Each week we highlight entrepreneurs in the cannabis industry for our viewers to learn more about the leading cannabis executives of our time. This week, we highlight Monica Vialpando of Vialpando, LLC.
Meet Monica Vialpando
Dr. Monica Vialpando is a pharmaceutical formulation scientist and principal at Vialpando LLC, a provider of outsourced innovation consulting for the cannabis industry. She has seven years of pharmaceutical industry experience, four years of vaping (nicotine) experience and two years of cannabis product development experience for a variety of US, UK, European and Asian-based companies. Her development portfolio includes immediate and modified release oral tablets, sublingual tablets, dry powders and nebulizer solution for inhalation, nicotine, and cannabis vape products and topicals. She was awarded her Ph.D. in Pharmaceutical Sciences from the University of Leuven, Belgium.
In our interview with Monica, we asked a variety of questions to learn more about Vialpando, and what it takes to build a startup in the cannabis industry!
DCN: Monica, congratulations on being featured as this week’s entrepreneur of the week and for all that you do! Can you please share with our readers your elevator pitch for Vialpando?
Monica Vialpando: We’re creating better experiences for cannabis users by helping companies make better products. We take the discipline and know-how of pharmaceutical product development and apply it in our work, resulting in new and innovative delivery systems for a range of cannabinoids. So far, we have developed beverages, orodispersible tablets, high dose oral tablets, topicals, including sunscreen, and vapor products infused with cannabis.
DCN: What ignited the spark in you to launch your business?
Monica Vialpando: I have a Ph.D. is in Pharmaceutical Sciences with a research focus on the formulation of poorly water-soluble molecules. After graduation, I worked for major pharmaceutical companies in the US and Belgium, including Johnson and Johnson, where I helped develop new medicines and oversee clinical trials.
I then had the opportunity to move into vaping as Chief Scientific Officer for Liberty Flights, a major vaping company in the UK, where we designed a vast range of successful products. Even though the products I worked with at the time contained nicotine rather than cannabis, the knowledge I acquired was quite transferable to the cannabis industry. Especially mainly when you look at whether things are safe to inhale, we are facing the same concerns in the cannabis marketplace where vaping is quickly replacing smoking as the delivery mechanism of choice.
I moved back to the Bay Area after my stay in Europe and spent 18 months at a major pharmaceutical company, but was keeping an eye on the development of cannabis products. There’s a lot of room to improve on what’s currently on the market, and I knew that I would be able to help companies make those improvements. As luck would have it, my good friend (Johanna Nuding, founder of Casually Baked) was also looking to get into the business and convinced me to take the leap into cannabis. Together, we studied the endocannabinoid system and cannabinoids beyond THC. I quickly realized the scientific potential and need for more research and quickly phased out of my pharmaceutics job and started Vialpando LLC.
DCN: When you finally decided that you wanted to launch a business in the cannabis industry, what was your experience like when telling your family and friends? Were they supportive?
Monica Vialpando: My friends and family were all very supportive. My friends in the nicotine industry have helped out a lot, and we work on vaping issues with Beckett Associates. Their CEO is a close friend of mine and we’ve worked together on electronic cigarette projects while I lived in the UK. I’m also an advisory board member at the Blinc Group, a cannabis incubator run by Arnaud Dumas de Rauly, who also comes from the e-cigarette industry.
My pharmaceutical industry colleagues and former classmates were more skeptical. Lots of them are suspicious about the medicinal properties of cannabis, but they are very curious as to what I am doing.
DCN: How is your business positively helping the cannabis industry?
Monica Vialpando: My goal in setting up the company was to improve how cannabis users experience the plant and its many active ingredients. We’ve already started this process and developed some IP that will give users – both medical and recreational – a better product.
Our vision is that in five years, we hope that when people go to their local dispensary, there will be a wide selection of well designed and engineered products for many different use cases; and we hope to have played a large part in making that happen.
Formulation elegance is the root of our cannabis development strategy. The products we develop are from extensive scientific research to maximize the user’s experience. We integrate various technologies to cannabis product development. Ingredients are selected to tailor the cannabinoid performance, and processes are developed with quality control checks to ensure safety and dose consistency.
DCN: As we near the end of 2018, what is one huge accomplishment that you or your team achieved last year that you would like to share with our readers?
