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The Man Behind MXXN: An Interview with CEO and Founder Darnell Smith

By Aaron Green
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Hangovers are one of the aftereffects often experienced with spirits. Who doesn’t love a good martini or a refreshing margarita? One company is on a mission bring the flavor profile and buzz of spirited drinks without the negative consequences.

Like this article and want to see more? Subscribe to our free newsletter hereMXXN is a California-based cannabis infused beverage manufacturer specializing in 1:1 non-alcoholic replacements for everyone’s favorite spirits, enhanced with a touch of cannabis. By combining new technology in cannabis oil nano emulsions and alt-alcohol, MXXN is able to create flavor matching spirits sold by the 750 mL bottle. MXXN recently launched with three product SKUs including London Dry (gin), Jalisco Agave (tequila) and Kentucky Oak (bourbon) with a rum replacement due to launch soon.

We caught up with Darnell Smith, founder & CEO of MXXN, to ask about the technology going into infused non-alcoholic spirits, regulatory challenges and more. Prior to MXXN, Darnell was a spirits industry veteran, having worked with companies including Diageo, Pernod-Ricard and Bacardi.

Aaron Green: Darnell, nice to meet you. How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?

Darnell Smith: For me, it wasn’t something that was premeditated, in a sense. I had always been a cannabis user in my adult life. I played Division I sports. Cannabis replaced a lot of painkillers and medications that I probably would have had to take just to cope with athletic injuries. That’s how I got introduced to cannabis. And there is the recreational use of it as well.

Darnell Smith, Founder & CEO of MXXN

To get to the origin story of MXXN, I spent a large part of my career working in spirits, namely, on the innovation and commercialization side of bringing new products to market under very well-known trademarks for large multinational companies. A few years into it, my liver was kind of at a point where it was like, “It’s gonna be you or me here, buddy.” So, I made the decision to start making – this is 15 years ago, in New York – a tincture where I would just heat up flower and decarb it and soak it in a high proof spirit. I would cover it for 30 days then strain it and have my tincture.

I’d be the guy in the bar, that would say “Hey, can I get a tonic and lime?” and I would put three drops of my tincture in there, and I would session cocktails along with everyone else. Next day at work, I’m the guy that’s bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and everyone else is kind of feeling a little bit weathered by that alcohol.

Innovation is usually born out of a personal need and that’s the same way here. So, fast forward 15 years and the technology has finally caught up. The rise of non-alcoholic spirits, the rise of cannabis and water-soluble emulsification, those two things combined really made the light bulb go off and say now is the time to offer this product. I feel like MXXN has a very specific place in our consumption of beverages and can fill a unique need that I think is rising.

Green: I’m interested in learning about the technology and the product. We can start with the technology that went into the product development process. I’ll go on to product next.

Smith: From a technical standpoint, up until a few years ago, the way that edibles were made was basically like raw extraction. There was very little ability to be precise about dosage. It was like trying to throw softballs through a chain-link fence. Non-uniformity made it very hard to say, “Here’s how this is going to affect you.” Fast forward and companies like Vertosa and Source have perfected this kind of nano-emulsion technology, which is basically water-suspended cannabis that can uniformly be used in food, beverage and cosmetic applications. And it’s akin to trying to throw sand through a chain-link fence. It’s just much smaller. It can remain more uniform, and thereby be more predictable in terms of dosage and effect.

The MXXN London Dry

So, that technology made it possible for us to then combine it with another wave that’s happening, which in the spirits industry is called alt-alcohol. What we do is distill all the flavor essences of well-known spirits and skip the alcohol. We then add the emulsified cannabis in place of the alcohol. And so with that, we offer a new kind of experience which is basically all the buzz but none of the booze. That’s really where technology-wise things have evolved. The rise of the non-alcoholic spirits and then the rise of being able to do water-soluble compatible cannabinoid emulsions.

Green: Are you selling this then as packaged goods or are you selling it as bladders similar to Coca-Cola in a bar setting?

Smith: This is a CPG packaged product and it really is analogous to a 750 ML spirits bottle similar to Tito’s or Grey Goose. The form factor is the same as spirits bottles, same 750 ML bottle. It doses just like a spirit would. Standard spirit pour is an ounce and a half. For us, an ounce and a half shot has six milligrams of THC.

For the average consumer, you can session cocktails and we give you the option to dose between two and six milligrams between a half ounce and an ounce and a half pour. So, it’s very analogous to what people are experienced in when it comes to spirits from the bottle to the dosage and to the actual recipes. We pride ourselves on being able to demystify something that has been a little bit complex in terms of making cannabis-infused cocktails. We are sticking close to what people are familiar with. People have a lot of experience with tequila or gin or bourbon and so we wanted to stay very familiar but also give people a chance to make the same recipes but sans alcohol.

Green: What kind of flavor profiles are you launching with?

Smith: We’re launching with three SKUs. Our first is London Dry, which is our take on a gin and that one has cucumber, juniper, coriander, and a nice peppery finish. We have Jalisco Agave, which is our take on a tequila or Mezcal. You have notes of agave, flint, salt, oak, and vanilla. And then the last one is Kentucky Oak, which is our version of a bourbon or whiskey. There you have charred oak, vanilla, and other flavor components that make up what bourbon is.

