Cannabis Capital

Eleanor Kuntz | LeafWorks

Episode Summary

Know the plants that go into your products Eleanor Kuntz the Co-Founder of LeafWorks, a genetics business specializing in plant DNA testing for the Natural Products industry joins Ross O'Brien and Maggie Kelly from Bonaventure Equity. She explains why cannabis agronomy and genetic science is not up to pace with market needs or demands.  They discuss how DNA-based solutions can help to improve brand security and build consumer confidence in plant-based products. Produced by PodConX Cannabis Capital - Ross O'Brien - Maggie Kelly - Bonaventure Equity - Eleanor Kuntz - LeafWorks -

Episode Notes

Know the plants that go into your products

  Eleanor Kuntz the Co-Founder of LeafWorks, a genetics business specializing in plant DNA testing for the Natural Products industry joins Ross O'Brien and Maggie Kelly from Bonaventure Equity.  She explains why cannabis agronomy and genetic science is not up to pace with market needs or demands.  They discuss how DNA-based solutions can help to improve brand security and build consumer confidence in plant-based products.

Produced by PodConX


Cannabis Capital -

Ross O'Brien -

Maggie Kelly -

Bonaventure Equity -

Eleanor Kuntz -

LeafWorks -

Episode Transcription

Eleanor Kuntz: [00:00:00] Hi, I'm Eleanor kuntz co-founder and CEO of leaf works and my blunt truth from the cannabis economy. Is that canvas agronomy and genetic science is not up to pace with market needs or demands. 

Maggie Kelly: . Hi, everyone. Welcome to cannabis Capitol the podcast. I'm your co-host Maggie Kelly here with the one and only Ross obrien venture capital investor, and author of the book cannabis capital. How are we doing the spine afternoon?

Ross O'Brien: As always Maggie every day is better than the last, especially on the front lines of the cannabis economy. Greetings everybody. Thank you for tuning in listeners.

Maggie Kelly: Well, our guest today, Ross is the brilliant Eleanor Kuntz co-founder and CEO of leaf works a plant genomics company, conducting cutting edge research and developing commercial DNA testing services for the cannabis and hemp markets. But before we get started, it's time. For the challenge that we all know and love the cannabis economy [00:01:00] challenge, our weekly challenge to see if listeners can identify an industry or sector that is not impacted by cannabis legalization, Ross, what's your record again?

Ross O'Brien: I'd like to hear you say it Maggie, but I think it's two words together. One on and defeated. I think it's undefeated.

Maggie Kelly: There we go. All right. So listeners, could this be the week that Ross gets put in his place? 

This challenge submission comes from Lindsey and west Palm beach and her submission is education. A great challenge, Lindsey. How do you respond to that, sir?

Ross O'Brien: Well, I think we need to rename this from challenge to just cannabis economy facts. Cause it's not really a challenge, any work. So I've got this one in the bag, Maggie education quite simply. And did I mention that I wrote a book, there's a book called cannabis capital. Right. And did I mention that I've mentioned that.

I largely wrote it because it was intended to be in its inception, a textbook, a resource for entrepreneurs to help them with raising capital, [00:02:00] help them with starting their businesses and running them. And so if you look at more broadly education there's conversations now at the university. Are we teaching cannabis entrepreneurship?

Are we teaching the business fundamentals of cannabis? Is this something that we're including now in our curriculum? And so there is no legacy cannabis business courses. Nobody could have otherwise got a degree in that as a discipline until now. And so all these things are starting and, hopefully my book will be in the hands of budding young cannabis entrepreneurs.

Pun intended as they learn the fundamentals of raising capital.

Maggie Kelly: Okay. Well, it seems like you were a little prepared for that, man. You're on your

Ross O'Brien: Well, we're running out of sectors. We're running out of sectors, but I've been thinking a lot about it. I mean, I did write up, did I mention, I wrote a book. I wrote a

Maggie Kelly: Okay, so listeners, if you think you can stump Ross, please visit cannabis capital to submit your challenge. And now onto this week's episode with [00:03:00] Eleanor Coons co-founder and CEO of leaf works. 

Eleanor, we are thrilled to have you on the show today, before we get started, would you mind giving our listeners a little background on yourself and on lethal? 

Eleanor Kuntz: I would love to tell you a little bit about myself and leaf works. So I come to the party first and foremost as an herbalist. So after I graduated from my undergrad degree where I studied botany, I was really interested in the intersection of the human world and the plant world and the. Interesting place that I could see big impact was in medicinal plants and how intensely we use them and how important they are.

