MJ's interview with Dr. Monica Vialpando: Inventor, Scientist, Yogi, Badass!
Making her way into the cannabis industry, Dr. Monica Vialpando not only holds a patent on technology to improve the solubility of drugs, but her development portfolio boasts cannabis products from sublingual tablets to dry powders to vape pens. For MJ Lifestyle’s Inaugural Issue I, we caught a glimpse into Monica’s progressive world in cannabis.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP WITH CANNABIS? HAVE YOU ALWAYS BEEN OPEN WITH CANNABIS CONSUMPTION AND ADVOCACY?
I started to use cannabis as a reward for getting homework done when I moved to the Bay Area for college. I also quickly realized that it helped me treat menstrual pain and nausea, so both medical and recreational products are very important to me and I want to have an impact on both. After college, I moved to Belgium to pursue my Ph.D. I missed the easy access to high-quality flower available in California (cannabis is still prohibited in Belgium although simple possession is decriminalized). I found myself taking over the counter painkillers for the kinds of issues I would have used cannabis for back at home. My knowledge of biosciences made me acutely aware of both the increased efficacy and the decreased risk (particularly in relation to the liver) cannabis poses to pain patients, and I think even back then I made a subconscious decision that at some point in my career I wanted to explore the potential of cannabinoids.
WHAT IS YOUR PROFESSIONAL BACKGROUND, HOW DID YOU FIND YOUR WAY TO THE CANNABIS SPACE?
I have a Ph.D. is in Pharmaceutical Sciences with a research focus on formulation of poorly water-soluble molecules. After graduation, I worked for major pharmaceutical companies in the US and Belgium, including Johnson and Johnson, where I helped develop new medicines and oversee clinical trials. I then had the opportunity to moving into vaping as Chief Scientific Officer for Liberty Flights, a major vaping company in the UK, where we designed and scale up a huge range of successful products. Even though the products I worked with at the time contained nicotine rather than cannabis, the knowledge I was able to build up there - particularly when you look at whether things are safe to inhale - is very relevant in today’s cannabis market where vaping is fast replacing smoking as the delivery mechanism of choice. I moved back to the Bay Area after that and spent 18 months or so at a major pharmaceutical company, but always with one eye on the development of cannabis products. As luck would have it, an old friend (Johanna Nuding, founder of Casually Baked) was also looking to get into the business. Together, we studied the endocannabinoid system and cannabinoids beyond THC. I quickly realized the scientific potential and need for more research so phased out of my pharmaceutics job and started Vialpando LLC.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR INVENTION IMPROVING THE SOLUBILITY OF DRUGS. WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO COME UP WITH THIS TECHNOLOGY?
There are an increasing number of poorly soluble compounds coming out of drug discovery - the process by which the medical industry develops new treatments. This leads to interesting challenges: if drugs are poorly soluble then they are not absorbed into the bloodstream very effectively and as a result they don’t work very well. For the last 20 years or so, the pharmaceutical industry has focused on how to overcome these challenges. As a result, there are now myriad solutions to the formulation challenges poorly soluble compounds pose - I’ve seen and worked on many of them over the years. However, given how slow the product development process is in the pharmaceutical world, very few products that utilize these techniques have actually come to market yet. And that’s where it gets interesting. Because cannabinoids are poorly soluble, these techniques that have been developed would work equally well in cannabis applications. But in cannabis, there’s no requirement for big expensive clinical trials to bring a product to market, which is right where it’s clear that a particular formulation doesn’t poses low risk to human health. So cannabis products can potentially utilize cutting edge Pharma-technology years or even decades before the pharmaceutical industry can, which is really exciting. My invention helps solve these problems using silica - it was in fact the subject of my PhD thesis.
HOW DID YOU LAND YOUR FIRST COMMISSIONED PROJECT IN CANNABIS?
The first product I worked on wasn’t actually designed for commerce but was born out of necessity. I’m a runner and a yoga instructor so I try to stay healthy, but an active lifestyle inevitably leads to some injuries. I was training for a half marathon about 18 months ago when I was hit by heel pain. I used a number of different over-the-counter creams to try and alleviate the pain and allow me to run, but found that cannabis applied to the skin was the best solution. Problem was, many of the products I bought were not as good as they could have been. Given how poorly soluble cannabinoids are, making a product that allows them to be absorbed through the skin is a complex technical challenge. I’ve been making my own skincare products for years and after a week or so, I knew I could do better. I worked with Johanna (of Casually Baked) and together we performed flower extractions ourselves in my kitchen, selected essential oils and natural absorption enhancers and produced a topical formulation that worked much better than what was commercially available. After that, a lot of companies asked whether they could commercialize the product. It was then that I realized that I had the opportunity to create a viable business that could genuinely accelerate the development of the cannabis industry by making products better.
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR FAVORITE PROJECT IN THE CANNABIS SPACE TO DATE?
