Will the Cannabis Industry Give Way to Biotech?
October 22, 2020 – By Samantha Bailey
The cannabis industry has matured by leaps and bounds in the last several years. Where before there were development plans that existed primarily on paper, today there are multi-billion dollar partnerships, trust-building regulations, and specialization up and down the value chain.
But there are still inefficiencies in the market, especially when it comes to production. Growing cannabis or hemp plants in giant greenhouses is a resource-intensive process. It requires a lot of land, labor, and fine-tuning of difficult-to-control growing conditions. Following harvest, cannabinoid ingredients destined for consumer markets need to be extracted, purified, and standardized in special processes that often yield minute volumes of product at varying quality.
Beyond the more commonly known cannabinoid ingredients such as THC and CBD, many potent cannabinoids with consumer or therapeutic potential are only present in small quantities in plants, making them a less than ideal production system. Advances in living technology provide a better solution: industrial biotechnology.
A handful of companies have genetically engineered microbes to produce cannabinoid ingredients through fermentation. If successfully commercialized, then cultured cannabinoids could overcome many production challenges facing the cannabis industry today.
Shifting from greenhouses and plants to stainless-steel bioreactors and microbes could enable high-quality, high-purity cannabinoids in many fewer production steps. Contamination risks are lower, extraction and purification steps are simpler, and production volumes could be much higher from a much smaller footprint. Industrial biotech could even yield cannabinoid ingredients that are difficult or impossible to economically produce with plants.
7investing lead advisor Maxx Chatsko discusses the potential for cultured cannabinoids with Kevin Chen, co-founder and CEO of Hyasynth Bio. The industrial biotech company has a partnership with Organigram Holdings and recently became the first company in the world to bring cultured cannabinoids to market. What are the promises and pitfalls of scaling the new technology?
Publicly-traded companies mentioned in this podcast include OrganiGram Holdings. 7investing’s advisors and/or guests may have positions in the companies that are mentioned.
This interview was originally recorded on October 21, 2020 and was first published on October 22, 2020.
01:20: What are the disadvantages of growing cannabis in greenhouses?
03:15: What does Hyasynth Bio do?
04:29: Discussion of production process of biosynthetic cannabinoids.
06:14: What makes biosynthetic cannabinoids a great market fit for next generation industrial biotech.
07:37: How Hyasynth Bio navigated the early days of development.
9:21: Discussion of Hyasynth Bio initial product of CBD and differences to CBG.
11:50: How many cannabinoid compounds are there?
13:50: What does the strategic roadmap look like for Hyasynth Bio?
15:45: Kevin’s insight into how cannabinoids fit into the market from conversations with major brands.
16:56: What are the primary hesitations major brands have about incorporating cannabinoids into products?
17:56: The markers of success for living technology and synthetic biology. What words do we use?
21:13: The Hyasynth Bio website has a great explanation and animated graphic of the cannabinoid production process.
21:33: Wrap up discussion of the next major markets of industrial biotech.
24:03: Are Canadians allowed on Twitter?
Maxx Chatsko 0:00
Hey, everyone, I’m 7investing lead advisor Maxx Chatsko. This is my first podcast here. First time hosting the podcast of 7investing rather, and I’m pleased to be joined by our friend across the border. He’s the co-founder and CEO of Hyasynth Bio, Kevin Chen. Kevin, how are things up in Montreal, man?
Kevin Chen 0:23
Montreal is, is in okay shape. It’s been an interesting time, I think for everyone, but we’re doing all right up here.
Maxx Chatsko 0:31
Sweet. Yeah. I mean, I visited Montreal a couple years ago for some biotech conference. And I loved it man. You guys have like, awesome beer, great nightlife, there’s music in the park. You guys have these like electric hybrid buses that charge themselves with robotic arms, so — I’m down!
Kevin Chen 0:49
Yeah, it’s it’s good place. And we at least kept the music in the park, in the park for the whole the whole summer. But the the nightlife is is a bit that harder to make work during this year, I guess.
Maxx Chatsko 1:02
Yeah, music in the park. Great for the current conditions, I guess. Another great thing about Canada: you guys really love your cannabis up there. You guys were one of the first to deregulate it. You’ve built these regulations around, you know, the industry and you’ve been a global leader in getting the industry off the ground.
