Note from the author: Most figures in this article are conservative estimates provided for reference only. Content and concentration limits are based on current and upcoming regulations for the Canadian Cannabis market.
Reprinted in entirety, with the author’s permission.
written by David Galvez, Ph.D, Senior Scientific Advisor
The market for vaporizer cartridges and pens have been a slow forming tsunami. From multi-company licensing deals as the one between PAX Labs with Aurora, OrganiGram, Aphria and Supreme to multi-billion investments like Altria’s $2.4-billion into the Cronos (and $12.8-billion into Juul, the most popular vape pen for tobacco users) or the recently announced $120-million partnership between British tobacco giant Imperial Brands and Auxly Cannabis Group Inc.
If everything goes as planned, by Spring of 2020 the Canadian Cannabis market will be flooded with options to pick from when deciding on vaping products: disposable vs rechargeable, proprietary cartridge/pen systems vs brand-interchangeable standards, single-cannabinoid vs full spectrum oils, clamshell packaging vs rose gold-platted, brushed aluminum wonders and a long list of other possible etceteras. As much as all these factors will play a critical role in bringing new customers to the cashier till, successful brands and companies will survive based on their ability to bringing customers back again and doing it in a way that they are consistently satisfied by their choice.
I can not stress this enough: having great marketing and design to catch the attention of customers will be important but delivery of a consistently satisfying experience resulting in repeated sales will be indispensable for long term success.
Delivering a consistently satisfying experience, beyond the appeal of a nice looking design or a convenient price point, will mostly depend on properly researched, formulated and manufactured product. Here are some basic pointers, in no particular order, I believe current and future formulators and manufacturers should keep in mind.
Heavy Metals (HMs)
Heavy metals (HMs)– Contamination by HMs should be the number one concern for manufacturers of vaporizer cartridges. Is important to remember that significant amounts of HMs could be found in a finished cartridge even if no HMs are present in the oil or distillate used to fill it up. This could happen because lead and copper, the most prevalent HM contaminants in cartridges, are used to make electronic components more flexible and easy to mold into vaporizer pens. As the cartridge’s heating elements are cyclically energized, lead and copper could leach inside the cartridge effectively contaminating the oil. This problem could be easily addressed by ensuring licensed producers only procure empty cartridges from suppliers that provide a third-party Certificate of Compliance (rather than just an internal Certificate of Analysis) with the new regulations by the State of California which limits the amount of lead, arsenic, mercury and cadmium in cartridge to 0.5 ppm. Quick tip for Canadian Labs: you should start looking into SoPs for testing HMs in empty cartridges in addition to HMs in the oils from them.
Formulation-specific Vapour Pressure
Formulation-specific Vapour Pressure-Every component in your oil/formulation (i.e., every cannabinoid, terpene, carrier oil, sugars, flavonoid and any trace of pigments and/or residual solvent) expand and contract at a slightly different rate depending on how long and at what temperature the formulation is heated. This means that over time some of the components in the formulation could come out of solution forming cloudy sediments, crystals or gums. If this happens, in the best case scenario, your brand new customer will question the quality and safety of vaping a cloudy oil (…and we know some Cannabis users tend to linger on a particular idea for a bit too long). In the worst case scenario a particular component, once out of solution, expands at a faster rate than the rest of the formulation, differentially increasing the internal pressure of the tank. This scenario could result in just a leaky tank or in actual fatigue cracks and structural failure. These problems could be easily avoided by having your R&D Team testing every single new formulation. And I mean every single one. Does not matter that you “just changed it a little”. Same ingredients but at a different potency? Test it. Did you substituted one terpene for another? Test it. Changed your carrier oil? Test it. Changed supplier for an ingredient (even when in paper it is the exact same thing)? Test it.
Photooxidation and Thermal Degradation
Photooxidation and thermal degradation– Cannabinoids degrade over time and when exposed to light, heat and low pH (please refer to my previous post if you would like to review some of the basics on this). These processes have been known for decades. Why are still the immense majority of vape pens manufactured with a transparent oil tank and package in transparent clamshells is beyond me. Here is a simple, easy idea for a team looking to create a functional differentiator: Sell you pen together with an elegant, carefully designed hard case that your customers can carry around the office or a park (without feeling its scream “I am a stoner!”) together with a simple message that educates them. Something in the lines of “We at XYZ have carefully crafted the strain specific full spectrum oil you are about to enjoy. The accompanying hard case was designed in a collaboration with ABC to help you maintaining the precise cannabinoid potency and terpene profile of your oil so you can enjoy the same balanced feeling every single time. Remember: the active ingredients in your pen are sensible to light and heat. Please keep your pen protected from both”… or something like that.
Filling and Scalability
Filling and Scalability– I believe the upcoming market for vaporizer cartridges could represent a very profitable opportunity for licensed processors as well as for third-party manufacturers and white-labelers. If properly implemented, even a relatively small licensed processor can establish a filling line that produces tens of thousands of cartridges per day. Please notice the “properly implemented” part of the sentence. In this context it means having your R&D and QA Teams working together to carefully test all your formulations, exhaustively tests and validate your processes and expand only until you have a clear idea of what the demand is for your products. Doing so before jumping into absurd expansion schemes, in volume or SKUs, will allow you to add, remove or reformulate your products accordingly to the market trends and needs or to innovate and launch new products in a well planned and executed strategy. If you are a Canadian Licensed Producer take a minute to visit the guys at ATG Pharma. They check all the boxes in my initial list for anyone entering the manufacturing space: filling machines that are GMP, Health Canada and FDA compliant, with small footprint, pedal-operated or automatic, several options for customization to accommodate different cartridges sizes and shapes and most importantly, a easy way to scale up production in an orderly, well planned fashion.
