Talking innovation and fast-acting edibles with Mike Hennesy of Wana Brands

If you’ve ever walked into a dispensary, Wana likely needs no introduction. Founded in 2010, the brand quickly rose to prominence in Colorado and has since expanded into nine states, with additional markets in the works, including Canada. Mike Hennesy has been on board since 2014, when he got a job as a sales rep. He’s now the VP of Innovation for Wana Brands and is pursuing an MS in Cannabis Science and Therapeutics at the University of Maryland. Hennesy describes himself as “a scientifically minded individual,” but his problem solving doesn’t always take place in the lab.

For Hennesy, a key to innovation is flexibility and specialization. Instead of trying to do everything in-house, Wana sources from flavor houses, ingredient suppliers, and technology developers. “We’re in touch with the customer, and what the industry is looking for,” Hennesy says. “That’s our area of expertise. And we let other companies use their areas of expertise to supplement our designs.”

Mike Hennesy, VP of Innovation for Wana Brands

This model has been key in Wana’s approach to developing their line of fast-acting edibles. “Instead of coming up with quick onset technologies in house, we’ve been able to evaluate over twenty different companies that have been looking at increasing bioavailability and solubility of cannabinoids,” Hennesy explains. “And we can pick the right one for us. We don’t get pigeon-holed into ‘Well this is what we developed so this is what we have to go with.’”

The end result is a gummy with an onset time of five to fifteen minutes and offset time of about three hours. “We were looking for a way to have an edible affect you more like smoking a joint, a feeling that some consumers are a little more comfortable with, and that didn’t come with thelong experience like a conventional edible,” Hennesy says. The idea is to appeal to what Hennesy calls “the can​nacurious,”​new consumers who ​may be turned off by smoking ​or intimidated by the overly intense experiences that ​some people have had with edibles. “I really think this is just the start of what we’re seeing with the quick onset products,” he says. “I think it’s going to become a huge product line for the business and a game changer for a lot of people.”

Despite covid-19, Hennesy is optimistic about expansion. The company’s transition into new states has been fairly painless and Wana hasn’t been derailed by the pandemic. “Like most cannabis companies, there was a huge spike in sales at first. For a few weeks after that we saw decreasing sales, as I think most of the industry did.” But things began to stabilize in May. “We understand that it’s a delicate dance as a company and as a society, and we’re taking each week at a time and doing our best to meet our retailer and customer needs.” he says.

“I think we’re going to see a lot more products that focus in on the customization of experience.”

When asked to make a prediction for the coming year, Hennesy’s answer is immediate. “I think we’re going to see a lot more products that focus in on the customization of experience. There’s a lot of reasons people use cannabis. Not everyone’s trying to get high. Most people are trying to have a particular experience…whether that’s winding down at the end of the day or giving them a little more focus to get through the day…I think it’s going to become more nuanced.” 

This ties into his favorite aspect of his job. “Just hearing how much our products help people, for me, and I think for a lot of people in the industry, is one of the most inspiring things,” he says. “It makes me want to keep doing it.”

Hennesy’s sense that the industry has the power to change people’s lives extends to the realm of social justice. Although he has seemed unusually focused throughout our interview, he really gets animated when I ask him what the industry should be doing to promote diversity and social justice. 

“That is a really good question and it’s something that I think about frequently because of the history of cannabis. It is just horrific to see how it played out over decades and decades…continuing to put minorities in jail for non-violent crimes…And now we see a dominance of very capital intensive, very white businesses getting started throughout the country,” he says. 

“It’s a hard one. What do we do? It got off on the wrong foot. And something needs to happen. There needs to be a shift. Because if we don’t have a shift soon, it’s going to keep expanding this way. It’s going to keep shutting more and more doors. So the time to act is now.” He envisions a change in the way that licenses are handed out, making the industry more accessible to people of color and those who have been hurt by the war on drugs. “A lot of the knowledge about cannabis is not held by the business owners but by the people who have been working in the underground industry for years,” he says. He imagines a mentor program that would help already knowledgeable people survive and prosper in the legal market.

His own mentor Nancy Whiteman has been crucial to his own journey from sales rep to director of innovation. “I think she really saw my passion and nurtured it. She really encouraged me to do my best in this industry,” he says of Wana’s CEO.

When asked what advice he himself would give to a newcomer to the industry, Hennesy sounds earnest: “Be open and be willing to learn a lot of new information. I think anyone with passion, who really cares about and sees what cannabis can be, has the potential for great success in the industry. We need enquiring new minds to come in and say, ‘there’s so little we understand at this point.’ We need people to be curious and really be open to the idea that this plant can do so much. Because it’s going to wow you every day.”

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