Innovating Cannabis Robotics and AI with Nohtal Partansky

Innovating Cannabis Robotics and AI with Nohtal Partansky

Join Eric Schneider and Isaac Bach on the latest episode of “Roots to Risk” as we dive into the fascinating intersection of robotics, artificial intelligence, and the cannabis industry with our special guest, Nohtal Partansky, co-founder of Sorting Robotics.

Nohtal shares his journey from being a NASA JPL engineer to pioneering cutting-edge solutions in cannabis manufacturing, shedding light on how his company is reshaping the future of cannabis production through automation and AI.

Discover the challenges and opportunities in integrating sophisticated technologies within the cannabis space, the evolution of customer adoption, and a glimpse into the future of AI-driven innovation in the industry.

Whether you’re an industry professional, entrepreneur, or simply curious about the technological advances in cannabis, this episode offers insightful perspectives on enhancing efficiency, reducing costs, and embracing the potential of AI and robotics. Don’t miss out on this engaging conversation that bridges the gap between space engineering and cannabis innovation.


00:01 Eric Schneider
This is the Roots to Risk Podcast hosted by Eric Schneider, alongside Isaac Bach. Roots To Risk brings you insights, the latest stories, and long form discussions about the cannabis industry. You’ll hear interviews with industry leaders and their perspective on current and future trends, how they’ve built success and what challenges they have faced. Our goal is to facilitate candid conversations and provide informative content for the cannabis community at large. Let’s go. What’s going on, Isaac? How are we doing today? Another route to risk on deck.

00:33 Eric Schneider
How are we feeling? Yep.

00:35 Isaac Bock
Great way to start the week on a, a Monday morning. Doing well. How are you doing? Me?

00:40 Eric Schneider
I’m good man. I’m great. We have a very interesting one on deck, not an operator, not a a service provider, but definitely on the ancillary side of things. Really unique way how they kind of morphed and, and got into the industry, which is, which we’ll dive into. But the organization is Sorting Robotics and we have the co-founder Natal Baranski and just a little bit more background on Natal. He’s the founder and CEO of Sorting Robotics.

01:10 Eric Schneider
He’s a serial entrepreneur and former NASA JPL engineer at nasa. JPL Natal was a cognizant engineer on the Moxie Project, an instrument on the surface of Mars producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere. After leaving nasa, JPL Natal founded Sorting Robotics with his co-founder, Caio DeSantis Jr. Since the company’s inception, natal has led sorting Robot robotics in building innovative equipment for the cannabis manufacturers and vertically integrated brands.

01:44 Eric Schneider
I’m, yeah,

01:45 Isaac Bock
<inaudible> <laugh>.

01:47 Eric Schneider
I think his IQ is probably yours and mine combined, so I’m pretty excited to, to have him on here and to learn more about what he was building at NASA and how that experience has allowed them to have success in the cannabis space. I think, you know, the, the product that they’re building is, is really, really innovative and, and has a lot of applications and I think also we’re gonna see more and more of it as the, the industry continues to mature and adding o other forms of technology to help with the, the supply chain and the manufacturing process.

02:26 Isaac Bock
Yeah, absolutely. I think he is gonna provide a very unique insight having had someone kind of on this side of things on before. Yeah. So it’ll be definitely interesting to hear his perspective and learn a lot more about what they’re building.

02:38 Eric Schneider
Absolutely. Well let’s bring him in. Hey Natal, how we doing today? Hey man, how’s it going? Good, good, good. Thanks for joining Isaac and myself on the Roots to Risk podcast. Super excited to have you on. Would love to just learn a little bit more about your background and also, you know, sorting Robotics, what you guys are building and you know, what the future holds.

03:02 Nohtal Partansky
Yeah, sure. So kind of background on myself before Sorting Robotics, I worked at NASA, JPL, so nasa, the research center here in Pasadena in la and I was there for about four years. I was the cognizant engineer, so kind of the lead engineer on a project called Moxie. That project is a device that’s currently on the Perseverance rover on Mars and what it does is it pulls in the atmosphere of Mars and then generates oxygen from it.

03:41 Nohtal Partansky
And it was kind of like a technology demonstrator for future human travel on Mars. And so I did that for a few years and then me and my co-founders noticed that we really wanted to kinda go away from the bureaucracy and kinda like slow pace that is the aerospace world and we built this company. And so initially this company was not really in the cannabis space and that’s why a big question always people have like how’d you go from NASA to cannabis?

04:13 Nohtal Partansky
Well, there was a step in between. The first step was that we designed a system that sorted like trading cards for e-commerce sellers, so think like Pokemon Yugi cards. And that was our first foray into building products and selling it into customers and building robotic systems. But then eventually we noticed that that market really wasn’t as large as we were looking for, so we got into a startup accelerator called Y Combinator and then that expanded our network so that way we could look for something bigger.

