How Hemp Packaging Is Saving Our Oceans – with Ron Basak-Smith of Sana Packaging

Ron Basak Smith sana packaging

As the cannabis retail environment gets more competitive, retailers are looking for ways to stand out and make a statement.

Here to tell us more about this is Ron Basak-Smith, CEO and Co-founder of a new company known as Sana Packaging that’s providing cannabis retailers with sustainable hemp-based packaging solutions.

In this episode, Ron shares with us an inside look at Sana Packaging and how the company is working to fix the cannabis packaging problem and eliminate pollution.

Learn more at https://www.sanapackaging.com

Key Takeaways:

  • Ron’s personal background and journey in the cannabis space
  • An inside look at Sana Packaging and its mission to make cannabis more sustainable with eco-friendly packaging solutions
  • Sana Packaging’s two different packaging products, including 100% plant-based hemp plastic and reclaimed ocean plastic
  • Why packaging for cannabis retail is broken and how Sana is working to fix it
  • The cost of Sana Packaging’s sustainable products versus traditional packaging
  • Sana Packaging’s current retail clients and where Ron sees the company expanding in the years to come
  • Ron’s experience at CanopyBoulder, a seed-stage business accelerator that helped Ron start Sana Packaging
  • Ron’s insights on what the cannabis packaging landscape will look like in the next 3-5 years
Read Full Transcript

Matthew: Hi. I'm Matthew Kind. Every Monday, look for a fresh new episode where I'll take you behind the scenes and interview that insiders that are shaping the rapidly evolving cannabis industry. Learn more at cannainsider.com. That's C-A-N-N-A, insider.com. Now here's your program.

As the cannabis retail environment becomes more competitive, retailers are looking for a way to stand out and make a statement. Here to tell us more is Ron Basak-Smith, CEO and Co-founder of Sana Packaging. Ron, welcome to "CannaInsider".

Ron: Yeah. Thanks for having me, man.

Matthew: Give us a sense of geography. Where are you in the world today?

Ron: Yeah. So, I am in Denver, Denver, Colorado.

Matthew: Okay. Great. And what is Sana Packaging on a high level?

Ron: Yes. So, Sana Packaging, we design and develop sustainable cannabis packaging solutions.

Matthew: Oh, that's good. You've got your escalator pitch, boom, right down. It was very succinct.

Ron: Yeah. Yeah.

Matthew: Okay. Can you share a little bit about your background and journey, Ron, and how you got started in the cannabis business and specifically starting Sana packaging?

Ron: Yeah. Myself and the co-founder, we were really just disgruntled cannabis consumers, creating a ton of waste ourselves, and said there has to be something better that we can do for the industry from a packaging standpoint. And so, we were in grad school together, Sana Packaging started as a school project, class project, and, you know, it just blossomed from there. We continued through, once graduation. We went through CanopyBoulder accelerator, raised the rest of the summer, and then launched our first products in July of last year. And now this year we've officially left their pilot phase program and, yeah, selling product in the market.

Matthew: What school was that that actually started giving you real-world practical skills? I'm just always amazed when I hear it.

Ron: Yeah. So, James and I were in grad school getting our MBAs at CU Boulder.

Matthew: Okay, great. That's a good place to be in grad school. You might not even ever want to grow up if you go to CU Boulder.

Ron: Yeah. I was just trying to extend my not growing up. So, I said I could go back to school and hang out in Boulder for a couple of years.

Matthew: Yeah. Can you describe your two packaging products so people can get a sense of what they are?

Ron: Yeah, yeah. So, we have a pre-roll tube and a container right now. You know, we kind of looked at the industry and said, "What are big volume movers of plastic?" and, you know, obviously, there's the flower packaging and then pre-roll packaging. Just, you know, a lot of plastic there. And so, the container is kind of a multi-use box. It can be used for flower concentrates, edibles and, you know, the tube it's about 110 millimeters, so it's king-size pre-roll, smaller vape pens. And then we're actually coming out in June with a shorter tube as well, so that would be for big carts.

Matthew: Okay. So, we know what they are now, but can you give a sense of the aesthetic and the look and feel?

