“I’ve told people what they need to hear to get their money in...”
“I’ve told people what they need to hear to get their money in and it’s been very difficult.”
“Which is a lie.”
“Yes. I’ve told some things that were not true.”
“It’s a lie. It’s a lie. It’s a material lie.”
THE MARIJUANA START-UP Ebbu LLC held its 2015 Christmas party at a stylish townhouse in downtown Denver.
As guests arrived, they selected from edibles and vape pens fanned out on cocktail tables. Hired lovelies dressed for Burning Man twirled silently through the crowd. At one point, a man ran into the middle of the room and shouted, “Everybody in here get the fuck out!” — before security showed him the door. The most committed stoners colonized a windowless basement decorated with a pirate flag. It still felt like a work party, with significant others making small talk around a messy taco bar.
For more than two years, Ebbu has promised to unveil a revolutionary line of marijuana products called “Feelings” — Energy, Create, Chill, Giggle and Bliss. Marijuana’s flaw, the company believes, is that it’s unpredictable. Customers want to know how a product will make them feel, and they want it to work every time. Ebbu’s goal is to position consistent marijuana products as the pot equivalent of the Intel microchips that power nearly everything that emerges from Silicon Valley. Imagine: “Ebbu inside” stamped on the packaging of edibles and other manufactured pot products across the country.
The company’s co-founders, Michael “Dooma ” Wendschuh, 39 (above, left) and Jon Cooper, 40 (above, right), met over a decade ago in Los Angeles, where Dooma had co-founded a production company, and Cooper worked in movie finance. Neither of them are heavy pot smokers. They formed Ebbu in 2013, and soon emerged as leaders among a wave of new pot entrepreneurs — technocrats drawn to cannabis more for the potential profits and the excitement of pioneering a new industry than personal devotion to the plant. Before Ebbu had a product to sell, the company was featured in outlets like The Economist, Bloomberg, and the Fox Business Channel. Dooma “saw a problem that nobody seemed to be addressing,” The New Yorker website reported last May. During occasional TV spots and on the conference circuit, Dooma, Ebbu’s public face, personified the image that legal marijuana businesses hope to project: smart, sophisticated and law-abiding.
At the party, Dooma stood above the snowy patio, sober, and called the crowd to attention. He is angularly thin, with short, spiky hair and deep-set eyes, so that he sometimes resembles a very well dressed prisoner of war; that night he wore a sport coat, a conservative striped tie and a Quebec flag belt buckle the size of a saucer. “There are a lot of fucking people here, which is awesome!” He cried out. “One year ago this was in my apartment.”
Before Ebbu had a product to sell, the company was featured in outlets like The Economist, Bloomberg, and the Fox Business Channel.
In November, Ebbu had topped $100,000 in monthly sales for the first time. It had about 30 employees and contractors. Dooma had stopped the party to award dog tags to the year’s new hires who had held on to their jobs. “We’re in combat every day at Ebbu,” Dooma said. “What we’re trying to do is the hardest thing you can imagine.” Each dog tag had an employee’s name and the motto, “Lead by example.”
Dooma scanned the crowd. “I know you’re doing it because you believe, ‘cause we don’t pay you guys shit. It’s about the equity. It’s about the brand that we’re building…It’s about creating something that’s going to be bigger than Facebook or Google. We are going to make a product that is going to be in every bar, every restaurant, every hotel and every household around the world!”
Two weeks later, Dooma had left Ebbu and the company he’d devoted years to build had plunged into a crisis.
THE BUDWEISER OF WEED
A year earlier, Dooma and Cooper had invited me to “embed” with Ebbu. At the time, the company had minimal name recognition and no sales, but it stood out as one of the few marijuana companies both determined to advance science and willing to break federal law. Between then and January 2016, I sat in on well over 100 company meetings and calls, including many with investors, partners and other outside parties. I spoke freely with the staff and had a free pass to spend time at the office. The plan was to tell the story of a company working to solve marijuana industry’s most exciting problem, while the rules for how marijuana companies operate are still very much in flux.
After Dooma left, the story became far more complicated. I obtained evidence that he would, on occasion, “stretch the truth” with prospective investors about the company’s finances, exaggerate product development, and that his fundraising efforts may not have been in full compliance with Colorado’s marijuana laws. Dooma and Cooper have had a falling out and neither will discuss what transpired.
In the months following Dooma's departure, I tried to piece together the story of what went wrong for a talented entrepreneur who sought to dominate America’s wildest industry.
“We’re in combat every day at Ebbu... What we’re trying to do is the hardest thing you can imagine.”
Legal marijuana is among the fastest growing industries in the country, but it’s not yet big business. In 2015, industry-wide sales totaled $5.4 billion, the overwhelming majority of it in three states: Washington and Colorado, which have legalized sales to all adults, and California, where doctors’ notes are available online. By comparison, the illegal pot market is worth roughly $40 billion and domestic alcohol sales top $200 billion annually.
