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Break Up Vertical Integration

By Ryan Douglas
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Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from chapter ten of From Seed to Success: How to Launch a Great Cannabis Cultivation Business in Record Time by Ryan Douglas. Douglas is founder of Ryan Douglas Cultivation, a cannabis cultivation consulting firm. He was Master Grower from 2013-2016 for Tweed, Inc., Canada’s largest licensed producer of medical cannabis and the flagship subsidiary of Canopy Growth Corporation.


Cultivation businesses should consider specializing in just one stage of the cannabis cultivation process. The industry has focused heavily on vertical integration, and some regulating bodies require licensees to control the entire cannabis value chain from cultivation and processing to retail. This requirement is not always in the best interest of the consumer or the business, and will likely change as the industry evolves. Not only will companies specialize in each step of the value chain, but we’ll see even further segmentation among growers that choose to focus on just one step of the cultivation process. Cannabis businesses that want to position themselves for future success should identify their strengths in the crop production process and consider specializing in just one part.

Ryan Douglas, former Master Grower for Tweed and author of From Seed to Success: How to Launch a Great Cannabis Cultivation Business in Record Time

Elsewhere in commercial horticulture, specialization is the norm. It is unlikely that the begonias you bought at your local garden shop spent their entire life inside that greenhouse. More likely, the plant spent time hopping between specialists in the production chain before landing on the retail shelf. One grower typically handles stock plant production and serves as a rooting station for vegetative cuttings. From there, rooted cuttings are shipped to a grower that cares for the plants during the vegetative stage. Once they’re an appropriate height for flowering, they’re shipped to the last grower to flower out and sell to retailers.

Cannabis businesses should consider imitating this model as a way to ensure competitiveness in the future. In the US, federal law does not yet allow for the interstate transport of plants containing THC, but the process can be segmented within states where vertical integration is not a requirement. As we look ahead to full federal legalization in the US, we should anticipate companies abandoning the vertical integration model in favor of specialization. In countries where cannabis cultivation is federally legal, entrepreneurs should consider specialization from the moment they begin planning their business.

Cultivators that specialize in breeding and genetics could sell seeds, rooted cuttings, and tissue culture services to commercial growers. Royalties could provide a recurring source of income after the initial sale of seeds or young plants. Contracting propagation activities to a specialist can result in consistently clean rooted cuttings that arrive certified disease-free at roughly ¼ the cost of producing them in-house. This not only frees up space at the recipient’s greenhouse and saves them money, but it eliminates the risks inherent in traditional mother plant and cloning processes. If a mother plant becomes infected, all future generations will exhibit that disease, and the time, money, energy, labor, and space required to maintain healthy stock plants is substantial. Growers that focus on large scale cultivation would do well to outsource this critical step.

From Seed to Success: How to Launch a Great Cannabis Cultivation Business in Record Time

Intermediary growers could specialize in growing out seeds and rooted cuttings into mature plants that are ready to flower. These growers would develop this starter material into healthy plants with a strong, vigorous root system. They would also treat the plants with beneficial insects and inoculate the crop with various biological agents to decrease the plant’s susceptibility to pest and disease infestations. Plants would stay with this grower until they are about six to 18 inches in height—the appropriate size to initiate flowering.

The final stage in the process would be the flower grower. Monetarily, this is the most valuable stage in the cultivation process, but it’s also the most expensive. This facility would have the proper lighting, plant support infrastructure, and environmental controls to ensure that critical grow parameters can be tightly maintained throughout the flowering cycle. The grower would be an expert in managing late-stage insect and disease outbreaks, and they would be cautious not to apply anything to the flower that would later show up on a certificate of analysis (COA), rendering the crop unsaleable. This last stage would also handle all harvest and post-harvest activities—since shipping a finished crop to another location is inefficient and could potentially damage the plants.

As the cannabis cultivation industry normalizes, so, too, will the process by which the product is produced. Entrepreneurs keen on carving out a future in the industry should focus on one stage of the cultivation process, and excel at it.

Leaders in Infused Products Manufacturing: Part 3

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 third article in a series where we interview leaders in the national infused products market. In this third piece, we talk with Liz Conway, Regional President of Florida at Parallel. Liz started with Parallel in 2019 after transitioning from her healthcare IT consulting practice. She now heads up Florida operations for Parallel which runs the Surterra Wellness brand.

Next week, well sit down with Stephanie Gorecki, vice president of product development at Cresco Labs. Stay tuned for more!

Aaron Green: Liz, very nice to meet you. Can you tell me how did you get involved at Parallel?

