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Smart Plants: A Q&A with Jonathan Vaught, CEO and Co-Founder of Front Range Biosciences

By Aaron Green
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Plant genetics are an important consideration for cultivators planning to grow cannabis crops. Genetics can affect how well a plant grows in a particular environment under various conditions and have a major impact on the production of cannabinoids, terpenes as well as other molecules and traits expressed by the plant.

Front Range Biosciences is a hemp and cannabis genetics platform company, leveraging proprietary next generation breeding and Clean Stock® tissue culture nursery technologies to develop new varieties for a broad range of product applications in the hemp and cannabis industries. FRB has global reach through facilities in Colorado, California and Wisconsin, and a partnership with the Center for Research in Agricultural Genomics in Barcelona, Spain. FRB is headquartered in Lafayette, Colorado.

We spoke with Jonathan Vaught, Ph.D., CEO and co-founder of Front Range Biosciences. Jonathan co-founded Front Range in 2015 after a successful career in the diagnostics and food testing industries.

Aaron Green: Jon, thank you for taking the time today. I saw in the news you recently sent tissue cultures to the International Space Station? I’d love to learn more about that!

Hemp tissue culture samples like these sat in an incubator aboard the ISS

Jonathan Vaught: This was a collaborative project between the BioServe group at the University of Colorado Boulder, which is a part of their aerospace engineering program. They do research on the International Space Station, and they have for quite some time. We partnered with them and another company, Space Technology Holdings, a group that’s working on applications of space travel and space research. We teamed up to send tissue culture samples to the space station and let them sit in zero gravity at the space station for about a month, and then go through the reentry process and come back to Earth. We brought them back in the lab to perform some genomic analyses and try to understand if there’s any underlying genetic changes in terms of the plants being in that environment. We wanted to know if there was anything interesting that we could learn by putting these plant stem cells and tissue cultures in an extreme environment to look for stress response, and some other possible changes that might occur to the plants by going through those conditions.

Aaron: That’s an interesting project! Are there any trends that you’re following in the industry?

Jon: We’re excited to see ongoing legalization efforts around the world. We’ve seen continued progress here in the United States. We still have a long way to go, but we’re excited to see the additional markets coming onboard and regulations moving in the right direction. Also, we’re excited to see some of the restorative justice programs that have come out.

Aaron: How did you get involved at Front Range Biosciences?

Jon: It really starts with my background and what I was doing before Front Range Biosciences. I’ve spent more than 15 years developing commercializing technologies in human diagnostics, food safety and now agriculture.

Jonathan Vaught, Ph.D., CEO and co-founder of Front Range Biosciences

I started my career during graduate school in biotech at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where I helped develop some of the core technology for a human diagnostic startup company called Somalogic here in Colorado. I went to work for them after finishing my dissertation work and spent about six years there helping them grow that company. We ended up building the world’s largest protein biomarker discovery platform primarily serving pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and doctors, with personalized medicine and lab tests for things like early detection of chronic illness, cancer, heart disease and inflammation.

I then went to another startup company called Beacon Biotech, that was interested in food safety. There I helped develop some similar technologies for detecting food-borne illness — things like salmonella, listeria and E. coli. That was my introduction to big food and big agriculture. From there, I went to help start another company called Velocity Science that was also in the human diagnostic space.

Along the way, I started a 501(c)3 nonprofit called Mountain Flower Goat Dairy, a dairy and educational non-profit that had a community milk-share, which included summer camps and workshops for people to learn about local and sustainable agriculture. I became more and more interested in agriculture and decided to take my career in that path and that’s really what set me up to start Front Range Biosciences.

Aaron: Do you have any co-founders?

Jon: I have two other co-founders. They both played various roles over the last four years. One was another scientist, Chris Zalewski, PhD. He currently works in the R&D department and helps oversee several different parts of the company including pathology and product development. My other co-founder, Nick Hofmeister served as chief strategic officer for the last few years, and has helped raise the majority of our funding. We’ve raised over $45 million dollars, and he played a big role in that.

Aaron: What makes you different from other cannabis seed companies?

