One of the biggest threats to the cannabis industry, even more so than regulation and big business, is microbial contamination to the cannabis crop itself. Why? Well, without a healthy crop, growers, dispensaries and the entire supply chain suffer the consequences.
Enters Jill Ellsworth and Willow Industries, founder and CEO.
When a batch of cannabis fails microbial testing, it cannot be sold until is remediated or decontaminated. This process is extremely disruptive to a company’s supply chain. It creates delays, forces producers to turn their flower into concentrates (a type of remediation that cuts into profit margins), and sometimes leads to destroying the product outright…
Jill Ellsworth of Willow Industries
Jill, we’re excited to learn more about microbial contamination with cannabis. Can you tell us what is microbial contamination and why is it such a big problem for cannabis?
Jill: Broadly speaking, microbial contamination refers to cannabis products that have been exposed to a microorganism, such as bacteria, yeast, mold, fungi, or their toxins and by-products.
There are many reasons microbial contamination is such a big problem in cannabis. From a consumer safety perspective, it’s extremely important that consumers, especially those with compromised immune systems, aren’t being exposed to these microbial and their dangerous by-products. As we recently learned from California, when a 66-year-old man died after contaminated cannabis lead to a fatal fungi infection in his lungs, these issues can be deadly.
In addition to these stories being heartbreaking, they set back the industry as a whole, especially when it comes to federal support for legalization. Of course the answer to this is mandatory microbial testing, which we are seeing become the norm, but this creates another set of problems for cannabis business.
When a batch of cannabis fails microbial testing, it cannot be sold until is remediated or decontaminated. This process is extremely disruptive to a company’s supply chain. It creates delays, forces producers to turn their flower into concentrates (a type of remediation that cuts into profit margins), and sometimes leads to destroying the product outright. All of these factors lead to microbial contamination being one of the biggest emerging issues in cannabis.
Jill Ellsworth at Pure Greens Greenhouse in Colorado
How big of a problem is microbial contamination in cannabis?
Jill: Any cultivator will tell you microbial contamination is one of their biggest concerns.
In terms of the numbers, approximately 10-20% of commercially grown cannabis fails microbial testing, and that’s pretty close to what we’ve seen from working with cultivators over the last three years. The reason the number is so high is that it is virtually impossible to ensure no contaminants enter a facility. So we don’t view it as an issue only certain cultivators have to address.
Whether it’s post-harvest handling of the flower, the cumulative effects of new pallets and boxes coming in-and-out of a facility, or airborne spores coming through an HVAC system, eventually these tiny microbes will find their way in.
After that, all it takes is a small catalyst, such as a power outage leading to a humidity spike during drying, for a 100 lb batch of cannabis to develop mold and fail microbial contamination testing. This is why we are such strong supporters of cultivators that recognize it’s not a matter of “if it will happen” but rather “when it happens,”, and are proactive about preventative measures.
We believe consumer safety ultimately depends on having a kill-step in the production process, and the industry is already starting to trend in that direction. If you look at where the consolidation is happening, for example, it’s by the companies operating with these types of standards.
Can you tell us a bit more about Willow Industries’ WillowPure technology and how it works?
Jill: In the simplest terms, we use ozone gas to decontaminate post-harvest cannabis.
Ozone (O3) is a strong antimicrobial agent produced from oxygen that uses oxidation to destroy microbes on a cellular level. Because ozone rapidly decomposes into oxygen, it can decontaminate the flower without creating a buildup of inorganic waste, which means ozone doesn’t create any residue on the flower.
The real value of our technology, however, relates to ozone concentrations and exposure times, which is our proprietary information. With the WillowPure solution, a cultivator can resolve microbial contamination issues without altering the plants medicinal properties, saving their product without sacrificing its quality.
One of the most interesting aspects of our technology moving forward relates to data. Our position in the industry gives us the unique ability to collect data relating to contamination levels, regional issues, problematic strains, and multiple other metrics that are important to cultivators.
Although we have only been collecting this data for three years, we already have one of the largest data sets in the industry relating to microbial contamination, and this helps us to continually refine our advice to clients and ensure we can treat their product without affecting quality.
What is your background and how did you decide to enter into the cannabis industry?
Jill: I come from the natural food and beverage industry and am also a Registered Dietitian with a Master’s in Food Science and Nutrition.
Having been an entrepreneur for many years – launching, running and then selling a cold-pressed juice company and a natural beverage distribution company, I feel comfortable as an innovator.
After selling the distribution company, I started looking at the cannabis industry and was finding many of the food safety standards that I had to adhere to as a beverage operator, were non-existent in cannabis.
Mandatory state microbial testing was slowly starting to be required in Colorado, however, there were very few consumer safety regulations in place.
More specifically, there was not a solution for cultivators to make sure they could eliminate microbial contamination, which would protect their crop and minimize revenue losses, nor were there any companies looking at safety standards for the end consumer.
That was my lightbulb moment and the inspiration for Willow Industries. I was pulling a page out of the highly regulated food & beverage industry, with a strong focus on consumer safety.
What is Willow working on now and what is your next step as a company?
Jill: We recently closed a $2 million institutional financing round, which was our very first fundraise, as we have been fully self-funded since inception. This capital provides us the horsepower to accelerate our national decontamination business.
Currently, we are operating in 9 states, renting and leasing our WillowPure machines to cultivators by providing a mobile, turnkey solution to eliminate microbial contamination and produce clean cannabis for consumers.
We are quickly expanding our sales and marketing team for continued growth in larger markets such as California, scaling our engineering and manufacturing departments to continue innovating within our WillowPure system, and looking towards securing a foothold in the international market
Jill, this has been awesome! Truly appreciate your time and I know our audience will find this information highly valuable!
Jill: Thanks for having me be a part of this!