Below is a personal story of how I came to be the destitute CEO of a cannabis biotech company. I’ve made it my sole mission, a vendetta even, to harness my emotional demons and use that fire to reverse societal injustices. It’s a raw look into my thought processes and decisions. Many will question the accuracy of these facts. It’s up to you to decide what you believe. I’ll just say that you’re probably not going to find a more honest look into the rationale of someone actively choosing to live a life of reckless abandon in pursuit of their ideals. I’m honestly grateful to still be here writing this.
TLDR: Sometimes you lose. Just don’t quit before you get there. This is my last shot. I’m making public the intellectual property that formed the basis of my business.
Roughly five years ago I made a pretty extreme decision. Simply writing that sentence made my eyes swell at how much has happened since. I’m currently homeless and living in my car for the second time because of that decision. Sometimes I wonder if I regret any of it, but, I don’t think I could have done it any differently.
I remember the exact day I had the idea which would change my life forever. It was probably about 10:30 AM PST. My father was driving me back to Santa Barbara after visiting my uncle’s family in San Diego for the holidays. I always loathed holidays - especially religious ones. This year was no different.
My skull was fermenting a cocktail of neurotransmitters with which I was all too familiar. It was a relatively calm morning and I was sitting in the passenger seat chatting away after a thorough wake n’ bake before hitting the road. Full disclosure: I’ve struggled with cyclical depression for the majority of my life. Lots of therapy and self-development have helped me cope with that. However, the physiological memory persists so I’ve also developed ways to refocus that energy into creative and productive outlets.
That physiological response often triggers a flood of creative thoughts I can’t explain. I’ve learned to lean into this and even harness it despite knowing I’m playing with fire. The fight or flight response turns me into a literal beast under pressure. On nights I stay up until 5 AM writing and researching interconnected thoughts flashing through my mind, it sometimes feels like I’m an African lion stalking an elusive cognitive prey.
The idea that struck me that day was to use a new genetic engineering technology, CRISPR, to deactivate the THCAS gene in cannabis. It felt like a moment of genius. The previous year I had been exploring various ways I could apply my knowledge of molecular biology to commercial applications in cannabis. Any time I would talk to a colleague or friend, they would typically ask if I was going to make “Franken-weed”. Some assumed that would involve plants with augmented growth traits. Some would assume it was through incorporating cannabis genes into other plants, or vice-versa.
The genomic variation in cultivated cannabis has been canalized for nearly a century through a prohibition-motivated bottleneck hyper-focused on the increased output of the cannabinoid biosynthesis pathway. If someone was going to risk going to jail for a pound of flowers, they might as well be as potent as possible. However, we’ve also learned during prohibition that there are >100 cannabinoids and countless other secondary metabolites in cannabis that can yield beneficial regulatory effects on human health.
It was the perfect counter-intuitive thing to do. Everyone in the industry was still trying to breed for that extra 1% THC content. They were all competing over who would get a few more dollars per pound; maybe even a nomination for one of the infamous cup awards. However, CBD had already begun to become popularized as a miracle dietary supplement. I knew the science on CBD was still too immature for most of the claims out there to be valid under official scrutiny. My personal experience using cannabis daily for almost 15 years at that point led me to believe the anecdotes were right.
I abandoned the path I was heading down toward a long career of underpaid academic research. I was in the final year of my Ph.D. and my advisor was awesome enough to trust me to work from home throughout the majority of my nearly 7-year degree. I earned his trust during my 2nd and 3rd years because I would stay up late teaching myself to code and write scripts for high-throughput genomic data analysis. He warned me before embarking on my thesis project that he would not be able to provide any sense of technical, educational, or advisory support if my project required expertise in those disciplines. I eagerly, almost masochistically, accepted the challenge. His worry faded after I finally started rolling into the lab late every day with fancy graphs to show.
That freedom he entrusted me with gave me the space to spend the last week of Winter break 2016 locked in my bedroom feverishly researching and writing my first formal business plan. What still seems like a random twist of fate was that first week back in the lab when I was starting to feel like maybe all that writing would just end up as a fun exercise I had gone through.
Friday, January 13th, 2017. It was my older brother’s birthday. I was actually in the lab at a reasonable hour doing honest grad student work. I set up an experiment and then sat down at my laptop to go through emails and probably work on my dissertation during the incubation period.
No. Fucking. Way. This was sitting at the top of my inbox.
”2nd Annual Startup Weekend: UCSB, Santa Barbara, Friday, 13. January 2017
The Entrepreneurs Association is proud to announce the 2nd Annual Startup Weekend UCSB!
Startup Weekend is a 54 hour intensive event where people from varying backgrounds in engineering, web development, marketing, business, and more come together to form teams around a startup idea! Throughout the weekend, local mentors will be available to help guide you and give constructive criticism on your startup process, an extremely unique chance to receive feedback!