Monica Vialpando: Our launch client was Level, and we were asked to create and scale up an orodispersable tablet. They are designed to dissolve under the tongue and are a more convenient and stable alternative to liquid tinctures. This method of cannabis delivery results in faster absorption when compared to ingestion. That product is now on the shelves – marketed as Tablinguals(TM). Seeing that concept on the market – which took months of hard work and development – was a real high. They’re selling really well, which is great.
One of the great things about Level is that they’re looking at all the different cannabinoids they can get and what they can do with them, which is refreshing in a market which is very heavy on THC and CBD but light on other cannabinoids.
The tablets are available with delta-9-THC, delta-8-THC, CBD, CBG, THCA, and THCV. The format – 3mg individual tablets – allows users to customize their ideal dose and ratio across cannabinoids while offering a more convenient, discreet and stable alternative to liquid tinctures. This gave my company experience with a wider range of cannabinoids than most of my competitors, which I think provides us with an edge as the industry moves forward and develops interesting new products.
This project posed interesting formulation challenges. It is difficult to turn a sticky active cannabinoid into a free-flowing powder that can be made into a tablet. That’s why most oral products on the market are gel capsules. To get to the kind of tablet design most people would recognize from traditional Western medicine – and the kind of design the Level products use – meant months of research and development. But the end result was worth it because solid state tablets deliver cannabinoids much more effectively.
DCN: What are some challenges you faced early on and how’d you beat them?
Monica Vialpando: I bootstrapped the business, and at the beginning, I was still working part-time at my pharma job to keep the lights on. So the real challenge there was juggling both. There wasn’t any real trick facing that down, so let’s just say I didn’t have much of a social life. Even today when I have more people working with me, it can be a challenge finding time for myself. Being an entrepreneur definitely isn’t the easy route to anything, but it’s certainly rewarding.
DCN: What is the best piece of advice you can give to others looking to launch a company in the cannabis industry?
Monica Vialpando: You have to be passionate about the plant and not solely driven by the financial opportunity. It’s also important to make sure your company will provide unique services or improvement on current offerings. I knew that I brought something to the table that would really add value because of my background and expertise, and making sure you can offer something like that is vital.
As the industry grows it will start adopting the disciplines commonly found in other industries; so think about which of those disciplines you’re able to provide and create a business model around that.
DCN: What’s the hardest part of founding and running a startup?
Monica Vialpando: I am entirely self-funded, which makes my operation very lean. Beyond staying up to date on emerging cannabis technologies, I am marketing, sales, and until recently, accounting. It’s a lot of work, but the satisfaction I feel when I’ve created something great for my clients makes it all worth it.
DCN: Is there anything that surprised you about being an entrepreneur in the cannabis industry?
Monica Vialpando: It can be difficult to get hold of high-end instrumentation and materials because so many suppliers have a policy of not selling to the cannabis industry. When I first started out, this threw me a bit; you have to find workarounds to get what you need.
It’s also challenging to find laboratories willing to work with cannabis with the capacity to perform the kind of testing the industry is going to need moving forward. This is a real problem when you’re trying to experiment and innovate because without proper testing it’s impossible to know whether you’re achieving your goals.
DCN: What would you say are the top five skills needed to be a successful entrepreneur?
Monica Vialpando: A great niche, a strong work ethic, and mindfulness.
DCN: How do you stay balanced?
Monica Vialpando: I’ve practiced yoga for over 15 years, and I’m a certified teacher. I’ve found an amazing studio in San Francisco and have set 4:30 pm aside to step away to practice with my friends, many of whom are also cannabis entrepreneurs.
DCN: What book has inspired you the most?
Monica Vialpando: Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which is a collection of 196 aphorisms that offer wisdom for living a mindful and fulfilled life. They are short yet powerful so I like to select one to meditate on each week. I also read quite a bit of contemporary history when I lived in the UK and particularly liked one book – Fascist in the Family – which is the biography of a former British fascist leader John Beckett, by his son Francis. It’s very powerfully written and provides a fascinating account of a troubled man who made some bad decisions and ended up being treated like a war criminal.
DCN: How can we as an industry continue to make a positive difference in society?
Monica Vialpando: Aside from really helping patients live better lives, I’d like to see the cannabis industry encourage female entrepreneurs and role models, particularly when it comes to the scientific aspects of the business.
DCN: Thank you, Monica, for sharing your story and offering such real and insightful advice to DCN readers!
For those looking to learn more about Vialpando, please check out, www.vialpando-llc.com, social-Instagram @mon_vial