As we continue our partner blog series, this week we have Doug Klier, Founder and Chief Research Officer from Elite Phenos.

Travis (Artemis): Today we are excited to connect with Doug Klier of Elite Phenos and we are looking forward to hearing his insights into the cannabis industry. Doug, if you would, let’s just start out with you telling us a little bit about your background and what you do at Elite Phenos.

Doug (Elite Phenos): Thank you for having me Travis. My background and exposure to cannabis started when I was seven years old. I was diagnosed with a congenital disorder and had very open-minded parents. They began to infuse cannabis as a personalized medicine for me; using honey as a way to micro dose. Most of my symptoms were resistant to traditional pharmacological medicine and treatment methodologies. I was having a difficult time with quality of life. So, that began a lifelong pursuit with cannabis and also what spurred me on to get into the understanding of cannabis in depth. Such as, genetics and the process of understanding lineages, chemotypes and eventually how to select plants and use the data from field and lab protocols to preserve genetics and deliver them at scale while understanding as much as possible about them.

Two and a half years ago in Massachusetts, the recreational regulations passed, and they began accepting applications for different licensing types. Elite Phenos is our brand and the parent company are called Integrated Genetics and Biopharma Research (IGBR). We applied for three licenses. One was a research facility where we could focus on next generation cultivars through breeding, selection, testing and induction into tissue culture. A cultivation license led towards the micropropagation of these genetics into the industrial hemp pharmaceutical and recreational markets, providing high volumes of tissue culture and clones at scale; to meet the demand of a new market for starter material which was clean, uniform and highly valued. In addition, we had a transportation license. So, Elite Phenos was formed two years ago with the intention of providing research and development to production facilities to support them so that they could focus on production. We could provide them an advantage through genetics and research. Not just examples of plants and biomass but accompanied with optimized protocols to allow them to overcome or bypass the dial-in period and select cultivars which might be best for their micro- environments, best practices and business plans.

Travis: That’s fascinating Doug! In the last two years, how many different strains have you done research on so far?

Doug: We have a biobank in which I have amassed over the last 25 years, over a hundred unique varietals. They were either selected through large seed hunts or from breeder’s cuts, representing the most desirable attributes of plant lineage. The bank contains popular and classic cuts which have a following in the cannabis culture. We amassed over a hundred unique varieties using important field data and protocols to determine whether or not they would meet the metrics for commercial cultivars versus the kind of novelty home growers expect in homegrown type plants. Currently, this is an ongoing process of doing genetic selection and then breeding our own cultivars and moving forward with that data. So, by the time we are allowed to commence operations here in this state, probably an additional six months away, we’ll have about 150 unique varietals and tissue cultures with protocols available for purchase. Also, we will have a biobank of about 20,000 seeds which represent landrace varietals and true F1 crosses.

Travis: Excellent. So as far as the different protocols you have worked on for the different varietals, how important is it for a grower to make sure that they’re focusing on those nuances of the SOP for each different strain?

Doug: I think it’s critical for optimization. If a cultivator is in a facility which is focused on
production begins to switch their focus to research and development, they’re not really suited or equipped to be able to create a splatter pattern. They have to dial in different elements like climate recipe, fertigation, nutrition, lighting and other variables. So, when an existing data set is established it’s what we call a compiled plant performance portfolio, which is cultivar specific and provides the ideal variables for the cultivator to follow. It’s not necessary for the cultivator to follow implicitly but does provide more of a general idea of what we’ve seen this particular cultivar do and different situations and equips the cultivator with the necessary tools to create the microenvironment necessary to replicate exactly what they’re looking for.

Travis: Yes, it makes complete sense. Doug, as far as your work with cultivators, how have you seen the importance of data impact facilities as they become more advanced?

Doug: Well first, it’s important to understand, those who are committed to becoming efficient and committed to producing the highest level of quality consistently and uniformly have understood the importance of the marriage of data. Specifically, in a real-time manner. It’s really integrated data which encompasses genetics, best practices, microclimates, climate recipes and also integrates operational needs and retail needs. It’s best if all of these different areas are synchronized. The next evolution for us when we select plants is taking what we’ve learned, using that data set and then moving it towards predictive analytics and eventually integrated AI. That’s really so we can become more efficient. And the truth is, Travis, that this will never tell you which plants to select. It will tell you which plants are not suitable for the next step based on your preferences.

Travis: That’s a really interesting outlook. So, can you talk a little bit more about how you would look at eliminating those specific plants? What would be some key things a grower would want to consider when they’re talking about not necessarily using a specific variety?