In November, five states, including California, are likely to vote on recreational legalization, which could expand the market by tens of millions of potential customers overnight. Ambitious cannabis entrepreneurs like Cooper and Dooma didn’t set out to replace the local dealer. Their goal is to reinvent this stigmatized plant as an essential part of modern life, as ubiquitous, in its way, as our smartphones.
It’s hard to overstate the potential. While smoking it works well enough, marijuana is a chemically fascinating material that has been exiled from academic and corporate research for decades. “Nobody understands this plant,” Dooma said. “In order to build a business, we have to do the very basic scientific research to fundamentally understand what this plant is capable of.”
The state legalization experiments have set off the economic frenzy known as the Green Rush. But like other economic frenzies, from the California Gold Rush to dot-com bubble, a tiny elite is bound to do way better than everyone else. In Colorado alone, hundreds of companies manufacture edibles, vaping oil and other marijuana products that are largely indistinguishable from each other. Many of these companies agree with Ebbu that controlling a product’s effects, medical or recreational, or convincing customers that you can, will be central to determining who becomes Facebook and who becomes Friendster. Some companies approach this question with genetics or refined agricultural techniques. Ebbu aims to pull the plant apart and then reconstitute the relevant chemicals into products.
The legal obstacles companies face might be more daunting than the scientific problem. In Colorado, generally regarded as the world’s most mature marijuana market and an example studied by other states, the industry’s legal framework is just over three years old and individual rules change often, with potential implications far beyond the state’s borders.
If Colorado companies follow state laws, they’re unlikely to be raided and shut down by the federal government — during the Obama administration, at least — but they operate in unmapped terrain. For marijuana companies, bedrock business needs like fundraising, intellectual property protection, selling in other legal states and simply opening a bank account involve layers of complexity that companies in other industries don’t have to think about. Colorado “has the most stringent regulations where I’m least likely to go to jail. I don’t want to go to jail,” Dooma said. “That means that I’m also swallowing some of these really ridiculous rules.”
With the legal landscape still fractured and uncertain, Ebbu hopes to get a head start: right now it can simultaneously research the plant and develop new products while corporate America—everyone from Big Pharma to Big Tobacco -- salivates on the sidelines. Green Rush entrepreneurs love to compare the current moment to the Internet’s early days. Dooma, with characteristic hyperbole, considers that modest. “Maybe two billion people in the world use the Internet,” he said. “There has got to be close to seven billion who need some kind of psychoactive. Marijuana can be better than all of them, but it's not right now. It needs to change in order to reach its potential.”
I WANT EVERYTHING, AND I WANT IT NOW
Before he entered the pot business, Dooma’s L.A. production company helped create video games. He and his partner “were young and insanely confident,” Joshua Rubin, a writer who worked for them, said. “They knew how to talk people into things. They knew how to get people excited about ideas.” In the mid-Aughts, a colleague gave Dooma a copy of Alamut, a Slovenian novel based on the life of the 11th century Persian warlord, Hassan-i Sabbah. In the book, Sabbah lives by the credo, “Nothing is true, everything is permitted,” and controls an elite band of soldiers — known to history as the Assassins — by feeding them “little balls” of hashish. The book helped inspire Dooma and his partner to write Assassin’s Creed. Video games in the ensuing Ubisoft franchise have sold more than 78 million copies and grossed over $3 billion. A movie, starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Irons opens in December.
A Princeton grad with a film degree from USC, Dooma, then known as Mike, smoked his first joint with some buddies on the roof of a Miami hotel during his Star Trek-themed bar mitzvah. Still “super afraid” of drugs, Dooma tried not to inhale. In more than a year, I remember seeing him consume marijuana only once, during a meeting for work purposes. I never saw him take any other illegal drug, but he met his first wife at Burning Man and has claimed, “When I think back on my life, the most important moments, every single one of them, involved a psychoactive substance.” (He’s including caffeine.)
Dooma, a vegetarian and light drinker, has a far-flung network of interesting and accomplished friends and also knows his way around the national parks. He gets along so well with his parents that he brought them to Burning Man one year. They had a wonderful time.
At work, he presents a different face. In meetings, his default tone is brusque with a withering edge. He said he prefers not to hire people with ski racks on their cars because he thinks they’ll play hooky whenever it snows. He respects a few competitors, but says things like, “If you look at the jokers who are making the real money in this industry it can’t be that hard.” He got in the habit of Googling new contacts with terms like “fraud,” “scam” and “SEC” [Securities and Exchange Commission.] When interviewing a job candidate, he characterized his management style as, “What I want is everything and I want it now.”
