Cannabis and hemp. For years those substances operated in the shadows, and today they are at the center of a growing multibillion-dollar industry. How do you know what’s in them, and if they do the things they are supposed to do? Richard Miles interviews Adam Christensen, CEO of Botanica Testing, a company that tests cannabidiol and hemp.
Inventors and their inventions. Welcome to Radio Cade and podcast from the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention in Gainesville, Florida, the museum is named after James Robert Cade, who invented Gatorade in 1965. My name is Richard Miles. We'll introduce you to inventors and the things that motivate them, we'll learn about their personal stories, how their inventions work, and how their ideas get from the laboratory to the marketplace.
Richard Miles: 0:31
Cannabis and hemp. For years, those substances operated in the shadows today. They're at the center of a rapidly growing multibillion-dollar industry. How do we know what's in them? And if they do the things they're claimed to do, I'm your host, Richard Miles. And today on Radio Cade, I have Adam Christensen, CEO of Botanica Testing a company that tests CBD and hemp. Welcome to Radio Cade, Adam.
Adam Christensen: 0:59
Thanks. I'm happy to be here.
Richard Miles: 1:01
Adam, I'd like to start with basic definitions and explanations of how things actually work. I don't want to assume that all of our listeners sort of know everything there is to know about CBD and hemp. So why don't we talk about what is the difference between cannabis and hemp? A lot of people think they know, but they don't. So they use it interchangeably for marijuana. Why don't you give us a little basic chemistry lesson and tell us what are the main differences?
Adam Christensen: 1:23
So when it comes to plants, we have these things called chemo types, which is basically what are the main compounds in our plants. And so you have plants like lavender oil or peppermint or Rosemary. And now there are about five different kinds of Rosemary plant variations out there that are commercially sold. When it comes to cannabis, there's about seven or eight different main chemo types that we're talking about. But one that most people know and is becoming very popular is the difference between hemp and marijuana. And so when we talk about chemo types or the main compound in these plants, we're talking about two different compounds. One would be THC, and the other would be CBD now for the plants that you would associate with college or your downtime, those would be the high THC varieties, which are psychoactive. And so that would be the association that you get with being high. Now, in most of these plants, they started off as an acid form. And when the heat or time are introduced, that's when they convert over and they lose the acid part of the compounds. And so they go from THCA to THC, which is why, when you are smoking marijuana, you need to light it. So you introduce heat and then you get the psychoactive effects. Now in the products that we test, we are testing the chemo type of CBD, which is a non-psychoactive compound, which has been found to be helpful with a variety of conditions, as well as symptoms. And so for CBD, when you introduce heat, it goes from CBDA to CBD. And so those are the products now that are becoming widely available on the market, simply because they don't have any psychoactive effects. And the levels of THC in them are negligible so that you could technically smoke hemp all day long and never feel the high effect .
Richard Miles: 3:17
Thank you. That's very clear. So there's folks out there buying CBD oils, thinking they're going to high are wasting their money.
Adam Christensen: 3:23
You know , when CBD plant varieties were first introduced, one of the first varieties known was hippies disappointment. And so that is what it is.
Richard Miles: 3:32
It is what it is. So we're not talking about an insignificant potential market here. According to Forbes, it could reach 16 billion by 2025, if five years from now. And the claimed potential uses for CBD products are pain relief. Anti-inflammation something to address epilepsy and seizures and addiction treatment. So Adam, if you could give us a snapshot of the market for medicinal or the uses for CBD and hemp, are there still regulations or regulatory environment that's holding that back? I know of course it varies by States , but what's sort of the big picture, right?
