Written by BudsFeed Staff
As part of our “How It Started” interview series, we had the pleasure of chatting with Jill Ellsworth, Founder & CEO of Willow Industries, the cannabis industry leader in post-harvest microbial decontamination technology, bringing cultivators solutions to provide patients and consumers with consistently clean, high-quality products.
Thanks for joining us! What was it about cannabis that first piqued your interest, and when did that happen?
In 2015, the cannabis industry was just emerging, and I saw a huge opportunity to be innovative and groundbreaking in this up-and-coming industry. With my background in the health food and beverage industry, I was excited for the chance to bring my expertise in food safety to cannabis, and become an industry leader at such an early stage after adult-use legalization in Colorado. Personally, I love the plant and how it helps people – I thought, what a cool way to combine my entrepreneurial and personal interests.
How did Willow come to life? What’s its origin story?
Willow Industries was founded in 2015, shortly after I sold my cold pressed juice business and natural beverage distribution company. At the time, I was looking at the cannabis industry and it was brought to my attention that the state of Colorado was just starting to require mandatory microbial testing. With the implementation of these requirements, there seemed to be a missing link. There was very little guidance around what contamination meant to a cultivator and what to do if it presented itself. I started digging deeper and found that the food safety standards I was held to in the beverage industry had not yet been required in cannabis. This was my light bulb moment. Willow Industries was built to provide a solution for cannabis microbial contamination, and most importantly, be a technology focused on consumer safety standards. Today, we’re the leader in cannabis kill-step technology and the first cannabis decontamination method in the US created specifically for cannabis cultivators.
What is it about your company that makes it stand out?
Willow has innovatively found a solution to a huge problem in the cannabis industry – microbial contamination. Our WillowPure technology uses ozone gas to decontaminate post-harvest cannabis. Ozone (O3) is an antimicrobial agent produced from oxygen that destroys 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. With the WillowPure solution, a cultivator can resolve microbial contamination issues without altering the plant’s medicinal properties, saving their product without sacrificing its quality. We were very ahead of our time when we first launched, and now many cultivators have adopted our technology. Unlike other cannabis decontamination companies, our lease model gives cultivators ongoing support, not only with software updates that ensure the machine is always in optimal condition, but also our microbial support. We’ve built out our science and customer success teams to be able to go into a facility, actually identify where the contamination is coming from, and help the business solve it at the source.
Part of my personal mission is to bring FDA-like standards to the cannabis industry. Since I come from a food and beverage background, I was surprised to see that cannabis was not upheld to standards as high as I saw with the FDA. I think this also makes Willow stand out as a company as a company; we’re operating with consumer safety at the top of our list and uniting quality control with compliance.
What does your typical day look like and what do you enjoy most about your work?
My day starts with a variety of strategy meetings with our product, science, and sales teams. I focus on connecting with other leaders in the industry, which allows me to stay in tune with the market as a whole while building relationships with inspiring, like-minded people. Keeping the industry up to date on our innovations and goals is also important, from investor relations to press opportunities spreading the word about our mission. And most importantly, making sure our team is happy and healthy.
I really enjoy the variety of it all, no two days are the same; one day it’s putting out fires, the next day it’s celebrating a win. Everything is moving and changing so quickly in this industry, and allowing myself to be flexible emotionally and mentally maintains my stamina and sanity.
What has been the highlight of your cannabis career to date?
Seeing my vision come to life. Seeing our technology deployed in cultivations all over the world and witnessing how our WillowPure partnerships have helped them brings me the greatest joy. At the same time, building a team that has such a passion for what we do and watching them build their own dreams is such a huge highlight of our success.
Can you give us one cannabis trend that excites you?
Clean cannabis! No but really, the uptick in consumer safety across the cannabis industry has been a welcome development. I also love keeping an eye out for innovative CPG products and new, beautiful brands that are emerging.
Is there a product or service you hope someone creates to serve the cannabis community?
I would love to see a platform emerge that allows you to learn about a product before you even walk into a dispensary – beyond what a standard conversation with a budtender would be. It would give consumers a deeper connection and understanding of the plant using AI technology to quickly find what meets your needs, beyond just strain or potency preference.
What is the biggest change you want to see in the sector?
Quality matching up with compliance, and regulatory requirements being upheld to the highest of standards. Consumer education will also be an important catalyst for change. There is limited information out there on a consumer level, but there is a growing desire for knowledge. So, continuing to build trust and bridge the gap between cultivator and consumer will drive the industry forward with integrity.
Any advice you would give to someone looking to enter the cannabis industry?
Starting on the ground floor of any industry can be very hard and it takes a lot of strength, perseverance, and confidence. The cannabis industry is no different, but I found it was a lot harder to break into compared to a more mature industry. Stand up for what you believe in, don’t listen to the naysayers, stay positive, stay present, and do not waiver from your vision. If you believe in yourself, you can make it happen. Also – network!!! Put yourself out there. You will never regret that.
Continuing to give back to the industry with knowledge and insights from my experience as an entrepreneur – you’ll see me at multiple conferences this year! I will be working with regulators and stakeholders on consumer safety and providing solutions and innovation to the industry on clean cannabis. And I will always be focused on fostering a strong culture and support system for my team and their dreams.