What Happens When AI Meets a Cannabis Grinder
Tell us what your company does.
My partner Mark Levine and I founded Banana Bros., which develops, produces, markets, manufactures, and engineers innovative products. We have sold $1.5 billion in products over the span of our career.
Our latest invention, OTTO, is a motorized, SMART grinder. There is nothing like it. Other people have created motorized devices out there, and I believe that they do a decent job of chopping material up, but they are not able to control the size of the cut and the consistency of the material. OTTO is the only device that does that. And on the non-motorized size, all the hand grinders make you crush the material back and forth, and if you’re not extremely careful to do it at the right speed and pressure, there’s a potential to have powder or pucks. With OTTO, everybody can roll a perfect joint every single time. There’s a romance to rolling your own joint for a lot of people, but there’s also a lot of new smokers who don’t necessarily have that nostalgia. We want to make the process as easy as possible for those new smokers. We’re nostalgic for the old days, but these are the new days.
Why did you go into the cannabis business?
When I was younger, I grew and sold cannabis, and also made pipes and bongs. I sold those to raise capital to launch my "legitimate’ business." Sowing my seed, so to say, was in cannabis. It’s cool bringing it up now because the laws have finally caught up to my passion. Now I finally get to do what I do best, high-level engineering and innovation in the cannabis space.
What inspired you to create OTTO?
I wasn’t happy with the hand grinders currently available on the market. In my group of friends, I always roll the joints. I’m great at it. I pack it right, and one of the things I have to do is make sure that all the material is ground. I’ll even put it back in the grinder if it’s not right. I wanted it to be better, so my Director of Innovation, Manny Montano, and I started tinkering. The big "aha moment" was realizing we needed to develop A.I. and make it a SMART grinder. Because everything we tried previously didn’t work.
You can’t just motorize a grinder--it won’t give you a consistent grind, because the material varies. Some weed is wet and sticky, some is dry, and some is more compressed. If you use the same pressure in the mill for every material, you’re going to ruin your flower. You want even cuts so it burns at the same rate so that it draws evenly when you’re taking a hit. You want the material to burn evenly in a bong, joint, or a bowl. Cannabis is expensive—this isn’t basil or oregano. Why would you put it in a cheap grinder and waste this precious stuff?
What was one of the toughest challenges you faced in your business?
Overcoming the technical challenges of a product that requires software that understands what it takes to make a perfect mill, because of how difficult it is to work with cannabis. And how to create that product within a small enough package at a reasonable enough cost. Another tough thing was navigating the legal patchwork of opposing state and federal laws. We’re in a state where it’s legal, but in a country that it’s not. How to get the company off the ground and funded when the banks are hesitant to even hold your money is a big challenge. From a marketing standpoint, the third challenge is educating the consumer on the difference that a good grind makes. With a good grind, you keep more crystals on the leaf, so you get more out of the material. There are trichomes and chemicals like CBD and THC on the plant, and you want to keep those in the plant. You don’t want to damage those structures; you want to preserve them, so people have access to them. OTTO does that, but we need to make sure people understand that.
Related: A Closer Look at the Cannabis Market
What’s the best advice you can give to people just starting off in the cannabis industry?
Do your homework. People get very excited about an idea because an idea is a headline or the title of a movie or a new ice cream flavor. Double chocolate with peanut butter sounds amazing, but it’s never going to be what it is in your head. Maybe the chocolate is too sweet, or there’s too much peanut butter. You can say, "I want to be an attorney or an inventor," but that dream is always going to be different than reality. The only way you can get to reality is to do your homework, and know what you’re getting into as much as you can.
How has your leadership style evolved?
When I was in my early 20s and starting my business, I was a lot more of a dictator. I wanted people to do things my way or the highway. Time taught me that was not the best way to lead, and I became more of a collaborator and inspirer by letting my team go down paths, succeed, and fail. Even when they fail, I reward them for trying and making an effort. We need support in our failures rather than discouragement. So my leadership has truly evolved from my thinking I was hot shit to being more humble and more collaborative, and more focused on the team around me, and allow them to raise us all up.
Is there a quote that you use as personal motivation?
Winston Churchill said: "Success is not final, and failure is not fatal. It’s the courage to continue from failure with enthusiasm that defines true success." You’ll have many more failures than you’ll have successes.