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Podcast: One Company's Quest to be the 23andMe of Cannabis

Can your genes influence how you respond to cannabis? Len May, co-founder of Endocanna, is banking on it.

This week on the Green Entrepreneur podcast, we speak to Len May, CEO and Co-Founder of Endocanna Health. The company makes a DNA kit that analyzes how your genetics may affect your experience with cannabis. Think of it as a 23andMe for cannabis, but instead of finding out if you’re part Neanderthal, you’re learning what cannabinoid ratios and terpenes may best ease your anxiety or improve your sleep.

Courtesy of Endocanna

May talks about how he came up with the idea for Endocanna, the market for a product like this, and where he sees it going in the future.

Related: Green Entrepreneur's New Podcast Will Make You Smarter About the Cannabis Business

Let's start with the elevator pitch for Endocanna.

The elevator pitch is that we look at ourselves as sort of the GPS for cannabis use; we can let you know that your DNA is a guide. It can show you how you may experience cannabis, and we can show you what is a more optimal way to experience it, and we can also provide you some guidance on pitfalls. So these are the areas that you may want to avoid in consumption of cannabis, and instead of playing the guessing game spending hundred dollars and having some negative experience, AI, too many brownies or you know I consumed something that really gave me anxiety or go as harm reduction.

And we feel that the more people that actually use science to consume cannabis as a guide that harm reduction will start getting rid of this ridiculous stigma. And once we do that and really use science and medicine and wellness and kind of the therapeutic method, I think it'll help to get rid of this like I said stigma and then hopefully this ridiculous prohibition.

Tell us how it works.

You either go in calm or you go into an Eerwhon store, or you go into a pharmacy or dispensaries we distribute in many different places. But let's say you go to Endocanna health, you place an order for a kit, and the kit is mailed to your home. It's a box, inside the box there is what's called a buccal swab, which is a fancy word of saying it's a big Q-tip, and there's a bag and there's instructions. So what you do is you take out the Q-tip, you swab the inside your mouth, you put it back in the bag, put it in a box that's already addressed and stamped and register it on our site because everything is anonymized, so everything goes by registration number so we don't know who that belongs to.

And then you send it to our lab, we'll run a genetic sequence on it and we'll look at every single gene or snip that has a direct or indirect association with your endocannabinoid system. Once we do that, we send you an email that says your DNA is ready or your report is ready, you log in to your secure anonymized HIPAA compliant portal and we'll walk you through your report. And basically it has it broken down into eight different sections, which include anxiety, pain, sleep, metabolism, dependence, cognitive function, depression, psychosis we'll show you your genes as they relate to each one of those areas where people would consume cannabis for and also where your DNA will play a role in, and then provide you a suggested ratio of cannabinoids and turpentine that are more optimal to your genetic expression.

And then the final step of that is to align products that are available within your area based on the geolocation code and based on legalities of where you are of what you're able to consume.

I can imagine some people listening might be like, “Well, I never heard of this. This sounds like BS science.” Is there data and research to back up what you're saying?

Everything we do has a referenced essay, clinical trial or a study that's associated with us, so we're completely transparent. People are right there is not enough research, we need more research but there is research, so there are over 15,000 articles published studies, they're peer-reviewed in PubMed alone which is a database for when people do trials or studies, they publish them in PubMed which is a national database. There are also university studies. There are studies that are going all over the world and what we did is we build an AI deep learning algorithm, that goes and looks at the internet and with some intelligence and some criteria that we build in, it actually gets that information and aligns that with the different genetic profiles that we put in place.

Yes, there is science associated with it, but you know that's something that can be improved over time. And the reason why we build it this way is so we can improve it, meaning that it's a learning algorithm and for the lifetime that you are able login and get your report, every single time there's something new that comes out, we'll update your report with the latest and greatest information. The only caveat to that is that, and I'm not saying they do, so I'm not making any accusations, but we don't sell your data to Big Pharma. Our goal is not to care about you know Jonathan or lens personal information, we want to have thousands of people that have specific genetic markers, that used a cannabinoid tape medicine and have alleviated a symptom or a condition or something like that, that's who we're really focused on.

We're at the intersection of two you know most popular I guess searched terms and where technology is going, which is DNA and also cannabis because the studies are coming out on the way cannabinoids really work, and how they interact with your DNA are incredible, I think the next five years hold the treasure of different discoveries.

Related: Listen: MedMen's Adam Bierman on Building the Apple Store of Weed

How did you come up with this idea?

I've been in cannabis patients since my teens, and I say patient because I was diagnosed with ADD when I was a kid, and I was put on all kinds of prescription medication. Some of it worked but all that kind of sucked, and I was lucky enough to find cannabis in my teens and said this is my go-to medicine. And my parents weren't big fans of that, so at some point, they asked me to leave and they even called the cops on me. So it was there it was an interesting experience, but every door that closed I guess another one opens. So I became an activist, and in my activism I held rallies, I held a rally even in independence hall in Philadelphia where I'm originally from.