John: We’ve built the first true cannabis genetics platform. What I mean by that is we built a platform that allows us to develop and produce new plant varieties that support both the hemp and the cannabis markets. To us, it’s all cannabis. Hemp and cannabis are scientifically the same plant. They just have different regulatory environments, different products and different markets, but we stay focused on the plant. Our platform is built on several different pillars. Genetics are one of the core pieces, and by genetics I mean, everything from molecular based breeding to marker assisted breeding to large germplasm collections. We collect different varieties of germplasm, or seed, from all over the world and use those to mix and match and breed for specific traits. We also have large nursery programs. Another one of our pillars of the platform includes greenhouse nursery production — everything from flowering cannabis plants to producing cannabis seeds to cloning and producing mother plants and rooted cuttings or clones.

Then tissue culture is another part of the platform, it’s basically the laboratory version of a greenhouse nursery. It’s housed in a sterile environment and allows us to produce plants that are clean and healthy. It’s a much more effective, modern way to manage the nursery. It’s part of our clean stock program, where we start clean, stay clean, and you can finish clean. It’s really built on all of those different pieces.

We also have capabilities in analytical chemistry and pathology, that allow us to better understand what drives performance and the plants, and both different regions as well as different cannabinoid products or terpene products. All of the science and capabilities of the platform are what allow us to create new varieties faster, better, stronger.

Aaron: It sounds like you’re vertically integrated on the front-end of cannabis cultivation.

Jon: Absolutely, that’s a great way to think about it.

The last piece I’d say is that we have areas of research and development that cover the full span of multiple product lines. We think about it from an ingredient perspective. Cannabinoids and terpenes are certainly what drive a large part of the cannabis market in terms of edibles, smokable flower, vapes and extracts and the different effects and flavors that you get. We also are looking at other ingredients, like plant-based protein and hemp as a viable protein source and the ability for hemp to produce valuable fiber for textiles, as well as industrial building materials and applications.

Lastly, there are additional small molecules that we’re working on as well from a food ingredients perspective. There are all kinds of interesting compounds. Everybody talks about the cannabinoids and terpenes, but there are also things like flavonoids, and some other very interesting chemistries that we’re working on as well.

Aaron: What geographies are you currently in?

Jon: Colorado and California primarily and we have a small R&D partnership in Barcelona.

Hemp clones and seeds is a big part of the Front Range Biosciences business

Aaron: Do you have plans for expansion beyond that?

Jon: Our current headquarters are out of Colorado, and most of our Colorado operations right now are all hemp. Our hemp business is national and international.

We work with a licensed cannabis nursery partner in California which is our primary focus for that market, but we will be expanding the cannabis genetics and nursery program into Colorado next year. From a regulated cannabis perspective, that’s the first move. Beyond that, we’re in conversations with some of the multi-state operators and cannabis brands that are emerging to talk about how to leverage our technology and our genetics platform across some of the other markets.

Aaron: How do you think about genetics in your products?

Jon: Genetics means a lot of things to different folks depending on your vantage point and where you sit in the supply chain. Our business model is based on selling plants and seeds. At the end of the day, we don’t develop oils, extracts and products specifically, but we develop the genetics behind those products.

For us, it’s not only about developing genetics that have the unique qualities or ingredients that a product company might want like CBD, or other minor cannabinoids like THCV for example, but also about making sure that those plants can be produced efficiently and effectively. The first step is to introduce the ingredient to the product. Then the second step is to make sure that growers can grow and produce the plant. That way they can stabilize their supply chain for their product line. Whether it’s for a smokable flower product, or a vape product, or an edible product, it’s really important to make sure that they can reproduce it. That’s really how we think about genetics.

Aaron: What is a smart plant? That’s something I saw on your website.

Jon: It’s really about plants that perform under specific growing regions, or growing conditions. For example, in hemp, it’s one thing to produce CBD or CBG. It’s another thing to be able to produce it efficiently in five different microclimates around the U.S. Growing hemp in Florida or Alabama down on the Gulf Coast versus growing on the Pacific Northwest coast of Washington, or Oregon are two very different growing conditions that require smart plants. Meaning they can grow and thrive in each of those conditions and still produce the intended product. Generally, the different regions don’t overlap. The genetics that you would grow in Pacific Northwest are not going to do as well as some better selected varieties for the South East.