On Friday we will begin with open mic pitches where attendees bring their best ideas and inspire others to join their team. Saturday and Sunday will consist of teams focusing on market validation, customer development, LEAN Startup Methodologies, and building a minimal viable product. Closing night on Sunday will end the weekend with presentations and a vote from a panel of judges for the top 3 ideas.
Do you have a billion dollar idea that needs publicity? Buy a ticket to Startup Weekend 2017! We will have coverage from the Pacific Coast Business Times, The Formula Podcast by Jefferson Keith Langley, and more! Buy your ticket now, and you can be sure that everyone will be talking about your awesome new startup!
Tickets here: https://www.eventbrite.com/.../startup-weekend-ucsb...”
We didn’t win. We didn’t even make it to the top 3 out of 9 teams. I didn’t care.
I started spending as much of my time and my meager grad student stipend as I could spare on building a makeshift cannabis genomics lab in my house. Felipe and Edgar, who I had only just met that first night of Startup Weekend, said they were down with the vision I had to commercialize genomic technology for cannabis. I actually didn’t even get enough audience votes out of the people who pitched to form my own team. However, Felipe went to the organizer without my knowledge during the voting period if we could form a ninth team if we had enough people and conviction. They agreed to let us compete with at least three team members. So, I looked at these two strangers and asked if I could entrust them to commit to the most ambitious thing I’d ever proposed, and for some reason, I said yes. I would not make the same decision looking back.
Regret doesn’t teach you anything, though. I don’t regret all the lessons I’ve learned because of that foolish decision. I don’t regret forging a brotherhood with Felipe so profound that ~4 years later when I decided he was holding me back and asked him to resign. I still love and respect him for the endless sacrifice he endured with me. Despite, what in retrospect, seems like a firehose of delusional optimism and naivety.
In the Spring of that year, we entered UCSB’s 2017 Annual New Venture Competition. I was easily working > 100-hour weeks on Delta Leaf instead of writing my dissertation. I bought an ancient 60-well PCR machine off eBay and ran it on my kitchen counter. I built a sterile tissue culture hood out of 2x4’s and plywood with a HEPA filter I also got from eBay. I applied for and got approval from the USDA to obtain Agrobacterium tumefaciens for use in my home lab. Then I found a professor on campus and convinced them the documentation was real. It was, they were just in disbelief at my audacity to follow through with the idea.
When the competition announced grant funding for teams and I applied, the program director sent me an email asking who TF I was and why I thought I could just waltz into his program and ask for money. I immediately walked to his office without even responding to the email and explained my sincerity. He knew I wasn’t fucking playing. I was hungry and had a big ol’ chip on my shoulder. That grant funding purchased the guide RNAs and cas9 enzyme from Sigma-Aldrich I used to successfully digest purified THCAS I amplified out of plants I grew in my bedroom closet. The tissue culture was going well and I got great callus formation, then rooting, and I was dialing in the last step (growing shoots) to regenerate a complete plant from a small patch of Agrobacterium-treated explant tissue. I even had the in vitro digestion of the target gene, THCAS, working with three different guide RNA sequences.
We ended up getting 2nd place overall - but walked out with the most cash because we got a sizeable additional “technology award” for a total of $12.5K. I’m pretty sure showing that data during my pitch in the competition finals is what got us the prize money.
I told the program director to split it evenly three ways because we had been delaying the equity conversation until we could all agree. Dumb move #2. Edgar left the team before I finished my dissertation, then came back via email a few months later cc’ing an attorney he recruited and threatening to sue us if we didn’t issue him a third of the company equity.
After canceling the LLC I had filed with his name on it and arguing for months - he agreed to reincorporate and accept 1% to walk away without any other obligations. I haven’t spoken to him since but it’s not like we ever made any money. In fact, it looks like I’m about to go through my second bankruptcy because of dumb decision #3: putting myself into massive personal debt to chase the dream of this business.
I knew I was on to something, but the business model we kept getting told was the “most investable” was one that I had deeply resented throughout my entire education as a biologist. It was a business model that gave an incredibly powerful technology with the power to cure blindness and hunger a terrible reputation. It was the same model Monsanto used. Patent everything then license it and sue the hell out of anyone who gets in your way. I feel gross even knowing that I pitched that idea a single time. I was just a grad student with almost no business experience other than selling candy, then cannabis, as a kid in New York.
It sounded great to a naive and broke grad student that investors were going to give me a ton of money to start my own lab. I could just tell them after I develop the tech that I wanted to try a different business model. Well, maybe they saw right through me. I’m an open-source lover of freedom. Coming from a rough childhood I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to dismantle the system and rectify injustices like income inequality, lack of access to quality education, resources, and other facilities that keep minorities and in particular black Americans stuck in cycles of generational poverty, violence, and hunger. Our world is not right. It’s not fair and all the jaded old guinea pigs will be happy to remind you of that when they see you chasing an ambitious dream only to get punted off the horse flat onto your back. Well, we live in a motherfucking technological sci-fi dream-world now, so it should be, and can be, fair. However, the greedy have managed to convince the many to be lazy and give up. Not me, though.
