Cannabis-infused topicals and sprays
"I like to think that we're a part of 'Cannabis 2.0' at this point," says Colagiovanni.
Colagiovanni considers "Cannabis 1.0" to include smoked cannabis, baked goods, products sometimes manufactured haphazardly; whereas, Next Frontier Biosciences has developed a line of products, called Verra Wellness, which includes topicals, sublingual sprays, and -- perhaps most uniquely -- nasal sprays.
The company doesn't make the products itself; that's done by third-party manufacturer, RMZ Colorado, which is licensed in Colorado to make marijuana-infused goods. Colagiovanni describes Next Frontier Biosciences as "an IP holding company and brand management company." At its Westminster lab, Colagiovanni is doing R&D work on formulating pills and effervescent tablets, which will eventually contain cannabis. (There's no cannabis present for research use at Next Frontier's lab.)
The company's slogan is "Where Biotech Meets Cannabis." Co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer Paul Johnson spent "40 years in biotech in nasal drug development, particularly, with over 100 patents to his name -- so, a lot of experience in that area," says Colagiovanni. She adds, "Our scientific team is [made up of] analytical chemists and chemical engineers."
"I came on in 2016 to start the R&D group," says Colagiovanni, a toxicologist by training. Colagiovanni previously worked at a pharmaceutical company developing a drug to treat lung cancer and at another company which was developing an antibiotic for skin and soft-tissue infections. However, she says their work halted, after a tremendous amount of research and funding, due to a change midstream in the FDA's requirements to prove the drug's efficacy.
The experience was one of the factors which soured her on traditional biotech development. "I wanted to be able to bring medicine to patients more quickly and that was a big reason I decided to come [on board at Next Frontier]," says Colagiovanni. "I was excited about the opportunity."
As a toxicologist and member of the City and County of Denver's Cannabis Health & Safe Advisory Committee, Colagiovanni says that compared with many pharmaceuticals, as well as other recreational drugs (including alcohol), "cannabis is extremely safe."
Verra Wellness products debuted in Colorado in November 2017. Colagiovanni says, "Our products are a little more complicated than a vape pen or flower, which are easy for budtenders to sell." But Verra products are geared towards a changing demographic of cannabis consumers -- some of whom might be cannabis naive: moms, who might want an alternate form of stress relief, rather than from alcohol or sedatives; athletes, with muscular and joint distress; and the elderly, who might be experiencing, for instance, insomnia. Verra Wellness is targeting "the 35-plus market" in both the medical and recreational cannabis markets, says Colagiovanni.
There are topical creams -- recommended for aches and pains, as well as wound and burn healing -- made from a whole plant extract, and containing essential oils "which are permeation enhancers to get [cannabinoids like THC, CBG, and CBC] into the skin and keep [them] there," rather than into the bloodstream. There's also arnica, "which, also, helps with wound healing and bruising," in the formulation.
Verra's largest line of products are its sublingual sprays, which disburse a fine mist under the tongue. Colagiovanni says, "What I really like about our sublingual [spray] is it's pocket size, so you can take it on the go with you. It's super discreet." The sprays come in three different THC-to-CBD ratios.
The company's nasal sprays are nothing to sniff at. "We have seen patients who have had really good benefits from using the nasal product," says Colagiovanni, "because you get quick onset of action, and it seems to really abate migraine pain." The nasal sprays are also recommended for people who have problems problems swallowing, a condition more frequent in elderly patients.
"People are comfortable with that [delivery method], when they've used a saline nasal spray or Flonase," says Colagiovanni. "It's not something that's foreign to them, although for cannabis consumption it's totally novel. So, that's been fun to have kind of a first-in-class product." She adds, "We were the first to commercialize the product in Colorado, so we like being in that position."
The company acquired a Fort Collins-made bioBUBBLE for its third-party manufacturer, in order to provide a sterile environment in which to produce the nasal spray. "And then we use a pharma-grade spray device that's used for products like Flonase," says Colagiovanni. "So, we spend a lot per unit. We're not going to China to get some knockoff device."
Verra Wellness products are available in 70 dispensaries in Colorado. The sublingual sprays and topicals will be debuting in California at the end of September. Applications have been submitted for distribution in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and the company is also eyeing the Massachusetts market. "Hopefully, Canada will be in the works as well," Colagiovanni says.
Colagiovanni uses the nasal spray herself to relieve migraine headaches. And she's described to Culture magazine smoking cannabis for stress relief, in the past, during "an extremely difficult time" in her life: dealing with the anxiety attendant to her young son's liver transplant.
Colagiovanni says Next Frontier's product development mission is "trying to find out what was missing that would benefit the consumer; that's why we started with these [current] products."
She adds, "The heart of cannabis is in helping people."
Challenges: Funding and expansion: "Getting investment, obviously, and just building the brand," says Colagiovanni.
There's another problem in Colorado: Due to a change in regulations, dispensaries are not allowed to restock nasal sprays, as opposed to inhalable, edible, or topical products. What's still on the shelves can be sold, though, and the company will know by the end of 2018 if that rule will continue. Colagiovanni says, "It's going to make us go to other states, and not innovate in Colorado, because of these arbitrary restrictions."
Opportunities: Expanding to other medical and recreational cannabis states: "Colorado is pretty saturated with companies right now. So, new markets lend themselves to new products. We think that's the direction we're going to go – some of these other states."
Needs: Attracting the right investors: "Investment would be helpful," says Colagiovanni. "Good partners. It's challenging when you've come from very professional industries, and many of the individuals who started in cannabis, you know, they were black--market people, so they don't have the same business acumen and standards that we do, as well. So, finding the right partners takes some effort -- and that's important for us."