Power Players

Power Players: Monica Vialpando on Product Innovation

By Alex Halperin
Jul 19, 2020
Monica Vialpando Photographed by Jennifer Skog

Before starting her cannabis science company, Monica Vialpando Ph.D. spent much of her career in pharmaceuticals. Now her start-up Via Innovations seeks to bring the rigors of that industry to the development of novel cannabis products. 

For this week’s Power Players interview, we discussed how cannabis products can improve, the promise of transdermal patches and whether predictable REC products will ever arrive.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

From Founder to CEO

WeedWeek:    Tell us about yourself and VIA.

Monica Vialpando: My background is in pharmaceutical sciences and my career focus has been on drug product formulation, with an emphasis on solubilizing poorly water-soluble drugs. In pharma there’s an increasing number of compounds that do not dissolve in water. That’s a challenge from a drug delivery standpoint in terms of dosing, efficacy, drug delivery and design. Cannabinoids, which are also water insoluble, face similar challenges. I started Via Innovation to apply my pharmaceutical formulation experience to cannabis-based products. 

I also spent a significant portion of my career working on various inhaled products including electronic cigarettes regulations in the U.K.. So I made the leap from a very regulated pharmaceutical environment to an unregulated e-cigarette environment. After doing that, I missed the product formulation portion of my scientific interests. And so I started formulating natural products in my kitchen by still applying some more savvy scientific techniques.

I also teach a Loyalist College in their applied cannabis research program. I created their cannabis formulation course. [My work] has grown into this really fun scientific hub. It’s been exciting to see the company transition from ‘Alright let’s just do some consulting, some product formulation,’ all the way to, ‘We’re developing novel IP, we’re differentiating into our own brand, in our own voice.’ I’m turning from a founder to a CEO.

WW: You’re developing your own products now?

MV: We will be. We have custom formulations that we developed with clients. Sometimes there’s IP that comes out of that. Sometimes [we own some or all of it and might be able to help, for example, to make your gummy fast acting.

But in addition to that, we’re also offering ready-made products. These are going to be differentiated products, scientifically thought through with the same care and attention to detail that we do in all of our formulations. The difference is they’re not going to have any formulation technology built inside of them. So you can’t make them water soluble.

As a result, you can’t do the fun doses there (e.g. fast acting), but for a lot of these products, it’s not necessary. As an example, this would be like a face serum. That’s a nice oil-based formulation. You don’t need technology, you need quality ingredients and efficacy. So that’s how we’re differentiating and branching off in that regard.

“Transdermal is really interesting”

WW: Can you give an example of some of the kinds of projects you’re working on and the kinds of things that you think clients are interested in these days?

MV: Right now we’re working on a major transdermal project with Papa and Barkley. Unfortunately, because of COVID our lab is still pretty much closed. But transdermal is really interesting, especially with rosin, which is what Papa and Barkley use. It’s very difficult in that it’s a full spectrum product so there’s a lot of compounds that we need to get through the skin, and they’re not designed to be absorbed through the skin.

WW: Are they intoxicating products?

MV: For a transdermal patch, it can be, depending on the user. but you have to consider the bioavailability: the extent and rate to which the cannabis gets absorbed is not very high transdermally. Once you achieve transdermal permeation, there’s a low and steady delivery of that dose. 

It’s not going to be like oh my gosh, I just took an edible. There’s always outliers though. So that’s why the dose, your tolerance, your age, your endocannabinoid system all play a role. So it can be in, but these things are generally, very difficult to achieve. Topicals will not get you high. 

We’ve also partnered with a company called Divios Naturals, on a sunscreen where we demonstrated the use of cannabinoids to increase the UV absorption and therefore resulted in a higher SPF number.

So we offer that as a CBD only, and a CBD and THC ratios. And through this research, we also found that cannabinoids, as expected, will interact with the skin differently in different ways. we are going deeper into that regard because that just opens up a lot of understanding for others, some topical based formulations. So we’re quite heavily involved in the topical delivery route. Then on the oral delivery route, where the bulk of my PhD research involved different ways to control and tailor your dose.

What do consumers want?

WW: I don’t question the brains and hard work that goes into some innovative cannabis products, but I wonder if they matter to consumers. Certain buzzwords like bioavailability or fast acting, even if they work as promised, there’s so many folks making similar claims that it seems almost impossible for these products to really sort of gain traction on the merits with consumers. Do you agree?

MV: Absolutely. Yeah. I get very frustrated. That’s why I do so much education, especially on our Instagram page. People don’t know what they don’t know. There’s sometimes too many claims. There’s limitations and pros and cons to everything. And, do I say Via Innovations  technologies the best one for every product? No, it’s a fit for purpose strategy and design. 

That’s where most manufacturers are missing the mark. Our products take much longer to develop because we’re generating data to demonstrate to show, for example, that I’m increasing the SPF value. We’re a pharmaceutically inspired company, so we go beyond what’s required to demonstrate efficacy and safety, because that’s where the industry is going. 

WW:    What’s your thinking on products that could create a lot of excitement around consumers. What do consumers want that isn’t available yet?

MV:    I would say more of the consistency in experience and dose contol.Of control as in fast acting, or long-lasting, sleep formulations, you want those as controlled formulation. 

Also, more variety of offerings. There’s a real lack of products that appeal to women and we are major shoppers. 

Is the ‘Holy Grail’ here yet?

WW:    Controlling the experience is sometimes called the holy grail or whatnot. Are we anywhere close on that?

MV:    It’s depends on what you’re trying to treat. There’s, variabilities throughout the entire process. We’re dealing with a plant, which in itself is quite variable. Then, I can have the most tightly controlled formulation, but the variability in humans ranges, especially with cannabis. It doesn’t follow this typical dose response like a pharmaceutical compound. That makes it extra challenging to understand, and because our individual endocannabinoid systems are so variable, you can’t just assume that another woman, my age with the same body weight and height is going to have the exact same experiences I have. It doesn’t necessarily work that way.

    On more of the biological side, we need to have a better understanding of the interactions of the cannabinoids. There’s a lot of research underway right now. I’m absolutely thrilled. The more scientists that make the leap, the faster this will go. But if you think about specific areas like pain, epilepsy, insomnia, we’re much further ahead than with other conditions like Crohn’s disease. It depends what you’re trying to treat.

WW:    What about like, just the recreational experience? This is an evergetic product, this is a chill product. Could you theoretically conduct a real study or even a more casual study that shows a meaningful differentiation in recreational product experience?

MV:There’s a lot of interesting work being done in product formulations. Where the bulk of it is, is on these technologies to improve water solubility. Cause once you get over that hump, then you can start playing with these controlled effects. Now the majority of the scientists are looking into nano emulsion technology, which is one strategy. But I also see other groups publishing other technologies and other findings, in academia. So it’s, it’s absolutely underway. It’s just it, research and development takes time. And especially the number of doors closed in my face because we’re a cannabis company. If I’m just trying to source like very standard lab equipment makes it slows down this process, but it is absolutely happening.

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