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Jeremy Heidl of O.penVAPE

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When Jeremy Heidl came to Denver in 2010, you might say it was on a wing and a prayer. The recession had hit his trucking and construction businesses in Atlanta particularly hard. And as a lifelong lover of cannabis, he had been watching, with great interest, the medical cannabis boom going on in Colorado.

“We ended up packing up everything, cashing in our life savings, selling most of our possessions and then we drove across the country in a Penske truck with our two cats and a dog and made it happen,” Heidl told CULTURE.

The so-called “Green Rush” to Colorado produced plenty of successes and failures in those early days of changing regulations and uncertainty about federal enforcement, but few success stories can rival Heidl’s.

Starting with a single dispensary, he went on to co-found O.penVAPE, the vape pen that revolutionized the discreet vaporizing experience. Smaller, simpler and cheaper than anything else on the market at the time, it allowed cannabis users to puff practically anywhere. And the pre-filled cartridges of THC-infused oil, sold specifically for the O.penVAPE at medical cannabis dispensaries, eliminated the headache and mess of filling up the oil.

Today the pens and cartridges are available in 1,000 stores in nine states where medical or recreational cannabis is permitted, making it one of the largest consumer cannabis products in the nation. And with the tide of legalization continuing, Heidl, Chief Operations Officer, may only be getting started.

“We dreamt, like everyone in this industry dreams, that we were going to someday grow up to become what we are, but it came true.”

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Small Start

The entrepreneurial spirit was instilled in Heidl at a young age. In third grade, he realized that since lunch cost 90 cents, each student would have a dime of change after lunch. So he began selling blow pops to his schoolmates, at 10 cents each.

Fast forward to 2009. Looking for a lifeboat from the sinking ship of his own businesses, he and his wife made the decision to head west. The cannabis industry seemed rife with potential, and besides, it sure would be nice to live somewhere with legal cannabis.

His first dispensary investment seemed rocky when a landlord issue forced him to abandon an entire grow operation, so Heidl learned quickly to partner with others in Denver’s medical cannabis industry for product and assistance.

Vape pens were in their infancy in those days, and at his dispensary, Heidl fielded plenty of gripes about the products on the market. The oil was inconsistent, and if you loaded a pen but didn’t finish all the oil, get ready for a mess. And in many cases, the pens didn’t work right and manufacturers wouldn’t stand behind the product.

He’d gotten to know Ralph Morgan, owner of several medical cannabis businesses and Organa Labs, a Denver-infused product manufacturer. “Let’s do a better vape pen,” he said one day to Morgan.

Morgan replied, “I’ve got the formula,” and O.penVAPE was born.

Freebies

Heidl isn’t quite sure how many O.penVAPEs he gave away in those first years, but it’s easily more than 100,000.

The pen and oil cartridges hit Colorado medical dispensaries in 2012. As a new product, Heidl figured patients wouldn’t be willing to spend a lot of money on a pen when they could just buy a sack of buds. So the pens—basically just a battery and an atomizer—were to attract the customers. The oil would keep them, and the lifetime warranty would ease their minds.

It helped that, with the passage of recreational cannabis in Colorado, there was a crackdown in Denver (amongst other places) about smoking in public. Here was a discreet, low-odor and tidy way to partake anywhere, whether at a concert at Red Rocks or in the bedroom while the kids are watching TV. And it was simple–just load the cartridge and inhale. There wasn’t even a button.

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A few months later, it debuted in California, then in Washington. Since every state had their own quirks on cannabis regulations and the feds were always hovering like the Sword of Damocles, competing oil producers weren’t branching into other states. O.penVAPE hired lawyers to navigate these murky waters and licensed with growers and oil producers in each state to produce the O.penVAPE cartridges.

The battery and charger aren’t given away for free anymore, running about $20, but that doesn’t appear to have hurt business. As of late 2015, O.penVAPE was available legally in nine states.

Of course, there are plenty of other vape pens on the market these days, but O.penVAPE isn’t shying from the competition. In September, the company signed an agreement with Timeless Herbal Care in Jamaica to produce cannabis-infused products outside of the U.S. for the first time in history.

Closer to home, the company has also announced a partnership with CBD Biosciences to open a massive industrial hemp oil extraction facility, which is expected to employ 163 workers in a former rocket factory in Pueblo, Colorado, by 2017. Thankfully, with the passing of the 2014 Farm Bill which contains an amendment to legalize hemp production, and the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2015 which is currently in process, Heidl was able to work with local governments and acquire millions of dollars in incentives for the project.

