This article was co-authored by Yaron Carni, Danielle Shapira and Jacob Cohen from Maverick.vc
While her fellow startup founders e-scoot to co-working spaces around Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard –Israel’s version of Silicon Valley’s Sand Hill Road-- Professor Leah Boehm, 70, rides her motorcycle the 40KM (24 miles) to Kibbutz Revadim in southern Israel every morning.
She doesn’t exactly fit the mold of the 20-something-out-of-Unit 8200-South America trip-computer science degree Israeli startup founder stereotype. In fact, she’s almost certainly a complete outlier. Born the same year as the State of Israel, she is an award-winning PhD in Solid State Chemistry, and previously ran technology research as Chief Scientist at Israel Aerospace Industries, a distinguished R&D center for the Israeli air force and other organizations around the world. She has 3 children and 7 grandchildren and doesn’t use Facebook. She has authored over 80 scientific publications, 35 scientific reports and has 4 patents under her name.
At an age when most of her peers opt for retirement, look after their grandchildren, or go on long holidays abroad, Boehm co-founded and is building a new startup to tackle the inefficiencies in cannabis growing. She leaves home for work at 7:30 and gets back at 4pm. “It’s a long, full day,” she says. Like many other early-stage startup entrepreneurs, Boehm is corralling friends and family for help. “My elder son helps us with the startup, he writes us the business plan, he finds us connections-- the whole family is very encouraging.”
While she says she’s never smoked a joint in her life, Boehm does think her years of tech experience can break new ground in the booming medical cannabis industry. This past year, Boehm founded Witi-Sense, a technology development company, together with engineer Dan Savin, a former colleague at IAI. Boehm and Savin’s vision is to harness their experience in remote sensing technologies to develop sensors for the agriculture industry, focusing on the Cannabis plant.
Often, crop management decision-making requires real-time quality monitoring, which is hardly possible if samples need to be removed and sent elsewhere for laboratory analysis. To solve this inefficiency, the Witi Sense team turned to spectroscopy-based analytics --used to identify materials based on how they reflect wavelengths. One area where this analytical chemistry is sorely needed is in classifying cannabis strains. Whole cannabis plants contain variable mixtures of active compounds -- Marijuana contains over 113 different chemical compounds known as cannabinoids -- and are therefore likely to produce inconsistent cannabis strains. Particularly, growers struggle to obtain potency data for tetrahydrocannabinol acid (or THCA, which gets you high) and Cannabidiol acid (CBDA, which can be used for pain relief but doesn’t get you high), the two most common cannabinoids. With cannabis becoming legal across the globe for medicinal applications, demand is rising for more stringent quality, potency and safety evaluation.
Since current analytical tools can only measure the composition of dried flowers or extracts, long laboratory tests are usually conducted only after the flowers are harvested. According to Boehm, as of today, no methodical device exists to help growers verify the composition and potency of cannabis in real time and produce high-quality strains. This negatively affects medical users who need cannabis for treating things like pain or epilepsy, making it very challenging to achieve the right dose, while adding extra burden to self-manage side effects. In fact, inaccurate labeling on cannabis products has been tied to panic attacks, rapid heart-rate and hallucinations. It also makes administration of medical marijuana much less effective than it needs to be. The commercial future of cannabinoid drugs lies in the safe and effective delivery of purified active compounds with optimal medical value.
Boehm’s Witi-Sense hopes to address this by developing a low-cost, non-destructive, hand-held device allowing growers to measure the concentrations of active THCA and CBDA in wet cannabis flowers on-site. Boehm and her team are developing two devices through which they hope growers will be able to adjust environmental conditions and optimize harvest time to achieve best quality and quantity possible and increase the yield. “I feel younger, and my partners are much younger than me, but I don’t feel any difference. We don’t argue, we understand each other, and we work together developing something unique,” she says.
The company is now validating the initial version of the device, with Boehm herself running thousands of spectral measurements on unpicked flowers, dry flowers and extractions. With the energy of a passionate entrepreneur, Boehm and the Witi-Sense team work every day at cannabis greenhouses in the south of Israel, refining the product to extract the best out of medical cannabis.
“I still get very excited when I see even a small breakthrough-- just like when I was a student. To me that’s innovation,” she says.
Boehm recognizes that she doesn’t fit the mold of a young startup founder, and that's a good thing. “The concept that younger founders are energized risk-takers who have more free time and fewer family obligations sometimes makes us overlook the most knowledgeable and experienced of founders with a lot of passion for innovation,” she says. Her recommendation to her peers: “If there’s still something working in that gray matter in your head, take advantage of it.”
“I feel like I’ve gone back 40 years. There's sparkle in my eyes. My husband thought he’d never see that sparkle again.”