced air filtration and air management throughout.
Automated aeroponics is a foundation technology that Andrew recommends for his facility designs. The automatic data logging, report generation, cloud access and storage make this a foundational technology. Andrew does get some resistance from cultivators that are used to the classic soil media approaches but he explains that software configurable grow recipes, precision controls, zero soil/no pests and hyper-fast growth makes aeroponics the foundation of competitive advantage. Precisely controlled medical quality precision operations are built on top of this foundation.
The initial phase of the Portugal facility is 630 lights and this facility is Andrew’s latest personal investment. From secure perimeters to modular grow rooms and highly automated equipment, this location will be state-of-the-art in terms of grams/watt yields and renewable energy with an output of 6 metric tons per year. Solar powered electricity from a 4-megawatt farm will use Tesla megapacks for storage and be grid independent.
Technology & Innovation, Onyx & Ascendant
From his first experience with AEssenseGrows aeroponics, Andrew has been able to design complete grow recipes in the Guardian Grow Manager software with very tight precision on dosage. This makes it possible to create ideal recipes for each strain (nutrition, irrigation cycles, lighting and environmental management). This frees up the operations teams to focus on plant health and execution. The nutrients, pH, CO2, temperature and humidity, follow the Guardian directions that he sets.
Working with Bailee at Onyx, Andrew is now consulting on the post-harvesting side of operations (drying, trimming, extracts and packaging). In parallel with his efforts, Bailee is optimizing THC & terpene production on the cultivation side with UV lighting (considering far-right red frequency light recipe enhancements).
That is the Ascendant Management approach to innovation. Trial, test constantly, perfect ideas in practice. Optimize the results for consistent, high-quality results. Even while driving for the personal craft touch, use automation to increase efficiency of mundane, but important tasks. With these methods, Andrew believes that the Onyx labor cost is one third of typical soil media grow operations. Zero soil aeroponics offers many benefits. Bailee’s team is able to give each plant more attention and delivery better quality. Automation is a win-win for them.
Bailee finds that constant testing is useful for two things: one, great results, and two, surface the best talent with their hand’s-on approach.
Always Finish with People
Bailee says that her staff works incredibly hard. “We are a different grow, with better ergonomics on the job, aeroponics for precision and yields, and advanced technology at the leading edge in every part of our grow. No dirt up and down stairs. People are proud to work here. We are not your dad’s grow operation.”
“We promote from within. Everyone starts as a room tech and has the opportunity to move up. Teams are isolated by rooms so there is no contamination between rooms or humans. Put in the work, and you will get promoted with expansions, and grow with the company as we take a bigger share in the market.” Female employees make up almost half of the current staff, and Bailee encourages employees to refer their friends. “Good people invite good people,” she says.
Her training program introduces the technical aspects of their unique operation, the positive expectations and career path for every new employee. The social environment is friendly with good pay and regular raises. Each new employee fills a range of roles during their 1-month training circuit and are assigned to a cultivation space under a lead as an official cultivation tech at the end of 30 days. “One thing that we do more than at other grows is constant cleaning,” says Bailee. “This is an ever-present mantra for the staff.”
Freya Farm, a pesticide-free cannabis producer and processor located in Conway, Wash., was recently forced to issue a recall after the chemical o-Phenylphenol, listed under CA Prop 65, was found on its products. Testing traced the antimicrobial compound, known to cause cancer, back to the FDA-compliant food grade gloves used by Freya during packaging.
The reason this could happen with FDA-compliant, food grade gloves needs urgent attention. The production and manufacturing of food contact gloves is largely unsupervised, with limited and infrequent checks on gloves imported into the US. After initial approvals, non-sterile, FDA-compliant food grade gloves are not subject to ongoing controls. This may lead to lower grade and cheap raw materials being used in sub-standard production facilities and processes.
Why “Food Safe” Gloves Aren’t Always Safe
The quality and safety of disposable gloves are limited to Letters of Compliance and Guarantee on the general make and model of the glove, not necessarily the glove you are holding in your hand. There are few controls on the consistency of raw materials, manufacturing processes and factory compliance for both food contact and medical examination grade gloves. Therefore, the opportunity exists for deliberate or accidental contamination within the process of which the Preventive Controls Qualified Individual (PCQI) may not be aware.
In the words of Freya Farm, “Nothing ruins your day like testing your product, confident it will be clean, only to find it contaminated with some crazy, toxic chemical.” In tracing the issue, the gloves were the last thing Freya Farm tested, as they never suspected something sold as food safe could be the culprit.
A recall of this type can be expensive, as fines range up to $200,000. Since this incident, Freya Farm has implemented a responsible sourcing policy for gloves using supplier Eagle Protect to protect its products, people and brand reputation.