It’s not only different outdoor growing regions, but it’s different production styles too. When you think about regulated cannabis the difference between outdoor and indoor greenhouse is mixed light production. Even with hydroponic type growing methods, there are lots of different ways to grow and produce this plant and it’s not a one size fits all. It’s really about plants that perform well, whether it’s different regions in the United States in outdoor production or different indoor greenhouses with mixed lights and production methods.

Aaron: You market CBG hemp as a product line. What made you start with CBG? Is that a pull from the market or something you guys see trending?

Jon: So I think it’s a little bit of both. We offer CBD dominant varieties and CBG dominant varieties of hemp. We also now have other cannabinoids in the pipeline that we’ll be putting out in different varieties next year. Things like CBC as well as varins, or propyl cannabinoids. Also things like CBDV, CBCV, or CBGV, which are the propylcannabinoid versions of the more familiar compounds.

Their nursery services include breeding, propagation and production of cannabis

There was a lot of market demand for CBG. It was a fairly easy cannabinoid to produce as a single dominant cannabinoid similar to CBD or THC. There’s a lot of up-and-coming demand for some of the other minor cannabinoids. Up until a few years ago, CBD was considered a minor cannabinoid. It wasn’t until Charlotte’s Web in the Sanjay Gupta story that it became a major cannabinoid. So I think we see some level of market pull across the category.

On the flip side of that, we have one of the world’s largest R&D teams and consolidated expertise in terms of cannabis. We see the potential for minor cannabinoids, and even terpenes and other compounds like flavonoids to have wide ranging implications in human health. Everything from wellness products, to active pharmaceutical ingredients, to recreational products. From our perspective, that’s the reason why we’re pushing these ingredients. We believe that there are a lot of good products that come out of this work and the genetics that produce these minor cannabinoids.

Aaron: Okay, great. And then last question, is there anything you’re interested in learning more about?

Jon: I think the most exciting thing for me, given my background in clinical diagnostics and human health, is to see more data around how all of these different compounds of the plant can support improved wellness, health and nutrition. I think we’ve only scratched the tip of the iceberg. This type of research and data collection takes years, even decades, especially to see outcomes over time of people using these products. I’m really excited to see more of that and also hopefully be able to make stronger conclusions about some of the benefits that can be had from this plant.

Aaron: That’s the end of the interview, thanks Jon!

Communications in Cannabis: The Playbook for Branding Success

By Trisha Larocchia
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Public relations has a role to play in every industry, providing value for companies looking to promote their services, announce a recent fund raise or want to plant a flag in their domain as a leader or subject matter expert. Some industries, however, are writing a new playbook for the way PR is done. The cannabis space is a prime example of how PR can – and has – evolved in such a short amount of time. This industry has been a part of N6A’s DNA since 2017 when we created a cannabis-specific client service group. Since then we’ve seen the ups and downs, rapid changes and overall growth in an industry that, at the time, very few took seriously. We knew the potential was there, but we couldn’t be prepared for how foreign this would be compared to our other specialties like tech, cybersecurity and professional services.

We had to forget what we knew as media professionals and develop new plays and strategies for an industry in its infancy – all while bearing in mind the plant’s polarizing past and ambiguous future. With so many lessons learned about the way the cannabis and communications industries operate together, here are just a few key takeaways that have shaped our approach and operations in the marketplace.

Build Relationships Across the Board 

It’s often said “it’s not what you know, but who you know,” and in cannabis this couldn’t be more true. While the industry is growing rapidly, it’s still considered a tight-knit community where everyone talks to each other, and leaders lean on one another for expertise and guidance. A competitive nature is inherent in any business environment, but what I’ve noticed about those working in cannabis is that everyone is striving for the same goal: to further legitimize an industry plagued with stigma. Whether it’s developing media contacts or a new business prospect, the foundation lies in building relationships with the key players in the space.