Adam Christensen: 4:04
No, I've seen studies that say that it could be as big as 12 billion in the next few years, I've seen some say 16, I've seen studies all over the place, but right now we are seeing CBD introduced in gummies rice, Krispie, treats, coffee, soap candles, basically everything you can possibly imagine. But the problem is there is no regulation on any of these products. And so we have products out there on the market that could be dangerous, or they could be perfectly safe, but we have no idea. A little over two years ago in Illinois, there was three people that died in about 300 more that had internal bleeding because of CBD products. They took off the shelves that were at the time, the newspapers reported laced with rat poison. Well , we actually think it was, was just high arsenic levels, which a simple, heavy metal test would have detected, and this wouldn't have happened, but right now, nationally, and even in most state levels, there are no actual regulations on what needs to be tested for. So for instance, with romaine lettuce, if there's a salmonella outbreak that gets pulled off the shelves immediately, there's a national freakout , but those food products go through heavily regulated and tested regimes when it comes to the CBD market, when it comes to the e-cigarette market, when it comes to a lot of these other products and product markets that are fairly new, there is no actual mandated testing. And the same goes for the medical marijuana market right now. It's been three years since regulations were supposed to be introduced into the medical marijuana market, where three years later, and there are still no regulations on the book that says these need to be checked for pesticides, heavy metals, residual, solvents, and other contaminants that at the end of the day, you're giving to sick patients. And if those things are introduced to somebody with a weak immune system, it could kill them. And so if we're going to be taking some of these things as medicine, for instance, medical marijuana, we need to know that number one, it's safe and number two, what it actually is going to be good for. And so what really needs to happen is there needs to be strong regulations on contaminants in these products, as well as clinical trials to determine what the best dosages are for and how much each person should take and what they should take and in what concentration. And so right now we don't know any of those things, but these products have been out in the market for years. And we're starting to see, especially with the e-cigarette industry, this kind of same phenomenon where they have been out there on the market. People are getting sick and dying, but we don't know why.
Richard Miles: 6:31
So that leads us to, it sounds like a business model, right? A space where there's not something that should be there. Somebody, it eventually thinks I need to create a business. So tell us about Botanica Testing. I understand you have another company who came up with the idea, how hard was to get going, who your clients, that sort of thing. How did you get these things launched?
Adam Christensen: 6:51
So I was actually at a university up in Virginia when we were approached by a company down here in Florida and they came to us and they said, here is a peppermint essential oil that we bought from India. We just had to pull $60,000 worth of it off the market because it was fake. And we had no idea. And they basically came and said, we need to know if this is real. We need to know whether or not we're spending our money wisely and whether or not fraud is being committed so we can make good business decisions. And so me and the students and the professors that were at the university, we started testing for them for about a year and near the end of that, I started to realize that maybe this isn't just one company, maybe this is bigger than just this one company. And that if fraud, like this is being committed against this company is probably being committed against a lot of companies. And so I entered a business competition. I actually didn't know I had entered it. One of my professors put me into the business competition. And then I got an email,
Richard Miles: 7:44
Clearly studying chemistry at the time.
Adam Christensen: 7:45
I was studying biology and chemistry at the time. And I get an email that says, Hey, you just want a thousand dollars to go start a business.
Richard Miles: 7:53
And you thought it was spam, right? Obviously.
Adam Christensen: 7:55
I emailed the professor back. I was like, number one, what is this? Number two, I didn't enter a business competition and number three, thanks but I'm pretty sure I'm going to go study dolphins in Hawaii. So I don't know if this is the way I want to go. I gave it some thought and realized that it might be something that would be a great stepping stone and something that I couldn't just let go by. And so I drove from Virginia Beach to Indiana to Tampa, picked up a buddy. We drove out to California all the way to North Dakota and back searching for incubators, different business systems that I could start my business. And it would be a great system to be able to be in, to be able to grow it where there are other entrepreneurs and other people starting businesses and just kind of a collaborative feeling. And so traveling all across the country, I stopped, I worked as a lumberjack in Arkansas for a couple months. I worked as a counselor out in California to make enough money to make it to North Dakota. Then we worked there a little bit. Then we drove all the way back. So basically by the end of that summer trip, I had about $3,000 that I said, you know, I'm going to use this to try to start a business on the way to Gainesville, Florida, because the innovation hub was there. There was a Sid Martin incubator system and said in the innovation hub, which is in downtown Gainesville. And that was the one that I wanted to be at. And I thought that was the one that's going to give me the best opportunity to be able to start this business. And so on the way from North Dakota, I'm calling apartment complexes down here, trying to see if there's openings basically packed up my entire life and moved from Virginia down to Florida to start this company.
Richard Miles: 9:30
I gotta ask Adam, were your parents horrified at this or did they kind of trust you that you knew what you're doing?
Adam Christensen: 9:35
My mom has always said that I am the most bullheaded person she's ever met, and I am willing to do things and take risks that no one else will and she doesn't understand why she was just happy that I was able to find a place to live, that I had enough money to have food every day. And that I
Richard Miles: 9:53
Being a good mom, she was thinking about the basics here.