Eagle Protect, a global supplier of PPE to the food and medical sectors, is currently implementing a unique proprietary third-party glove analysis to ensure a range of their gloves are regularly checked for harmful contaminants, toxins and pathogens. This Fingerprint Glove Analysis mitigates the risk of intentional or accidental physical, chemical or microbiological glove contamination by inspecting five factors: the use of safe ingredients, cross-contamination potential, cleanliness, structural integrity and dermal compatibility.
Harmful toxins and contaminants in gloves have been identified in many peer reviewed scientific studies. This is now a real issue for companies producing consumer products, especially in industries such as organics and cannabis whose products must be handled by gloves and test clean.
Three key areas that can be tested for in a glove analysis to ensure safe product handling include:
Dermal compatibility tests for toxins and chemicals will flag any toxic chemical, such as o-Phenylphenol
GCMS testing for consistent quality and safety of glove raw materials
Cleanliness tests for pathogens inside and outside the surfaces of gloves – particularly pathogens also required in cannabis testing, such as E. coli and Salmonella, mold and fungus and pesticides.
For cannabis producers responsible glove sourcing is vital, especially as the COVID-related demand for single-use gloves exceeds supply, with poor quality, counterfeit and even reused gloves flooding the market. For producers with a product that rests very much on its quality, it’s important to focus on quality and not just cost when procuring gloves.
National Agriculture Day (March 23, 2021), is an annual event held by the Agriculture Council of America (ACA), a not-for-profit 501-c (6) organization, to increase the public awareness of agriculture’s vital role in our society.
The ACA believes that every American should:
Understand how food and fiber products are produced.
Appreciate the role agriculture plays in providing safe, abundant and affordable products.
Value the essential role of agriculture in maintaining a strong economy.
Acknowledge and consider career opportunities in the agriculture, food and fiber industry.
We investigated how the hemp and cannabis industry is disrupting agriculture in positive ways, from automated trimming, to controlled environment agriculture, to water conservation and beyond. We interviewed Aaron McKellar, CEO and President of Eteros Technologies, parent company of Mobius Trimmer and Triminator, Mark Doherty, Executive Vice President of Operations, urban-gro, Inc. and Derek Smith, Executive Director at Resource Innovation Institute (RII) to get their perspective on agricultural innovation.
Aaron McKellar, CEO and President of Eteros Technologies
Aaron Green: Why is hand-trimming inefficient at scale?
Aaron McKellar: Hand-trimming is inefficient at scale because it is so labor-intensive and time-consuming, not to mention repetitive and frankly boring. It’s hard to stay fully engaged as a worker trimming by hand, so the consistency of your finished product isn’t reliable with a crew of hand-trimmers.
A hand-trimmer can produce good quality trim on about 2 or 3 pounds per day. A scaled-up facility running just one Mobius M108S Trimmer can realize up to 120 pounds per hour, replacing many dozens, or even into the hundreds of hand-trimmers. The HR nightmare this presents, and all the associated costs of paying and facilitating dozens of employees (parking, washrooms, lunchrooms, PPE and gowning, etc) is simply unworkable. And that’s before COVID.
Green: How does automated trimming benefit large producers and how does the quality compare to hand-trimming?
McKellar: Not all automated trimmers are created equal. Any of the machines out there will help to reduce the need for hand-trimmers by taking off the bulk of the leaf, leaving a small team of “hand-polishers” to finish it up. The Mobius Trimmer is the only automated trimmer on the market today that leaves the technology of the original machines in the past and employs next-gen technology to truly mimic hand-trimmed quality with stunning through-put rates.
We have high-end producers using Mobius Trimmers whose own QC department cannot discern Mobius-trimmed flower from hand-trimmed flower. Hand polishing crews tend to be far smaller when using a Mobius vs first-gen machinery, and many Mobius users don’t touch up at all, instead going straight to market right out of the trimmer. For a look at how our technology differs from the rest of the field, check out this look under the hood.
Mark Doherty, Executive Vice President of Operations, urban-gro, Inc.
Aaron Green: What is controlled environment agriculture?
Mark Doherty: Cannabis cultivators understand growing indoors because, prior to legalization, they had been doing it for years in the gray market. It is by way of that experience that cultivators learned how to manipulate a highly-valuable, complex plant in an indoor setting. As cannabis legalization spread across the United States, many government regulators required that it be cultivated indoors according to strict regulatory protocols. Fast forward 10 years, and we have an industry that is keenly aware of the indoor environmental conditions required to be successful. Critical factors like heating, cooling, ventilation, dehumidification, and how to best mimic Mother Nature’s energy through lighting are all deliberately optimized.
With cannabis cultivation driving the advancements of controlled environment agriculture, market and regulatory forces demanded higher efficiency, reduced energy and resource consumption, and clean crops. In most states, cannabis crops have more stringent testing than food crops. For instance, the lettuce in Massachusetts will not pass the standards for cannabis in Massachusetts. It’s through rapid innovation and technology adoptions that the cannabis industry has paved the way for lettuce to be profitably grown indoors.
