Welcome back Budz! I am your host, Ry Russell and today I am excited to introduce you to the CEO of Sorting Robotics, Nohtal Partansky. As an Aerospace Engineer, he shares his experience working at NASA and what led him and his business partners to venture out on their own to create their own robotics company and their journey into the Cannabis space. Their new technology helps create infused products with more efficacy and efficiency than ever before. Nohtal and his team are on a mission to reduce the repetitive tasks that are slowing down innovation within the cannabis industry. Tune in and join our conversation.
Guest – Nohtal Partansky CEO, Sorting Robotics
Host: Ry Russell
WeedBudz RadioSupport the show
Hey, budz, it’s your best bud Ry here.
And I’m excited to talk to you all today because
as some of you may remember, back in the pandemic
when everything was a little chaotic, I started working on
a number of different podcast shows, and one of
those shows was called IOT Idols Innovators to Watch.
And I got to explore the world of
innovation through automation and kind of what these
different engineers and innovators were kind of bringing
to make life better and make life easier.
And that was extremely fascinating.
And as time goes on in the cannabis industry and
you see manufacturers coming online more and more
and more unique products, I started to kind of look and ask,
where is automation coming into the cannabis industry?
When is it coming?
And lo and behold, it is always easy to
find on LinkedIn and the little universe we’ve created
here because our good friend Mike Mejer from Green
Lane Communication introduced us to our next guest.
So I’m really excited to talk about this with
somebody that knows a thing or two about it.
It’s so great for you to join us on WeedBudz Radio.
Thank you very much, Ry.
Yeah, I’m interested to be a part
of the series of innovators and automation.
Yeah, it’s so exciting.
And obviously two passions of mine are
cannabis and technology, and you are kind
of where cannabis and technology collide.
And so for those that don’t know, it’s fascinating to
think that your career has kind of been all over
the place and a very entrepreneurial journey, if you will,
but not necessarily a traditional entrepreneurs journey.
I was wondering if you don’t mind sharing
a little bit about your journey into kind
of what brought us here today. Yeah, sure. No worries.
I guess I don’t know what
a traditional entrepreneur’s journey might be.
I’ve talked to a few of them.
They’re kind of always all over the place, right?
But my background is in aerospace engineering, so
I have a master’s degree in aerospace engineering.
I worked at NASA JPL, the
NASA Research Center in Los Angeles.
And I actually worked on a project
that is currently on the surface of
Mars producing oxygen, and it’s called Moxie.
So I was the lead mechanical engineer
on the heart of that instrument.
And then also I did a lot of work
on the overall architecture, and that was awesome.
But as you might assume, NASA is kind of a
heavily bureaucratic sort of environment, and it moves very slow,
and it can be kind of frustrating sometimes.
And so me and my co founder that was also working
at NASA at the time, we wanted to kind of strike
it out on our own and then build this robotics company.
So we picked up our third co founder,
who was doing his PhD in computer vision,
and we said, all right, let’s build robots.
And the first robot we made was
actually a robot that sorted Magic the
Gathering cards or Pokemon cards, trading cards.
And that was pretty cool.
It was super valuable to the industry that it
was in that industry was just very small.
So it sorted the cards.
Yeah, actually you’d put in a thousand cards and
we started with Magic the Gathering and then
eventually went to Pokemon and Yugioh.
But you would put in a thousand cards.
There’d be a camera that went over the cards.
It would scan them, cross reference them to an
online database of over a hundred thousand unique cards,
accurately identify what it was, what set it was, what variable,
kind of promo, small detail card.
And then it would take those thousand cards and
it would do whatever type of sorting you wanted.
So did you want to get all
the expensive cards out of that pile? It could do that.
Did you want to sort them by alphabet? It could do that.
Did you want to sort it by edition, set, rarity?
It could do that.
And then after it sorted, it would upload
that database to the online store of these
sellers and basically eliminate 80% of the labor
that these people who sold online would do.
It was really cool.
It was like probably one
of our most sophisticated robots.
And yes, that was kind of
the first thing we started with.
So what did you do after that?
So after that we then got into
a startup accelerator called Y Combinator.
Kind of a fancy sort of venture arm
with a business development program behind it.
If you don’t mind, Nohtal
why is that specific program so valuable?
