Nicole Wicker is the co-founder of Altopa which makes the Oblend. The Oblend device is the size of a K Cup coffee machine and sits on your countertop. The Oblend arrives with modular ingredient packs that allow you to create the perfect cannabis oil vape cartridge, tincture, topical and more.
The Oblend was awarded the innovation award at this year’s CES event in Las Vegas.
– Transferring expertise from the pharmaceutical industry
– Raising capital
– Creating a unique benefit for customers
– Difficulty with hardware products
– How to use the Oblend and home
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Matthew: Entrepreneurs are sprinting from the traditional pharmaceutical industry to cannabis, bringing their expertise in capital with them. Here to tell us more is Nicole Wicker from Altopa, maker of the Oblend, a 2018 CES Innovations Award honoree. Nicole, welcome to CannaInsider.
Nicole: Thank you, Matt. And honestly, I'd like to state, for the record, that I am a huge fan of CannaInsider.
Matthew: Oh, thank you. Give us a sense of geography. Where are you today?
Nicole: Well, I'm based in Raleigh, North Carolina near the Research Triangle Park area. However, I spend a lot of time in Seattle, Washington where our company, Altopa, is headquartered. Right now, I'm actually in Florida, meeting with several potential investors and a few large organizations outside of the cannabis industry who reached out to us after they saw us at the recent CES show in Vegas.
Matthew: Okay, that's great. I'm glad you're out of the cold down in Florida. That's a good thing. It's been so crazy there. Okay, so, tell us a little bit, at a very high level, what the Oblend is so people can understand.
Nicole: Okay, the Oblend is the world's first home dispensary. It is a countertop consumer device that mixes and dispenses precise amounts of botanical oils, essential oils, and therapeutic herbal extracts to mirror pharmaceutical standards. And with the Oblend app, consumers can find, customize, and create a variety of products within minutes.
Matthew: Wow, okay, so that's a lot. They can do a lot here.
Matthew: So what does the O in Oblend stand for? Is there...?
Nicole: Oh, we get that question a lot. So, I'll say just like our company's philosophy and tagline, which is every body's different. The O in Oblend stands for whatever you would like for it to stand for. Most people associate the O with oil since the Oblend cartridges contain botanical and essential oils.
Matthew: Okay, I'm gonna say the O stands for optimal. Boom.
Nicole: Nice. Great, I love it.
Matthew: Okay. But I'm gonna dig more into the Oblend. But first, let's get a little bit about your background and why you started Oblend in Altopa. What were you doing before?
Nicole: Oh, okay. Well, I spend my first 12 years with Ernst & Young in a special group called the ES Group or the entrepreneurial services group. In that group, we identified small companies with large market potential and large growth opportunities. And together with the company's management teams, we had strategy sessions and plan out their short and long-term growth plans and decide whether ultimately it was best to position the companies for an IPO strategic role of competitive buyout plan or an exit through an acquisition. Then we devise the plan and execute it. This was during the late '90s. And if you recall, it was the dot-com era. So most of those companies went public through the New York Stock Exchange or NASDAQ or even the TSX. Then, I transitioned over to the private sector and became the controller and eventually CFO of a few companies. The first company was called SmartPath, which we grew and sold to a company called DoubleClick.
Matthew: Sure, heard of them.
Nicole: Most recently, I was the CFO of an FDA-approved medical device company called TearScience, where we developed and launched a disruptive diagnostic and treatment device for dry eye disease. While I was with TearScience, we navigated through the FDA process, obtained FDA approval, raised over 150 million, grew from 18 employees to over 250 employees in a very few short years, and commercialized our products throughout the US, China, and Canada, Europe, and a few other countries. We were named the fastest growing company in North Carolina for the years 2011, '12, and '13. And recently, TearScience was acquired by a little company called Johnson & Johnson.
Matthew: Oh, okay, wow.
