A chemistry lab with a massive safe bolted to the floor and heavy-duty locks on their refrigerators. That’s what you’ll find at Complex Biotech Discovery Ventures (CBDV), a contract research organization based in Vancouver, Canada. The firm specializes in highly restricted, underresearched botanicals like cannabis and recently obtained a license to work with psilocybin from psychedelic mushrooms.
Birthplace: Düsseldorf, Germany
Education: MS, chemistry, mathematics and finance, Imperial College London, 2008; PhD, organic chemistry, ETH Zurich, 2012; postdoc, physical organic chemistry, Scripps Research, 2013–14
Why he founded his company in Canada: Canada is the only country that has legal, large-scale production of cannabis and offers a suitable environment to research the plant.
Key to his success in the cannabis industry: An open mind and collaboration with various parties, from university researchers to legacy producers.
Latest research projects: Employing machine learning to optimize extraction of compounds from cannabis and developing a high-throughput method for metabolomics of psilocybin mushrooms.
Best advice he has received: Cultivate an interdisciplinary mindset. Don’t get obsessed about one specialized field, lose the blinders, and solve problems across disciplines.
Favorite element and molecule: Oxygen and adenosine triphosphate. These stem from his hobbies of triathlons and mountain sports. “Everything that is long and painful, but makes for a good story afterward.”
CEO Markus Roggen, an organic chemist who cofounded the company in 2018 with University of British Columbia chemistry professor Glenn Sammis, got his start in the cannabis industry in California in 2014. Cannabis offered a chance to break in to California’s start-up culture, which Roggen says appealed to him because he didn’t want a large company over him.
But after working for cannabis companies in California for 4 years, Roggen realized that he had reached the limits of what he could do there.
“I’m really interested in fundamental chemistry,” he says. “I like to create new stuff instead of just making sure everything runs well.” Cannabis companies are small and don’t have the resources to build analytical and research divisions like pharmaceutical companies. “No cannabis company will buy an NMR,” so you need to work with universities, he says. But cannabis companies in the US cannot work with university researchers. That’s because although cannabis is legal in several states, such as California, it remains illegal at the federal level.
So in 2018, Roggen relocated to Canada, where he started a company that could team up with researchers at UBC and have the freedom to pursue projects that he could not do in California. None of the work could be done without collaborating with UBC, Roggen says. The company pays industry rates to use analytical instrumentation at the university; consults with faculty members; and hires students and postdocs from several departments beyond chemistry, including design, business, and computer science to help with various projects.
“On the analytical side, we work on metabolomics,” he says. “We try to identify new compounds or give a more complete picture of what is in a cannabis product.” The team has built a database of about 800 compounds that have been identified in the cannabis plant or in cannabis processing steps, he says. They are now developing analytical methods to determine which of the compounds are in any given sample of cannabis.
CBDV is also helping companies optimize the extraction of cannabinoids, such as the psychoactive compound tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), from cannabis. Such extracts are typically sold as a solid or oil that is highly concentrated in cannabinoids. They are often inhaled as a vapor or ingested orally in tinctures or edibles.
Roggen acknowledges that when he started out, he knew little about how extraction works. “But I know how to optimize processes,” he says. “I attacked the problem of cannabis extraction with a CO2 machine the same way that I would optimize any other process,” he says. “I set up the experiments, ran them, and analyzed the data.”
Numerous factors affect extraction of compounds from cannabis—temperature, pressure, humidity, run time, flow rate, particle size of the material, and concentrations of cannabinoids and flavoring compounds called terpenes, Roggen says. To get a better handle on the process, the team is incorporating machine learning. “We have hired students from data science at UBC in Vancouver and computational scientists who have written our databases and built the software,” Roggen says.
Another area of interest for the company is developing “a new efficient method for cannabidiol (CBD) production at scale,” Roggen says. CBD products, such as cosmetics and dietary supplements, are growing in popularity because of their potential health benefits, such as reducing anxiety, inflammation, and pain. And unlike THC, CBD doesn’t cause euphoria. “We have a client that wants to bring a line of CBD products that are based on synthesized CBD, not CBD extracted from hemp,” Roggen says. When CBD is extracted from hemp, “there is the potential for contamination from other cannabinoids, mainly THC,” he notes.
Roggen has a PhD in organic chemistry, so organic synthesis is not new to him. But in academia, most organic chemists work on syntheses that are “a beautiful work of art that solve a very complex problem or they solve a synthesis with a specific trick,” he says. Seldom do academic organic groups present work that is the most cost-effective way of making something, but that is what the team at CBDV must do, he says.
Starting materials have to be cheap and available in bulk, and “we have to be able to work the chemistry within an energy window that is cost efficient,” Roggen says. “We don’t want to waste too much money because we have to compete with the CBD from hemp,” which is readily available and inexpensive thanks to recent legalization in the US.
Over the past few years, “we have demonstrated to Health Canada that we can work with restricted compounds, keep track of our material, and do all the paperwork,” Roggen says.
That history helped the company obtain a license earlier this year to conduct research on psilocybin from psychedelic mushrooms.
To start, the company is developing a high-throughput method for quantifying psilocybin. A few chromatography methods have been reported in the literature, but they take 20–40 minutes and often don’t work, Roggen says. His goal is to get the method down to 10 minutes. Although the psychedelic mushroom industry is still young, it has some of the “hints of the green rush of cannabis,” Roggen says. He predicts that methods for rapidly quantifying psilocybin will be in high demand in the future.
The researchers are also hoping to better understand the chemical composition of the mushrooms and pinpoint previously unidentified compounds that could be medically or biologically relevant.
Interestingly, the cannabis plant and mushrooms both produce substances that have to be modified to become bioactive, Roggen says. Cannabis produces THC acid, which must be decarboxylated with heat to make the bioactive form of THC. “The mushrooms produce psilocybin which has to be dephosphorylated to make psilocin, which is the bioactive compound,” he notes. That dephosphorylation process occurs with acid in the stomach. Like psilocybin, other compounds in mushrooms could also be dephosphorylated by acid in the stomach.
Seven tryptamine compounds have already been identified in psilocybin mushrooms, and Roggen thinks it’s likely that one of those could be dephosphorylated to a compound that has yet to be identified. And there may be other unidentified compounds. Identifying new chemicals in the mushrooms could help explain “anecdotal stories that people use different mushrooms and experience very different effects,” Roggen says. “Similar to different cannabis products leading to different effects.”
In the future, Roggen and his colleagues hope to create analogs of psilocybin with enhanced binding to certain receptors, yielding new anti-inflammatory drugs without the mind-altering effects of psilocybin.
The team has already developed the intellectual property for large-scale synthesis of psilocybin. That work attracted the psychedelic-wellness firm Delic Holdings, which announced Feb. 25 that it will acquire CBDV for Can$7 million (US$5.5 million). Once the transaction is completed, CBDV plans to change its name to DELIC Labs.
Roggen says that he enjoys his work for the “fun chemistry,” and hopes he is advancing his industry. “In cannabis and in psilocybin mushrooms, there is a lot of education that is needed. Sometimes I feel like an educator more than I feel like a CEO.”
Part of that effort is getting past the stigma of working on psychoactive substances, which makes it hard to find PhD chemists willing to work in the field. “I am actually in need of a chemist for the lab. The work we have is too much for the team to handle,” Roggen says. “This is a growing field and we always need more people.”