Doug: Say you think of a plant from a production standpoint, that the plant is responsible to the business for producing a certain amount per square foot. When you’re running efficiently, you can begin to eliminate or cull or reduce those plants which are not performing to your expectation and use data to make the selective choice. Now this is not a discussion or open question of what the best variety is as that is subjective, but the best varietals for what you’re looking to produce within your climate. A production facility is an ever-evolving business committed to efficiency. We’re looking to accomplish a production objective with less labor, less money spent on nutrients, less handling of the product, so that we can achieve the greatest return consistently. And as we start to see brands emerge and we start to see prices fall on the wholesale market, those are those people who are going to be best equipped to be able to succeed. All of this is highly attributable to selecting the best varietals for your particular market as well as for your particular production methodologies.

Travis: So, Doug, in your experience, when it comes to challenges for cultivators, what have you seen when it comes to tracking data and understanding the data they need to pay attention to? Do you have any examples of those challenges?

Doug: I think there’s challenges on many levels. Challenges exist in production facilities which attempt to produce a broad spectrum of genetics with various environmental needs without having the fundamentals in place to support a broader array. They may have the expectation that a cultivator, who is receiving $20 an hour for their efforts will be able to remember all the plant specific variances. The facility itself may not be designed to deal with different sectors or different varieties. They try to create a uniform production at onset and attempt to produce different varieties through that original concept. Obviously, it’s going to have its own issues. For example, if you’re looking for a plant that has a lineage from an equatorial sativa line, that’s not going to grow in the same micro climate with the climate recipe and nutritional line as a plant that is from Nepal which has a different longitude attached to it and evolved and expressed to a point where it grows most efficiently in certain conditions. I think expecting the cultivator to understand that and dial in on those variations is difficult.

The other thing is, most cultivators and production facilities at least here in Massachusetts and even in some of the mature States have not had an option of purchasing genetics. The idea of someone providing outsourced R&D genetics available with protocols attached to them wasn’t an option. So they had to be vertically integrated. They had to do their own internal R&D. They had to germinate seeds and take it through that process. Most of the people with previous exposure to cannabis, are commercial home growers in the legacy market primarily focused on just production.

And so when you ask people if they can meet those scaled production needs which are supported with efficient propagation there really wasn’t, and in some cases, still isn’t a lot of established best practices in that area. Everybody had a different way of doing it because it’s a lot easier to keep 20 clones alive a month than it is, you know, 20,000. So, I think there’s a lot of challenges and unfortunately wasn’t an open platform of sharing that information and establishing best practices or even keeping data. When managing and selecting plants before legalization, the data collected could be the platform of your own prosecution. So, keeping notes on varietals and keeping books and computers full of data related to growing, ultimately could be a huge liability for yourself.

Travis: That’s a great point to make. You and I have talked about the challenges the industry faces concerning the lack of available sciences due to the hampering effects of prohibition. So, looking forward, what are some of your predictions as to what you see in the next five years? What are some interesting things you believe will happen to the industry from a cultivation standpoint? When you talk about specific data, which is now becoming increasingly available, what do you see that evolving to?

Doug: Let’s see. That’s a good question. I think one of the things to mention is improved use and integration of AI. Being able to transfer not just genetics or not just knowledge from facility to facility, but to be able to have a plug and play data system that proactively manages the plants rather than responsively. The way that comes about is, all the IP and data is collected on the plants in the field before being distributed into production settings. It changes from a very reactive model to a proactive model. Educating growers on when a plant is going to need to be defoliated, at what stage they need to be introduced to low-stress training and all of these different aspects which assist a specific cut rather than a broad misnomer such as cannabis. With like 5,000 or so different genotypes and counting.

The other thing I see emerging which I am trying to promote with Elite Phenos, is the idea of lab-to-lab transpose of genetics. Where every production facility has a small receiving lab both as a control for cleanliness and sterility and for their own production of genetics. An ability to store the varietals which are not in production and control them in house, whether that’s synthetic seed encapsulation or keeping them in stasis. There are a couple of different options including which is less known about at this point, known as cryopreservation and how varietals will respond to such a deep preservation technique.

But I believe within five years you will no longer see high amounts of biomass going down the highway from one location to the other, from a nursery to a production facility. Instead, you will see small amounts of material that is rooted, or potentially undifferentiated cells being transferred from lab to lab with royalty or licensing fees attached to it. And that is how R&D will be fueled going forward and how a facility would benefit by eliminating their germination and mother plant maintenance area propagation areas and push for having regenerative clean stock by ensuring that they are filling their facility with first-generation tissue culture moms.