Because those that are listening might
not necessarily know kind of what’s
all entailed with something like that. Yeah.
So Y Combinator is commonly referred to as the
Harvard of Silicon Valley because it was the first
startup accelerator kind of like built that model.
And that model is basically they give you a
bunch of money to invest and then they kind
of help you develop your business model.
And a bunch of the biggest companies in the world
have gone through it like Airbnb, Dropbox, DoorDash, Instacart, kind
of these companies that are very common now.
They started with like three guys in
this business development program.
That’s amazing and it’s hard to get into.
So congratulations. Super hard.
Yeah, I think the acceptance rate is
less than 1% or something like that.
Yeah, so we got into that and we said, okay,
we want to use this network of all these founders
and these investors to find a bigger market.
And so after kind of scouring the different industries of
what’s a good place to put our efforts behind, we
found that cannabis just really didn’t have a lot of
automation and it was very manual and very labor intensive
and a lot of these big companies weren’t even looking
at it or even trying to service the industry because
of its federal status.
So living in the gray is where startups kind of thrive.
And we said, okay, cool, we have a positive
disposition towards the plant, and we like robots, so
this sounds like a good path forward.
And so then, boom, that’s what got us into cannabis.
And that was kind of the
small journey into the cannabis ecosystem.
And then we’ve been doing a
bunch of weird stuff since then.
So before we talk about the cannabis and the weird stuff,
can you tell me a little bit about what is it
like being cannabis positive in a very federal environment?
You mean like when I was working at NASA? Yeah.
I didn’t smoke any weed when I worked at NASA.
Yeah, I was pretty low key because they can do
drug testing and stuff like that, and you also don’t
want to be caught with your pants down.
So I would say me and my kind
of engineering friends while we’re there, kind of
took a sabbatical from cannabis during that time.
Sure. You clearly had experimented with it
prior to your experience with NASA.
So leaving, because I was kind of trying to
wrap my mind around how does a systems engineer
at NASA get in the cannabis space?
Yeah, I mean, it was like kind of those steps, right?
It was like moving from NASA to doing robots
for small industry and then small industry to big
industry in cannabis is a bunch of kind of
non sequiturs to get to where we are.
And you said as soon as we kicked off
that there’s not necessarily one true standard entrepreneurial journey,
if you will, because my background is very media
heavy and very marketing focused and consumer experience and
found my way into the cannabis industry, bringing all
of those skills together.
And again, those steps don’t necessarily make sense looking at
them individually one by one, but it’s really easy to
kind of see how we got here when you look
at it in the rear view mirror.
And so I’m fascinated, when you looked at the cannabis
space, did you have an idea of where you thought
we needed help in terms of automation, or was that
a journey in a process in and of itself?
Yeah, that was also a bit of a
journey because I didn’t actually know anything about
the cannabis industry when I first started.
I mean, I knew I liked weed.
That was kind of where it began, right.
And when we got into the industry, we
kind of had to experiment quite a bit
to understand really where the pain points were.
And a big part of that was helping set
up a co packing facility in Oakland and actually
running that and participating in that process of running
a plant touching facility that would co pack with
some bay area clients and also act as like
R and D for this highly controlled substance.
And that process is really what taught me
and our team exactly what’s needed in the
space because we started building for cannabis manufacturers,
and then we were kind of participating in
the knowledge gathering of this cannabis manufacturer.
And so we kind of became
the customer to know the customer.
And then that’s where all these
problems started becoming very apparent.
Like, when you’re actually in the operations and you’re in the
day to day, you’re like, oh, wow, this is crap.
Wow, that doesn’t make any sense.
Is there any solution for this? No. Okay.
Let me talk to my customers
or other people in the industry. Do they know? No. Okay.
Well, there’s like, no answers to this.
Very surprising, because this industry is huge, and it’s getting
bigger and bigger, but there’s like, these huge gaps, and
that really served as, like, a good launching point for
our current products that we launched now and the product
roadmap that we have moving forward.
That’s amazing because I think of the cultivator specifically
and the processors and manufacturers, there’s a lot of
opportunity for automation when you look at it on
the surface and having really kind of my origin
of my career being manufacturing, I’ve seen incredible equipment
automate some of the most mundane tasks.