Green: How can controlled environment agriculture help alleviate supply chain stresses?
Doherty: By growing food closer to the consumer, you reduce food miles; meaning, that link in the food supply chain gets a lot shorter and is less prone to disruption. Whether you have hyper small cultivation facilities on every street corner, or a larger cultivation facility geographically close to consumers, you can grow 24/7/365. Furthermore, growing locally allows for better prediction of facility output—10 boxes of greens on Monday, 50 boxes of greens on Tuesday, and five boxes of greens on Thursday. This eliminates harvesting a large crop before it is ripe and likely requiring cold storage. The controllability of controlled environment ag is that consistent, reliable contribution to the food supply chain and shortening that path to the consumer.
Derek Smith, Executive Director at Resource Innovation Institute (RII)
Derek Smith: Until this report, if you searched for cannabis water usage, you’d basically find one cited statistic. It was “six gallons per plant per day.” We knew this was from a model based on one extreme illicit market scenario. Based on the data we were seeing and the conversations we were having, this number seemed way off. So, we pulled together a multidisciplinary Water Working Group as part of our Technical Advisory Council. The objective of the Water Working Group was to establish a scientific understanding of how, and how much, water is used for cannabis cultivation so that cultivators have confidence in taking steps to be more efficient, and so that industry leaders, governments and media can be accurately informed about the range of water practices of today’s regulated market.
Green: What key points should cannabis cultivators take away from the report? What key points should regulators and policymakers take away from the report?
Smith: As the cannabis industry matures, water use efficiency will become more important, as it has for other agricultural crops. Pressures to use water efficiently will mount from multiple channels including – reducing input and energy cost, protecting the environment, meeting regulatory standards and simply being good stewards. We recommend that industry and regulators focus efforts on the following areas:
When grown outdoors, water for cannabis production should be assessed like any other agricultural crop and be subject to state and local regulations that apply to other crops. Our research indicates that cannabis neither uses a massive share of water nor uses more water than other agricultural crops. Applying the same standards to cannabis as to other agricultural crops will correctly categorize outdoor grown cannabis as an agricultural crop.
In areas where there may be conflict between water use for cannabis and environmental concerns, regulators and the industry should focus (1) on the timing of water use and (2) the potential of storage to mitigate environmental conflict. Our results show that in many parts of the country legal cannabis farmers have ample water storage to satisfy their needs. In areas where storage is insufficient, increasing storage should be a priority for farmers and regulators.
Our research shows there are still massive differences between cannabis production techniques. As farmers continue to experiment and improve, we expect to see water use be a more important part of cannabis farming decisions and expect new plant varieties and growing techniques to be developed that increase water use efficiency. Yet more data from actual farms and facilities are needed to point the way toward the technologies and techniques that drive optimal efficiency and productivity. It is recommended that producers benchmark their performance and governments consider requiring energy and water reporting by producers. The Cannabis PowerScore can assist in these efforts.
As indoor production continues to grow, especially in areas that have unfavorable climatic conditions for outdoor growing, we expect more cannabis users to rely on municipal water sources. Yet, it is unclear if municipal water suppliers are equipped to work with the cannabis industry. We suggest outreach efforts between the cannabis industry and municipal water suppliers to incentivize efficiency where possible.
Supercritical carbon dioxide (CO2) extraction is a processing technique whereby CO2 is pressurized under carefully controlled temperatures to enable extraction of terpenes, cannabinoids and other plant molecules. Once the extract is obtained the crude is often subjected to an ethanol winterization process to remove chlorophyll, fats and waxes.
Green Mill Supercritical is a Pittsburgh-based manufacturing and engineering company focused on cannabis and hemp extraction. The company offers a range of CO2 extraction equipment where users can tune and control their extraction methods. They recently announced a technology advance enabling winterization in-process, which has the potential to remove the need for ethanol winterization.
We spoke with Jeff Diehl, director of marketing at Green Mill Supercritical, to learn more about the new process. Jeff was working in the tech industry in San Francisco in 2017 when he was invited to join Green Mill by his cousin, Jeremy Diehl, who is the founder and CTO.
Aaron Green: Before we get to your new technology, can you explain what industry trends you are watching?
Jeff Diehl: A big thing that I watch is the premium extract space. More and more consumers are demanding higher premium extracts. They want differentiated products. They want products that are safe and that have some kind of meaningful connection to the specific plant from which they came. Right now, CO2 plays a small role in the market for those products. Most premium products are generated through hydrocarbon extraction. So, I am watching how people are using CO2 to create the next generation of safe, premium products.
Aaron: What is the normal process for a CO2 extraction today?
Jeff: The current CO2 extraction process generally consists of two major phases to producing your final extract. In the first phase, you have extraction where you get your crude product. The second phase is post-extraction where you do cleanup to get your refined oil. Within that post-extraction phase, most operations include an ethanol-based winterization process.
