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Industry Innovators

Cameron Forni: How to Build a Billion-Dollar Cannabis Empire

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Cameron Forni
PHOTO | Select Oil
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Cameron Forni knows a thing or two about building a billion dollar cannabis company. The CEO of Cura and founder of Select Oil has always been an innovative thinker. In 2015, he identified and developed the need for an organic cotton wick vape pen, providing a healthier consumption method. From there, he set his mission to be the leading provider of cannabis oil to both consumers and premium brands in legal markets, both in the U.S. and internationally.

We spoke to Forni about his entrepreneurial journey, Cura’s record-breaking success in the cannabis industry, and his predictions for the future of cannabis.

Cannabis Aficionado: Tell us a little bit about your journey through entrepreneurship and how you ended up in the cannabis world.

Cameron Forni: I’ve been an entrepreneur my entire life and have had many incredible mentors. Entrepreneurship was in my blood; I did everything from selling flowers on the side of the street in Milwaukie, Oregon as young as four-years-old, to managing a car detailing business in high school, to building an event company in college. I have always been interested in business and entrepreneurship.

Right out of college, my goal was to create jobs, not to take a job. I started my journey in entrepreneurship when I co-founded TextNoMore, an app designed to reward drivers avoiding texting while driving. From there, I co-founded TryEco LLC, which holds a patent on a starch-based, biodegradable super-absorbent polymer used primarily in agricultural applications. I always had a focus on building businesses that helped people live better lives and achieve more and that’s what led me to cannabis.

With both a medical card and a caregiver card on hand, I started looking at what the future of cannabis would be. I knew that combustion wouldn’t be a long-term option for most cannabis consumers, so I started focusing on safety and vaporization. I started taking apart every vaporizer pen in the market and learned that silica fiberglass was commonly found in most cartridges, so I built a new cartridge, innovated with organic cotton and unique absorption systems.

That’s when Select was born. It’s been quite the journey!

Over the last 18 months, Cura has seen record-breaking success in the industry. You became the first cannabis company to appear in INC. magazine’s annual top 50 companies in 2018. Now, your billion-dollar deal with Curaleaf Holdings is said to be the largest ever among American companies. How does it feel to be behind one of the industry’s golden unicorns?

Wow, what an incredibly cool question to hear. It’s often difficult for me to pause and reflect, so thank you! I’m thankful for the team who has helped build this incredible company with me every day. When you are relentlessly working and traveling (on pace for 300 flights this year alone) because you are so obsessed about something, it’s hard to turn it off. It’s been more than four years of hard work, but in cannabis years, they say that for every one year you multiply by seven because it’s moving so fast!

Sometimes it’s really hard to step back and look at what the work has become. People think that achieving milestones like the Inc. 500 placement or our billion-dollar acquisition must be all we think about, but it’s not always straight forward. We face federal regulatory approval, state licensing approval, audits and regulatory change in each state so often that it’s difficult to master balancing it all. That’s why you need an incredible team.

Cameron Forni (left) started his entrepreneurial path at a young age.

Cura is widely respected in the industry for innovative extraction techniques and its focus on setting high standards for quality products. How has it evolved from its beginnings into the industry leader it is today?

First of all, it’s always been about building the best team possible and taking care of people along the way.

Our evolution over a short period of time is due to our constant focus on innovation, setting best practices and our never-ending pursuit of better.

Senate Bill 582 will allow Oregon to import and export cannabis products across state lines — but only if the federal government changes its policies. What are your thoughts on this?

The main hurdle is the federal Controlled Substances Act which bans interstate shipments of cannabis. That would have to change. Otherwise, the states that attempt to implement this are subject to crackdown by the Federal Government. There is much work to be done here before this becomes a reality.

Which international markets do you think are really leading the charge right now?

The industry is in the first of a nine-inning ball game. With now 11 states with adult use policies, 33 states with medical cannabis laws and 62 percent of Americans in favor of legalizing cannabis (according to PEW), I expect the industry to have massive growth and significant consolidation.

Canada is the leader from the standpoint of the financial market because it came in early, established policies and amassed significant capital to deploy into international markets. However, the leaders in medical cannabis and cannabis research is still Israel who has been making significant investments into research and development in cannabis science.