The MXXN Kentucky Oak

Now we have a rum in development that’s nearing the end of a robust R&D pipeline. We have some other options like ready-to-drink cocktails made with MXXN to more high-dose products for what we consider the “legacy consumer” who is maybe more medically inclined in the hopes of being able to give people more options when it comes to consumption of flavored spirits.

Green: On the cannabis side, with the infusions that you’re doing, is it pure THC or are you doing full spectrum?

Smith: Yes, full-spectrum cannabinoid. You’ll notice some beverage brands have what we consider a hybrid, some THC and some CBD. For us, and for the effects that we wanted to have the product to have we stuck with a THC-forward blend. There is a trace of CBD in there, but we don’t even claim it. It’s not something that we go forward with. Our emulsion is THC-based.

Green: Where are you at today in terms of the launch and presence?

Smith: We just finished a pilot test here in California. We started late-January, early-February and we’ve been selling direct-to-consumer. Just order and you can have it at your door in 24 hours for about 85% of the state. We’ve blown through our entire pilot run. Now we are entering into what we consider our launch phase which will be available in select retailers late-July. We are gearing up for our next big production run here in mid-July. We are basically all systems go.

At the same time, we’re exploring multi-state expansion. We have a lot of interest in states like Colorado, Nevada, Arizona and we’re having constant conversations with partners in those states to help bring the product to market.

Green: Have you looked at lounges?

Smith: Lounges have been our biggest traction as we start the retail rollout. We literally just started the dispensary piece of what we’re doing last month. And this is by design. First, we wanted to go direct-to-consumers for proof of concept to make sure we weren’t, you know, saying the story to ourselves. I think just by the performance of the pilot run and direct-to-consumer sales, we proved okay, this is a viable concept.

MXXN’s Jalisco Agave

So as we go out, our number one targets are obviously establishments that also are connected to or have connections with a consumption lounge. There aren’t a ton at this point. They’re still kind of proliferating. But I will tell you the moment we walk into one of these accounts is like a no-brainer because it allows this account to offer a whole new experience. When it comes to consumption lounges in terms of great cocktails you already know: gin and tonics, margaritas, paloma, with no real education required on the part of who’s ever going to be serving. We basically take 20 retailers a month in chunks and so far of the 15-20 that we’ve done, four or five of them have consumption lounges and you’ll see it in those very soon.

Green: Are there any challenges there with dosing in a lounge where the onus is on the operator to dose? How do the regulations work there?

Smith: It’s similar to alcohol, right? As an establishment, you have a responsibility to kind of pay attention to what’s happening as the consumer is consuming. Typically, most of the legislation that was written is for an inhaled consumption lounge. Ingestibles weren’t necessarily considered heavily when it came to legislation. What we tell folks is you have the same responsibilities you would if you were a bartender. Our recommended pour in consumption lounges is a lighter dose. This way, the customer has a chance to start low and go slow, and really recognize how it’s going to affect them.

Legally, there is no firm guidance on what overconsumption looks like for the typical consumer. So, we tell folks you have to kind of get a feel for who the consumer is. If they’re curious person who doesn’t have a lot of experience with cannabis, we typically recommend not to exceed a five-milligram serve per sitting until you figure out how it’s going to affect them. However, if you have very high dose legacy consumers, who buy and drink these 100-milligram single-serve bottles it’s a different story. You kind of need to gauge that from consumer to consumer, and what their tolerance level is. A lot of onus is on the consumption lounge. And I think that’s why they’ve kind of been slow to really roll out how they deal with beverages, because it’s just a different beast. It’s absorbed differently by the body from inhalable products

Green: What trends are you looking at in the industry?

Smith: I love seeing more food-based options. Edibles to this point have been mostly candies and gummies and I see the trend going to more high-end, curated food selections. I think that’s super interesting. The condiments that go into cooking is a category that I’m keeping an eye on. I came across a THC and CBD-infused Siracha sauce the other day and I was like, “wow, this is fantastic!”

MXXN logo

In the beverage space, there continues to be innovation, which we are on the forefront of. There’s a point of saturation that’s going to come for how many seltzers can exist in the market at the same time. And I think we’re kind of reaching that point. So, it’s going to be incumbent upon the beverage space to continue to innovate.

I’m also watching where things go with hemp-derived THC, the Delta-8s and those things and how is that going to be dealt with when it comes to the legal market. I think you see varying ways that it’s being dealt with across states. That’s a trend I’m certainly keeping an eye on as things continue to roll out across the country.

Green: What, in your personal life or in cannabis are you most interested in learning about?

Smith: Given where the world is today, I feel like we all live in this “OR” mindset. It’s either you OR me, it’s either this OR that. And I think you can see with some of the more recent political things that have happened, it’s this ideology of like, trying to force your beliefs on someone else. For me, it’s more about like, how can we learn to live more in the “AND” right? You can have this AND this and they can coexist, and they don’t have to be in competition. In my personal life, that’s where a lot of my energy is going. How do I spread that thought of getting out of this living in OR. We must move to this kind of mindset of AND. How can we be accommodating for a bunch of different beliefs, a bunch of different approaches? It causes so much friction when we try to impose beliefs on others that may not share the same beliefs.

I am thinking about how I can apply that to the cannabis industry as well. In terms of federal legalization versus state, where can we find that the happy ground? If we think about going across state lines, that’s effectively building a whole other business in the state, and in virtually no other industry does that exist. I can tell you economically this country could use infusion of cannabis to be more freely available. So those are the types of things that keep me moving these days. I’ve had a lot of success in my past and so for me, it’s less about financial achievements, and it’s more about how we can help move folks to this is AND mentality and not everything has to be OR.

