The Cannabis Infrastructure and Technology Group, Inc. (The CIFT Group) was formed to take advantage of the new opportunity in the decriminalized sector of the cannabis industry and to bridge the gap that currently exists between the traditional participants in the decriminalized cannabis industry and Wall Street and Main Street while uniting and aligning the different verticals within the cannabis industry. CIFT Group is not directly involved in the production of cannabis. Rather, it is solely providing the ancillary products, services and technology that cannapreneurs require to cultivate, process and manufacture their products.
Benjamin Lee, CEO of The CIFT Group, has been an infrastructure and technology provider to the cannabis industry and has been working on mergers and acquisitions for several public companies for the past several years. He is also a Certified Master Practitioner of Neuro-Linguistic Programming and has attained the Certified Commercial Investment Member (CCIM) designation.
Silvia Davi spoke with Benjamin Lee at the recent National Investment Banking Association conference in New York.
Silvia Davi [SD]: Thank you to joining me, Ben, here at the NIBA conference. Excited to talk more about your company. You're the founder and CEO of CIFT. Tell us what that stands for, and the mission behind the company.
Ben Lee [BL]: Sure, CIFT actually stands for the Cannabis InFrastructure and Technology Group, and really our main focus is to provide the ancillary products, services and technologies to commercial scale licensed producers, so that they can scale and really maximize their profitability We really see the need for high quality consistent product because there's so many medical applications and benefits that we really haven't really delved into especially here in the United States. Unfortunately, with cannabis still being a schedule one drug, there hasn't been the research like that's been done in Israel and other parts of the world because again, they see absolutely no medical benefit from it. Unfortunately, with the new Farm Bill CBD has come off the schedule one which is great, which is a great first step, but it still needs to continue to progress.
[SD]: You seem to be bridging the gap between Wall Street and Main Street, particularly within the cannabis industry. Explain how that process is going and some of the misconceptions that still exist to date.
[BL]: Sure, I remember going to MJBizCon, which is one of the largest cannabis business conferences in Vegas several years ago. Back then you had the people that you knew in the industry because they had cargo shorts on, they had tie-dyed shirts, and then you had all the money guys who are in suits, like the investment bankers or whatnot. And both groups wanted to work together. The money people wanted to invest in these industry veterans, and the industry veterans wanted to expand their businesses. But they could never really connect because, again most of those industry veterans were considered criminals not that long ago.
So there's a significant mistrust still in the industry because all these people who, for lack of better term, pooh-poohed them for the longest time, right now want to get involved and basically want to take over the industry. So it really is a major, I guess you can say, goal of ours to really connect the two groups because if there's mistrust, the industry veterans won't be as open-minded to, I guess, adopt some of the systems or technologies or other things that we can bring in from other industries that could really, really help and advance the industry.
[SD]: That's an excellent point in today's market and in particular, in the history of a company's corporate reputation, trust and credibility are the most important elements. How do you apply your own management style to that and what you've brought to this new company? You founded the company about a year ago?
[SD]: I know being here, at the NIBA conference, is a big part of that and establishing that trust with investors here, but explain how you've applied your own philosophy to really start establishing trust in such a controversial industry.
[BL]: Well, I think it's all about authenticity. If you're not authentic, if you're not going to grow with who you are as a person, then I think it's very difficult for you to gain trust and build rapport with people. So, I always try to live my life. Whatever I say, whatever I think, is what manifests itself into the physical world. So for me, it's about: If I tell you I’m going to do something, then it will be done. There's no room for negotiation there, and if I tell somebody, hey listen: This is what we're going to do with our company. This is what we’re going to do with this particular acquisition. Then we have to ensure that we follow up with whatever we said we were going to do.
[SD]: That's a great concept. The segment that you're doing this interview for is called "Renaissance Minds,” which really applies a modern renaissance mindset. Tell me how your personal philosophy to innovation has started to not only influence the current company that you're leading, but just throughout your career. Talk to us about the background.
[BL]: What I would say is, in this day and age, you have people that can't be one-trick ponies anymore, as we were speaking about earlier. You really need to be somebody that has skill sets across multiple areas of their life and in business and what not. And we really want from an innovation perspective, to bring on technologies that are able to provide us with, obviously, a competitive advantage against all of our competitors, but really just advance the industry as a whole because with all the different technologies that we see out there, some of them are phenomenal, but the industry is so young, and still in its infancy. A lot of people haven't gone through the cost benefit analysis of whatever technology that they’re implementing.