And one of the things that I really love
the most doing research for this episode was on
your LinkedIn page, you wrote, I want a world
where all repetitive labor tasks are done autonomously.
Then people can find or can utilize their
efforts on helping others and being creative.
And I thought that was really powerful because there’s
an argument so often, well, if you just automate
all of this stuff, what about my labor?
What about my staff?
I don’t want them to go anywhere.
So I get what you’re saying, but what do
you say to the argument of, well, some of
this equipment could automate thirty, forty jobs?
That LinkedIn post is kind of like
an overarching ethos of mine, right.
But when it comes to practicality of the automation,
especially in the cannabis industry, and how it’s kind
of hyper fragmented in these different states, if you
talk actually with these manufacturers, they’re not firing their
people when they buy equipment.
They’re just actually using them
for higher value add tasks.
Because really the problem that these people are
having is not that they want to automate
jobs and then fire all their staff. No.
It’s that they can’t even find
enough people to do the jobs.
That’s the big problem.
It’s not having the workforce of the labor
because people don’t want to do these jobs.
Extremely hard to hire.
I mean, I even ran into that issue
myself with the co packing facility up north.
It was very hard to hire for some of these kind
of simple tasks because people don’t want to do it.
There’s a very few amount of people that
want to sit down and pack prerolls all
day or pack concentrate jars all day.
It’s extremely tedious.
It’s super boring.
And when you do find them.
You actually can’t have them do that all day.
You have to vary the tasks throughout the
day because otherwise they get super slow.
They get really grumpy because those jobs suck.
People will do them because they need to, but
it’s the responsibility of the employer to make it
not a nightmare for the employees to do it.
And as you know, the industry in the United
States is moving more towards a knowledge worker basis.
I think it makes a lot of sense to automate
those jobs that the manufacturers are having difficulty filling.
It’s not that they want to fire a bunch of people.
They can’t even hire the people they need.
So that’s kind of where that
comes from in a practical sense.
I appreciate that argument very much because the more and
more I talk to cultivators, you’re right, they need fifty
trimmers, but there’s only twenty five that are hireable, and their
capacity is now limited to man hours.
Where to your point, it’s, well, maybe those twenty five
trimmers that they do have could be out generating
revenue rather than sitting at a desk trimming weed.
I guess that when you put it that way.
That seems to make a lot of sense on paper.
Another point that you made
is just that repetitive task. Right?
The boredom sets in.
Agitation can kind of set in.
And when I first started my career, I worked at
a medical manufacturing facility for diagnostic kits and eight hours
putting pipettes into a kit or putting cotton swabs into
a kit or filling vials, and it’s just it was
the same thing all day, day in and day out.
And eventually there was a really big shift to kind
of cross train and get people, and it made the
nights go by so much faster when you’re learning something
new and you’re applying yourself in different ways.
So I like just that example there because even in the
retail side, you could be cutting flyers or labeling, and it
just becomes so tedious that you kind of have to shake
it up in order to get the maximum output because there’s
no point in labeling when you’re just doing one at a
time versus when you’re kind of going at it. Right.
And you’ve got a flow going.
So that makes a lot of sense, and the
more that I think are there’s so many applications.
So I know you have a machine right now
to help with infused blunts and prerolls, correct?
Yeah, that’s called our Jiko robot.
Okay, so tell me a little bit about that.
Yeah, so that’s an idea that we got
from participating in that co packing facility directly.
A customer came to us, said, hey, we want to
do some infused payrolls, kind of in the fuzzy style,
and this is back in 2020, and when infused prerolls
in California were kind of just becoming a little bit
trendy, they were still very small part of the market,
and they asked us to do this job.
They gave us all this kief.
They gave us all this distillate.
They gave us stuff to make the prerolls.
We made the prerolls. It’s easy.
Then when we did the infusion
part, we were painting them.
We followed these SOPs that they gave us
but it ended up being extremely messy, both
in interaction with the customer because we ended
up using too much kief and running out.
And then the distillate was super messy and
kind of literally all over the place and
it just wasn’t a good process.
And, I mean, we did try to do a very
good job of it, but the spillage rates and all
that kind of methodology just didn’t really make sense.
And so since that labor was so high and that
spillage was so high, I kind of went back on
the robotic side and said, let’s just make a method
of infusing that is not just kind of cosmetic.