Green: Great. That concludes the interview.

Cannin Commentary

A Closer Look at Village Farms

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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Village Farms International (NASDAQ: VFF) manages and operates greenhouse facilities in North America. They’ve worked with growers for over 30 years and started supporting cannabis growers in 2017.  The company was founded by Michael A. DeGiglio and Albert W. Vanzeyst in 1987 and is headquartered in Delta, Canada. But is Village Farms stock a strong buy?

What is Village Farms International?

Village Farms International has a long history of managing and operating energy efficient grow facilities for agricultural crops. This includes cannabis, recently, and vegetables which bring in over $200 million in revenue annually.

Their 2021 acquisition of Pure SunFarms, one of Canada’s best known cannabis brands, gave them around $17 million in extra revenue and a large opportunity in the flower competition in Canada. Current goals have them taking 20% of the flower market share. They also deal in vapes, oils and infused edibles.

Bottom Line: Is Village Farms Stock a Strong Buy?

Village Farms stock shows plenty of promise. They have a large footprint in Texas as well, supporting hemp cultivation and processing into CBD products for distribution in the USA. With a small stake in Altum International, they also have a presence in Asia.

Excitingly, their subsidiary Balanced Health Botanicals, has come out with their Synergy Collections of SKUs (cannabinoids such as CBDA, CBG, and CBG with non-hallucinogenic mushrooms and Kava roots). These products will come as tinctures, capsules and drinks (around 31 SKUs pending) and should diversify their product offerings even more.

Their revenue remains strong, with adjusted EBITDA up 49% YoY and Pure SunFarms reporting 12 straight quarters of positive adjusted EBITDA. They have a lot of cash and are paying off their debt and recent acquisition costs quickly. With really low P/S, Price/Book and EV/Revenue ratios (all under 4) we see a bargain price now for a company that should slowly grow for the next six quarters.

Village Farms stock presents a longer buy and hold opportunity but the recent price drop (37% in 1 year?!) is making much more of an enticing deal now.

For all these reasons we rate VFF as Strong.

83% of Cannin’s fundamentals prove true within 30 days or less on 100+ recommendations over the past 3 years.

PlantTag

Quality Systems 101: CAPA Programs Drive Improvement & Prevent Costly Mistakes

By David Vaillencourt
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PlantTag

No business is perfect, especially when humans are part of the equation. But, how do you tackle fixing quality issues as they arise? The goal of this article is to shed some light on the value of a CAPA program and why many states are making them mandatory for cannabis businesses.

Let’s consider the following situations:

  • Analytical lab results for a production batch test above the limit for a banned pesticide or microbial contamination
  • You open a case of tincture bottles and some are broken
  • A customer returns a vape pen because it is leaking or ‘just doesn’t work’

Do you…

  • Document the issue?
  • Perform some sort of an investigation, asking questions of the people involved?
  • Ask for a retest? Then, if the test comes back positive, move on?

Let’s go through each one of these and understand why the suboptimal answer could be costing your business money:

You don’t document the issue

I hear excuses for skipping on documentation all the time.

  • “It’s not a big deal”
  • “It was a one off”
  • “The glasses probably broke in transit”
  • “They are cheap and easily replaceable”
  • “It’s not worth the time”
Tracking and documenting supplier shipments can help you identify supply chain issues.

In the situation of a couple of broken bottles in a shipment, what if it was the seventh time in the last two months? If you haven’t been documenting and tracking the issue, you have no way of knowing if it was a single occurrence. Remember when you were surprised that your filling team did not have enough bottles? Those broken bottles add up. Without documenting the incident, you will never know if it was truly a one-time mistake or the sign of a deeper issue. The reality is, it could be sloppy handling on the production line, issues with the shipper or even a sign of poor quality coming from the supplier.

Have you ever compared the number of fills vs the number of bottles ordered? How much money have you already lost due to those broken bottles adding up? Do you have the ability to answer this question?

You perform an investigation

Let’s say a customer returns a leaky vape pen. You perform an investigation by asking the production workers what they think went wrong. They say that it’s very difficult to get the seal for the cartridge into place. Their supervisor tells them to try harder, refunds the customer and moves on. But, why is it difficult to get the seal into place? Is it a design flaw? Should a special tool be used to assemble the cartridge properly? Without getting to the root cause of why the seals are leading to leaking cartridges, you are doomed to have repeat issues. Numerous studies have found that less than one in twenty dissatisfied customers will complain, and that approximately one in ten will simply leave for another brand or provider. How much is this unresolved issue truly costing your business?

Asking for a retest and if it passes, releasing the product and moving on.

labsphoto
In Colorado, 15% of the final tested cannabis flower products continue to fail.

Suppose a major producer of cereal received test results for its most popular cereal that were positive for levels of heavy metals that research has shown to be linked to cancer or developmental issues in children. Now, suppose the company stated that it was an isolated incident and a retest showed that the product met acceptable limits. Further investigation showed no paperwork, save for a couple of emails and a phone call between the lab and the producer. Would that give you peace of mind? This is known as “testing into compliance” and was the subject of a landmark lawsuit in 1993 that Barr Laboratories lost.

For many the answer would be a hard NO. But this happens every day. In Colorado, 12.5% of cannabis batches failed final product testing in 2018 and 2019. That’s one in eight batches! What happened to those products? Good question.