Even the people that are, I guess you can say, more scientific in implementing certain things. They're basically implementing 10 things at a time, at the same time, instead of getting a baseline of: Here's where we are. Let's try one thing and see if there's an improvement, see what it would actually cost to implement that particular technology and see if it actually makes sense. But they're just throwing everything all at once. But eventually we'll get to a point where the industry is more mature, where it will be more scientific, where it'll be more data-driven, and we believe that if we can figure out an integrated ecosystem, which is really what we’re focused on, creating an integrated ecosystem that allows us to automate and systematize the entire process from seed to sale, that's really going to help us provide extremely high quality product consistently. And again, from a medical perspective, if you're ingesting something that's naturally derived it's more difficult to really get consistency because it varies from bud to bud on a plant, and plant to plant.
For example, one of the technologies that we have is a fractionation or separation technology that allows us to separate the actives from one another. For example, when you extract oil from the plant, it has everything in there. There’s THC, there’s CBD, CBA, CBG, all of the different cannabinoids. We're actually working on research to identify the specific cannabinoid profiles that work for a specific indication. for example, epilepsy, leukemia, brain tumor, so on and so forth, and once we're able to identify the specific profile, then we can separate out the cannabinoids and then create a formulation to attack that specific disease.
I think that's really where the industry will move towards, and from a medical perspective, it's going to get to that point. And again, I think it's going to be a bifurcation of the medical application of cannabis and the recreation.
[SD]: Sounds fascinating and it definitely seems like you've applied a building block approach to your not only management philosophy but with taking part of your background in pharmaceuticals. Tell us about what made you get started in that industry.
[BL]: Actually, it happened just through complete happenstance, but I will say I was born on 4/20, so I can say I was born for the industry. I was actually working for a pharmaceutical company that does novel drug delivery technologies. Basically, one of them was an oral thin film, basically a Listerine Fresh Strip, that we can infuse with pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals, veterinary and also, cannabis. And my partner at the time had a cannabis company, and it was just kind of not really doing anything. And he said, I really want you to focus on this. I want you to take this over. And that's how I kind of got introduced to the industry and that was several years ago. We started this CIFT Group last year, and we're really excited about what we're doing and unlike a lot of the other cannabis companies out there, we actually are generating revenue. We actually are profitable which is pretty incredible, because there are a lot of companies out there that are pre-revenue or their burn rate is so high, that they're nowhere close to profitability. So I think that's a real feather in our cap.
[SD]: Absolutely. You mentioned that some of the markets are more advanced. What other markets do you find are the leading the way in this industry?
[BL]: I would say Canada is one of the leading ones, and Israel as well Israel definitely from a research perspective. They have some of the brightest minds obviously in the world in Israel, and they're significantly more progressive than they have been here in the United States.
[BL]: I don't think Canada is as advanced with regards to the research portion of it, but they really are the leader of the global cannabis expansion. And it's funny because the United States is the only country in North America that still has criminalized cannabis. Canada did away with it, as did Mexico. So we are still behind the times from a global perspective.
[SD]: That’s very interesting. Where are you from originally?
[BL]: Actually, I was born in Hong Kong and then raised in south Florida, then as we were speaking about earlier, lived in LA for the last three years. California has been a very interesting market as well. It was actually the leader. I believe I was ’96 when they passed Prop. 64, but they're still having significant growing pains, which is interesting. I think that really has to do with the shoot-ready-aim process that they've utilized in the state. But states like Colorado, Florida, Washington have learned from their mistakes, and they're much better off than what California has been doing recently. They're actually changing laws again. I don’t know why they're doing it, but here we are again.
[SD]: You've made a lot of progress, and I think having a global mindset is incredibly important in the industry that you're in. Lastly, I think it would be great just to get a feel for any hobbies or any hidden talents that you find have impacted your thinking as you continue to establish your organization or any other thoughts in general that have influenced your philosophy?
[BL]: When I'm not working I love to work out and definitely look at it as more of a lifestyle. I will wake up in the morning, run in the morning, work out at night, two-a-days so to speak, eat really healthy, following macros. I’m extremely disciplined in that sense, and it allows me to not have to spend too much energy because as a CEO, you're constantly making decisions, so you're just trying to eliminate the superfluous decision-making that you really don't have to make. That's what Steve Jobs was great at he always wore the same thing and eliminated a lot of the energy that it takes to say, what am I going to eat today or what am I going to wear today? So I definitely look at that as one of the guiding principles that I live by. I really think that the way society is evolving, we're really going to see some significant shifts in people being authentic, and people living more of a healthier lifestyle instead of just saying, “Hey I'm going to diet.” It's really more of a lifestyle change.
[SD]: That's fascinating, and it definitely has an impact, and it's always great to see what CEOs that are leading the way in an industry such as this one, are passionate about. So thank you so much for allowing us to speak with you a little bit about your renaissance mind, and thank you again for being here today. Good luck with all that you’re doing.
[BL]: Thank you.
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