Aaron: What does the winterization step do, exactly?
Jeff: Winterization is about removing waxes. Your main extraction is considered crude because it’s got a lot of materials from the plant that you don’t want. The large majority of unwanted material is waxes. Winterization is the process of using a solvent, traditionally ethanol, to separate the waxes from the cannabinoids. There are multiple challenges inherent in ethanol-based winterization that introduce cost, time and product loss. It’s terribly inefficient. Plus, there will always be residual ethanol left in your final product, and that’s not something consumers appreciate.
Aaron: You’ve recently announced a new process at Green Mill that moves the winterization step into the supercritical CO2 equipment. Can you explain how that works?
Jeff: With our process, which we call Real-Time Winterization, there is no ethanol involved in winterization anymore. It is all done with CO₂ during the primary extraction. That’s the major advance of our process and although it has been attempted before, no one has succeeded at doing it in a viable way. You take a process which is normally four days – one day for CO2 extraction and three days for ethanol winterization – and you do it all in less than a day. We have automated software, sensors and pumps that makes this all possible.
Aaron: How does the quality of the resulting product compare with the new process?
Jeff: You can see the difference right away, if you’re at all familiar with extraction. It just looks clean and bright. Lab analysis has been very positive thus far, but we continue to run tests. Our R&D team has done multiple tests, mostly on hemp and CBD. That’s because we don’t have a license for THC. We’re currently engaging with a licensed partner so that we can collect more data on THC-containing products, so we can give exact numbers. But with CBD, we’ve done multiple tests to validate the method and the technology, and are seeing consistently excellent results in regards to both purity of the product and efficiency of the process.
Aaron: How do yields compare between the processes?
Jeff: From the data that we’ve seen in the industry, it looks like when you winterize with ethanol, you leave anywhere from 5 to 10% of your cannabinoids behind in the waxes. That’s just lost. With Real-Time Winterization using CO2 we have seen recovery rates as high as 99%. We are continuing to investigate that result with testing to make sure it was not an outlier, but in any case, recovery rates look promising.
Aaron: One of the other issues with ethanol is taxes and the ability to find food grade supply. Do you have any perspective you can share on that?
Jeff: There are a number of advantages to moving away from ethanol. The sheer quantity of ethanol is a factor. There are a lot of regulations and fire requirements around managing large quantities of ethanol. The ethanol winterization process itself is not just one process. There are multiple stages, from mixing, to freezing, to filtering, to removing the solvent. These are all opportunities for things to go wrong, so you’re always managing those risks. Multiple large pieces of equipment, including fume hoods, filter skids, cryo freezers and rotary evaporators, are expensive and require heavy management.
I think Elon Musk said the best process is no process. Anytime in an industrial process when you can remove steps in the process, that’s the direction you want to go in. And, that’s what we’ve done. With this recent work, we have effectively removed post processing for certain categories of end product.
Aaron: Do you have any patents on the new process?
Jeff: We have a patent pending on both the method and the equipment, which is allowing us to talk about this as much as we are.
Aaron: So, how does this work if somebody already owns an existing piece of Green Mill equipment? Is this something that can be retrofitted? Is it a software upgrade?
Jeff: There are two components. One is an equipment upgrade, which can be done retroactively for existing customers, and one is a methodology upgrade, which we assist our customers with. The automation software inherently can handle the settings that you need to run the methodology. In fact, it’s that software and the rest of our existing tech stack, the proprietary pump, the triple inline fractionation, the precision and stability of the overall system, that is what made this winterization advance possible.
Aaron: Where are you rolling this out first? And do you plan to go international?
Jeff: International is definitely in the plan, since we’ve already sold systems abroad. We are currently getting ready to announce the opening of our beta program with the new technology. So, we’re not ready to sell this widely at this time, but we are taking submissions from companies that want to get in early and join us at the forefront of CO₂ extraction innovation.
Aaron: Okay, great. Thanks Jeff, that’s the end of the interview.
Any brewmaster from the more than 7,000 U.S. craft breweries will tell you one of two things: That their art is a science, or that their science is an art. The answer might depend upon the brewer’s individual approach, but a combination of experience, process, precise measurement and intuition is exactly what’s required to create great beer. In a very similar way, the cannabis industry has its own version of the brewmaster: Extraction technicians.
A cannabis extraction technician deploys knowledge from multiple science disciplines to apply industrial solvents, heat and pressure to plant matter through a variety of methods with the aim to chemically extract pure compounds. Extraction techs use their passion for the cannabis and hemp plants, combined with chemistry, physics, phytobiology and chemical engineering to help create a result that’s not quite art, but not quite completely science. By manipulating plant materials, pressure, heat and other variables, the extraction technician crafts the building block for what will become an edible, tincture or extract.
