Marcy Capron Vermillion (LinkedIn)

Marcy Capron Vermillion says she “can’t not” focus on the inequities, inefficiencies and indignities that exist between many CBD retailers and consumers hoping the product will relieve pain or improve other aspects of her life. So, she co-founded Equilibria, a Chicago-based startup that cultivates its own plant which is then dispensed with thoughtful advice to subscribing individual customers. In this wide-ranging Grown In Q&A Profile, she discusses how her personal journey with cannabis inspired the company, market forces that cause dispensaries to fire budtenders if they spend more than 6 minutes with a customer, and the multiple ways to consume CBD as a suppository.

Grown In: After selling your consulting firm to Chicago-based Tandem in 2017, you observed consumer dosage problems in the CBD industry. What was it about the field of personalized plant recommendations that inspired you to jump in at full force?

Marcy Capron Vermillion: I believe problem-focused innovators/entrepreneurs have a “can’t-not-do” reflex…especially if they’re also mission-focused! That was a huge part of my journey here: When you are talking to women who could be your mother or grandmother and they feel like they’re out of options, to the point where this foreign and stigma-ridden plant (cannabis) is something into which they want to dive head first, those stories seal the deal. Mission: not optional! 

The stories of these women haunted me in my sleep, because it was a problem I felt I could help solve. Taking my post-acquisition sabbatical to go through my own cannabis journey (dealing with a spinal injury from a kayaking accident and titrating off psych meds) and helping these women with their own, was invaluable. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. 

However, the products I saw on the OTC hemp side of the cannabis “fence” – most women in the demographic sets with whom I was interviewing did not feel comfortable with THC-dominant products – were mostly mediocre. At that time, between 2017-2018, even the “good” products were inconsistent and sometimes suspect. I knew that there needed to be a dedicated, quality option with a solid margin of consistency, but also knew that if I were educating my mother or grandmother on hemp products that it’s not one size fits all

In a way that can be kind of disheartening. So I took a plunge into the entire journey when co-founding Equilibria plant, routine, personal assistance, and soon a deeper level of customization of plant use.

Grown In: From a product designer’s perspective, walk us through the key steps involved integrating agriculture with algorithms.

Marcy Capron Vermillion: The simplest way to put it is looking at phenotypic expression of hemp plants, and desired cannabinoids, terpenes, et cetera with their related clinical observations of efficacy, and comparing it to the Equilibria member data set. If our top three member concerns are pain, anxiety, and sleep, how do we coordinate our breeding and annual crop at the farm around cultivars that will best help our members? 

That’s the human context – it’s not just CBD, CBG, CBN, BCP, limonene, myrcene, it’s their impact on those very real, life-altering complaints, and then adding a layer of data around demographics and routine. I definitely have a goal of being able to inform, for instance, a 60-year-old woman with fibromyalgia about a detailed routine for her needs regarding hemp compounds, but also referencing time of day to use specific delivery mechanisms to achieve the right routine. For example: CBG as a suppository used in the evening might be a very good use-case match for an EQ member’s needs, in a way that CBG as a capsule in the morning might not.

These data sets are healthcare data sets, and it’s not as simple as matching makeup color and formula, or custom shampoo – the variables are complex. Once we start caring about real data in cannabis and real human needs, algorithms can help us go next level!

Grown In: Beyond providing education on cannabis as well as its dosages and potential effects on the body, Equilibria extends to its members dosage consultants that provide real-time and email-based advice. Where do you find this talent, and what skills do you expect new hires to arrive with upon joining your company?

Marcy Capron Vermillion: Finding the talent for this team has been difficult. Some of our Dosage Specialists have a focus, such as public policy, pharmacology, psychology, research, and we are able to recruit because this is a new and exciting field for them. But others are disenchanted, overqualified-for-budtending “patient consultants” from dispensaries who come to us because being told they’d be fired if they spent more than 6 minutes with a “patient” moved them to tears. You cannot help a woman seeking answers about cannabis and her own needs, in 6 minutes, not to mention the pressure to sell. It’s absurd. This is a journey!