Ron: Yeah. Yeah. So, the two main products are made of two different materials. One of them is a hemp-based biocomposite, so it's a brown, very natural looking biocomposite, and the other one is an HDPE. It's a white, reclaimed ocean plastic. And HDPE is High-Density Polyethylene, similar to the plastic you'd find in, you know, milk jugs, laundry detergent, stuff like that. And our container, you know, from an aesthetics standpoint, it's, if you imagine like a Tupperware container, very similar to shape like that. And so, the idea there is that they nest inside of each other taking up a lot less space from a shipping and storage standpoint.

Matthew: Okay. So, they're eco-friendly but they also have the eco-friendly aesthetic as well. So, it's one of those things you pick up and you're like, "Hey, I know this is doing something better than the traditional trash that I have."

Ron: Yeah. You know, there's always that balance between something, you know, having a natural look and going too far in the natural direction where people are like, "Oh, you know, it kind of stands out too much," and then something looking very non-organic or, you know, like a synthetic. And so that is very much, you know, that finding that balance with our materials so, you know, someone will notice, "Hey, this looks different but it also, you know, it looks and feels like a traditional plastic as well." So, yeah, it's very, very important to us to have that balance.

Matthew: Well, kind of walk through the problem with the traditional packaging and why that is such a problem and how much waste it creates and where you see the inefficiency.

Ron: Yeah. You know, from a very high level, we're using a non-renewable resource to make our single-use plastics. And so, I think that just from a starting point is something we need to figure out as a society, right? Like, we just cannot continue to just extract fossil fuels to make plastics. We must find other ways. And so, that's really where we come in with a single-use solution and then, a plant-based single-use solution. And then the, you know, the reclaimed ocean plastic, you know, the biggest thing that we feel we can do as a company is help drive the wastes industry. And so that may be the reclaimed materials, recycled materials, you know, showing that there's an end consumer willing to pay the price that it costs to collect, clean, and sort of this stuff.

Matthew: So, let's talk more about materials. How do you go about sourcing and finding manufacturers to help with this, because this is, kind of, it's not a mainstream product yet? So, how do you go about that?

Ron: Yeah. So, for the hemp-based stuff, I have built a relationship with a compounder and, basically, you know, for the past two and a half years, you know, when I was in school, just called them and said, "Hey, I want to make cannabis packaging." And, you know, from that point on, they were making a compound with, I think, it had about 10% hemp. And I was like, "Hey, I want to like do... Let's see how much hemp we can get in there." We are now up to about 30% hemp. And so, all of our hemp is domestically sourced, then compounded and then we manufacture it, two manufacturing locations in Minnesota and Arizona. And, you know, once again, with these folks, I just, you know, reached out to several different manufacturers and said, "Hey, this is what I want to do. I'm not sure if you have the ability to do that or you're even comfortable with it, but, you know, it's going to be a thing in the future and if you want to get ahead of the curve, you can work with me." And so that's really how we started those relationships.

Matthew: And how about the reclaimed ocean plastic? Who goes out and retrieves that? How does that work?

Ron: Yeah. So the reclaimed ocean plastic, it's kind of interesting how we have we got in contact with those folks. Oddly enough, the summer before going into grad school, I read a book called "Cradle to Cradle".

Matthew: Yes. Great book.

Ron: Yeah, amazing book, Bill McDonough. And that, kind of, like set the framework in my mind for, you know, sustainable packaging and where we need to go with that. And I, kind of, had that, you know, just rattling around in my head all, first year at school and, you know, it was like, "Okay, sustainable packaging." And so, it was kind of strange when someone, a colleague from, you know, a previous conference, we were talking and he's like, "Yeah, I know someone who he's worked with Bill McDonough, they're doing some ocean plastic stuff. You might be interested in talking with them." And I said, "Yes, please, you know, please connect me." We got connected and, you know, I started saying what we were doing, learn what they were doing with reclaiming ocean plastic and creating a certified marketplace for it. And so, the company that's doing this is Ocean Works and they, you know, we basically said, "Hey, we want to try to do this with cannabis packaging," and they seemed excited about it. And so, we started going down that path, you know, by first seeing if the material will work in our preexisting molds and then, you know, Child-Resistant Certification and all that fun stuff. And so now we're, yeah, we're really excited about what the future holds for reclaimed ocean plastics in the cannabis space.

Matthew: You know, it's so funny that you mentioned that book. I read that about 10 years ago. The book itself is made out of a recyclable plastic that actually has a good tactile feel to it. It doesn't feel like something you don't want to touch. It feels like you do want to touch it. And he says you could drop the book in like steaming water and then turn it into something else if you needed to.