I’m over here neck-deep in DAOs writing an article on Mirror without ever having licensed a damn thing. The modern IP system is an exploitable joke preventing innovation. It holds great minds as hostages to the fear of patent trolls and millions in legal fees to fight countersuits against legitimate claims anyone dares to lay against the corporate giants with more money than the Fed can pull out of its ass in a pandemic.
Five years later. One of the amazing few people who have shown up and dedicated their time to the collective vision we’ve evolved Delta Leaf into sent me this:
Indiana-based biotechnology company Growing Together Research Inc. has developed a new technique to genetically modulate the expression of Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in cannabis, including the ability to increase THC levels in marijuana. (119 kB)
I didn't make the rules... Arthur C. Clarke did. Unfortunately, knowing them doesn’t seem to help me very much.
Maybe I should put this content back in the pitch deck if they're finally publishing someone else doing it in Forbes five years after I did it in a garage? Or send this article to Forbes. I didn’t know what to do when I saw that news. I lost it that night. The fight, that is. It’s really hard to compete against well-funded competitors when you’re unable to afford a $5 meal and sleeping in the back of your car in the lab parking lot.
Delta Leaf has been belly up for over a year because we didn’t have the capital to scale as fast as we needed to last year. Our biggest competitor at the time, Phylos, basically flopped when they announced a breeding program that would compete directly with the customers whose plants they had been sequencing and analyzing. They violated the trust of the entire cannabis industry by surreptitiously using genomic data to start breeding plants - in direct competition with the customers they had reassured were using that genomics service to “protect their IP”. I didn’t know it could get worse than Monsanto. The former CEO had actually stated publicly “We fucking hate Monsanto,” in response to a probably true, but unconfirmed rumor published by AnonHQ:
The betrayal cast a black shadow across the genetic testing space. People no longer trusted me and Delta Leaf, regardless of how clear we made our Terms and Conditions. The Open Cannabis Project was a non-profit that had partnered with Phylos with the goal of ensuring cannabis and the genetic data remained in the public domain - quickly dissolved in shock and disappointment while several members ultimately decided to leave the cannabis industry entirely.
I was especially mortified because I knew the skepticism people would have regarding the pitch I did at New Venture Competition. If my lab does the same type of testing, and I’ve already shown years ago that I can genetically engineer plants in my garage. Then, what’s stopping Delta Leaf from doing the exact same thing Phylos did?
The legal answer is we’d be sued out of existence for violating our T&C’s.
The real answer is that I have made sure that Delta Leaf became a heavily values-driven company. I didn’t really get it when all the entrepreneurship classes would teach about company culture until I was actually running a company facing a culture crisis. It’s taken a lot of effort and deep conversations where I feel like people think I’m waxing lyrical just to virtue signal. I’ll just keep saying it until I’m blue in the face. The first step toward changing anything is bringing awareness to it. I’ve had to do a lot of personal development, therapy and soul-searching to get past some of the things I experienced in life. None of that is really your business - all you need to know is that I put my money where my mouth is. Talk is cheap. Just watch me work.
I’ve almost exclusively hired students from UCSB while building Delta Leaf and paid them $20/hr starting part-time. Our mission is to democratize access to genetic technologies for cannabis because we believe all cannabis is medicine. Period. Full stop. Some people think I’m joking when I say that. They have no idea how much this plant has helped me and those I love. They also have no idea how little I could care about their opinion after everything I’ve sacrificed to pursue this dream of making a difference in the world. The fact that I’ve made so little profit over this time when I could easily close shop and make a six-figure salary working half as much should be proof alone.
What keeps me going? Three things:
I’ve been accused of being a thief, liar, scammer, tweaker, asshole, fucker, dumb fuck, dirty fuck, piece of shit,and all the other combinations you could think of while hanging out with a potty-mouth New Yorker like me.
All I ever tried to do was run an honest business and build a better world for others.
I’m not done yet, though. Now, I’ve got nothing against the team at Growing Together Research Inc. I have no idea who they are and they seem like they’re mostly a mix of traditional academic scientists and corporate businesspeople + lawyers. I’m not surprised that with a larger and more experienced team they were able to raise capital for an idea that I was not. It shows that our companies were founded in the same year, 2017, so kudos to them for sticking it out just as long.
However, I’ve completely changed my viewpoint on what it even means to own information, data, and knowledge. Access to information and education is one of the most fundamental things that can empower a person to pursue their dreams and build a strong financial future for themselves and their families. As someone who taught at the university level for 7 years before leaving academia - education is a topic I care deeply about because of direct experience. I firmly believe anyone can learn anything they set their mind to. Increasing access and support improves learner openness to approaching challenging subjects (e.g. crypto, economics, physics).