This dispensary ad appeared on Variety.com

From a PR perspective, this includes working closely with the reporters dedicated to the cannabis beat, whether they write for a trade or mainstream publication. Journalists are shifting between jobs faster than ever before, and this beat favors industry veterans. One day your “friendly” at an obscure cannabis outlet will suddenly be spearheading coverage at The New York Times, Rolling Stone or other iconic publications. For the sake of clients and their desired business outcomes, communications professionals should foster ongoing conversations with any reporter interested in covering cannabis; you never know where it could lead.

Understand the Limitations 

Both public relations and advertising have proven to be instrumental in normalizing cannabis businesses within the mainstream media. However, communication in the space can be a compliance minefield due to strict state and federal regulations. While the industry’s growth is nothing short of explosive, opportunities for advertising are extremely limited as the largest digital platforms such as Facebook and Instagram have banned cannabis ads, forcing companies to look for other options.

Paid media has its time and place in every industry, but with so much red tape in cannabis advertising, it provides an opportunity for earned media to take the stage. Aside from a few key trades we all know well, journalists across business, lifestyle, finance and retail verticals are covering the space. Depending on what a business is looking to gain from PR, these initiatives are a great way to get directly in front of the audiences they want to reach without the risk of violating certain advertising guidelines. Companies that are ancillary, and therefore not selling a particular cannabis product, also have a bit more flexibility when it comes to advertising, especially on social media channels. As the industry sophisticates, the demographic of consumers does as well.

Evolve with the Industry 

The cannabis marketplace as it stands today is vastly different than when we began to service clients years ago. For decades, this industry operated in the shadows and outside of the law, but as legalization spreads across the globe, the way that businesses position and talk about their brand has had to change.

Gone are the days of reefer madness as consumers begin to see cannabis as medicine or a wellness supplement. With this comes a significant reduction in the use of words such as “weed,” “stoner,” and even “marijuana,” while words like “cannabis,” “medicinal” and “patients” step into the forefront. Both communications professionals and businesses must be hyper-aware of the verbiage we use if we want to professionalize the industry and fuel worldwide adoption.

As the industry sophisticates, the demographic of consumers does as well. What was once reserved for a younger, male population has now been growing in popularity amongst women, baby boomers, and the elderly. Cannabis businesses are now forced to diversify their messaging to appeal to the masses which often includes taking a minimalistic approach to branding and packaging.

Consumers are no longer looking for the lowest prices, but a brand that they know and trust. Recognition, whether it be locally or nationally, can be gained through a strong communication plan and will become increasingly imperative for long-term success.

Biros' Blog

Ground Control to Major Tom: Sending Hemp to Space

By Aaron G. Biros
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In March of this year, SpaceX CRS-20 cargo flight will carry tissue culture samples of hemp and coffee to the International Space Station (ISS). Floating in a most peculiar way, the stars look very different, that is, the day those hemp samples enter orbit.

Hemp tissue culture samples like these will sit in an incubator aboard the ISS come March

Front Range Biosciences (FRB) is partnering with Space Cells and the University of Colorado, Boulder, on an experiment to “examine zero gravity’s effects on the plants’ metabolic pathways,” according to a press release. FRB will provide the plant cultures, while Space Cells provides funding and intelligence, using the dedicated space aboard the ISS for Boulder’s program. The university will also train NASA astronauts how to transfer cells to an incubator and conduct the experiment.

More than 480 plant cell cultures are going to be placed in an incubator designed for space, which will regulate temperature among other variables for about 30 days aboard the ISS. There will be a “PlantCam” where folks at Boulder can monitor the cells from their command center. After those 30 days are over, the plants will return to earth where FRB researchers will inspect the samples and “evaluate their DNA to determine if microgravity and space radiation exposure altered their gene expression.”