Adam Christensen: 9:55
The way that she looks at it is if I don't call home, that's a good thing because it means nothing has happened.
Richard Miles: 10:01
So you entered this or your professor entered the business competition for you. Was your original business or his business plan, or the idea had it already zeroed in, on CBD and hemp, or was it more product testing for a variety of different products?
Adam Christensen: 10:14
Yeah, originally this was never in the picture originally. It was, we're going to test about 120, 130 different types of plants to see if they're real, to plant oils, to see if they're real. And as that's going along, I keep getting contacted by hemp growers and other people in the industry that say, Hey, we have this oil and we need to test it. We need to see a lot of things about it. Can you do it? And my response was, well , we test 120 other plants. So we might as well add one more. Well, as we started to look through this, and as I met my now business partner, whose name is Dan Morgan, he's got a PhD in analytical chemistry and worked in big pharma for 25 years.
Richard Miles: 10:51
Was this your buddy out in California? Or is this,
Adam Christensen: 10:54
This is somebody who lived here in Gainesville, who I was introduced to by some other company owners actually here in Gainesville that are pretty well known. So I was introduced to him. We sat down and we talked and we realized that this was a pretty big opportunity that we didn't want to miss.
Richard Miles: 11:08
Who was your first hire then once you decided , okay, I need to start a business. Did you hire another chemist or did you turn to the business side to help you structure that ?
Adam Christensen: 11:17
So the first people that I really got involved with were Jody Johnson and Karie Baso over at the mass spec department at UF. And one of the main reasons I came to Florida was because of the university system and the amount of amenities and perks that they offer. And so my first hire was actually another student to be able to create the website, start doing marketing and starting to actually go get customers. It went all right. He didn't last very long. My second hire was with me for a little bit more than a year. His name was Vic . He is an old British chemist who really just enjoyed talking to people and working more on the business side and the sales side and loved having him around. He got to the point where he was about ready to retire as well. And so at that point, we were expanding with Botanica. And so we started to hire a lot of lab technicians and people to work in the office and so we were up to about seven eight right now, total employees.
Richard Miles: 12:15
So tell me what about the scalability of this? Let's say you double or triple the number of clients you have in the next year or two, how many more people are you going to have to hire to keep this going?
Adam Christensen: 12:24
So right now, every year we've been doubling as far as revenue goes per year. And so I've had the first business up for about three years and the second one for a little bit more than a year and overall we've doubled every year. And so right now we are sustainable with the number that we have as we keep growing, though, we're going to have to bring on some more chemists, obviously some more lab technicians and more than likely some more people in our sales department.
Richard Miles: 12:49
Tell me about the second company I know about Botanica Testing, but what is your second company?
Adam Christensen: 12:53
EVS is the one that does testing on natural products on essential oils. And so that was the first company that we started. Botanica Testing was the second company that we started.
Richard Miles: 13:02
And Botanica focuses on what just hemp?
Adam Christensen: 13:04
It focuses on hemp and CBD products.
Richard Miles: 13:07
Okay. Um, you're , you're thinking of starting a third project, so to speak. And we were talking about this earlier on, and for those folks, not from Florida, the Congressman from this district, Ted Yoho announced recently that he's not going to seek another term and so there'll be an open congressional seat in November. So the punchline is you're going to be running for the congressional seat correct?
Adam Christensen: 13:26
Yes. So I am actually running in the democratic primary at the moment. What we're working on is just getting on the ballot, getting the 5,000 signatures from any registered voter just to get on the ballot.
Richard Miles: 13:35
So this sounds an awful lot, like starting a new start up , right?
Adam Christensen: 13:39
This is, that's exactly how I'm thinking about it. That what's the first thing you do? You have the idea, right? You create a product to something that you think could change people's lives, and then you go out and you market it, you set up the website, you find people that could help you.
Richard Miles: 13:53
It sounds like you get a certain thrill out of doing that. Clearly, Adam, it's kind of energizes you, have you ever run for office before? Is this?
