Marijuana is largely thought of as an agricultural industry serving medical and recreational consumers. But that image belies the technological advances that are revolutionizing every sector of cannabis.
In this issue, we look at “10 Killer Technologies” in the marijuana space. Not the “10 Best Technologies,” but engineering feats that represent the spirit of innovation, high-level science and entrepreneurship sweeping through today’s marijuana industry. Many companies could have made this list.
“Cannabis is still a new industry that’s just getting out of the shadows, so people see there’s huge potential to develop all sorts of new technologies,” said Meghan Larson, co-founder of Adistry, one of the companies featured here.
Selections were made to represent the main marijuana market sectors—from cultivation and extraction to manufacturing and retail.
Some of these companies are established and growing, while others are upstart ventures. Some of the technologies were created by cannabis industry veterans, while others come courtesy of non-cannabis businesses. Indeed, the marijuana industry is drawing a growing number of Ph.D.-carrying professionals who have worked at places such as NASA and MIT and now want to lend their expertise to an industry that, from scientific and technological standpoints, remains largely unexplored.
The advances profiled in the following pages represent a sampling of the innovative technologies that are transforming the cannabis industry.
Company Access Rosin
Where Los Angeles
Product The Access Rosin Machine has incorporated patent-pending plates, a rocker arm and other innovations that promise to quadruple the production of other commercial rosin presses.
Target Market Cultivators and processors
Rosin is fast becoming a cannabis consumer favorite, with its promise of a solvent-free concentrate product. Yet rosin production is still a new craft where the technology to produce it on a large commercial scale remains relatively primitive.
That may be changing, thanks to a veteran grower who became enamored with rosin about three years ago and set out to create a technology that could produce it in unprecedented quantities.
The result is the Access Rosin Machine, which creator Spencer Sitnik unveiled at the 2018 MJBizCon in Las Vegas.
Most conventional rosin presses use high heat and pressure to squeeze oil from flower between two metal plates with surface areas of just a few square inches. The biggest commercial presses, by comparison, have plates with about 50 square inches of surface area.
Sitnik’s first innovation was to replace the two smaller square plates with larger, upside-down pyramid plates with four sides and 120 square inches of surface area. The design allows operators to process four times the amount of flower as other large commercial rosin presses, Sitnik claims. By being upside down, the pyramid plates also allow the oil to drain directly into a catchment, while conventional rosin presses use parchment paper or similar materials to catch the oil, which must then be scraped off the paper.
“Other companies focused on the electronic components and digital features controlling the heat temperatures; we directed our focus on innovating the size of the heat plates,” Sitnik said. The machine, he noted, can be scaled to include as many as eight plates—or two sets of four.
While most presses can apply about 1,000 pounds of pressure per square inch, Sitnik added a rocker arm so the Access Rosin Machine can apply about 1,900 pounds of pressure per square inch, enabling it to process more flower at once.
It’s a Wrap
Company MSP Technology
Where Huntington, New York
Product So-called “wrap-around dehumidification systems” developed by MSP take small-plate heat exchangers and wrap them around traditional cooling coils for extra and more efficient cooling and heating of air. The system can reduce energy costs in cultivation facilities and also recapture significant amounts of water, founder Walter Stark said.
Target Market Indoor and greenhouse cultivators
Price Five figures and up.
MSP Technology had been humming along outfitting indoor swimming pools, supermarkets, archives, clean rooms and other types of businesses needing dehumidification systems. But sales began to flatten, so Stark started looking for potential new revenue streams.
Stark found it the cannabis industry. He made his first marijuana-related industry sale in 2017. Today, MSP has at least six large cultivators as clients, and all the facilities are larger than 100,000 square feet.
The heat-exchange plates cool and dehumidify warm air. This precooled, pre-dehumidified air passes twice over the cooling coils to further lower the temperature and humidity.
The main benefit of this “regenerative thermal exchange” is that air that’s been previously cooled and dehumidified can be treated much more efficiently using smaller compressors that require as little as half the power of regular compressors. The job of a compressor is to raise the temperature and pressure of vapor that evaporates from coils. The energy savings can be 40% or more, Stark said.
While MSP’s cannabis clients have so far been large cultivation facilities, Stark said the company can outfit small, craft facilities as well.
Larger projects can run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, but craft grows can cost in the high-five- or low-six-digit range, Stark said.
The good news is that many utilities offer significant rebates—some approach close to 50%—to businesses that buy MSP’s wrap-around technology. “Rebates from utilities can help customers recover a big portion of the cost, but they also give the product legitimacy,” Stark said.
Company United Science
Where St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin
Product The DrainDroyd is a stainless-steel piece of equipment that removes waxes from cannabis-extracted oils significantly faster than typical dewaxing equipment.
