I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Robby Flannery, aka Dr. Robb and founder and CEO of clean cannabis company Dr. Robb Farms. He is the first PhD in the United States with the technical training to work in commercial cannabis production and the former Production Director at SPARC in San Francisco.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”? How did you first get into this business or get interested in the business?
The concept of Dr. Robb Farms originated while I was still working at SPARC in San Francisco. As Production Director, I oversaw the largest department in the company and managed every aspect of production from maintaining genetics, cloning, vegging, flower production, harvest, trimming, manufacturing, assembly, storage, to the delivery of final product to retail.
I have been involved with controlled environment agriculture management since 1999 and have seen all kinds of production, but entering the cannabis cultivation space was a bit of a shock for me. I started consulting with cultivators throughout the state and quickly realized that most growers were extremely innovative in their methods and more often than not very secretive about their growing techniques. Sometimes it was simply because they didn’t want to spill their secret sauce, but other times it was because growers were knowingly adding dangerous compounds. Unfortunately, some of the growers who were knowingly adding dangerous compounds and turning medicine into poison did not care about the harm that they were causing.
When I was at SPARC, my mom was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. To help her deal with the side effects of chemotherapy, I suggested she use cannabis. She was open to this, however, she did not want to smoke or vape — she wanted edibles. The cannabis I was growing and knew was free of pesticides and plant growth regulators were intended for smokeables or vapables. I was going to have to source clean product for my mom from another grower, and I was concerned that I might poison her if I did not source the right material. This was the lightbulb moment for creating Dr. Robb Farms. I have the technical training to grow this plant without using these dangerous compounds, while not losing out on the benefits they provide. I can cultivate clean cannabis using good science, which means that providing clean cannabis to the market would not also mean a significant decrease in yield or quality. I knew my mom was not an anomaly. There are more people just like her who want access to clean cannabis. This is why I founded Dr. Robb Farms — for my mom and the people we care about.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company?
I am going to save the funniest story for either a future book or movie, but it may or may not involve a dinner meeting with my distributor and business partners. Because of my PhD, I am lucky enough to gain access to farms and operations all over the state. The cannabis culture and sense of community, particularly in the Emerald Triangle area, is quite remarkable and very special — there is a real sense of independence and self-reliance that you typically do not see nowadays. In one particular group of farms in a valley, there is one road on a hill that leads up to all of the farms with a big rig that is parked at the entry point. If there is a dispute or an issue between any of the farms, someone blows an air horn and the big rig is moved into the middle of the road so that none of the farm owners can leave the hill. The big rig only gets moved after the dispute is settled or the issue is resolved. This method of problem solving works with this group of farms and has allowed them live and work in harmony for many years.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I am biased of course, but my education and technical training allow for Dr. Robb Farms to develop the highest quality product under very stringent standards. I put my name on every package, so it is important to me that our customers always get the best of my work. I always like to say is that we don’t just sell cannabis. We sell stories. I like to dedicate our products to friends and family.
Our first product is one such example. In honor of my grandfather’s memory, I created Dr. Robb Farms Eagle. My grandfather came to America from Malta just before WWII broke out, joined the American army, and ended up in the 101st Airborne Division, nicknamed the “Screaming Eagles.” He was one of the paratroopers who parachuted far behind enemy lines in Normandy on D-Day. As he was fighting his way back to the Allied lines, his arm was blown off by a grenade and he was knocked unconscious. When he woke up, German soldiers had taken his gun and boots and he ended up making his way back to the Allied forces. He was ready to continue fighting, but he was informed that would not be an option since he was missing his arm. He was so proud of what he had done and sacrificed for his country, he had a huge American Eagle tattooed across his chest. My grandfather ended up dying from brain cancer in his late 80s and never had access to cannabis to help him in his final days. I created Eagle in his honor with the mission to provide ease of access to clean cannabis for the masses.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are many people in my life who have helped me along the way (Dr. Heiner Lieth, my parents, T-Bone, etc.), but there’s one in particular that I am especially grateful for: my wife. Tera and I met in college — she was the captain of the dance team, and I was the captain of the football team. While I was working on my PhD, she supported us by working full time as a teacher. When we were looking to buy a new house but were tight on money, she gave me the okay to grow weed. When I needed to have a microdiscectomy after discovering I had a herniated disc, my wife took over everything in our lives — she worked full time, took care of our daughter, cooked, cleaned, took care of me, everything. It was during my recovery that I had a lot of time to myself and that I was able to explore how I would launch Dr. Robb Farms. If it had not been for Tera, I would never have gotten into the cannabis industry. And if it wasn’t for her taking such good care of me in my desperate time of need, I would not have been able to formulate the concepts behind Dr. Robb Farms. I am forever grateful for her tireless love.