Liz Conway: Well, I’ll give a little bit of background. Previously, I was working in healthcare technology and in that field, really coming out of health care reform. I was also living in Northern California and so was conscious of a bunch of startups that needed help with highly regulated spaces and policy and how to navigate both the today and the tomorrow of “Hey, we’re trying to build something super fast, but we’re not interfacing with government well enough to know how to build what we’re building and not be set back again.”

And so cannabis actually came to me. I started working with some early stage cannabis IT companies and I was the principal where I founded a firm to do this very thing, which was to help highly regulated companies get through what is today, what is tomorrow, and what can we change. I was really fortunate to be living in Northern California, and I started to help them navigate the California rules.

Then in 2016, when California went adult use, that was just a major time to turn everything on its head and see what we could get. From there, it was history. I started to work with companies, both nationally and in Canada, and met some of the folks with Parallel and was a consultant with them for a while and then joined the team.

Liz Conway, Regional President of Florida at Parallel

Aaron: So, are you in Florida now?

Liz: I relocated to Florida in January 2019.

Aaron: At Parallel, how do you think about differentiating in the market?

Liz: I think that we differentiate in terms of the quality of our product, of course, and I will speak specifically to Florida where our focus is still a medical market. Every day we are trying to manage the vertical from end-to-end so that we can get the products that our people want as quickly as possible over a vast territory. Well-being is such a critical ethos that everything we do comes down to, “alright, what does this mean for well-being and how are we delivering that both in the customer experience as well as in the product?”

Aaron: With regards to differentiation, can you speak to any products in particular that you feel are differentiated in the Florida market?

Liz: In the Florida market, I think that we were the first to launch thera-gels, and the thera-gels really are medicated jelly. You can use it sublingually, or take it as an oral to swallow. From that we developed thera-chews. That line, it’s really great tasting, it’s long lasting, and the effects are getting great reviews from the patients. So that’s one area that I think we distinguish ourselves and we’re a forerunner in the Florida market.

Aaron: So, if you take one of those products as an example, can you walk us through your process for creating a new product like that?

Liz: Well, so remembering that we’re part of companies in other states, because Parallel operates in Nevada, Massachusetts and in Texas. So, we’re not developing products on our own, but we certainly are doing Florida market analysis to say, what should come next, we are listening to our customers, we listen to our people, we’ve got 39 stores across the state. We have a number of employees who are always listening. We also have employees who are part of the medical program who are using the products to address different needs and they are looking at our competitors.

So, we’re doing some competitive analysis. We’re also knowing what it is that we’re really good at, and we take it through a product development lifecycle that involves testing because we are fully vertical. In Florida, we have to always ask ourselves are we able to do this end-to-end and thus far, we’ve been fortunate enough to either build or buy that capability.

Aaron: You mentioned there’s 39 stores in Florida? Are those dispensaries?

Liz: Yeah, they are our stores. There are other stores that other companies have, but we’re the second largest footprint in the state and all over from the very edges of Pensacola down to the Florida Keys, and then over to Miami and up through Tallahassee. So, covering really all corners in the state.

Aaron: Now, with those stores do you also market your products in other people’s stores?

Liz: No. The vertical really means that our stores only carry our own products. We’re marketed in Florida as Surterra Wellness and that’s the name of our stores. Anywhere you go that there’s a Surterra Wellness, you have the same product sets and we’re not allowed to sell other folks’ products. It’s a big difference between Florida and other states.

I’ll tell you one of the nice things is, when I have a product, I know that we grew it. I know every single quality step along the way. I don’t have to go and then look at other vendors and constantly monitor their quality. Everything that we do, we touched it from the very first moment hitting the ground. So it’s nice.

Aaron: Can you walk me through one of your most recent product launches? And if you can, the full lifecycle from the initial marketing briefing up to commercialization?

Liz: Well, I can do some of that. Speaking specifically about those thera-chews – that oral dosing mechanism – we’ve got it in a couple of different flavors. We said to ourselves, “hey, there’s a real need in this market for people to experience something that was like an edible, because Florida just launched edibles.” But we didn’t consider this as an edible because they weren’t allowed at that point. We knew from other states that particularly patients like to dose, you know, with something that is long lasting and flavorful. And so we said, “how can we bring this to market as an oral-dosing product?” And so we conceived the machinery that was able to do it. We had to do quite a bit of tooling.

Prior to that, we did some market testing from our customers and our associates as well as our brand team to say “is this going to be right? Can we bring it to market?” We did the projections around anticipated demand and program growth as well as the cost. We had to figure out what it would it take to adjust the machinery. Will it work? We did some pretty significant testing on that machinery and a lot of flavor testing.

We’re fortunate enough to have one of only four licensed kitchens that can do this kind of R&D in Florida. We’re licensed by the Department of Health for cannabis R&D on an edibles-type kitchen. So we were really fortunate to be able to do that to bring it to market. And from there, it really took on a life of its own. The flavors were tested across all of us (non-dosed flavors, obviously) and we voted on the best products to hit the shelves.