04:52 Nohtal Partansky
And I’d always been interested in cannabis for both its, you know, health benefits and like rec benefits. And that’s when we met a bunch of founders that were building all these businesses in the space. So this is around 2019 and in a time they said, Hey man, just come in and build something. Like we need help. You know, everyone’s doing everything by hand.

05:19 Nohtal Partansky
It’s very difficult. The big companies are not really paying attention to us. And it looked like a huge market and it looked like something that we were all interested in. And so in around 2020 we had just raised a bunch of money for building robots for cannabis manufacturers and for us to really understand what a cannabis manufacturer did and what the problems that they went through were. We worked with a few operators up in Oakland and we started a cannabis co-packing company.

05:55 Nohtal Partansky
And, and that’s something that I ran for three years, kind of in parallel with the robotic side, but it was, it was like, you know, we did everything. We did hand trimming, machine trimming, we packaged jars and bags, we made pre-rolls, we packaged concentrates, we did master casing. It was the whole deal. And it really allowed me to understand the industry from a like owner operator perspective.

06:22 Nohtal Partansky
I mean to the point where like, you know, sometimes I’ll advise some of my customers on, you know, what they should look for writing off, you know, things on their taxes and stuff like that. It’s like, yeah, it’s, it’s, it was a very interesting experience seeing the industry from that side and I think it gained a, a very strong perspective on like what the problem our customers actually go through. So yeah, that is like a very high level, high level kind of perspective of how we got in the industry.

06:54 Nohtal Partansky
And then from there we just started releasing products in 2021 released a GCO infusion robot, then we released the Omni filler and then last year we released the Stardust and yeah, now we’re trying to fully automate the pre-roll manufacturing space.

07:16 Eric Schneider
Very cool. Yeah. Can you, can you provide a little bit more context on like the functionality of the robots and like is it on the cultivation side, like you just mentioned, automating pre-roll packaging, like, like where do you see the biggest areas for for growth?

07:33 Nohtal Partansky
Yeah, I mean I see the biggest areas for growth are on the preroll side. So the omni filler was a device that has like a, both a vape cartridge filling system and then also like capping system. And then we’ve also developed these different type of preroll automation pieces. And right now I think we’re focusing a lot more on the preroll automation because that market is growing and we kind of helped start and helped make the infused preroll sector a lot easier to swallow of a pill for manufacturers as well.

08:12 Nohtal Partansky
And I think I, I think that’s where we’re gonna be focusing on for the next, you know, couple years because pure rolls I think are going to be the biggest market category, if not, you know, on par with at least vape because it’s just so much easier. I think flour is gonna definitely come down from, you know, its foothold of 30, 40% in different markets to probably 10 or 20% and, and I think that gap is gonna be filled with pre-rolls just ’cause of the convenience and so we are there helping out the manufacturers on that basis.

08:51 Isaac Bock
No, that, that makes a ton of sense. I mean, I guess from your guys’ perspective, what has the kind of adoption cycle looked like for, you know, your customers? Like has it been a tough kind of education process on the benefits of using your product or kind of based off what you were saying, it seems like people were asking for this, so what was that process like of getting, you know, your guys’ customer acquisition going?

09:13 Nohtal Partansky
Yeah, so I would say the GCO robot was probably a tough sell in the beginning because that’s a system that injects concentrate into pre-rolls. And we invented that process of doing things because when we were at the co-packing company back in, you know, late 2020 people asked us, Hey, can you infuse the pre-rolls? And this was really early when you look at infused pre-rolls, people weren’t really doing it. The only infused pre-roll that existed was like maybe the tarantula style joint or the fuzzy style joint juniors wasn’t a thing.

09:51 Nohtal Partansky
Most of these pre-roll companies were just doing straight like trim in the pre-roll. Like people weren’t even putting flower back then. And so when we developed that system, we had talked to a lot of our customers up in Oakland and in the Bay area and they said yeah, you know, try to get the infusion inside the pre-roll so it actually burns as opposed to keeping the outside of it. And, and so we did, so that was kind of our main thing.

10:22 Nohtal Partansky
And I think we made a device that actually improves the quality of pre-rolls, which is like a big concern for a lot of automation that it’s gonna degrade the quality compared to hand. And, and we like, so we did everything we were looking for, but the initial kind of, I guess launch of that product was, was very like mixed. People were like, why are you injecting prerolls? Like, I’m like, oh, to make infused prerolls. I’m like why <laugh>?

