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A Frank Conversation with Mowgli Holmes, CEO of Phylos Bioscience

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Phylos Bioscience
PHOTO | Supplied
Rocket Seeds

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.

Phylos scientists in the lab. PHOTO | Supplied

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.

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5 Tips for Owning and Operating Successful Cannabis Dispensaries

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Cannabis Dispensaries
PHOTOS | Shiny Bud

The cannabis retail landscape has changed. Once regarded as somewhat of a novelty, legalization has allowed cannabis dispensaries to evolve into modern and innovative retail storefronts more akin to an Apple Store than the dark, secretive spaces they used to be. Some, like Shiny Bud, are proving to be leaders in the space, setting an exemplary standard of a contemporary cannabis retail experience.

Shiny Bud is one of Canada’s most successful dispensary chains. They pride themselves on offering customers a premium experience from the moment they enter, from a contemporary and inviting store design to highly trained staff, and of course, premium products.

Co-founder Alex Ledesma joined the cannabis industry when the Canadian government passed the Cannabis Act in 2018. She comes from a forward-thinking family of entrepreneurs, so the move to cannabis was an obvious next step.

“I saw an opportunity to be part of something big in Canada’s history, so we started following the industry, and applied for an application,” said Ledesma. 

Shiny Bud opened its first dispensary in Toronto on February 14. Fast forward only a few months, and the company has opened the doors to its fifth location in a small town called Orleans, just outside of Ottawa.

“We have a pretty aggressive rollout,” said Ledesma. “Coming from a quick-service industry, we’re quite comfortable with builds and finding locations. We took our expertise from that and put it into cannabis. And it’s all completely within the family.”

Shiny Bud was awarded 75 dispensary licenses by the Canadian government. The company’s expansion plans include two more Ontario store openings this year, bringing the total number of store openings to seven. And they have no plans to slow down.

“We should be hitting 30 stores by the end of 2021. And we’re planning on maxing out to 75 stores allocated. When we stop to think about it, it can take our breath away.”

The constant march forward of legalization has created an ever-growing interest in dispensary ownership. Below, Ledesma offers up five pieces of advice for those looking to enter the cannabis game.

1. Have a Well-Trained Team That’s Focused on Customer Experience 

As the industry is still so young, formal education in cannabis is still relatively scarce amongst prospective employees. For Shiny Bud, this presents an opportunity to reinforce one of their most important business objectives: provide cannabis education and training for their budtenders to pass on to their customers.

“Education is everything because the industry’s so new,” Ledesma said. “We truly believe that we’re an industry where we need to listen to our guests. This is one of the first things we teach our budtenders, along with providing a safe and educational experience for our customers in-store.” 

For many customers, the biggest value in going to a dispensary is learning which products are best suited for a specific condition or effect, whether they’re seasoned cannabis consumers or newly curious. 

“The goal for budtenders at Shiny Bud is to ensure customers are choosing the right product for them to provide a safe experience both in-store and at home,” Ledesma said.

2. Create a Guest Centric Environment 

This goes without saying, but customer service is critical to the success of any retail operation. Ledesma attributes Shiny Bud’s success to the brand’s core vision of providing a “fast and friendly cannabis retail destination.”

“We strive to offer our customers a unique and memorable experience — this has stayed with us since day one,” Ledesma said. “When you walk into any of our Shiny Bud cannabis dispensaries, they’re bright, they’re big, and there’s a lot of education. The budtenders are dressed uniformly, and there’s personality — it’s not what people expect.”

Watching the change in customer demographic has been encouraging to Ledesma, who notes the increase in the 60+ demographic looking to add cannabis to their health and wellness, whether it be recreational, or to aid with a specific ailment.

“As a disclaimer, we always have to tell them that we’re not doctors and we can’t give them medical advice, so to start low and go slow,” Ledesma said. “It’s nice to see people like my mom, my dad, and grandparents come through the door, because you also know you’re helping break down the stigma.”

Cannabis Dispensaries
Shiny Bud cannabis dispensaries are bright and clean, with plenty of quality products and customer education opportunities.

3. Stock the Best Inventory 

With so many quality products now available, choosing which ones to bring to Shiny Bud is quite a lengthy process. 

“We carry out a lot of research in terms of what’s new or trending, and what our customers are looking for in each location,” Ledesma said. “I wish I knew consumers’ buying preferences before our initial order was placed. We ended up buying too much!”

“We also use recommendations from our team members, our budtenders, and our customers. A lot of times we bring in representatives of the licensed producers to educate our budtenders about the products we’re selling.”

The three most popular purchases across three Shiny Bud locations are dried flower, vapes, and pre-rolls. “Our most frequently asked question is, ‘what is your highest THC or CBD?’” Ledesma said.