Nicole: So, after I left TearScience, I get approached by many CEOs with great ideas, and I was deciding what my next move would be. So, Matt, the CEO of Altopa, about two years ago, approached me with the idea of the Oblend. I thought it was a great idea. But quite frankly, I knew nothing about cannabis. It was very intriguing to me. So I started researching and attending the conferences. And the one conference that really wowed me was the Cannabis Science Conference in Portland, Oregon. And I sat there for three days and listened to researchers, physicians, people from universities stand up on the podiums and present their clinical studies and efficacy in using cannabis to treat various medical conditions. And that was when I decided that we could really help a lot of people by bringing the Oblend to market, and joined the company as co-founder and CFO.
Matthew: That's great. So, DoubleClick I think was later acquired by Google, and then Johnson & Johnson acquired the Dry Eye. Just out of curiosity is when someone has dry eye disease, are both eyes dry or just one?
Nicole: It's typically both eyes because it's a function of your Meibomian glands blocking up. And that's usually because of lack of blinking.
Matthew: Okay. I lived in the RTP area for nearly 10 years, and there's really a ton of innovation going on there that's really amazing. So I think Silicon Valley obviously steals the show, but it's pretty cool what's going on there as well.
Nicole: Yeah, yeah, RTP is a close fellow. And I don't know if you heard that Amazon is thinking about having RTP as its East Coast headquarters, which is the exciting.
Matthew: Oh, wow, that would be the exciting. The tagline for Oblend is dispensary in a box. What does that mean exactly?
Nicole: That is an interesting question. So, according to Wikipedia, the definition of an electronic dispensary is a dispensary designed to ensure efficient and consistent dispensing of excipient and active ingredients in a secure data environment with full audit traceability. A standard dispensary system consists of a range of modules, such as manual dispensing, supervisory, bulk dispensing, recipe management, and interfacing with external systems, and might dispense much more than just medical related products like alcohol, tobacco, vitamins, and minerals. When we applied for the CES Innovation Award, and they did not have a category for us since the Oblend is the world's first portable home dispensary. So the definition meant what the Oblend does.
Matthew: Okay. And there are different ways that the oil can be dispensed out of this machine. Now, just...I wanna give people a visualization of how big this is, is this like the size of like a drip coffee maker? I mean, what's the size?
Nicole: Yes. It's about the size of a Keurig coffee maker, and it's designed to sit on your kitchen countertop.
Matthew: Okay. Okay, that helps. So you have this K-Cup size machine, and it dispenses oil, and the oil comes out in what ways? How is it delivered?
Nicole: Okay. So the Oblend works similar to the printer ink cartridge model in that the Oblend contains dozens of cartridges filled with therapeutic herbal extracts, such as CBD, CBN, limonene, myrcene, fish oil, turmeric, Echinacea. So the consumer will use the Oblend smartphone app and search for and find crowdsourced and export-sourced recipes. Then they can adjust the ingredients, and within minutes, create personalized products with a push of a button on the smartphone app. If they like it, they can save it and share it with their friends or share it with the Oblend the community.
Matthew: Okay, I get this. So it's this K-Cup sized device and you put in modular ingredients, and then you put in a recipe and out comes the exact medicine or elixir that you want. But there's a thing I don't understand. Where do you get those modules to put in the Oblend? Would it be at dispensaries? Some are at dispensaries than some that don't contain cannabis or THC. They would be available elsewhere. Where will you buy those?
Nicole: Okay. So when you purchase an Oblend, it will come with the prefilled cartridges. And there will be 23 prefilled cartridges, and there will be an empty slot in that if you would like to go to a dispensary and purchase one of our cartridges filled with THC, then you would have the option to do that. So as you blend your recipes, you will be depleting your ingredients, and your smartphone app will notify you when you're getting low on certain ingredients. And you can choose to order those cartridge replacements directly from us, and we can just mail them to your doorstep. And the only cartridge that you have to actually go to the store for is the THC cartridges.
Matthew: That is really clever here. So I could see something where, you know, my mom has arthritis, and she buys the Oblend, and she's looking for a recipe for arthritis. So she goes to a dispensary, gets the cannabis oil module, plugs it in, all the other ones are in there. And then she looks up a recipe. Maybe a lot of other people have a similar situation. She looks up, "Oh, this recipe for arthritis has a bunch of reviews. It seems like it's the most popular. I'll start there." And she just, like on an iPad or a phone or something, just says, "Make this recipe," and then it just does that wirelessly. Is that how it works?