Will vape pens replace flower? Why or why not?

There’s a nostalgia and ritual to consuming joints and using flower. With baby boomers and longtime cannabis users that will undoubtedly continue. However, U.S. consumer preferences always gear more towards convenience. The closer we can create the experience of vaporizing unique cannabis terpene and oil formulations, the closer we can get to replicating the experience to that of flower. Long term you will see vaporization pass combustion of flower and in the end, it’s safer.

What new challenges will the industry face going forward?

Banking, taxation, legislation and real estate have always been the major challenges facing cannabis operators. We are the most heavily taxed industries in the world. We are also one of the most heavily tracked — meaning track and traced — industries in the world. In every legal state we use RFID chips on each product case that goes to stores in order to track the product from seed to sale.

Last but not least, cannabis companies achieving profitability is becoming critical to survival in this space. With large gluts of products in states like Oregon, it makes it very hard to run a profitable business under incredibly high taxation.

What trends are shaping cannabis in 2019?

I expect unique terpene profiles and oil formulations to become more popular. Additionally, innovative, discreet and more elevated devices will be the main drivers for 2019.

What demographic do you see having the most growth?

We’re seeing more and more young professionals 25-35 come on board to cannabis at a quick rate. Millennials are seeking cannabis options that suit their own personal needs and they’re becoming more willing to share their interest in cannabis publicly.

What are your one year, five year, and 10-year predictions for the cannabis industry?

1 year: More states will continue to come on board and legalize adult-use cannabis. With that, we’ll also see an uptick in normalization around the country.

5 year: Ideally, the STATES Act will pass, providing more people with access to cannabis, jobs and business opportunities around the country.

10 year: Cannabis is treated by society and regulated by the government like alcohol and will become mainstream.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you started?

The biggest piece of advice I’d offer to new cannabis entrepreneurs would be to surround yourself with people who fill in your weaknesses early on.

It’s important to be agile and never get stuck to a plan. The plan is always changing because the regulatory environment is always changing. You can’t work in this industry without being agile and nimble with decision-making.

Finally, what are the three things people don’t know about being a cannabis entrepreneur?

  1. Time commitment: If you want to be successful in this business be prepared to give up your social life. I find myself traveling 48 weeks a year. Having a very understanding partner is critical as well!
  2. The regulatory environment WILL shift beneath your feet. Expect to order one million boxes of packaging and 2 weeks later that package is obsolete in one of the states you operate in because they need a new sticker
  3. Cost and funding: Traditional capital is not readily available to the cannabis entrepreneur, you need to make sure your business can survive and thrive. It’s very expensive to handle all the taxes and fees that accompany a cannabis business. For example, in California we face 44% supply chain tax, 12% excise tax, 11% sales tax, 5% gross revenue tax, 35% 280E tax, along with licensing fees and higher-than-normal rates for real estate… just because we’re a cannabis company.

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Industry Innovators

Jason Washington: Creating a Global Cannabis Kulture

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Jason Washington
Jason Washington. PHOTOS | Supplied

Jason Washington is a successful entrepreneur both in and out of the cannabis industry. He is also the second person in U.S. history to face a jury trial proceeding on a state-licensed medical marijuana case. His story is a powerful reminder that the most dangerous thing about the cannabis plant is the grey area that surrounds its legal status.

In 2011, Washington’s Big Sky Health dispensary was the largest legal operation in Montana. And despite medical marijuana being legal in the state since 2004, the Feds raided him. At trial, he was found guilty of conspiracy to manufacture and distribute cannabis and possession with intent to distribute. His judge deviated from the mandatory minimum sentence guidelines of 10 years, instead sentencing the former University of Montana Grizzly quarterback to two years in federal prison. In October 2014, his original sentence was reduced from 24 to 21 months, with the judge ordering Washington’s immediate release.

Washington returned to his home state of California where his natural aptitude for business saw him start several successful companies, including Ignite with Matthew Morgan and Dan Bilzerian.