Target Market Extractors and product manufacturers
Price $14,000-$20,000, depending on add-on features
A fundamental post-extraction step is dewaxing, whereby waxes that have accumulated in extracted oils are filtered out. Typically, dewaxing is accomplished by dissolving the oil in ethanol and chilling it to subzero temperatures. The wax precipitates at low temperature, leaving the cannabinoids in a solution that is subsequently filtered to remove the precipitated waxes. Because traditional filtering is so slow, the ethanol solution warms up, and the wax that is supposed to be removed often redissolves in ethanol. This creates the need to filter more than once in the case of all solvent-based extraction methods, including butane, ethanol and CO2.
United Science founder Jon Thompson wanted to accelerate the process and saw that one of the weak links in conventional dewaxing was so-called Buchner funnels, through which extracted oils flow during the filtering process. Narrow and made from glass, the funnels at best can handle only a slow throughput that can take hours—and, at worst, can break, leaving potentially thousands of dollars of oil stuck in the filtering machines.
Thompson developed a funnel that is wider and made from stainless steel. Because it’s wider and more durable than glass, the DrainDroyd, as Thompson dubbed his invention, can process 4-5 liters of oil in 30 minutes or less. Conventional equipment with Buchner funnels can take hours, Thompson said.
Since the DrainDroyd hit the market in late 2017, more than 1,000 have been sold, Thompson said. About half of those have gone to cannabis companies and most of the rest to businesses in the food, beverage and chemical industries.
Pick of the Lot
Company Canna Foods Rx
Where Scottsdale, Arizona
Product Moon Picks are cannabis-infused toothpicks. Canna Foods Rx created them by eliminating the moisture contained in the toothpicks and infusing the empty pores with either a cannabis oil, solution or powder.
Target Market Retailers and product manufacturers
Price $5 per toothpick
Canna Foods RX President Todd Rosenbaum and his partners originally wanted to find a way to infuse tongue depressors with painkillers such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen as well as appealing flavors. Rosenbaum figured it would be a great way to get kids to take their medicine. The idea evolved to include other ways toothpicks could be infused, including with cannabis, which Rosenbaum and his partners started exploring in earnest in 2017.
The result is the THC-infused Moon Pick. The company uses a patented process that changes the structure of Maine birchwood so that moisture is removed, leaving pores that can be filled with other substances.
Canna Foods Rx can fill the individual picks with 50 milligrams of any cannabis extract, including full- and broad-spectrum distillates as well as isolates. The company also has figured out how to make a solution that is viscous enough that it won’t separate and can be infused into the wood.
Another key ingredient is Spilanthes, or “jambu,” a flowering herb and mild anesthetic that provides the user a tingling sensation. More important, the Spilanthes encourage saliva release in cheeks, tongue and lips, opening their mucosa linings. The medication in the toothpick then enters the body through the mucosa lining. This allows the sublingual transfer to happen about 60% faster than most other oral-delivery methods, Rosenbaum said.
Moon Picks may be purchased in Arizona and Nevada and were expected to become available in January in California, Oregon and Washington state. They are slated to become available this month in Oklahoma and Michigan.
Parting the Waters
Company BLH Aqua Technology
Where Seongnam, South Korea
Product The Aqutonix is an agriculture-focused, water-treatment machine that taps chemistry to break down water molecules and make them easier for plants to absorb. The results include lower water use and greater yields, the company claims.
Target Market Cultivators
How efficiently cannabis cultivators use water is a serious challenge, particularly in states such as California that have heavy water-use restrictions. BLH Aqua Technology had already successfully deployed its Aqutonix water-treatment system to agricultural customers in countries such as Brazil and Indonesia. But when the company surveyed American markets, it found that U.S. industrial farms were too big and used more water than the machines could handle.
Cannabis farms, however, were just the right size. “Even the larger cannabis farms are relatively small, so it made a lot more sense,” said Robert Grey, an Aqutonix global marketing manager. The company made its first sale to a cannabis company in 2018.
One Aqutonix machine, which stands about 4 feet tall and can be easily connected to any irrigation system, can handle about 50 gallons of water per minute—sufficient to irrigate about 7 acres of cannabis. The Aqutonix uses high-voltage electricity to weaken hydrogen bonds in water so they can more easily pass through aquaporins, the sub-membrane proteins in plants responsible for water absorption, thereby increasing how efficiently a plant can absorb water.
By increasing how efficiently a plant can absorb water, the Aqutonix has helped cannabis growers using its technology cut water usage by 40%, Grey said. More efficient water use also translates into more photosynthetic efficiency, which translates into greater biomass—bigger plants and, thus, bigger buds.
The machines won the 2017 Slush Singapore, a prestigious international startup competition, while the Korean government has provided research grants to BLH Aqua as well as subsidies for farmers to help pay for the machines.
