Swiss cannabis management software company Cannavigia, whose product is currently being utilised by cultivators and across the Swiss pilot programmes, recently announced that it had hired a new Chief Commercial Officer (CCO), Timo Bongartz.
As Switzerland’s cannabis trial gathers pace and other European countries look towards its model for inspiration, we spoke to Timo about Cannavigia’s role in the programme, why data is so essential for the future of cannabis and where the industry’s key pain points currently lie.
Hi Timo, congratulations on the new role. Where were you working before Cannavigia and what drew you to the cannabis industry?
In previous jobs I worked in the world of digital, transferring companies’ business models into the digital realm.
In 2015 I was recruited by German lighting company OSRAM because of my love of horticulture. I was an innovation manager, so essentially an ‘intrapreneur’ tasked with starting a horticultural arm.
We came to the decision that we needed to do an M&A to grow and participate in the upcoming boom in horticulture, and this brought me to LED lighting specialist Fluence.
The cannabis space was growing at this time, coming out of nowhere, becoming legal. The market then was used to growing in basements where it’s hot and there’s not a lot of space. LED lighting gives you the advantage of running cooler, being closer to the crop.
The cannabis growers had the willingness to pay the money, the willingness to accept new technology, so we knew we wanted to go into cannabis with LED lighting. The US was the biggest market, which made it easy for us to target Fluence.
So, then, I was responsible for the acquisition of Fluence and post-merger integration, and thereafter took over the role as general manager for Europe, Middle East and Africa. Later on Fluence was acquired by Signify.
After spending five years in this role, I learned a lot because LED technology in this vertical was totally new.
A big majority of my business was cannabis, for sure, but I also worked with growers of cucumbers, tomatoes, orchids, and roses. I saw and learned a lot which can also be applied for cannabis cultivation.
I felt I wanted to go back to my roots, which are digital business models. With Cannavigia I found the perfect link between wanting to do something digital and wanting to stay in cannabis.
What role do you think software and data companies such as Cannavigia are set to play in the European cannabis market moving forward?
Joining the team now is the perfect time because everyone understands that they need to get their operations and costs under control – because they’re not getting as much for their flower as they once did.
So, I think it’s becoming more and more clear to growers that a management platform is required to get better control over their operation, and with that, drive more process efficiency and product.
In horticulture, you have high turnover; people come and go. If you leave your processes in the hands of single individuals, you leave your business at risk, so you need a system supporting it.
Another aspect is in the big medical cannabis markets like Germany, where you have over 150 cultivars in pharmacies. A big portion of these will be there for the first time and maybe one time only.
Why? Because the cultivators have not enough stability in the final product, so they don’t meet the spec, and then they cannot bring their product to market. And neither the cultivators, nor the patients, nor the pharmacy selling it, nor the distributor want one-hit wonders.
Additionally, as more companies get GACP and GMP certification to open themselves up to new markets, the amount of documentation you need to write with a management system drops easily by 50% because it forces you to work according to this operating procedure.
Cannavigia has a 10-year contract with the Swiss government, which will see it collect data throughout its numerous pilot projects. How important is this in moving the industry forward?
Investors have partly lost trust in the industry, in my point of view mostly because of big companies over-promising and under-delivering. So, right now we need to build back trust, and a big part of this is evidence-based facts and figures.
Personally, I think it’s commonly known that I’m an advocate for cannabis legalisation, or at least a change in how we do drug policy.
But to convince society, whom we’ve told all these years that cannabis is bad and horrible and suddenly legalise, we cannot make a regime change like that. We need to take them on a journey – it’s a transition.
And, to do that, you need to show proof and you need to show evidence because, otherwise, there will always be an anecdote or a horror story to tell to kill all rational discussion.
Data is always a strong argument, and that is why I really like how the Swiss government, but also the German, Dutch and Czech governments are doing it.
You isolate the topic, and then you have the ammunition and arguments with data to back them up as to why you want to do it.
If the main objective of these governments is to suppress the black market, protect minors and ensure quality, then we need the data to prove it’s working.
With your overview of the supply chain, what other key pain points do you see in the industry currently?
One is talent. If you go into farming you need a green thumb, you need to be good at tech, and you need to be a good manager of people. It’s a diverse skill set.
I think some of these challenges you can take away by providing better tools. Head growers are currently overburdened with administration tasks, and they can be really helped by better management systems.
Another key point is the lack of clarity with regulation, and that is always an issue if customers base their business model on hope.
Cannavigia does help with compliance, GACP and so on, but actually we are a management system. We are supporting operations which is helpful for all different stakeholder levels in an organisation.
For CEOs and CFOs who want to bring down operational costs and increase their topline, we can ensure compliance so they can address new markets, and ensure that every batch makes it onto the market with process and product stability.
For team managers, we can derisk high staff turnover. We can add task management allocation. For the cultivation team itself, we can help with track and trace and to organise their daily routine.
It’s important that businesses should not see compliance as a burden. It’s our goal to help them make this easier, and understand that they should want to be compliant because they can address more markets and get a stable product which is benefiting their business and main KPIs.