In fact, all across its history, O.penVAPE has thrived because of such partnerships, Heidl said.

“What has made us as successful as we are is the ability to work in partnerships. It’s one of our core values and being able to partner with our licensees around the country and our vendors and our employees. Our tagline is ‘It’s what’s inside that counts,’ and it’s more than just the oil. It’s our people and our partnerships.”

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Striking Gold

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When the California Gold Rush broke out in 1848, the first millionaire didn’t get rich by mining or prospecting.

San Francisco businessman Samuel Brannan made the first million dollars selling equipment to the frenzied hordes who descended on California with gold in their dreams and money bursting out of their pockets. He went on to become one of the world’s richest men.

A different sort of rush is happening now in California and the other 10 states that have legalized cannabis. It’s been called the “Green Rush,” and like Brannan, one California company is proving you don’t need to grow, sell, extract or even touch the plant to be successful.

“We have a small part of more legal cannabis transactions than any other company in the world,” says Nick Kovacevich, 33, chairman and CEO of KushCo Holdings. “Maybe we provided them with the vaping pen. Maybe we provided them with the packaging. Maybe we provided them with branding services.”

In just five years the company has grown from practically nothing to $145 million in annual sales providing packaging, branding, vaping products and myriad other services to the burgeoning legal cannabis industry.

“One way or another, if you’re picking up a product, there’s a high likelihood we had something to do with it. Because we’re working with 6,000 cannabis businesses throughout the world, we’re getting our fingers and hands on a lot of these transactions. By being an ancillary company, we don’t actually touch the plant.”

 

Entrepreneurial Spirit

A born entrepreneur, Kovacevich launched his first company in 2007 with a college friend. PackMyDorm provided college students at four California campuses with packing materials, scheduled movers, arranged storage between semesters and scheduled movers for the return to school.

He wasn’t lifting heavy boxes, though. The actual moving was contracted out. He sold the company in 2010.

Around that time, Kovacevich grew interested in the cannabis industry. He’d been raised by his district-attorney father to see it in a negative light and as an athlete in college he rarely partook.

It was while recovering from knee surgery he decided to try it again and “quickly realized a lot of the information I believed was false.” Ever the entrepreneur, he decided after selling PackMyDorm he would launch his own company in 2010.

“One way or another, if you’re picking up a product, there’s a high likelihood we had something to do with it.”

 

Medical cannabis was booming in places like California and Colorado, but he didn’t want to join with the rest of the herd and run a farm or store.

“When people were looking at growing and opening dispensaries, we were looking at how do we build a set of products to support those endeavors? What are they going to need on a daily basis that we can provide?” he recalled. So Kush Bottles was born, designing and selling packaging for cannabis products and helping to make childproof packages the industry standard.

He took over as CEO in 2014 and has since renamed the company KushCo Holdings, because these days, the company is about way more than just bottles.

 

Exponential Growth

Today, Kovacevich’s company is actually several smaller companies: Kush Supply Co. provides vaporizer products, packaging, supplies and accessories. Kush Energy sells ultra-pure hydrocarbon gases and solvents. The Hybrid Creative is a design agency for cannabis and non-cannabis brands. Koleto Innovations focuses on research and development.

From his humble beginnings, his companies have sold more than 1 billion units, with 220 employees spread across five facilities in five states with legal cannabis.

Never heard of these companies? Not surprising. They don’t sell a single product containing THC. That’s up to their customers.

He credits his success to foresight and customer service. KushCo Holdings had a warehouse in Colorado within a few months of legalization there. It had one in Washington years before legalization. It had one in Massachusetts three months before legal cannabis sales began there.

And having customers who are also growing exponentially helps too.

“All our customers, for the most part, have been growing. So, when our customers grow, they buy more from us, which means we grow.”

 

Taking on the Black Market

There are still threats to the industry, but Kovacevich sees none greater than the black market.

“The black market, especially in California, is very rampant. People in this industry are used to buying through informal sources like dealers, but they’re also used to going to pop-up medical shops, which are now servicing rec,” he says.

This year, the United Cannabis Business Association released an analysis that found there were 2,835 illegal stores and delivery services in California, more than three times the 873 legal sellers.