Aaron: When you’re making that decision, how much of the decision was weighted by market demand from your existing customers, and just observing other markets and seeing how products perform in other markets?

Liz: Data is not as prolific as I’d like it to be in cannabis. When you hit the edge of that state line, your consumer is very different, your stores are very different, your marketing capability is very different. So we really had to look across the US and say, “how are products like this performing? Is that how Florida is going to perform?” We did use that state-by-state evidence as well as our own evidence — the response to therapy gels — if we have thera-gels, what type are we selling in terms of dosage and flavors. There are slight differences there in effect-states. And so it was a little bit of both.

Aaron: Next question gets more into like the supply chain. How do you go about sourcing ingredients for your products?

Liz: So again, in a fully verticalized state, we have to source 100% of the active cannabinoid ingredients. Then we have an authorized vendor list that we’ve worked with for other things in terms of flavors and terpenes. Then we have to go back to the DoH to make sure that the other ingredients, whether that be sweeteners, or the kind of wrapping on those thera-gels are okay — the gelatin elements in particular.

“The Florida environment all day long is the biggest hurdle that I think we face.”We use an authorized vendor list. One of the great things that we’ve done recently is to focus our vendor list on minority women and veteran-owned businesses, and so really looking deep in the supply chain to source whatever we can from a diversity of suppliers. I love that original ethos of cannabis to be of the people, by the people and for the people, as well homegrown.

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

Liz: Well, I’ll say in Florida, if you’re growing your own cannabis, it’s way different than if you’re growing it in Colorado or California. So, I’m going to start there. The great news is that after Florida allowed us to start selling smokable flower last fall, we’ve come such a long way. We’ve got new indoor grow facilities. It’s making the environmental issues much, much lower.

“I think that the best thing that we can do is try to look five years ahead and ask what could this look like?”Bringing those on-line is going to bring a much more consistent consumer experience because while I know consumers have a lot of tolerance for variations in their cannabis, but as the industry matures, they’re going to treat us much more like other CPG companies. They’re not going to want that variation. Between that and then Florida’s new testing regulations which also are making sure that the product that’s delivered only meets what’s on the label.

The Florida environment all day long is the biggest hurdle that I think we face. The humidity is much higher here than in other states.

We’re also looking at live resin. What I am watching is the next generation. A lot of live products get us really close to the plant. We’ve done so much to pull out of the plant but where are we going to preserve that original plant in all of its most original formats without having to necessarily smoke the flower itself. We’re working with the Florida Department of Health to help them understand live resin products from a health standpoint.

Aaron: What trends are you following in the industry?

Liz: As you can imagine, as the regional president of a division that goes really end-to-end on monitoring trends in edibles and infused products, medical and recreational, I’m watching the election pretty closely. It will impact banking. It could potentially impact interstate commerce and it could potentially impact research.

I’m also watching things like HR trends, what’s happening in who we employ, our leadership, and how we deal with some of the emerging union issues around the country. I think that the best thing that we can do is try to look five years ahead and ask what could this look like? Where do we put our investment dollars now to meet the future, as well as where do we put our regulatory efforts for the best public policy to have the outcomes that we want consumers to trust us with? I know that’s a really broad answer, but from where I sit, it really is what I’m looking at, across a universe of excitement, but it includes challenges also.

Aaron: The last question is, what would you like to learn more about in the cannabis industry?

Liz: Well, of course, if I had a crystal ball, that would be great. I think the data is always missing. The more data that we could get, there’s so much out there that people are using cannabis for and we just don’t understand the impacts on how is this wonderful well-being product helping so many people because a lot of people don’t like to talk about it. So the more data about our consumers and what they like and what they don’t like, even across state lines, as we could aggregate that in a uniform way. I think it would help a lot of the people who are fearful of cannabis and it would help a lot of us who are in the business, get the consumers exactly spot on what they want, which at the end of the day is why we’re all here.

Aaron: Thank you Liz, that’s the end of the interview.

Leaders in Extraction & Manufacturing: Part 2

By Aaron Green
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Cannabis extraction and manufacturing is big business in California with companies expanding brands into additional states as they grow. This is the second article in a series where we interview leaders in the California extraction and manufacturing industry from some of the biggest and most well-known brands. Click here to see Part 1.

In this week’s article we talk with Matthew Elmes, director of product development at Cannacraft. After cutting his teeth in academic and industry research, Matthew was approached by Cannacraft leadership to bring a new perspective to their product development efforts. The interview with Matthew was conducted on July 22, 2020.

Next week, we’ll interview Joaquin Rodriguez, chief operating officer at GenX BioTech. Stay tuned for more!