Nicole: Yes, yes. So every time she would create a recipe, the Oblend always dispenses in very precise and consistent blends of these therapeutic extracts. However, with the Oblend, she can choose to create a variety of products. So let us say that she is looking for symptom relief from her arthritis. In the morning, she could insert a cup of tea in the Oblend and choose that recipe for arthritis. But she may decide to add additional ingredients to help her wake up and focus like myrcene and the limonene and pinene. And then in the afternoon, she could choose to make a lotion to help with her arthritis. So she would put her lotion underneath and choose that same recipe, but she may decide to add in a little bit more CBD, turmeric, and curcumin to help with her inflammation. And at night, she could, using the Oblend, choose that same recipe, create a tincture with the Oblend and decide that she needs something to help her sleep through the night. So she may wanna add some CBN and linalool to help her sleep.
Matthew: Wow, that is pretty cool. I can see why there's so much interest around that. And it sounds like it's done in a user-friendly way where I don't have to know about the chemistry or anything going on there, just the outcome I want and the ingredients I want.
Nicole: That is correct. We are trying to make it as simple as possible for the users. However, if the users want to be a chemist, then they can dig deeper and they can research the different ingredients and medicinal benefits and choose to create their own blends.
Matthew: Yeah. Well, I just wanna dig into this a little bit more because vape cartridges are just so popular right now, particularly in Colorado, in California, but still other places too. So with the Oblend, I can put in an empty vape cartridge, come up with whatever recipe I want, maybe high CBD, high THC, high in certain terpenes, like you mentioned myrcene or limonene, and then it fills up my vape cartridge right there on the spot. And then I can just put that into a vape pen, is that right?
Nicole: Yes, yes, that is correct. So, you would just insert a vape. Another thing interesting about the Oblend is if you can create very small amounts of vapes, and we call them micro-vapes. So let's say a certain strain helps relieve your inflammation, like Blue Dream, and your friend prefers Girl Scout cookies. Well, you could each replicate those strains using the Oblend. And again, adjust it for the effects and the flavors that you would like. So instead of carrying around vape that you purchased and don't really like, and spend a lot of money on, it's allowing you to create little micro-vapes and adjust them over time so you have the perfect blend for you and your body.
Matthew: That's great. And then can you just save one as a favorite if you kind of arrive at your optimal one so you don't have to remember all the different variables that you created when you were creating your blend?
Nicole: Yes, absolutely. So in the face of the Oblend app, there's one area that says My Favorite Blends. So if you know the blend that you like in the morning and the afternoon, when you're going out with your friends, when you're going to sleep, it would be underneath My Favorites. And you just bring it up and push Blend It, and you'll have it within minutes.
Matthew: Okay, that's great. That is really a compelling offering. So when you were at the CES show in Vegas, formerly called Consumer Electronics Show. This is the huge, huge thing you see on the news where there's just tons of people and robots and all that stuff. That's what CES is. And I heard the electricity even went out for a little bit, ironically, where everything is electronic. But tell us kind of the reaction there and what people were asking about and what your interactions were like there in CES.
Nicole: Well, it was my first time at CES. So I was walking around with my eyes wide open. It was an amazing experience. Some of the coolest products were in sleep technology, custom fragrances. Really, personalized health is trending. I believe that people are coming to realize that the one-size-fits-all model doesn't necessarily work when it comes to their health. People are finding out more and more about the differences between men and women's needs or age differences. And they're looking for ways to customize their daily health regimen. Many of the benefits that pharmaceuticals offer can be matched cheaply and safely with botanical extracts.
Matthew: Yeah. Now, what do you see as being the most popular mixes in the Oblend that don't include THC or cannabis of any kind because, you know, this show, there's a focus on cannabis, but there's a lot of things you can do without cannabis with natural essential oils and things like that. I mean, I know when I get sick and I just can't shake it, I'll do a little bit of oregano oil and drink it even though it feels like it's burning my insides out. It usually is kind of like a nuclear herbal bomb, and it seems to work. I mean, it could be psychosomatic. I don't know, but is there any kind of blends that you think will be really popular that just simply won't have anything to do with cannabis at all?