4. Have a Great Location  

The age-old proverb of “location, location, location” rings true in the cannabis industry, too. Finding the right real estate is arguably the most important part of retail success. Plus, because of the industry’s prohibition history and the nature of the products being sold, it’s important to find understanding landlords.

“Initially, landlords have said to us, ‘absolutely not, we will not entertain the idea of having a cannabis retailer here,’ so I invite them to take a look at one of our dispensaries so they can see the vision of what and who we are as a company and as an industry.”

5. Ensure Your Cannabis Dispensaries Connect with the Community 

Dispensaries are already major focal points in their communities. For Ledesma, giving back and helping break down old stigmas related to cannabis is a top priority. 

Shiny Bud is in the process of launching a collaboration with Tsaichedelic to create a line of tie-dyed tees and other merchandise. The proceeds will go towards supporting Cannabis Amnesty projects, like providing legal counsel to get those with criminal records over minor cannabis charges expunged. 

“Being a woman and a person of color in the cannabis space, I really believe in the fact that it needs to be the same playing fields for everybody,” Ledesma said. “Teaming up with Cannabis Amnesty just felt right.”

With the regulated cannabis market still so new, it’s important that business owners are able to adapt to changes and weather the ever-changing landscape of cannabis and the regulations.  

“It’s ever-changing, so we’re constantly learning and growing from it,” Ledesma said. “Regulations are always changing, so being fluid helps a lot.”

Look for Shiny Bud cannabis dispensaries in Canada and keep an eye out for their expansion into America in 2021.

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Gwyneth Paltrow and a Slew of Celebs Invest in ‘Social Tonic’ Brand, Cann

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Gwyneth Paltrow

Gwyneth Paltrow is one of several high-profile celebrities investing in cannabis-infused beverage company, Cann.

Rebel Wilson, Ruby Rose, Darren Criss, Tove Lo, Casey Neistat, former NBA star Baron Davis and Bre-Z have also invested in the company.

The actress and Goop CEO and founder calls cannabis a “hero ingredient of the future” for wellness and says she was drawn to Cann’s drinks, which are infused with small doses of THC and CBD, as an appealing alternative to alcohol.

“There’s a whole sober-curious movement that’s going on and the cannabis-curious movement that’s going on, this is kind of at the intersection of those things in a way,” said Paltrow.

Cann is not the health and wellness moguls’ first cannabis investment. Paltrow admitted that while she’s not a big cannabis user personally, she acknowledges its “amazing medicinal qualities.”

“There’s no reason why alcohol should be so much easier to purchase than Cann, and I’m confident the founders will lead the charge in finding ways to integrate it into the same purchasing channels and drinking environments,” she said via a news release.

Photo credit

Cann founder Luke Anderson called the comments made by Gwyneth Paltrow “a sign that Cann (and microdose beverages more broadly) are a viable answer to that very common consumer pain point.”

He added that when people think of Paltrow, “they don’t think of ‘weed’ – they think of cutting-edge solutions for today’s health and wellness needs.”

Cann has positioned itself as a “healthy” and hangover-free alternative to alcohol. Most of Cann’s “social tonics” contain roughly 30 calories and are “microdosed” with 2 milligrams of THC and 4 milligrams of CBD. A recently introduced Pineapple Jalapeño flavor contains 50 calories and 5 milligrams of THC.

Earlier this year, Cann secured $5 million in funding as part of the company’s 2020 production and distribution expansion plans for 2020.

According to TechCrunch, the beverage startup has sold 150,000 cans, which retail for $4 each, since last May. Cann products are available at just 60 dispensaries in California, and online via the Eaze cannabis marketplace, making the $600,000 in revenue the company generated in less than a year even more impressive.

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Miss Marijuana: Canadian Beauty Queen Alyssa Boston Is on a Mission to End Stigmas

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Alyssa Boston
PHOTO | Miss Universe Organization

Alyssa Boston is a woman on a mission. The 24-year-old Canadian beauty queen is using her platform to start a conversation on ending stigmas around mental illness, competing in pageants — and cannabis.

While she doesn’t actually smoke weed, Canada’s crowned Miss Universe caused a media uproar when she wore a sparkling cannabis-inspired look during the 2019 Miss Universe competition in Atlanta, Georgia.

Cannabis Aficionado spoke to her about breaking stigmas, social media and of course, that costume.

CA: How was your Miss Universe experience?

Alyssa Boston: It was an amazing 10 days in Atlanta. My roommate was Miss Israel. She was amazing, we had a really good time.