10:53 Nohtal Partansky
It was it, it was, it was weird sometimes because they, they didn’t see the need for infused prerolls for one and then they also didn’t know why we were injecting it ’cause they hadn’t seen it before. And that made it a like two layer process like saying you wanna infuse pre-rolls ’cause you can make a better pre-roll and differentiate yourself. You want to inject it because it’s gonna make the burn more even it’s going to make the burn more smooth.

11:27 Nohtal Partansky
It’s gonna have all these like substantial benefits and, and it took a while, I would say it took like maybe a year until people started really wanting the GCO robot and any sort of like substantial demand and it took really until, I guess we had other people copy our product and they started kind of retooling their vape cards to do, you know, half the capability of the gco.

11:55 Nohtal Partansky
But I guess for some people that’s, you know, that’s enough. They just wanna do distillate. They’re not trying to do anything like more complicated than that. And, and then more people just started doing it and more people started tasting that skew and then it became a lot easier to sell it because we were now not just selling some random new product that someone doesn’t want. It was like we were the first ones that were selling the product that now everybody wants. Right. So it’s, it became a little bit different.

12:27 Nohtal Partansky
So yeah, that education process was kind of like a teething process but then like start us, the thing we just launched, which is like a device to automate the application of distillate and glue and then the keying process for like Jeter style joints. That one’s been way easier because that market demand is already there and people hate doing that ’cause it’s so labor intensive and they’re already doing it as opposed to on the other side where if they bought our product they would have to make a new S skew.

13:06 Nohtal Partansky
If they buy stardust, they’re just gonna save like 10 or $20,000 a month for the skew they already have. So it’s a much easier transition and that’s, that makes it a little bit better.

13:21 Eric Schneider
Yeah. And and in terms of your guys’ business model, is it manufacturers sell directly to consumer, do you guys do any like leasing options? You know, I guess what does that look like in ter and, and I guess I’m assuming that you guys have strategic partners that do the actual like manufacturing of the product or do you, you know, have a facility where you guys do the manufacturing, just like what does the supply chain look like?

13:50 Nohtal Partansky
Yeah, so we design and build everything out of Los Angeles. Okay. So all of our robots have, yeah, they, they all get built inside of one facility and it’s just ’cause they’re just so complicated. We, we don’t really want to give up the manufacturing or try to outsource that because if one of these robots go down, not only does it cost us a lot of money, it costs the customer a ton of money ’cause that downtime. So we try to make sure that before everything goes out it’s, you know, in perfect working condition and it’s not gonna, I don’t know, like if we gave it to someone else, maybe they mis crimped a wire, right?

14:33 Nohtal Partansky
A mis crimped wire can cost like tens of thousands of dollars in some cases. So that’s, that’s kinda where the building happens in terms of distribution partners, we work with a lot of referral partners. We work with the custom cones guys to like have a distribution channel. Same thing with the trim leaf guys. They’re, they’ve been really great. Yeah, it’s, I I think that’s a, a good concept for us to have especially ’cause you know, we’re not selling thousands of these a year, right?

15:10 Nohtal Partansky
We’re selling like a hundred, right. Yeah. You gotta make sure every one of those hundred are perfect.

15:15 Isaac Bock
Yeah. Well on that point, like from the installation or setup process, do you guys go into these facilities and help your customers with the initial setup and kind of walk them through it? Or is it kind of you ship ’em out and you know, se send an instruction manual or what’s that process look like from setting them up for, for your individual clients?

15:36 Nohtal Partansky
Yeah, I mean the machines are kind of complicated, right? They’re like these robotic systems, they’re also pretty expensive so we wanna make sure that the operators are able to use them and not, you know, like accidentally break them or something like that. So we send out a technician for each of our devices and it depends on which device they buy because some are more complicated than others and the training sessions can be anywhere from two days to four days and our technician goes out there, does a white glove installation, trains the customer and then just does production with them for the next few days.

16:13 Nohtal Partansky
Calibrates the machine according to their specs on their SKUs and makes sure that everything is, you know, running it full speed before he leaves. And it’s a pretty in depth process and we try to train as many people as we can just because the people that we end up training will always kind of be the best operators of the machine because it’s kind of playing telephone a little bit.

16:40 Nohtal Partansky
Yeah, we have a bunch of, you know, resources like we’ve spent the past couple years filming a lot of videos continuously, you know, revising the user manual and we have a bunch of tutorial videos as well. It just, I don’t think it’s the same, you know, as having a guy there and training you, making sure that all the idiosyncrasies of the machine and how your workflow works into the machine. ’cause our technicians basically build your production line for the infused pre-rolls or for your pre-rolls.

