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Heat-Not-Burn: A Q&A with Mike Simpson, CEO and Co-Founder of Omura

By Aaron Green
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Heat-not-burn is a non-combustion technology consisting of a heating source and either an oven that the user packs cannabis into or a stick pre-filled with cannabis. The cannabis is heated to a lower temperature than a combusted joint or bowl to create an aerosol that the user inhales. Heat-not-burn in this way is distinct from traditional vaping where a liquid or oil is heated to become a vapor and inhaled.

Omura is a design company that has developed a platform product for the heat-not-burn market.

We spoke with Mike Simpson, CEO and co-founder of Omura. Mike co-founded Omura in 2018 after an international design career where he spent much of his time in Japan working with consumer products.

Aaron Green: Mike, what trends are you following in the market?

Mike Simpson: I’m always tracking trends in the heat-not-burn space. Because of my background, I know that the tobacco industry inspires a lot of the technology in the cannabis space. If you look at all the vape pens, that technology was initially developed for big tobacco, which then later was adopted by cannabis. I’m always looking to stay educated on what’s happening in the tobacco industry, as I know it’s directly tied to my work in cannabis.

I’m also looking at what’s happening all over the world with legislation. I’ve been studying it for years, but this past year has been phenomenal. Seeing five new states go to some level of legalization, the federal law and new states legalizing cannabis in the 2020 Election. I believe the Biden/Harris victory will have a major impact on the industry, however we still have to see what happens with the Senate. These next couple of years are going to be very interesting to see how things shape out for cannabis.

Aaron: What are you personally interested in learning more about?

Mike Simpson, CEO and co-founder of Omura

Mike: I am interested in learning how the world is going to behave next year with this new life that’s been thrusted upon us. How effective is the new vaccine going to be? How are people going to retrospectively look at this year, and the lifestyle that they used to have before going into COVID? How much of it’s going to become permanent? How much of this Zoom life will we continue to enjoy? In the future, will office spaces become obsolete? How much will we still be using home deliveries? Do we actually want to go to restaurants again? That’s what I’m very interested in learning about is how human behavior and the world will change because of what’s happening right now.

Aaron Green: How did you get started at Omura?

Mike Simpson: Great question. I moved to Japan as a designer working for Lego and set up their design office for Lego toys. After Lego, I started working instead with Nike and Adidas designing performance sneakers and apparel for a couple of years until I found Big Tobacco — which is where my Omura story begins. I rapidly found myself in a position where I was creating new technologies, for the consumption of nicotine and tobacco. While working on an early project, I was asked if I knew any science fiction writers. Thanks to Lego, I just so happened to know Syd Mead, the designer for popular sci-fi films including BladeRunner, Tron and Aliens. So, I called him and we worked on a project which was aimed at setting the future of the smoking industry. Obviously, this was a brilliant project for someone like myself to get involved in. We came up with several scenarios that depicted the future of what tobacco consumption would look like, and each of them essentially included vaporization. This was before the vaporization days which made it kind of a difficult sell. I spent many years working on where we could use existing technologies in order to execute some of these scenarios. Ten years later, I moved to California, and I started studying the cannabis space for Big Tobacco which ultimately led me to Omura.

Aaron: Can you give me a reference point on the date when you were back in California?

Mike: I came here eight years ago, and I was in Japan pretty much 10 years prior to that.

Essentially what I realized when I got to California was that cannabis was perfect for heat-not-burn because of all the cannabinoids and the terpenes. You heat it up, and you get all of the good properties out of it without the need for combustion. There were already hundreds of products in the market, which validated that people love doing it.

However, there was a ritual: you needed to buy the flower, grind it, pack the device, select the temperature and then use the same mouthpiece repeatedly. And it doesn’t stop there. When the session is finished, you dig out the used flower with a metal spatula or brush. After every 10 or 15 times you have to clean it with rubbing alcohol to get rid of any existing residue from those sessions. This is just a big messy job with a massive amount of inconsistency and variability. For me, it was mind blowing that people would even go through this procedure. With Omura, I knew we needed to simplify that process. Our product comes with a pre-filled flower stick with an exact dose, that you place in the device very simply. You then use the stick as the mouthpiece and when you’re finished, throw the flower stick in the trash. It’s compostable and biodegradable. So we eliminated all of those pain points.