Dr. Jon Vaught headshot
Dr. Jon Vaught, CEO of Front Range Biosciences

According to Dr. Jonathan Vaught, co-founder and CEO of Front Range Biosciences, the research results could help scientists identify new varieties or chemical expressions in the plant that were previously misunderstood. “This is the first time anyone is researching the effects of microgravity and spaceflight on hemp and coffee cell cultures,” says Dr. Vaught. “There is science to support the theory that plants in space experience mutations. This is an opportunity to see whether those mutations hold up once brought back to earth and if there are new commercial applications.”

Peter McCullagh, founder and managing partner of Space Cells, says the commercial applications for this experiment have a lot of potential. Learning how crops can thrive in a harsh environment could give researchers important information on how to deal with the effects of climate change on agriculture around the world. “We’ve been fortunate to be a leader in the new space industry and we’re excited to explore this new frontier with the team at Front Range Biosciences and University of Colorado, Boulder,” says McCullagh. “These are big ideas we’re pursuing and there’s a massive opportunity to bring to market new chemotypes, as well as plants that can better adapt to drought and cold conditions.”

This won’t be the only experiment either – the partnership wants to conduct a number of experiments that will study how to boost productivity and viability for crops in space. “We envision this to be the first of many experiments together,” says Louis Stodieck, director of BioServe Space Technologies at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “In the future, we plan for the crew to harvest and preserve the plants at different points in their grow-cycle so we can analyze which metabolic pathways are turned on and turned off. This is a fascinating area of study that has considerable potential.”

Hemp tissue cultures floating in a tin can, far above the world and all in the name of science and to determine if microgravity and space radiation exposure can alter gene expressions. No we’ve really made the grade.

Strengthen Supply Chain Management with an Integrated ERP & CMS

By Daniel Erickson
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Success in the cannabis industry is driven by a company’s ability to adapt to an ever-changing market and meet the demands of the evolving consumer. Selecting the right business management solution to handle the complexities of the growing cycle as well as daily operations and compliance requirements necessitates diligent research. Ensuring that the selected technology solution has a centralized database in a secure platform designed to reinforce quality throughout company operations is essential in today’s competitive industry. An ERP solution with integrated CMS capabilities helps businesses strengthen supply chain management by seamlessly incorporating cannabis cultivation with day-to-day company operations to efficiently deliver seed to sale capabilities and meet marketplace demands.

What are ERP & CMS?

Enterprise resource planning (ERP) is a business system in which all data is centralized – including finances, human resources, quality, manufacturing, inventory, sales and reporting. A cultivation management system (CMS) is an extension of an ERP solution to manage cannabis greenhouse operations, including growing, inventory and labor needs. A CMS maintains a detailed level of tracking to account for continuous cannabis growth periods that require extensive monitoring and incur a multitude of expenses. In an integrated solution, both the ERP and CMS data are managed under the same secure database to provide a forward and backward audit trail of all business processes. This visibility encompasses the entire supply chain from the management of supplier relationships to distribution – including growing, cultivating, extracting, manufacturing and shipping.

How do ERP & CMS strengthen supply chain processes?

Tracks individual plants and growth stages – By tracking plant inventories at the individual plant level in real-time with a unique plant identifier, greenhouse operations are optimized – monitoring the entire lifecycle of the plant throughout the germination, seedling, vegetative and flowering stages. Audit trails maintain regulatory compliance, including information such as terpene profiles and THC and CBD potency. Monitoring genealogy, mother and cloning, crossbreeding, plant genetics and clone propagation are key to success in this industry. Strain tracking is equally important, including identifying which strains are performing best, producing the most yield and how they are received by the marketplace. Tracking of the entire supply chain includes the recording of plant health, harvesting techniques, production, growth, costs, lab testing and batch yields – without any gaps in information.

PlantTag
A plant tagged with a barcode and date for tracking

Optimizes growing conditions to increase yields – By automatically documenting and analyzing data, insights into plant and greenhouse activities create streamlined processes for an optimal cannabis cultivation environment. This includes the monitoring of all growing activities such as space, climate, light cycles, moisture content, nutrient applications, fertilizer and other resources, which all have an effect on plant growth and yields. Most importantly, labor costs are monitored, as it is the highest expense incurred by growers. In an industry for which many companies have limited budgets, enabling efficient greenhouse planning, automation and workflows reduces overhead costs.