Fueled by his desire to help those who had been wrongly incarcerated like himself, Washington went on to found Kulture, a full-service cannabis agency with a twist — you have to have a proven legacy with the plant to make the cut. The company has cultivation, extraction and manufacturing operations in five different states: Arizona, California, Oklahoma, Michigan and Missouri.

Cannabis Aficionado spoke to Washington about his loyalty to legacy operators, his advice to newcomers to the industry, and his plans for a global cannabis network.

CA: What sets Kulture apart from other cannabis agencies?

Jason Washington: One of the mandatory stipulations for being accepted or invited into the Kulture family is that you have to be a legacy operator. And a legacy operator suggests basically that you have a proven track record of 10 plus years in the cannabis space. You’re someone that was in this when it wasn’t just the latest “cool” business venture for Ivy League grads.

My directors of indoor cultivation are Bill and Jeff Levers aka the Beard Brothers, who are legacy operators. We’ve been running together for over two years — longer than Kulture has been established. Our philosophies and ideologies align. In fact, their commitment to helping veterans inspired the backpacks in our new clothing line; these are based on tactical gear as a salute to our veterans.

Jason with the Beard Bros Bill Levers (far left) and Jeff Levers (right) and Eric Brandstad at the Arizona facility.

Why is this so important to you?

The pioneers of this industry have not been able to participate in the new legal market. A lot of people have made a lot of money off the backs of those who are now deemed criminals. Guys like me — those with weed felonies or federal felonies — aren’t looking for handouts. To be honest, I don’t know how to solve the problem. I just know that the problem exists.

Tell me more about your new clothing line and how it’s helping to change the stigma around cannabis?

Some very successful brands started with clothing in emerging markets just for brand awareness. For me, it’s about establishing normalcy like any other brand. In California, Prop 64 means we have been able to normalize the use of cannabis as a recreational drug. And as a very beneficial medical alternative to pharmaceuticals and other forms of pain management. Cannabis is becoming more and more acceptable, and it’s one more facet of people’s lives.

I’ve been in the cannabis game for a long time, so for me, the clothing line is new and exciting. Normalizing cannabis is the main reason I’ve launched it. The style is influenced by what my cultivators wear when they’re in the facilities. It ties into the Kulture lifestyle and appeals to a lot of different demographics.

One of the backpacks from Kulture’s new apparel line.

What are your expansion plans for Kulture?

Here’s the thing, cannabis doesn’t only help people in America. There’s a whole world of people that need this plant and our help and expertise. We have to focus on more than just America and more than our little micro-environments. I see Kulture as a 300-person global agency with offices in America, South America and somewhere in Europe or Africa. I see it as a combination that brings together the best cannabis talent in the world. Where the brightest minds come together under one roof to provide the best cannabis for everybody to enjoy.

What’s the most important thing that needs to be addressed when people are talking about cannabis legalization?

The conversation around inclusion needs to be further expanded upon. There’s still a lot of people that are in jail for this plant.

Another problem is people riding social equity but did not serve a day in jail or have never been prosecuted or raided. People get pushed to the front because they say, “I grew up in this neighborhood or I grew up in that neighborhood.” But those who were affected or who served time are not able to obtain a license. For example, I live in California, but my charge is federal, is in the state of Montana. So I can’t get an equity license in California because my charges did not originate in California. I’d have to go back to the state of Montana to participate or to be a license holder.

Look, I understand why states have said that in order for you to be an equity applicant the crime or the charge has to have been committed in that state or jurisdiction. I totally get that. But it’s keeping guys that went to federal prison for cannabis-related crimes shut out. They’re kept from participating from a licensing standpoint because their charge originated in a different jurisdiction than where they reside. Most federal indictments are brought in different jurisdictions than your home state.   

Jason with son Jaxon taken at Taft Federal Correctional Institution.

How do you think the cannabis industry can be better?

The biggest thing is if all these new executives and people coming into the space entered with more knowledge. They can’t get the experience, I get it. But at least the knowledge and understanding of what so many people have sacrificed for so long and went through. Understand the culture. Don’t completely strip cannabis of everything it’s been for so long and turn it into spreadsheets and mass production. Because that’s not what it is.