He once berated an employee for bringing the wrong pastries to an investor meeting. “I got so mad,” Dooma said later while driving his dinky Honda hybrid. “I yelled at him in front of a lot of people, which I shouldn't have done.” He then brought up a female employee, “I am such an asshole to [her] and she tries so hard. [She] has this incredible ability to, like, bounce back when I say the most condescending and offensive things to her. She doesn't even get perturbed.” For a while, Dooma had a daily note on his calendar reminding him not to be an asshole. (Through a spokesman, Dooma said he doesn’t remember this and suggested that it was posted by an employee.)
By 2010, Dooma had a exciting career while, around him, hundreds of medical marijuana dispensaries had opened in L.A. Dooma saw that discerning users varied their intake to focus, relax or sleep, but the available products didn’t always deliver. “People who really love cannabis are willing to forgive the problems of the plant,” he said years later. “They think that like six times out of ten having a pretty good experience is good enough, whereas the average consumer would be furious with a six out of ten situation.” It wasn’t until later, after Colorado and Washington State voted to legalize in 2012, that Dooma called his old friend Cooper, who had returned to the Denver area where he grew up. “Hey Coop,” Dooma said. “What do you think of marijuana?”
"I know you're doing it because you believe, 'cause we don't pay you guys shit. It's about the equity."
Cooper, who had built a career as a tech executive and entrepreneur, didn’t think much about it, but he invited his friend to visit. Cooper, Ebbu’s CEO, has the beard and stocky build of a young Henry VIII. He’s more approachable than Dooma. He laughs easily, cheers for the Broncos and named his son Che.
As Colorado prepared for recreational sales, Dooma and Cooper searched for investment opportunities, but nothing struck them as a billion dollar idea. Grow operations needed capital, but the pair figured cannabis would soon be a commodity crop, like wheat or soybeans. Retail dispensaries looked like another low-margin slog, as sexy as running liquor stores. Dooma and Cooper decided that the big winners would be trusted brands, the Cokes or Budweisers of weed. Companies with similar ideas already touted their products’ flavor or all-natural ingredients. But no one uses cannabis because it’s baked inside a tasty cookie. “People make purchasing decisions in this industry based on how they think it's going to make them feel,” Dooma said. The existing companies were “all branding the wrong thing.”
Marijuana gets people high, but “high” is an inadequate description of the drug’s effects. Pot can feel euphoric or zonk users into “couch lock” for hours. It can induce laughing fits, paranoia or an urge to cuddle. Some users consider it essential for exercise, sleep, and, yes, work. Underground growers have long sought to engineer highs by crossbreeding familiar plants, but in an illegal market, their skill was worth little more than street cred.
When customers enter a dispensary, the buds displayed in glass jars beneath the counter are advertised as sativa, indica or hybrid. The French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck first distinguished between the tall cannabis sativa plants found in Europe and the bushier cannabis indica that grew in India in 1783. Today sativa is said to pep users up, while indica induces a mellower “in-da-couch” high. But most experts believe that years of untracked commerce and aggressive crossbreeding have stripped the classification of any real scientific basis, at least at the dispensary counter. “I would strongly encourage the scientific community, the press and the public to abandon the sativa-indica nomenclature,” Dr. Ethan Russo, a neurologist and medical director of a Los Angeles company focused on cannabinoid receptors, said in a recent journal interview.
The thousands of strain names like Alaskan Ice, Heisenberg Kush, Chem’s Sister and Amnesia Haze confuse matters further. The Web site Leafly, which has backing from Peter Thiel’s Founder’s Fund [disclosure: a Pando investor], says the canonical strain Blue Dream, a sativa-dominant hybrid, carries a balance of “full-body relaxation with gentle cerebral invigoration.” Who, after a few hits, would disagree? But savvy buyers know that what one dispensary calls Blue Dream, will be stronger or produce a different nature of experience than the Blue Dream sold next door, because neither is the real Blue Dream, if there even is such a thing.
“Even the word ‘strains’ is not typically applied to plants,” Jonathan Page, CEO of the cannabis testing company Anandia Labs, and an adjunct botany professor at the University of British Columbia told me. “In roses, or petunias, or corn you have cultivars or varieties of plants that are actually registered with a government body.” With cannabis, of course, there’s no registration or documentation.
Cindy Orser, chief scientific officer at testing company, Digipath Labs, said that when it comes to strains “truth in advertising doesn’t exist in this industry.”
During one of Dooma’s visits to Colorado, he and Cooper were talking in the living room — sober, Cooper said. Pot had never been hard to come by in Colorado, especially in Boulder where Cooper went to college, but he had an uneven history with it. “We have all these people who are coming to the state, and they want to try marijuana, and they just want to giggle,” he said to Dooma. “What do they take?” Remembering one of his best times with weed, he then asked, “What if we made a product that was called ‘Giggles?’”
