Interview by Jason S. Lupoi, Ph.D.
I once walked into a dispensary in Colorado Springs and was amazed at the refrigerated case of products like ketchup, sriracha, drinks, pizza, and who knows what else. It was a very different scene from the jars of gorgeous flowers, add on joints at the counter, and even some of the more common edibles of the time, like gummies that I was used to seeing. It was a brand-new world of infused products that bespoke of an evolution in what cannabis products had become, and hinted at the vast expanse of what they could come to be.
As the cannabis industry has progressed, there has been a concomitant shift in consumer wants and desires. At one point, for example, terpenes were more of an afterthought, a byproduct of cannabis processing. But now, these molecules are poetically labeled as the “navigators of one’s experience”, a necessary component for truly experiencing the plant and downstream products derived using extracted phytochemicals.
Further out on the frontier, some companies like Vertosa are elegantly combining cannabis phytochemicals with other botanicals like turmeric to design new, super-product experiences that simultaneously correlate with consumer trends and medicinal needs. I recently spoke with Austin Stevenson, Chief Innovation Officer at Vertosa, to learn more.
Jason S. Lupoi, Ph.D.: What role does Vertosa seek to play in the cannabis industry? What void(s) do you seek to fill?
Austin Stevenson: We are the platform making it easy to design products for the future, ensuring consistency, stability, and flexibility for the next generation of CPG [consumer packaged goods] cannabis products.
There are voids in the industry. Many new expansion markets lack traditional supply chain infrastructure to launch infused products. For example, there is a huge lack of beverage co-manufacturing services in new recreational markets forcing many beverage brands to spend exorbitant amounts of CAPEX [capital expenditures] on building their own beverage production lines. We’re all building separate supply chains due to a fractured regulatory framework. Companies have to build a new supply chain in each medicinal or adult-use state and we have some responsibility to help in this area. We build the key ingredient aspect of that process.
What services does Vertosa offer?
Vertosa is focused on being the best delivery mechanism for cannabinoids. We’ve developed a portfolio of fast-acting cannabis liquids and powders that are available wholesale, as well. As part of our process, we also help design formulations and offer R&D services to help create the next generations of products.
Considering all available types of products, why has Vertosa chosen to focus on products like beverages and powders?
Cannabis 1.0 was combustibles: flower, joints, and vapes. There is growing demand from new, curious consumers — but smoking is inhibitive for many of them. Creating a more familiar, approachable form factor was critical for creating a viable option for these types of consumers.
Everybody grabs a glass every single day, whether it’s water, tea, coffee, and so on, so cannabis beverages are an easy in. The problem with cannabis beverages was the lack of technology. It didn’t exist for creating consistent, metered dosing in a beverage — so we looked to solve that problem, and we discovered a way to get cannabis oils into the familiar form factor that is beverages.
What are some of the challenges that product manufacturers face when making products like beverages that they may not initially be thinking about? Are there certain types of beverages that are less amenable to infusion with cannabinoids/terpenes?
There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to cannabis emulsions. The chemistry of a dealcoholized wine versus a carbonated soft drink is complex. You must know the key chemistry attributes: ingredients, packaging type, and manufacturing/sterilization type. The ingredients dictate the type of emulsion technology we use, as does the packaging, while the method of infusing is based on sterilization/manufacturing of the finished beverage.
If you are building a seltzer that will be packaged in an aluminum can and sterilized with tunnel processing, you will use a different emulsion than a grape juice packaged in a glass bottle and sterilized using Velcorin. That’s why we’ve designed a portfolio of emulsions to address the different chemistries in cannabis product development.
Vertosa’s emulsion technology has been successfully infused into most beverages. We’ve learned that beverages rich in polyphenols (grape juice, red wine, teas, and hop-based products like beer) present challenges, so we had to design a unique solution for these types of drinks. We also learned that packaging plays a huge role in cannabinoid stability, specifically problems that arise from cannabinoids leeching in can liners. We designed and patented a solution that is designed for better performance in aluminum cans.
Lastly, we’ve learned a ton about the role oxygen plays in cannabinoid stability. Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is susceptible to oxidation, a chemical reaction that causes Delta-9 to change into cannabinol (CBN) over time. We work directly with companies like Anton-Parr to ensure that the necessary controls are in place to mitigate oxygen in the final infused beverage.
What are some of the issues with the incompatibilities of different types of packaging?
The most ubiquitous drinks are in cans — think sodas and beers — but cannabinoids can be absorbed into the can liners. So, we designed emulsions systems that perform better in aluminum cans. On the other hand, glass is a great form factor with minimal issues, as is plastic and TetraPak containers.
Issues in packaging are centered around the manufacturing process. With all beverages, you have to mitigate against the oxidation of cannabinoids. If you’ve ever consumed an old flower and didn’t get the same experience as when it was fresh, that’s because the flower oxidized (and some terpenes likely evaporated). The THC in the flower chemically changed into CBN, and the exact same process could happen in beverages, if the right manufacturing controls are not in place. That’s why it’s critically important to collaborate with supply chain partners like co-manufacturers to ensure methods for mitigating oxidation in final packaging are applied.
On your website, I saw a glimpse of a product called Soma. Can you talk about this product line, what ingredients are used in these formulas, and why they’ve been chosen? For example, the product in the red bottle lists ashwagandha. How do you ensure that the combination of desired ingredients is organoleptically harmonious?