I’ve been so inspired by others I see living a life of purpose.
Detachment may be my biggest take-home lesson. Sometimes it can be cruel. Detaching from things that no longer serve you so that you can fulfill the needs of your higher self. To find and choose to accept a purpose in life is not a trivial matter. For me, it required detaching from codependency toward many things, including the idea that I was going to succeed.
It's not about building a business anymore. I am but a vessel and facilitator of a common goal to make the world a better place.
My goal in this industry is to empower growers to make the best cannabis. To explore the wide range of phenotypes and secondary metabolites produced by this plant. All in the pursuit of broader and more impactful therapeutic applications. Because I have experienced and I firmly believe that all cannabis is medicine.
I seem to have taken up the mission of the Open Cannabis Project in this regard. I wanted to know what the general consensus was though. Did others also see this moral imperative and believe the cannabis genome should be open-source? So, I made a poll on LinkedIn because that’s where I have the most followers:
There's a lot of controversy over who gets credit for breeding a new strain. Ignoring the existing framework for plant patents etc. This is a complex topic and there are various interests at stake so I'd like to open the discussion more broadly.
I wanted to unite a community of cannabis/hemp growers and scientists who share the belief that the cannabis genome should be open-source, and would work together toward realizing that common goal. I had been learning about crypto and discussing with various people working to apply distributed ledgers for enforcing supply chain tracking in the cannabis industry. I never got involved with any of those projects, but I did learn enough to see the benefit and potential to revolutionize data ownership, access, and sovereignty of people who want to participate in a “knowledge economy”. We are no longer in the industrial age - we need new concepts of ownership and what it means to be free in the information age.
Consent. Self-sovereignty. Equity. Transparency. Permissionless. Trustless.
These are the values I’ve come to adopt and believe. I now work to incorporate these values into incentive systems that align individual and collective interests toward mutually beneficial, positive-sum interactions. They’ve been instantiated in the form of an open community that I’ve raised grant funding to develop - Cannabis Genome DAO.
I pretty much only see one option left for what to do with the provisional patent I wrote back in 2017 and have kept hidden since. It’s about damn time I release it to the public. Along with all the supplementary figures, guide RNA sequences, primers, images, tissue culture protocols, and details to reproduce my work.
Below is a link to access the manuscript on the Ethereum network via Ocean Market. Additional supplemental data, images, sequences, and commemorative art collection(s) will soon follow. I will also publish this data on other public blockchains via the open-source, permissionless marketplace owned and currently being built by myself and other members of Cannabis Genome DAO. This will enable the work to live on in perpetuity in an open market where the community can determine what the value of this work is. And for anyone to access it or use it in any way that they wish.
If you feel inclined to further support these efforts, I would be very grateful if you would mint this article as a collectible and for any donations, to either myself or either of these projects I have devoted so much of my life to in the service of humanity:
I’m seeking to find a resolution to the internal conflict that has weighed me down over these years. I’m no longer responsible for holding the key to this garden of forking paths. It’s not yours either. It’s for everyone.
Scientific knowledge is a public good. We are hurting ourselves by not sharing information. There is a new way. We can even make it a game. LFG.
IP-NFTs align incentives of funders and scientists through retroactive public goods funding. The scientist creates a proof of work and publishes it on an open market as a sign of trust and reputation. The community evaluates the legitimacy of that claim by choosing to fund the project, stake on it, and farm the data to signal consensus with the publisher’s claim to have generated something worthy of reputation and value. This incentivizes the scientist to do additional work because they now have funding.
The cycle continues when they publish another IP-NFT. It gives the scientist the freedom to pursue what they deem the most important work, as they are the best ones to decide that being the closest to the problem. The hypotheses they test are evaluated retroactively with the publication and evaluation of IP-NFTs through retroactive funding.
We can even issue what are being called [“Impact Certificates](https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/topics/certificate-of-impact#:\~:text=A%20certificate%20of%20impact%20(also,where%20prices%20are%20usually%20unavailable)” that act like a blue check mark signaling verification by a set of standards beyond retroactive funding support. They could even be quantitative - with the existence signaling the evaluation has been done by a defined system and the value being the result of a pluralistic model to combine various metrics.
This is already possible by building a reputation model using Orange Protocol and applying it to a fork of Ocean Market to both datasets and the individuals who participate in the market (publishers, funders, and data consumers). That's essentially the plan at Cannabis Genome DAO.
In summary, my interpretation of this model:
If you feel inclined to further support these efforts, I would be very grateful if you would mint this article as a collectible, mint one of the collectible NFTs published along with it (figures from the manuscript), and for any donations, to either myself or either of these projects I have devoted so much of my life to in the service of humanity: