A Frank Conversation with Mowgli Holmes, CEO of Phylos Bioscience
Earlier this year, Phylos Bioscience announced its plan to launch an in-house breeding program. The news prompted outrage within the community, sparking conversations about intellectual property and genetics research across the cannabis industry.
Many cultivators felt betrayed by the idea that the Portland-based cannabis science company would use data they submitted to the Phylos Galaxy — a comprehensive database that documents the cannabis genome — to steal vital cultivar information and use it against them.
Phylos released a statement assuring growers not to worry, that their fears were unfounded. They insisted they weren’t going to use their submitted data to create super strains to put craft cannabis growers out of business. None of that data can be used for breeding, and the breeding work they do will be primarily for large-scale biomass producers. The varieties they do develop for the craft flower market will be released under open-source licenses and should help to keep craft growers in business.
Now, a couple of months have passed. For the most part, Phylos has kept out of the media spotlight. Cannabis Aficionado spoke to CEO Mowgli Holmes to learn more about their approach to large-scale agriculture, plant patents and IP rights, and the future of cannabis.
Growers submitted their genomic data to you with the understanding that it would not be used to enhance any breeding programs. How did you not foresee this backlash from the industry following the announcement of your breeding program?
We didn’t foresee this reaction because this data isn’t useful for plant breeding. It’s just genetic sequence data, with no information on the plants themselves. The purpose of the galaxy has always been to empower everyone to learn from their plant’s data by comparing it to everything else. We made the galaxy and the raw data publicly available so that everyone could have full access to it.
I don’t think this question has really been about the data. It’s about having a company in the cannabis industry that is working with people from big ag. The science we’re using comes from those companies, and we’re hiring scientists who understand it. We’re also a company that is focused on environmental and social impact, and on moving agriculture toward sustainable practices. Cannabis growers don’t trust big ag and they don’t see how we could be working with people from those companies and still have these progressive goals. But we do.
You claim that your new breeding program will focus on large-scale agriculture. Why then do you think there is such a negative response to your breeding announcement from cannabis growers and craft cultivators?
Phylos concentrates on the global market because that’s where the plant needs the most work. I think that a lot of small growers assume that large-scale ag means lousy cannabis, so they don’t respect it. But it matters how the large growers operate. Phylos believes large-scale cannabis and hemp agriculture can actually operate sustainably and we’re committed to doing our part to move it in that direction. We also want to see the craft flower market thrive. We won’t be doing a lot of work there, but when we do it’s going to have a positive impact. The flower plants we release will be good for growers, and breeders will get to keep working with them.
Your presentation to investors at Benzinga seemed to confirm that you will use the submitted data to breed new strains. Why did you tell that to investors if it isn’t your intention? Why do you think your words were misconstrued?
That is not what I said to investors. But when I said that our testing business was a valuable data collection tool, I meant it. Having a high-throughput molecular genetics lab allowed us to generate lots of valuable data, but all of that work has been independent of the customer data we collected. As I said, the data we collected from customers cannot be used for breeding, period.
The data collected from customers was very limited and was made public via the Phylos Galaxy in order to prevent patent infringement and support greater transparency within the cannabis industry’s supply chain. It’s a tool for the industry, including our competitors, to use in understanding varieties and the evolution of cannabis. It’s not a tool that can help with breeding except in a very general way by letting people see relationships — and it’s available to everyone to use in that way.
Have you kept any of the genetic data so you could replicate any of the submitted material via plant tissue propagation?
No, we wouldn’t do that and it’s not possible. You can’t create a living plant from data and you can’t create a living plant from a dead tissue sample. We are not using any of our customer’s plants in our breeding program. The Galaxy is evidence that our customer’s plants belong to them.
We do have a large collection of living cannabis varieties, which we’ve acquired through fair and generous contracts with breeders, and we’re continuing to in-license new varieties.
Was patenting genetics, or your plans to use the data to create your own breeding program, in any fine print that people may have missed?
We’ve never had any plans to use that data for breeding because we always knew it wouldn’t be robust enough to breed with. But we were very openly and publicly building a breeding program meant to support other people’s plant work with our scientific tools. We just weren’t originally intending to do the actual plant work ourselves.
The largest part of a modern plant breeding program is the data infrastructure and we were clear very early on that we were developing genetic markers for breeding. As we’ve said, the customer data had no information on the physical characteristics of the plants themselves and couldn’t be used for breeding. We believed that this simple scientific fact would keep people from making the mistake of thinking we were using it for breeding.