Similarly, brewmasters use their knowledge of multiple science disciplines like chemistry and microbiology, as well as different brewing processes and a variety of ingredients to develop creative recipes that result in consistent, interesting beers. The brewmaster’s work is both science and art, as well. And they also manipulate plant materials, pressure, heat and other variables to achieve their desired results.
“I would certainly consider brewing to be an art and a science, but it takes a very disciplined approach to create consistent, yet ever evolving beers for today’s craft market,” says Marshall Ligare, PhD. Research Scientist at John I. Haas, a leading supplier of hops, hop products and brewing innovations. “We work to ensure brewers can create something different with every new beer, as well as something that helps create an experience as well as a feeling.”
In both brewing and extraction, the art comes in the subjective experience of the craftsman and his or her ability to curate the infinite possibilities inherent in each process. However, both are a science in their requirement of establishing production methodologies that guarantee a consistent, reliable product experience every time to win customer loyalty (and regulatory compliance). In the same way hops determine recipes for beer flavors, the cannabis plant determines extraction recipes, especially considering the role that terpenoids play in the quality, flavor and effects of the end product.
The development of new and appealing cannabis products is beginning to mimic the vast variety of craft beers now found all over the world. In the same way beer connoisseurs seek out the perfect stout, lager or IPA, discriminating cannabis consumers now search for that gem of a single-origin, specialty-strain vaporizer oil or irresistible dab extract.
“I see an exciting new day for quality-focused, craft extraction that tells a story, not only of where the cannabis plant might have been grown and how, but also the care that was taken in the processing of that strain into smokable or edible oil,” says John Lynch, Founder of TradeCraft. “Imagine the impact in the marketplace when product-makers figure out how to do seasonal one-offs where engaged connoisseurs are willing to pay a premium for the art behind limited releases.”
In either process, you’re essentially creating art with science. Each process works with different strains. Each is concerned with chemical and flavor profiles. Each has its own challenges. In both worlds, quality depends upon consistency. You’re creating art, but you need to replicate that art over and over – which can only occur with strict control of the process. Brewmasters seek control of things like yeast quantity and health, oxygen input, wort nutritional status and temperature, among other things. In their pursuit, extraction technicians seek to control temperature, pressure and flow rate–as well as all the ways these variables interact with each other. What enables this control in both efforts is the equipment used to achieve results.
“A modern brewhouse is very much like a scientific laboratory,” Ligare says. “Brewers treat their setup with the same care and attention a scientist gives to their lab equipment, and are equally concerned with precision, cleanliness and the purity of the result. With each new beer, they want to develop a process that can be controlled and replicated.”
The key to creating a precise process is to use instrument-grade extraction machinery that performs to specifications – and allows you to repeat the process again and again. The value of using high-quality instrumentation to manage and monitor either the brewing or extraction process cannot be overstated. Although it seems counterintuitive, this is where the “craft” comes into play for both brewing and cannabis extraction. Precise instrumentation is what allows the brewer or extraction “artist” to manipulate and monitor the conditions required to meet recipe standards. Along with the quality of the ingredients (hops, cannabis, hemp, etc.), the quality of the equipment utilized to create the product is one critical element impacting the end result. “Imagine the impact in the marketplace when product-makers figure out how to do seasonal one-offs where engaged connoisseurs are willing to pay a premium for the art behind limited releases.”
In cannabis extraction, a second crucial decision is determining which solvent is the best solution for the recipe you’re using and the end result you’re hoping to achieve. This decision is a part of the “craft” of extraction, and determined according to a combination of criteria. There’s no question that each solvent has a business case it serves best, and there is ongoingdebate about which approach is best. But overwhelmingly, the solvent that best serves the most business needs is CO2 due to its inherent versatility and ability to have its density tuned to target specific compounds.
“Control is what makes or breaks any craft product,” says Karen Devereux, Vice President of Northeast Kingdom Hemp. “We’re based in Vermont and love how Vermont is known for its quality craft beer, cheese and maple syrup. We wanted to bring that craft approach to hemp extraction, and everyone knows that any craft endeavor is focused on the details and getting them right again and again. You can’t do that without controlling every aspect of the process.”
Greater control of the process can also open up worlds of discovery. The inherent “tunability” of CO₂ enables the extraction technician to target specific compounds, enhancing the potential for experimentation and even whimsy. This can lead to entirely new products much in the way a brewer can control his process to create new, interesting beers.
American portrait photographer Richard Avedon famously declared that art is “about control,” describing the artistic process as “the encounter between control and the uncontrollable.” The same can be said for beer making and cannabis extraction. The more precisely you can control variables, the more options you’ll have for yourself and your customers. The more choices you’ll have with regard to different recipes and products. And the more loyalty you’ll ultimately generate among fans of your products.
The cannabis industry is growing and evolving at an unprecedented pace and regulators, consumers and businesses continually struggle to keep up.
Cannabis businesses: How do you maintain an edge on the market, avoid costly mistakes?