Before Ebbu launched, Cooper put together a survey to learn about their potential customers. The most intriguing responses, he found, came from former users who had given it up. “You hear a whole wide range of excuses, and you can probably name them just as well along with me,” he said. “‘I have kids.’ ‘It doesn’t fit into my lifestyle now.’ ‘I had a bad experience.’” These same people had had bad experiences with alcohol but they continued to drink. Cooper and Dooma suspected that predictable marijuana products could bring those former users back. And these customers, Cooper said, “actually have money.”
Cooper now thinks a lot about marijuana, and how he can establish Ebbu as a trusted American brand. Ebbu, he said in a meeting is not about getting high, it’s about enhancing life experiences, whether that means enjoying a party, taking a nap or painting a picture. “There’s going to be an interesting question to figure out, related to this, or maybe it’s kind of the undertone of the whole thing, which is the experience of life,” he said, sounding a bit enhanced himself. Then he recovered, “We need to have a really good answer about why psychoactives are a good thing in people’s lives.”
THE END OF THE TOUR
Ebbu occupies a chalet-style building in the Rocky Mountain foothills near the town of Evergreen, Colo. Visitors enter a cramped office furnished with all the care and charm of a police station. There’s no ping-pong table, no free snacks, no kegerator. Some employees park their laptops wherever they find space at a large wooden table in the main room. Behind a locked door, where a factory and lab contains more than $1 million worth of equipment, a team of white-coated scientists are manipulating chemicals found in marijuana to create the five “Feelings”: Energy, Create, Chill, Giggle and Bliss.
In April 2015, the facility was still under construction when the co-founders met near Dooma’s standing desk to dissect everything that wasn’t working. Dooma scribbled on a window in red marker that Ebbu had no quality control, couldn’t meet deadlines and a pricey machine — a liquid chromatography mass-spectrometer — didn’t appear to work for their purposes. Cooper, seated in the small cluttered room, added that they had no way to scale up production until the factory opened, still months away. The packaging wasn’t finalized for a product they hoped to launch within weeks. “Do you know we have 20 employees right now?” Dooma asked, with a joyless laugh. “It sure doesn’t feel like it.”
The founders were sorting through their concerns over the loud scraping of an unseen worker — “That’s not annoying at all,” Dooma said — when the bookkeeper, an affable guy named Ben, arrived with a letter. The bank had apparently learned that Ebbu is in the marijuana business. “E-Trade has decided to exercise its discretion to close the above referenced account,” it read. Dooma and Cooper had 30 days to find a new bank for their investor’s money — the company raised $2 million in 2014 — even though none in the state openly worked with marijuana companies.
As Cooper and Ben huddled around a computer to go over expenses, Dooma sat slightly removed, leg bouncing, eyes on his phone. “Dooma we need to catch up,” he suddenly read aloud. “All tours are on hold until you and I speak about my role with Ebbu.” It’s from the landlord who was renting the company lab space in Denver while Ebbu built its own. When prospective investors landed from out of town, Dooma showed them the rented lab; he thought its bubbling beakers and gleaming machines would convince investors to dig deep. The landlord, a powerful figure in the industry, knew this, and hoped that by taking away one of Dooma’s main tools for raising money, he could maximize his stake in the company.
“Why the fuck is [Dooma’s assistant] telling these people that we’re doing tours?” Dooma snapped, and stomped off to find her. She departed the company soon after. (It’s not clear whether she quit or was fired.) “We’re so fucked,” he said as he returned. “We’re so fucking fucked.”
Over the course of 2015, Cooper and Dooma collaborated on strategy and business development. Cooper oversaw operations including the construction of Ebbu’s headquarters and factory and building a sales team. Dooma focused on fundraising. His central task for the year was leading Ebbu's effort to secure $9 million in venture capital.
Raising money is a peculiar challenge for marijuana companies, so anything that threatened to disrupt his efforts was an issue. “Sales is a very delicate dance,” he told me. “It's a lot about creating an illusion about what this company is and what the investment is going to be like and what your experience is going to be like with the investment.”
Almost none of the VC funds that most start-ups hit up will invest in weed. This narrows the pool mainly to rich folks who are willing to risk stigmatization, or, perhaps even prison time, to join the Green Rush. In Colorado, only two-year state residents can own equity in marijuana companies. (The state is phasing out this requirement.) As a result, Ebbu could only offer out-of state investors the relatively boring opportunity of interest-paying “notes.” And note holders have to get fingerprinted and pass a background check for the privilege. Even Dooma, who moved to Colorado for Ebbu, was not eligible to officially own equity in the company until January 2016. He was technically a consultant, though his LinkedIn page lists him as "Co-founder, Co-CEO."
“We’re so fucked,” he said as he returned. “We’re so fucking fucked.”
Even once the company has raised money, it had to wait for the bank it found to quietly accept its business to release it. In the fall, Ebbu was so short on cash that senior executives volunteered to defer their pay, while almost $5 million languished inaccessible.
