What’s better than a regular beverage? An infused one.
Or at least that’s the thinking at Nanogen Labs, a Cannabis-industry startup that’s bringing us weed beer, among other drinkables. Grit Daily caught up with CEO Ben Larson after BevNet’s gathering in New York at the newly opened 420 Shop to get a closer look at the company’s origins and its “magic behind the scenes.”
Grit Daily: You had your own interesting career before Nanogen Labs, including as a photographer. Share that.
Ben Larson: It was a very unorthodox path that led me to this point in my career, but I suppose anyone who didn’t grow-up in the cannabis and hemp industry would say that. I graduated CalPoly with an engineering degree, but always had a strong creative drive. I stuck it out in engineering for about six years before I decided I couldn’t stay in a career that didn’t fulfill both my cerebral and creative drives. I jumped ship into the startup world and got to work on my own ideas, stringing together freelance jobs in photography and web design to stay afloat.
I quickly realized that I had a particular interest in the creation phase of business. Using my diverse skill set to solve problems quickly and creatively, leveraging my professional network to accelerate my growth, and my ability to tell a great story to bring visions to life.
Instead of promoting my own ideas, I found purpose in helping others bring their products to market. I began doing so on a grand scale as the Director of Global Operations for the Founder Institute where I helped expand the program into over 100 cities around the world, helping train leaders, form ecosystems, and build companies with impact from within, but also well beyond Silicon Valley.
When it came time for my next adventure as an entrepreneur, I was looking where to apply my skill set that needed it the most. The cannabis industry was really starting to buzz. Young passionate founders were creating companies and products, and investors were trying to figure out how to capitalize on this exciting emerging market. I was being asked to coach and judge pitch competitions, I was invited to entrepreneur and investor 420 socials, and early stage investment firms were asking for advice on deal flow. This is why accelerators and incubators were created in Silicon Valley, and this was the genesis of Gateway, the cannabis startup incubator that I launched in 2015 with my business partner.
Over the next few years, I executed on our mission to help create the companies that represented the future of the cannabis industry, and be a voice that educated the mainstream. We applied the lessons we learned in Silicon Valley in an attempt to create truly impactful businesses that spoke to customers’ needs. I used stages all around the world to help spread the truth about cannabis and hemp, break down the stigma, and predict what our future looks like with cannabis.
GD: We’ve seen cannabis and hemp-based products proliferate in number. What’s the latest on “weed beer” — as media likes to call it?
Nanogen’s Ben Larson is brewing up weed beer.
BL: “Weed beer” is coming in a big way, and it’s coming in a very diverse fashion. Beer companies are seeing declining sales across the board,especially those of the light variety. Consumers, especially the younger generation, are becoming very health conscious and aware of the negative impacts of alcohol beyond the waistline. I’d be surprised if there were a beer company that is not considering a move into the cannabis sector. We know because we’ve talked to many of them, craft and big bev alike.
There are two primary ways you can expect to see beer brands reinventing themselves: First, de-alcoholized infused beer, because from a regulatory perspective, alcohol and cannabis don’t mix, and second infused non-beer products — for example — infused sparkling water.
De-alcoholization technology has vastly improved over the years, especially as non-alcoholic beverage consumption has seen a sharp increase in recent times in places like Europe. We work closely with partners like BevZero/Cone Tech to stay on the bleeding edge of this market and work with the best bases for alcohol replacement. There will be some very good infused beers coming to market where it is very difficult to tell the difference between an infused beer and its alcoholic counterpart. Better still, fewer calories!
Some beer companies are skipping de-alcoholization all together and launching new product lines that are built from the ground-up, putting them in competition with other beverage manufacturers.
Regardless, all sorts of beverage companies are flooding to the infused beverage market, not only because beverage companies are constantly on the lookout for the next innovative product, but because it is an incredible delivery mechanism for cannabis. Fast and controllable absorption without the need to smoke or vape is really speaking to the mass consumer.
GD: But that’s not Nanogen Labs’ focus. For the uninitiated what is your role in the industry?
BL: Nanogen is the magic behind the scenes. We’re manufacturers of active ingredients and infusion experts with a mission of delivering efficacious products at scale. The “Intel Inside” so to speak. We pride ourselves on being dedicated partners throughout the development process and help accelerate better products to market. We focus on sourcing the best inputs for our clients’ needs and finding the optimal way to incorporate them into products.
Our flagship suite of active ingredients are our pre-suspended liquid nanoemulsions. We work with both hemp and cannabis extracts — it’s the same plant after all — ranging from isolates to full-spectrum distillates, in order to deliver the right cannabinoid profile for each product we help develop.
GD: What is “nanoemulsion” anyway?
BL: Cannabis extracts tend to be very hydrophobic, viscous oils. A nanoemulsion is a way for us to disrupt the historical relationship between oil and water, creating a solution in which oil droplets are encapsulated and evenly dispersed in water using tiny droplets ranging in diameter from 20 to 120 nanometers. The small hydrophilic (water-friendly) droplets allow the cannabinoids to absorb into the bloodstream faster, creating a quicker onset, while increasing the overall absorption.
What does this all mean? We can more accurately create low-dose products that result in a better experience for the consumer. An easy-to-manage experience while lowering the potential for over-consumption.
GD: Aren’t some of these products “overkill?” Why not keep things simple?
BL: We’re seeing a flood of products into the space, and they aren’t always developed with the right intentions or with the greatest efficacy. Simplistic or not, if you’re a company hoping to “fairy dust” your struggling product line with CBD because it’s hot, you better first ask yourself why your consumers wants CBD in the product in the first place and how it might interact with the other ingredients.
The first question we ask our clients is what experience or effect are you hoping to deliver to your customer? What promise is your brand communicating? How are they aligned? This helps guide the formulation process, whether it’s specific cannabinoid and terpene profiles, emulsion ingredients, other bioactive ingredients for synergistic effects, potency, droplet sizes, so on and so forth.
We then focus on creating repeatable processes that are scalable to the brands’ manufacturing needs. We must consider when in the process the product is infused, where the infusion will occur, the stability of the product in the chosen packaging, and much more.
So, this very much isn’t a simple decision or shouldn’t be. Cannabis and hemp are complex, and if a company is only seeing CBD as the next great innovation to save their brand, they better understand how and why.
GD: How did you and founder Harold (Han) meet in the first place?
BL: Based on my public role in the industry prior to Nanogen, Harold approached me and asked how he might contribute to cannabis. He had been developing nanoemulsions his entire career, but became enthralled in the cannabis industry after having a personal experience with the plant that completely contradicted the stigma that had been applied to it his entire life. At the time, I told him about the emerging infused product space and how I had seen many attempts at water-solubility, but everything was falling very short of a mainstream application.
He got right to work and returned a few months later with a prototype. A small vial of liquid that when he poured it into a glass of water, dispersed and went completely translucent. Upon tasting the concoction, I was amazed at the innocuous taste and fast onset. I said, “Harold. You did it. This is it.”
As you can imagine, it was also beginning to catch the eye of others, those with their own businesses and own interests in mind, so I jumped in and began advising Harold on how to build a business around his invention. It’s in my blood to help aspiring founders realize their dreams and avoid the pitfalls common among first-time founders, but it was also my expertise to identify the founders and products with the greatest potential to really affect change in the industry. It didn’t take long for me to realize that instead of constantly searching for the next best investment, that this was the one opportunity I wanted to put my time, resources, and career behind. That’s how I became the CEO of Nanogen, and I haven’t looked back.