Controlled Dosing– The recently approved regulation for New Cannabis Products establishes a limit of 1,000 mg of THC or CBD per container in Cannabis extracts for ingestion and inhalation. Although there is not currently available information of specific limits for the maximum amount of THC or CBD allowed to be inhaled by draw (or puff or hit) the limit will likely be 10 mg as is the case for capsules currently in the market and the proposed limit for edibles and beverages. Establishing a precise and reliable way to assess how much THC or CBD is inhaled per draw is a very complex endeavour since the amount of cannabinoids inhaled per draw is a function of oil concentration (i.e., how much of the oil is actual THC or CBD), volume (i.e., how much vapour the user draws during inhalation), time (i.e., for how long the user inhales) and temperature. Although we don’t currently have a standard for how to address this challenge several pens in the market have built-in, customisable light, haptic or audio indicators to tell the user know a pre-selected volume or time has been reached. Take home message? Since Health Canada will likely require some form of user-operated dosage feature, built-in controls are an important consideration when designing or sourcing your vaporizer pen and cartridges.
… and finally, the one I believe is the most important:
Defining the Experience
Defining the Experience Before Manufacturing the Cartridge- I believe brands and companies able to understand the difference between wowing customers with cool features, and satisfying them with clear, tangible benefits, will become successful, profitable winners over all the others, specially over the ones wearing the “first-to-market” label as core differentiator. I will not even try to dive into brand building, marketing strategy or benefit design. Those topics are way over my head (if you are interested in learning more about these topic follow Rob McPerson and his daily mini-lectures on the subject). Nonetheless, I believe there is one benefit that should be offered as an absolute minimum: every consumer must have the ability to comfortably control how quickly or slowly they experience the effects of Cannabis. Surprises are often bad when it comes to consuming THC-containing products and bad surprises almost always end with consumers not coming back to your product.
Here are some simple considerations and warnings on this issue.
- Health Canada has set a limit of 1,000 mg of THC per cartridge and will likely enforce a limit of 10 mg per draw.
- Cartridge currently in the market deliver around 100 to 150 draws. Deciding to use the above numbers to create a THC-containing cartridge with one hundred 10 mg draws (i.e., for a total of 1,000 mg per cartridge) will be a very poor idea. Why? Because the large majority of novice users coming to your brand will likely feel uncomfortably intoxicated after one draw and sick after two. That will be a remarkably short and unhappy experience. Do not expect them to come back or to recommend your brand when talking to other novice users, friends or family. And remember, they will likely have several other options to select from next time they shop.
- The most common cartridges in the market have a volume of 1 ml (i.e., around 1 gram or 1,000 mg). Your product does not need to have such large volume just because this is the most common. Premium products rarely are sold in large containers. That is the reason you don’t commonly find 2-L bottles of 20 year single malt Scotch.
- Having a smaller cartridge (let’s say 500 mg) that delivers around 2.5 to 3 mg of THC per draw could potentially offer your customers an easy way to gradually immerse themselves into the experience of your formulation and to rest or stop while still enjoying the party. Just as you do with wine or fine liquor. Yes, there is always a crew that only do Tequila shots but those are the exception, not the rule. Remember, you are the one designing the experience and to whom that experience is directed to.
- Smaller cartridges could also mean your customer will go back to the store more often if they enjoy the previous experience. Happy customers are also more likely to try other products in your brand: “…that Kush cart was fantastic… lets try the Pineapple Express one now…”
- Ensure your extraction platform or oil supplier offers you the ability to preserve as much terpenes and flavonoids as possible. I have said this before: Full Spectrum extracts are the way to go. They are the perfect staring point for Premium products.
- Cartridges containing single molecule distillates (i.e., just THC or CBD dissolved in a carrier oil) are simple and inexpensive to manufacture but they offer very little room for differentiation besides price. You don’t want to go there unless you are aiming for the rack besides the till or the bin full of all the other products that are exactly the same than yours.
In summary, a line of strain-specific, full spectrum, 500 mg cartridges that delivers around one hundred 3 mg draws full of glorious terpenes is a good starting point from a basic manufacturing and Quality point of view.
And one final very important incentive associated with doing things right: Cartridges similar to the one I just described have a total cannabinoid content of around 300 mg and sell in the US for USD $50.00. You do the math for margins.
Here is a great example of what I believe is a very well executed line of products supported by a simple and relatable story with an image that is clean yet highly focused on solid technical/Quality information.
https://www.trychemistry.com/cartridge – Check out the amount of detail in the information on the label.
PS. Just in case anyone at Chemistry reads this: I know the honey is beautiful to look at… but get over it and for love of Cheese cover that tank! (or what about sourcing a third-party certified UV-resistant cart? Just saying)