Sunderstorm founders Keith Cich and Cameron Clarke sat down with us to talk about Kanha Gummies crushing the game, personal searches for enlightenment, and the company's return to Los Angeles after themselves after legalizing the cannabis market in the Could not legally exist as a manufacturer January 2018.
Make no mistake, Kanha is one of the big dogs when it comes to the California edible scene. However, the path from meeting at Stanford in the 1980s to moving more than 300,000 units per month across the state has several exciting twists and turns. This included separate pursuits for personal growth through the Amazon, Asia and Africa, as well as a few tech company startups, while leaving time to meet annually in the desert to celebrate.
"There is definitely a great connection between cannabis, herbal medicine and Burning Man," Sunderstorm co-founder Cameron Clarke told L.A. Weekly with a laugh as he and partner Keith Cich spoke to us through the magic of Zoom.
Over the years the two had teamed up, and Cich helped with fundraisers for some of Clarke's previous technology projects. But their working relationship wasn't nearly as high as it was when Sunderstorm was founded in 2015. After officially merging the thoughts, they launched Kanha under the Sunderstorm flag a year later.
"I mean, we've been close friends all along. Coming together and traveling, partying in different places and experiencing different cultures," said Cich. "We've both traveled extensively in Asia, which has really influenced our view of the world."
Cich said, sure, the couple had done business in the past, but nothing like now when they talk to each other a hundred times a day and try to keep up with their growing rubber empire. Clarke added that Cich was the first, and probably only, person he believed could join him on his cannabis adventure when the opportunity presented itself.
Cich spent 13 years on Wall Street before taking a year-long sabbatical from bond trading. He used the time to clarify himself and to travel extensively through Asia.
"Not in the big cities, but in the villages," said Cich. “I studied Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism. Spent time in really many outback places and honestly it really helped create the person I am today. We have this very narrow Western worldview of materialism, and I was fully committed to that worldview on Wall Street. And I literally had to be torn out of this environment and radically thrown into another environment so that I could see the world in a different way. "
The way of interconnectivity they separately looked for would eventually become the backbone of an enviable corporate culture that massively disrupted edible space. Clarke was an engineering student who, after completing college and some business successes, had done similar assignments in Africa and South America.
"I've spent a lot of time in the Amazon and the West African jungles and had some very interesting shamanic experiences that blew my mind," said Clarke of his travels. "That definitely got through in my life today and was very influential."
But how did the couple get weeds? Clarke moved to San Diego to do research after starting a nonprofit called the Blue Nomad Foundation, "where I did algae research to develop algae to purify dirty water and make the precursors to biodegradable plastic." When Clarke was preparing hardware to save the oceans, one of his friends made an observation:
“I was working on the back of the CO2 extractor I was building from scuba tanks in my back yard one day when a friend of mine stopped by and showed me a CO2 extractor he just bought on the internet to make oil from cannabis extract and I was really surprised to see that, "Clarke recalled.
From there he fell into the cannabis rabbit hole.
Over the next few weeks he would be in touch with Cich about his discovery and start a discussion about why neither of them had dipped their toes into the cannabis industry. "I mean, basically we started a company in probably a month and a half that we really got on board and decided to keep going."
It took some time for the duo to set up the company. They initially planned to start the company on tribal land in Northern California, but in the summer of 2015, state cannabis raids on tribes in California halted that plan. They quickly moved and found a home in Los Angeles and started operations in late 2015.
"So it was an odd series of events, but it got us to where we are today and Los Angeles was a good place for us to get started," said Clarke.
Clarke believes the San Fernando Valley is the true ground zero of the cannabis industry for the entire planet. And immediately they started testing all the foods available in the cannabis mecca. With CannaSafe (the lab's oldest remaining customer), they found many in the edible room to be guilty of having dosed their labels wildly wrong.
This startling discovery shaped an early ethos within the two – and the corporations that grew out of it – that were committed to accuracy, fellowship, and not putting anything into someone else's body, but that they were unwilling to give anything to themselves to acquire. Clarke argued that it was not easy then to ensure that what they put on the labels was as close as possible to what was actually in the product, "because even the tests weren't as accurate as they are today."
Clarke went on to say that Los Angeles was certainly a bit of a challenge.
"You know, when it came January 1, 2018, there weren't any licenses to make it in Los Angeles," he said. "So we had to mix and match to find another location, which we did very quickly in Emeryville."
Emeryville knew they had guaranteed receipts and speeded Kanha through the process in about 60 days. But Cich argues that while the company is huge these days, it has lost six months of business development through the licensing hurdles introduced by Los Angeles. Which begs the question, if it weren't for the hiccups, how many rubbers per month would the company pace to produce 3.6 million units per year?
"And finally, we were able to get a full license in Los Angeles in early 2019 when they finally opened the license to manufacture it," said Clarke.
They now use Emeryville as a NorCal distribution center and are again producing all products in LA.
Cich believes one of the differences that helped Kanha get steamy was being the first gummy bear company to invest in reputable hardware made in Europe that made it much easier to develop a consistent product. “The difference is that we have been able to make a perfect product every time. It meant we could nail the 10 milligrams per gum. It didn't sway anywhere, "said Cich. "Ultimately, we won the 2019 Cannasafe award for the most precisely formulated edible gum."
Other investments in packaging hardware also prepared Kanha for its rapid rise.
"We manufactured 50,000 product units at the end of 2018, expanded our business to 182,000 product units per month in December 2019 and now we are making well over 300,000 units per month," said Cich. “So we sell a lot of rubbers. And we're distributing them all over California ourselves. We are at over 500 retailers. "
"But you know the science part is really important to us," added Clarke. “With this experience with liposomal nanotechnology, we are, as I said, early pioneers in the industry with a number of the very first products in 2015, early 2016. This also prompted us to develop the first nanomolecular technology, which was edible in the industry about a year and a half ago. “Consumers have found that the nano-foods only take about half the time to enter.
One of the jokes or fears, depending on who you ask in the cannabis industry, is the takeover of guys from Wall Street. We asked Cich how he deals with this feeling since he's a Wall Street guy who took over part of the game.
"I'm a very rare person on Wall Street now," Cich replied. "I was at Burning Man for 15 years in a row and that really shaped me as a person and my belief system. So, a kind of Asian spirituality, you know the feeling of community in Burning Man, the feeling of direct participation. That nobody is a bystander. . They know something has mixed up. And I think cannabis is a great unifier. "
Clarke emphasized that the people he and Cich occupied the company with made it so successful. He argues that their team is up and running seven days a week if necessary, and pointed to the extra effort they put in moving from LA to Emeryville during the NorCal stint of production.
You can find Kanha products at almost every major pharmacy in the state.