Aaron: Great! Where are you guys based out of?

Mike: Venice, California.

Aaron: So, what makes the Omura vaporizer different from other heat-not-burn products? You mentioned you have the disposable cartridge. Is there a design philosophy around it that you can talk more about?

Mike: Omura comes with 12 flower sticks in child-proof packaging. What makes us different is that we have our proprietary flower stick and device that work together. With our heat-not-burn technology, you get all the terpenes, but when you set fire to it, as you would with other products, you mask that with smoke. Our product is different from anything else in the market, because it has simplified the user experience through efficiency, user interaction and also through design as well.

The other founders come from deep design and technology backgrounds, designing technologies for Apple and Philips Electronics, so it was an important focus for us with Omura. Our newest device, the Series X was designed by Michael Young, a world-renowned industrial designer who has built an impressive portfolio of innovative products.

The Omura Series X

With Omura, we’re bringing sophistication of the design world into the cannabis world. It’s not just about simplifying the experience and making a great kind of efficient method of consumption, it’s also about creating something for everyday use that is beautifully designed and easy to use.  

Aaron: The Series X is Omura’s latest device. Can you tell me what changes you’ve implemented to make it better than the first version?

There are a few differences between the Series 1 and Series X: First, the new design fits in the palm of your hands so it’s discreet. It comes with a USB-C charging base that automatically connects with magnets. We’ve also improved the efficiency of the oven. The first device boiled 94% of the cannabinoids, this one now boils 99%. We’ve increased user-efficiency, by removing the button from the Series 1 making it so all you have to do is put the flower stick in and the device starts automatically. Additionally, we wanted to give users an option between a hotter or cooler experience so we added an extra heat curve, as we recognize that some of our CBD users prefer more of a terpene experience.  

Aaron: Can the user modify that with an app?

Mike: It is a very simple switch on the bottom of the device that allows you to toggle between the higher and lower temperature curves

Aaron: Okay, cool. Can we talk about your supply chain a little bit here? Do you manufacture everything in Los Angeles? Or do you have partners? 

Mike: Everything is designed in the US and manufactured in China. Which is fairly common throughout the industry. Shenzhen is well known for making products for the vaping industry. We create empty tubes filled in a batch production process. All the flower is grown here in the US. To clarify, we aren’t a plant-touching company. We don’t have a cannabis license. When it comes to THC, we have partnership deals. We work with select cannabis brands which is how we are able to sell in dispensaries. On the other hand, our CBD model is split. We have two brands of our own. Libertine, which is more of a male-focused Gen Z brand. Then we have Oriel, which is more of a wellness brand, catered to women.

Aaron: So how would an aspiring brand get on your platform?

Mike: Good question. Any brand or company who is interested in partnering with Omura can contact us through our website, www.omura.com, on Instagram @Omura or via email: hello@omura.com. We would then assess them to see if they’re a good fit. Currently we’re looking to span quite a large kind of demographic as far as appeal. So, if these prospective partners are in a territory, whether it be California or another state, have good market share and high-quality flower, then we would be very open to having a conversation.

Aaron: That’s the end of the interview — thanks Mike!

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Richard Naiberg
Quality From Canada

Protecting Intellectual Property in Canada: A Practical Guide, Part 2

By Richard Naiberg
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Richard Naiberg

Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a series by Richard Naiberg where he discusses how cannabis businesses can protect their intellectual property in Canada. Part 1 introduced the topic and examined the use of trade secrets in business. Part 2 goes into how business owners can protect new technologies and inventions through applying for patents.


Patents: Protection For New And Inventive Technology

Patents, which are issued in accordance with Canada’s Patent Act, provide their owners with the right to have a Court prevent anyone else in Canada from making, using, selling, importing or exporting what is claimed as the patent’s invention. The owner of the patent enjoys this monopoly for a period of 20 years from the date the patent is applied for. A patent is infringed even if the infringer arrives at the invention independently, without actual copying. If a patent owner brings a lawsuit and the Court finds infringement, the Court will typically order the infringing activity to cease and require the infringer to pay the owner a suitable amount of compensation.