Nicole: That's a great question. So, the reason why we went to CES, we won CES's Innovation Award for one of the most innovative products commercializing in 2018. We were not allowed to include cannabis in the application. In fact, our original application did include it, and they called us back and asked us to remove it. They liked our technology so much that they gave us the Innovation Award for a non-cannabis consumer device. And the award that we received was in the biotech fitness and health category. You can use the Oblend to make personalized nutraceuticals, perfumes, lotions, culinary oils. We were approached by a number of companies from large industries at CES, such as fragrance companies, cosmetic companies, Big Pharma, tobacco. And even the gaming industry expressed interest and partnering with us, and they really like the Oblend.
Matthew: Yeah, this kind of reminds me of like a first-generation version of something you'd see on Star Trek where stuff's just made for you. I really like the way this is going. I've worked on hardware products before, and there's a lot of challenges. It takes time to iterate when you're dealing in the world of atoms instead of...has it been more challenging than you originally anticipated when you came over from the pharmaceutical industry?
Nicole: It's always challenging when you are trying to develop a device that has never ever been created before. At TearScience, it took us twice as long to develop our products, and that was my expectation coming over to Altopa in the Oblend. But what's great is every time we reach a challenge, a technical challenge, it gives us an opportunity to file another patent application, right?
Nicole: So we have built a beautiful patent portfolio. At this point, we have filed 26 patent applications. We've been granted one patent. And we have extended our patent protection throughout the world.
Matthew: Okay. Tell us a little bit about your team. I mean, you've gotta have a lot of diverse experience here. You've got wireless technology. You've got a physical product. You've got essential oils. You've got delivery mechanism. I mean, you got a lot of different moving parts here. Who are the different players on your team that is helping to create this vision?
Nicole: Well, we have Matt Wilson, who was the...he's really the visionary, and the one that thought of the Oblend. He is our CEO. I'm the CFO. My background is, if we heard it, Ernst & Young, technology, and healthcare industry, FDA industry. Most recently, we brought on our COO. His name is Brent Poole, and he has experience with Ernst & Young as well. What's even better is Brent was one of the first employees of Amazon, and he was in charge of building out their international supply chain and in charge of inbound customer service. We just hired an individual named Jeremy Sackett, who was the founder and CEO of Cascadia Labs in Oregon. And he built and recently sold Cascadia and joined our team and our lab facility, which is located in Oregon.
We have a great VP of software engineering and technology. This individual worked for our COO, Brent Poole, for a company that Brent started called Mindbloom, and that was a health and wellness technology company. They grew that and sold that to a company called Welltok. So Jon Collette is the person that created the app that went along with Brent's company, Mindbloom. And Jon's in charge of developing our app as well. And the list goes on and on. Pete Crawford's in charge of our supply chain. He was the CEO of Lunchbox Alchemy, which is located in Oregon, great, great company. And we're continuing to build a great team that has the experience in the cannabis industry, the technology industry, and the healthcare and health and wellness industry. And we have all built companies and successfully exited them. So we definitely have the team in place that can execute the plan.
Matthew: Yeah, this seems like a great product for the market. This is the perfect example of the "Blue Ocean Strategy." I try to talk about this. It's a great book, but there's a lot of entrepreneurs listening and not listening to that are simply going after "me-too" type of products in the cannabis space. And I think that's gonna be harder and harder to do because everybody's gonna have to drop their price. And they're all gonna be offering the same thing in the market, wants unique selling proposition if you wanna have high-profit margins. So, you have to add a compelling benefit. And this is a really compelling benefit for consumers. I'm really interested in this. I'd like to have one. And I know that investors are probably saying, "Hey, this is great. There's a revenue component here." The cartridges, you know, they might be a proprietary fit or something like that where they have to come just like a K-Cup. So what's been the response from investors who are looking at Oblend? And I know you went to Arcview. Maybe you can tell us a little bit about that.
