I confess, my understanding of chemistry is limited. I never studied the subject in high school, and my only college experience — other than surrendering to peer pressure and sampling the occasional mind-altering substance — was a part-time job in the chemistry department, carefully submerging lab glassware into a vat of hydrochloric acid.
Working in the lab taught me the discipline of methodically rinsing test tubes and beakers under running water 10 times each, and about the value of my steel-toed boots — they and my jeans got acid holes burnt in them. Not much else transferred, and to this day, talk of allotropes and anodes and anything involving a centrifuge quickly goes over my head.
Not to say I don’t appreciate science, and the amazing privilege of living in an age where scientific advances are happening at lightning speed. And I’m not shy about asking questions. So I was excited to interview Roy Lipski, CEO of Creo, for episode 77 of the Kannaboom Podcast recently.
Creo is making biosynthetic cannabinoids for use in consumer products (!) Wait, how do you grow cannabis without the plant? According to a research report from Raymond James, this involves “engineering the instructions for these materials’ production into the genetic code of simple organisms — e.g. bacteria, algae, yeast and other fungi — (so) they can acquire the novel capability to produce molecules they usually wouldn’t.”
Raymond James projects a $115 billion market
Vanilla gets produced this way, and so do fragrances, detergents and medicines. And biosynthetic cannabis, of course, presents an enormous opportunity. The firm estimates that the global market for products derived through cannabinoid biosynthesis to grow from $10 million in 2025 to $115 billion by 2040. Creo is one of the leaders in this unfolding cross between the biotech and cannabis industries, and Lipski was patient and gracious in answering my profoundly uninformed questions about the what, why and how of all this.
Some of what I learned: We can expect to see more consumer packaged goods incorporating biosynthetic cannabinoids like cannabigerol (CBG), which happens to have great moisturizing properties, about a year from now.
Given all we know about CBD — the most famous of the cannabinoids — and what we are learning every day about the 112 other known cannabinoids, and how they interact with our endocannabinoid system, this is kind of monumental news. We are moving quickly towards the integration of cannabis compounds into products we use every day, starting with cosmetics and skincare products, according to Lipski.
And given the known medicinal properties of CBD, I surmise, we will also see cannabinoids being used in product categories like beverages and functional foods.
How biosynthetic cannabinoids are better
Why are lab-grown biosynthetic cannabinoids poised to explode in popularity? They present consumer product manufacturers with several key advantages:
- Consistency. Biosynthetic microbes are bioidentical. With the plant version of cannabis, you might have a different concentration of THC in separate buds from the same plant, which complicates your supply chain and the entire quality-control process. When you have a lab-produced microbe, you can dial in the attributes of that microbe, and it’s alway the same. You know it’s going to be free of pesticide and solvent residue, and you will have a product that is reliably uniform in its composition.
- Economy. Cannabinoids produced in a lab don’t require soil, fertilizer, grow lights, etc. You also don’t end up with stalks, leaves and all the other compounds and constituents of the plant, which essentially become waste products when you are extracting one specific cannabinoid. You can produce a batch of cannabinoids in the lab within 48 hours, as opposed to a months-long growing season. Plus the extraction process.
- Specificity. Biosynthesis gives you the ability to produce the rare ‘minor’ cannabinoids at scale. This is difficult to do with traditional agriculture; you would have to find and isolate a specific cultivar that has a high percentage of CBG (or whatever cannabinoid you want to produce) and manage to grow lots of it. (This too gets expensive.)
Clearly, from a business perspective, biosynthetic cannabinoids, grown in a vat by fermentation of things like fungi or e coli (don’t ask me more than this) pose a significant shortcut to companies who want to meet consumer demand for cannabis-related products. But it does raise questions:
- How will this affect the current market of plant-grown cannabis and CBD? For consumers, growers and manufacturers?
- Could this technology be used to adjust the psychoactivity of THC?
- Or to put together ‘designer’ formulations of cannabinoids that have not yet been found in nature?
Will consumers line up to buy products made with biosynthetic cannabinoids? There are some who decry any genetic modification to the things we consume. Others are enthusiastic about things like artificial meat — which I want to like, but so far, in it’s uncooked state, it looks and smells too much like dog food for me to embrace. Creo is betting that non-plant cannabis is a hit. Can this amazing plant — that we are learning more about every day — be improved upon with the application of technology?
It already has been, says Lipski. And we are just scratching the surface of how cannabis can help humanity.