Travis: I love that. What is one piece of advice you would give to the cultivators of the industry. What is one magic thing that you think everybody should really be paying attention to or should know?

Doug: I think it’s the difference that genetics can make; especially a company with protocols. I’ve seen too many $40 million facilities with the perfect equipment, and everything integrated within it and the pieces that are ignored, primarily, are the cultivator’s best friend; a stable plant. A stable plant which is going to consistently produce a consistent product that uses minimal amounts of nutrients, has strong, vigorous growth and a strong immune system. I think that those basic variables make a cultivator’s job much, much easier over the course of all other production responsibilities. I think stability and plant health is the next evolution of the industry and a challenge of startup States where people are pulling plants from anywhere. I think there is a huge risk with the emerging threat of viruses which can be a reality for cultivators which may not even be cannabis specific. It may be the viruses that have the potential to migrate across that we’re really not equipped to deal with along with no real established protocols except for a couple very advanced groups that are doing very well in the area of even how to quarantine, isolate, diagnose, and then remediate this.

Travis: That makes sense. You brought up some really interesting points there. So, if a grower is in a facility, in a new startup state; or say beginning their journey to cultivation, what do you think are the key data points they should really be paying attention to? When you’re talking about all the different things that you’ve talked about today, what should they be collecting and documenting so that they are putting themselves in a position to be successful as the market evolves.

Doug: I think it’s best to have an identity of what you want to produce. It evolves beyond just stating you’re in sales, or wholesales, or retail production. I think that if you can narrow in and specialize on a product, there’s a best practice set behind that on how to best produce that product. We are evolving to the point as producers, where there are genetics or varietals that best perform in particular situations. I think what happens is, a lot of cultivators in new facilities come on and say, okay, we want to focus just on producing the most, so we’re going to do a vertical setup to get that established. But we also want to produce top shelf flower that’s going to compete universally. Well there are challenges in growing smaller and mature plants and vertical growing tends to lead to that. For example, certain varietals are stressed out by having lights directly on top of them and only having a three-week vegetative cycle.

It’s like pushing a teen into adulthood; that’s an accelerated process on the plants. Some plants are fine, some plants produce great, but other plants may experience stress by this and never fully develop into what the cultivator knows it can be. So I think instead of committing to a grow practice in a facility design first, take some time and understand what exactly that you want to produce and what your identity is and then begin to design an environment that is singularly focused on consistently producing that. That in itself is extremely helpful in answering a lot of questions for companies. Once they commit to the product that they want to produce instead of just over-planning and having a focus tree, they have one single focus of a company identity and mission.

Travis: I love that. That is brilliant and I completely agree with you on that. So, Doug again, I thank you for sharing all of this. One final question for you…is there any one last thing or any specific thing you’d like to share either around your work,what Elite Phenos does for the industry or just a piece of advice?

Doug: First of all, I appreciate it and it’s been great talking to you Travis. I’m humbled by the opportunity to share. I think as a company, we want to remind everyone we’re also going to be delivering your lead varietals through retail partnership. So, our mission is to produce tissue culture clones from some classic cuts that are completely virus free, clean and approved so that both commercial facilities as well as the home grower can grow for personalized medicine within their environment and similarly have protocols which have been vetted for those particular environments. I think it was always a gleam of mind to be able to have access to all of the classics, types and varietals that were out there, but unfortunately there was never a place to get them.

Even in Massachusetts. Now everybody’s allowed 12 plants, but there is no place to purchase plants. So, we want to be able to give everybody the opportunity to do that and experience the independence of controlling their own medicine and controlling their own organic product that they can use for their symptom management or to give out to friends or to just enjoy in the privacy of their own home. But being able to get access to all of the plants that you’ve only ever seen on TV or heard about through songs or social media influences. We’re going to have a nice variety for people to select from.

So, I appreciate the opportunity to share. We want to serve everybody that’s business to business. We want to build research partnerships, we want to focus on next generation cultivators, but we also want to make sure that all of the citizens within the country get a chance to exercise their rights of a home growing and cultivation.

Travis: That’s pretty fabulous Doug. Again, I want to thank you for taking time today to connect with me. I’ve been following the Elite Phenos journey for quite some time and I’m very excited to see your continued work. We will continue to follow your work and I’ll recommend to everybody to definitely check out, and follow Elite Phenos on Instagram, Facebook, and any other places you could possibly do that.

Doug: Thank you very much for the time.