Not only in our generic Pharmacopia that we can go to and get from the doctor. A lot of those compounds are made for medicinal plants, but also in the greater world, how important those plants are. To humans in general. So I really dove in, and in doing that, you find some plants are really [00:04:00] more utilized or more impactful than others and cannabis really started to stand out as an important plant early on. After my little stint in herbal school, I decided to go back to grad school and I really focused on. Botanical genetics. So agrinomic genetics. And my, my interest was how does the human mediated cultivated environment interact with wild plants? So again, something that's very similar to this human wild interaction.

And in that research, I mostly focused on rice and looking at weedy rice and agricultural rice. And. Just how these populations would talk to each other. And that really served me after grad school, where I dove in to best agricultural practices. And what do we do in the agrinomic environment to increase the medicinal value or the quality of those plants?

And when I was doing that work, I was very lucky to have [00:05:00] some really good. Contracts where I was working on medicinal plants that grow in Western Rajistan and. And looking at not only those agricultural practice, but the botanical trade in general, the global botanical trade. It became very obvious that in addition to how do we grow these things in the best possible way to derive the best value based on their medicinal quality?

It became really clear that there's a lot of fraud in the botanical supply chain and as a purchaser of herbs and really understanding that, I'm buying something that I'm using for my health. I really want to know what that plant is. And if I'm a company that's integrating global Bhutan botanicals in my supply chain, I really want to know I'm getting what I think I'm getting.

And it's, it's a weird world where. The organization that's making that purchase, buying those plants is burdened with the responsibility to prove they're buying not only the plants that they [00:06:00] think they're buying, but those plants aren't adulterated in any way. And so, because. There is oddly in some sense, but not odd in another sense, this drive to cheat the system and get as much value from a transaction as possible.

We see a lot of fraud and this fraud is in large part invisible to the modern testing regimes that we use to identify plants And because I have this background in genetics, we really focused on using genetics to do that botanical ID because it is impossible to take that DNA away.

And so if you have unique DNA based genetic markers to specific plants, you can get around this fraud by using genetics to do your botanical ID. And that was the inception of leaf works. It was the collision of my interest in. Herbs specifically medicinal plants. It was global supply chain [00:07:00] and it was this very new and upcoming skillset that myself and my co-founder Karen law had gained in grad school.

It was this beautiful coalescence of a whole bunch of different things that really birthed leaf works. And So that's how we started. We really entered the space in the natural product side as a botanical identification company, focusing on using genetics to ID plants.

Ross O'Brien: So Eleanor, I'm guessing that our audience is disproportionately more credentialed as PhDs. We have a lot of PhDs that listen to this podcast, but for those who aren't I'd like to unpackage the science a little bit just for a moment. And maybe just in its simplest form, you're obviously have years of observation.

From botanical science and looking at what's happening in cannabis in its simplest form, we generally feel or look at it and I'd like you to expand upon this as, because of prohibition. We're at a point where the science [00:08:00] that otherwise knowledge of science-based and otherwise is there in botanical science was absent from cannabis.

Is that the right place to start? When thinking about it? 

Eleanor Kuntz: There's So many different places to start. I think that's a great one Prohibition really has set back any hind of scientific discovery within cannabis. And when I say cannabis, I'm encompassing. Plants that produce THC and hemp or non THC producing types to me, they are all cannabis. So I'll just reference them that way.

But because we haven't had the time on task at a university levels to really dive into diversity genetics of the plants in general, we have a huge gap in our understanding and our tools that we can use to. Propel specific plants forward to understand how chemicals are produced within the plant. And also just in its most basic form, identify which plants are, [00:09:00] which you know, it's very easy when you go into the grocery store and you see a gala apple or granny Smith, we have some very clear understandings, not only of what the phenotype is or the look and the taste and the qualities of those.

If you want a granny Smith, you probably don't want to eat a gala apple. They're very different. And so just understanding what that name means and what those types are, is completely lacking in the space, in any kind of unified or codified way and prohibition, it's understandable why we're we're here on the science, but we're really.

Moving to catch up.

Ross O'Brien: So one of the things that from our vantage point, it seems quite exciting. And I'd like to hear your perspectives on this. As you look at leaf works as the company, is that if you accept and understand that there is just a knowledge base that doesn't yet exist. So, so we're doing the hard science, the base science to understand these data points and the [00:10:00] genetics, et cetera. appears to us is there is a. Very short path between gaining that knowledge and having a commercial implication or application or a product or something that's a use case from that. Would you talk a little bit about how you've approached the commercialization piece and how should listeners be thinking about what this new knowledge base means and what the business implications are?