What happens when cannabis farms get as big as other industrial-sized farms? BLH already is developing machines that can handle more water, Grey said.
Where Longmont, Colorado
Product Adistry is a software platform that helps connect cannabis companies seeking to buy advertising space with media outlets and other businesses willing to sell advertising space to marijuana operators.
Target Market Any cannabis company or business in a highly regulated industry
Price $29-$399 per month, plus 1%-5% commission on transactions
At an advertising agency where she previously worked, Meghan Larson noticed that cannabis businesses had trouble placing their ads. An advertising and marketing veteran with startup experience, Larson saw a business opportunity to help match marijuana businesses with media outlets willing to take their ads. She enlisted Dan Cox, a longtime friend and technology-savvy engineer, to handle the tech work.
Together, the pair founded Adistry, whose software went online in late 2017. Today, the software platform offers about 90 media channels and other ad outlets that take cannabis-related advertising, Larson said. And the number is growing.
“We’re trying to ensure that there’s a place where cannabis companies and regulated businesses and brands can find effective advertising,” Larson said.
Adistry, which also serves other regulated industries such as alcohol and gambling, isn’t just about introductions. The software automates much of the ad-buying and -selling processes for clients, which is particularly useful for small businesses that may not have the time or expertise to manage ad buys.
For example, Adistry offers a lower cost “self-service” option for as little as $29 per month, where businesses can scan media outlets for available ad space and then buy it with a click of a button. Adistry also offers a more expensive “managed services” option that facilitates relationship-building between ad buyers and sellers through a chat function. The more expensive service can cost up to $399, and Adistry collects a commission of between 1% and 5% on placements booked.
Adistry focuses on small publications with fewer than 20 employees and seeks ad opportunities beyond the usual alternative newspapers and banners—such as event sponsorships, newsletters and listings.
In 2019, Larson and Cox will analyze the data that Adistry has mined with the hope of using it to gain insights into what makes advertising most effective.
“We’re allowing agencies and brands to more effectively scale their campaigns and be smarter about what they do for their advertising initiatives,” Larson said.
Sealing Counterfeiters’ Fate
Where San Diego
Product CannVerify sells product seals with unique codes that can be matched through blockchain-based software to confirm whether an item is authentic or counterfeit
Target Market Cultivators and product manufacturers
Price The software is free, while the seals range from 3 cents to 10 cents each, depending on quantity ordered.
Medical marijuana patient and home-grower Shant Jabourian ordered what was supposedly a rare set of marijuana seeds. But the seeds didn’t turn out to be what the vendor promised, setting Jabourian on a path to create a technology that would prevent counterfeiters from defrauding cannabis consumers and damaging brands.
Jabourian, who has an e-commerce background, enlisted his brother, Vicken, a web developer, and the two started building the CannVerify software and seal system in late 2017. They unveiled it at MJBizCon in Las Vegas in November.
CannVerify provides serialized, tamper-proof seals so that manufacturers—makers of vaporizer cartridges, edibles, balms and other products, as well as growers who might need to package product—can attach them to the packaging and verify their authenticity. The software is also intended for cultivators who sell flower. Each seal has a unique serial number, and the seal is tied to the company’s blockchain-based online system.
Manufacturers, for example, can go into the CannVerify system and add product information. When consumers scan the QR code on the seal, it will take them to a page that displays product information the manufacturer provided. The page also has an area for consumers to enter a verification code that can be obtained by scratching a section at the bottom of the seal. When that code is entered, consumers learn whether they have a match. If not, then the product is likely a counterfeit.
Each seal can be used only once. Trying to remove the seal and put it on another package destroys the seal, which leaves behind a security pattern when removed.
On the back end, producers can use the system to perform basic analytics, such as seeing how many times a product has been scanned. That can give companies insight into which products are selling, and which ones aren’t.
Company STM Cann
Where Spokane, Washington
Product The RocketBox is a commercial-grade machine that can roll 453 pre-rolls in three minutes—far faster than other pre-roll machines on the market
Target Market Cultivators and processors
Pre-rolls are popular products at retail but laborious to produce. Most rolling machines are small, low-tech, tabletop models. Jason Dueweke, who plied his engineering skills in Washington state’s aeronautics industry before starting the cannabis-focused tech company STM Canna, set out in 2017 to solve that problem. He came up with the RocketBox, a commercial-scale machine that can roll 453 joints in three minutes—about four times quicker than the next-fastest model on the market, said Jessica Ferranti, STM’s senior vice president of sales.
How? The RocketBox, which is 46 inches tall, weighs 350 pounds and has wheels so it can be rolled throughout a facility, comes with a three-piece tray set with 453 slots into which empty pre-roll cones can be dropped. Why 453? A pound is equivalent to 453 grams, making it easy to keep track of how much product is going into your pre-rolls.
