Chats with Kat: An Interview with Ionization Labs' CSO Shawn Helmeuller
My name is Katherine Schneider and I am the lead account manager for Ionization Labs Cannabinoid Testing Services.
My role within Ionization Labs is to speak with cultivators, product developers, distributors, and all people in the hemp industry that require potency testing. Speaking with a large variety of people with varying roles in the hemp industry has illuminated so many different perspectives and has allowed me to gain a wider outlook on hemp production in general. All roles in the industry are crucial to the success of the hemp economy, and testing/laboratories are key players in helping hemp go from crop to consumable product.
It is objectively crucial that we provide a platform for all people in the industry to display their unique perspectives. Today I am imploring the insight of our Chief Science Officer (CSO), Shawn Helmueller. As we continue venturing into the world of hemp/cannabis testing, it is crucial that we hear from the experts in this field. We get a peek into the distinguished viewpoint of some of the cutting-edge research and development being done as it relates to cannabinoid potency testing. Shawn Helmueller provides his specific point of view on the potency testing process & the industry at large.
Shawn Helmueller is commonly known as a ‘Craftsman’. Ionization Labs utilizes a culture index which surveys each member of the team and identifies their feelings, opinions, and attitudes about different aspects of their job and job responsibilities. The "craftsman" is identified in the culture index as being a calming and stable force on the team. They're reliable, understanding, straightforward, and deliberate. Craftsmen thrive in organizations that require a culture of precision. Teams are often designed by default rather than intention. However, here at Ionization Labs, we have deliberately surveyed our team members to ensure each person is in a position that helps themselves and the company prosper. Shawn’s unique perspective gives us insight into the world of High-Pressure Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) potency testing, and where the field is heading. His background in chemistry and technology gives him a platform to educate the world about relevant information in the realm of hemp/cannabis testing. Within this biographical interview, we will peel back the curtain, and explore the professional and personal sides of today's lead chemistry analysts. Read along as we dive into "Chats with Kat", a new view into the people that make our research and development possible.
Explain your background in science/data analysis. What sparked your interest and led you to the Research & Development role you are currently in?
I studied Supercritical Fluid Chromatography (SFC) in college and there were extremely nuanced and counterintuitive characteristics associated with the technique and technology. Also, supercritical fluids are just cool. I was hooked on understanding chromatographic processes at that point, and I have pursued that in one way or another my whole career. It led me to study Analytical Chemistry and Analytical Instrumentation. Ultimately, it led me to a product development and marketing role at Waters Corporation. That led me to cannabis science and eventually to my current role here at Ionization Labs.
This background displays a natural progression that is admirable. Specialized interest is the cornerstone of a good analytical scientist. Continuing to develop your craft while showing loyalty and devotion to your company is truly what it takes to become a key player on the team.
Why is the work you are doing important? How does that work apply to the future of chemical analysis/testing?
Early on in my career, I was a subject matter expert on processes involved with using CO2 (carbon dioxide) as a solvent for chemical separations and other analytical and industrial processes. I constantly had to try and make my very narrow sliver of expertise relevant to other people who were not Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) in my field. It was hard. I had my baby, and I had to try and convince people that my baby was cute, and it’s difficult news to take when people don’t think your baby is cute. It’s your baby. But this taught me that the most important thing you can get good at is helping other people understand and care about the stuff you are doing. Make it relatable and make the technology or concepts accessible to them and they will stop thinking about the boring concepts. Just use the technology as a tool for information like it was intended for. The work we do at Ionization Labs makes technology accessible to people in emerging markets. This allows an entirely different and new class of users to take that technology and do cool stuff in the future.
It is evident by the metaphor of your work being compared to procreated life that you genuinely see your work as a seed you've been nurturing and feeding to keep alive, and thriving. I find the metaphor extremely pertinent because it highlights how we are still in the infancy of fully understanding potency testing, and how these cannabinoids interact with the human body. You see your work as a creation of your own in the same ranks as a child. This establishes your pride in your own work and emphasizes the care you have for your craft. You also touched on how the use of the technology/data requires access. Pursuit of viable settings for people to utilize our software with relative ease is a noble pursuit. Providing easy-to-grasp concepts to the general public and stripping away the jargon is of utmost importance. It is honorable for someone as specialized as yourself to help in the development of a technology that can be used by anyone (even those who don't have a specialized skill set such as your own). It seems that you think the accessibility of this technology is vital to the future of the testing world. I couldn’t agree more.
If you could change one thing about the industry you are in, what would it be?
This is already changing, but I will reiterate it here. People in the cannabis industry need to care about the quality of the products they are producing. In the past, there was a ‘get rich quick' or ‘first to market’ push and quality suffered. People are beginning to understand that long-term success in this industry is tied as much to quality and consistency as it is to innovation and safely pushing the boundaries of their products. You can’t push the boundaries on product formulations without ensuring they are safe high-quality formulations.
The emphasis on safety and quality control is the foundation of Ionization Labs. The technology that you are developing can help monitor product development, and hold companies accountable.
What are the largest obstacles that you foresee for our company, and for analytical labs in general in the future?
I’m not big on future predictions, but analytical labs are going to need to be able to differentiate their suite of laboratory services from that of other labs. This is what our company is trying to do with Cann-ID, and we are excited to partner with other labs that wish to offer a similar suite of laboratory services to their clients.
This is the pinnacle of good business practice. Turning perceived "competition" in the field into a strategic alliance. Although the future is unknown, carving a path that is unique and offering the world a service that doesn’t already exist is how modern entrepreneurs thrive.
How does testing hemp/cannabis impact the cultivation, extraction, distribution, and sales of the product?
Testing generally, and specifically, potency testing, acts as a hub in the product development and manufacturing workflow. Commodity value is tied directly to potency. The consumer experience and potential therapeutic effects are correlated to a product's potency. No business gets done in the cannabis industry without detailed information about how the potency of these products changes throughout the product's life cycle.
Figure 1: Hemp potency testing checkpoints recommended for a vertically integrated operation
If hemp/cannabis is the sneaker, testing and monitoring the quality of the product is the laces. They inherently go hand in hand. In regards to compliance, consumption, and commodities, testing helps add a quantitative value to the products. From field to sale, including all the steps of extraction and processing in between, testing is the through-point that is required to understand how the product changes throughout time.
This is part one of a two part interview with Shawn Helmueller our Chief Science Officer at Ionization Labs. Thank you for reading our interview. We are excited to follow-up with the second half of the interview soon. We hope that you enjoyed this content, and please reach out to us at [email protected] for questions, recommendations, or topics you would like to see in our blog.
Thank you and have a wonderful week!