Ron: Yep. Yep.

Matthew: And I gotta say, that dude, Bill McDonough, he has just changed the way I think about things in terms of when there's a problem now he's like, "Let's just redefine that there's a design problem. There's a design problem. This needs to be redesigned." And he's just got almost just a...he's just got such a different way of looking at things that's so inspiring, that is just contagious.

Ron: Yeah. I mean, you nailed it there with, you know, kind of, with design problems, right? Like, when I looked at the weight system, I was like, "Well, this system is currently broken, right?" Like, let's not keep designing things for a broken system. Let's, you know, design things for a new way. And I always kind of have that mindset when looking at problems is critical. And so, yeah, very, very influential in my world and I know he's influenced a ton of people in thinking about how to develop products. And, you know, I think it's something I really hope we see continued through product development because that's, you know, really one of the biggest problems out there is with materials. are they designed to be repurposed and reused and easily repurposed and reused, and is it communicating, you know, to the consumer that they need to be repurposed and reused, you know, kind of all those things. And so, yeah, just bringing out that messaging with our products and always thinking that way is integral to Sana.

Matthew: It would probably be cheaper if these were made abroad but you chose domestic manufacturers. Is that because it's more consistent with your value system or is there another reason?

Ron: Yeah, yeah, totally. You know, we look at sustainability from a pretty holistic approach. You know, it's not just the materials used, where the materials come from, where they're being manufactured, who's manufacturing, you know. All those things really come into play. And, you know, also how far things are traveling, big, big impact on sustainability there. And so, what we want to do is we want to make materials in places and then people be responsible for those materials in those places. And so, I think that kind of circles back to, you know, the "Cradle to Cradle" idea. People, they know where things are coming from, they know where they should go, and they know that it's not just being shipped off somewhere to be someone else's responsibility. You know, we all become more engaged with that product. And so, it's important to us at Sana to manufacture where our products are being sold, and then also from a, you know, sustainability standpoint with biomass, we really want to do that all domestically for just...that's going to be the big hurdle for biomass and there's no reason to be shipping that material across oceans.

Matthew: And how many clients do you have now, and where are they located geographically?

Ron: Yeah, so we just did a customer count I think last week. We're just right around 65, I think. And, you know, we have a pretty broad geographic spread. That's been one of the, you know, most interesting things for us, just kind of seeing where people are looking for sustainable packaging and it seems to be all over the country people are interested in it. And so, yeah, California, Colorado, Oregon, Maine, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, all over. Really excited about that.

Matthew: Okay. Yeah. And where do you think this is going in the next three to five years with packaging? It seems like it's making leaps and evolving, but where do you see it going?

Ron: Yeah. I mean, we hope that it all moves towards sustainable packaging. You know, that's what our goal is as a company, we want to move the industry to normalize sustainable packaging and be that first industry that really grabs the bull by the, by its horns and says, "This is how we're going to do things." And so, you know, I hope that we keep seeing major shifts towards more sustainable packaging and I think we're also, you will see, you know, the way things are being done now, I think, are going to change as the industry matures and evolves. And so, that will be really interesting to watch, you know, as we move from just within state commerce to interstate commerce and start seeing what happens there as well when we start shipping products long distances and longer, you know, packaging kinds and all, and all that stuff. So, it'll be quite interesting.

Matthew: Yeah. I feel like Apple really changed the game with packaging because they, you know, created that religious experience when you get your iPhone and you open up for the first time, and now people are looking to packaging more than just as a simple container but something to create a response. And I know there's some company, I can't remember the name of it, that measures the emotional reaction of people with products, like the sound a FedEx delivery box makes when you put like an envelope in and close it. Like, is that a reassuring sound? How does it make you feel viscerally? Same as when you close the door of a BMW, like that thunk, like thunk, that feels like it feels very sure and it's like a confidence feeling compared to, say, some other brand of, you know, non-luxury car. And they like study that emotional response, and I feel like there's room for that in the packaging space. I mean, there's a visual response and then the tactile response. Does it reinforce it, and what is it saying as you touch it? You know, what's this product? Is this a premium product? You know, it's heavier or, you know, and what does that make me feel? Like, I should be paying more for this or that it's lighter and it's more eco-friendly then. Like, there's all these trade-offs mentally that go on without us really thinking about it.