Are you working on any exciting projects now?
Well, I can’t say too much right now, but I recently met with the legendary Ed Rosenthal. We are currently discussing a number of collaborative research projects. We both are very much interested in pesticide-free cannabis production and promoting efficient growing practices. Good science. Clean cannabis. We are also working closely with a CO2 injection company whose novel technology is making it possible to inject CO2 in open-air canopies. This is truly groundbreaking in my opinion. For the longest time, one of the significant benefits that indoor growers had over outdoor producers is that they can inject CO2 into the warehouses and increase overall yield and potency. THC is a 21-carbon molecule. It’s expensive for the plant to make. This is Le Chatelier’s principle at work. Introducing more reactant (in this case, that’s CO2) yields more product (sugar). That sugar goes to building out the plant infrastructure and eventually the cannabinoid pool. Providing this technology to outdoor growers is revolutionary.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the cannabis industry? Can you share 3 things that most concern you?
Right now, the cannabis industry is split into 2 basic camps: recreational use and medical use. As a cannabis cultivator, I do nothing different when I grow a cultivar for adult use versus medical use. There’s still a stigma around cannabis use for recreational purposes, however I’m seeing the beginning of a trend where medical use and recreational use are being seen as one in the same. The thinking behind this is that whether someone uses cannabis to help them sleep at night, relieve the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, or to bring joy to their lives — those are all noble causes. Additionally, why does someone use cannabis recreationally? Typically, it’s for stress relief, to take the edge off, to relax, etc. These are all mental health issues, and thus the line between medical and recreational use is starting to blur. That, in my opinion, is very exciting!
Another thing that excites me about the cannabis industry right now is that more and more people are opening up to using cannabis. I will never say that cannabis is for everyone or that all people should consume, but I personally feel that increasing access to its use will benefit the population as a whole.
Finally, the thing that excites me most about the cannabis industry right now is the burgeoning research that we are seeing happen. I’m primarily interested in cannabis cultivation research, which has almost wholly been absent in the U.S. It’s virgin territory for cannabis cultivation research, and this is a once in a generation type of situation for a scientist. Things like this don’t happen all that often, and we’re currently on the precipice of some substantial breakthroughs in cannabis horticulture.
Can you share your top “5 things you need to know in order to succeed in the cannabis industry”? Please share a story or example for each.
The cannabis industry is just like any other with one huge exception: we’re working with a product that is still federally banned, which results in various hurdles and stigmas that we have to somehow overcome. Having said that, I think my advice would be similar if I was CEO of a software startup as well:
1. Be the dumbest person in the room.
I’m not advocating ignorance on any level. What I mean when I say that I want to be the dumbest person in the room is that I need to understand what my weaknesses are and then surround myself by people who complement me. I feel fairly comfortable on the scientific, technical, and operations sides of the industry; however, there are many fields where I feel less than adequate. I unfortunately do not have time to become an expert in all aspects of what would make a company successful.
2. Listen to smart people.
This kind of goes in line with the previous tip. It makes no sense to be the dumbest person in the room if you aren’t willing to listen to the smart people you have surrounded yourself with. The craziest thing I could do is hire smart people and tell them what to do. Hire smart people and have them tell you what to do.
3. Play by the rules.
I’m the vice-chairman for the Agriculture Committee for the California Cannabis Industry Association, so I better be saying that it is of utmost importance to make sure you get licensed up with your local municipality and by the state. Although we are still building the plane as we fly it, being licensed and following the regulations buys peace of mind. That peace of mind that you purchase up front will pay off in the long run.
4. Be humble.
I am fully aware that I am standing on the shoulders of giants. There are a great number of many fantastic people who paved the road that I now walk on in this industry, and my gratitude for their sacrifices and passion for the plant is immense. Along the same lines, be humble enough to understand when you made a mistake and apologize for it. I don’t understand how people think that a person in power who apologizes for their wrongdoing could be seen as weak. We all make mistakes, and there’s nothing wrong with letting the person who you wronged know that you are remorseful. I relatively recently had to apologize for something I said, and I’ll do it again. My apologies, MzJill.