As far as patenting goes, our position has always been that plant patents are fine, as long as they’re responsibly narrow and don’t cover entire categories of plants. Overly broad patents are bad for innovation and bad for the cannabis industry.
The Open Cannabis Project (OCP) closed at the end of May in response to your announcement, citing “deception” as the one reason. What are your thoughts on this situation?
We helped start the OCP to create a transparent and open-source repository of cannabis data that could enlarge the public domain and help to preserve genetic diversity in cannabis. I resigned from the board in order to ensure there was no connection between OCP and Phylos, but the board was already planning to dissolve the organization in December 2018 based on difficulty fundraising.
The OCP knew we were doing breeding work, they knew the science we were using was from big ag and they knew we were going to be willing to apply for limited patents. The OCP themselves have always supported limited patents. They also know how strong my personal commitment is to doing things differently than they’re done in traditional agriculture.
Nothing illustrates the intense emotion around this issue better than this does. Despite knowing all of that, I think they were genuinely shocked to see that we’re working with and hiring people from big ag companies. Progressives see those companies as truly evil, and they don’t have a framework for understanding how good people could possibly be working with them.
Unfortunately, nobody on the OCP board contacted us before they issued their statement. The idea that you could have one foot in both worlds and still be committed to being an ethical company — that’s impossible for many people to accept. But that stance is a decision to leave all of this scientific power in the hands of people you don’t trust.
How can growers trust you when you say you are not using their genomics and data to advance your own breeding program?
Anyone who looks at the science comes to see that you can’t use this data for breeding new plants.
But we are seeing that trust doesn’t come from scientific facts alone. We’re a mission-driven company and eventually people will see the benefits of the work we’re doing. The dust will clear and we’ll be working away, and then people will see.
Why do you think people were so quick to jump to the conclusion that you are using your position and power to harm the very people that you have spent so many years trying to protect?
This is the part that’s hard for me. Phylos has always been clear in our mission to bring science to cannabis and new approaches to agriculture, to preserve genetic diversity, and to help small farmers. It’s pretty crazy to find out that people can overnight decide you don’t mean the things you say. But again, I think the assumption is that if we had good intentions we wouldn’t be hiring scientists and advisors from the major ag companies. We need these people because they understand the complexities of the large-scale agricultural system better than anyone and they are uniquely positioned to help us change it for the better. The team of scientists that have joined Phylos is building an agricultural model that is profitable and sustainable for farmers. We always meant it when we said we cared about the craft flower community. But we also care about agriculture as a whole.
What is your desired achievement with your breeding program?
I got a lot of shit for saying this, but I’m just going to say it again: Phylos is going to create outrageous new plants. They’re going to work better for farmers and for consumers and they’re going to be constantly evolving.
We also believe that it’s important for us and the industry to give both fair credit and fair compensation to the breeders who have created amazing plants already and those that continue to do so. We are already signing agreements to make sure those breeders get paid as they should, and we hope it becomes the standard way of acquiring plants in the industry.
Phylos has built its mission around preserving the genetic diversity we’ve inherited. At the same time, we’re going to drive forward into the future of what this plant can do, which really will be incredible. We need to do both of those things.
We’re combining advanced science with sustainability principles. We’re using traditional breeding driven by genomic knowledge. We’re studying methods that let farmers minimize inputs costs at the same time as they’re building healthier soil. We’re going to help farmers profit from sustainability — and we’re going to make sustainability work better because it’s driven by hard data.
Where does Phylos Bioscience go from here?
We have to accept that some people see big ag companies as the enemy and they don’t trust anyone who’s working with them. But we need to have companies who can use the science from big ag in ways that are driven by a sense of social responsibility. We need to have companies who can figure out how to support environmentally sustainable approaches as they use this science. We need to have companies that are a bridge between these two worlds.
Phylos has one foot in the cannabis world and one foot in the world of large-scale agriculture. The role of our company is to be a bridge between these two worlds that don’t trust each other. To make it work, we’re going to have to be really committed to maintaining our values and measuring our success based on them. We’re going to have to be a little bit like Switzerland and work with everyone. We have to accept that we’re not going to make everyone happy, but we’re going to make damn sure the farms that work with us are successful.
To us, that means that they’re sustainably successful in ways that work long-term for them, and their workers, and the environment. For most of these larger farms the first step is simple: start growing hemp.
