Over the past two weeks, I had the opportunity to learn about the formulation of cannabis products by an industry expert, Dr. Monica Vialpando. Monica has always loved making products and had a passion for science from a young age, particularly for the creative side of the industry. She is a woman in science and cannabis with an impressive background in product formulation.
After graduating with a Bachelor's in Science majoring in Biology, she spent nearly a decade in the pharmaceutical industry working with different formulations with various routes of administration; her first job focusing on dry powdered inhalers.
Later on, in her doctoral studies, she focused on improving poorly water-soluble formulations. If you've been following the cannabis industry, you may have heard something about water solubility and the race to create water-soluble cannabis products. Alcohol, for example, is water soluble, making alcoholic beverage formulations relatively simple in comparison to lipophilic (tendency to be soluble in oils and fats) cannabinoids. Ever heard your science teacher say, "like dissolves like"? This theory applies here. Why is it important? Solubility is correlated to absorption, and we want to ensure the products made in the laboratory are being absorbed effectively by the body.
A few years ago, when e-cigarettes were first becoming regulated in the tobacco industry, Monica took a leap into a much less regulated industry. She worked closely with regulatory authorities to figure out how to best interpret the Tobacco Products Directive with her formulation background. With her knowledge of vaping increasing, and missing working in a lab, she entered the realm of skin care formulations and began experimenting with topicals.
Not being a tobacco consumer, but a long-time cannabis consumer, Monica was able to apply her vast scientific skill set from the tobacco industry to start investigating the potential for adding cannabis to vaping formulations. This facet of Monica's journey took her to Manchester, UK.
After spending a year and a half in England working with e-cigarettes, she moved to California three and a half years ago. At the time, only medicinal cannabis was legal in this State. She looked at the various profiles of the medicinal products on the market and quickly realized there was room for improvement.
Monica's aha-moment to enter the cannabis industry (an industry greatly focused on using natural alternatives for pain relief) was when she was working in the pharmaceutical industry on a particular drug that promised to be very lucrative. This drug was aimed at reducing opioid-induced symptoms, notably constipation, which was, in a way, a vicious cycle of the pharmaceutical industry, and not targeting the core problem. While continuing her work, she made yet another leap and began to build her start-up company.
Coming from a science background and picking up business literacy as she went, Monica networked within the cannabis industry and created her first product - fittingly a cannabis topical.
Before Monica continues her journey, heading to Toronto next to work on a new formulation, I asked her a few questions about her experience in the industry. Here's what she had to say...
Q: With your journey in the pharmaceutical industry and knowledge of vaping and the tobacco industry, how do you feel about the marketing of cannabis and how it may progress even given the current constraints imposed on branding cannabis products?
A: The Cannabis Industry touches so many different areas and industries; pharma, cosmetics, food and beverage, it is a wide market. And then there are so many different options; high THC, low THC, only CBD and everything in between. My company is focusing on medicinal products, where we know the dose and what you buy one day will give you the same experience in a few months’ time when purchasing from a different batch. In terms of cannabis marketing, I would like to see more products that fit within a company's already existing products. If you think of skin care or cosmetics, I'd like to see something more subtle that falls within their existing portfolio, not just large cannabis leaves on packaging. Especially if we are trying to remove the stigma, we need to present cannabis in a way that consumers are used to seeing other products, whether they be medicinal or other beauty products.
Q: While scrolling through Instagram the other day, I saw the Pro Tab we discussed in class, are there any other of your formulations that you are particularly proud of?
A: Each product comes with its own challenges. One of the hardest formulations I've made was probably the Pro Tabs, getting such a high concentration of distillate into a free-flowing powder to tablet it into the small size, that was quite challenging. The Pro Tabs were made for LEVEL blends, and they were actually my first major client. This was a great example of collaboration, I cannot take full credit for the entirety of the Pro Tabs, the co-founder of the company was a chemist, he was able to develop methods to isolate individual cannabinoids. As a result, I got really lucky to be able to formulate with so many different cannabinoids, above and beyond THC and CBD.
A second more challenging project was a sunscreen made for another company. From the sunscreen protection aspect of it to working with titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which are solids, and trying to disperse them and keep that stable in a liquid formulation. We included tinting into this sunscreen as well, it was offered in white if people wanted, but also in a slight tint - it was the tinting that made it challenging as it added more solids such as the zinc oxide and iron oxides. Also, the concentration was quite tight. If you make a formulation, you typically say alright this is my target weight plus or minus maybe 5-10 % lenience. With the zinc oxides, my tolerance was 1%. A little bit completely changed the colouring and led to issues in scale up. This is a great example of how we should look to other industries that are dealing with these types of ingredients; I wish I would have looked more into the cosmetic industry, understanding how iron oxides interact with medals, but the sunscreen was one of the formulations I'm quite proud of.