Soma is a tea-based functional beverage, so there’s already a natural symbiotic relationship with cannabinoids. The Soma product itself takes wisdom from Eastern medicine, a focus on well-being, and rituals but in a bottle, so it was important to the founders that only natural, plant-based ingredients were used. We chose to use our organic emulsions system to provide the “clean” label with Whole30-approved ingredients. Ashwagandha, turmeric, and CBD are wellness products so the intention here is to help post-workout recovery, to help heal, relax, and relieve tension. In terms of flavor, it’s a tricky balance but our organic emulsion has a neutral flavor profile which made it easy for Soma product developers to showcase the natural tea flavor.
We’re always thinking about those three layers — cannabinoids, terpenes, and other functional ingredients. It can be very complex in terms of function and flavor. First, we set an intention to design something that people love to ensure a balance between all flavors and that the intended function is derived. Why are they choosing this product? That’s our base question we ask ourselves.
Product developers must design for the consumer, not for themselves. Consumer-sensory panels are very helpful to find the right flavor, and rapid prototyping allows for a consumer feedback loop. You hear whether they find it too sour, too sweet, and so on. At Vertosa, we work with amazing flavorists throughout the supply chain to create great tasting, functional products.
Many products powered by Vertosa include other active ingredients. How do you advise clients on ingredient selection and compatibility? What trends are you seeing in active, non-active, and functional ingredients and what questions should product developers ask to best utilize these ingredients?
As mentioned previously, there’s no one-size-fits-all, especially when it comes to cannabis beverages. You must ensure the ingredients you’re including will be stable in a liquid-based product, which is very different than a gummy. The ingredients will be different because one is solid and one is liquid. By designing different forms of ingredients — liquids and powders — we can design different types of products.
In terms of trends, the biggest question is: What’s the reason why? What are the consumers looking for? They want wellness products; they want more out of the products they are putting into their bodies, more function for every dollar they’re spending. And consumers are willing to pay premiums for these functional additives — but they need proof that it works. They want to see the data and see that the effects are proven.
A key piece to call out with cannabis is that there is still a lot of misinformation out there and a lot more research that’s needed. When we think about why, anecdotally, cannabinoids are in that wellness category, they can be and to some degree should be treated as a supplement. Which cannabinoids should be used for what desired effect? We need more research to answer that question.
At Vertosa, we’re working with different academic institutions and third-party laboratories and we are ahead of that research, focusing on three main problems: pain, stress, and sleep. We look into anti-inflammation, managing cortisol, and encouraging better sleep. We also think about what other ingredients are proven to help promote all of those things as well as combining them — cannabinoids, terpenes, and functional ingredients — for the largest and most beneficial effects. Turmeric for pain, for example, botanicals like holy basil for stress relief, and magnesium as a natural supplement that promotes sleep. Our attention is on creating an efficacious product and the table stakes come down to stability and consistency.
What are your thoughts on ensemble effects between cannabis and these other botanicals?
Let’s call out the fact that cannabis was part of the U.S. Pharmacopeia prior to prohibition. We are getting back to nature now; we’re entering a re-awakening stage. Today, consumers are looking for holistic, natural remedies for a lot of their ailments. There’s a lot of great research on botanical health and including these in products. You see it now in teas, smoothie supplements, and other herbal supplements, and cannabinoids are just a part of that lexicon.
The most important aspect is flavor; the product has to taste good. There are botanicals people crave like lavender because of its primary terpene, linalool, which is proven to help promote sleep. We would include it in a product with the intention to put you to sleep, as well as high concentrations of CBD and CBN which are being researched to help sleep function. The same thing can be said about enhancing experiences, like myrcene, which is predominantly found in mangoes. So, when we are trying to amplify the cannabis experience, especially around THC, we use mango flavoring for the myrcene to balance out the sweet-sour flavor.
How do you choose a flavor?
When choosing flavors, check your ego at the door. You’re not designing for you but for your customer and for the product to resonate with your brand. Look at what flavors are trending now. Know your customer — what are they looking for? Do the survey, do the research, and build a product with the intent to serve them, not just you.
How do you see the cannabis industry playing out over the next few years?
This is the most exciting time to be in the industry because as more U.S. states and more countries adopt legalization, we’re seeing more and more new consumers curious about trying cannabis for the first time. By designing more approachable, familiar products for these first-timers as well as experienced consumers, we’re presented with an opportunity to help evolve and rewrite the narrative about what cannabis consumption is. We have the power to change what it looks like and how people include it in their daily ritual by developing and producing products people are more comfortable trying for the first time and consuming regularly.
I see a normalization of cannabis consumption over the next few years. That includes the proliferation of consumption lounges, cannabis at social events like you see alcohol at music venues, concerts, bars, and lounges. We’ll see the same thing for cannabis consumption.
The evolution of products will also continue. What was once dominated by flower and vape products, the ingestibles category will take over. Beverages, gummies, confections, and baked goods will take over a lot of market share. But we’ll also see the emergence of cannabis-infused savory products. Think French Laundry and farm-to-table experiences — but infused. It’s about satisfying your entire palate through the inclusion of cannabinoids, botanicals, and terpenes.
The person coming in today will graduate and want more and want something different. We have to be ready to take on that evolution so when they’re looking for micro-dosed cannabinoids in a meal, we need to be able to give them that.