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Willow Industries
Image credit: Willow Industries

Startup Spotlight: How Willow Industries is hoping to keep your cannabis clean

February 16, 2021

People across the US are taking advantage of the wave of state-level cannabis legalization, and especially so during the pandemic. But according to Denver-based startup Willow Industries, they may be inhaling more than just marijuana. 

“The work we do is part of a larger effort to address the systemic issues that plague the industry, and ensure that clean, high-quality cannabis makes its way to dispensary shelves and consumers,” Jill Ellsworth, Willow’s founder and CEO, told AFN. As early as 2019, Ellsworth was telling AFN that inhaling mold and yeast found on cannabis can lead to serious health concerns especially for immune-compromised individuals. 

A few states like Arizona, and the federal District of Columbia, have even passed laws that impose certain requirements regarding microbial contaminants and testing to ensure that consumers are getting a clean product. But many of the health and safety aspects around cannabis remain unregulated.

With its WillowPure 360 device, Willow Industries is hoping to decontaminate cannabis without affecting the product’s color, taste, or cannabinoid content. To do this, it’s leaning on ozone – a gas that has been used as an anti-microbial agent in food, agriculture, and water management settings for decades, and that can be relatively easily produced by drawing oxygen from the air.

Willow’s target customers are cannabis cultivators looking for a ‘kill step‘ that will remove potentially harmful microbes and provide consumers with an extra layer of protection.

According to Ellsworth, the startup has its systems in 21 states, including a WillowPure Facility in Oakland, California and on-demand services in Oklahoma and Colorado.

“We have proven the product-market fit, garnered customer feedback, and [we] operate robust operations across North America,” she said. “We’re very much seen as an industry leader in our niche.”

Keep reading to learn how Willow is hoping to keep your cannabis clean.

AFN: How does your technology work?

Jill Ellsworth: Willow is the industry leader in post-harvest microbial decontamination technology. It is environmentally friendly, non-toxic, and scalable for all types of operators within the cannabis space.

The WillowPure 360 incorporates a drum system to seamlessly move product through decontamination treatments, and has a touchscreen interface that allows users to easily customize and adjust the gently turning drum for a balanced and uniform ozone treatment. It requires minimal labor and provides a higher throughput of shelf-ready product. 

It is engineered to improve microbial kill rates and reduce cycle times and can clean between 45 to 105 pounds of flower per day. This service helps cultivators pass compliance testing while providing the cleanest cannabis available in their respective markets.

Our product is more than just a machine, though. We lease out our WillowPure systems, but also try to give our clients and partners the insights and tools needed to be successful from start to finish in their operations. We look at their facilities and needs holistically and collaborate on how to best support their bottom lines.

What has been your fundraising experience to date?

My husband and I funded the company from inception for about two years. It was certainly a scrappy startup, launching in our garage and home office. In 2019, we raised $2 million from institutional investors, which allowed us to quickly grow and scale the company. It was my first time raising institutional money and to say it was challenging is an understatement. I had to quickly learn the lingo, navigate how to put together an investor deck, and garner a basic understanding of the financials.

Going into our financing round, I had no clue [about] the rigor and stamina that was required to get through [what became] a very stressful six months. But I stayed strong, persevered, and was very clear about my intentions. The great news is we brought on awesome strategic investors who fit our needs and understood our goals ,and [who] have really supported the company the past two years. 

How has Covid-19 impacted you?

Covid was a challenging time for our organization and the cannabis industry, as we worried state governments would start shutting down dispensaries, greatly impacting the entire supply chain. While that didn’t happen, business slowed down as cultivators started cutting back on staff and upper management halted spending.

That said, consumers kept buying cannabis and sales were soaring, which in turn prompted the need for our technology.

We continued to grow month over month during 2020, but we also cut costs and tightened our budget so we could extend our burn. It took a lot of time and effort to keep our team positive and engaged, but we found creative ways to support everyone in the organization. We learned a ton – most importantly, that we can do a lot with a little. 

If you could change one law, policy, or regulation, which would it be – and why?

I would change banking availability for cannabis companies and allow interstate commerce. Everyone looks to federal legalization for these changes to finally come to fruition, but in my opinion, it is too early. The states need to have a better handle on regulations before we open it up.

Do you have a lot of competitors? Is there room for more players in your space?

No, there are not a lot of competitors in our space. Cannabis is a hard product to work with. There are two [competitors] that use different technologies to decontaminate cannabis — namely, irradiation and radiofrequency — but no one is directly competing with us by using ozone. 

What are the biggest challenges you’re facing – and how do you plan to overcome them?

We have grown very quickly these past three years, especially when it comes to staffing. I am an entrepreneur and visionary at heart, and truthfully, employee management has been challenging for me.

I work with an executive coach to learn and understand how to be a strong leader and manager. That part does not come easy for me.

I am also challenged by a wide variety of partners, each with their own needs and bottom lines; an industry that is not federally legal, and requires lots of maneuvering; and the daily grind of running a quickly growing startup.

What has been the most surprising aspect of your startup journey so far?

I always knew I could grind, but the perseverance and fortitude I have developed to achieve both my and Willow’s goals have impressed even me. Of course, there are moments of doubt – times I thought I didn’t have it in me – but I continue to show up day after day for myself, for my team, and for our mission.

I was also very surprised by the amount of time it took for the industry to come around and finally adopt this technology on a widespread basis. It seemed like such a slam-dunk invention, but the industry had other ideas and was slow to understand and implement. That caused a lot of sleepless nights.

Do you have any advice for other founders?

Do not give up. I know successful entrepreneurs say that time and time again, but it is true. If you believe in yourself and your mission, stay the course. It would have been so easy to give up three years ago when there was little to no adoption of our technology. No one would talk to me. No one cared. But I knew in my gut this was a solution the industry needed.

Now we are a leader in the space – the inventor of this category – and our company is exceeding all of our expectations. It is beyond rewarding to see this hard work come to fruition.

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