Aaron Green: Hi Matthew, and thank you for taking the time to chat today, I understand you have a busy schedule!

Matthew Elmes: Thanks – yeah, last week was pretty insane!

Aaron: Well, I’m happy we found a chance to put this together. Let’s start from the beginning. How did you get involved at Cannacraft?

Matthew Elmes, director of product development at Cannacraft

Matthew: I did my Ph.D in biochemistry at Stony Brook University on cannabinoid intracellular transport and metabolism. I then did a post-doc with Artelo Biosciences in endocannabinoid system modulation. While I was doing my post-doctoral research, Dennis Hunter, co-founder of Cannacraft, had learned about my work and reached out to offer me a position.

Aaron: Awesome, that’s a great feeling when people are reaching out to you! The next questions here will be focused on product development and manufacturing. What is your decision process for launching a new product?

Matthew: We do our best to anticipate what the market will want. A lot of our new product development comes from improving our current products. Things like improving stability, shelf-life and reducing bitterness. For brand-new products and technologies, we first get a lot of feedback from the marketing and sales teams and will then go into a planning session to decide what is feasible and what is not prior to moving forward.

Aaron: Do you personally get involved in manufacturing? Tell me about your process there.

Matthew: I do get involved in manufacturing. My main inputs are figuring out how much cannabis oil to use to hit a target potency around the size of a batch. This is the type of thing I do for all our beverage products like HiFi Hops, our Satori line of infused edibles, and the various gummy products sold under our brands Absolute Xtracts and Care By Design.

Aaron: Are you developing new products internally?

Matthew: For the most part we develop everything internally. We are very vertically integrated here at Cannacraft and we extract all of our oil in house. I don’t do the oil extractions myself. Most of our stuff is supercritical carbon dioxide extraction, but we have hydrocarbon and cryoethanol extraction facilities opening soon. For our gummies, we use distillate oils for the best flavor and for our droppers/vapes we use full-spectrum oils for a more sophisticated array of effects.

Aaron: In product development, what does getting stuck look like for you?

Matthew: Getting stuck happens a lot! You know, strict regulations make it challenging to source ingredients. Foods we’d like to source for a product are often too high in pesticides or heavy metals for the cannabis regulations. What’s good enough for the grocery store is very often not good enough to be compliant in the California cannabis industry. Fruits that are totally free from pesticides are hard to find. Our edibles brand Satori Chocolates actually might be the only player in the entire California cannabis industry that uses real whole fruit in our products rather than something artificial or a processed fruit paste. We actually had to source our strawberries from Italy to find ones that were both compliant in metals/pesticides and tasted good enough to meet our high standards! The same sort of challenges apply to sourcing biomass for oils.

Aaron: If you get stuck is it usually the same place? Or is it different each time?

Matthew: We’re so diversified. We have lots of different products. The process for each one can have its own issues. The problems you encounter with cannabis beverages are not the same ones that you’ll encounter with vapes, edibles, topicals or sublinguals, etc. We are one of the oldest players in the California cannabis industry (CannaCraft was founded in 2014, well before regulated recreational cannabis was a thing) so we have the advantage of working on all these issues for years longer than most of our competitors and we have largely figured out all the major ‘kinks’ already. A big part of it is also that we have assembled a great team of food scientists, chemical engineers, chemists, legal and regulatory experts, all with diverse specialties that allows us to quickly address any new ‘stucks’ and be fully confident in all of our products.

Aaron: Feel free to answer the next question however you like. What does your magic helper look like?

Matthew: I would love a magic helper! What would a magic helper look like to me? I think my magic helper is a recent undergrad with lab experience. I would have them take care of a lot of the quality and lab day to day activities. My responsibilities often make me too stuck to the computer screen where I don’t have time to get to all the experiments that I’d like to do…a trained magic helper could physically perform those experiments for me!

Aaron: OK, and now for our final question! What are you following in the market and what do you want to learn about?

Matthew: I am personally really interested in yeast grows and cannabinoid synthesis from biological organisms. We stick to only natural plant-derived cannabinoids for all our products, but it’s a new field that’s just fascinating to me. I also think that minor cannabinoids will have a bigger place in coming years. In particular I have my eye on THCV, ∆8-THC, CBG and THCP. THCP is a phytocannabinoid that was just discovered a year ago and exhibited very potent effects in preclinical models, but no one has been able to produce and purify it in appreciable amounts yet. We already manufacture and sell a ∆8-THC vape cart under our ABX brand, but for the others keep an eye out for new product announcements from us that are on the horizon.

Aaron: Well, that brings us to the end of the interview Matthew, this is all awesome feedback for the industry. Thanks so much for your time and insights into product development in the cannabis industry.

Matthew: Thanks, take care!