Enter: CAPA (Corrective Action and Preventive Action) programs! For people with a background in quality and GMPs (Good Manufacturing Practices), CAPA is a household name. And, it’s quickly becoming a requirement that cannabis regulatory bodies are looking at. Colorado was the first state to explicitly require CAPA programs for all license holders effective January of this year and has provided a free resource for them. But, for the large majority of people, including those in the cannabis industry, it’s just another acronym.

What does a CAPA program do?

The benefits are numerous but two major ones are:

An effective tool for investigating the true root cause

First of all, a CAPA program provides the framework for a tool for investigation – as Murphy’s Law posits – things go wrong all of the time. Whether you have a manual, labor-intensive process or a highly automated operation, the equipment is programmed, maintained and monitored by humans. The logical sequence of problem solving within a CAPA program allows you to thoroughly investigate and determine the root cause of the issue. With a complete understanding of root cause, you are then able to eliminate it and prevent future occurrences – not just in the one area investigated, but in all similar situations throughout the company.

System for continuous improvement

Gathering info from a customer complaint like batch or product IDs can be crucial in a CAPA system

Anyone who is in the market for a new car lately can appreciate the technological advances. In the 1980s, it was air bags and ABS brakes (those of you that drive in snowy climates and remember having to pump your brakes can appreciate technological advancements). Bluetooth technology for hands-free communication and radio control is another example of continuous improvement in cars.

This is one of the biggest predictors and differentiators between profitable and successful companies with satisfied clients and one that is barely scraping by. The cost of poor quality adds up!

Key inputs in a CAPA system 

If the output is an improved system and lower cost of quality, we need to make sure we’re considering the potential inputs. 

Information that feeds into your CAPA system:

Customer complaints

Every complaint must be recorded. Gather as much information as possible, but at a minimum: the product type/SKU, the customer name and date of purchase. If possible, the batch or product ID.

This is not necessarily to identify products for a recall, but to prevent…

Laboratory test results

This should not be restricted to final product testing, but include any in-process inspections. Say you have a product repeatedly failing final testing, what if it’s actually been consistently failing or very close to failing at the very first in-process inspection? It’s also important to work with your laboratory to understand their method validation process, including the accuracy, precision, robustness, etc.

Infrastructure & environmental controls/monitoring

Most people consider “environmental controls” to be things like temperature and humidity control. While that is true, it can also include pest and contamination control. Poorly designed infrastructure layouts are major contributors to product cross contamination as well.

Supplier information

Undetected supply chain issues (remember the broken bottles?) can add up fast! CAPAs for suppliers cannot just include supplier monitoring, but improvement in how you communicate your needs to your suppliers. It’s easy to overlook non-cannabis raw materials as sources of microbiological and chemical contamination. Conduct a risk assessment based on the type of contact with your product and the types of contamination possible and adjust your supplier qualification program accordingly.

Are you ready to recognize the benefits of a CAPA program?

One more major benefit of CAPA programs to mention before we go is … Preventive via predictive analytics.

In Colorado, 15% of the final tested cannabis flower products continue to fail, mostly due to mold and mildew. A quality system, with effective data capture that is funneled into a CAPA program can easily reduce this by 75%. For even a small business doing $2M per year in revenue, that equates to a revenue increase of nearly $200,000 with no additional expenses.

Whether you are operating in the State of Colorado or elsewhere, a CAPA and Recall program will provide immense value. In the best case, it will uncover systemic issues; worst case, it forces you to fix mild errors. What are you waiting for?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bob Fireman, CEO of MariMed, Inc.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Green: What are you interested in learning more about?

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

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

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

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

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

Q&A with Bruce Macdonald, Chairman of C21 Investments

By Aaron Green
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Multi-state operators (MSOs) are on the rise in the United States, navigating complex regulatory frameworks to drive profitability through economies of scale and scope. C21 Investments is a vertically integrated cannabis company with operations in Nevada and Oregon; traded on the Canadian Stock Exchange (CXXI) and on the OTCQX (CXXIF). The company recently secured a commitment from Wasatch Global Investors, JW Asset Management (Jason Wild/TerrAscend) and CB1 Capital Management (Todd Harrison) who, in addition to C21’s CEO, provided an equity commitment for repayment of all convertible debt.

We spoke with Bruce Macdonald, Chairman of C21 Investments. Bruce joined C21 in 2018 after reviewing the company as a personal investment and getting to know the senior management team. Prior to C21, Bruce had a long and successful career in finance and capital markets at one of Canada’s largest banks.

Aaron Green: Can you give a brief overview of C21?

Bruce MacDonald: C21 is a cannabis company that has operations in both Nevada, and in Oregon. Oregon is fundamentally a wholesale business, and we recently announced a divestment of some non-core assets in the state. Our cash cow and where we currently see our best opportunity for future growth is our Nevada operations. We run a seed-to-sale business in the state with two dispensaries doing about $35M a year in revenue, with a 40% EBITDA Margin, and servicing 600,000 customers.

Aaron: Can you tell me about a little bit about your background and how you got involved in a cannabis company?

Bruce: I spent 37 years working for RBC in the capital markets business. I started as a floor trader, back when there was such a thing as a floor, and over the years held a number of positions, ultimately working my way up to Chief Operating Officer of the bank’s global capital markets division. Throughout my time, I built a lot of businesses, which was why C21 and this opportunity was so interesting to me.