It’s our number one most complicated talent pipeline, so word of mouth matters a lot. For candidates with the right social and empathy skills from an analogous career, we can train into cannabis, but even training the cannabis-oriented candidates takes weeks. So, the skills upon entry vary but we level the playing field as quickly as possible. Maia Reed, who runs that team, is one hell of an educator.

I wonder if a solution to the dispensary issue might be growing this team and partnering with dispensaries so they can tap into it. Where their menu is used in a conversation in addition to the EQ product lineup as they are so complementary, and all consultations start with a lesson on the ECS and a non-medical (these are not doctors) evaluation of customer needs. The good dispensaries out there feel bad about how ill-equipped their team is to go deeper with patients, so there might be a win-win there.

Grown In: You are one of the few plant-touching entrepreneurs in Illinois who’s startup business is not riding upon receipt of a cannabis retail or agricultural license this year. From this perch and as a native Chicagoan, what observations do you have about the state’s fledgling commercial industry?

Marcy Capron Vermillion: For those reading, Brad is referring to how we grow in Colorado, but also that we sell a dispensary-quality – sometimes better! – product. But we do it over the counter and online. We’re also doing work in all other non-CBD cannabinoids on the table that are not delta-9 THC within this direct-to-consumer platform environment. In this current climate, yes, this is a good place to be, and we’ve been skyrocketing with no licensure holding us back!

But I want to see Illinois succeed on that marijuana side of the cannabis fence, too. As I mentioned, I think there’s a patient/dispensary relationship with how we do things here that worries me. One example would be that oral CBD can mess with how one reacts to some medications, which should be taken very seriously, and I think all dispensaries, even though they don’t have pharmacists on staff in Illinois the way they do in New York, should keep tabs on meds and run a contraindication check through a pharmacological database. We sure as heck do at EQ. Responsible use or bust! Patient-client-customer education is vital to the success of our program, but of course my bias is medical and I am a medical cannabis cardholder in Illinois.

All of the complaints about Illinois “weed quality” aside – the product developer/designer in me also thinks we are not necessarily producing the right products for medical use and again nor are patients educated on what to use. Most don’t know that if their condition indicates trying delta9 THC for to improve a symptom, a correctly-used suppository might be what they need to get their life back. I want the budtenders and dispensaries to care about that. Suddenly you have a world where people who cannot afford intoxication of any kind, able to use THC for their needs. Required education for budenders needs to improve, accordingly. 

I want to see marijuana culture in Illinois advance; doubling down on medical needs is a way for us to continue to rise in program quality since recreational use will always naturally increase. P.S., our medical cannabis program qualifying condition list is way too short! How many recreational users are actually attempting to medicate? Don’t penalize them because we refuse to put some very common conditions on that qualifying list!

Grown In: Could Equilibria’s services and methodology extend to THC-based plants or psilocybin-based mushrooms in the years ahead? 

Marcy Capron Vermillion: In my pontification of helping dispensaries bridge the educational gap – we do have a lot of digital content and experiences coming for that knowledge need, not just adding more dosage specialists – we’d be touching marijuana by proxy. Will we ever grow and extend the Equilibria brand? We can actually sell in dispensaries in some states, including Illinois, for our current low-THC/technically-hemp product line, but any THC extension would have to have a medical focus. I have a lot of mixed feelings about smoking as a medical modality and our brand signifies a post-stigma trust with our customers. 

Women are trust-based consumers, and humans in general over 55 increase in their need of trust-based support for purchases as they age. So every product we put out there, whether it’s our current lineup or a future play into the marijuana space, is careful. 

I could see the same need I found in 2017 to be the case for psilocybin if it is ever legalized: I imagine asking a woman my mother’s age about microdosing psilocybin for (example) depression and I am sure from some I would get an earful about shrooms and hippies and stigma galore. It’s cannabis all over again – education will matter, trust and safety will matter, clinical studies will matter. Luckily, we are well equipped to handle that relationship, so never say never!  Improving the quality of life for women is Equilibria’s #1 priority.

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Brad Spirrison is a journalist, serial entrepreneur and media ecologist. He lives in Chicago with his son. Interests include music, meditation and Miles Davis.