The mad rush for green continues to reach ever greater heights as states lift decades-long bans on marijuana. But at the end of the day, all marijuana companies rely on one thing – the living, breathing Cannabis sativa plant. And like all things both lucrative and living, the world of biotechnology has already jumped right in and worked to optimize the biological output of these plants. In other words, cannabis biotech companies are growing like weeds.
A synthetic biology research group at University of California, Berkeley, led by synthetic biology pioneer Professor Jay Keasling, recently announced their results from biohacking yeasts to produce tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive of marijuana, and therapeutic non-hallucinogenic cannabinoids, like cannabidiol (CBD), in a Nature journal article. The group spun out Demetrix Inc. in 2015 to optimize and capitalize on these findings. But, of course, the world of science is fiercely competitive and in the same month, a group from UCLA published their own Nature article on a near-magical way to make THC straight from sugar without any living tissue at all, and working to spin out their own company to get in on the action. And back in 2018, the Cronos Group (CRON), a vertically integrated marijuana company based in Canada, partnered up with the likes of synthetic biology startup Ginkgo Bioworks to culture cannabinoids directly from fermenting vats of bioengineered yeast for medicinal purposes like treating epilepsy. The game plan for all these projects and partnerships? Bring down the cost of these compounds from the current $1,000 per kilogram and rake in the cash, not to mention hitting the jackpot on producing rare pharmaceutical cannabinoids that could treat serious diseases.
Cannabinoids are forever. Source: InMed Pharmaceuticals
Marijuana plant breeding and genetics are also another hot spot of activity for the biotechnology industry. The traditional ways of breeding, by selectively bringing the boys and girls together, are being revamped using modern methods like those pioneered by agricultural giant Monsanto. These new techniques involve shooting novel genes straight into marijuana crops to boost THC and CBD output, protecting crops from pests, and designing completely new cannabinoids (not to mention locking down that lucrative IP in the process). Aurora Cannabis (ACB), which we profiled last year, acquired Canadian biotech company Anandia Labs with research expertise in marijuana genetics and analytics for $115 million. And cannabis biotech startup Front Range Biosciences, a startup we covered last year, has gone on to raise $10 million in a Series A round, for a total funding of $14.6 million, to meet the growing demand of legalized cannabis in California, applying their Clean Stock methodology to keep cannabis crops pathogen and pesticide-free. The company isn’t just satisfied with marijuana though, as it’s taking its technology and applying it to other cash crop products like coffee and hemp, with future plans for propagating bananas, sugar, and hops. The beauty of pumping up the biotechnology R&D is that the methods can apply to a whole range of parallel plant products and create new funnels of revenue beyond just marijuana.
The million-dollar science experiment. Credit: BioNinja
The world of possibilities is expanding for the marijuana industry to combine the power of synthetic biology, genetics, and biotechnology to optimize the growth and production of marijuana. Below, we’ve highlighted the cannabis biotech companies that are paving the way for Marijuana 2.0 and growing that green.
Founded in 2017, New Mexico-based Trait Biosciences is a biotechnology startup that’s working to design a natural pesticide against common cannabis plant pests to improve cannabis yields. The startup recently raised $12 million from cannabis-focused investment firms CannaIncome Fund and Green Acre Capital. Its latest project is to genetically engineer cannabis plants to produce water-soluble cannabinoids that can be used to manufacture cannabis drinks to get in on the beverage industry rush for cannabis wine. Other projects in the pipeline are designer plants that can produce cannabinoids throughout the entire plant, not just the resin glands responsible for making cannabinoids.
Founded in 2014, Segra International is a Canadian tissue culture service company that’s attempting to innovate a technique called cannabis micropropagation, and recently closed on $7.2 million in funding, and is working on an additional $10 million ahead of a planned IPO. The company was originally planning on being acquired by Chichi Financial, but that was eventually canceled in late December. Segra is using its technology to create clean stock libraries of marijuana plants to sell directly to producers or to build libraries for marijuana greenhouses out of the producer’s own strains. Last year, Sega purchased 20 acres near Vancouver for its new micro-propagation production facilities, which are projected to reach design capacity of 80 million plantlets per year by 2024.
Founded in 2013, Verda Bio is a Seattle-based biotechnology startup that has raised $545,000 from a seed round in 2016. After winning a research license from the state last year, Verda Bio is currently the first Washington-based cannabis research laboratory. The company is focusing on the less well-defined cannabinoids found in cannabis that could lead to new medicinal applications to treat diseases like cancer, epilepsy, and multiple sclerosis. Verda Bio plans to perform research into the genetics of marijuana plants and test the 85 known cannabinoids for their variable concentrations and efficacies across different strains.
Cannabis has a lot of possibilities. Source: InMed Pharmaceuticals
It’s a time-consuming process, as the breeding cycle to produce the targeted compounds can take upwards of five years. One wonders if it wouldn’t be faster and cheaper to brew up the cannabis compounds as we discussed earlier.
Founded in 2015, San Francisco-based Rev Genomics is a Y Combinator-seeded biotech startup located in Oakland, with $120k in funding and plans of improving marijuana yields using big data. The startup is working to sift through the enormous amounts of data made available through DNA and RNA sequencing of plant genomics to maximize the efficiency of cannabis breeding. And using advanced cell culturing techniques, they’re setting out to create pure cannabis strains with the aim of creating licensing deals in the future.
Founded in 2006, Filament.Science is an agricultural startup that’s working on using soil microbes to improve cannabis growth by improving soil nutrition and beating out mildew fungus that can wreak havoc on cannabis crops. While the data on soil microbes related to cannabis is still sparse, Filament.Science hopes to bridge the knowledge gap using systems automation and improving data reliability. Much like the hype around probiotics and gut health, the science behind soil microbes and their impact on agricultural products is still in its infancy. It’s unclear if changing the microbe population will yield serious improvements for cannabis stock.
Founded in 2012, Canada-based CanGenX BioTech is a biotech startup that offers a suite of cannabis-related services to support the production and growth of marijuana plants, including virus testing, nutrient development, and tissue micro-propagation for clean plant stock. Not much is known about the company’s financials, but CanGenX BioTech did sign an agreement to collaboratewith Aurora Cannabis back in 2015 to support the latter’s growing cannabis greenhouse operations.
Synthetic biology and biotechnology are already changing the way we eat, so it stands to reason that these technologies would start filling in the gaps for improving the way we partake in recreational activities. While pharmaceutical companies like GW Pharmaceuticals (GWPH) are spending money working their way through the hundreds of possibilities behind the many potential medicinal compounds that marijuana produces, and already filing patents for the treatment of epilepsy, the low-hanging fruit for many cannabis companies is to start pumping out IP on cannabis production and getting out as much THC and CBD for the hungry consumer markets. And with researchers from the ivory tower of academia getting their feet wet with marijuana research, we might one day thank a future Nobel laureate for discovering the unicorn biotechnology that lets us retire early on a tropical beach. Until then, the future of cannabis biotech is still wide open for exciting discoveries that can transform the way we get high.
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