Ron: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, this is the beauty of packaging, right? The way that consumers interact with it and then why it's designed that way. And I think that's, kind of, the big hurdle for sustainable packaging, right, is messaging in a way that says, "You know, "Hey, this product is still of really great quality, even though it might not have a shiny emboss on it," right? That then changes the recyclability of it or, you know, it has a plastic film layer. All the things that we do to packaging that make it so it's difficult to recycle and repurpose, you know, adding two different material types because it looks good, but then, you know, changing the ability to recycle it or adding colors that are not valuable to recycle. You know, there's just so many different things that we're doing, and that's really what we at Sana want to get across, is a narrative around sustainable packaging, really what that means, what we need to, what sacrifices we might need to make from a visual standpoint to get to the point of, you know, this is a single-use package. And what is single-use packaging, meaning, what value do we put on that from an environmental standpoint and from a consumer standpoint?

Matthew: Now you're an alumni of CanopyBoulder Cannabis Accelerator, where I'm a mentor. Can you talk a little bit about your experience there and what it was like?

Ron: Yeah, yeah. CanopyBoulder, integral part to Sana's story. You know, as James and I were in grad school, they were the first people...yeah, basically, the first people in the industry we were reaching out to to see, you know, "Hey, what do you guys think about sustainable packaging? And, you know, is that a viable thing?" And, you know, we had some great conversations with them. And then, you know, as we were looking at our options with Sana, we said, "You know, we're going to need some money to make this thing happen." And so, we applied to CanopyBoulder. We were accepted and, you know, much beyond the initial seed funding that we got, we got a place to work and commit our time and energy to Sana as we were finishing up school. And so, it's just a great space to really focus on this and have the community around us to really help get this thing going. And so, yeah, thanks. We always want to say thanks to Canopy for everything they've done for us.

Matthew: And where are you in terms of raising capital now?

Ron: Yeah. So, I think to date we've raised around 700...just over $700,000. We just completed a smaller bridge round. And, yeah, now we are gearing up for a larger round called a series A, next couple of months here. Ready to scale this business, increase our product line, and sell more packaging.

Matthew: Yeah. As you've gone through this whole process of being a startup and a co-founder or entrepreneur, has there been anything that's surprised you or any setbacks that you just, weren't expecting on a left field and you just feel like, "Man, I can see why not everybody does this," and how did you surmount that?

Ron: Yeah. Well, you know, first and foremost, this is a...it's a passion of mine, so that keeps it engaging, keeps it fun, you know, just the idea of trying to solve a major global problem and, at least, bring some solutions to it, what keeps me up in, you know, it keeps me up at night, gets me up in the morning, all that. You know, obviously, the entrepreneurial journey has its ups and downs, its uncertainties, but that's all part of the game that we sign up for. And I think, you know, if that's what you want in life and you're good with uncertainty and you like to try to solve big problems, then this is all just, you know, the path to take. Yeah.

Matthew: Yeah. I'm not that good with uncertainty, but I just say I have 51% courage. It's like all I need is that just a little bit more than the fear.

Ron: Yeah. Yeah. I, kind of, thrive on uncertainty and like, you know, if I know it's coming up, it kind of feels weird. So, that's, you know, in entrepreneurship if you don't know what the next day brings, you're just like, "All right, we're just going to keep going, see what happens."

Matthew: So, it's this point in the interview, I like to ask a few personal development questions. You already mentioned the book "Cradle to Cradle", but is there any other book besides a "Cradle to Cradle" and "Hello Kitty" that you find meaningful for your life?

Ron: Oh, yeah. Lots of good books out there always, and find reading is one of the best ways to get distracted from the trials and tribulations in entrepreneurship. One that I really like is "Thinking Fast and Slow" by Daniel Kahneman. Just really helps kind of figure out and look at why we make decisions the way we are making decisions. And I think that's kind of critically important to, kind of, understand how the inner workings of our brain works and why we do what we do and why we act the way we act.

Matthew: Yeah. So, much of it is some subconscious too.

Ron: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it's all subconscious. It's built. Yeah, it's all there and you have to kind of work through why we're thinking certain ways and making certain decisions and going down the same paths or, you know, how do we find the right path and all that fun stuff. Yeah, it's a great book.