Eleanor Kuntz: Absolutely. And I'm going to answer it a little more abstractly because I think that it's exceptionally multi-faceted. And when you understand that you can really vision a lot of different realities for how genetics can impact the capital side of the canvas. And so genetics is a language it's like math or English.

It's a way of speaking about the world. And the beauty of genetics is that it allows us to speak about these plants in ways that help us move them forward. The most basic is what, what are we talking about? [00:11:00] Right? So if we have a medicinal plant, we need to know that if we have two doctors using the same medicinal. That the names correspond to the same plant. So that's a very basic if you're looking at just agriculture as a whole and looking at how, how do you take plants that are? potentially ill suited for one environment and move them into another environment or move in traits that are beneficial. Mold resistance or increasing some flavor of chemistry, whether it be terpene profiles or cannabinoids, understanding the genetics or the language that underpins those chemical pathways allow you to move those populations forward, whether it be through selective breeding or in other capacities, you have to understand the genetics that underpin those production pathways in order to do. Biosynthesis in order to do any kind of genetic modification. So any, any way you want to go, that [00:12:00] language is critical. First step and genetics is, is universal. So the nice thing about learning something about a small group of canvas plants is that knowledge that you learn about those plants is applicable to other plants. there's a lot of future directions that you can go having that basic. Understanding of the cannabis genome and the diversity that's held within populations of plants that we currently are interacting in the market. 

Maggie Kelly: Okay. I'd like to take a turn away from the science of the cannabis economy and more of the human experience within the cannabis economy, if you will. And I go back and forth on asking this question, because unfortunately, I feel like we're still not a place where we actually need to ask this question and talk about this, but can you share your experience as a female founder?

You are two female founders of a company that. [00:13:00] It seems like just in terms of startup culture and entrepreneurship, it can be very male dominated. And I would love for you to speak to what that experience has been like just for you as both female founders and also as female founders in the cannabis economy.

Eleanor Kuntz: Being a female founder isn't is an interesting. Thing. It's not so different than being a female and some of your hard sciences though. So I think some of us scientists have had this experience throughout school and it's changing and stem programs are really pushing that forward women in women, in stem women in science specifically, I think. The intersection of fundraising and capital, it becomes like doubly male dominated in some sense. And so you just have to leverage your skills and realize you are unique. And that is a really powerful place to be. And although [00:14:00] there's sometimes difficulties that come in that journey, there are also a lot of benefits to being. The diff , the only woman in the room, which happens. And it's really about looking at that experience as a positive, as opposed to a negative. And , that's one thing that I personally have really tried to leverage is just. Utilize it in that way and just see it as a positive and just push that forward.

And the nice thing about cannabis is there are a lot of female founders and there have been a lot of very strong women in this industry for decades. And so that's a, it's kind of a unique thing about cannabis and as it becomes more mainstream, it's shifted. But we do have the power of the female. I mean, female plants are the plants that we move forward.

And so it is a very. Open space to the importance and the power of the female and that perspective. And I have had wonderful experience [00:15:00] over decades being in the cannabis community as, as a strong female leader, interacting with strong female leaders. And I see this as a huge benefit to the entire growth of the industry.

Maggie Kelly: Thank you. And I'd like to take this opportunity just to provide a little shout out to the women leading in cannabis podcast, hosted by cure reads. So please give that a listen. I've actually heard this from a founder recently. They know they want to get into cannabis and they just came out and said, I'm thinking I really want to move to California and be a cannabis entrepreneur in California.

Like that just feels like the place. What would you say to someone who is thinking that the California is.

Eleanor Kuntz: I think it depends on what you want to do in this space. There are many vibrant cannabis and have communities that are springing up everywhere throughout the entirety of the United States and the world. If you really look. And so I feel that [00:16:00] if you are interested in history, Culture genetic diversity cannabis, like the center of cannabis on those elements really is California. But if you're interested in creatively moving things forward, you have different perspective that you bring to the table. If you're, utilizing your, your background and your history and integrating that with canvas that's something where. Find your place. Can't, California's just one of many.

But there is a very special thing about California cannabis, cannabis culture originates here globally. 

Ross O'Brien: so Eleanor, I'd like to expand upon that. One of the things, and, and I, we, we know each other outside of this podcast as well, so I know that you spend a lot of time Hands-on in-person working with cultivators being in this California cannabis culture that you're talking about. What are the things that you're observing in real time that you [00:17:00] think people should be aware of?

What things are you seeing that you think our listeners should should know about or be aware of or hear from the front lines? 

Eleanor Kuntz: Cannabis in California has such a deep history. There are all kinds of people that are involved, which is one of the wonderful things about being in California. It's a unifying force. You go to a cannabis, 10, 20 years ago, you go to a cannabis party and it's the most diverse party on.

