Ilan Sobel, CEO BioHarvest Sciences, talks biotech and his company’s revolutionary flowering breakthrough
This summer, Israeli biotech company BioHarvest Sciences, Inc. announced that company scientists used its BioFarming technology to successfully produce stable cannabis trichomes. The breakthrough allows them to effectively recreate the plant’s flowering stage at scale and harvest 13 to 17 times per year versus an average of four cycles per year for conventional cannabis cultivation.
CEO Ilan Sobel says the company has made a commitment to investors to commercialize its new technology by the first half of 2022. Sobel foresees his company’s product helping revolutionize the cannabis industry, especially the medical market, by producing what he says is “fingerprint consistency and a level of cleanliness the industry today cannot deliver.”
According to Sobel, the sustainable technology also uses less land, produces less greenhouse gas and creates a smaller carbon footprint than traditional methods of cultivation. It’s the culmination of 12 years and $35 million worth of research for the publicly traded company that sees its proprietary BioFarming technology as not only able to change the cannabis industry, but traditional agriculture and the world.
“We are, at our core, a biotech company and every single day our scientists are unlocking the cellular plant biology secrets of the plant kingdom,” says Sobel. “We’re really forging new territory. There’s no academic institution or any other company that’s been able to accomplish what we’ve accomplished.”
Marijuana Venture spoke with Sobel from Israel about the company’s technology and its plans to take the product to market within the next year.
Marijuana Venture: What is BioFarming?
Ilan Sobel: We’re the only company in the world that has the capability to take any essential active ingredient the body needs for overall health and wellness from a plant or a fruit and grow them in cells. We only need the plant — in this case cannabis — or the fruit (in the polyphenols part of our business it’s a red grape). We only need the plant once and we’re able to take these essential active ingredients. We grow them in the cells and over a short period of time, normally about three weeks. We’re able to grow the cells to a specific body mass, after which we harvest the cells and we’re left with an amazingly soluble bioavailable active ingredient. This is the power of BioFarming, and we’re able to do this with any primary metabolite, like a protein, or secondary metabolite, which are polyphenols, antioxidants and, of course, cannabinoids.
MV: Are you just growing cannabinoids or are you growing the plant?
IS: Great question. What we do is we start with the plant. We need the plant just once. We take a specific plant with a specific genetic. From that plant, we grow cells. And this is the amazing part where we made history: We’re the only company in the world that has been able to grow trichomes in liquid media. We’re able to optimize our cells so they grow trichomes and, in our case, we’re producing full-spectrum cannabis, so it’s not just single isolate. It’s a three-to-four-week process, and we are in perpetual flowering. We skip the seedling or the cutting stage, we skip the vegetative stage, we go straight to what we call the BioFarming/flowering stage. For three to four weeks, we are in perpetual flowering in our bioreactors, and then we are able to harvest our cells and trichomes, and they are dried, ultimately giving you full-spectrum biomass with a profile which is identical to the cannabinoid profile of the source plant. This is very different from the traditional process, which is a cultivation growth cycle of 14 to 23 weeks, which involves seedling, vegetative, flowering and harvesting phase and then the plant dies and you have to go back and start again.
MV: So you’re not growing flower, you’re just producing trichomes, right?
IS: Our end product will be a similar biomass, except our biomass is a composition of the cells and the trichomes — and obviously the trichomes contain the cannabinoids, the flavonoids and the terpenes — compared to a traditional approach where you have trichomes, some of the leaves and much more of the plant. We just grow the cells and the trichomes.
MV: Would this then go to a processor? How would this be used?
IS: I think what’s important when you look at the use cases is to understand what’s unique about our product, besides the fact that it’s much more efficient and we’re in a perpetual flowering cycle so we’re able to literally produce 15 times per year versus an average cultivator that’s able to do four to five times per year. Besides the economics and all those components, what’s unique about our process is we have fingerprint consistency because we’re able to control the elements through our process. And as you know, consistency is a major pain point in the industry — specifically in the medicinal side when you have patients that are utilizing cannabis, consistency is so important.
A classic example I like to use is that patients who are using traditional cannabis for post-traumatic stress disorder can have one week where they’re doing great with a specific strain and brand that they are purchasing, then the next week they go and buy the exact same strain and it’s a different experience because it’s not consistent. And that’s something we’re able to manage through our process.
The second aspect is around the purity; we have no fertilizer, we have no pesticide, we have no heavy metals and we utilize no solvents. We grow our cells in bioreactors. Our cells are grown in aseptic environments. Going back to what you were asking earlier, we are growing full-spectrum cannabis. We are not growing singular isolates, it’s growing full-spectrum cannabis.
MV: Are these cannabinoids designed to be processed and used in a medical environment?
IS: Ultimately, like any type of cannabis biomass, based on the use case, you have to treat this in an appropriate way. If you want to move into an oil base, you have to go through the extraction process. It’s the same. At the end of the day, biomass is biomass. Based on the consistency, based on the cleanliness, I’m not going after that recreational market. This is a grade of cannabis that the market hasn’t seen before. We’re not competing to go after that specific mainstream market. As time goes by, we will start to be much clearer and articulate much clearer our route-to-market strategy and our product strategy, but I am just giving you a sense of the spaces.
MV: This is a technology you developed for traditional agriculture, right? What made you apply it to cannabis?
IS: The first validation of the platform was in polyphenols, where we developed our red grape cell product, which is actually selling today in the marketplace very successfully. We also have in our pipeline an olive cell product and pomegranate cell product, all with unique polyphenol blends.
We’re a science-based company, so everything that we are doing in these areas are all supported with clinical trials, many of which have been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Up until 2019, we built out the whole polyphenol vertical, and then as the cannabis market started to open up our scientists said, “You know what? We think we can apply this same technology to growing cannabis, leveraging the BioFarming technology, utilizing cell growth and start only needing the plants once.” And the team chose, I think, the most challenging vertical in the plant kingdom, because the cannabis plant is a very, very complex plant. And basically we’ve really cracked it by being able to apply our technology now to the most challenging plant, giving us the ability to leverage the power of our technology and all its benefits to the cannabis vertical.
MV: This sounds like science fiction. Do you see this as the future of farming and cannabis farming in particular?
IS: There’s no doubt that our planet today is under tremendous pressure and we, as global leaders, have to be thinking about our children’s and our grandchildren’s future. At the same time, health and wellness is on the frontal lobe of every single person like never before. And that’s why as a CEO, I feel so privileged to be leading a company with breakthrough science that is at the intersection of some of the most critical trends that are facing our world today around the importance of sustainability, health and wellness and the importance of food tech all coming together. Ultimately, it’s technologies that are able to be at this intersection that are going to pioneering value in the future as it relates to everything around the health and wellness space. We believe we’ve built this technology for the future.
This interview had been edited for length and clarity.