Kovacevich says these illicit operations often sell vaporizers and other products that are untested and potentially unsafe, contributing to the wave of vaping-related illnesses sweeping the nation.

He blames the fact that California doesn’t have enough retail cannabis stores to meet the needs of the state, and many cities have none at all, since the state left it up to municipalities to determine if they would have dispensaries.

“There are not enough stores from the convenience standpoint and because of the testing requirements and all the onerous red tapes, pricing is significantly higher, so the black market is winning on convenience and price,” he said. “The key to taking back the market is to make it more convenient, by allowing more retail stores, and driving the cost down by lowering taxes.”

He sees the need for the federal government to begin regulating the industry to ensure what’s in cannabis and vaping products is safe. Of course, that would involve removing it from the list of Schedule I drugs.

He pointed out that research has shown teen use decreases in states that establish legal, adults-only stores.

“Everyone is looking for a reason to say legalizing cannabis is a bad idea, but I think if we can create fair, strong regulation, we can make sure the integrity of these products is kept,” he said. “The question is, ‘Why would you not legalize?’ You’re reducing the likelihood that kids will get involved. You’re reducing the crime aspects and you’re making safer, more effective products available for adults who choose to use it.”

 

www.kushco.com

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Engineering Endeavors

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Drive around rural Colorado these days and you’re apt to see hemp—fields and fields of it, growing legally in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains.

Industrial hemp is booming, fueled by nationwide demand for CBD products, legitimized by the federal government in the 2018 Farm Bill. But how can consumers be sure that a CBD tincture is really free of THC, the psychoactive ingredient of the cannabis plant?

Ask a chemical engineer.

At Kazmira LLC, there are several of them on staff, working out of a massive, 200,000-square-foot plant outside of Denver. It just might be the largest extracts company you’ve never heard of, though if you’re a CBD consumer, you’ve probably enjoyed its products.

“We’re still finding out about all of the uses for CBD oil, and there’s so much runway for industrial hemp, in terms of the fiber and all the ancillary uses of the plant,” says Co-founder Dr. Priyanka Sharma, a chemical engineer. “I think there’s so much that can be done with just the plant, there’s only more growth that we’re seeing.”

 

Chemical Background

The name Kazmira comes from the Kashmir region of India, where hemp has been used for thousands of years. Dr. Sharma’s parents are from India, though she grew up in the Chicago, Illinois area. Her father is a chemical engineer, and she always saw herself following in his footsteps. She even married another chemical engineer.

After obtaining her doctorate from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Dr. Sharma went on to work in highly technical areas, such as “molecular modeling of functionalized gold nanoparticles with various ligands and their behavior in biological systems” and “developing a predictive model to understand chiral separations of orphan drugs.”

But she had been hearing about the growth of industrial hemp, and nowhere had more growing than Colorado. So, in 2017 she and her husband moved there and launched Kazmira. The goal was to use their scientific backgrounds in oil, gas and pharmaceuticals to build a company for extracting CBD from the plant using strict standards.

“The reason we decided to start Kazmira is there was a gap in technology companies in this space. We wanted to lend our expertise to making quality and safe extracts for industrial hemp. We wanted to continue our passion for engineering and apply it to the hemp space,” she said.

Other companies, she explained, were operating in “pretty unsafe environments,” using outmoded equipment, without the kind of quality control or manufacturing standards she was used to, without processes for keeping pesticides and other contaminants out of the finished product.

“We realized there were a lot safer and more efficient processes that we could apply to this industry to make these hemp extracts.”

“The reason we decided to start Kazmira is there was a gap in technology companies in this space. We wanted to lend our expertise to making quality and safe extracts for industrial hemp. We wanted to continue our passion for engineering and apply it to the hemp space.”

Truly THC-free

Kazmira’s “TruSpeKtrum technology platform” allows the company to produce hemp oil that is guaranteed to be free of THC. While many companies claim to do likewise, federal standards allow a CBD product to legally contain up to three parts of THC for every thousand parts of oil by weight.

The oil that comes out of Kazmira has no detectable level of THC, the company boasts. Among its 30 employees are eight scientists with PhDs, two with master’s degrees and two medical doctors.

The team works with farmers, mostly in Colorado, to get hemp plants that are free of pesticides and other contaminants, and Kazmira has the capacity to process thousands of pounds a day.

