Cannabis extracts are in greater demand than ever before – oils, edibles, topicals, and tinctures are just the beginning. A great deal of success in the cannabis industry hinges on getting the extraction process dialed in efficiently and effectively.
Unfortunately, a lot of cannabis operators are missing a few steps or have overlooked a few critical knowledge gaps in botanical extraction, and it’s costing investors enormous amounts of time and money. Yet the return on investment can be observed within hours and rarely longer than a few days.
This is why a lot of operators around the world are turning to John A. MacKay, Ph.D., who brings to the cannabis and hemp spaces 44 years of experience in analytical testing, extraction, and purification techniques.
In 2013, one of MacKay’s team’s first cannabis industry projects came when they helped reduce CO2 extraction time down from 12-18 hours to 90 minutes. “This was a combination of the ability to develop a step gradient of pressure from 1,000 psi up to 8,750 psi to extract different compounds as well as collection with software-controlled fractionation,” he reveals.
Believe it or not, it turns out that the benefits of incorporating real science into cannabis extraction processes are huge.
“I just kept studying the peer-reviewed literature on extraction and separation theory in combination with the essential skills that the people who had been doing cannabis extraction for decades were using every day, and I made a plan to figure out how to solve this bottleneck that people were having,” MacKay says.
That initial experience fueled MacKay’s interest in extraction in the cannabis industry, where he immediately saw a lot of opportunity to add value.
“I still study 60 to 90 minutes in the morning. Then I apply the theory into the real world challenges cannabis and hemp businesses face every day. I am inventing new technology myself, as well as evaluating new technology through fundamental chemistry, physics, and mathematics with business realities.”
Today, MacKay’s impressions of the cannabis industry remain the same as when he first started. “People in the industry have learned a lot about the plant but many times do not have a formal education to support their hypotheses,” he says.
“And at the same time, you have people with Ph.D.s and long histories of chemistry and engineering, and they don’t know anything about cannabis. And so I’ve spent a lot of time merging those two expertises together, and to build an environment of mutual respect for each other.”
This merging of cannabis and scientific knowledge, MacKay continues, is the only way manufacturers can achieve long-term, sustainable success. “When you merge those two segments together with enthusiastic, creative people striving for a common goal, that is when I witness companies excel rapidly.”
When MacKay retired in 2017 after 29 years with Waters Corporation – a global leader in separation and mass spectrometry technologies – he launched Synergistic Technologies Associates, where he continues his focus on botanical-based extracts.
Today, MacKay works with cannabis and hemp manufacturers all over the world, and he sees these operators making the same mistakes. The companies and professionals interested in long-term success take his guidance seriously.
And now, MacKay has teamed up with Green Flower, leading an ensemble of hand-picked scientists and chemists from around the industry to create the online Cannabis Extraction Certificate Program.
When your extraction expert is saying a specific method is the only way, it could be a red flag that more learning is needed.
“Some believe ethanol is the only way, or that butane is the only way, or that CO2 is the only way – and that’s backwards from how you would actually run a business,” MacKay says.
The more efficient way, he advises, is to start with the envisioned product and work backwards. What ingredients will be necessary for that product? What are the financial considerations around those different ingredients? Which extraction method would make the most sense for the business? What are the varieties of hemp and cannabis needed to support the business goals?
Essentially, when done well, any of the popular extraction methods are safe and valid, and you just have to be able to determine which one makes the most sense for your business.
This is a powerful component to the certificate program, MacKay explains, giving operators and extraction professionals a broader base of knowledge to better inform their decision-making, decisions which could make or break a business.
The other big mistake that MacKay has seen repeatedly while working with cannabis operators around the world is an alarming gap in the fundamental knowledge about the analytics of their actual processes.
It’s important to understand, he says, “that ‘good’ is not a number. “You need to be able to know what is in that sample before, during, and after. Only then can you determine whether or not you have actually extracted what you want to extract,” he notes. What do you actually have in that variety you are putting into the extraction device? Do you have the right ingredients? Have you been given the right products?
