Market is emerging for medical marijuana tech

By: William Jackson
March 17, 2017

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William Jackson
William Jackson

As more states allow medical and recreational use of marijuana, a market is developing not only for the weed itself but also for technology to support the budding industry. A lot of effort has gone into professionalizing the growth, distribution and sale of legal marijuana, but there still is a dearth of reliable information about its use as a medication.

“How can we remove the stigma and promote cannabis as medicine if we can’t dose accurately?” asks Shanel Lindsay, founder of Ardent, a Massachusetts startup that is helping to solve that problem.

Because marijuana remains illegal under federal law, there is precious little reliable information about the drug and the medical effects. A couple of tokes from a joint or a bong are not a reliable dose, and a brownie is not a terribly accurate delivery method.

Ardent brings some precision to the use of marijuana with Nova, a laboratory grade decarboxylator. The product, which looks like a high-tech coffee travel mug, makes THC, the active ingredient in cannabis, useable by the body. The THC in raw marijuana contains a carboxyl group must be removed from the THC molecule. This occurs partially when marijuana is burned for smoking. But this is incomplete, and if you want to get the full benefits of the drug it needs to be decarbed before using. This often is done by baking it first.

Lindsay, an attorney who helped draft last November’s resolution legalizing marijuana in Massachusetts, began researching decarboxylation when she was using grass as an alternative to long-term pain medication at the age of 20. There was little data, and much of it was contradictory. She settled on using a crockpot, which produced a steady, controlled heat. But when Massachusetts legalized medical marijuana 10 years later in 2012, she was able to go to a lab and test methods for producing usable THC.

Turns out the crockpot, as well as most other methods for decarbing, is not particularly effective, either destroying or leaving much of the THC unusable.

“It’s not rocket science,” Lindsay said. “But it isn’t a linear process,” and getting the last 20 to 30 percent of the THC requires carefully controlled heating. Nova contains two heat sensors, one in the outer part of the cup, which contains a heating element, and one in the removable core that contains the marijuana. Firmware uses an algorithm to control the heat throughout a one-hour cycle to decarb all of the THC. This allows a consistent product.

Lindsay began patenting her process in 2013 and by early 2016 was selling beta versions of Nova. Because banks, which are federally regulated, are reluctant to touch the marijuana industry, getting funding for the new company was not easy. “You have to find angels,” Lindsay said. “My first investor was my mom.” But by late 2016 Ardent was able to go into full production. The company lost $100,000 on sales of $350,000 last year, not bad for a startup. Sales of Nova, which sells for $210, are taking off this year and it is being used by research labs and universities as well as consumers. The biggest problem the company has is keeping up with demand. Current sales are about $100,000 a month and she expects to be profitable this year.

A couple of new products for the medical marijuana trade are in development. One is a gel capsule, one half of which contains one of 15 different formulations of chemicals to provide the user the proper cannabis profile. The consumer fills the other half with marijuana to create a dose. The other product is a wrap to create a dose of marijuana that can be placed under the tongue. This is a fast way to absorb the THC without having to smoke or eat the drug.

Because of the legal ambiguities, getting into the marijuana business remains a challenge. “You can’t just have a good business to get people to invest,” Lindsay said, “you have to have a fantastic business.” But the growing demand and the lack of data and technology are creating opportunities for people with fantastic ideas.