Case Study: Costly Facility Build Out Oversights
David Vaillencourt will be joining a panel discussion, Integrated Lifecycle of Designing a Cultivation Operation, on December 22 during the Cannabis Quality Virtual Conference. Click here to register. A vertically integrated multi-state operator wants to produce edibles. The state requires adherence to food safety practices (side note – even if the state did not, adherence to food safety practices should be considered as a major facility and operational requirement). They are already successfully producing flower, tinctures and other oil derivatives. Their architect and MEP firm works with them to design a commercial kitchen for the production of safe edibles. The layout is confirmed, the equipment is specified – everything from storage racks, an oven and exhaust hoods, to food-grade tables. The concrete is poured and walls are constructed. The local health authority comes in to inspect the construction progress, who happens to have a background in industrial food-grade facilities (think General Mills). They remind the company that they must have three-compartment sinks with hot running water for effective cleaning and sanitation, known as clean-out-of-place (COP). The result? Partial demolition of the floor to run pipeline, and a retrofit to make room for the larger sinks, including redoing electrical work and a contentious team debate about the size of the existing equipment that was designed to fit ‘just right.’
Unfortunately, this is just one more common story our team recently witnessed. In this article, I outline a few recommendations and a process (Quality by Design) that could have reduced this and many other issues. For some, following the process may just be the difference between being profitable or going out of business in 2021.
The benefits of Quality by Design are tangible and measurable:
Reduce mistakes that lead to costly re-work
Mitigate inefficient operational flow
Reduce the risk of cross-contamination and product mix-ups. It happens all the time without carefully laid out processes.
Eliminate bottlenecks in your production process
Mitigate the risk of a major recall.
The solution is in the process
Regardless of whether you fall in the category of a food producer, manufacturer of infused products (MIP), food producers, re-packager or even a cultivator, consider the following and ask these questions as a team.
For every process, who is performing it? This may be a single individual or the role of specific people as defined in a job description.
Does the individual(s) performing the process have sufficient education and training? Do you have a diverse team that can provide different perspectives? World class operations are not developed in a vacuum, but rather with a team. Encourage healthy discourse and dialogue.
Is the process defined? Perhaps in a standard operating procedure (SOP) or work instruction (WI). This is not the general guidance an equipment vendor provided you with, this is your process.
How well do you know your process? Does your SOP or WI specify (with numbers) how long to run the piece of equipment, the specification of the raw materials used (or not used) during the process, and what defines a successful output?
Do you have a system in place for when things deviate from the process? Processes are not foolproof. Do not get hung up on deviations from the process, but don’t turn a blind eye to them. Record and monitor them. In time, they will show you clear opportunities for improvement, preventing major catastrophes.
What are the raw materials being used? Where are they coming from (who is your supplier and how did you qualify them)?
Start with the raw materials that create your product or touch your product at all stages of the process. We have seen many cases where cannabis oils fail for heavy metals, specifically lead. Extractors are quick to blame the cultivator and their nutrients, as cannabis is a very effective phytoremediator (it uptakes heavy metals and toxins from soil substrate). The more likely culprit – your glassware! Storing cannabis oil, both work in process or final product in glass jars, while preferred over plastic, requires due diligence on the provider of your glassware. If they change the factory in which it is produced, will you be notified? Stipulate this in your contract. Don’t find yourself in the next cannabis lead recall that gets the attention of the FDA.
Savings is gained through simple control of your raw materials. Variability in your raw material going into the extractor is inevitable, but the more you can do to standardize the quality of your inputs, the less work re-formulating needs to be done downstream. Eliminate the constant need to troubleshoot why yields are lower than expected, or worst case, having to rerun or throw an entire batch out because it was “hot” (either too much THC in the hemp/CBD space or pesticides/heavy metals). These all add up to significant downstream bottlenecks – underutilized equipment, inefficient staff (increase in labor cost) all because of a lack of upstream controls. Use your current process as a starting point, but implement a quality system to drive improvement in operational efficiency and watch your top line grow while your bottom-line decreases.
Have you tested and confirmed the quality of your raw material? This isn’t just does it have THC and is it cannabis, but is it a certain particle size, moisture level, etc.? Again, define the quality of your raw materials (specifications) and test for it.
Remember – ranges are your friend. It is much better to say 9-13% moisture than “about 10%”. For your most diligent extractor, 11% will be unacceptable, but for a guy that just wants to get the job done, 13% just may do!
Test your final product AFTER the process. Again, how does it stack up against your specifications? You may need to have multiple specifications based on different types of raw material. Perhaps one strain with a certain range of cannabinoids and terpenes can be expected for production.
Review the data and trend it. Are you getting lower yields than normal? This may be due to an issue with the equipment, maybe a blockage has formed somewhere, a valve is loose, and simple preventive maintenance will get you back up and running. Or, it could be that the raw biomass quality has changed. Either way, having that data available for review and analysis will allow you to identify the root cause and prevent a surprise failure of your equipment. Murphy’s law applies to the cannabis industry too.