My involvement in the cannabis sector was a bit of an accident, but it’s turned into a passion. It actually found me. I was an investor in the C21 IPO. I sat down with management to understand the investment and given my experience, they asked if I would consider becoming a member the Board. Since joining the Board, my involvement has been primarily focused on strategy and the financing side of the business. While I certainly didn’t anticipate it, it’s turned into a 24/7 gig and a challenge I am thoroughly enjoying.

Bruce Macdonald, Chairman of C21 Investments

Aaron: Can you tell me about the history of C21 becoming a MSO? Did you start in one state?

Bruce: While this history predates my time at the company, my understanding is that as a Canadian company, we had first mover advantage to be able to access public funding and get established in the US cannabis space. As part of that, the team at that time reviewed approximately 100 different properties. Because we were based out of Vancouver, the focus was primarily the Western states like Washington, Oregon, Nevada and California. Arizona wasn’t in the game yet. The first transaction C21 did was in Oregon, with a company called Eco Firma. In all, there were four acquisitions in Oregon, and one in Nevada. In fact, it was the investment in Silver State (Nevada) that was by far the most meaningful. As far as our Oregon assets are concerned, we have worked hard to integrate and streamline them into an efficient operation.

So, when I joined the Board, we were just completing the paperwork on the acquisitions, and finalizing our strategy and business plan to go forward.

Aaron: Today there are a number of MSOs. How does this more crowded market impact your value proposition; how do you think about gaining and maintaining strategic advantage?

Bruce: It’s important first to start with strategy. From a strategic perspective, we had the advantage of being the first operator in Nevada with Silver State. Sonny Newman, our CEO, started the business back in 2013. We run a seed-to-sale business so we have a deep knowledge of all aspects of the operation and really know the Nevada market. In fact, 70% on a dollar volume basis of the 700 SKUs that we sell are products that we manufacture. It’s a critical piece of our strategic advantage.  

What I would say is our most important strategic advantage is the fact that C21 is a stable, self-sustaining operator. What I mean by that is we’re one of the few businesses that actually makes money. This is what really allows us to be strategic and disciplined in our approach to growth. For example, it’s been more than 18 months since we did our last capital raise and that’s by choice. Every decision we make is through the shareholder lens and focusing on delivering value to customers and shareholders.

Looking at our value proposition, simply put, it comes down to four things – the right products, at the right price, in the right location, with the right environment. Some people might call this motherhood, but there’s a lot of work that goes behind each of them. 

Great quality products, that’s table stakes. You have to be a top-notch grower and generate quality products that people demand if you want to build a loyal customer base. Right price – to some it sounds like just putting the right sticker on the package – it’s not. It’s all about making sure you are efficient in your operations because to be profitable, you have to be a low-cost producer to deliver on a lower price promise. Tons of work has gone into our operation around being a “right price” business. 

Right location is another important element of our value proposition. We wanted to build a loyal customer base which for us meant focusing more on locals than on tourists. This is why Sonny positioned the dispensaries on commuter paths.

The last key factor is having the right environment to sell our products. In Nevada, the company ended up building fit-for-purpose dispensaries rather than fitting ourselves in a strip mall. We cater to over 600,000 clients a year. Now we’re doing 10,000 curbside pickups a month. With that type of volume, logistically speaking you need ample parking, a well-lit exterior so people feel safe, and of course, great curb appeal. These factors are essential in maintaining a loyal customer base.

Aaron: Tell me more about Silver State Relief and why it has been so successful?

Bruce: I think what you’re really asking for is: what is Sonny’s secret sauce? There are a few ingredients that go into it. As I highlighted, it was a purposeful decision to build a business with a loyal customer base focused primarily on locals. That needs product, price, and convenience. Sonny lives in the Reno area, which is one of the main reasons Silver State is located up North.  

Critical to success has been the culture of the organization. Let’s start with the company being nimble and I’ll give you an example. The early days of the pandemic included the complete shutdown of dispensaries. We went from serving over 1500 customers a day in our stores to the next day being told that we could offer delivery only. Within a week, we were able to pivot and had lockboxes, regulatory approvals and a delivery capability. When you look at our Nevada operation, we ended up with just a 10% dip in our revenues for the quarter, even though we had to live through six weeks of delivery-only and then a phase of curbside-only.

Another key element of the culture is our laser focus on cost management. We’ve talked a little about cost management, but it’s absolutely critical, especially in the context of the high cost of capital that we see in this sector. Add to that the punitive tax impact of 280e where federal tax is applied to gross margins which means SG&A and interest are non-deductible expenses for tax purposes. So, to enhance our profitability, we are intent on having the lowest SG&A of the public cannabis companies. We’re also among the lowest in interest expense. That whole drive for efficiency has given us a formula and a mantra that has allowed us to have a stable business with significant cash flow. We get to make strategic decisions — not hasty or desperate ones — and focus on what’s good for the shareholder.

Aaron: How was C21 capitalized?

Bruce: We did a $33M raise on the RTO of a listed shell company. That was how C21 was established, and then signed contracts with the Oregon and Nevada properties.

Aaron: I recently saw a press release about expanding the Nevada cultivation. Can you give me some more details? 