Matthew: Okay. What is the most interesting thing going on in the cannabis packaging industry?

Ron: Yeah. The industry right now, things that are fascinating me is, kind of, consumers' trends and understanding of the product and how quickly that's evolving. You know, as we went from an illegal industry, you know, so-called underground in many ways, just watching how people are talking about cannabis, the new products that are coming out, it's all very fascinating to me. You know, coming from, you know, someone who started consuming cannabis in high school and just, kind of, seeing, you know, how it was, you know, what our choices were and all of that, and now seeing where we are today and just, kind of, thinking about, you know, where we'll be in 5 years, 10 years is fascinating to me.

Matthew: You know, since you went through the CU Boulder MBA program, I have to ask, is there any class where you felt like, "Wow, I really use what I learned in this class a lot in my real life." Because, you know, most of college it's just, I don't feel like I use calculus ever and I took two calculus classes. So, I'm always really curious if there's something you feel like, "Hey, this was actually super valuable and I still use it."

Ron: Yeah. Yeah. Almost every single day in Sana, I am eternally grateful that I randomly took one class at CU Boulder that you are going to... If you plan on starting a business and doing entrepreneurship and you happen to be at CU Boulder, I would highly recommend taking VC law. And it is not a class that is in the business school, it is in the law school, but it's taught by Brad Bernthal and Jason Mendelson. And it is an incredibly important class to take if you are going to do any fundraising or, you know, just want to, you know. The VC world is a very...it's complicated. It's a world that you're just, you're not exposed to in your everyday life. And so, finding that information and understanding the terms and what's going on and why things are written a certain way and all the decisions that you have to make as an entrepreneur. Yeah. That class was integral to everything going on and, yeah, just grateful that that existed.

Matthew: Yeah. Talk about intensely practical. That's really practical for what you're doing.

Ron: Yeah. I mean, it was crazy too. It was coinciding as we were going through CanopyBoulder, and it was just like an eye-opening experience and, yeah, I don't know if we would have been as successful as we've been today without that class.

Matthew: That's great.

Ron: Yeah.

Matthew: Ron, as we close, what is the best way for cannabis retailers, brands, and even the accredited investors to reach out to you and to find out more about what you're doing?

Ron: Yeah. So, you know, reach directly out to me or James. My email is ron@sanapackaging.com and James' is james@sanapackaging.com. We would love to talk to you. You could also just give me a call on my cell phone. If you want, I can give you that number. It's (203) 520-9607. Yeah, we'd just love to talk and answer any questions. You know, we are, first and foremost, always trying to educate people on the world of sustainability and sustainable packaging, so any questions are, or please come my way. Yeah.

Matthew: Are you okay if people just text you emojis with no questions or words too? Is that cool?

Ron: Yeah, you know, emojis are cool. I might not respond with much other than an emoji, completely random, but we can try, see what we can get across.

Matthew: Well, Ron, thanks so much for coming on the show and educating us about packaging. It's a really interesting field, and I feel like cannabis customers are more open to alternative packaging, so it's going to evolve and iterate and move in fun new directions fast. So, thanks for the update.

Ron: Yeah. No, thank you. Really excited to be on here and, yeah, just thanks for having me.

Matthew: If you enjoyed the show today, please consider leaving us a review on iTunes, Stitcher, or whatever app you might be using to listen to the show. Every five-star review helps us to bring the best guest to you. Learn more at cannainsider.com/iTunes. What are the five disruptive trends that will impact the cannabis industry in the next five years? Find out with your free report at cannainsider.com/trends. Have a suggestion for an awesome guest on "CannaInsider"? Simply send us an email at feedback@cannainsider.com. We'd love to hear from you. Please do not take any information from "CannaInsider" or it's guests as medical advice. Contact your licensed physician before taking cannabis or using it for medical treatments. Promotional consideration may be provided by select guests, advertisers, or companies featured in "CannaInsider". Lastly, the host or guests on "CannaInsider" may or may not invest in the companies or entrepreneurs profiled on the show. Please consult your licensed financial advisor before making any investment decisions.

Final disclosure to see if you're still paying attention. This little whistle, jingle you're listening to will get stuck in your head for the rest of the day. Thanks for listening, and look for another "CannaInsider" episode soon. Take care. Bye-bye.