You are able to predict and prevent most failures before they occur
You increase the longevity of your equipment
You are able to predict with a level of confidence – imagine estimating how much product you will product next month and hitting that target – every time!
Business risks are significantly mitigated – a process that spews out metal, concentrates heavy metals or does not kill microbes that were in the raw material is an expensive mistake.
Your employees don’t feel like they are running around with their hair on fire all the time. It’s expensive to train new employees. Reduce your turnover with a less stressed-out team.
Maintaining a competitive edge in the cannabis industry is not easy, but it can be made easier with the right team, tools and data. Our recommendations boil down to a few simple steps:
Make sure you have a chemical or mechanical engineer to understand, optimize and standardize your process (you should have one of these on staff permanently!)
Implement a testing program for all raw materials
Test your raw materials – cannabis flower, solvents, additives, etc. before using. Work with your team to understand what you should and should not test for, and the frequency for doing so. Some materials/vendors are likely more consistent or reliable than others. Test the less reliable ones more frequently (or even every time!)
Test your final product after you extract it – Just because your local regulatory body does not require a certain test, it does not mean you should not look for it. Anything that you specified wanting the product to achieve needs to be tested at an established frequency (and this does not necessarily need to be every batch).
Repeat, and record all of your extraction parameters.
Review, approve and set a system in place for monitoring any changes.
Congratulations, you have just gone through the process of validating your operation. You may now begin to realize the benefits of validating your operation, from your personnel to your equipment and processes.
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 fourth article in a series where we interview leaders in the national infused products market. In this third piece, we talk with Stephanie Gorecki, vice president of product development at Cresco Labs. Stephanie started with Cresco in 2019 after transitioning from an award-winning career in traditional foods CPG. She now heads up product development where she manages R&D for Cresco, a multi-state operation with tremendous SKU variety.
Next week, we’ll sit down with Lisa McClung and Glenn Armstrong from Coda Signature. Stay tuned for more!
Aaron Green: Stephanie, how did you get involved at Cresco Labs?
Stephanie Gorecki:A few years ago, CBD became the most talked about ingredient in the food industry. CBD-infused food headlines appeared in most of the trade magazines. I have always been curious about working in the cannabis space, and not just with CBD, but THC and other cannabinoids. I researched technical seminars and came across the cannabis infused edibles short course put on by the Institute of Food Technologists.
I attended the short course in April of 2019. I realized that to be hands-on with cannabis in the near future, I would need to join an organization that was already in the space. The space was highly regulated which meant that research in the mainstream food and beverage space was limited.
Immediately following that seminar, I began to look for opportunities near where I lived. That’s when I came across the Cresco Labs career opportunity. The Director of Food Science position appeared to be a good match. I applied for the position and went through the interview process. Approximately two months after attending that seminar, I joined Cresco Labs.
Aaron: Awesome! It’s a cool story. In your role, how do you think about developing products that differentiate in the market?
Stephanie: There are many opportunities for brand differentiation in cannabis right now. There is a focus on high bioavailability and water solubility and how that translates to onset times once consumed. Many of these technologies utilize ingredient technologies and systems that I have experience with from my past work in the flavor industry.
Gummies and jellies are a great infusion matrix to start with because of their shelf-life stability. There are a variety of formulation techniques that can be used to deliver on product differentiations. There is an abundance of flavor varieties, colors, processing steps and cannabinoid ratios that can be baked into a formula to make that product line unique.
Here in the cannabis space, SKU variety is essential. It’s exciting to be a part of a company where we develop products that appeal to a variety of customer wants and needs.
Aaron: In that vein, what’s your process then for creating a new product?
Stephanie: I’ll start with how we develop an edible. Most of my background is in this type of product development, but the same process is applied to how we develop and extract vape, topical, flower SKU, or ready-to-smoke type products. We follow a similar stage/gate process utilized by most CPG companies.
Marketing typically presents our product development team with a brief on a new concept based on how they’ve read the needs of the market. There are opportunities for us to come to marketing with ideas for innovation, too. The product development team regularly works in our processing facility, so we as a team are aware of the different capabilities of each state and production line. During the briefing phase, we determine what is needed to be achieved and the parameters that the team would like the new product to deliver on.
For edibles, we begin our development work at The Hatchery. The Hatchery is our non-infused product development space that we utilize outside of our processing facility. In this space, we have several pieces of pilot equipment that allow us to scale and create prototypes that are highly representative of what our finished product will look like. For vapes, flower SKUs and RTS (ready-to-smoke) products, development and processing trials happen within our cultivation center.
All infusions are conducted in our licensed processing center. We also conduct stability testing and analytical testing in-house on our products. Our analytical lab is amazing – we have talented chemists and the ability to run GCMS, HPLC, microbiological testing, and many other analytical tests that are important for ensuring consistency and product uniformity.
