Achemistry lab with a massive safe bolted to the floor and heavy-duty locks on their refrigerators. That’s what you’ll find at Complex Biotech Discovery Ventures (CBDV), a contract research organization based in Vancouver, Canada. The firm specializes in highly restricted, underresearched botanicals like cannabis and recently obtained a license to work with psilocybin from psychedelic mushrooms.
CEO Markus Roggen, an organic chemist who cofounded the company in 2018 with University of British Columbia chemistry professor Glenn Sammis, got his start in the cannabis industry in California in 2014. Cannabis offered a chance to break in to California’s start-up culture, which Roggen says appealed to him because he didn’t want a large company over him.
But after working for cannabis companies in California for 4 years, Roggen realized that he had reached the limits of what he could do there.
“I’m really interested in fundamental chemistry,” he says. “I like to create new stuff instead of just making sure everything runs well.” Cannabis companies are small and don’t have the resources to build analytical and research divisions like pharmaceutical companies. “No cannabis company will buy an NMR,” so you need to work with universities, he says. But cannabis companies in the US cannot work with university researchers. That’s because although cannabis is legal in several states, such as California, it remains illegal at the federal level.
So in 2018, Roggen relocated to Canada, where he started a company that could team up with researchers at UBC and have the freedom to pursue projects that he could not do in California. None of the work could be done without collaborating with UBC, Roggen says. The company pays industry rates to use analytical instrumentation at the university; consults with faculty members; and hires students and postdocs from several departments beyond chemistry, including design, business, and computer science to help with various projects.
“On the analytical side, we work on metabolomics,” he says. “We try to identify new compounds or give a more complete picture of what is in a cannabis product.” The team has built a database of about 800 compounds that have been identified in the cannabis plant or in cannabis processing steps, he says. They are now developing analytical methods to determine which of the compounds are in any given sample of cannabis.
CBDV is also helping companies optimize the extraction of cannabinoids, such as the psychoactive compound tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), from cannabis. Such extracts are typically sold as a solid or oil that is highly concentrated in cannabinoids. They are often inhaled as a vapor or ingested orally in tinctures or edibles.
Roggen acknowledges that when he started out, he knew little about how extraction works. “But I know how to optimize processes,” he says. “I attacked the problem of cannabis extraction with a CO2 machine the same way that I would optimize any other process,” he says. “I set up the experiments, ran them, and analyzed the data.”
Numerous factors affect extraction of compounds from cannabis—temperature, pressure, humidity, run time, flow rate, particle size of the material, and concentrations of cannabinoids and flavoring compounds called terpenes, Roggen says. To get a better handle on the process, the team is incorporating machine learning. “We have hired students from data science at UBC in Vancouver and computational scientists who have written our databases and built the software,” Roggen says.
Another area of interest for the company is developing “a new efficient method for cannabidiol (CBD) production at scale,” Roggen says. CBD products, such as cosmetics and dietary supplements, are growing in popularity because of their potential health benefits, such as reducing anxiety, inflammation, and pain. And unlike THC, CBD doesn’t cause euphoria. “We have a client that wants to bring a line of CBD products that are based on synthesized CBD, not CBD extracted from hemp,” Roggen says. When CBD is extracted from hemp, “there is the potential for contamination from other cannabinoids, mainly THC,” he notes.
Roggen has a PhD in organic chemistry, so organic synthesis is not new to him. But in academia, most organic chemists work on syntheses that are “a beautiful work of art that solve a very complex problem or they solve a synthesis with a specific trick,” he says. Seldom do academic organic groups present work that is the most cost-effective way of making something, but that is what the team at CBDV must do, he says.
Starting materials have to be cheap and available in bulk, and “we have to be able to work the chemistry within an energy window that is cost efficient,” Roggen says. “We don’t want to waste too much money because we have to compete with the CBD from hemp,” which is readily available and inexpensive thanks to recent legalization in the US.
Over the past few years, “we have demonstrated to Health Canada that we can work with restricted compounds, keep track of our material, and do all the paperwork,” Roggen says.
That history helped the company obtain a license earlier this year to conduct research on psilocybin from psychedelic mushrooms.
To start, the company is developing a high-throughput method for quantifying psilocybin. A few chromatography methods have been reported in the literature, but they take 20–40 minutes and often don’t work, Roggen says. His goal is to get the method down to 10 minutes. Although the psychedelic mushroom industry is still young, it has some of the “hints of the green rush of cannabis,” Roggen says. He predicts that methods for rapidly quantifying psilocybin will be in high demand in the future.