Not only in skin tones and associations and where people are from and what people do and their like normal day jobs, it's really amazing how cannabis can unify people. And that's one of the most beautiful things about cannabis. But if you really look at what's happening on the ground now, it's difficult.

Taxes are really high. There's huge barriers to entry. People in organizations that have been doing it for a very long [00:18:00] time, don't have the capacity, whether it be financial or professional aspects. To enter into the legal market in a way where they can be successful. And I think that is hugely detrimental to cannabis as a whole, the experience, not only with the plants themselves, but growing techniques and the culture of really moving these plants forward and the creativity that has come with that scientific pursuit of diversifying these plants for specific purposes. In some ways being lost by the corporatization of cannabis. And I think that does all of us, a disservice part of the thing that really draws all of us to cannabis is that vibrancy and that outside of the box thinking and. I feel like we really need to re-look at some of the ways that we're moving forward and strategize around how to preserve those elements because they serve all of us [00:19:00] in the long run and on the ground.

I feel like , there's kind of a really interesting thing. That's going on with farms where you have, some people that really want to just like blow it up and get really big. Then you have other organizations that are really true to their, there's a lot of back to the Lander roots in the cannabis community, which is not something that everyone is really aware of, but that sentiment of self-reliance and honoring the land and leaving a place better than when you found.

And you started to interact with that space and the real move and push to reject, not just organic or, steady state agriculture, but true regenerative agriculture. , how do you grow the entire system? That type of thinking is immensely important. Not only within , the cannabis community, but expanding that out to the rest of our food systems and. 

Ross O'Brien: Okay.

Eleanor Kuntz: Seeing that play out in Northern California has been very [00:20:00] interesting to me. And I have a lot of vested interest in seeing that expand into , our other food crops. 

Maggie Kelly: So, what advice would you give to founders who are just beginning their capital raise. 

Eleanor Kuntz: Advice to individuals and organizations starting to raise capital is know what you're good at and stay in your lane. I think that's the most important thing with cannabis. I think there's this tendency to let a lot of do it all and we rarely are good at doing it all.

And so that would be my best advice is really come to the party with your skillsets and move those skills forward.

Maggie Kelly: so what would you say then in terms of advice, like think back to when you and Karen were just getting started, what is one piece of advice that you wish you would have had right at that inception moment or within that first six to 12 months? Let's just say.

Eleanor Kuntz: I think it's, it's not so much advice, but it's a way of [00:21:00] thinking, realizing that building and growing a business, becoming an entrepreneur is a lot like grad school and it's hard. It's hard work and you get into it. And there's sort of a light at the end of the tunnel and the light goes away and the light gets brighter, but really. Just having the ability to breathe through some of the hard parts and see down the road and realize that the vision, if the vision is there, you will overcome the obstacles that fall in your way. 

Ross O'Brien: You mentioned Eleanor seeing down the road, and this is probably a good place to sort of wrap up what I think will be part one of, probably multiple parts of the conversation here. Talk to us about what you do see or how you see the future playing out for the cannabis economy. How do you see the science that is now rapidly developing, impacting the broader.

[00:22:00] Business elements. The cultural elements here in the U S globally. where are you tracking things for the future? 

Eleanor Kuntz: for cannabis in my world is very bright. I believe we need to be mindful of not repeating some mistakes of the past and, and from my point of view, really being a geneticist and having that vantage point, being mindful to not lose our important diversity because of the commoditization of.

Certain plants that can do well in the market in the present moment, realizing that the market is going to grow and evolve and mature. And the most scary thing to me is losing a lot of the hard work that has been done by individuals over the long haul in dark times, or they're risking their. Their freedom to move these plants and to caretake these plants. I mean, I've, I mean, Ross [00:23:00] has alluded to the fact I interact with a lot of farmers and in some of those interactions, I met plants that are older than I am, which is really humbling to think about people, keeping these plants and trading these plants.

And that's another thing is there's always been this culture of. Keep some of it close, but make sure someone else has cut, cause you don't want to lose it. And I think we need to really think about that. Like how do we maintain diversity? Because that's, the palette that, that would be , my most focused answer to that because I could really wax poetic about that question. 

Maggie Kelly: Many things to Eleanor Coons of co-founder and CEO of leaf works for joining us today. Details covered in this episode can be found in the show notes to learn more about leaf works and cannabis genetics. Visit leaf And remember, if you have a cannabis economy challenge, please visit cannabis capital and submit your challenge.

And you can find us next Thursday with a [00:24:00] new episode of cannabis capital at the podcast.