How does Jefferson prepare students for these two exploding industries?
Planted years ago, the seeds of the cannabis and hemp industries have finally bloomed. Thanks to a shifting landscape, the two fields now present numerous opportunities for Jefferson students and graduates.
To see how hemp- and cannabis-related jobs will flourish in the future, The Nexus spoke with Dr. Ron Kander, dean of the Kanbar College of Design, Engineering and Commerce, and Dr. Brooke Worster, director of the new MS in medical cannabis sciences and business program. We also interviewed two recent alumni about their experiences in their respective fields.
Why is hemp a job of the future? The global industrial hemp market will more than triple from $3.61 billion in 2020 to $12.01 billion by 2028.
For decades, the United States outlawed industrial hemp, lumping it with cannabis as a schedule 1 drug. The laws changed recently, and hemp now is controlled by the Department of Agriculture as a crop—not the Drug Enforcement Administration, Dr. Kander says. “It was one of the few issues in the 2010s that had bipartisan agreement. The economic potential is huge.”
As a biomass, farmers can grow more hemp per acre than any other crop, he says. The dense plant grows high (about 10 to 15 feet) and quickly.
“You can grow a crop in about 100 days,” Dr. Kander says. “That number is important. In climates like ours, it’s a perfect rotational crop. You don’t have enough of a season left for another corn or soybean, but you have time for one growth of hemp. It revitalizes soil and helps farmers.”
The hardy plant also requires virtually no pesticides, water and fertilizer, so it can grow in an organic, regenerative way.
In addition, the entire plant can be used, making it a versatile crop, he says. For example, the fiber can be made into textiles, insulation and rope; the hurd (or woody part) for paper, compost and fiberboard; the oil for dietary supplements, body care products, fuel and paint; the seed cake (or remains after the hemp oil is pressed out) for flour, beer and animal feed; the nuts for dairy products, baked goods, granola and protein powder; and the roots, leaves and flowers for compost and medicine.
How does Jefferson prepare students for the hemp industry? Hemp’s biggest limiting factor right now stems from the lack of processing facilities to extract all the crop’s components at once and feed them into different industries, Dr. Kander says. The industry needs something equivalent to a refinery for crude oil, which extracts the oil and fractionates it to make 15 to 20 different products.
Here’s where Jefferson students can help solve this systems problem to create a seamless supply chain that goes from plant to product.
“It’s the sweet spot of Kanbar College,” he explains. “You have to understand economics, business, engineering and product design. It’s the perfect example of why that balanced skillset would let you succeed in a new industry.”
In addition, Jefferson faculty and students often have research opportunities in hemp. The University is currently working on three major projects funded by the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development. One is helping companies use hemp hurd in composite materials for industrial applications. The other two projects center on developing the next generation of products.
First, they’re taking hemp fibers and chemically processing them into cellular nanocrystals, says Dr. Kander, who’s also associate provost for applied research. “They have properties approaching carbon fiber, so now you’re talking about entering high-end applications like aerospace.”
Second, they’re using hemp herd as the feed in a bioreactor to grow genetically modified cells that generate plastic inside of them, Dr. Kander says. “If it works, we will take that plastic and reinforce it with our nanocrystals and have a completely hemp-based sustainable composite material that could replace petroleum-based plastic.”
What are some common misconceptions of the hemp field? People still confuse hemp and cannabis, Dr. Kander says. “Some people also think because hemp is an agricultural product being processed that it’s somehow a ‘dirty job.’ This is modern manufacturing at its best.”
What’s your elevator pitch to prospective students? “Most students today want to work at a company with values they understand and appreciate,” Dr. Kander says. “With hemp, you’re developing sustainable, renewable materials that are locally sourced and processed. The industry will grow dramatically over the next 20 years, which means you’re getting in on the first floor.”
What does an alumna say about the hemp industry? Isabella Siravo never expected to enter the world of hemp when she started as a fashion merchandising and management student at Jefferson in 2014. However, while pursuing her MBA, she became a graduate research assistant, a position sponsored by Ecofibre. The biotech company produces and sells hemp-derived products and launched her current career path.
With Dr. Kander, Mark Sunderland, chief innovation officer at Hemp Black—one of Ecofibre’s businesses, and other Jefferson faculty and students, Siravo examined what types of products could be produced and commercialized from hemp.
After earning her MBA, she went to work for Hemp Black, which manufactures and sells sustainable, high-performance textiles and technology. (In fact, Hemp Black recently acquired TexInnovate, a company run by Jefferson alumnus and textile engineer Jeff Bruner ’73; Bruner now serves as president of Hemp Black.)
