CannaKorp CEO James Winokur talks about the launch of the Wisp home vaporizer
After about four years of research, development and fundraising, one of the most highly anticipated consumer products has finally hit the shelves of medical cannabis dispensaries.
CannaKorp’s Wisp is now available at Sira Naturals’ three dispensaries in Massachusetts. Often referred to as the “Keurig of cannabis,” the Wisp is the industry’s first pod-based home vaporizer, combining Keurig’s recurring revenue model with precise, consistent dosing desired by medical patients all in a sleek, mainstream device that looks like any other modern appliance.
And the company has a lot more in common with the game-changing coffee machines than just the single-use “brewing” system, as five former Keurig executives helped start the company in 2014.
“Everybody loved (Wisp creator and CannaKorp chief technology officer) Michael Bourque’s story,” Winokur says. “They really appreciated that he did not feel comfortable as a new patient with any of the things that were available to him. That really hit everybody in the heart. We said, ‘We really think we can build something — and make a business out of it — that can help a lot of people.’”
While the multiyear development process seems like a lifetime in the cannabis industry, Winokur says that’s actually a remarkable turnaround from concept to market for a consumer appliance.
“In order to do this, it has really taken an incredible team,” Winokur says. “A lot of people look at us as being the Keurig guys or being a big company, but this is a very entrepreneurial, small company that really believes in what they’re doing and delivering something to the world that is beneficial.”
Marijuana Venture caught up with Winokur to talk about the company’s progress and how it’s approaching the future of cannabis consumption.
Marijuana Venture: What has the journey of product development been like?
James Winokur: We really set out as a company to deliver a game-changing consumer device. We wanted that Apple-like experience: very simple to the consumer, but technologically advanced underneath the covers. So we really have delivered on the magic, where you press a button, you get your medicine, you get your vapor.
And honestly, to do that in just over two years as a true consumer appliance, is actually pretty quick. We attracted five former Keurig executives and managers to our company. You can imagine all the connections they had, the people they knew from contract manufacturing to engineering and all the pitfalls we avoided because they each had been at Keurig for a decade or more. They knew all that history and what it would take to combine the intellectual property we need to develop for a pod to work with the vaporizer system in tandem.
It took the former Keurig expert for K-Cups and pod-filling and two engineers, our chief technology officer included, who had built all the brewers at Keurig, to say, “We’ve done this before. It’s a challenge and we have to invent some things here, but we know order of operation and we know what has to happen in order to make this work.”
MV: In a lot of ways, CannaKorp had to create something from scratch. It’s not like you’re refining something that already exists, right?
JW: Certainly vaporization is a known technology, but we approached it differently. We had to invent and design things to do what we wanted it to do for this magical experience, as I explained.
To your earlier point, there were technical challenges, but from a consumer experience, we’ve always hit the mark from the vapor point of view. The challenge was making all the technology work inside so it’s really a hands-off experience for the user — just like a lot of devices you use, whether it’s a blender, a microwave, a toaster or anything else — the human is not that involved.
MV: Can you talk a little more about how the partnership with Sira Naturals works?
JW: In Massachusetts, we have a great partner. Their goal is to put the cannabis in the pods and sell them at retail. Our goal, in partnership with them, is to connect with potential end users and patients to make sure everyone knows the Wisp device is now available. They have the opportunity in Massachusetts to be first to market, really the first in the world.
In Massachusetts, there aren’t that many cultivator-retailers, so we’ll have an opportunity to go outside of what you might consider the normal geography for patients to get to one of Sira’s three dispensaries — areas where we can repeat with other vertically integrated entities.
Our next stop is Colorado. We’ll have the opportunity to partner with companies that do cultivation, retail and wholesale. So we’ll be able to get into stores that aren’t necessarily cultivators with these brands the cultivators represent. We’ll help them do that, but they’ll certainly have their own sales force.
MV: Do you have a roadmap on the states that will be next or a plan for a full national roll-out?
JW: We hope to have pods selling in May in Colorado. We’ll turn to California next, looking at specific areas like Los Angeles and San Francisco. In the summer, we’ll have Wisp pods available in California. And that will probably take us through the year.
MV: What do you look for in either a retail or production partner?
JW: One of the things that’s obvious is that this is a co-branded product. We have our name associated with the device and the pods, so we want to make sure we’re dealing with the best of the best, in terms of operators. We’ve partnered with Shift Cannabis out of Boulder, Colorado. They actually co-authored our standard operating procedures for us. We will have them audit potential partners to make sure they’re good cultivators and good operators, because we do have high standards.
From a retail point of view, while the pods themselves are a really great experience, the whole system together is meant to attract the mainstream, the professional, etc., so likely the best place to put it has that clean, professional environment, so we look for retailers where the look and feel of the product matches the environment that it’s in.
MV: Now that you have the product on the market, how will the company focus its efforts in the next couple of years?
JW: I think job number one is to establish the product itself as a brand and have people enjoy it and earn a good reputation as a technology brand. We’ve delivered something for everybody. If we can earn our stripes there, we have the opportunity to look at the expanding global market.
And we do want to have product iterations over time, whether it’s new versions of what we’ve delivered or brand new products under the CannaKorp umbrella. We certainly have lots of stuff on the drawing board.
MV: The look of the Wisp system hasn’t changed at all since the company first introduced the prototype, originally known as the CannaCloud. With many products, it seems the company shows off a concept that looks very different from the production model. Do you feel like you were able to hit that look right on the first attempt?
JW: We really got a lot of accolades from the design. At trade shows, we would bring a 3D-printed model of the internals to show what we had in mind. I can’t tell you how many people came up to the trade show booth who said, “I don’t know what that is, but I want one.” It’s got a very iconic look and we’ve maintained that. I think our engineers are very proud of that. Our industrial design firm, Motiv, helped us with the 3D printed model. At some point, when we had working iterations from the factory, Motiv said, “We helped you with the concept car. We didn’t realize you would build the concept car.”
MV: What’s it going to take for you to turn this from an interesting new consumer product to a successful consumer product?
JW: It takes a couple of things. We’re set up with the infrastructure to scale up. Because of our backgrounds and my background, we set out from day one with the presumption that this would be a national/international company. In the background, we’re built to scale.
But the next thing we need, and continuing to raise funds for, is to expand state to state and country to country. In order to get the brand out there, we need to promote it, advertise it and have feet on the street, setting up new partners, getting new partners in states on-boarded. Having established that we’re in the market really goes a long way to getting that kind of funding interest.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.