Sunderstorm founders Keith Cich and Cameron Clarke sat down with us to talk about Kanha Gummies crushing the game, personal quests for enlightenment, and the company’s return to Los Angeles after not being able to legally exist as manufacturers even after the cannabis market was legalized in January 2018.
Make no mistake about it, Kanha is one of the big dogs when it comes to California’s edible scene. But the road from meeting at Stanford in the 1980s to moving over 300,000 units a month throughout the state features various exciting plot twists. This involved separate quests for personal growth through the Amazon, Asia, and Africa and a couple of tech company startups, all while leaving time to annually rendezvous in the desert to party.
“There’s a huge connection between cannabis, plant medicine and Burning Man for sure,” Sunderstorm cofounder Cameron Clarke told L.A. Weekly with a laugh as he and partner Keith Cich spoke with us through the magic of Zoom.
Over the years, the pair had dabbled in business together, with Cich helping on the fundraising efforts for some of Clarke’s past tech projects. But their working relationship wasn’t anywhere close to what it would become after founding Sunderstorm in 2015. After officially melding minds, they would launch Kanha under the Sunderstorm flag a year later.
“I mean we’ve actually been close friends this whole time. Getting together and traveling, and partying in different places and experiencing different cultures,” Cich said. “We both have traveled extensively through Asia which has really influenced… kind of our view of the world.”
Cich said, sure the pair had done business in the past, but nothing like now, when they’re talking a hundred times a day trying to keep up with their growing gummy empire. Clarke added that Cich was the first and probably the only person that he thought 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 clear his mind and travel extensively through Asia.
“Not in the big cities, but in the villages,” Cich said. “I studied Buddhism, Taoism, you know, Hinduism. Spent time in really a lot of outback places and, honestly, it really helped create the person I am today. We have this very narrow Western worldview of materialism and I had bought totally into that worldview working on Wall Street. And I needed to literally be yanked out of that environment and radically thrown into a different environment for me to see the world in a different way.”
The path of interconnectivity that they were separately searching for would eventually become the backbone of an enviable company culture that massively disrupted the edible space. Clarke was an engineering undergrad who’d done similar quests in Africa and South America after their college years and some success in business.
“I spent a lot of time down in the Amazon, and as well as the West African jungle, doing some very interesting shamanic experiences that were incredibly mind-opening for me,” Clarke said of his journeys. “That has definitely carried through into my life today and has been very influential.”
But how did the pair end up in weed? Clarke moved down to San Diego to do research after starting a nonprofit called the Blue Nomad Foundation, “where I was doing algae research to be able to engineer algae to clean dirty water and make the precursors to biodegradable plastic.” As Clarke prepped some hardware in pursuit of saving the oceans, one of his pals made an observation:
“I was working in the back one day on the CO2 extractor that I was building out of scuba tanks in my backyard, when a friend of mine came by and showed me a CO2 extractor that he just bought on the internet to extract oil from cannabis, and I was really surprised to see that,” Clarke recalled.
From there he fell down the cannabis rabbit hole.
Over the next few weeks, he would be in touch with Cich about his discovery, starting a discussion on why neither had dipped their toes into the cannabis industry yet. “I mean, basically we started a company within a matter of what was probably a month or month and a half, that we really got on board and decided to move forward.”
It took some time for the duo to set the company up. They initially wanted to start the company on tribal land in Northern California, but federal cannabis raids on tribes in California in the summer of 2015 halted that plan in its tracks. They moved quickly and found a home in Los Angeles and started operating at the end of 2015.
“So, it was kind of an odd series of events, but it did get us to where we are today and Los Angeles was a good place for us to be able to get started,” Clarke said.
Clarke believes the San Fernando Valley is the real ground zero of the cannabis industry for the entire planet. And immediately they started testing all the edibles available in the cannabis mecca. Using CannaSafe (they’re the lab’s oldest remaining client) they found many in the edible space guilty of wildly misdosing their labels.
This startling discovery imbued an early ethos within the two – and the businesses born from them – committed to accuracy, community, and not putting anything into anybody else’s body but that they weren’t willing to put into their own. Clarke argued that making sure that what they put on the labels was as close as possible to what was actually in the product was not easy in those days, “because even the testing wasn’t as accurate as it is today.”
Clarke went on to note Los Angeles has been a little bit challenging for sure.
“You know when it came to January 1, 2018, there were no licenses for manufacturing in Los Angeles,” he said. “So, we had to scramble to find another location, which we did very quickly in Emeryville.”
Knowing they had guaranteed revenue on their hands, Emeryville expedited Kanha through the process in about 60 days. But Cich argues despite being huge these days the company lost six months of business development to the licensing hurdles presented by Los Angeles. Which begs the question, how many gummies a month would the company on pace to do 3.6 million units a year be moving if not for the hiccups?
“And then eventually we were able at the beginning of 2019 to get fully licensed in Los Angeles when they finally opened up the licensing for manufacturing,” Clarke said.
They now use Emeryville as their NorCal distribution hub and have returned to producing all the products in L.A.
Cich believes one of the differences that helped Kanha gain steam was being the first gummy company to invest in serious hardware from Europe that made it a lot easier to create a consistent product. “The difference is that really allowed us to make a perfect product every time. It meant that we could nail the 10 milligrams per gummy. It wasn’t fluctuating all over the place,” Cich said. “Ultimately in 2019 we won the award from Cannasafe for the most accurately formulated edible gummy.”
Other investments in packaging hardware also prepped Kanha to scale up for their rapid rise.
“We were doing like 50,000 units of product at the end of 2018, we built the business to 182,000 units of product per month in December 2019 and now we’re doing well over 300,000 units a month,” Cich said. “So, we sell a lot of gummies. And we self-distribute them throughout all of California. We’re at over 500 retailers.”
“But you know the science part of it is really important for us,” Clarke added. “Having that experience with the liposomal nanotechnology, you know, early on in the industry, like I said, we are the pioneers of it with a bunch of the very first products in 2015 early 2016. That also drove us to develop the first nanomolecular technology edible in the industry which was about a year and a half ago.” Consumers have found the nano edibles to only take about half the time to kick in.
One of the running jokes or fears depending on who you ask in the cannabis industry is about dudes from Wall St. taking over. We asked Cich how he deals with that sentiment, being that he’s a Wall Street guy that took over a chunk of the game.
“I am a very rare Wall Street person now,” Cich replied. “I’ve been to Burning Man 15 years in a row, and that has really shaped me as a person, and my belief system as well. So, kind of the Asian spirituality, you know the Burning Man sense of community, the sense of direct participation. That no one’s a spectator on… you know have kind of blended together. And I think cannabis is a great unifier.”
Clarke stressed that the people he and Cich staffed the company with make it so successful. He argues their team is ready to go seven days a week if need be and pointed to the extra effort they put in when moving to Emeryville from L.A. during production’s NorCal stint.
You can find Kanha products in almost every major dispensary in the state.