The historic, venture capital-fueled tech boom of the past two decades in Silicon Valley and beyond has turned “innovation” into perhaps one of the most abused terms in our day-to-day lexicon. Years of buzzword status have disconnected us from a meaningful understanding of the real hallmarks of innovation and the conditions that give rise to it. As such, most people wouldn’t consider the cannabis industry the ideal environment to develop new, world-changing technologies; luckily for a small swathe of forward thinking entrepreneurs and investors, most people are wrong.
Before we can understand why that’s the case, we have to understand what the perfect petri dish for innovative technologies looks like. It’s a pretty simple formula:
A lack of big, incumbent competitors with the power and pocketbooks necessary to crush small upstarts or buy them out before they really change things
A wealth of difficult, but surmountable challenges that demand creative solutions
A large enough potential for profitable payouts to drive entrepreneurs ceaselessly towards the goal of building successful businesses
In short, if there’s a big enough pot of gold on the other side of a big enough wall and nobody is kicking sand in your face, you’re going to build a ladder.
So let’s look at cannabis:
Persistent federal prohibition, reputational risks, the need for domain specific knowledge, and the small size of cannabis relative to existing markets means big technology players have given the industry a wide berth, leaving room for new players to enter the space and have a fighting chance
Regulatory restrictions, supply-chain complexities, and a plant with seemingly endless applications and administration methods create an even more endless stream of difficult challenges to overcome
Perhaps the most popular illegal consumer product in the history of the world opening up overnight as a now legitimate stream of revenue is the best wealth generating opportunity since the invention of the internet
With that said, below is an overview of just a few of the verticals that this ideal innovating environment is driving forward at breakneck speed.
Indoor Agriculture, Particularly Lighting
Prohibition originally drove black market cannabis cultivators indoors to avoid police detection, and the piecemeal process of legalization thus far has restricted the sale of cannabis across state lines, forcing today’s grey market supply chains to grow cannabis in climates that are entirely unfit for its survival--necessitating the continued tradition of indoor cultivation. Lucky for us, this has driven a wealth of innovation across indoor cultivation technologies, including automated, specific spectrum lighting systems, crop-monitoring systems, and climate controlling HVAC systems. So, does indoor cannabis growing fit into our framework above? Let’s see:
No incumbents: Big agricultural giants like Monsanto aren’t growing weed and likely aren’t planning to until it’s federally legal, which means small, agile operators can survive long enough to develop new and better methodologies
Surmountable challenges: Several challenges face these small operators -- the mismatched climates they’re forced to inhabit, the extreme sensitivity of the cannabis plant to its surroundings, and the need to maximize extremely specific chemical components of the plant, just to name a few.
Profit potential: Massive potential for profit per square foot, particularly in the early days of legalization, means cultivators are incentivized to invest in expensive technologies for even minute increases in yield (though, wholesale prices are dropping rapidly as new entrants and improved yields, in part due to these innovations, drive supply into the market).
So, what have we gotten out of it? A whole lot, but for the sake of brevity let’s focus on lighting technology, where increases in energy efficiency, reductions in manufacturing input costs, lengthened light bulb lifetimes, and even bulbs that can emit variable wavelengths of light to optimize plant health for different stages of the growing cycle. LED manufacturers like Black Dog LED, BIOS Lighting, and iGrow are on the cutting edge of indoor growing technologies that are beginning to seep out into traditional agriculture, where growing produce in unfavorable climates can help service food deserts, reduce costs and emissions from shipping and refrigeration, and enhance produce yields and nutritional density.
Precision Medicating and Quantified Vaporization
Beyond indoor agriculture, the reintroduction of cannabis, one of the oldest and most widely applied medicinal plants in human history, into the landscape of wellness and medical technology has shaken things up quite a bit. Perhaps nowhere more so than in the field of measured dosing and related analytics tools allowing patients and their caregivers to closely manage their treatment in a way previously thought to be impossible.
For example, Gofire is the maker of a cannabis vaporizer and dose monitoring app. The vaporizer works with a patented “SMART” extract cartridge, which communicates the specific cannabinoid properties to the app, so that the user can track and monitor the extract’s effects with extreme precision. SMART cartridges and dose codes communicate the chemical profile of each product to the app, so that you can tell exactly what’s in each dose. And you can document and track your experiences in the app. Technologies of this type are not only shifting the paradigm of pharmaceutical management, away from physicians and towards patients, but are also creating entirely new methods of data intake with applications across multiple inhaled pharmaceuticals.
Innovation Abounds, But Structural Challenges Persist
It’s no secret that the cannabis industry attracts risk-tolerant investors. As the Ted Nugent song goes: ”The stakes are high and so am I.” But innovators should be cautious as the tide shifts and larger pools of institutional and corporate money continue to pour in. Entrepreneurs are wise to seek patent protection of their innovations now, but this is where it gets dicey. Since cannabis is still federally illegal, it’s difficult for cannabis to enjoy the same IP protections extended to other industries.
The challenge for cannabis innovators is to protect their inventions when the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) will not grant marks on cannabis goods and services. Perhaps the most effective way to protect your cannabis IP is to obtain a federal trademark on inventions and processes that can be applied to non-cannabis plants, i.e. “herbal materials”, or to patent your product at the state level. But with so many states legalizing cannabis, a state-based patent is limited on how much in can protect. Moreover, a lack of domain-expertise regarding cannabis products and technologies makes the USPTO extremely susceptible to granting overly broad patents which cramp innovation across the entire industry.
As the pace of innovation in cannabis continues to increase, surpassing even the technologies available in larger, more established industries, entrepreneurs need to ensure that they effectively manage the firehose of value they’re creating and expand their inventions as far and wide as possible.
This article was written by Andrew Duffy, CEO and Co-Founder of Best in Grow. Best in Grow is on a mission to make every dispensary experience excellent, and that starts with the budtender. Ninety-two percent of consumers take the exact product recommendation of the budtender, making their influence and expertise foundational to how cannabis products perform in the market.
Best in Grow is a software solution that empowers dispensary operators and brands to understand and harness the immense influence of the budtender. With tools like internal communications, scheduling, compliance task-management, and brand education, Best in Grow is the world’s most powerful dispensary team management platform. You can learn more about Best in Grow at: https://bestingrow.io/demo