Though it’s not yet clear how the U.S. economic recovery will take shape, it is a certainty that the businesses that continue to innovate in these lean times will be best positioned to succeed as business normalcy, or something like it, slowly returns. In the cannabis industry, innovation takes on an even greater importance for the financial success of individual businesses and for the expansion of the industry.
“Not only is the cannabis industry still a relatively new one, but we’ve barely begun to understand all of the possibilities for what the plant’s cannabinoids and other components such as terpenes and flavonoids can do,” said Nancy Whiteman, CEO, Wana Brands. “As more consumers turn to cannabis for help with wellness needs, the industry has to innovate.”
A culture of promoting innovation is nothing new for Wana Brands, which became the top U.S. edibles producer in large part because of its pioneering moves in the industry, first in Colorado where it was formed in 2010 and later in the seven additional states into which the company has expanded. The company’s trendsetting has positioned it as No. 1 edibles producer in the U.S. (according to BDSA 2019 Brandshare Report), where its products are known for quality, consistency and potency.
Innovation is not something that can be turned on with a switch, of course. Revolutionary ideas take time to implement, with results typically achieved only after long months and even years of R&D. Now, though, COVID-19 has upended that process like it has everything else in business, even forcing some companies to consider a hold on innovation research until the economy improves. But that would be a mistake, according to Mike Hennesy, Wana’s Director of Innovation
“Now, more than ever, all companies need to continue to search for ways to innovate,” Hennesy said. “It’s the best way for companies to grow during lean times and emerge on the other side of recovery stronger than before.”
Besides, he said, innovation also is a necessity in a fast-changing business sector like cannabis.
“Because the cannabis industry is one that advances so quickly, a six-month break from innovation work can leave a company behind its competitors,” he said, noting that today’s adult-use cannabis market illustrates the innovation challenges facing companies as more people use more product forms, from edibles to tinctures, capsules to vapes.
“As we look at the consumer demographic expanding—more and more cannabis consumers are utilizing the plant for a wider variety of conditions—innovation will allow these products to fit all the different niches that are going to develop in the cannabis marketplace,” Hennesy continued.
A Big Innovation: Bioavailability
One of the most important areas of focus for cannabis innovation today is product bioavailability, referring to the measure of how much of a chemical compound is effectively delivered into the bloodstream. Products with a greater degree of bioavailability can work faster, more efficiently, and with better consistency than those with less.
Bioavailability has been a major focus for Wana Brands since the company’s beginning and continues to be one today as more people turn to different forms of cannabis consumption instead of flower or vape. For a long time, both of those forms of consumption have provided the quickest and most effective methods of delivering cannabinoids into the bloodstream. New cannabis users today, however, are turning to other formats for targeted needs, such as cannabis-infused topicals for localized treatment or fast-acting cannabis tinctures for acute treatment of discomfort.
A product’s bioavailability is important because when the active ingredient isn’t absorbed into the bloodstream, results are inconsistent, Hennesy said. “That’s why different people often will experience different effects and efficacy when using some forms of cannabis besides flower and vape, and especially with edibles,” he continued.
As long as consumers are achieving inconsistent results from products, there’s probably someone who is not getting the relief they seek or expect, he said, adding that a more bioavailable product is also a more affordable one for consumers because they can use less of it.
“Whether it’s an increased bioavailability through better absorption through the skin for topicals or better absorption in the body for edibles or tinctures, we’re going to be looking at how to get more cannabinoids into our bodies than we currently can,” Hennesy noted. “Because if a product isn’t bioavailable, it’s being wasted. That costs the consumer, and it can be expensive for the manufacturer, too, especially if they lose a customer because a product doesn’t work as expected.”
Improving the bioavailability of cannabis products is an example of the kind of innovative work that should be a priority across all parts of the industry, Hennesy said. After all, greater product consistency means more cannabis users, especially new ones, will be able to get the specific kind of relief they seek. But that’s just one aspect of innovation explored by the R&D team at Wana Brands.
Wana Brands continues to innovate its products to achieve specific results from interaction with the body’s endocannabinoid system (ECS), the complex biological system that controls homeostasis and which allows cannabinoids from cannabis to bind with receptors in ways that help many people grapple with sleep, pain or anxiety issues. Though major cannabinoids such as THC and CBD are perhaps the most recognizable cannabinoids for their effects on the body, Wana Brands continues to research a variety of minor cannabinoids that science is only now learning more about.
For example, Wana’s work with its CBD-THC ratio products is one way the company is studying a greater use and application of minor cannabinoids—such as CBN, CBG, CBC and others—and how they can best work with proprietary botanical terpenes to target conditions affecting sleep, pain and anxiety.
“When you look at the new line of soon-to-be-released ratio products we are working on, you’ll see that we’re really just aligning our products with what consumers are looking for to help with specific conditions,” Whiteman said.
With Wana’s recent introduction of its “quick onset” line of products, the company already had accomplished innovative results with infused-cannabis gummies, creating an edible much different than slower-acting classic varieties.
For example, Wana’s Fast-Acting Gummies feature an onset time of five to 15 minutes and a duration of about three hours. And while traditional edibles convert Delta-9-THC in the digestive tract to a more potent 11-Hydroxy-THC (which can take up to two hours to take effect and last between 4-8 hours), Wana Quick gummies feature individually encapsulated Delta-9-THC cannabinoids with greater bioavailability, meaning they work at the molecular level to bypass the liver and get into the bloodstream immediately.
Soon the company’s innovative research will launch a revolutionary fast-acting tincture. Available first in Colorado, Wana Quick Fast-Acting Tincture will offer a discreet and cost-effective alternative to smoking cannabis flower with almost the same onset and duration. The tincture, which will initially be available in three effect-based ratios, is absorbed by the mucus membrane in the mouth, delivering the same kind of fast-acting results users would expect from smoking or vaping.
Innovation Is Wide In Scope
As more people turn to cannabis use–and every market analysis projects this outcome, regardless of global health pandemics or economic downturns–the innovations that expand the array of products and formulations for consumers will be hugely beneficial to the businesses that continue innovating today. And those that don’t will struggle.
Efforts to innovate greater bioavailability will mean consumers could have more consistent results with cannabis in the future. New ratios and effects-based products will expand options, as well. All of that, in turn, will move the industry forward to discovering so much more about a phenomenal plant and what it offers. But companies in this industry shouldn’t limit their perspective on how to define innovation, Hennessy said.
“When I think of the word ‘innovation’ in relation to cannabis, I don’t think it has to be pigeonholed by thinking of it simply as a technical cannabinoid or a specific terpene or a certain formulation,” Hennessy said. “Instead, I believe it’s anything that makes your product better. And that starts from the moment you have the genetics of a plant in the seeds and continues on through the growing stage, and then how you extract, how you process and infuse.”
It’s also evident in the decisions companies make, he said.
“What kind of edible are you creating? Why? What kind of vape? How are you making this gummy better for the user? The flavors, the dosages–everything about what you make–is going to be defined by the innovation you put into it or the innovative way you approach it,” Hennesy concluded.