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Nancy Whiteman is the founder and CEO of Wana Brands, a Colorado based company that produces cannabis infused edibles, and more recently WanaCaps XR, a series of extended released cannabis capsules, writes Lorna Evans. Wana Brands was founded in 2010 and is now a leader in cannabis edibles. Wana’s sour edible gummies not only dominate the Colorado market, but the brand itself is one of the United States’ top edible producers. Wana currently supplies markets in Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, and Arizona, and is looking to expand into Florida, Illinois, and Michigan this quarter.
So just how did Wana Brands become a leader in the cannabis industry? Civilized had the pleasure of speaking to Nancy Whiteman on her journey to the top, why gummies were the main focus, how production processes must evolve in order to comply with changing legal regulations, advice on getting into the cannabis industry, and what the future holds for Wana Brands.
What did you do before Wana Brands and how do you think it helped you enter into the cannabis industry?
Before establishing Wana Brands in 2010, I was a principal with The Whiteman Group, a sales and marketing consultancy, and previously held a range of senior level marketing and business development positions including vice president of marketing and new corporate ventures for the Paul Revere Insurance Group in Massachusetts. My background in marketing and branding has definitely been very helpful in building Wana Brands.
What was it that interested you in getting into a brand new and fairly unknown industry?
I always wanted to start a business, and I dreamed about launching a product-based business where my success wasn’t tied directly to how many hours I could work for a client. In 2010, when an opportunity to get into the cannabis industry presented itself, it was a no-brainer. It was exactly what I was looking for. And while I was initially driven by the business opportunity that the new cannabis industry presented, when I saw the impact that Wana Brands had on patients, that’s when I really felt the power of this industry.
So tell us about Wana and why you decided to focus on making edibles? And in particular why gummies? Was it personal experience?
When the market in Colorado was gearing up in 2010, we saw that some items sold better than others. Companies were making a lot of crazy infused products, everything from pizza to salad dressings. There was this idea that you could infuse anything you wanted to, and that you should.
The fact is, consumers tend to like to consume their cannabis and then enjoy their meals. Additionally, as regulations came online in regard to serving size and safety, many of the more extravagant food options were regulated out of existence.
Wana also tried a lot of different options. We had a nut mix and a cocoa powder for infused hot chocolate. However, as we grew and began to understand the market, we ended up focusing on the confectionary space. It’s easier to transport, it has a longer shelf life. Also, gummies are an accepted pharmaceutical delivery system and people are used to taking them for their medication.
And we were discriminating in our ingredient selection. When we were developing our artisan gummy recipe, we researched each ingredient to make sure we were selecting the best option. For example, we chose pectin over gelatin, so our gummies don’t have a rubbery consistency. It also means our gummies are vegan. But we didn’t stop there. We considered dozens of different types of pectin until we found the perfect one that gave our gummies their delicious texture and consistency.
For people new to the idea of edibles, can you tell me how the effects differ from smoking cannabis? And how much THC is normally in edible?
I’m going to respond to your second question first. Each market can regulate serving size as they see fit. For example, a serving size in Oregon for adult-use products is five milligrams, while a serving size in Colorado is ten milligrams. But most markets consider a serving size 10 milligram most allow up to 100 milligrams or ten servings in a package.
Consuming cannabis edibles provides a very different experience than combusting — or smoking — cannabis, in how the substance is processed in your body, onset and length of experience, as well as the effects on the body. For someone who is smoking flower or trim, the cannabinoids are absorbed through the lungs to enter the bloodstream and the effects can be felt very quickly. The effects can last from one to four hours.
When you eat a cannabis edible, the active ingredients have to be processed through your liver. Onset takes longer, generally around 60 to 90 minutes. And the effects last longer, from four to eight hours. Some say the experience is different too, more of a body high. We say it is really important to “start low and go slow.” If you are new to edibles, we suggest that you begin with a five milligram serving — half of one Wana gummy — wait at least 90 minutes, and then check in on how you are feeling before consuming any more. You can always take more, but if you overdo it with edibles, it can be an uncomfortable experience.
What interested you in partnering up with pharmaceutical company Cannabics to make cannabis capsules?
It was the uniqueness of the product. Cannabics is our partner for WanaCapsxr, the only extended-release cannabis capsule in the world, as far as I’m aware. It allows patients to dose only once or twice daily and to have a smooth consistent experience because it lasts for eight to twelve hours for most people. When I was connected with Cannabics Pharmaceuticals and the opportunity to produce an extended release cannabis capsule, I jumped at the chance to introduce an innovative product to the market. The patient testimonials we receive validate everything we have envisioned for WanaCapsXR.
So what are the benefits effects of taking WanaCapsXR?
We have seen WanaCapsxr change many patients’ lives for the better. When taking the capsules, they see a significant amount of pain reduction without having to dose every few hours. The capsules also address one of the major concerns of cannabis patients, which is that the initial high peak of cannabinoid activity soon after administration can cause uncomfortable side effects such as disorientation and dizziness. The extended release formulation allows patients to dose once or twice daily without the constant need to re-dose. We also offer the capsules in three formulations: High THC (10:1 ratio of THC to CBD), High CBD (10:1 ratio of CBD to THC) and Balanced (1:1 ratio of THC and CBD). This enables patients to choose the ratio that works best to address their symptoms and gives them an option for a low psychoactivity option.
WanaCapsxr are very discreet, and perfectly address the desire by some states, such as Florida and New York, to have their cannabis products in a medicinal form. Wana Brands also offers all five formulations of the capsules for the adult-use market so that consumers who do not have a medical marijuana license have access to the product and can benefit from this stable, convenient and discrete dosing alternative.