In January 2015, I sat in as Dooma called some of the company’s investors to ask for more money. Outside, a blizzard had whited-out the roads. “Life is fucking great,” a California tech entrepreneur said through the speakerphone. "Up and to the right, up and to the right."
The conversation stalled after Dooma acknowledged that Ebbu didn’t have any revenue. “I love being invested in you no matter what you’re doing,” the investor said. “I know you’re a beast and you’re going to kill it.” Still, he declined to invest further.
The second investor wasn’t ready to invest more either, and Dooma opened the third call with some small talk. “I can’t imagine what your ex-wife looks like,” he said, “because [your daughter] looks like they cloned you.”
The ex-wife “looks like a Russian hooker,” the investor said. He wanted to invest more in Ebbu once he got through a temporary cash crunch. “Within two weeks I should have full access to what is quote unquote mine.”
Dooma’s professional life was an endless cycle of calls and travel to raise the money, but he sometimes displayed an unsteady grasp of the company’s finances. In early October, for example, he told a prominent investor visiting Ebbu that sales were expected to be $100,000 in September and $240,000 in October. He repeated the latter figure on a panel at an industry conference in Denver several days later. In fact, the company wouldn’t surpass $100,000 in monthly sales until November. (Through his spokesman, Dooma said he was never provided weekly sales numbers and what he offered in these meetings were his best estimates.)
During the same meeting, Dooma alluded to selling purified cannabinoids—chemicals found in marijuana—for $2,000 a gram. Some of the rarer chemicals likely sell for these prices, but Ebbu has yet to sell purified cannabinoids at any price. (Through a spokesman, Dooma said he believed a deal had previously gone through.) To one prospective investor, and at least once in front of me, he talked about companies that sell purified cannabinoids for far higher, more than $100,000 per gram. Dooma likely arrived at this price by taking the $150 that a scientific supply company might charge for one milligram quantities for use as laboratory references and multiplying it by 1,000 — milligrams to grams. Ebbu has never sold these products either and is unlikely to in the future, a company spokesman said. Experts I contacted said the small number of labs which need them typically buy tiny quantities; one company said about 20 milligrams of a given purified cannabinoid per year.
Ebbu sells pre-filled vape pen cartridges under the brand name Fancy, as well as hash, and potent extracts that are vaporized, or “dabbed,” for a fast-acting, intense high. In June 2015, Dooma told a reporter from Fortune Magazine that it cost $2 to produce these products, which were not on the market at the time. (Through his representative, Dooma said he was misquoted). In the October investor meeting, the number changed slightly. “This is a very high margin business,” Dooma said. “It's about $35 a gram wholesale for just the extract. About $4 a gram to produce.” (Through his spokesman, Dooma said his statements were based on financial models that showed what Ebbu's margins would be when the company was producing products at scale.)
At the time, Ebbu was paying more like $11 to produce a gram, Cooper told me later, worried that if the wrong numbers got out his customers would demand lower prices. “If you haven’t noticed, I’m the number guy in the relationship,” he said with rare exasperation. (Cooper said he did not read the Fortune article until January 2016.)
The lab and factory opened over the summer and Ebbu shipped its first vape pens. Cooper had to recall the whole first batch after they leaked. Hiccups like this are standard as companies adapt manufacturing practices to the unfamiliar raw material.
Ebbu’s extracted marijuana products brought in more than $300,000 in revenue by the end of the year. But Dooma and Cooper didn’t start the company to sell top shelf weed. Dooma described the distinction with a produce analogy: Ebbu’s current offerings are like premium orange juice, which needs to come from premium oranges; but vitamin C companies can extract their product from mediocre fruit. Feelings, he told investors, will be superior products derived from non-premium plants.
That pitch helped Dooma raise $7.9 million in 2015 — short of the initial $9 million goal, but an impressive haul for the industry. Despite his fundraising success, it remains unclear, as someone leaving one of Dooma’s Manhattan pitches put it, whether the creation of the Feelings — Giggle, Bliss and the rest — is “a fairy tale or if it’s real.”
GIGGLE AND BLISS
The weed arrives at Ebbu’s factory in bags, stuffed into boxes and plastic tubs. Companies like Ebbu that make “marijuana-infused products” typically buy “trim,” the excess foliage cut away from the buds or “flower.” Wholesale trim can sell for about $500 a pound; flower, which is better for smoking, can cost four times as much. Before growers ship an order, they must fill out a manifest specifying the amount and name of the product being shipped, the date, the vehicle, the estimated time of departure and arrival and the worker accompanying it. When it arrives, an Ebbu employee weighs it on a digital scale in the garage-like receiving room and then it’s catalogued in a state government database. RFID chips track all legal marijuana in Colorado “from seed to sale,” and every worker who handles it must first pass a state background check. Plenty of Colorado’s 1,000-plus licensed grows don’t have bank accounts, so delivery drivers often leave Ebbu with thousands of dollars in cash.