You caused a media frenzy with your national costume; a shimmery, glittery, beautiful cannabis leaf. Tell me more about that. 

Canada doesn’t have a set national costume, so we had to think of something that I wanted to do. We’ve had a Canadian maple tree, a snow angel and a hockey player. When we were deciding on the costume, we wanted it to be more than just 30 seconds on stage — we wanted it to be the whole movement behind it. It’s a huge representation of what’s going on right now in Canada. I thought it was perfect to shine a light on it at Miss Universe.

No one in the history of Miss Universe has ever done anything that controversial. One day, six of us girls were sitting at the dinner table at Miss Universe, all talking about my costume — it was the talk of the town! Everyone had an opinion on it. Miss Columbia loved it. Miss Uruguay was jealous she didn’t think of it first.

Alyssa Boston onstage during Miss Universe. PHOTO | Miss Universe Organization

I bet!

Miss Indonesia was like, ‘Don’t come near me with that costume!’ Because her country would not be OK with it. It’s kind of cool to have that conversation.

Definitely. That’s funny, though. Miss Uruguay…

She was so mad.

Did the people of Canada support it?

For sure the cannabis industry was very supportive of it. We thought the public would be 50/50 about it. But, actually, we saw about 95 percent of people supported it. I had a lot of positive comments, a lot of people thanked me for touching base on it. More people are accepting of cannabis now and were very happy that I was using my voice to spread the message about ending the stigma that surrounds it

How did you come to working with designer Neftali Espinoza?

Neftali is pretty well known in the pageant industry; he’s actually made Canada’s costume for Miss Universe for a couple of years. He does Miss Nicaragua, too. My director is also a good friend of his. The design changed a couple of times, as we wanted to work together with my team and the designer to create something we all liked. I thought it was a good finished product.

You focused your Miss Universe campaign on ending stigmas including mental illness and cannabis. Why is it important that you use your platform to highlight difficult conversations? 

I think it’s important to talk about these issues and use my platform for these conversations — especially since Miss Universe is such a high-profile, international pageant. I’ve been competing in pageants for seven years and during that time, I’ve learned what I’m passionate about.

My uncle suffers from schizophrenia, so ever since I was a kid, I’ve been surrounded by mental illness. I always thought it was important to talk about it — especially with social media being so prominent today.

Alyssa Boston repping Canada and cannabis. PHOTO | Miss Universe Organization

You started the #TalkAboutMe movement on social media to spark discussion around mental health. Can you tell me a little more about that?

When I hang out with my uncle in public, a lot of people are really rude to him because they don’t understand that he suffers from mental illness. I don’t think people are understanding and they are not open to accepting that. If someone had a physical disability, they’d be more lenient to help them. But a mental disability is not as apparent to some people and they don’t treat them properly.

It sparked my interested in creating a movement about just talking about what’s going on in your life, especially using social media. Lots of celebrities use hashtags in their movements that open people’s eyes. Competing in Miss Universe means I could reach a greater scale of people to talk about mental illness. With the #TalkAboutMe hashtag, a lot of people have been like messaging me, telling me about their experiences with mental illness and how they want to talk to somebody about it. I wanted to shine a light on the fact it’s OK to not be OK — and that it’s OK to talk about what’s going on here in your life. That is definitely a rising issue that I wanted to use my platform to talk about.

Speaking of celebrities… Some of the biggest celebrity stoners are Canadian; Tommy Chong, Seth Rogen and the Trailer Park Boys. Have any of them reached out to you about cannabis?

I haven’t talked to any of them. But I’m going to an event at a cannabis company in a month and Tommy Chong is going to be there. So I’ll definitely get to meet him there and hopefully, we can talk about some cannabis. David Spade mentioned the costume on his talk show. And Steve Harvey liked it when we were at Miss Universe and he saw my costume.

Alyssa Boston, Miss Canada 2019. PHOTO | Supplied

You recently toured Aphria, Canada’s largest grow facility. How did it happen? Did anything on the tour surprise you?

I want to learn a lot more about the largest cannabis firms operating here in Canada. A friend of mine knew somebody that worked there, so I talked to my team and pitched the idea to Aphria to do a video tour. So, the CEO took us on a tour. It was amazing. I couldn’t believe how many people worked there. And the smell when you walk in is so strong!

You hold a Bachelor of Commerce degree. Do you have any plans to launch your own line of cannabis?

I’m very interested in being an entrepreneur. I have a business background, so I’m very interested to learn more about how the cannabis industry went from being illegal to legal. I’m feeling out the industry right now but it’s definitely something I want to look into in the future. For now, I’m just doing as many events as possible, public speaking as much as I can. And hopefully, I meet the right people and create my own line.

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