Pam Chmiel   |   February 20, 2023

How 3 NASA Friends Pivoted to Sky-Rocket Their Cannabis Business

When space-age innovation comes to cannabis.
Pam is a contract Marketing Director working with Studio 420. Based in Manhattan, she also hosts The Mary Jane Society podcast and is a published writer for a number of cannabis trade publications.

Cannabis is a new and growing industry and could be the juggernaut to revive manufacturing across America. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for entrepreneurs to get in on an industry projected to be explosive, with each state building out its own manufacturing infrastructure because of federal laws restricting interstate commerce.

The trajectory into the cannabis industry wasn't planned when Nohtal Partansky and a couple of NASA engineer colleagues burned out on the aerospace grind and decided to leave their work behind at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena to pursue entrepreneurial ventures in cannabis. They used their expertise as aerospace engineers to start Sorting Robotics, a company that would optimize manufacturing and eCommerce inventory management.

With no particular industry in mind, the friends first found success by inventing a sorting robot for Pokemon cards that eBay eventually acquired after a trail of sales. It was living in California during the surge of the cannabis industry when they spotted an opportunity to make all kinds of robots sorely needed by cannabis manufacturers. So, they raised a few million dollars and entered the industry.

The Entrepreneurial Journey

To learn the ropes, Nohtal became the CEO of a cannabis co-packing company in Oakland to help them build out their facility and production line for about three years until they sold it to a dispensary group. It allowed him and his partners to see the flaws and problems that needed solving in the production and supply chain operations. They also used their time to R&D new robots and to understand the California cannabis landscape.

Within a couple of years of entering the industry, they had a clear vision of where to start and began moving forward on significant development projects on the robotic side. That is when they formed the company, Sorting Robotics to optimize the cannabis manufacturing supply chain.

Simultaneously, the infused pre-roll craze started gaining popularity, and brands struggled to keep up with the demand because the infusion process was hand-injected and very labor-intensive. And this is when the Jiko Robot was born.

They Studied the Science Behind The Burn

Injecting pre-rolls with a cannabis concentrate changes the physics of how a joint burns. In engineering terms, you'd call that a flame front as it burns through the barrel.

In a non-infused pre-roll, the flame front is not even because air pockets throughout the cannabis flower create tendrils of hot air that reach back, making the joint decarboxylate at different temperatures.

When you inject a pre-roll, you leave a column of concentrate down the center and normalize the flame front because when it enters the concentrate section, it's a solid core and burns more linearly. It can't burn at different temperatures because it needs to get through the first cross-section of the core before it moves down.

The infusion smooths out the smoke because you have an even burn of high-grade concentrate down the center. You reduce the chance of having a runny infusion because you are driving the heat, called enthalpy in engineering terms, which is like the "Internal Energy of Things." But just like any matter, you push all the enthalpy down the center instead of along the sides, where you have easy-to-burn dried paper. An infused pre-roll controls the burn by burning from the inside out, not the other way around.

With robotic manufacturing, you can get a precise infusion and solve many joint burning problems created with hand-injected pre-rolls, more cost-efficient operations, and a consistent quality product.

The Jiko Robot design precisely injects cannabis concentrate into pre-rolls by going down the middle, depositing an even column of concentrate throughout the joint, and giving it an even burn.

Conforming To An Industry When Investing Is At All-Time Lows

Sorting Robotics machinery is operating in 20 states and multiple locations in Canada. But, Nohtal believes the industry is moving away from capital-heavy companies to ride out these tumultuous times. Investors do not like to own stuff in general, especially if it doesn't gain interest. Capital investments are also hard to justify since businesses have little room to scale because of operating in state silos.

Nohtal is conforming to the economic changes and keeping acquisition costs low by offering the robot as a service model, where you pay a small setup fee and a percentage of each unit sold.

They're also building an equipment-sharing network of Jiko Robot owners to make it easier to expand from state to state by renting instead of buying additional robots.

Beating The Competition With Patents

Sorting Robotics is the first company to develop an automated system for infusing joints and has a patent pending that will solidify its position in the market. They have two big competitors that have been around for a long time, but their business models are very different, and they don't seem to be doing AI, IOT, or robotics, but more open-loop devices.

They are starting to see more copycatters emerge, but Nohtal thinks his company has the edge based on its forward-thinking and technology


The Future Of Cannabis Supply Chain Operations

At the end of 2022, Sorting Robotics launched a 2nd robot, a vape cartridge filling system. They partnered with a large vape cartridge manufacturer to build a robot five times faster and ten times more precise than the current technology.

With a couple of patents pending, their goal is to continue to invent machinery to fully automate the cannabis manufacturing supply chain from filling to packaging, shipping, and quality control with robots, computer vision, and IoT all in one fully automated line.

"To infinity…and beyond!"


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