It looks cool, but actually
is functionally a better product.
And in a manufacturing kind of
gross margin sense is less spillage.
So you save on your material input costs.
And in some of these markets, it’s extremely expensive
and less labor, which in every market is expensive.
And that’s another thing that people
just don’t want to do, right?
People don’t want to sit there and paint
prerolls with distillate and then roll them in
kief. Yeah, it’s not a great thing.
It’s not a great job.
And so that’s when we made the Jiko and
basically just injects prerolls and blunts with concentrate, making
a column of concentrate down the center and turns
it from just like a regular preroll and kind
of into like a little dirty dab rig where you
have this cherry on the end vaporizing all this
concentrate, kind of smooths out the smoke.
You get that full terpene profile when you do
things like live raws and injections, and then you
can start mixing and matching and making designer joints,
which is not something you can do these days.
Can you do more solid type concentrates as well
as the distillates and batters are going to be
a little bit more runny, whereas the sugars and
the rocks and sauce are going to have a
little bit more of those solid factors to them.
Does that machine allow for both or does it
have to be more kind of the liquid side?
So it has to be able to become a liquid.
What happens after it’s a liquid kind
of changes depending on what it is.
So if you’re using a distillate after you
inject it, it’s still going to be basically
a liquid, just like a hard liquid.
However, if you’re using a batter or maybe
like a non pen stable rosin, after you
inject it, it turns into like a crystal.
So you can do these injections and when it cools
down, it cools down into like a crystalline structure.
And that’s what is really bad.
If you put it in a vape
cart because then it can’t burn.
But if you put it inside of a joint, it’s perfect.
It’s kind of like you’re getting that little dab.
So, yeah, I mean, it has to melt down.
You can’t, like, put in just kief, right?
You can’t inject kief because that’s like
a solid granular type of thing.
But we’ve seen people do like, hash rosin where that
is kind of this oily, mushy sort of dough, and
then you melt it down so it becomes runny.
And then you can inject it
into the joints or the blunts.
And then when it cools down, it goes back into
that same form that kind of like gooey dough form.
And that will dose based off of weight, I assume.
So doses by viscosity and time.
So we’re basically doing like a time based
dosage because the range of materials is so
large, kind of this constant pressure pushing, it
decreases the chance for you to accidentally create
cavitation in the system by pulling a vacuum.
And if you pull a vacuum, sometimes your batters or
your shatters or your sugars that you’ve melted down.
So we do sugars and stuff. You just have to melt it down
so there’s no more crystals left.
But if you do that and then you pull a
vacuum on it, it can sometimes actually create bubbles.
It actually causes it to decarboxylate.
And so this way we actually just provide a
constant pressure and just push it through the system.
That’s very cool.
So when you are doing this and
you’re working in this facility and you’re
seeing the opportunities, was there any regulatory
issues that come up when you’re manufacturing
equipment to manufacture these schedule 1 drugs?
Well, I mean, we don’t have any of the
schedule 1 drugs in our robotics facility because we’re
not licensed and that’s I don’t really want to
get rated or something like that.
We just have hemp and like Delta-8,
which is legal, and hemp is super legal.
So we have that documentation on staff ready to go.
But on the plant touching side, we would
deploy our machines to that co packing facility
to really run a real life scenario.
Because infusing hemp with Delta-8 is
very different than infusing THC joints with
like a rosin or like, a batter
because that material consistency is different.
The way it affects and response
to heat is super different.
It’s just just like so different.
So when we were doing kind of the final phase of
testing that last six months, it was in the field.
So I know, like in Maine, for example, the regulators
cannot seem to figure out once you infuse a
preroll, do you measure it as a flower product?
Do you measure it as a concentrate product?
So I was curious how that is working
in some of the markets that you’ve seen,
because obviously it becomes a manufactured product.
But I’m just trying to forward think here because
Maine doesn’t have this yet because they don’t know
how to tax it or how to regulate it.
So have you heard about that in other markets
where you haven’t been able to infuse products?
And do you have an idea of kind of why?
There’s some places where the infusion
of products is highly regulated or
segmentated from different operators.
So I know in Oklahoma, like a farm can’t
infuse, you need specifically like a processing license.
And then when it comes to how you’re going
to quantify the joint in California and in Michigan,
they quantify all of them as infused, as joints.
