TNMNews had the opportunity to sit down with Ilan Weiss, the owner of MNFuse LLC, an infused science solution company for the cannabis edible market. Ilan has loved food his entire life and has made food science a focus of his education and career. He was kind enough to sit down with us and discuss the quickly growing cannabis edible market and what he believes its future is and what role MNFuse will play in it.
1) What was your inspiration to leave your mainstream food science career and to create your company MNfuse, a business built around helping cannabis edible producers streamline their production?
I have always loved food. I have always loved helping people. Several years ago, it became apparent to me, that as the medical and adult-use cannabis markets were starting to expand infused food manufacturers would be needing food science technical support. Solving problems inherent to the scale-up process has always been something I enjoy. There is little more rewarding for a food scientist than taking a project from an idea to a product on the shelf.
A couple of years ago, I began watching the cannabis markets open up in Colorado and Washington, which gave me the idea to start a food science consulting business. It took a couple of years for me to get the courage, but when the time was right, I jumped from the conventional food science corporate world into the infused food industry. I am indebted to my wife who has a “real” job. This flexibility has allowed me to start-up MNfuse without an initial customer base. I have worked hard to get my name out there to let brand owners and manufacturers know how I can help them with their infused food product development needs.
2) Can you tell us a little about your food science experience and background?
Food has always been my passion. My dad was a professor at the University of Nebraska. Recognizing my passion, he brought home literature describing food science career paths during my senior year in high school. He recognized my enjoyment of cooking and chemistry and thought food science would be a good fit for my interests.
Off to the University of Minnesota I went to study food science. I worked at the University of Minnesota food science pilot plant making ice cream and cheese during my undergraduate studies. Working in the pilot plant allowed me to understand how food processing works and to build a foundation of food processing experience.
After graduating I moved overseas to work for a food ingredient manufacturer in their product applications lab (how to use our ingredients in customer products) for two years. The company made ingredients to fortify foods with vitamins and minerals. While working in the application lab I began to understand the challenges of formulating functional, good tasting, repeat-purchase type foods.
I came back to the USA to study a master’s degree in food science at Purdue University. My thesis focused on the best solution to provide astronauts bread during long-term space missions to Mars. I got recruited out of Purdue to go work for the food equipment manufacturer JBT Technologies in the Florida citrus industry.
At JBT I worked in the not-from-concentrate orange juice business. I helped develop and commission aseptic juice processing equipment for the USA and Spain. This work experience provided me the continued real-world education in understanding, operating and optimizing food production processes.
Being a Midwestern guy at heart, I longed for seasonal change and to be closer to my family and friends. I moved back to Minnesota in 2008 to work for SunOpta, a natural and organic food company. At SunOpta I was able to work on a large variety of product families from non-dairy beverages, roasted snacks, fruit snacks and spouted baby food pouches. My nine years at SunOpta provided me with the necessary corporate food industry experience needed enabling me to become an independent food science product development consultant.
3) In general do you feel like a clear understanding of food science is missing in the cannabis infused food industry nationwide?
There clearly is food science knowledge in the infused food industry. I think that the chefs and other culinary wizards who helped create and get the infused food industry where it is today deserve much credit. There are more types of infused food products than ever. Mainstream product trends are starting to drive similar product innovation in the infused food space which is exciting.
I feel that I can add value to brand owners and manufacturers by developing benchtop recipes and scale them up to industrial production. This is not an easy process with lots of potential pitfalls of ingredient and equipment issues. My understanding of food formulations, chemistry, processing and microbiology can contribute to the success of infused food brand owners and manufacturers by reducing time-to-market and COGS for their innovative products.
I also have an extensive ingredient and manufacturing supplier network which means I can find the right ingredient for any type of product application and a place to manufacture it.
4) Considering Minnesota, where you and your company reside, has such a limited medical marijuana program, what is your solution for cannabis companies concerned about violating state and federal law by working with you?
MNfuse is an ancillary technical service company. The services we provide are no different than the services and goods provided in the cannabis industry by security firms, greenhouse manufacturers, extraction equipment suppliers, marketing firms, packaging suppliers or lighting companies.
We have had to retool our marketing once since my launch to make clear that we do not work with cannabis ingredients in Minnesota. We only work with licensed brand owners and manufacturers in states where medical and adult-use is permitted under state laws.
5) Can you go into some detail on just how MNfuse can help a cannabis edible manufacturers?
MNfuse can help infused food brand owners and manufacturers in four distinct areas:
Product formulation is MNfuse ’s bread and butter. We have the ability to take nearly any type of product and make it a reality. We develop everything from a product concept (a product that does not even exist) all the way through to cost-savings on currently manufactured goods (make them less expensive to produce without sacrificing the customer’s eating experience). If you have an idea, we can bring it to life. Product formulation services include: new concepts, line extensions, cost savings, quality optimization and any other need for the betterment of your product in terms of taste, texture, mouthfeel, stability or nutritionally enhanced.
MNfuse has experience optimizing a wide range of production processes to help brand owners and manufacturers deliver better products at lower costs. MNfuse is not an engineering firm that specs out equipment but our past food processing experience has brought us a unique understanding of the different processing parameters that manufacturers can leverage to optimize the cost and organoleptic properties of any product.
Who doesn’t love quality? This is perhaps the most important aspect of any food product and manufacturing operation. As the saying goes “garbage in, garbage out”. You cannot have enough emphasis on quality in your operation. As the industry continues to mature there will inevitably be more quality regulations that come down, like the regular food industry. Cannabis infused food manufacturers are operating in a gray area because they are not regulated by the FDA nor USDA. It would auger well for serious brand owners and manufacturers to voluntarily establish and maintain current Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs), standardized sanitation schedules and other regular food industry quality systems.
When a product quality issues presents itself, MNfuse can help troubleshoot the product issue and recommend solutions to avoid that problem. MNfuse can help prepare for third-party and any other food-related regulatory audits.
Innovation is key to secure and maintain a leading position in any industry. MNfuse can help infused food brand owners and manufacturers develop and launch an innovation program by helping with:
Where is the market now and where is it going? What are the drivers of change? Is something an actual trend or just a fad? Can we leverage mainstream trends into the infused food market?
What trends are one year out? What trends are five years out? Opportunity mapping is a deep-dive exercise that identifies opportunity areas ripe for innovation. An opportunity area needs to be broad to capture large trends but not overly broad that it gets diluted into the overall market. You can apply strategic lenses which narrow down opportunity areas into actionable areas of innovation.
After identifying opportunity areas, the fun begins. Looking at the opportunity area and applying strategic lenses we start to create actual product concepts. No concept is a bad concept. This is where the creative juices can really start to flow. Looking at current products and projecting into the future allows us to come up with product concepts that can be further vetted by focus groups or delved into immediately with lab development.
6) What kind of food products work best in the cannabis infused food industry?
Anything you can think of can be infused these days. The extraction/concentrate technology has gotten so good at creating high THC/CBD test, low odor/flavor concentrates that you can infuse anything. No longer do you need to make infused butter to make an infused food. The old requirement to have a fat-soluble ingredient to help infuse your product is no longer necessary either.
While it is not required to have a fat source to infuse a food. It does facilitate the absorption and bioavailability of cannabis active ingredients. There is no definitive research on this topic using cannabis ingredients, but the scientific literature has shown that fat soluble vitamins are more easily absorbed by the body when administered with a fat source.
Please stay tune for part 2 of our interview with Mr. Weiss. on Thursday, May 3rd.