I get bringing a more professional business environment to the space; more legitimacy, more scientific data and more research-based products to market. But at the same time, don’t forget those who have given you this opportunity. Don’t forget how you got here and the sacrifice that was made to allow you to participate in this industry.

What do you wish you knew when you first started out in cannabis?

The power of the federal government and what substitute asset forfeiture meant. Haha.

What are the three qualities you need to be a successful cannabis entrepreneur?

I think perseverance is one of the biggest. I’ve been in it for 12 years and I’ve seen people come and go who don’t have the character and the stamina to fight through all that you have to fight through — whether it’s local municipalities, competition, or failed crops. You’ve got to be an innovator. You’ve got to be someone who is a survivor and a fighter.

At Honeydew farms

Do you have a career highlight?

There’s one thing that really sticks out to me to this day and it was when we opened the first Montana dispensary. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t 100% sold on the medical benefits of cannabis at first until one particular firsthand account from a mother. I was her son’s caregiver; her son was 13 or 14 years old and was epileptic. She came in one day and broke down crying because she didn’t have to go to the streets for cannabis anymore. She said, “You have no idea how much I admire and respect your courage and how much you helped my son. You guys being here and taking care of us has been like God answering my prayers.” It was very heavy and very emotional.

Hearing those kinds of stories and testimonials gave me the strength to stand up for what I was doing and believed in at the time. It still does to this day.

Believe it or not, I don’t look at federal prison as the worst thing that ever happened to me. It gave me the opportunity to sit back, reflect and learn from the choices and decisions that I’ve made. Maybe mistakes, maybe not mistakes.

Any advice for anyone that’s thinking of getting into cannabis?

If you’re thinking about getting into it now, you need to position yourself and prepare yourself for the long haul. You’re only warming up after five years in the space. This is a daily education. Cannabis is unique in a sense, it’s not like any other businesses. You can apply past experiences from other businesses ventures. But the hands-on education that you get on a day to day basis is like no other. 

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Brett Stevens: Lighting the Way for Indoor Cultivators

Brett Stevens of Fohse is on a mission to make his company’s name synonymous with hi-tech LED grow lights for the cannabis industry.

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Indoor Cannabis Cultivators
PHOTO | Brett Stevens, CEO of Fohse

At Fohse, meeting the challenges faced by indoor cannabis cultivators with superior lighting solutions is the prime directive. It’s a niche that co-founder and CEO Brett Stevens says is rife with opportunity for those with the talent to innovate. A serial entrepreneur with several successful exits in new and emerging markets under his belt, Stevens is now firmly focused on the cannabis industry.

“I originally got into the farming side of it, and I could definitely see where at that time, five or six years ago, there were so many holes that needed to be filled. It was kind of like, pick a side and go with it,” Stevens told Cannabis Aficionado.

The sector he believed had the most potential to impact the cannabis industry was engineering, and Stevens had kept his ear to the ground for tech opportunities, specifically for cannabis. So, when an engineer friend shared his design for advanced LED lighting, he saw a chance to bring value to a nascent industry.

Unapologetically Pro-Cannabis

For Las Vegas-based Fohse, the vision is to continually expand the tech in the cannabis industry, and Stevens is proud and unapologetic about the company’s focus.

“We’ve pigeonholed ourselves into the cannabis industry. We didn’t create the light for any other plant,” he explained. “We are sold on the plant. We’re sold on the medical purposes of the plant, and we really want to be there as the plant is more readily explored.” 

In order to be true innovators, Fohse doesn’t settle for the services of outside engineers. Instead, the company has its own in-house engineering team creating cannabis lighting solutions from the ground up. Stevens touched on SolidWorks, a 3D computer-aided design (CAD) program, that Fohse’s engineering team uses for their technical drawings. 

“We do all our material science, and we do all of our material engineering to make sure that the materials we’re using to dissipate heat or to project that photon where it needs to go [are sound]. We’re doing all that in-house.” he explained.

A Company Driven by the Question, “What If?”

Stevens noted that he’s not one to micromanage his executive team though. Instead, he said that his leadership style is to assemble a solid corps of professionals and let them go to work. And as inspiration, he encourages his engineers to continuously ask, “What if?”