It’s not well understood why pot produces — or seems to produce — such different experiences. Marijuana’s potency is largely determined by the concentration of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, often called the plant’s psychoactive ingredient. But THC is only one of scores of compounds known as cannabinoids found in the plant. Cannabis also contains terpenes, the chemicals responsible for its unmistakable smell, and there’s evidence that they modify the high as well. (Fruits, conifers and many other plants also contain terpenes.) Ebbu thinks that specific ratios of cannabinoids and terpenes will produce the promised “Feelings” of Energy, Create, Chill, Giggle and Bliss. These chemicals, Cooper said, are “our flour and our sugar and our butter.”
First, Ebbu extracts the oil. The company uses ethanol (drinking alcohol) to strip away the leaves and flowers, leaving a golden, THC-rich viscous. Marijuana oil, like high-fructose corn syrup, is more versatile and less distinct than the plant it comes from. It can be vaped on its own, or deployed as the active ingredient — “Ebbu inside” — in edibles and pseudo-medical products like transdermal patches, pills and tinctures. A blend of marijuana and coconut oils, a few sellers claim, can heighten female orgasms when spritzed on their genitals a few minutes prior to sex.
As legalization spreads, many believe flower will shrink into a niche market for mavens who care about their pot’s appearance, bouquet and ancestry. Already in Colorado, more than 30 percent of cannabis retail sales go to factory-produced items, according to the data firm BDS Analytics.
Creating the Feelings, Ebbu believes, will require separating marijuana oil into purified cannabinoids. An aficionado might be able to namedrop 10 of the chemicals, but so far there’s only consumer interest in two: THC and cannabidiol (CBD), which is associated with the plant’s medicinal properties. Ebbu’s largest chromatography machine, known in-house as the Novasep, for the French manufacturer, is a custom-made, two-ton metallic puzzle of dials, gauges and piping that promises to separate marijuana oil into more cannabinoids than currently have names. It cost Ebbu more than $750,000. For years, underground growers have had an incentive to maximize the THC content in their plants. The Novasep represents a big bet by Ebbu that there’s unrealized commercial value in the lesser-known cannabinoids. In a private video, Dooma told investors that the Novasep, “could very easily make us a million dollars a day.”
Before Ebbu can manufacture the Feelings, it has to invent the recipes. In his lab at the back of the factory, Brian Reid, Ebbu’s chief science officer, uses a process called high-throughput cell screening to test how cannabinoids and terpenes interact with cells. Reid, a Ph.D. in biochemistry who previously worked at the University of Colorado and in the biotech industry, has a trim beard and a soft-spoken good-humor. With an 8-pronged pipette the shape of a hair pick, he filled the wells on an opaque rectangular plate with tiny drops of a clear fluid containing tens of thousands of cells “engineered to overexpress” the main cannabinoid receptor known to bond with THC. Across the room, a hulking liquid handling robot diluted droplets of three distinct cannabinoid solutions laid out on another plate. One solution contained THC, another CBD and the third equal amounts of THC and CBD.
According to both stoner lore and the scientific literature, CBD is supposed to moderate THC’s effects. But when Reid fed the plates into a $400,000 refrigerator-sized machine called a FLIPR, the solution containing both THC and CBD generated more cell activity than the two single-cannabinoid solutions combined. Reid explained that cannabinoids don’t act on the body like hyper-specific conventional medicines, but rather by way of a phenomenon known as the entourage effect, in which the chemicals in marijuana work in concert to amplify each other. (Dr. Russo, the neurologist, has compared it to a symphony.) This is what makes understanding individual cannabinoids a central challenge for any company seeking to harness the plant’s potential. “Cannabinoids are fairly ‘dirty,’ pharmacologically speaking,” Reid said. “They hit a number of receptors in the cells with varying affinities and effects.”
When Cooper and Dooma thought up Giggle and the other Feelings, they knew far more about what they could sell than what was scientifically feasible. Reid’s job is to perform tens of thousands of assays, varying the ratios, compounds and targets, until he lands on potential formulas for the Feelings. He said he can also test his own ideas, such as combinations that might mitigate side effects like the munchies or red eye. (Similar principles, Ebbu believes, could lead to products with specific medical benefits.) “We're going to really create a baseline of how each one of these components works at the cellular level,” Reid said. “It's really only known for a few of them.”
Reid’s work resembles the drug discovery process at pharmaceutical companies, but unlike drugmakers, Ebbu can conduct cellular research and human testing simultaneously while also generating revenue from selling similar products. For FDA regulated pharmaceutical companies, the process is more linear: Drug discovery, then additional lab research, then clinical trials and the payday only arrives, if it arrives, after years.