They’re just joints with more THC
or whatever inside of them.
And I know that right now, on the possible ballot
or a ballot like decision tree on how to tax
things in New York, they’re actually trying to connect the
taxes to the THC percentage, which I think would be
insane and make no sense whatsoever in terms of regulations
of infused products and just things in general.
They’re kind of all over the place.
And it’s honestly extremely confusing where they
even get these ideas from.
I’m confused just thinking about that.
How do you tax on the percent?
Like, would alcohol be taxed on the percentage? Right.
No, because then effectively you
deincentivize a variability of products, right?
And it’d be very different because everyone in
every state is like chasing THC percentage.
Like, can we make a preroll that’s 50% THC?
It’s like, yeah, you could.
I’m not sure if it would be good, but you could, right?
And people are kind of buying off that
notion because everyone is still getting educated on
the market on what matters in a preroll
or what matters in a cannabis product.
And yes, if they did that, that
would kind of fuck it up.
I think it wouldn’t make any sense.
We have Budz Emporium our adult
use store here in Maine.
We have a kief infused preroll that is
37 and a half percent, and that’s the
highest product we have thus far anyway.
But again, looking at when these types of
products come to market, I think that they’re
just going to be a huge opportunity here.
Speaking of huge opportunity, one I would like
to ask is this machine and this equipment,
is this something that’s readily available for cultivators
and processors to buy right now, or is
this within your facility right now?
The Jiko unit?
Oh, no, it’s ready to buy all over the country.
So we’ve sold ones everywhere.
We sold a few in Canada.
We sold to Michigan,
Washington, Oregon, Oklahoma, Massachusetts.
Now we’re basically focusing on a lot of
those emerging markets, like New York, Ohio, these
kind of places that are starting to come
online and getting their feet wet.
And they want to start with automated systems because
they kind of see what everyone else started with
when they had an army of people and they’re
like, yeah, I don’t really want to do that.
Let’s take some lessons, learn from the other states.
Yeah, like I said, I can’t wait until we have it here.
So we’ll have to get one of your
units to Maine at some point, I hope.
My last question for you.
You saw the opportunity in the
cannabis space for this unit.
I’m curious, would your peripheral kind
of seen some other areas?
Because I think of trimming
right? And just preroll packing.
There’s already equipment there, but there’s not,
at least to my knowledge, nothing like
true scale full automation yet.
But that’s just kind of what my
simple mind sees as low hanging fruit.
Do you have any kind of other thoughts of just
ways that this industry can automate and become more efficient?
Yeah, I mean, one thing that we built and just
launched recently is a kind of vape filling machine, which
isn’t special so much as there are other machines around.
What I think we have taken the approach as is
to kind of build a platform that was from the
ground up specifically made for cannabis and very different from
what other people are kind of doing where they find
something from another industry and they kind of jerry rigged it
to make it work with cannabis stuff.
And so when you start with the cannabis plan
in mind and that sort of material handling issue,
you then can very easily kind of mix and
match that design to do other things.
Like that vape cartridge filling machine will
also be able to do gummies.
And if it’s doing gummies, it will also
be able to do maybe drinkables as well.
And so we’re kind of going through this experimentation
process of where have the current technologies that have
been applied to the space fall short.
And that’s kind of where we see it
in like vape cartridge, gummies, edibles situation.
And I think that’s where we’re going to be
focusing a lot of our effort on next. It’s amazing.
I can’t wait to continue to follow your journey
and the products that you all have coming out.
So for those that are interested right now in getting in
touch with you or getting some of your equipment or following
you, what’s the best way to stay in touch?
I think the best way to stay in touch is
follow me on LinkedIn and you can hit me up
on LinkedIn or just, I guess send me a message.
nohtal@sorting roboticscom. That’s my email.
I check it every day.
So if you want to reach out, just drop me a line.
Well, thank you so much.
We’re so grateful that you made the time
to join us today on WeedBudz Radio.
Thank you for having me.
And of course, we’re so grateful to all of you
for joining us on today’s episode of WeedBudz Radio.
Be sure to head over to
weedbudzradio.com check out those show notes.
We’ll have links to all the
websites you can connect further.
And of course we are excited to
see you in the next episode. So stay tuned.