Aaron: Can you expand on a point about testing? How do you think about testing at the different points in your manufacturing or production process?
Stephanie: Testing comes in several forms. We focus heavily on analytical testing since that does not involve product consumption. Potency uniformity and consistency is critical for edibles. For infused products, we have one shot at hitting our potency – infusion science is extremely important for us. Our gummies and chocolates cannot be re-worked, so hitting our potency range on the first attempt is important. If we miss the target, the product has to be destroyed.
We have methods developed to conduct in-process potency testing where we can. With the processes and infusion methods that we have implemented, we are rarely outside of our targeted potency ranges.
Aaron: Okay, awesome, then, can you walk me through your experience with one of your most recent product launches?
Stephanie: We recently launched Mindy’s Dark Chocolate Peppermint Bark, a limited time offering for our Mindy’s chocolate line. There’s a series of commercialization trials that we will conduct prior to launch. We use these trials as an opportunity to train our production teams on the new manufacturing instructions and processes.
When it comes to launching products, our technical teams are very hands on with new product introductions. Since we cannot manufacture product in one state and ship it to another state, we have to build processing centers and secure the proper licenses in every state that we’d like to operate in. When we have a new product ready to launch in a new state, our team works with Operations on the tech transfer piece. We’re there on-site during launches to oversee and train on the entire process until our teams are comfortable with manufacturing and packaging the new SKUs.
We monitor launches carefully to ensure product looks as it should before and after leaving our facility for sale in licensed dispensaries across the state. When there are opportunities to optimize a process post-launch, we will do what we can to make the process work as well as possible for the teams producing our products.
Aaron: Okay, so next question is, how do you go about sourcing ingredients for your infused products?
Stephanie: We manufacture our oils and extracts in house, and then source other ingredients externally. We have a supplier quality assurance process for new supplier approval, and we have documentation needs that we need each supplier to be able to deliver on.
Several of our suppliers have invested in research and development of products that will help us to meet our deliverables in the cannabis industry. Our suppliers, at times, have provided applications support in order to help with our speed to market and early phase prototyping. These types of partnerships are essential to us being able to make quick modifications and decisions on ingredients such as flavors and colors.
Aaron: Can you give me an example of a challenge that you run into frequently? This could be a business challenge or a cannabis-related challenge.
“I’m a scientist at heart. I look forward to more spending on cannabis research to show how THC and other cannabinoids can be used to treat a variety of conditions.”Stephanie: A big challenge for us and other multi-state cannabis operators are the variations in compliance regulations state-to-state. We have compliance managers in every state who work to ensure we are meeting all of the state regulations. Our packaging reviews are in-depth because of all the language that needs to be included on our packaging.
Each state needs its own packaging with proper compliance labeling. Some states require a cannabis warning symbol of a certain type. If we sell Mindy’s Gummies in 8 flavors and THC mg SKUs in four states, that is 32 different pieces of artwork that need to be managed and cross-checked for accuracy. We have 32 separate pieces of packaging for this one line of products. We have many lines of products with multiples strains (flower and vapes) and flavors (edibles).
Aaron: You mentioned packaging, do you do all of your packaging in house?
Stephanie: We design our packaging artwork in-house. We have a creative team who works on our product artwork, and then a team of cross-functional members tasked with packaging editing and review. Packaging reviews go through multiple rounds before being released for printing. We source a variety of packaging depending on the needs of the product going into the packaging. For edibles, our packaging has to be opaque. Product cannot be seen through the packaging in most states. This is great for our products that are made with natural colors that may be light sensitive.
All of our packaging needs to be child resistant. This limits the amount of packaging variety that we have, but this is a big opportunity for packaging developers. We want and need more sustainable forms of packaging that are differentiated from other packaging forms currently on the market.
Aaron: What trends are you following in the industry personally?
Stephanie: Cannabis trends that are of interest to me personally are fast-onset and water solubility technology. There have also been many discussions surrounding minor cannabinoids and how those can be blended together to drive customer experience.
There are traditional food trends that also impact how we formulate. Our Mindy’s Edibles line is flavor forward. The flavors are sophisticated. In the Mindy’s line, you won’t find a generic orange or grape flavor. Instead, you’ll find a Lush Black Cherry or Cool Key Lime Kiwi Flavor. This flavor development work starts with Mindy Segal, who is the face and talented James Beard award-winning chef behind our Mindy’s Edibles line of products.
Aaron: Okay, so the last question I have for you is, what are you interested in learning more about?
Stephanie: I’m a scientist at heart. I look forward to more spending on cannabis research to show how THC and other cannabinoids can be used to treat a variety of conditions. People use cannabis for many reasons: to relax, to ease aches or pains, etc. It’s exciting to lead part of our technical team during a period of time where cannabis is rapidly growing and is of great interest and increasing acceptance across our country and in the world.
Aaron: Okay. So that’s it. That’s the end of the interview!
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