Jake Heimark doesn’t come across as your typical seller of cannabis edibles. The 31-year-old holds two degrees from an Ivy League university and until recently, worked in the upper echelons of a little company known as Facebook. He’s clean-cut, doesn’t smoke cannabis and can talk at length about topics like neuroeconomic modeling.
But he just might be the future of the cannabis edibles industry.
He’s the founder and CEO of Palo Alto-based PLUS, which in less than two years of business has become one of California’s top-selling edibles brands. The company is in the early stages of a public offering to raise $15 million in stock sales in Canada, with an eye on a massive expansion.
His formula for success: Microdose gummies that are meticulously tested, taste great and are packaged for easy and discreet use. In July of this year, PLUS was the top-selling edibles brand in California for the month, with $2.3 million in sales, according to BDS Analytics.
“The more emphasis you can place on delivering a consistent high-quality product that’s doseable, the more successful you’ll be. People need to feel the exact same thing every time they’re using it. It needs to be something they can use without feeling like they’re damaging their bodies and it needs to be portable,” said Heimark.
“We literally started in a garage in Palo Alto. Now we’ve got one of the bigger cannabis food manufacturing plants in the state.”
Stepped in Gum
After graduating from Brown University in 2011 with degrees in economics and biology he went to Facebook, working to prevent credit card fraud. But when Colorado voted to legalize recreational cannabis, he moved to Denver and joined a startup company.
It was while crunching numbers of recreational cannabis sales that he had the “a-ha” moment.
“During auditing and compliance you get to look at all the numbers. It was while doing that I realized, ‘Oh my gosh look at what is happening with edibles,'” he said. “When a market goes from medical to recreational a different type of customer enters the market. They’re looking for different things. A lot of people have been trained not to smoke all their lives so edibles are an attractive alternative.”
“I had enough food manufacturing in my family to be dangerous, so we created a product called Plus Gum.”
The cannabis-infused gum delivered THC sublingually under the tongue, instead of being digested in the stomach and passing through the liver, so it hit the user in minutes instead of an hour. They launched it in Colorado to initial success, and when California voted to legalize recreational cannabis in 2016, Heimark decided his path to success lay in what was due to become the world’s largest legal cannabis marketplace.
“We moved to California and launched the gum product. And it was a complete failure.” Sales lagged far behind expectations, and in hindsight Heimark believes Plus Gum was “too far ahead of the market.” It was discontinued at the end of 2017.
“Edibles are scary to many people. Everybody has a story about how their cousin or brother or someone their cousin’s brother knew who had a bad experience with an edible. The idea of something new and something that is scary is a bad combination until you’ve built that trust.”
“When a market goes from medical to recreational a different type of customer enters the market. They’re looking for different things. A lot of people have been trained not to smoke all their lives so edibles are an attractive alternative.”
After “we licked our wounds” from the gum debacle, the PLUS team went right back to work. Heimark comes from a family background in the food manufacturing industry and put that to work on a gummy candy product.
An edibles brand, he learned, has to build trust in a market before trying to get customers to commit to a new experience. And building trust means a consistent dose of THC that matches what it says on the label. So in developing the new line of gummies, the top priority was testing.
They hired a chemist to test every batch with not one, but two high-pressure liquid chromatography machines. Other cannabis companies contracted with outside labs, but they had their own.
“By focusing on getting data after every single run or multiple times during each run, I think that allowed us to elevate the quality and consistency of our product in a way that customers can get that same experience every time. That’s a really hard thing for many people to do. The lab quality in California is just not there yet,” said Heimark.
Launched in 2017, the gummies come in four flavors, in tins of 20 5-milligram pieces, discreet and perfect for the microdosing, on-the-go cannabis consumer. For those who don’t want the high, there’s a CBD-only variety. They had the capability to launch limited-time flavors for special events, like Rainbow Sorbet for Pride Month and Rose and Vanilla for Valentine’s Day.
Many edible brands in California’s nascent recreational market were taking the opposite approach—big doses—and PLUS had clearly found a niche.
Said Heimark, “From the moment we launched a gummy product we couldn’t keep up with demands.”
The Palo Alto garage became a 12,000-square-foot manufacturing facility, with 75 employees. They’re building into a 40,000-square-foot space, with room to expand to 120,000 square feet. They decided to launch an initial public offering on the Canadian stock exchange to fund this growth.
Heimark, who said he “very occasionally” partakes in edibles (only PLUS) is pushing forward because he sees a bright future for the edibles industry.
“We’re still at the very early stages. You walk around dispensaries and you see cookies and brownies and things that you don’t actually see that often when you walk around health foods stores and I see no reason why the cannabis edibles industry won’t look a lot more like Whole Foods shelves in five years, with very innovative products and brands,” he said.
And he hasn’t given up on re-launching a fast-acting infused gum.
“As the market matures and customers get more comfortable with edible products, I think [the gum] will be a really hot product . . . I think we’ll probably bring it back in the future. But as of today, we’re just trying to keep up with the gummy demand.”