Ebbu can’t credibly claim that the Feelings work as promised unless it has data. But the logistics of testing intoxicants are tricky. Marijuana is a federally illegal drug and there are no established procedures or guidelines for testing it on humans. The company has had to think about things like how old the subjects should be and their familiarity with cannabis. Should it provide a way for subjects to get home, or, alternately, should they take samples home and answer questions online?
Throughout 2015, it was never clear to me which of the innumerable vape pens in the factory contained pure strain extracts—products available in every dispensary -- and which, if any, were manufactured prototypes of the Feelings. When a TV crew from Fusion visited Ebbu in March 2015, they taped a segment where three people received vape pens and then tried to guess which Feeling they had sampled. Cooper, who was not involved, believes that the samples were marijuana oil extracted from specific strains — products available in every dispensary — not precise formulas that Ebbu had developed. Dooma’s spokesman did not respond to requests for comment on what was provided for the Fusion shoot.
Through his spokesman, Dooma said the company had prototypes of Feelings by the second quarter of 2015. Through a spokesman, Cooper said it did not have formulated products by then. Either way, by the time Ebbu began formal testing this year, Dooma was gone.
A LIE, A MATERIAL LIE
On December 29th, Cooper and Dooma told me separately that big changes would come in the New Year. (Neither remembers saying so.) Dooma looked unhappy, while Cooper was his usual amiable self. Two nights later, Dooma threw a New Year’s Eve party that several employees attended. The next day he and his wife drove to Aspen where they had dinner with at least one Ebbu investor who said business didn’t come up. Dooma looked relaxed, the investor said. Perhaps for the first time.
The following Monday afternoon, the first workday of 2016, Cooper told the staff that Dooma was on an indefinite leave of absence. Dooma’s workspace had been cleared out. The news surprised almost everyone in the company. According to one Ebbu employee, speaking on the condition of anonymity, Dooma’s “personality was tough, but his expectation levels are the reason why we are where we are.” Dooma’s “the visionary,” the employee continued. “I can't believe that somebody put that much time and energy and effort into this business and they just dismissed him the way they did.”
In the weeks after, both Dooma and Cooper refused to clarify what happened, though Dooma told me, "It's the worst situation I've ever been in in my life." Then, in mid-February, I received a call from someone who identified themself as a “concerned citizen,” who told me that Dooma had misrepresented Ebbu’s revenue and profit margins, along with the amount Dooma personally invested, to make the company more attractive to prospective investors.
Not all of this was news. Dooma had misstated margins and revenues in front of me. A few days after the 2015 Christmas party, a coveted investor visited Ebbu’s headquarters. Afterward, Dooma sent an email to the team to congratulate them on a well-executed tour. A scientist who took part in the discussions with the investor replied to him: “I would like to share one thing that I have told you before: I do not like it if we change our wording as such that we are being dishonest. Tonight this happened a few times” including once, “when you were acting like we had prototypes for Feelings at this moment… I emailed you previously to ask you please not to say this and I was disappointed that you never replied.” When we first met in November 2014 Dooma told me that Ebbu had prototypes of all five Feelings.
I also learned that the co-founders met in late December and discussed Dooma’s status at the company. Without Cooper’s knowledge, Dooma recorded the conversation and then, according to the concerned citizen, inadvertently uploaded the recording to a company shared drive. I was first sent 17 clips totaling about 15 minutes of audio, which Dooma's spokesman characterized as a selectively edited recording of a much longer conversation. I knew who was arranging the leak and later received a copy of the entire recording, which lasted about one hour and 45 minutes. (Ebbu will not confirm the tape's authenticity.)
In the audio, Dooma attempted to convince Cooper that the two of them should “protect” themselves by signing an agreement that would make it difficult to fire them as a result of what Dooma had told prospective investors. He may have recorded the conversation to catch Cooper saying something he could be held to later.
Throughout the recording, Dooma repeatedly appealed to their long friendship. He also accused Cooper of trying to push him out. “Angry employees, missed emails…lies to investors that’s a case. Those are the things you say in court. It’s a case.”
At the time, Dooma was a month away from being a two-year Colorado resident, which would have ultimately allowed him to own a significant stake in Ebbu. Dooma suggests that Cooper wants to force him out, in part to take what would have been Dooma’s. “If you get rid of me then you own a lot more of this company,” Dooma said. “It is not rocket science and now the round is raised, the money is in the bank and you don’t need me.” Cooper dismissed the accusation, and says that Dooma’s false assertions with investors put the company at enormous risk. “You tell people that you’ve put a million dollars into this company,” Cooper says. “That’s material. You never put a million dollars into this company.” Misled investors have a tendency to sue.
Dooma replies, “I’ve told people what they need to hear to get their money in and it’s been very difficult.”
“Which is a lie.”
“Yes. I’ve told some things that were not true.”
“It’s a lie,” Cooper says. “It’s a lie. It’s a material lie.”