What were the biggest challenges when you started Wana and how did you overcome them?
The biggest challenge when I started Wana Brands is that we were building an industry from the ground up. There was no research, no regulation, very little published historical background. And it’s continued to be challenging. Regulations are the tail that wags the dog. They are different in every state, which effects production, packaging, advertising, distribution, virtually everything. And regulations are constantly changing. For example, marking each individual edible with a THC symbol [went] into effect in Nevada on January 1, which requires changes to production processes. Because we can’t ship anything across state lines, we can’t have centralized production in one location like most consumer packaged goods companies, and we can’t deduct certain expenses from our taxes since cannabis is still not federally legal. But we take one step at a time, and we figure out the process and the work arounds. We’ve learned how to get creative.
Do you know how many edibles are sold today and what percentage of the market they account for? Do you see this growing?
According to BDS Analytics, Wana Brands is the number one edibles producer in the United States. In Colorado alone, with an edibles market share of over 21 percent, Wana Brands products account for $1 out of every $5 spent on edibles, and produced over 18 million gummies in 2018. Yes, I can only see this growing. Wana is currently available in Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, and Arizona. And we’re onboarding in Florida, Illinois, and Michigan. We expect Wana products to be available to medical marijuana patients in those three states in Q1 2019. With that patient base and our in-state partners, we are certain to grow exponentially in 2019.
This an exciting and radically evolving industry — where do you see it heading in the next few years, and what advice would you give to anyone looking to start a business in the cannabis space?
I think we’re going to see more research into specific cannabinoids. And with the passage of the Farm Bill, which will open up the CBD market, we’re going to see more research on cannabis overall. Currently we see cannabis broken into two markets: adult use and medical. Patients will continue to consume cannabis to address serious medical conditions and symptoms such as cancer and epilepsy, as well as to enjoy the recreational aspects of cannabis, but I believe that we will see the further definition of a wellness segment, which spans both medical and recreational buyers and addresses needs such as athletic recovery, anxiety reduction, and improved sleep.
My advice for an entrepreneur getting into the space is to pack your patience and get into it for the love of the plant, not for the love of money. There are probably better industries to get into if you want to make a quick buck. All of the regulations can make running an efficient business challenging, but if you are in it for the right reasons, it is a fulfilling career.
What inspires you? Do you have any tips, or daily practices you can share with us that helps to keep your passion and motivation alive?
Being part of this amazing industry and helping it grow and evolve is very inspiring to me. I’m also very competitive, so I love the process of building the company and the brand and creating opportunities for our team. We’ve also just started implementing our Corporate Social Responsibility program and knowing that we have the chance to enhance people’s lives in very specific and concrete ways keeps me motivated as well.
What’s next for Wana?
Wana is constantly looking to innovate. With the passage of the Farm Bill, we are moving our CBD-only line into high gear. Additionally, we’ve been working on line extensions, such as our vape line which has been very well received in Colorado and will be rolling out in other states throughout 2019.
And finally, what is your favorite gummy flavor?
I like the Mango flavor the most, but love the effects of the 2:1 CBD/THC ratio of our Yuzu gummies.
The first rule of cannabis coding: well, there are no rules…yet. Legal cannabis is still very much the digital Wild West for coders.
The Coffee Joint, Denver’s only licensed pot lounge, has been hosting a series of sessions called CannaCoding, bringing industry professionals and prospective cannabis coders together to talk about the developing trade. The lounge initially teamed up with Jamison Ordway, a software engineer and regular Coffee Joint visitor, to give cannabis technology (dubbed “cannatech” by those who work in it) a meeting point.
That meeting point, dubbed CannaCoding, was born in late 2018, and attendance has been growing. The third event, sponsored by notable dispensary brands, brought in five panelists from various cannatech companies on Thursday, January 17, to field questions about their experiences, with topics ranging from the industry’s hiring future to how e-commerce will play a role in cannabis.
“You’re not going to find a coding job with consumer-facing brands like Native Roots,” explained Zach Schulz of Vangst, a cannabis job recruiting firm. Schulz recommended that coders seek out ancillary companies like Baker, Leafly and dispensary analytics firm Flowhub if they want jobs right now, adding that retail brands like LivWell or Native Roots are likely to have in-house technology teams in the near future.
Cannopy vice president of operations Nathan Glass believes that finding your niche in cannatech is just as important as getting in early. Glass and his team at Cannopy have focused on the potential of online cannabis shopping if and when federal cannabis reform happens.
“You want to try to find the smallest valuable thing that you can change, make it, and prove that it works in the current environment,” he told the audience. “In the industry right now, sales are based on budtenders and people calling each other, but we’re trying to make an e-commerce marketplace. … I see a generation now where people shop online for everything. You may not need as many budtenders [one day].”
But as happens with virtually every sector of the pot industry and the businesses that serve it, evolving regulations around commercial cannabis are still hampering advancement. Each developer on the panel expressed frustration about working on projects for weeks, only to be told they were no longer relevant thanks to a subtle change in regulations.
Because everything can change so fast, Schulz emphasized working in a lean environment with an agile team that can respond to change quickly, and looking at the brighter side of a hectic atmosphere. “We get to guide how the industry develops, which is a really, really cool opportunity,” he said.
Panelists predicted that as the industry continues to grow, opportunities will arise from changes in manufacturing, e-commerce and states’ seed-to-sale tracking processes. Certain tasks, like manual data entry and compliance monitoring, may be replaced or streamlined, according to Ryan Budny, a developer for Flowhub.
“What we have seen allows dispensaries and grows to re-allocate labor and have fewer compliance people. A job that would have taken three hours of manual data entry now takes a button click. That is one concrete example,” he said.