One of the first projects I worked on was with Level. They’re a great company and what I really love about them is their holistic approach to the cannabis plant. They’re looking at all the different cannabinoids they can get and what they can do with them, which is refreshing in a market which is very heavy on THC and CBD but light on other cannabinoids. Together, we created sub-lingual tablets which immediately dissolve in the mouth without a foul taste and deliver a fast acting micro dose of whichever cannabinoid the user chooses. Tablets are available with delta-9-THC, delta-8-THC, CBD, CBG, THCA and THCV. The format - 3mg individual tablets - allows users to customize their ideal dose and ratio across cannabinoids while offering a more convenient, discreet and stable alternative to liquid tinctures. This project posed interesting formulation challenges. It is difficult to turn a sticky active cannabinoid into a free flowing powder that can be made into a tablet. That’s why most oral products on the market are gel capsules. To get to the kind of tablet design most people would recognize from traditional Western medicine - and the kind of design the Level products use - meant months of research and development. But the end result was worth it, because solid state tablets deliver cannabinoids much more effectively.
DID YOU EVER SEE YOURSELF DOING WHAT YOU ARE DOING 5 YEARS AGO? WHAT DID YOU DREAM OF BECOMING AS A YOUNG WOMAN?
I actually grew up dreaming of become an Ophthalmologist - although that dream was crushed when I discovered the cost of attending medical school! I found pharmaceutical science when looking at other scientific courses I could take at college and that has been my passion for the last 15 years.
WHERE DO YOU SEE VIALPANDO, LLC HEADED IN THE NEXT 5 YEARS? ANY BIG MISSIONS YOU WOULD LIKE TO TACKLE?
My goal in setting up the company was to improve how cannabis users experience the plant and its many active ingredients. We’ve already started this process and developed some IP that will give users - both medical and recreational - a better product. The tablets we developed for Level are a great example of that. Our vision is that in five years, we hope that when people go to their local dispensary, there will be a wide selection of well designed and engineered products for many different use cases; and we hope to have played a large part in making that happen.
YOU ARE ALSO A YOGA INSTRUCTOR. HOW DOES CANNABIS ENHANCE YOUR YOGA & MEDIATION PRACTICES?
My favorite studio in SF, Asta Yoga, has being doing ganja yoga for years. We joke that cannabis is one of the core principles of yoga, along with breathing, bandhas (energy locks), and dishti (gaze). Certain strains like Cherry Cheesecake and Lemon OG enhance my practice by reducing my chitta vritti (monkey mind) which allows me to simply flow and be in the now, which is the goal of yoga.
HOW IS EMPOWERING WOMEN SIGNIFICANT TO YOU? ANY PERSONAL EXPERIENCES YOU WOULD LIKE TO SHARE WITH MJ?
While I am very lucky to have a lifelong scientific mentor, I’ve always had trouble finding women to look up to in the scientific community. That’s why I appreciate the CA cannabis industry being so proactive about women empowerment and education. I think women need to realize the value that they add and should not worry about coming across as too assertive. The idea of empowering women is the driving force behind the work of organizations like Kikoko. They’ve really been ahead of the curve in creating products that female cannabis users find accessible and enjoyable.
HOW DO YOU RECOMMEND PEOPLE STORE THEIR FLOWER TO MAINTAIN FRESHNESS & POTENCY?
Clear plastic baggies are the absolute worst for your flower because they break the delicate trichomes that give it its flavor. I recommend UV-resistant glass jars with a Boveda humidity packet to maintain the optimum moisture.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN VAPING OIL AND VAPING FLOWER? ARE THERE BENEFITS OF ONE OVER THE OTHER? WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE VAPORIZER?
Actually, the most important distinction centers on where your vaping material - flower or concentrate - is sourced from. Have they been tested for pesticides? What about microbial testing. If you want to be more discreet, then oil is probably better; but you’re likely to feel the effects longer when you are vaping flower.
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON STANDARDIZATION? HOW CAN OUR MJ COMMUNITY GET INVOLVED IN THE PROCESS?
There’s a lot of misunderstanding about product standards. A lot of people still believe, wrongly, that it is about making everything the same. But it’s actually about having a framework for innovation. When a company in any industry puts a new batch of product on the market, they will have verified the quality of that product against a predefined batch release specification that is there to make sure standards are maintained as they relate to that product. Standardization essentially looks at what the key metrics are for those batch release specifications. When you know what the key quality metrics are - i.e. what makes a product that you and your customers are happy with - you then have a framework within which you can innovate and improve your products. That’s critical at this stage of the development of the industry. We’ve had some initial conversations with the American National Standards Institute, who have set up a technical committee to work on these issues. I’d encourage anyone wanting to get involved to reach out to them.
GIRL!!! THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR SHARING YOUR KNOWLEDGE AND EXPERTISE WITH US!! HOW CAN THE MJ COMMUNITY SUPPORT YOU AND YOUR MISSION?
Demand more from what you buy. So many products are successfully marketed just because they contain cannabis, but there’s no real technology there that you couldn’t put together in your bathroom.
Consumers need to demand better from their chosen brands and drive innovation from the bottom.