Here’s how it works: A machine operator drops ground flower into the cones and can set joint weights to 1 gram, 0.7 grams and 0.5 grams. The operator turns on the machine, which is equipped with a multi-setting motor and a pneumatic leveling system that evenly distributes the ground cannabis throughout the cones. The machine then goes into a packing phase, ensuring tightly rolled joints.
Dueweke understood that different flower strains could have different characteristics—sticky, dense, light, etc. That, in turn, could affect how a final pre-roll would turn out, so he installed technology that allows operators to customize how a pre-roll should be packed. The machine also comes with 10 custom presets such as Sour Diesel and Kush.
Since putting the RocketBox into the market in early 2018, STM Canna has garnered roughly 100 cannabis and hemp customers in the United States and Canada, including Canndescent, Curaleaf, Green Thumb Industries (GTI), Aphria and Organigram, Ferranti said.
Dueweke started the company, which also makes a commercial-grade rosin press, with $200,000 provided by friends and family. He has expanded production capacity and grown the business from five to 20 employees entirely through sales revenue.
Let It Glow
Where Los Alamos, New Mexico
Product UbiGro is a quantum-dot film that converts sunlight into the red-orange spectrum light that plants crave when flowering. The light also helps increase yield.
Target Market Cultivators
Price A company spokesman declined to quote a cost but said it is significantly cheaper than the roughly $100 per square foot that some greenhouses spend on under-canopy lighting.
Cannabis growers often use expensive LED lights to bathe plants in the red-orange light spectrum that triggers flowering and boosts production. UbiQD has harnessed quantum dots—tiny particles of semiconductors like those used in computer chips and solar cells—to create UbiGro. The quantum dots are made into an inklike substance that is injected between two sheets of plastic film, which are then attached to the sides and roof of a greenhouse. The film does the same thing as lights but at a much lower cost and smaller environmental footprint, according to UbiQD chief scientist Damon Hebert. The red light also helps increase THC production by 5% and terpene production by 14%, Hebert said.
Quantum dots have been used in other industries but not agriculture. Most quantum dots developed so far feature a cadmium base, which is sensitive to ultraviolet light and inclement weather and, thus, loses effectiveness.
UbiQD’s breakthrough was developing copper-based quantum dots, which can withstand intense light and bad weather and be used in agriculture.
The company has installed UbiGro for five vegetable growers in New Mexico and has a NASA contract to create film for growing crops in space. UbiQD has pilots in two cannabis greenhouses in Colorado and one in Oregon and plans more pilots this year. The cannabis pilots have seen 10% yield increases, Hebert said.
Hebert declined to quote a cost but said UbiGro is significantly cheaper than the roughly $100 per square foot that some greenhouses spend on under-canopy lighting.
“If we can realize a 5%-10% yield improvement, that’s a return on investment of three months to six months,” Hebert said.
Hebert said UbiGro’s current plastic film will last five years, but he plans to develop a model using glass sheets that will last 20 years. The ultimate goal is to have the quantum dots installed in greenhouse glass or polyurethane, to make “a creme de la creme of greenhouse glass.”
Means to a Vend
Company Frost, doing business as Anna
Product Anna is a vending machine designed to overcome the restrictions some states have on the automated technology. It also includes customer analytics.
Target Market Product manufacturers and retailers
Vending machines have had a tough time making it in the cannabis industry. Only a few machines have been deployed since the first ones hit stores a few years ago, and many of those were sent back because they had problems and weren’t often used by customers.
Matthew Frost hopes to change that. In 2015, Frost was a semester from getting his MBA from Boston University when he dropped out to build a solution to the lines and slow throughputs he had encountered at Massachusetts medical cannabis dispensaries.
Weighing in at 700 pounds, Anna can hold 1,008 products covering 56 SKUs—anything from vape cartridges, concentrates and packages of flower to edibles, drinks and balms. Customers register via the downloadable Anna app. When customers visit a store with an Anna machine, a store employee swipes their IDs, unlocking the machine for use. Customers then scroll a menu of products, make their selections and place their orders. The orders are sent to store employees, who use tablets to verify the transactions are within purchase limits and then release the order, prompting Anna to dispense the product. Doing it that way, Frost said, makes Anna compliant in states with regulations that say customers can’t serve themselves.
Anna also incorporates machine learning and customer-purchase analytics. For example, when a patron registers with the app, purchases made on Anna machines will be tracked so that when the customer returns, an Anna machine will make recommendations based on past transactions.
“It creates efficiencies that improve customer retention,” said Frost, who has a patent pending for Anna.
Anna spent 2018 in the Canopy Boulder cannabis business incubator, and in early 2019, Frost plans pilot programs with LivWell Enlightened Health in Colorado and Reef Dispensaries in Nevada, before going to market later this year.