The third product I am proud of was one working on vaginal health. While the formulation might have been a little straight forward, the research involved to make sure we were making a safe and efficacious product was really interesting and enlightening; there are some awful ingredients being used in women's health products and I want to change that.
Q: Do you have any particular cannabis-stigma stories you would be willing to share?
A: I started consuming cannabis when I was 18, I've always had a love for cannabis. When I moved to Belgium to do my PhD, I went from California where cannabis was easy to find to Belgium where I didn't really know anybody, everyone I knew was in my PhD program and I kept my consumption secretive. I hid it from my partner at the time, for about four years of our relationship, until he caught me once... So, I would go and take long weekends and take the train to the Netherlands where it was decriminalized and I would decompress, take the train back and pretend I hadn't taken cannabis. And as I kind of came out to my pharmaceutics colleagues, there were some jokes around that, they maybe looked like at it like homeopathy which they might not believe in, which is fine because I know for a fact, I've seen it first-hand, people are benefiting from it. And when I make the products, I get immediate feedback. Like with the Pro Tabs, for example, people might put feedback on the website like "This helps me with sleep", "I'm no longer in pain", "I can get up in the morning without pain"... and that is 10 times more rewarding than working on drug that's going to cover up constipation due to the opioid epidemic...
Actually, I have a more recent stigma story for you, it happened yesterday now that I think about it. So, I posted something on Instagram about just taking a break, you know self-care, wellness. If I'm super busy I have a tendency of pushing those things aside, so I made a list, and part of the list was fun like wake up grateful, drink coffee, get high and then I added more things on there. I then had a good friend of mine message me saying that they knew I didn't care people knew I take cannabis but that I was looking for investment money and investors might look into that and have a stigma perception. I ended up taking it down, even though it was a Saturday... you never know what people may think.
Q: Have you ever experienced inequality in the sciences and/or cannabis industry?
A: I'm a minority woman in science, yes. I think if you talk to any woman in cannabis, they will have experienced it, absolutely, especially in very male dominated areas. It could be something as simple as when a woman says something in a meeting, and there's almost no reaction, and then the person next to her, a guy, will say the same thing and everyone will pipe and say yeah that's a great idea, I think that happens almost every day but it's subtle enough it goes unnoticed. I've tried to get a tougher skin and build up confidence in women - the higher you move up the ladder it gets lonelier for women. But because the cannabis industry is a new industry, there is a surge of women-led companies, I definitely see that in California as well as the UK. I haven't worked too much in the Canadian space yet, but from the two countries I've seen I think Canada will follow suit, for sure.
Q: As a mental health advocate, I'm curious to know if you have any self-care tips for entrepreneurs like yourself?
A: Yoga is my thing. I am starting to get into things like saunas and steam rooms, sweating it out and stretching a bit, especially if I can't get to the studio. I have a wonderful studio in San Francisco, that's usually what I miss the most when travelling. So, when I am home, I have yoga blocked off in my calendar, I go to yoga, I decompress and then go back to work. It's harder when I travel, it takes more concern and consideration, like anything... watch the amount of alcohol you drink, watch the food you have, but really just trying to build in a few nooks and crannies of quietness into my day when I'm travelling. Even just calling a friend so you don't have to be on. It's really about what brings you to only focus on what's only going on in the moment. And that's really the principle of yoga too, part of the objective of yoga is focusing on the now.
Q: What's next for you?
A: Good question! I'm usually just told where to be and when... Now that my business has been built and I have some amazing team members that support me, I want to dive a little deeper into my own interests which revolve around topicals and skin care. I see a lot of benefits with the use of cannabinoids versus UV damage and for UV protection, especially involving minor cannabinoids beyond THC and CBD and getting those formulations into clinical studies - that's my goal. You know, I can do proof of concepts with in vitro evaluations, but once formulations are consumed by humans all bets could be off, so I'm excited to see what the future holds.
It was fascinating to be taught by a strong, female scientist in the cannabis formulation space, one that has great entrepreneurial spirit and the ability to bring together so many multi-faceted industries for her product profiles. I want to thank Monica for taking the time to answer my questions - I wish you the best of luck with your future formulations. Congratulations on your 2019 ElSohly Award, hope to get the opportunity to see one of your upcoming talks!
The Feminist of Cannabis