This is modern manufacturing at its best.
–Dr. Ron Kander
Hemp Black’s textiles can be found in fashion, athleisure wear, health care, composites, building materials and even Amazon’s autonomous vehicle, Zoox, Siravo says.
Last January, Siravo moved to Georgetown, Ky., and transitioned to another Ecofibre business, Ananda Health. “It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” she says.
Siravo is now strategic operation manager of sales and manufacturing operations for the company that sells hemp-derived CBD products to independent pharmacies. Ananda Health has spent $40 million on research to further explore CBD’s capabilities. Their studies have examined CBD for opioid reduction, sleep and anxiety, pelvic pain and more.
“We won’t provide something just because it’s a pop fad,” Siravo says. “We want to sell products with a purpose.”
Why is cannabis a job of the future? The global market will grow from $28.266 billion in 2021 to a whopping $197.74 billion in 2028, estimates shows.
Dr. Worster, the MS in medical cannabis sciences and business program director, notes a twofold reason for this explosive growth. First, cannabis often garners international headlines for both its recreational and health and wellness uses. Second, the public continues to push for legislative changes and increased access to cannabis.
“The demand is driving the need to consistently innovate and create better supply, from a seed in the ground, to a brick-and-mortar building,” she says. “How can we do this more efficiently, effectively and reliably.”
Cannabis-related jobs include agriculture, tech, medical and informatics, she says. Plus, researchers can study everything from new formulations to cannabis’ impact on patients with cancer.
How does Jefferson prepare students for the cannabis industry? The medical cannabis science and business degree trains students to enter the field as researchers, scientists, entrepreneurs or healthcare providers, Dr. Worster says.
The program encompasses three stackable graduate certificates:
- Cannabis Medicine (clinical applications, physiological impacts, therapies and health effects)
- Cannabis Science (botany, chemistry, pharmacology and toxicology)
- Cannabis Business (regulations, management, operations, financial analysis and business model innovation).
To address curriculum gaps, the program will feature some additions for fall 2022, she says. “We realized we weren’t digging in deep enough in certain areas.” Three new courses will focus on the social justice, legislative and public health aspects of cannabis.
“We have the only master’s program out there that gives someone looking to get into cannabis a broad perspective on the entire field,” she says. “We cover every avenue of the cannabis industry to prepare that next generation of the workforce.”
The demand is driving the need to consistently innovate and create better supply, from a seed in the ground, to a brick-and-mortar building. –Dr. Brooke Wooster
Jefferson additionally has a cannabis business concentration within the Innovation MBA program to equip students with specialized business knowledge and skills specific to the cannabis industry. Students gain an understanding of the emerging issues in cannabis, its cultural and social history, cannabis laws and regulations, and major aspects of quality assurance and control in testing.
What are some common misconceptions of the cannabis field? Students don’t need a science or medical background to do well in the program, Dr. Worster stresses. “We’re not trying to just educate advanced degree biochemists; we’re educating people who want to enter the cannabis industry.” That could mean anyone with undergraduate experience in business, public health, chemical engineering and even law enforcement. “People see the disproportional effects of cannabis legislation and how its criminalization has impacted neighborhoods. They want to be part of that change.”
What’s your elevator pitch to prospective students? “It’s rare to see this depth of opportunities in a field that spans across so many backgrounds,” Dr. Worster says. “Students are smart and want to get the most bang for their buck. It’s hard to make the argument that cannabis doesn’t provide that.”
What does an alumnus say about the cannabis industry? Seth Michael Martin has seen the benefits of medicinal cannabis for a decade. A close friend contracted hepatitis C with an already-compromised immune system. Essentially bedridden, Martin’s friend suffered from perpetual migraines, exhaustion and painfully swollen joints.
Then, his friend tried edibles, and his whole demeanor and quality of life turned around. The fatigue and headaches waned, the swelling diminished and he could walk around again.
“I saw the potential,” Martin says, “and I wanted to learn as much as possible.”
Martin earned three certificates in cannabis at Jefferson and then became the first graduate of the University’s medical cannabis science and business program in 2021.
He now works as an assistant manufacturing manager at the cannabis company Trulieve, focusing on the extraction processes. Here, Martin examines ways to improve methods used to produce cannabis-based products, all while soaking in the quickly emerging research.
“Jefferson allowed me to be comfortable and confident in what we truly know about cannabis and what we don’t,” the scientist says. “The courses did a great job in showing me how to process and appropriately synthesize data that comes out from the cannabis industry.”