Bruce: We announced that we are tripling our capacity within our existing 100,000 square foot warehouse facilities. We’re going to build out another 40,000 square feet, and we currently use 20,000. That’s the tripling. Expanding our cultivation was clearly the next logical step in our growth story. This should yield us an additional 7,500 pounds of high-quality flower. We can do this very cost effectively with about $6M in capex, and we anticipate funding the project internally. We will still leave another 40,000 square feet of expansion capacity as market needs justify.

This announcement was significant, but I don’t think it was fully understood by the market. Just to play with some numbers, 7,500 pounds of flower has a wholesale market value today of about $17M. It will cost us approximately $2M in incremental operating expense to add these additional grow rooms. We already pay the rent, so we just need to pay for the people, power, fertilizer and product testing. When you do the simple math, we see this as a big win for shareholders and extremely accretive on an after-tax basis. 

Historically, we always used to grow more than we needed, but with the increase in demand that’s going on in the market, we now run at a flower deficit. In the near term, this build-out will allow is to meet our current retail needs, with the balance that we will sell on the wholesale market. Ultimately, this positions us well on a seed-to-sale basis to support our plans to extend our retail footprint in Nevada. 

Aaron: It sounds like the decision was made based on both revenue growth and supply chain consolidation?

Bruce: Yes, and just the pure profitability of it! You can’t get a bigger, better bang for your buck from spending $6M to generate $17M with ongoing operating costs of $2M.

Aaron: The next question here is about the recent note restructuring and, and how the debentures was restructured. How’d that come about and what is the advantage now of having gone through that process? 

Bruce: This all fits into our medium-term growth strategy. For C21, the first thing we focused on was getting our house in order to ensure that we were efficient and profitable. We knew we needed to have a scalable machine to grow. The second step, which the debt restructuring relates to, was around fortifying our balance sheet. To support our growth plans, we needed to have a solid foundation.

Our balance sheet had two things that needed fixing. One was that we had an $18M obligation coming due to our CEO. The effect of the restructuring extended this obligation over the next 30 months at favorable terms. Additionally, $6.5M of convertible debentures were reaching maturity in January of 2021. And while the debentures were in the money and theoretically would convert to shares, we didn’t want to take the risk that our stock price could drift a bit and all of a sudden there could be significant cash required for redemptions. We’ve seen a lot of companies suffer significant unwanted dilution when their debentures get out of control. So, we approached Wasatch, Jason Wild’s JWAM and CB1 Capital, three seasoned investors, who provided a backstop whereby they would purchase any shares not taken up by people though the conversion of their debentures, so that we would be able to pay any debenture holders back cash with the money we would receive as the investors took shares. In exchange for providing this backstop, C21 gave them an upside participation in the form of warrants. I think it was absolutely critical to get this in place. And it’s phenomenal to have these three names in our corner. We couldn’t imagine better partners.

Aaron: So, what’s next for C21? 

Bruce: I hope you are getting the feeling that here at C21 our objective is to play the long game. That means we make measured decisions with the interest of shareholders top of mind. We’ve worked hard in 2020 to get our house in order, fortify our balance sheet, and generate significant cash flow. I think we’re clocking in at around $12M in trailing annual cash flow, which interestingly, is about the same number that Planet 13 is doing. That’s obviously a fantastic result for a company with $150M of market cap.

“We are working with urgency to break the back of these sector economics.”When we think about our medium-term growth strategy, we will continue to make our decisions through a cash flow and earnings lens rather than hype and flash. While we will remain opportunistic with respect to strategic alternatives, the core of our expansion is going to focus on where we already have a proven track record: Nevada. We’re big believers that to achieve long term success, you have to own your home market. And what I mean by that is today we’re about 5% of the Nevada market. Owning your home market looks more like a 15% share. That is our focus. I think we’ve shown that our disciplined approach delivers results – results such as having top five metrics in Net Income, Cash Flow and EBITDA Margin, across the range of public companies that we can see.

I think it’s key we’re getting noticed. We talked about the strategic investors, but we’re also one of the 17 plant-touching companies that’s in the MSOS ETF. So, we’re going to follow our clear growth trajectory, focused on the bottom line and delivering for shareholders. If you look under the hood right now, you see a 10% cash flowing company, which is a pretty rare bird in our industry. We’re excited about where we are.

One thing I haven’t touched on in great detail is our plans for expanding our retail footprint. How do you grow in the dispensary space? Aaron, I think what’s key here is looking at the expected return relative to the cost of capital. For example, if you targeted buying a dispensary with $20M in revenues, and are able as we are, to generate 25% in after-tax cash based on those revenues, then once optimized, it would generate $5M in earnings. An asset like this is going to trade at roughly one and a half times revenues. So, you’re going to have to pay $30M. For the people that have been going out and borrowing money at 15%, their annual cost would be $4.5M. We’re not going to give four and a half to the moneylenders, it just doesn’t make sense for shareholders. We are working with urgency to break the back of these sector economics. It is something we believe will be afforded to companies with stable earnings and profitability such as ours. Of course, no deal’s a deal until it’s on the tape, but we are very hopeful that we have cracked the code ahead of SAFE Banking to get capital costs down. This is just a little bit of an inside look into our thought processes.   

Aaron: Okay, awesome. All right. That concludes the interview.

Leaders in Infused Products Manufacturing: Part 4

By Aaron Green
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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.

Stephanie Gorecki, Vice President of Product Development at Cresco Labs

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!

Leaders in Infused Products Manufacturing: Part 2

By Aaron Green
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Editor’s Note: Part 3 will be an interview with Liz Conway, Regional President of Florida at Parallel. In part 4 we’ll sit down with Stephanie Gorecki, vice president of product development at Cresco Labs. 


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 second article in a series where we interview leaders in the national infused products market. You can find the first piece here. In this second piece, we talk with Mike Hennesy, vice president of innovation at Wana Brands. Mike started with Wana in 2014 after moving to Colorado and leveraged his science background to transition into product development and innovation where he has helped develop one of the best-known brands in Colorado.

Next week, we’ll sit down with Liz Conway, Regional President of Florida at Parallel. Stay tuned for more!

Aaron Green: Thank you for taking the time today. Just to start off, can you walk me through how you got involved at Wana Brands?

Mike Hennesy: Thanks Aaron. I got involved in the cannabis industry pretty intentionally. After graduating college in 2012, I was determined to get involved. I moved to Colorado from the east coast. I’m originally from Virginia. I moved out here in 2013 and started with Wana in 2014.

Mike Hennesy, Vice President of innovation at Wana Brands

I got involved in the sales side of the business originally – as the company was just starting to emerge into the legal recreational market – and oversaw growth here at Wana during significant changes in the industry. Over time, my role transitioned into innovation and R&D where I am leaning on my background in science.

I now lead new product development and education as Vice President of Innovation, and I’m also completing a master’s degree in cannabis science and therapeutics.

Aaron: So, what does innovation mean to you?

Mike: Innovation for the cannabis industry is pretty unique and interesting. We are just beginning to unpack the pharmacopeia of the cannabis plant as well as starting to understand our own bodies endocannabinoid system.

Innovation spans from genetics of plants and how they are grown to how you deliver cannabinoids to the body and what different ratios and blends of cannabinoids and terpenes you are actually putting in there. So, innovation is not a one size fits all category for cannabis.

Aaron: Sounds like an interesting role! At Wana Brands, and in your role in innovation, how do you think about differentiating in the market with your products?

Mike: I would describe the way we perceive differentiation as going beyond simple developments, such as product forms or new flavors. We see the future of product development trending towards what active ingredients and in what ratios we are putting into products. For example, what kinds of cannabinoids and terpenes are we using? What kinds of drug delivery systems might we be harnessing? How do we put all of these ingredients and technologies into a product to make it more effective?

A simple way to think about all of this is: how is our product going to work better for the consumer? Because that is really the key here. Tasting great is important, but we are delivering a product that provides an experience. We want to continue to make a better experience and a better way for customers to enhance their life.

Aaron: I think that leads nicely into our next question, which is, when you’re thinking about creating a new product for the consumer, what’s your process for creating a new product?

Mike: We have a very full pipeline of new products, and many of these ideas come from networking and speaking with innovators and following the research and science for inspiration and direction. We take this information and start brainstorming as a team. We have a decade of experience in the cannabis space that provides us with a unique lens on how we apply new research to our product development.

From there, we build a product development pipeline of potential ideas and start to prioritize, looking at the feasibility of each of these ideas and their market readiness. Sometimes we have a great idea for a product, but a lack of consumer knowledge may mean we don’t move forward with launching.

Aaron: Can you expand a bit on what you mean by education and how you guys think about education to the end consumer?

Mike: Since product innovation must move with consumer knowledge and cannabis is so new, education is critical. We have a very robust education platform with topics that range from cannabis 101 to the endocannabinoid system, to lessons on terpenes and CBD, as well as trainings on our products themselves. We have both bud tender-facing and consumer-facing trainings. The consumer trainings are on our website, and bud tender trainings are hosted through dispensaries.

Aaron: Is that training electronic training or written material?

Mike: Both, but the primary platform is online in the form of interactive training courses. We also have printed flip book training material in dispensaries and offer in-person presentations, but with the pandemic, we’ve been heavily leaning on the online training content.

Aaron: Alright. So, we’re going to take a different direction here on questions. From your perspective, at the innovation level, can you walk me through your experience with your most recent product launch?

Mike: Most recently, we launched the line of Wana Quick Fast-Acting Gummies. I am extremely excited and proud of this line. They have absolutely exploded in popularity!

The idea for these products started a few years ago as we were learning cannabinoids are not very bioavailable. This means most of the cannabinoids that you consume from an edible do not end up in the bloodstream. Edibles also have a delayed onset and undergo a conversion of THC in the liver, called first pass metabolism, that gives a heavier sedating high. This slow onset and difference in effects with edibles can be a turn off for some consumers, leading us to the idea of developing a fast acting gummie that works differently.

It was about two years of research looking at technologies developed by pharma and nutraceutical companies to improve bioavailability and bypass first pass metabolism. We started looking into nano-emulsions and encapsulation of cannabinoids that help with bioavailability and reduce the onset time. These technologies envelop the cannabinoids like a disguise that tricks the body into absorbing the oily compounds more easily. The encapsulation bypasses the liver and is absorbed into the bloodstream quickly, so their effect starts within five to fifteen minutes. Since they are not processed in the liver, they deliver delta-9 THC instead of 11-hydroxy-THC, giving an effect I describe as a “smoker’s high.”

We trialed and tweaked many technologies before we landed on one that is truly effective and worked with our line of gummies. With this revolutionary technology inside, we then crafted delicious flavors and a new triangular shape to differentiate them from our classic gummies. Because they take effect so quickly and only last about three hours, we thought the Quick Fast-Acting Gummies were the perfect product to use during happy hour. So, we have Happy Hour inspired flavors like Pina Colada, Strawberry Margarita and Peach Bellini.