So, why have you never seen a Kazmira oil or tincture on a store shelf? The company only produces the oil, selling it to other companies, which sell the finished product.

Dr. Sharma explained, “We’re able to provide them with a product that meets specifications retailers care about—free of pesticides, toxins and microbials. We are able to guarantee their CBD source is safe.”

And given the booming popularity of CBD as treatment for a whole variety of ailments, from anxiety to inflammation, and given that these products can legally be sold anywhere in the U.S., Dr. Sharma expects Kazmira to continue growing and expanding what can be extracted from the hemp plant.

“The runway is a lot longer right now for hemp because anybody from a child to an adult can take a hemp extract and they can access it as well,” she said. “I think there’s so much that can be done with the plant that there’s only going to be more growth.”

 

kazmira-llc.com

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Delectable Delights

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For most people who enjoy cannabis edibles, taste is secondary to the buzz it packs. It’s on your lips for a few seconds, while the THC inside will hopefully keep you going for the whole Phish concert.

But trained pastry chef Rachel King asks why edibles can’t be delicious and THC-infused?

“If you’re going to eat an edible, you might as well make it enjoyable,” says King, co-founder and culinary director of Kaneh Co., a San Diego, California-based gourmet cannabis company.

Launched in 2016, the company has grown from three to 65 employees, with edibles sold in more than 200 stores across California, an explosive growth King attributes to meticulous dosing and the belief that edibles customers are looking for a wide variety of sweets that taste just as good as what you’d get in a fine restaurant or candy store.

“As our clientele widens and cannabis becomes more and more accepted by people in different walks of life, they will be looking for a product that is not just a vessel for medication.”

“I wanted to make sure people were getting a delicious, good product that would get them high, not just something they’re trying to choke down to get high.”

 

A Pastry Chef

King, 36, came into the cannabis industry in a roundabout way.

Her first experiences with cannabis—smoking whatever flower her friends had out of an aluminum can—were not positive.

“I would usually get way too high, so it was not that pleasant for me,” she said.

King was trained at the San Diego Culinary Institute and went on to work at some of the city’s finest restaurants. Pastries were always her specialty and focus; Food & Wine magazine named her one of the best new pastry chefs in 2013.

“Pastries hold a special place in peoples’ hearts. You’ll always remember that birthday cake or extra-extravagant dessert you’ve had,” King said.

But restaurant work can be demanding, so when her brother and some friends came to her with a proposition for an infused edibles company, she listened. So, in January of 2016, Kaneh was born.

From the beginning, King explained she would not sacrifice the quality of her desserts simply because they would be cannabis-infused.

“Considering my background was in pastries and not cannabis, it was really about the food product itself,” she said. “I wanted to make sure people were getting a delicious, good product that would get them high, not just something they’re trying to choke down to get high.”

“I didn’t compromise the quality that I was already used to working with in my cooking background.”

A New Ingredient

Still, adding a major new ingredient to the type of cooking she had long done presented a challenge. There were some hits and plenty of misses.

“Working with the product itself, figuring out when to add the medication, how it affects the overall product, was a bit of a learning curve,” she said.

Kaneh hit the market with a large array of products—cookies, brownies, snack bars, nuts, dates and cocoa powder. She was one of two kitchen employees.

“Now we have a huge professional kitchen staff with people who used to work in bakeries and restaurants,” she said. As of this writing, the company has 22 different products available, from cookies to jellies to caramels to that staple of stoner cooking for decades, brownies. Each is a 100mg product, divided into 5mg or 10mg doses.

Kaneh sells as many as 50,000 products a month, according to King. For now, they’re just in California, though the company is exploring licensing in other states. She attributes her company’s success to “the quality of the taste, and obviously the consistency of the medication.” Ingredients are the same she would use to make desserts in a fine restaurant.

When people get an edible, they expect the potency to be exact, and so does King. She’s found a way to finally enjoy cannabis—five milligrams at a time.

She believes the future of edibles is in diversity, offering consumers a wide variety of options.

“People are getting super creative. The consumer base is widening. People are going to want more things rather than just the same old things. Nothing to disparage the classics, a good chocolate chip cookie or brownie will never get old, but the more people that try edibles, more they will want something different.”

That said, she noted that a brownie is Kaneh’s best-seller.

“It’s the Best of Both Worlds, a classic fudgy brownie. We press in a piece of chocolate-chip cookie.”

“It’s so good.”

 

kanehco.com

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