Adam Christensen: 13:59
No. And this is not something that was in the plan, to be honest with you, to me, starting a company, starting a business, being able to grow something that's your own is just exciting. And at the same time, if you're making other people's lives better, that's what you want. And so for me, my first company, what were we doing? We were catching fraud. We were making sure that companies didn't get screwed and we were making sure that you weren't getting ripped off the same thing with the CBD industry. We're trying to make sure that companies are being able to put out the best product, that there is somebody as a mediator, as a referee that says, this is what you're saying. It is, this is what it actually is. And here's how you can fix it. And so for me, I think it's the perfect segue. I see the issues in my community. I see solutions that would work really well to be able to grow our small businesses, grow our community and help workers and help the people here. And we just need somebody to step in and propose those and have the passion to fight for it. Just like any other small business or startup.
Richard Miles: 14:57
Well, I got to wish you luck out of my known a couple people who've run. And the situation that we have here in open seat is probably the most competitive because lots of people jump in and unlike, running against an incumbent where you have a fixed target, your competition essentially is all the other folks who are throwing in, but that's incredible and admirable as well. And it's got to take a lot of energy. Adam let's close or near closing the, the episode with one of my favorite questions. And that's basically, what were you like as a kid, we've already heard what your mother thought of you as a child and you yourself described yourself as kind of hyperactive and always getting into trouble. So without putting yourself in any legal jeopardy or campaign jeopardy, Adam, if you could share with us examples of what were you like as a kid and why were you getting in trouble?
Adam Christensen: 15:39
You know, I'm someone who, when I believe in something I'm going to follow through with it, no matter who's in the way. And so one of the main reasons I was constantly getting into trouble when I was little was because I would see something that I thought should be better or could be better. I would see something that could fix it and I would do it. I wouldn't ask permission. Sometimes it is better to ask for forgiveness than it is to ask permission. And that was the way I approach things. And it ticked off a lot of people.
Richard Miles: 16:03
Except for your third grade teacher, right?
Adam Christensen: 16:06
Yes. Sometimes they don't enjoy when you bring up
Richard Miles: 16:10
Entrepreneurial journey, right? No .
Adam Christensen: 16:12
And so I asked why every day, all the time about everything, if something was away , that I didn't quite understand or thought it could be better, I would ask why it was that way. Not with this idea of, I want to know every little thing about it, but why do we think this is a good idea? Why do we think that's the way it should be? Is there a better way to do something? And so for me, I was in trouble all the time because when somebody would say, well, it's just because I would say, well, why? Explain to me the reasoning behind it so I can get behind that idea. And if somebody was able to explain the reasoning to me, then I'm like, all right , cool. We move on. But most of the time my parents were just like, no, it's because we said it now go run around the house three times until you're tired so you're no longer have energy. And so they would literally send me outside to run around the house until I was tired enough to come back inside.
Richard Miles: 16:59
Do you remember a time where you were drawn to the natural sciences, biology and chemistry? Did that develop when in middle school, high school or when did you know that's kind of what you wanted to do, if at all?
Adam Christensen: 17:10
So that wasn't in the cards either. I mean, to be honest with you, my high school chemistry course, I think I got a C I hated it. My biology, that's the worst grade I got in high school as well. And I said, I would never take another science course in my entire life again, until I got to college. And when I walked into the advisor's room, they said, what do you want to do? And I said, I don't know. What's the hardest thing that you offer right now, just so I can see if I could do it. And they said, it's going to be our premed biology program. I said, okay, let's see if I can get through that for a semester. And so the first courses were biology and chemistry, and I'm very thankful that I was able to through those because they taught me how to think critically. They taught me how to learn, how to study, how to look at the world around me and see the connections and the things that actually make it work as opposed to, well, this is the way it is because, well, why? And so when you get into chemistry and biology, it's how the world works and why it works. And the things that make it work. And for me, I was fascinated by it. After that point, obviously hated it before. But once I actually had to put in the work, loved it.
Richard Miles: 18:17
So you are highly unusual, Adam cause 99 out of 100 students that go in to their counselor at college, they ask, how can I get out of biology and chemistry and mapped me out the path? So this sets up my last question. You're a fairly young guy. Of course, the older you get, everyone else looks younger to you, but you've already had a good half lifetime of experience here. And I imagine you were probably asked from time to time by other folks trying to do the same thing, start their own companies or students or mentoring advice. What's sort of the thing that you say, well, you definitely should do this. And then you definitely shouldn't do this. Do you have it crystallized in your mind that there's nuggets of wisdom that you tell somebody an earlier version of yourself that wants to do something similar?
