Musings from the Power List: Shawn Helmueller
We asked some of our 2022 Power Listers to paint a picture of the field. Here, Shawn Helmueller discusses the biggest challenge facing cannabis science, highlights up-and-comers, and shares his personal mission for the next 10 years…
Margot Lespade | | 8 min read | Interview
What’s been the biggest breakthrough in cannabis science in the last few years, and why?
The cannabis industry has matured to the point where there’s now the opportunity for a ton of data to be collected for every product across all aspects of the industry. Cannabis businesses are keener than ever to access and use that data to make impactful decisions. Moving forward, we are going to see companies succeed based on who can produce the best (objectively and verifiably good) products, provide a consistent user experience for those products, and implement processes that are scalable with the demand for those products across their various markets. It’s not trivial, and therefore we are seeing aggregate applied data contribute more and more to the long-term sustained success of cannabis companies, especially as cannabis operations are increasingly decentralized across strategic geographic locations. This is a realization that every mature industry comes to and it’s exciting to see today’s cannabis businesses with this big data mindset.
What is the single biggest challenge facing cannabis science in 2022 – and beyond?
The biggest issues in 2022 are the same issues that have plagued the industry since it started. In my opinion, there are too many people who think they can jump into the industry, operate the same way they operated in the illicit markets, and make money at all costs without considering long term sustainability and consumer safety. Part of the issue stems from government and the lack of regulatory clarity to weed out bad players, but it also stems from ignorance (which ultimately circles back to regulatory ambiguity) or greed (or both) on the part of participants in the industry. At some point, the industry needs to get together and figure out how groups that are doing things the right way can be elevated – and how groups that are not can be held accountable.
Do you have any predictions for the field over the next few years?
I think that the next few years are going to be owned by the organizations that value transparency and who can leverage that transparency into consumer and regulatory trust. As nationwide legalization becomes imminent in the “high potency THC” cannabis industry, and as evolving regulatory oversight continues in the “low potency THC” (hemp) cannabis industry, there is going to be a scramble to meet the new federal regulatory burden. This rush will result in consolidation of existing industry participants, and the emergence of new industry participants who were previously unwilling to take on the regulatory uncertainty. Regardless of the market segment, transparency will set the stage for consumer trust in the cannabis industry over the next few years.
Do you have any strong opinions with which the rest of the field tends to disagree?
As a classically trained analytical chemist, I have an appreciation for the chemical complexity of natural products. I also understand the possibilities afforded by using natural products to derive new novel compounds and therapeutics. However, the cannabis industry blurs the lines between these two very divergent pathways to new therapeutics and recreational use products. I was in a gas station the other day and I saw a big yellow sign advertising “Legal THC” for sale. I have no expectation that normal gas station goers have any idea what’s in these products labeled “legal THC.” I assume they associate the products with THC – the natural kind produced by plants – they have tried in the past or in a legal regulated recreational cannabis market. But the products being marketed and sold as “legal THC” resemble nothing of the natural plant phytochemistry; consumers don’t understand these subtle nuances. We see it all the time, products consisting of delta-8 THC, hydrogenated and acetylated cannabinoids, all with packaging claims like “THC free” (in stark contradiction to the gas station sign indicating it is selling legal THC…), “All-Natural Hemp Derived,” and “Organic Hemp Product,” being marketed and sold as “legal THC.”
I’m not opposed to using a natural product as a building block to develop and study new novel therapeutics or recreational use products. I am opposed (vocally) to how the cannabis industry tends to skip to the end and market synthetic cannabinoid derivatives before properly characterizing the active ingredients or inactive impurities. I don’t personally agree with large parts of the industry who view these synthetic conversion products as ready for commercial production and incorporation into consumer product goods. I view these derivatives as having exciting research potential but still in their infancy. Marketing and selling these products without proper purification and characterization is going to be potentially a blackeye for the emerging legal cannabis industry.
Can you list any up-and-coming researchers who you feel deserve recognition – and why?
Eric Kawka, Cattis Scientific. Eric has dedicated his time and career to natural product processing and formulation. He takes the knowledge he has gained through many failed experiments and presents it openly so that others don’t have to make the same mistakes. This mindset ultimately speeds up development in the industry and improves the overall quality of products in the market.
Nathan Johnson, Verne Bioanalytical. Nathan is an extremely talented plant geneticist/biologist and has recently turned his focus on the cannabis industry. His company has developed simple assays for making genetic tests accessible in point-of-use applications. He is also active in helping educate the industry about the applications of genetic testing in cannabis.
If you weren’t working in the cannabis industry, what would you be doing?
If I wasn’t in the cannabis industry, I think I’d still be doing very similar work to what I currently do, just for other (potentially less exciting) applications in a different industry. In college, I studied supercritical fluid chromatography and fundamental aspects of the SFC process, to inform on the development of analytical hardware. The most rewarding part for me has always been trying to take a complicated process like SFC, HPLC, or extraction and make that technology accessible to other people. Not everyone is an analytical chemist, thankfully. The more people with diverse skill sets that we can get these technologies in front of and generate high quality data at the point of use, the better. Classically trained analytical chemists don’t ask the same questions as physicists, biologists, geneticists, engineers, or processing technicians. Chemical data generation and interpretation shouldn’t be reserved for the “Analytical Team” in an organization – or the data guy at a company. These analytical tools and the data they generate should be made accessible to anyone curious enough to ask the right questions.
Who have been your heroes/mentors?
I’ve been privileged to work with a lot of amazing mentors throughout my career – too many to try and list them all here. My graduate research advisor at the University of Minnesota Duluth, Don Poe, introduced me to the field of analytical chemistry and the nuances of using carbon dioxide as a solvent for chemical separations. He fostered a curious and inquisitive mindset that made separation science interesting and exciting. He also introduced me to the product development group at Waters Corporation where I would eventually take my first “real job,” with Poe’s recommendation.
At Waters, there were many people I looked up to as a young analytical chemist. It was humbling to be able to sit in meetings with the product development groups and see how some of the best analytical tools and software in the world get created. Specifically, my first boss Andrew Aubin taught me that part of our jobs as analytical chemists is to be critical and skeptical (of pretty much everything); trust but verify. No one else is going to look at a problem the same way as us and it’s on us to catch those things that no one else cares to notice. That attention to detail and confidence in your skills as an analytical chemist transcends across all roles I have had since joining his team.
I was introduced to cannabis science by Chris Hudalla at ProVerde Labs. Chris Hudalla has been a friend and professional mentor my whole career, especially as I was weighing up whether to jump into the industry with both feet; I’m not sure there’s anyone better to provide an unfiltered introduction to the (then still taboo) emerging cannabis industry. His perspective and willingness to share is a big reason I felt I could make the transition into the cannabis industry successfully. I’m privileged to have both Andy and Chris’ counsel still today as I navigate the industry we are all drawn to.
I could go on and on here… But I’ll end by saying that I’m hopeful that I can have the same type of impact on a young scientist someday as these people have had on me. I will have had a productive and fulfilling career if that’s the case.
What advice do you have for those following in your footsteps?
Don’t follow too closely! I’m joking a little – but for every good decision or breakthrough, there are seemingly countless failures. Learn from both. Make your own decisions, be confident in your own skills (being right helps a lot), and it’s okay to be critical at times.