5. No Assholes
If I can be blunt here (no pun intended), we, at Dr. Robb Farms, have a very strict rule: We don’t work with assholes. This of course means that everyone on our team must follow this rule as well. This industry is filled with some of the most genuine, passionate, intelligent and pleasant professionals and it is not necessary at this point to work with difficult people. It just makes it so much easier to form collaborations and joint ventures with other players in the industry who share the same values in business and in life that we have. Maybe it’s the football player in me, but I truly believe that Together Everyone Achieves More.
In our experience when people are passionate about what they do they are more successful. Where does your cannabis passion come from?
I sincerely love seeing people happy. Cannabis is unique in its ability to bring joy to one’s life or relief from a symptom of an illness that nothing else can really help. Cannabis is also unique in that it is practically impossible to overdose from consumption. For something that provides so much joy to people, cannabis is a very benign plant. At SPARC, patients are allowed to medicate on site so it was common for me to see patients with severe ailments find immediate relief by vaping right in the lounge. Floriculture is primarily founded in the fundamental pursuit of bringing joy to people’s lives, but I’ve never seen a rose provide that amount of joy and relief to people before. It was at SPARC that I came to understand what I would be doing for the rest of my life and where my passion for this plant truly developed.
There was one patient in particular who I will never forget. He came in almost every morning, never spoke, but the budtenders always knew what he wanted: an eighth of Cannatonic. He immediately would take his eighth and vape in the lounge and then head out for his day. Eventually, I decided to get to know him since I saw him so often. I sat next to him right before he started to vape to strike up a conversation. He held up a finger as if to say, “give me one second,” then prepared his medicine and took a deep inhale. After a minute or so, he started talking. He introduced himself and explained that he had a disorder that prevented him from speaking. “Cannabis tends to help me with it,” he told me. I later found out he did a lot of contract work throughout Silicon Valley because he was basically a genius. I will never forget watching the transition from being mute to being able to orally communicate without impediment right before my eyes. If there was ever a magical moment for me in this industry, it was right then on Mission Street in San Francisco one weekday morning.
Where do you see your business going in the next 5 years? Where do you see the cannabis industry going in the next 5 years?
I see our business continuing to blaze a trail on the cannabis cultivation research front. Research is what gets my tail wagging more than most topics. The industry is thirsty for knowledge and I hope to be a big part of bringing that knowledge to the industry. I think the industry in general is becoming more and more collaborative. When I first got into the industry, growers were hesitant to share techniques or “their secret sauce” to cultivation. Fortunately, I’m seeing the trend of people opening up. Four years ago, I was hired for a consulting gig at a grow site. The day before I was supposed to go to the farm, I was informed that they would be picking me up and would have to put a hood over my head so I wouldn’t know where their facilities were. Of course, I promptly said no to that. Nowadays, we are regularly touring farms and joint venture opportunities are always popping up. I very much prefer this way of doing business. Hopefully five years from now, the cannabis industry will be as collaborative as the rest of the horticultural world.
Are you able to identify any rising stars at your company or in your industry that people need to keep an eye on?
This is simple. One of the smart people I have surrounded myself with is Dr. Robb Farms’ Chief Growth Officer, Jace Levine. Everyone I speak with who interacts with Jace tells me how innovative he is. They all love working with him. I have yet to meet someone who has anything negative to say about him, and Lord knows I’m trying.
What growth sectors should most people be paying attention to that they might not be currently?
The health and wellness sector of cannabis is of personal interest to me. As we learn more and more about how cannabis provides health benefits beyond “getting high,” I think that sector will explode as the market expands beyond the cannasseur.
Dr. Robb Farms just launched a product that serves this sector: Mom’s Formula. After my mom went through her chemo- and radiation therapy for breast cancer, she had anxiety and sleep issues that previously were not a problem for her. She very much appreciated that I had sourced clean edibles for her, but she didn’t like that she had to dose it herself and that sometimes the doses were higher than she was expecting. I wanted to provide her with an easy solution that she could take every morning with her multivitamin and fish oil pills. This tablet is not meant to get her high. Rather, it is designed as a microdosing CBD tablet. It’s really meant to bring her down a notch and give her that general feeling of well being that comes from small doses of CBD. Thus, Dr. Robb Farms Mom’s Formula was born.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
I want to grab a Sunday brunch with Snoop and Martha Stewart (ok, that’s two people, not one). Snoop is a legend. Pure and simple. And I would love to discuss hydroponic growing techniques for the home consumer with Martha.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!