There are several drawbacks to applying for a patent from the point of view of the applicant.Patents are meant to protect only inventions, meaning novel, non-obvious and useful solutions to practical problems. In the cannabis field, such inventions could include engineered genetic sequences or new plant cells that lead to useful improvements in the whole plant, new cultivation processes, new methods of extraction, new methods of storage or means to enhance stability, new formulations for administration, and new uses for the plant. It would not be uncommon for a cannabis producer to hold a suite of different patents that cover a whole range of innovative technologies and innovative business methods.

Not all classes of technical innovations are protectable by patent. For example, patents are not available for a whole cannabis plant because no patents are allowed on higher, multicellular organisms. Patents are not issued for genetic sequences or cells that are the result of cross breeding. Patents are also unavailable to monopolize methods of using cannabis as a medical treatment. That said, patent agents are skilled at casting innovations in areas such as these in terms that do provide some patent rights.

To obtain a patent, the applicant hires a patent agent to prepare and submit an application to the Canadian Intellectual Property Office (CIPO). An examiner at CIPO reviews the application for compliance with the statutory requirements and enters into a correspondence with the applicant’s patent agent in a process known as a patent prosecution. Third parties also have the opportunity to oppose the grant of a patent on limited grounds. The prosecution may continue for a period of years before the application is either allowed to issue to patent, or is ultimately rejected. Separate patent applications must be filed in every country in which patent rights are sought, though there are international treaties that facilitate these separate filings and preserve early priority filing dates.there can be a significant cost in obtaining patents, particularly if patent rights are sought in multiple countries.

It is important to emphasize that if an invention had been disclosed to the public more than one year before the application for the patent is filed, a patent cannot issue. Cannabis producers must therefore ensure that disclosures of their innovative work be controlled, including when working with partners. This can typically be handled with the use of appropriate non-disclosure agreements.

The prospect of market exclusivity makes the filing of patent applications a must for cannabis businesses, including those just starting out. For a start-up, simply filing a patent application projects that the company has value and a clear vision of its business. Venture capital often seeks companies with patent applications on file because the applications can mature into assets which can be monetized either by protecting a market for the owner, or through assignment or license to others.

cannabis researchers and producers have already filed hundreds of patent applications in Canada. There are several drawbacks to applying for a patent from the point of view of the applicant. Unlike the case for a trade secret, an applicant for a patent must make full and correct disclosure of the invention and how to use it in the patent itself. This disclosure will allow competitors to understand the applicant’s technology. The public disclosure provides a blueprint for competitors to build upon the patent’s disclosure, and to design around it to avoid infringement. Also, and unlike trade secrets, patents have an expiry date after which the public is free to practice the invention. The Commissioner also has the power to issue compulsory licenses to third parties in several circumstances, including when the demand for the patented article is not being met on reasonable terms. Further, the patent right is not infringed when the patented invention is used for non-commercial or experimental purpose. Finally, there can be a significant cost in obtaining patents, particularly if patent rights are sought in multiple countries.

Disadvantages or not, cannabis researchers and producers have already filed hundreds of patent applications in Canada. These applications relate to a wide range of inventions in the cannabis field including new cannabis resins and oils, methods of producing cannabis having improved properties, specific new growing processes, new harvesting methods, new extraction techniques, new formulations for human and veterinary use as foods, medicines and supplements, new delivery devices, new purification methods, new analytical methods, and new stabilization methods. Interested companies can access these disclosures from the public record.

As cannabis companies rush to obtain patent monopolies for their technologies, minefields are created for operating companies. Cannabis producers should obtain reports on what patent applications exist and might be asserted against their operations if and when these applications mature to issuance. With that intelligence in hand, the cannabis producer can understand what threats can be safely ignored and what patents must be addressed by assignment or license, by ‘design around’ or by developing an argument as to why the patent is invalid and thus unenforceable.


Editor’s Note: In Part 3 of this series, which will be published next week, Naiberg will discuss plant breeders’ rights and protecting new plant varieties. Stay tuned for more!