We launched in March, and already right now, these SKUs in Colorado are #4, #7 and #11 out of all edibles sold in Colorado. And overall, Wana produces eight out of the ten top SKUs in Colorado. That’s according to BDSA, so a pretty impressive achievement!

Aaron: Okay, great, I’d say so! The next question here goes deeper in the supply chain. How do you go about sourcing for the ingredients?

Mike: I am going to start with the cannabis side of things. As I mentioned earlier, cannabis is unique. It is not just one ingredient. It’s many different compounds like the cannabinoids THC, CBD and others, but also terpenes and other beneficial compounds. To make the most effective edibles we partner with growers that care about their genetics, how they are growing, and how they are extracting to create high quality cannabis extracts.

We also understand terpenes are so important in the entourage effect, and that different terpene blends synergize with cannabinoids to produce different effects. Some can be energizing while others are more relaxing. Wana has innovated the terpenes we use by formulating proprietary blends of thirty terpenes or more that replicate indica, sativa and hybrid strains.

We did this by strain hunting the best cannabis in each class and analyzing the strains to understand their profiles. Then using organic, botanically derived terpenes, we build blends in the ratios they are found in the plant and reintroduce them into our edibles. This means Wana edibles match the terpenes that you will find in cannabis, unlike other products that just use distillates where the terpenes are degraded and lost in extraction. This also means we can replicate these blends with our partners in other states, so when you consume a Wana indica or sativa product you’re going to have the same terpene blends and the same experience and feeling every time.

Beyond cannabis and terpenes, we are extremely selective in all of our ingredients. And in the near future we’re implementing an optimized recipe that is all-natural, with no high-fructose corn syrup, as well as moving towards organic ingredient sourcing.

Aaron: Can you give me an example in your role of a challenge that you run into frequently?

Mike: I think that is the exciting thing about working in R&D and new products: there is always a new challenge. I guess I would say if you are not making mistakes, you are not really trying to push the envelope in product development.

We are working with plant matter, terpenes and encapsulation technologies, things that don’t always taste good, and putting them all into edibles. That means we frequently run into the challenge of figuring out how to put the right ingredients for effect in a product, but still make it taste delicious. We are very selective in what ingredients we use and how we’re introducing them to make sure the product still tastes good. We oftentimes come across a great technology—such as a terpene blend or a quick onset delivery system—that does the job, but is not optimal for a gummie recipe, such as the resulting consistency or taste.“These developments are all heading in the direction of delivering consistent repeatable experiences for consumers, which is what I see as the future of cannabis.”

Aaron: Would it be correct to say that formulation is a common thing you run up against in terms of challenges?

Mike: Yes, especially because a lot of the ingredients and technologies we are working with are new. There isn’t a guidebook for how to incorporate encapsulated cannabinoids into a gummy, for example.

That’s the novel aspect of a lot of this: how do you take a terpene blend that’s designed to mimic the cannabis plant and put it in your gummies? What’s the right way to introduce it so they’re not degraded by heat? Formulating with cannabis is about problem solving, and is the backbone to what we do in R&D

Aaron: We’re getting towards the end of the conversation here. And these questions are more geared towards you individually. So, what trends are you following in the industry right now?

Mike: I’ve got to have my eyes on a lot of things. That’s how you innovate in this industry!

I would say No. 1 is still terpenes. We are already innovating there, but I think we’re just scratching the surface of where we’re going to go. I think terpenes are going to unlock a lot of potential in cannabis products in the future, and Wana is going to be innovating there, leading the pack.

Next is minor cannabinoids. Through decades of an illicit black-market, the genetics have skewed towards high THC strains, but the cannabis genome actually allows for many other cannabinoids to be formed. Through the right cultivation and breeding programs, we are going to see a lot more CBG, CBN, CBC, and even more rare cannabinoids like THCV and others.  These currently rare cannabinoids are going to be important for new product development as we learn more about their therapeutic effects.

Then there is continued innovation on delivery systems and bioavailability, functional ingredient blends and more natural products. These developments are all heading in the direction of delivering consistent repeatable experiences for consumers, which is what I see as the future of cannabis.

Aaron: Awesome. What are you interested in learning more about? This could be cannabis related or business related.

Mike: Well, fortunately, I am working on a master’s degree right now and so I get to learn a lot every day. I am most curious to see where science takes us with the endocannabinoid system. It was pretty much unheard of until a few decades ago, and now we understand that it interacts with almost every other system in the body. It is like missing the elephant in the room when you are talking about human biology. The amount of information that we’re going to unlock about how the ECS interacts and regulates our body is going to continue to revolutionize the industry There’s a lot more to be understood around how different compounds interact with the ECS and affect us, and I think we are going to learn how we can use it to tailor other products for  outcomes such as sleep, pain, anxiety, energy and focus.

Aaron: Just a clarification there. What are you working on for your master’s?

Mike: I’m getting a Master’s in Medical Cannabis Science and Therapeutics from the School of Pharmacy at the University of Maryland. It is the very first master’s level program of its kind, and is taught by doctors and pharmacists, so we discuss cannabis as a drug and how it effects the brain and the body. It has been really exciting and I’m looking forward to continuing learning more about this amazing plant!

Aaron: Okay, that concludes our interview!