Nicole: Arcview was a great experience for us. We raised our first round of financing mostly through the Arcview investors. I think it was back in 2016 and early 2017. We closed a series seed equity round of 1.4 million. And then currently, we are raising a 5 million Series A round. We have filled 2 million of it and we're looking to fill an additional 3 million. I think for investors, some get this right away. And the ones that know that we're not just building a company that has recurring revenue, we have filled a lot of patents. We have a great team. Is the picture is much, much larger than that? We are building a database that's gonna be full of information that's gonna be very valuable one day. It's going to be valuable for identifying successful formulations. It's gonna be valuable in advancing cannabis science and patient recruitment. It's gonna be value in knowing how to deploy your marketing dollars and boost your ROI. It's going to valuable in knowing where to direct your future R&D cost. The data is huge, and it's the foundation of our company. Beyond that, we can expand vertically. We can go into other industries. We can license our technology. There's a lot of meat behind this company.
Matthew: I can see that. My mind is already thinking about all different directions it can go. So that's incredible. Then what do you think the unit's gonna retail for here, and when will it be available?
Nicole: We are gonna start shipping units in the summer of 2018, which is really right around the corner. We are going to have a list price of the Oblend of $949, which includes the cartridges filled with the ingredients. Right now, we have a presale campaign going on. If you sign up for our presale campaign, you get 50% off of the list price. So that would be a price of less than $500. And as I said, the list price is 949. So ultimately, our price will come in somewhere between 500 and 949. But we want everybody in this world one day to have an Oblend.
Matthew: Okay. Okay, so if there's any accredited investors out there listening that wanna get involved, how can they reach out to you?
Nicole: They can go to our website and fill out a form and check the investor box, and we will definitely reach back out to them. If they're really serious about wanting to invest in the company, they can always email me, and my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Matthew: Cool. Now, let's pivot to some personal development questions here, Nicole, so people can get to know you a little bit better. Well, you talk about some heavy business stuff here. Let's lighten it up just a tich. As a tich my mom would say. Do you know how much a tich is?
Nicole: I do not.
Matthew: Two tiches make a tad. These are Midwestern slang terms that I grew up with and I just [inaudible 00:32:15] knew what a tich is, but it's definitely not a pharmaceutical, you know, exact measurement. So with that...
Nicole: A pinch.
Matthew: A tich.
Nicole: It reminds me of my mom's, a pinch of that, a pinch of this.
Matthew: Yeah, it's close. Is there a book that has had a big impact on your thinking or way of life that you'd like to share with listeners?
Nicole: Yes, there is a book. I recently read a book called "Exponential Organizations" by Salim Ismail. And do you know what an exponential organization is?
Matthew: Something that's growing at a nonlinear rate, an exponential rate, is that right?
Nicole: That's right, that's proportionately large, at least 10x larger rate compared to its peers because it's using new techniques and leveraging accelerating technologies. So it's basically thinking big and find, create, or align yourselves with companies that are exponential organizations, and some examples are Google, Amazon, Apple, GE, Microsoft, and Cisco.
Matthew: Okay, cool. Is there a tool web-based or otherwise you consider vital to your productivity?
Nicole: I would say currently, that would be Google Analytics because Google Analytics is giving us an enormous amount of information about who is visiting our website, what they're looking for, and how they are getting there. But I will also say that the two big tools that are vital to this company are use of artificial intelligence and machine learning because we're building this company to maximize the value and the customers' overall experience. So as we build the Oblend platform, we are building machine intelligence into the foundation of all of our systems. It's really the foundation of this company.
Matthew: Do you use like an off-the-shelf AI from like IBM or anything like that or you're just building it as you go with your own technology or how does that work?
Nicole: Unfortunately, I am finance, so I cannot tell you all of the details, but we're really excited about it.
Matthew: That's great. This is really interesting stuff, and I wish you all the best, Nicole. As we close, can you tell listeners one more time how they can find Oblend and your presence online?
Nicole: Yes. To learn more about the Oblend, you can go to our website, which is oblend.com. And you spell it Oblend, oblend.com. And you can find out more information about the Oblend and you can also sign up for our presale campaign.
Matthew: Great. Well, Nicole, thanks so much for coming on the show today and educating us. This is a really, really interesting product. I've been wanting to get you on the show for a while. I'm so glad I did because this is really a breakthrough. So, good luck with everything you're doing and keep us updated.
Nicole: Yeah, yeah, thank you. Good luck to you, too.