Dooma also implicated his co-founder: “You’ve been in enough investor meetings to know that I will occasionally stretch the truth on small things where I can’t get caught. You know. That’s what I do. It’s something that you do. Everyone does it to some extent.”
“I don’t know if that’s true,” Cooper responded.
Elsewhere in the recording, Dooma tells Cooper, “It’s not false that I didn’t invest. I got fucking paperwork saying I invested… I’m on record as a note holder in Ebbu for $240,000.”
It’s not clear how much of the $240,000 was actually Dooma’s. In a “custodian agreement” dated September 13, 2013, Dooma agreed to receive $140,000 “to make certain investments as directed by investor.” As best I could determine without endangering anyone’s livelihood, the signer is the brother of one of Dooma’s college friends who works for a global bank. According to a document, apparently executed September 19, 2013, which I obtained, Dooma then invested $140,000 in Ebbu. If this transaction went through, it could have served as a way for someone who didn’t want their name associated with marijuana to invest in a marijuana company.
In October 2013, Dooma’s future wife signed a similar agreement to receive $100,000. A document dated two days later was prepared to confirm a $100,000 investment in Ebbu, and names both her and Cooper as signatories, though Cooper hasn’t signed it.
Through his spokesman, Dooma said he invested a total of $249,000 in the company, including a $100,000 note executed in September, a month before his future wife accepted custody of the same sum. Dooma’s spokesman did not respond to requests to clarify the source of the $140,000 investment.
In part to prevent illegal marijuana operations from gaining control of the Colorado market, the licensing process requires executives, in this case Cooper, to sign documents under penalty of perjury disclosing everyone who has a current or pledged financial interest in the company. Ebbu received its state license in March 2015. If any of the transferred $240,000 made it into Ebbu’s coffers, the company had an obligation to disclose the names of the original investor or investors. Cooper said neither Dooma’s college friend nor anyone with his last name has ever been an Ebbu note holder. Cooper also said he is not aware of Dooma’s wife ever being a note holder and Dooma’s camp said she never was. Dooma’s spokesman did not respond to specific questions about the contents of the audio.
In the recording, Cooper said that Dooma’s embellishments have imperiled Ebbu, “I don’t think you understand the severity of what’s been going on and what’s happening.”
“It’s more severe for me than it is for you,” Dooma responded.
“It could be severe for everyone who’s associated with the company,” Cooper said. “If stuff got out, if all this stuff was publicized…it could affect every single person in the company.”
“Correct,” Dooma said.
“Everyone out of a job, everything under.”
NOBODY UNDERSTANDS THIS PLANT
Ebbu’s quest to understand the mercurial plant continues. The Ebbu investors I spoke to seemed unconcerned about Dooma’s exaggerations and it appears that in many cases he told prospective investors accurate figures. "In any private deal,” one investor said, “verbal numbers are going to be corrupted and it's up to the individual investor to do their due diligence.” Others who sat for Dooma’s fundraising pitch say he was always candid about the risks Ebbu investors faced. An early Ebbu funder, Darren McCammon, said he remains confident in the company’s direction. “I would be more upset if I had lost Coop,” he said.
Since Dooma’s departure, the company has established an oversight committee. Many Ebbu staffers are probably still unaware of the recording Dooma made. In March, someone claiming to be an Ebbu employee sent me an anonymous note saying there has been a purge of Dooma’s loyalists. “They're wiping any possible memory of the founder,” the employee wrote. “But we all know what they did to him.”
Through his spokesman, Cooper said the company has made inquiries to the company's investors, “so that we can understand what occurred and take any remedial measures." The round is now closed at $7.9 million, the same amount raised before Dooma left; Dooma is no longer invested in the company. Cooper said operations are stronger than ever. The company is working on a product line called Ratio that will contain specific ratios of THC and CBD. Several competitors already sell similar products, but it’s a step toward the Feelings, which the company now says will be out in early 2017. Perhaps the strongest indication that Ebbu can recover and thrive is that in the audio, Cooper said everything a responsible CEO should, without knowing he had to.
For as long as I knew him, Dooma always presented money as a secondary motivation. His orations about providing “safer” alternative to alcohol sometimes rang hollow, but his insistence that Ebbu would change the world never did. Joshua Rubin, who co-wrote Assassin’s Creed 2, told me Dooma “is excited by opportunity, to do things. He wants to go for the ride.”
In a forgiving light, then, his actions were likely what he thought Ebbu’s outsize ambitions required given Colorado’s restrictions on fundraising.
When we last spoke, in mid-February, before his recording and the investment documents surfaced, he sounded upbeat and said he’s starting a new marijuana venture, one that would surpass Ebbu. “I’m on a mission,” he said. Next time, though, it won’t be in Colorado.
Alex Halperin is a freelance reporter in Denver. He writes the newsletter WeedWeek.
Photography by Morgan Rachel Levy