And I learned by watching other people consume cannabis for serious medical conditions, that it actually works really well as a medicine, not just for me of other people. So I pursued this over many years over 20 years or so, and moving to LA I was in the dispensary space, cultivation, delivery I was always focused in the plant, and the frustrating thing that I started seeing was that the once you have a plan and you're providing it the same exact plan to different people, they would have a different experience and I couldn't understand that and my initial thought was that it had to do with the actual plant. So I went to work with a company called medicinal genomics, and my job was collecting samples of different plants, cannabis plants from different cultivators extract the DNA, purify the DNA and then send it to a sequencer in Boston.

So we started this library of chemo hours would just basically strain to try to genetically identify them of what really that is, so to give you an example if it's let's say it's blue dream, which is a name of a cannabis chemo virus strain, and we see genetically that some of them are lying in a cluster, so we know that they are all related, there must be pretty much blue dream. But then we see other ones that are completely in different spectrums, and we know for a fact that they're not Blue Dream and they're called Blue Dream, so that was part one. I started seeing from the parent company of medicinal genomics I started seeing human genetic sequencing and they were focusing on disease states like cancer, autism, and epilepsy.

So we started seeing some different markers of kids that had epilepsy and they were consuming CBD, and some of their seizures started coming back, and it was a certain genetic profile that's called Dravet syndrome if I'm pronouncing it correctly, that genetic marker was different in the other kids and they had a different experience. So that became my next fascination, I started looking at these genetic markers for different types of conditions, well you know is there a genetic marker for early-onset dementia? Yes, and what do I do, is there anything I can do about that? If I know that CBD is in your project, so maybe that'll work as a supplement that can consume every single day to try to protect that protein layer around your neurotransmitter that deteriorates over time.

I actually approached them to have that conversation, and they weren't interested, so I started looking at building my science team for about a year and a half, we looked at every single gene that we could possibly find that had an association directly or indirectly with our new cannabinoid system. And once we build all our research and then we were trying to find the actual research that's available that we can reference, once we did that then we build our custom chips and it's an array that we have to do a genetic sequence on. Once we did that, then we have to present that into the profile that we have right now which is our secure portal, so that's basically the journey of phase one.

When did you launch this product, and how's it doing?

We officially launched August first of 2018. How is it doing? I guess it's all relative how it's doing; I think it's doing great. I do put a lot of pressure on ourselves in terms of sales, but the first launch was a soft launch, so what we wanted to do was learn. Get all the kinks out, make sure that we have an accurate system, make sure we have a fulfillment system the works, so I think to date we had about 2,400 people that have taken the test.

How do you market a product like this, you said you put a lot of pressure in your sales team, how do you get people to know about this aside from doing a podcast like this?

That's pretty much it. So we haven't done any marketing to date yet, we just hired an agency that's going to be helping us with a lot of the marketing that's coming out. But the way we've been doing is grassroots, so I've been traveling around the country actually around the world, but also strategic partners. So there's another side of our business where over the last ten years we were looking at different formulations to work for different people, and we have filed patents on different formulations who we have licensed out to different brands.

So basically they use a recipe that we created and they create their own products and market those, so through them, we have a lot of visibility. And then we have pharmacies that distributor product or we sell our products in Erawan for those of you that don't know Erewhon, it's a Southern California chain, think of it as sort of Whole Foods on steroids.

How do you do a customer profile for this product? How do you identify your target consumer?

We do a lot of metrics and we do a lot of surveying and we're trying to figure that out, and it seems to me that it's just about everybody. Now what we did find out was that women make the buying decisions for the household, so if it's a household decision usually the woman makes the decision. But what we see is that people that have a condition that would be our number one customer. So we sell a lot through medical facilities, doctors’ offices, chiropractors we sell through orthopedic surgery centers, and these are people that really have a condition. They have pain due to surgery, or they're suffering from other sorts of conditions and disease states.


Also somebody that had a negative experience before and wants to give it another shot and then anybody who's curious about trying to find out what works best for them, it could be somebody that tries to figure out why am I having a negative experience with an edible when you know I smoked the joint before, and I didn't have a problem with that. It could be that you're a really slow metabolizer, and if that's the case you may have a really negative experience by consuming the same exact amount of cannabis or THC through your digestive system as you would, you know sublingually under your tongue or smoking a joint or a vape and if you know this about yourself it helps you with the roadmap.

But how transparent are cannabis companies about all those different terpene profiles?

It depends, so certain companies are much more transparent others, but the testing guidelines will be enforced next few years that every single company will have to this display not only the cannabinoid ratio but also their terpene profiles. I would say first try to look to see if there are test results on the packaging, so it gives you your cannabinoid profile and your terpene profile you're good.

However, our system, what we're building on now which is a version 2 it's actually going to go through an API and look at lab results, and align those lab results with products. So if you have products that test those, you'll have a hundred percent match.

Where can people go if they want to order a kit how would they do it?

They go to