Niccolo Aieta Of Spherex Gives An Engineer’s View Into Cannabis Extraction In Five Qs – Forbes

 Niccolo Aieta, Chief Technology Officer // Credit: Spherex

Niccolo Aieta

Niccolo Aieta, Chief Technology Officer // Credit: Spherex

Warren Bobrow=WB: Where are you from? Why cannabis? What propelled you on this journey? What are the highlights so far?

 Niccolo Aieta=NA: I live in Colorado now, but I was born in Northern California  and spent my formative years outside of Los Angeles.  

My first foray into cannabis was the early 2000s in Northern California, under prop 215. It was a completely different ballgame. I was a teenager in a backwoods industry where I sold weed, rolled joints and sourced cannabis for a medical dispensary. 

I went to Sonoma State University and graduated with a major in Environmental Studies and Planning, with a focus on Energy Management and Design. I then moved to Colorado where I earned my Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden. My focus was hydrogen fuel cell technology research.

I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in chemical engineering because I was passionate about climate change (I still am) and I wanted to work on renewable energy and energy storage solutions, which required an advanced degree. After I received my doctorate in 2010, I worked for five years at the federal National Renewable Energy Laboratory with a stint managing its Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center. Meanwhile, the rules of the game for cannabis had changed enough that it looked safe to venture back in. Because of my expertise in chemical engineering, I founded an extraction company, Spherex, in 2015. My colleagues and I had done the math and saw we could do CO2 extraction better than the operators around us and make more money doing it. At the time, extractors in Colorado were buying cannabis trim for roughly $100 per pound and producing 25 grams of extract per pound. Spherex was able to produce 65 grams of refined extract per pound, which radically altered profit margins.

Spherex's PHYX THC sparkling water // Credit: Spherex

Spherex’s PHYX THC sparkling water // Credit: Spherex

Copyright 2019. All rights reserved. Spherex’s PHYX THC sparkling water // Credit: Spherex

Technical efficiency however, is not the end-all, be-all in this space. We were increasingly interested in making top-level cannabis extract products, improving customer experience and entering the consumer packaged goods space. Spherex started with the simple goal of increasing output, but we saw so many areas that could be improved and expanded upon, including creating innovative cannabis products. Financially, there was so much opportunity. We felt like we had the right people at just the right moment in time. And our skill set was ideal: Cannabis needed hard science, so this was a place where we could shine.

We’ve created a new cool delivery method with PHYX, our THC-infused sparkling water, made with proprietary nano-encapsulation technology. I describe the nano-encapsulation technology to people outside of the industry as basically figuring out how to actually mix oil and water.

WB: Tell me about your company? What’s next for Spherex and the PHYX brand?

NA: We like to think of Spherex and the PHYX brand as cannabis for all people. Some people love the mind-altering, psychedelic effects of a dab, while others want a mellower experience or to alter their mood in a more subtle way. People from all walks of life have many different things they want from cannabis, and all those wants are legitimate. We want to provide those different degrees of experience for everybody.

Spherex made its mark early in this space because of our efficiency and scale. We always knew we could make superior extracts in an efficient way. But over time, we’ve improved our vape hardware, and revised our brand marketing and packaging. Currently we are focused on strategic expansions into emerging markets. 

WB: Do you cook? If so, what is your favorite thing to prepare? Who taught you? What’s your favorite restaurant? Where? What’s your favorite restaurant? Where? 

Niccolo Aieta, Chief Technology Officer // Credit: Spherex

Niccolo Aieta, Chief Technology Officer // Credit: Spherex

Niccolo Aieta, Chief Technology Officer // Credit: Spherex

NA: I do cook—I make a great breakfast and I bake a mean chocolate chip cookie. I’m more of a coffee nerd though. I’m always on a quest for that perfect espresso, figuring out just the right grind, beans, temperatures and ratios. 

I really got into coffee as a kid because I was a troublemaker, and to make it up to my parents when I misbehaved I would prepare cappuccinos for them with their super-basic 1980s Krups machine. By the age of 10, I was the home barista.

Spherex has always had great office coffee. Back in the day, part of the Spherex tour was our elaborate espresso setup. We’d ask potential investors touring the facility to try making an espresso with our top-of-the-line espresso maker. It usually didn’t turn out well, which proved our point that just because you have expensive equipment doesn’t mean you can make a great product; you need training and experience. It’s the same with espresso as it is with cannabis extract. 

My favorite places for coffee in Denver are Aviano, Little Owl and Huckleberry Roasters. My favorite restaurants are Annette, Tavernetta and Mister Oso

WB: What obstacles have you had to overcome when expanding your business? How do you propose removing those obstacles? What market do you most want to enter next? Why?

NA: Two issues come to mind: First, regulatory obstacles, which cloud everything. Banking, shipping, sourcing—cannabis regs are just kind of a mess for multi-state operators. It’s a common complaint in this space that there are just so many layers of regulation that stop cannabis businesses from accessing basic business services. When it comes to solving regulatory challenges, it’s a team effort. Our company identified banking as a need early on, we worked hard on it and we got it, but we know we have to remain compliant and diligent to keep the bank account.

The second is education. Most people get their cannabis education from “bro science.” Everyone has heard the mango anecdote: “Eat mango when you smoke, and you’ll get even higher!” But is that even true? So much of how we talk about cannabis comes from that underground anecdotal wisdom, but shouldn’t we actually figure out these things scientifically? It is important to educate the public in ways that don’t belittle people or shut down their questions and curiosity. It’s an obstacle, but also an opportunity for some good re-education. 

In terms of education, we’re working with a public relations agency to help us hone our message around our special products. We are offering a look at the science behind Spherex that people can delve into if they’re interested, but we want people to be able to understand the products and how they are made without having to learn a ton of extra science. 

Spherex has grown to become one of the largest CO2 extraction companies in Colorado and we are working on strategic expansion into emerging markets—particularly the Midwest and Canada—but we always wanted to first build a rock-solid business, not establish an empire and be overextended.

WB: If you could be anywhere in the world, right now—where would that be? Doing what? With whom?

NA: It depends! Most of the time I’d be in Denver, doing exactly what I’m doing. But sometimes it would be nice if I could snap my fingers and magically be in Arizona or Italy, riding my bike. 

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