“What if we could do ten pounds a light?” he wondered aloud. “What if we could do four micromoles per joule? How would we do that?” 

“We’re consistently thinking, ‘How can we be more efficient, and more powerful?’ And I think that’s what drives me,” he added.

According to Stevens, the combined talent and drive at Fohse are producing the most advanced LED lights available to cannabis cultivators. And that’s not just an assertion. It’s a claim that is backed by the company’s research.

“We are literally the most powerful and the most efficient light in the world right now,” Stevens said, adding that Fohse has done grow ops where they have bought and tested every single competitor’s light.

“There’s no question,” Stevens states confidently. “We will outgrow anything on the market.”

Creating an Industry Standard for Indoor Cannabis Cultivators

When his company entered the business, Stevens says the light manufacturing industry was racing to the bottom, with everyone trying to produce the cheapest lamps that would still grow cannabis. But Fohse took a different approach altogether.

“We looked at it more like, ‘What if we put massive power supplies and 5,000 diodes in a light?’ and ‘What if we could replicate indoor sunlight?’” he explained, adding that they focused closely on grams per square foot. 

“Because in the end, that’s what it comes down to, right?” he asked. “If you have a finite amount of space, the more you can grow in that area, the more productive and the more successful you’ll be.”

Constantly striving to increase productivity and efficiency for indoor cannabis cultivators is what the team at Fohse is all about. And that drive, Stevens says, will become increasingly evident when the company’s products are known as the industry standard.

“I think that we’re hungry, that we’re always advancing. We will not stop until we will reach the absolute pinnacle,” he pledged.

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Industry Innovators

Michael Trzecieski: The ‘World’s Coolest Bong’ Design Director

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Michael Trzecieski Stüdenglass

 Every now and then, a game-changing product comes along that tempts us to throw all other gadgets and glass out the window. The Stüdenglass gravity bong is one such product. Chances are you know of the bong through the viral video showing contemporary stoner icon Seth Rogen gripped by a coughing fit after one hit — cementing the bong’s place in counterculture legend.

The original product was conceived by ex-Apple alumni Tracey Huston, who filed the patent back in 2016. Recently, Stüdenglass was acquired by one of the most innovative — and coolest — cannabis companies, Grenco Science. Shortly after, Michael Trzecieski, founder of Vapium and tech-designer extraordinaire, took up the challenge of refining the state-of-the-art mounted gravity bong for top-shelf aficionados.

Cannabis Aficionado caught up with Trzecieski to talk about the synergies between weed and tech, how the Stüdenglass has improved, and, of course, that Seth Rogen video.

Cannabis Aficionado: Tell us about your journey through entrepreneurship and how you found your way to cannabis.

Michael Trzecieski: Growing up in Canada has afforded me many opportunities but there are two that have been the most formative — the first was becoming a Roboticist and the second was to witness and experience a country who showed true compassion toward cannabis as medicine. I was allowed to see the power of the plant without shame or indignity.

My journey as a Roboticist started in fibre optics, engineering micro-robotic toys. At the same time, Canada was making enormous strides towards full legalization. The timing, coupled with my desire to support the medical cannabis consumer, allowed me to shift my focus and passion — making a different kind of robot to support the people who needed it most. With this goal in mind, I took my years of experience in safety and controls (from toys being so heavily regulated) and applied this to making our first haptic vaporizer back in 2012.

Can you share your thoughts around the synergy between tech and cannabis?

Tech allows users to titrate their cannabis experience so they can choose to consume at various levels.​ ​Traditional methods of consumption are not always effective for all patients, and innovation is paramount for harm reduction and efficiencies. It is essential to have clean air intake, temperature stabilization. Temperature stabilization allows the vaporizing device to toast the leaf material instead of combusint it using a closed-loop temperature stabilization feedback system. At lower temperatures consumers can experience improved terpene profiles while at higher temperatures they may enjoy stronger effects.

What were the things you set out to achieve when designing the Stündenglass gravity bong?