Maxx Chatsko 1:20
So the industry has really matured in recent years, you know, we have publicly traded companies now. There’s multi billion dollar deals. There’s all kinds of crazy stuff going on. But some inefficiencies still for how we grow cannabis and hemp and extract these cannabinoid ingredients, whether it’s for recreational use or pharmaceutical use.
Maxx Chatsko 1:41
So what are some of the disadvantages of growing cannabis and hemp with, in greenhouses?
Kevin Chen 1:43
Yeah, so at the heart of it, like you’re, you’re growing this plant, it’s gonna take a few months to actually go from your, your seed to your actual plant. There’s all these processes around that. You have to manage all your genetics and the environment all has to be really perfect. And I think one of the special things about this plant in particular, that makes it different from like, you know, tomatoes, or apples or whatever else is like how much the environment and the genetics and the way that you handle the plants all kind of influence, like the chemical components in the end.
Kevin Chen 2:19
So, on one hand, you know, you could say it’s, yeah, it’s easy to grow a plant you can put in the ground and it’ll, it’ll grow, you’ll get something out of it. But when it comes to making things that are like, you know, consistent and reliable and having supplies that are going to be available for like pharmaceutical application, for example, or even for like a cosmetic like brand and stuff you don’t have like product recalls, because you’ve got like mold on your stuff or something like that, right? All these things become really, really difficult to manage with this, this plant in particular.
Maxx Chatsko 3:49
Yeah, it’s tough to grow. Tough to manage the growing conditions. It’s tough to get real good quality control. And that affects like how we extract these ingredients later, once the plants grown. And that affects product formulations. It’s tough to have much consistency and build trust with consumers, if you can’t guarantee that you have the right quantity, the right potency of the ingredient that is supposed to be the active ingredient.
Maxx Chatsko 3:15
So Hyasynth Bio has a pretty interesting solution to that. So what does Hyasynth Bio do?
Kevin Chen 3:22
Yeah, so our basic premise is to create strains of yeast that will produce cannabinoids. So that means that you’ve got like a I mean, it’s the same similar to like a Baker’s yeast, it’s a yeast you grow up with sugar and water. It’ll take about six days to grow in a big steel tank. At the end of those days, you pipe that into like a purification system. And at the end of that you’re isolating purified THC or purified CBD or whatever other cannabinoid that you’re interested in, in working with.
Kevin Chen 3:54
And the goal there is to kind of like, you know, it’s it’s a, there’s this funny idea of like tradition in like what’s more traditional not traditional and like cannabis is kind of traditionally grown like you grow cannabis. Industrial fermentation is also very traditional, like there’s industrial fermentation like everywhere in the world. And and you could argue that it’s older than maybe growing cannabis or something like I don’t know. But either way, we’re trying to take advantage of industrial fermentation as like a traditional and established manufacturing practice, and then use that to make these really, really interesting products that are normally only found in the cannabis plant.
Maxx Chatsko 4:29
Yeah, right. So it’s a way to like whack down a lot of the process steps, we have more control over the growing conditions. It’s a lot easier to manage, like temperature, light’s not a factor, obviously, in a steel bioreactor. But if we can get more consistent product quality. We can also get much higher volumes with a smaller footprint, right? Like, what would maybe a commercial scale industrial biotech facility be able to pump out? Maybe per year? Or, I don’t know what the metric might be?
Kevin Chen 4:59
Yeah, it’s, uh, depends on how big your tanks are, I mean, these things go up to hundreds of thousands of liters. And, you know, if you think about a good, you know, analogous case is the production of insulin where, you know, that’s something that has to be done on a global scale, you know, serving millions of people. And, and always has to have, you know, consistent back records, consistency, no contamination, like there’s there’s very, you know, strict constraints around that, that production process. And that’s kind of what we want to create for the the cannabinoids, which are also going to be like revolutionary medicines and health and wellness products.
Kevin Chen 5:37
So, you’re absolutely right, all these all these things, you know, we know how to do this consistently, we know that this industrial fermentation is a backbone already, you have like, a lot of our products today in both consumer products and in pharmaceutical products. And we really, there’s, there’s so little risk involved in the batch process that you can actually, you know, this, this makes sense. And, I mean, square footage wise, if you wanted, like, look at that, then it’s, you know, acres of cannabis greenhouse space, but down to a few thousand square feet kind of thing.