Tyson 2.0 Launches New Mike Bites Cannabis Gummies
Nearly 25 years after he was disqualified from the World Boxing Association Heavyweight Championship for biting his opponent’s ears, Mike Tyson’s Tyson 2.0 cannabis brand has just released ear-shaped edibles, Mike Bites.
The new ear-shaped edibles are complete with a missing chunk where Tyson removed a portion of Evander Holyfield’s cartilage in what became known as The Bite Fight. After Tyson bit off a chunk of Holyfield’s ear, the 1997 match resumed. However, after attempting to snack on Holyfield’s second ear, Tyson was disqualified and his boxing licence was withdrawn. The Nevada State Athletic Commission handed Tyson a a $3 million fine for his actions and he didn’t fight again for over a year.
Mike Bites gummies will be sold at dispensaries in California, Massachusetts and Nevada.
Wiz Khalifa Debuts New Taylor Gang x Stündenglass Collab
Wiz Khalifa and his entertainment company Taylor Gang Ent. have collaborated with Stündenglass, the world’s first gravity-powered infuser, to introduce the iconic gold and black Taylor Gang x Stündenglass.
“I’m honored to have collaborated with long time friend Wiz Khalifa, who is as passionate about this product as I am. Our mutual admiration for Stündenglass made it a natural collaboration,” Stündenglass CEO Chris Folkerts said via a press release.
Taylor Gang x Stündenglass is an authentic collaboration developed after the multi-platinum-selling, Grammy-winning, Golden Globe-nominated Khalifa discovered Stündenglass and began enjoying it regularly as seen on his Instagram.
“I love my Stündenglass, and I’m pumped everyone gets to experience this with me now,” Khalifa.
The infuser features a patented 360-degree gravity system that elicits a powerful and immersive experience. It generates kinetic motion activation via cascading water, opposing airflow technology and the natural force of gravity.
The Taylor Gang gravity bing comes in an exclusive black and gold colorway and features two glass globes on a metal base made of aircraft-grade aluminum, surgical grade stainless steel, and high-quality Teflon seals.
Taylor Gang includes artists Ty Dolla $ign, Juicy J, and Berner among others — the former of which has his own line Stündenglass collab with his Cookies brand.
“We’re very excited to launch the official Taylor Gang x Stündenglass. We use glass in our everyday lives, so it only made sense to team up and create an exclusive Taylor Gang collaboration for the fans,” Taylor Gang said.
No Super Bowl for Brock Ollie
With medicinal marijuana being legal in 37 states and recreational cannabis allowed in 18, we should be seeing commercials for companies, products, and services almost as frequently as commercials for sports betting, which is permitted in 30 states in some form.
However, mainstream cannabis advertising continues to be non-existent, as demonstrated in the recent news that NBC has rejected an ad by cannabis e-commerce and advertising platform Weedmaps from being shown during the Super Bowl LVI event his coming Sunday.
Weedmaps reportedly approached the network late last year about airing a Super Bowl commercial that would be “similar to a PSA,” according to reports. Execs volunteered to present some of their earlier educational-based programming, assuring NBC executives that it would not contain any direct-sell messages, which are still forbidden under federal law.
“The answer was a hard no — they wouldn’t even entertain the conversation,” Weedmaps Chief Operating Officer Juanjo Feijoo told Adweek. “We see ourselves as trying to be trailblazers in the industry and making new inroads where others haven’t gone before in cannabis advertising. So it was disappointing.”
The contentious ad personifies cannabis as Brock Ollie, a head of broccoli, the veggie emoji commonly used as a visual representation of cannabis in marketing. The 30-second ad takes viewers through a day in the life of Brock Ollie, whose superfood identity is in jeopardy as he is repeatedly misidentified as cannabis. The ad offers a lighthearted take on the industry’s issues, such as social media censorship and a lack of clear advertising standards, which limit cannabis-related commercials during nationally televised events like the Super Bowl.
“Despite three quarters of the country having legalized cannabis and the bipartisan enthusiasm we continue to see in support for change at the federal level, the industry continues to face roadblocks that inhibit competition in the legal market and stifle opportunities to educate,” Chris Beals, CEO of Weedmaps said. “There’s an irony in the fact that the biggest night for advertising will feature an array of consumer brands in regulated industries, from beverage alcohol to sports betting, yet legal cannabis retailers, brands and businesses have been boxed out.”
The game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Rams will be played Sunday in L.A.