The new Stündenglass glass gravity bong was designed for aesthetics, precision machining and cleaner vapor.​ ​We also wanted to provide a more comfortable user experience. Through the kinetic motion activation, vapours are sucked into an upper chamber and as water rushes from the upper chamber to lower chamber, the vapor percolates through the flowing water stream and offers vapour filtration as well as vapor cooling.

Tell us about the materials and why you chose them.

The materials chosen for the Stündenglass were predominantly glass and metal.

Glass offers a supreme taste, it is easy to clean, and it does not attract vapor and oil particles.

Stainless steel was also chosen as one of the core elements in the device because of its cleanliness as well as its ability to be precision-machined and for its high wearability in the valve portion of the device.

Anodized aluminium was also utilized for its durability and longevity.

What’s your favorite thing about the Stündenglass gravity bong?

It’s magical. The kinetic motion activation allows the device to both suck vapour as well as expel vapor at the same time, and provides percolation and water vapor filtration. There are also many magnetic components because magnets are also kind of magical.

Stündenglass was recently acquired by Grenco Science. Can you tell us details of how this exciting acquisition came about?

We first got to know Tracey Huston, and it was immediately apparent that there was a synergy between the brands, with a shared goal of innovation and improving upon the user experience. We recognized the ingenuity behind Stündenglass and understood how we could help by bringing this product into Grenco Science’s global expansion plan. From there it was a natural next step to bring Stündenglass into the Grenco Science umbrella.

How has the device evolved since its initial prototype?

The initial prototype was a very functional and utilitarian type unit. The design was since improved for its aesthetics, robustness, as well as the modularity. Furthermore, the percolation was an added feature and an improvement over the first model.

Subsequent models have allowed for modularity. The modules may be removed and taken apart, cleaned and accessorized, as well as replaced with other future potential attachments and improvements. A wall mount was also provided.

The viral video of Seth Rogen with his Stündenglass put the gravity bong on the wish-list of every aficionado, cementing its place in cannabis culture legend. How did it come about?

It was very organic. An early prototype was given to someone in Seth Rogen’s family, who then gave it to him. It was his own idea to create the video and share the experience online.

What tech trends do you predict for the cannabis industry over the next five years?

The bigger tech trends in the cannabis industry include dosing and data. Many customers want to be able to monitor their dosages as well as have data associated with their consumption, like what a Fitbit tracker does for fitness. This will allow producers to develop more meaningful formulations for their consumers as the data and dosing science evolves.

How do your products help shift the stigma about cannabis?

Our products help the ship the stigma on cannabis by bringing technology to the industry. This tech comes in the form of improved heating technologies, industrial design, safer material choices and temperature stabilized heating control loops.

In your opinion, what’s the most important thing that needs to be addressed when talking about cannabis?

That cannabis is a medicine. We are only beginning to uncover its real potential as legalization around the world grows.

How do you think the cannabis industry as a whole can be better?

Accountability. One of the major issues in the industry at the moment is a lack of accountability and a lack of safety and testing standards. There are still some operators that are looking to make a quick buck from unassuming consumers, and last year’s vape crisis was a direct result of that.

The cannabis industry is just in its beginning stages and needs to evolve. With this evolution there will be added accountability and more rules and regulations to ensure it’s safer for all.

What do you wish you knew when you started out in cannabis entrepreneurship?

I wish I knew that it was not going to be easy, and this holds true for any entrepreneurship. Finding the right people and putting together the right team is really important. It took us years to finally find the right partners and the right people to work with. This allowed us to evolve from a smaller operation to a larger entity.

Finally, what are three things it takes to be a cannabis entrepreneur?

I would say the first thing is creativity. You have to be full of ideas; you have to understand how to change the game; and how to make a difference, not just fit in. As the industry quickly evolves with ever changing rules and regulations, you need to keep your head in the game. It’s an industry for sharp minded entrepreneurs who know they can make a difference.

You’ve got to be tenacious, never take no for an answer, and keep on pushing for what you want to achieve going forward. No one’s going to do it for you. You need to drive your creativity home to others and have them believe in you.

You need to show up and be present in order to know what the industry is about. You need to be present at trade shows, events and gatherings where you can meet the right people in order to develop the right relationships.

Follow Michael Trzecieski on Linkedin.

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