Integrates with regulatory compliance systems – Compliance is a mandatory part of the cannabis business, and many companies haven’t expended the effort to ensure their processes are meeting regulations. This has placed their licensing and business at risk. An integration that automates the transfer of required reporting information from the ERP to state government approved software such as METRC, Biotrack THC and Leaf Data Systems to ensure regulatory compliance is imperative. This streamlined process assures that reporting is accurate, timely and meets changing requirements in this complex industry.

Facilitates safety and quality control – With an ERP solution tracking all aspects of growing, manufacturing, packaging, distribution and sales, safety and quality are effectively secured throughout the supply chain. Despite the lack of federal legality and regulatory guidelines, proactive cannabis producers can utilize an ERP’s automated processes and best practices to ensure safe and consistent products. By standardizing and documenting food safety procedures, manufacturers mitigate the risk of cannabis-specific concerns (such as aflatoxins, plant pesticide residue, pest contamination and inconsistent levels of THC/CBD potency) as well as dangers common to traditional food manufacturers (such as improper employee procedures and training) for those in the edibles marketplace. Food safety initiatives and quality control measures documented within the ERP strengthen the entire supply chain.

Maintains recipes and formulations – In manufacturing, to achieve product consistency in regards to taste, texture, appearance, potency and expected results, complex recipe and formula management is a necessity – including monitoring of THC and CBD percentages. The calculation of specific nutritional values to provide accurate labeling and product packaging provides necessary information for consumers. Cannabis businesses have to evolve with the consumer buying habits and marketplace saturation by getting creative with their product offerings. With integrated R&D functionality, the expansion of new and innovative edibles, beverages and forms of delivery, as well as new extractions, tinctures, concentrates and other derivatives, helps to meet consumer demands.

Handles inventory efficiently – Established inventory control measures such as tracking stock levels, expiration dates and product loss are effectively managed in an ERP solution across multiple warehouses and locations. Cannabis manufacturers are able to maintain raw material and product levels, reduce waste, facilitate rotation methods and avoid overproduction to control costs. With the use of plant tag IDs and serial and lot numbers with forward and backward traceability, barcode scanning automatically links product information to batch tickets, shipping documents and labels – providing the ability to locate goods quickly in the supply chain if necessary in the event of contamination or recall. The real-time and integrated information available helps mitigate the risk of unsafe products entering the marketplace.

Food processing and sanitation
By standardizing and documenting food safety procedures, manufacturers mitigate the risk of cannabis-specific concerns

Utilizes user-based software permissions – Access to data and ability to execute transactions throughout the growing stages, production and distribution are restricted to designated employees with proper authorization – ensuring security and accountability throughout the inventory chain.

Manages supplier approvals – Assurance of safety is enhanced with the maintenance of detailed supplier information lists with test results to meet in-house quality and product standards. Quality control testing ensures that critical control points are monitored and only approved materials and finished products are released – keeping undeclared substances, harmful chemicals and impure ingredients from infiltrating the supply chain. When standards are not met, the system alerts stakeholders and alternate vendors can be sought.

Delivers recall preparedness – As part of an edible company’s food safety plan, recall plans that include the practice of performing mock recalls ensures that cannabis businesses are implementing food safety procedures within their facilities. With seed to sale traceability in an ERP solution, mitigating the risk of inconsistent, unsafe or contaminated products is readily maintained. Integrated data from the CMS solution provides greater insight into contamination issues in the growth stages.

An ERP solution developed for the cannabis industry with supporting CMS functionality embodies the inventory and quality-driven system that growers, processors, manufacturers and distributors seek to strengthen supply chain management. Offering a centralized, secure database, seed to sale traceability, integration to compliance systems, in-application quality and inventory control, formula and recipe management functionality and the ability to conduct mock recalls, these robust business management solutions meet the needs of a demanding industry. With a variety of additional features designed to enhance processes in all aspects of your cannabis operation the solution provides a framework to deliver truly supportive supply chain management capabilities.