Sarah Ratliff   |   September 05, 2019

The Role of IT Professionals in the Cannabis Industry: A Closer Look

Like any thriving modern industry, cannabis must stay efficient if it expects to remain profitable. In this digitalized age, the role of information technology (IT) is vital to the successful operation of any business, in cannabis or otherwise. Those who are trained in its application and have demonstrated their capacity to perform will be highly sought after, and they will be tasked with solving numerous problems both existing and yet to be imagined.
Following 20 years in the corporate world—culminating with biotech giant Amgen in Southern California, where she worked in health outcomes—Sarah Ratliff and her husband bought an organic farm on the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico. Today…

It is important to remember that the cannabis industry is still in its nascent stage. This leaves ample room to innovate, organize, systemize and streamline production, manufacturing, distribution and retail services. Much has been accomplished, but much remains to be done.

“Not since the Industrial Revolution has the United States experienced the emergence of a brand new multi-layered economic market like the cannabis industry,” observes Adriana Herrera, founder of EpicHint, an automated training and hiring platform. “Over the next few years, the cannabis industry is expected to create 600,000-plus jobs in the U.S. and generate billions of dollars in taxable revenue, lifting sales to $80 billion [from the current $50 billion].”

As cannabis grows, the need for more skilled and highly-trained IT professionals will expand right along with it. The industry is complex now, but the challenges it faces will become even more complex over time. IT solutions are already being implemented to a great effect, but opportunities for further expansion abound.

Advanced IT offers a realm of possibilities for the cannabis industry. Here are four areas (out of many) where it will make a significant impact:

 

Marketing and Sales

“Committed, smart systems are a natural fit for the production side,” acknowledged Michael Kadonoff, the founder and CEO of the cultivation analytics firm Braingrid Limited. “But there are [also] clear cost advantages as production is tuned to respond to demand in real-time. Capturing sales activities at dispensaries and distribution centers, performing market analysis and connecting it back to the production processes and systems requires non-trivial IT tooling in place.”

Well-engineered and managed IT systems can facilitate the fast collection of a vast storehouse of information about industry trends, observed as they unfold in real-time. Access to such information can help cultivators, manufacturers, distributors and retailers create targeted marketing plans and allow for optimal customization of production processes.

“Imagine,” Kadonoff continues, “combining market analytics, such as strain popularity and effective health benefits, to immediately forecast production requirements. This means being ready to supply the market with the right amount of products at the right time.”

 

Security and Surveillance

Cannabis industry operators must be concerned with both physical and virtual security. Facilities that grow, process or sell cannabis products must guard against the possibility of theft, of either data or the product itself. Fortunately, advanced monitoring systems that rely on rapid and accurate processing of information can significantly decrease the likelihood of security breaches.

“IT provides a level of security and surveillance that is necessary to protect the products grown and distributed,” says Stephen Rothwell, president, and co-founder of Inspired Technology and Communications, which provides digitally-based security solutions for cannabis companies. “Although it is more commonly used in manufacturing and growing facilities, the dispensary side is also in need of IT, especially when it comes to protecting the property and products to be sold in the shop.”

On the digital side, cannabis companies could be vulnerable to penetration and data theft, if they are at all lax on security. Clients often disclose sensitive information while ordering cannabis products, as do industry actors working the B2B supply chain, and if this data were stolen, the results could be catastrophic.

“Most data is digital,” says Yasha Kahn, Director of IT and Marketing for MCR Labs, a cannabis research company. “Our employees rely on internal data sharing and storage systems, and our clients rely on receiving their results.” Digital is essential and indispensable in business in this day and age, and if digital systems are not secured there will be incidents, with potentially severe consequences.

 

Compliance and Regulation

The challenges and demands of staying compliant with the laws of each state and jurisdiction are well-known to every cannabis industry entrepreneur and investor.

“As more states legalize marijuana, retailers, distributors, cultivators, and consumers will need access to fully-developed technological tools that seamlessly integrate with regulatory systems,” explains Kevin McCarty, CEO, and co-founder of WAYV, an eCommerce delivery platform used by more than 80 percent of online cannabis retailers in California. “For regulators to better track the supply chain, they’ll have to work with the industry to create a system that benefits and serves the needs of everyone.”

IT professionals have been tasked with creating seed-to-sale monitoring and data collection systems that are fully transparent and accessible. The need for such services will only expand as more states legalize medical or recreational cannabis, and if federal legalization occurs the challenges involved in meeting all regulatory requirements will be even more immense.

 

Automation in Growing and Manufacturing

The money-saving benefits of automation in cannabis cultivation and production are indisputable. But without increasingly sophisticated and responsive IT monitoring and control systems, the cost-efficiency of automation investments is far from guaranteed.

“Cannabis grows are very expensive to operate,” points out Apurba Pradhan, a vice president with Adesto Technologies, which specializes in the design of IoT gateways for industrial automation systems, including indoor agriculture. “Being able to control costs by optimizing power and water usage through automated systems can provide growers with a big advantage over competitors whose processes are more manual or ad hoc.”

Automation in manufacturing is also a considerable efficiency booster, and IT experts will be required to make sure these systems keep functioning at full capacity.

As a representative of Braingrid Limited, Michael Kadonoff expresses his ideas about where IT and automation can take the cannabis industry: “We’d like to see an industry that is data-driven, with highly efficient operations, from integrated energy monitoring and operations management to just-in-time materials and rapid distribution of products.”

 

Information Technology as a Core Element in Cannabis

Ideally, cannabis entrepreneurs should embrace the possibilities of IT from the outset.

“The best time of the planning stage to start talking to IT companies and get them in the building plans is right at the beginning,” emphasizes Stephen Rothwell. “For cost planning and facility planning, that makes it all more the more efficient to have the IT company at the table right from the start.”

IT professionals and the services they offer are indispensable in the cannabis industry. The sooner their skills and systems are integrated into daily business operations, the more quickly they can have an impact. Conversely, companies that lag behind in IT may go bankrupt before they have time to rectify their mistakes.

“As the industry moves toward the shared goal of removing illicit activity, legal operators must further professionalize and adopt technology,” asserts Kevin McCarty. “Technology improves operations and ensures predictability, all while lowering the cost of doing business. It will also improve transparency and make compliance easier for both the industry and regulators.”

In cannabis, IT professionals who can quickly adapt to a competitive environment will be worth their weight in gold. But those who are knowledgeable and creative enough to innovate in such an environment will be even more valuable. The examples they set will shape the development of the entire industry in the years ahead.

 

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