Maxx Chatsko 6:14
Yeah, and another interesting thing, you know, with industrial biotech, you know, it’s kind of had this difficult road so far. But like, at first, a lot of companies targeting these big markets, they looked at the volumes of the products that were around, right, so everybody went to like fuels, transportation fuels, and then they, you know, “oh, it’s a multi-trillion dollar market.” Yeah, well, there’s a reason for that, it’s really hard to do that with biology. And then they kind of like, overcorrected and everybody went to the opposite end of the spectrum. And they picked these like super niche, tiny little rare ingredients, we make, you know, one metric ton of your globally and they said, “Oh, well, biology can do this now. And it’s you know, $10,000 a kilogram or something.” And then that didn’t work out either because you make one batch and then it sits on a shelf and you sell it kind of slowly.
Maxx Chatsko 7:05
So I think you know, cannabinoids are at the sweet spot of, you know, there’s a huge market, recreationally so there’s, there’s, it’s a valuable product. And there’s some unique pain points in you know, cultivating plants that industrial biotech can really solve. So it’s kind of, it’s a good market for industrial biotech to kind of dust itself off a little bit. It’s like next generation industrial biotech, right? Not like lactic acid for food or ethanol, but, you know, more like synthetic biology.
Kevin Chen 7:37
Yeah. I was going to add a quick comment to that. I guess you’re you’re absolutely right. It’s been nice to kind of, you know, see you every now and then over the years and, and kind of watch the space kind of develop. I mean, for us, we started in 2014, which is right around the tail end maybe of when, like, biofuel stuff was really like cutting back right.
Kevin Chen 8:01
And, and we saw this opportunity and cannabinoids at the time is like, you know, I was pretty naive about most things, because it’s my first company, I was just coming out of a bachelor’s degree basically. So just kind of jumped in and went to see how it was. And yeah, a lot of these things lined up. But even even still, there’s some like, you know, of course there’s some risk involved with the cannabis market itself and all this like other complications.
Kevin Chen 8:24
But at the heart of it, you know, we found a really nice interesting like natural product that can be made using a yeast and that has this like market potential that that’s defined and even like, you know, FDA-approved products that are that are out there already. So it’s definitely past the point of, you know, ultra niche like fragrance or flavor stuff.
Kevin Chen 8:42
And definitely, you know, not gonna fall into the same problem as with biofuels where it’s kind of large-scale volume thing that you’re not gonna, it’s feasible to, the cost metrics start to work out, they start to make sense. You know, it’s not like an industrial chemical kind of industry, right?
Maxx Chatsko 9:03
Yeah, exactly. And I’ve talked to some of the flavor and fragrance companies who’ve partnered, you know, with a lot of synthetic biology companies or industrial biotech, and they have some colorful things to say about synthetic biology, but we won’t get into any of that.
Maxx Chatsko 9:21
Sticking with the ingredients, though, so you guys are working on CBD oil initially. You just became the first to market out of any company to do this with a cultured cannabinoid. And some competitors, there’s a number of companies trying to develop, you know, cultured cannabinoids, but they’re working on a different ingredient. It’s called CBG, right? The I think it’s a precursor to CBD oil. There’s some differences in the market, and maybe how that might be formulated. So what are some of the differences between, you know, CBD, and maybe a less established market, like CBG?
Kevin Chen 9:57
Yeah, it’s a, I guess the you almost just said it, it’s like, it’s kind of a less established opportunity. Where with with CBD, it’s been around, it has FDA-approved products, like on the market today, there’s really clear growth and like interest in that product, in particular, from a consumer end, and ultimately from like, a, you know, branding and, and cosmetics and pharmaceutical development end as well.
Kevin Chen 9:21
And then CBG is interesting, because it’s starts to fit in the category of like, you know, things that we know exist in the plant, but the plant isn’t very good at making and therefore, like, it kind of makes sense to try and have a use to this stuff.
Kevin Chen 10:35
However, the trade off there is that, you know, you’re as a company, you know, you want to try and sell CBG. And then you kind of have to ask yourself, like, “okay, who’s gonna buy it and for what purpose?” And then there’s some research out there for CBG and where might be used. But it’s all very early days, whereas like, CBD has been around for, you know, long enough that there’s, there’s clear use cases for it. Right.
Maxx Chatsko 11:04
And that’s another great thing about this market. I mean, …
Kevin Chen 11:10
I’m gonna just add briefly, like it’s and that’s what I mean, at the heart of it. That’s one of the key advantages of like, industrial fermentation and doing this synthetic biology stuff is that, you know, you can have a yeast that will produce CBG, you can have another yeast that produces CBD.
Kevin Chen 11:25
And, and for us, you know, as a company as a strategy, like, you know, we’ve of course, chosen CBD as maybe one of our lead targets. But we still have the full range of cannabinoids, like, behind us where it’s like, you know, we’re looking for those market opportunities with these new cannabinoids with these more rare ones. And then like a long list of company, you know, compounds there that we have kind of on the back burner, like ready to bring to the front whenever the timing is right.
Maxx Chatsko 11:50
Yeah, well that’s perfect. That was actually what I was just gonna say. So, you know, I think this is another interesting question. How many cannabinoids are there? There’s like, 100 or something. Right? There’s there’s a lot — dozens, hundred, something like that.
Kevin Chen 12:02
Yeah, I think I think people are saying over 150 nowadays, I think when we first started, it was something like 117. And there’s like, you know, before keeping a track of exactly how many. And now now I think people are saying like, it’s over 150 like something something huge number.
Maxx Chatsko 12:20
We’ll stop counting at 100. Yeah, that sounds good to me. But yeah, there’s so many options. And with developed markets, like THC and CBD, I mean, it’s great way for industrial biotech to kind of get on speed, there’s established markets, you get there, get your business going, and then you can kind of go and create newer markets once you’re already established. I think that was one of the flaws initially in industrial biotech, you know, we thought, “oh, we’ll make this new fuel molecule!” And then you have to go make a new market for that fuel molecule or this ingredient. And it just kind of seemed like not the best way to start off, you know?
Kevin Chen 12:52
Totally. And that’s like, I mean, it’s a common problem in maybe tech in general, like startups in general, you kind of have to figure out your product market fit in the end, right. And with this industrial biotech, there’s a lot of investment in the R&D portion of things. And if you’re doing investment and risk in the R&D as well as in your market, then like, you start to have like these funny problems, right?
Maxx Chatsko 13:16
Yeah, I used to call it “lab tricks”. You know, people would come out and say, “Oh, we made the yeast that it makes this thing and it’s, it’s gonna do that.” And it’s like, meh, I don’t know, man. I don’t think there’s a market for it yet. And I tended to prove true — a lot of companies kind of went bankrupt or have pivoted 700 times so we’ll see how it goes. I think the field’s overall though, kind of, there’s still a lot of hype, but it’s maturing and people are, we’re getting better at it. I think. Hopefully.
Kevin Chen 13:45
Definitely. I think so for sure. Yeah.
Maxx Chatsko 13:50
So Hyasynth Bio recently was the first to market, you guys, you have a strategic partnership with Organigram Holdings, which is a publicly traded company. So what is your roadmap look like? I mean, you hit this milestone now it’s, you know, second half of 2020. The next year or two, it looks like scaling up that process and getting more product to market.
Kevin Chen 14:14
Essentially, yeah. And broadly speaking, is.. I need to close my Slack. I’m getting messages that are like, important things that I’m waiting to hear back on. I’m like, “Yes, good news!” You’ll hear about it tomorrow.
Kevin Chen 14:30
So the, what was I gonna say. So the, for next year or so. So yeah, we’ve got our got our first sales down. And that’s really nice to kind of, like, you know, hit that ball out of the park. Now, we can kind of like, keep growing, that, you know, those sales and expanding those opportunities. I would say, broadly speaking, like, you know, we started out this mission where, like, we saw this huge opportunity in cannabinoids, as you know, globalized health products. Where, you know, maybe you’re even replacing aspirin, like, as, like a product that, here’s the thing that you can use for migraines that might work better. And actually, in a lot of cases, people are like, “Oh, yeah, you know, cannabis or CBD is the way to go for, for migraines.”
Kevin Chen 15:16
So we want to, we still want to get there. And the steps towards getting there are going to include, you know, scaling up our process. They’re going to include forming more strategic relationships with different companies who have these like focuses on like, maybe treating certain types of cancer, maybe treating epilepsy, maybe treating pain, maybe going into like cosmetic products. And we ultimately want to become, enable them to create those products and to scale those products.
Kevin Chen 15:45
Because right now, I feel like a lot of conversations that I have with major brands go the direction of like, “yeah, we’re interested in cannabis. Like we’ve heard about it..” Maybe they investigated it, but they don’t jump in, you know, and there’s, there’s all this controversy around the ingredient, there’s all this controversy, even from, like the FDA putting out a report, just, you know, few months ago, where it was half the products on the cannabis, hemp CBD market that don’t have CBD in them kind of thing. You know, like that, that’s not what you really want to be a part of, especially when you’re like a major brand. And you you know, you’ll you’ll, you’ll lose billions of dollars, maybe from this kind of fallout.
Kevin Chen 16:21
So you want to really want to target those those opportunities and target those those risks. And say, like, “you know, well, we, our system fundamentally is different. It’s fundamentally more consistent. It’s fundamentally more sustainable.” And these are all like really, really, really great things that a brand or pharmaceutical company or a clinical trial can can actually rely on. So that’s forming those key relationships will be important for the next few months at least. And then of course, scale up is going to be another one of the things that we get done.
Maxx Chatsko 16:55
Yeah, is so when your conversations with companies, I mean, are they, are they seeing it? Are they seeing the potential of culture cannabinoids? And, you know, do they just want to see it kind of, like, “show me don’t tell me” kind of thing. Like they want to see this be commercialized first before they kind of jump in?
Kevin Chen 17:12
It’s a I would say, it’s a mix of things, I think in that in the end. Yeah, I think back to some of the conversations I had an early days in, like, 2014, when we started out, it was like, you know, people didn’t believe it was possible basically. “Yeah, sure!” You know. “Get a a yeast to do something….” or something like that, right. But now we’ve done it. And that’s, that’s, I think, where you know, the bar is starting to move where like, you know, we can send samples, we can actually like, you can hold it in your hands physically, like we’ve got the yeast we can send it to a facility and having been manufactured. And we’ve proven all that, all that out now. So, we’re past that point of speculation and now it’s going to be like, you know, really exciting to see what happens next.
Maxx Chatsko 17:55
Yeah, I agree. I mean, there’s, like I said, there’s so much, so many like tailwinds for this to be a great market for industrial biotech.
Maxx Chatsko 18:04
You know, and I think one of the markers of success for the field and living technology is when we drop these prefixes, right? So like I always use the example of ethanol. Well, you know, we used to make ethanol as a byproduct of like petroleum refining processes, right? We made very small quantities. We didn’t really use it, how we use it today, where it has oxygen to transportation fuels. But then in like 2005, I think was the first iteration here in the United States of the Renewable Fuel Standard. And it just created this whole industry for “Well yeah, we’re gonna make ethanol through fermentation now.”
Maxx Chatsko 18:41
But it’s funny to me that if you look back at like the first regulations or articles, it’s always referred to as “bioethanol”. It’s like, it looks funny now, right? Because we just kind of dropped the “bio” prefix because to us, it’s like, “well, yeah, no… like, how else would you make it?” You know, it’s it’s a biological product. So I’m curious, like, you know, I mean, obviously cannabinoids are a natural product, so is ethanol. But I’m curious if you know one day we’ll drop that “cultured” cannabinoids or all the funny things we put before it. And just like “Well, yeah, we make it through yeast. Like, how else would we make this stuff?”
Kevin Chen 19:11
Yeah, it’s funny. It’s almost like I imagine looking at, again, like an analogy like insulin where it’s like, “oh, it’s called ‘bio insulin'”. It’s like, it was always bio like there’s never non-bio insulin or something like that. It’s always you know, cannabinoids is the same thing.
Kevin Chen 19:25
And we’ve had a lot of internal brainstorming on, what, what words you could use, in this case. And even like some, I would say, we’ve some some successful experiments and failed experiments in terms of how we should call these things. But “biosynthesis” seems to be like a word that’s starting to stick around at least the investor world, or I like the word “cellular agriculture” as well. But I think it’s not quite as popular. So yeah, we’ll see. “Cultured” or “cultured cannabinoids”,we’ll see how long that one sticks around. Or maybe we’ll switch that over eventually.
Kevin Chen 20:03
But again, the dream has always been like a bit of like, you know, where where we fit on like a bottle or where we fit on the shelf and pharmacy is going to be you know, hopefully closer to that like aspirin kind of feel. It’s something that’s there. It’s it’s there. It doesn’t, it’s not like it’s a special technology thing. It’s like a niche like, “oh man, like gotta get the new like bio stuff” or whatever. It’s, it’s just, it’s what it is. It’s the standard. And then maybe the niche is more like the cannabis thing where it’s like, “oh, I have to get you know, the cannabis leaf because that’s what I want to use”. Or cannabis flower, I should correct myself or I’ll get called out.
Kevin Chen 20:45
Like, some people will still still want to use cannabis in that way for recreational use and whatever else. And that will become more of a niche whereas like the standard for how cannabinoids are used is coming from like our process essentially.
Maxx Chatsko 20:59
Yeah, I did some early work on the the messaging of like synbio, and they’re like you said, there’s this crazy, like alphabet soup of words. And there’s like, 17 words for everything. And everyone’s trying to figure out which one or three fit.
Maxx Chatsko 21:13
But you guys, you guys have always been pretty, pretty good at it. I’ve always been impressed by Hyasynth Bio and your messaging. And even on your website, if anyone wants to check it out. You guys have a great animated, you know, animation of how the process works and the benefits of it. So I definitely encourage people to check that out.
Maxx Chatsko 21:33
So sticking with that for our wrap up question here. Industrial biotech, like we said, it’s kind of had this, you know, at least next generation industrial biotechs had this kind of difficult road in the last decade or so. So outside of cannabinoids, what are some products that you think have this good are a good fit for, what we just said: there’s great economics, there’s great pain points that we can solve with industrial biotech. Does anything stand out?
Kevin Chen 22:02
Other products than then cannabinoids, I guess?
Maxx Chatsko 22:05
Yeah, or is that it? Just cannabinoids? (sarcasitcally)
Kevin Chen 22:07
Yeah, just cannabinoids is the only thing I know exists. I guess there’s, there’s a few ideas that are really interesting coming up now. I mean, I’m a super fan of like, Perfect Day stuff, like, you know, we started around the same time as they did. And I’m sure you’re probably familiar with their story a bit too. And that’s like, it also sits on this borderline of like, you know, it’s milk, it’s kind of a lower cost ingredient. But it seems like that might actually work out in the end.
Kevin Chen 22:37
And then, I guess there’s the whole, like, alternative protein space, which is all kind of, it strays away from, like the metabolic engineering that we do, and starts to get into more like fermentation technology and other things, which is exciting. So there’s a lot of potential there for that.
Kevin Chen 22:53
And then, I’m also really excited about getting into things that can’t be made using a chemical process or from like a natural process. So like, for example, if we have a series of cannabinoids that, like, you know, modifications that we’ve done, using our biological system that can’t be done using a chemical system, it can’t, you know, obviously don’t occur naturally. And those are going to become unique products one day, and I think there’s similar, you know, some of the newer synthetic biology companies are heading that direction, where it’s like, oh, you know, there’s going to be these new interesting opportunities that are going to be specially for a biotechnology kind of, you know, synthetic biology approach. And that’s really exciting too.
Maxx Chatsko 23:40
Yeah, I agree. And like even you know, I think like with the biofuels thing or other products they’ve used. I mean, I always thought “well, why aren’t we just using this for like, where does biology having an advantage?” You know, let’s take advantage of enzymes and proteins and metabolic processes. So I agree with you, I think. Hopefully, there’s more companies starting down that road now.
Maxx Chatsko 24:05
All right, man. Well, thanks for joining me here today does Hyasynth Bio have a Twitter handle or anything people can — Are Canadians allowed on Twitter? I’m not really sure.
Kevin Chen 24:15
No, we’ve… Twitter’s allowed. We might still keep TikTok, I don’t even know if that’s gonna become a Canadian security concern, too. We do we do have a Twitter handle. It’s @hyasynthbio, we do tweet once in a while. But definitely check out our website definitely check out the the animation that you mentioned. That’s like a really cool, you know, piece to scroll through and see how what the process looks like at least from a in some abstraction. And, yeah, feel free to reach out.
Maxx Chatsko 24:47
Great, man. Hope to have you back.
Kevin Chen 24:49
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