Adam Christensen: 18:56
Yeah, so I get asked the question. What's the most important thing that you can do when you do a startup and my first and only answer every single time is get a puppy. And the reason I say that is it forces you to go home. And when you get home, you have something that is jumping on you, excited to see you. Because what I learned very quickly is if you don't have something like that, if you don't have a solid base, if you don't have something to go home to number one, you won't go home. You will work yourself into the ground. Number two, you will have burnout very quickly. And that's the thing that kills most entrepreneurs. And most startups is just burnout, where you work so hard, you care about something so much. And it's all you think about for so long,
Richard Miles: 19:41
And you lose perspective.
Adam Christensen: 19:43
You just can't do it anymore.You lose the drive and the love that you have to continue doing what you love. And so when you get a puppy, you have to go home.
Richard Miles: 19:50
You win the prize for most distinct advice. I mean that fits on a bumper sticker or a tee shirt. It's perfect. What about on the other side? Are there things you say to people don't ever do this, or this was a bad decision? I wish I regret it or anything like that so far?
Adam Christensen: 20:04
No, to be honest with you. I think the thing that makes most startups succeed is the fact that you're not afraid to make a mistake, but if you do make a mistake, you don't make it again, right?
Richard Miles: 20:15
Figure out why you made it.
Adam Christensen: 20:16
Most companies that I see, they make a mistake and they learn from it. They get better or you keep making the same mistake over and over. And you're no longer in business. My favorite client, one of my favorite people in the world right now is actually 82 years old. I've called her the crazy lady from Tennessee for the entirety of that I've known her name's Marge. The first time that I did a sample for her, I screwed up epically, probably the worst mistake of my career, but I had to go to her and I had to explain why it happened, how I was going to fix it. How are we going to make it would never happen again. And I don't know why she gave me another chance, but she did. And she is probably one of my favorite people in the world. We actually did a road trip last Christmas together on the way up for me to visit my family. And so for me, sometimes mistakes are just opportunities to grow. And at the same time, sometimes mistakes are the things that are going to really make the journey worth it. Because they're the things you remember the most because they matter.
Richard Miles: 21:14
Yeah. I've always thought the mistakes and Epic failures teach you way more than successes because they're seared in your memory and you go over them over and over again until you tease out, why did I make mistake? And how do I avoid it? Whereas success often tends to have the opposite effect. You Pat yourself on the back, maybe a little bit too much, you take a little bit too much credit for the success and you don't learn what were the dynamics that went into that. But the failure by golly, no one else is going to claim it for you. And you're the one to disentangle how do I not do that again?
Adam Christensen: 21:41
Yeah no, I've been going through that a lot lately because I, for fun in my free time, which I don't have very much. I coach college and high school soccer. And last year I coached at the rock high school on the West side of Gainesville. We went undefeated 15 and 0, won a state championship. And I thought, I'm going to take a challenge. I'm going to go right down the road. I'm going to join Oak Hall's program. I'm going to try to coach them. And this season has not gone. How I've planned it. I'm starting three eighth graders, sometimes a sixth grader on the varsity team. And we've only won two games this year. At the same time, I've seen improvement in drive that makes me extremely proud despite the fact that we may not be winning every game, but at least people that have never played the game before I am seeing what it takes, to be able to take somebody with no experience or who's very young and make them somebody who is formidable, who could actually play against people better than them. I don't know if you can tell, but I'm a little bit of a perfectionist. If I do something it needs to be done with excellence. And I think that you kind of have to have that drive when you start a company or it really, if you want to do anything, well, you have to care about it enough that you're going to do everything you possibly can to do it perfectly.
Richard Miles: 22:52
Adam I look forward to having you back on the show at some point to give us an update on what's going on and wish you all the best.
Adam Christensen: 22:56
Richard Miles: 22:57
I am Richard Miles.
Radio Cade is produced by the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention located in Gainesville, Florida. Richard Miles is the podcast host and Ellie Thom coordinates, inventor interviews, podcasts are recorded at Heartwood , Soundstage and edited and mixed by Bob McPeak . The Radio Cade theme song was produced and performed by Tracy Collins and features violinist, Jacob Lawson.