MacKay is shocked by the number of cannabis operators who will spend millions of dollars on their plants and their marketing strategies yet fail to see the Return on Investment (ROI) in the proper training and analytical equipment needed to determine what they are actually working with. “And from there everything becomes very much mismanaged with no feedback in their manufacturing,” he explains.
“Somewhere in the middle they think magic happens and oil comes out, and that’s the part that’s mismanaged the most, and that adds more stress to the extraction and manufacturing side, that their unmet expectations are based on unmet understanding. There’s a disconnect.”
It is essential, MacKay continues, to have a complete handle on the Cost of Manufacturing (COM) throughout the entire process – from the time the botanical material comes into the manufacturing facility until the ingredients are ready to be made into a product. Power, Capital, Amortization, Human Resources, Consumables, Service, etc. need to be identified and monitored.
Operators who are not staying on top of the quantitative and qualitative analytics don’t even know if they’ve actually gotten an acceptable yield to support the business model, MacKay says. “They are inadvertently losing money by not understanding the process of the extraction or the potency before and afterwards, whether it’s the cannabinoids, the terpenes, the alkaloids. You can’t manage what you can’t or won’t measure.”
Once you have these processes down, MacKay explains, you then have the ability to not only ensure that the extraction is working, but you also know why the extraction is working, which then allows you to enhance your processes.
“You can’t enhance the process if you’re just hunting and pecking. It is like walking through a room in the dark. You bump your legs and arms and head as you try to move through the room. The solution is simple. Turn on the light. There is no reason for trial and error. It’s pure theory. It’s pure chemistry, physics, and mathematics. That’s it,” he notes.
“There’s no magic; there’s no secret formula; there is no artist in extraction – only the ability of knowing what the theory is and applying it to their processes. And therefore, you can have different processes and unique processes and patented processes, but there’s no art. It’s not a painting.”
A big part of MacKay’s management philosophy involves the Six Sigma approach, which is all about maximizing efficiency across the board. When he goes to consult with a cannabis company, the first thing he’ll do is just watch, and efficiency is usually the opposite of what he sees.
“I watch the Six Sigma being abused. I don’t even know if it’s one Sigma. It might be half a Sigma,” he notes. “I’ll watch them bring in plant material from one end of the building, then cross paths over to another side, then cross paths again to another side, then take it out and put it somewhere else, and you’re just watching this and it looks like one of those cartoons where the people are chasing each other. And that’s before they even take one sample! It is so rare to find someone actually monitoring their process.”
A lot of these operators, MacKay explains, simply don’t see the justification of spending money to enhance their processes and their analytical feedback, “because they’re not following the scientific process, and therefore there’s been no real science that’s gone into most organizations, especially startups. They are acting like easy-to-use, inexpensive analytical tools have not been invented,” he says.
“For less than $500 they could at least have something that will qualitatively light a candle in that dark room of furniture and keep them from bumping into things. And that’s the biggest disconnect, and they’re all losing money, and the investors get understandably upset.”
One of MacKay’s biggest hopes with the Cannabis Extraction Certificate Program, is that more operators will be able to create better products with greater efficiency while also investing in their people. To his mind, cannabis companies simply cannot afford to skip out on training any more than they already have.
“I’ve watched it happen so many times. If you take someone who’s a young practitioner and you are able to give them a little bit more education and a little bit more justification for how they’re doing it, they take off!”
What’s more, this training course isn’t just designed for extractors, he says. People running these cannabis operations need to have a broad knowledge base. This training isn’t just somebody coming in and saying ‘ethanol is the only way’, rather it’s giving you the ability to make informed decisions with a bit of entertainment in the mix.
“This Green Flower course was based on a need in the marketplace, showing people the importance of extraction as a hub for business and science coming together,” MacKay says.
“For people who are in extraction now, it will raise their levels of understanding and their levels of imagination to create better processes, and it also raises the understanding of people on the business side, giving them valuable information in anecdotal and understandable bite-sized ways.
“It’s also going to help the next generation of creative young people coming in cannabis and hemp. They are going to be the ones who will make a difference.”
Learn more about the Green Flower Cannabis Extraction Certificate Program today.