17:13 Nohtal Partansky
And I think a lot of the operators, I really appreciate that because we’ve set up a bunch of these lines already, right? And they don’t, they’re, they’re just starting from scratch effectively. They have a bunch of tables and they throw people on the tables and say have at it. But how they’re optimizing for efficiency is not really something that they’re gonna right off the bat think about doing.

17:45 Nohtal Partansky
But at least we can point them in the right direction immediately, if not just set it up for them and say, yeah, if you’re going to do this operation, you don’t want have your oven in the other room. You know, you want to have it right here. That way your guys, you know, just taking two steps, not having to like badge his way into another set of doors and all this like crazy stuff. So I think that’s really useful. I don’t see us stopping that any time soon because it lets us understand the customer, it lets us know the customer and I think that relationship building is really important, especially when we’re like a production partner for every customer, right?

18:22 Nohtal Partansky
They’re not buying a toaster or who cares who sells you the toaster, it’s they’re buying something that they’re building that business around. Right. Very different. Yeah,

18:32 Eric Schneider
No, that makes a lot of sense and and especially in a time now where, you know, the more conversations you have with operators like optimization and cutting costs is just more critical than ever. Right. So I guess where, where do you see, you know, I guess a two part question, like where are you guys most concentrated now and then, you know, where do you see the organization going over the next year? Like are you guys looking to enter into new markets? I guess what, what does the growth trajectory look like for you all in 2024?

19:05 Nohtal Partansky
So 2024 we’re looking to kinda stitch together all of our different, you know, modules so that we have a, you know, fully modularized pre-roll production system. Something that can scale with our customers and something that’s going to go raw materials on one end, finished product on another end. And I think that would be really, that would be great, especially something to kind of debut at MJ bz.

19:36 Nohtal Partansky
I think that’d be really fun. And then in terms of the next, you know, year 24 months, 36 months, we’re gonna start taking everything we’ve built over the past six years and start looking to different markets to see where that application can, you know, kind of be generalized because a robotics companies are kind of weird beasts where they’re not like you’re just, you know, building a clock and it’s like that type of hardware and it’s not really like you’re building a web app and you can just kind of expand out all of your devices or all of your kind of applications to, you know, hundreds of millions of peoples.

20:22 Nohtal Partansky
It’s like some, some kind of transition in between. And I think our biggest issue is that we’ve spent, I guess it’s not really an issue, it’s more like our business like trait is that we spent the past six years just building so much infrastructure because robots are so complicated. They’re, they’re not twice as hard as doing, you know, software twice as hard as doing hardware. It’s like three times as hard because the integration of the two is very complicated.

20:56 Nohtal Partansky
But the flip side of that coin is that once you’ve built a robust ecosystem, like a robust supply chain that’s you know, kind of redundancy all over the world and IOT infrastructure, that you’re able to take telemetry from all of your robots and be able to go into them and see them and understand what’s going on. Once you’ve built all of that, you’ve basically built 75% of anything you’ll ever build in the future.

21:23 Nohtal Partansky
And it makes it really easy to go into new markets because all you’re gonna be doing is either reprogramming a system you’ve already built or like a platform you’ve already built or you’re going to be kind of making small changes to an end product for just a different application. So I think that’s what we’re gonna be focusing on probably later in the year to see what is the next, what is the next product line that we go into and what’s the next vertical.

21:57 Nohtal Partansky
I think probably life sciences will make a lot of sense. It’s another highly regulated industry and something that requires like precision and focus to accomplish.

22:10 Isaac Bock
Yeah, I mean from your guys client’s perspective, are you privy like nationwide? Are you relatively focused in the California area, I guess what has that looked like for you guys currently?

22:21 Nohtal Partansky
No, no, we’re everywhere. We’re in US and Canada. We have the biggest companies in Canada working with our devices to make infused prerolls. I would say Canada, the large large part of that percentage of infused pre-rolls is made with the GCO robot. And then in the United States we’re everywhere, every rec state we have a device in and yeah, I mean like last month we did over a million pre-rolls that month for all of our deployed devices.

22:59 Nohtal Partansky
So if you think about the infused side of the market, and that’s, you know, depending on which market you’re looking at, it’s either 20% of the market or 40% of the market. Yeah, that’s a big percentage of the market is being injected or q coded with our devices.

23:15 Eric Schneider
That’s amazing. And, and final question that I had before we wrap things up and this has been awesome. I think, you know, the, the goal of this podcast when Isaac and I, you know, built it was to bring people from all different parts of the industry, whether you’re an operator, ancillary provider, investor, and you know what, what you guys are doing is, is super unique and, and something that we haven’t had on. So this has been a, a great episode. Just wanted to to cap that. And then where do you see other applica, I mean AI has been just such a, a huge, I feel like buzzword over the past year, you know, where do you see other applications of AI and, and maybe robotics that is not currently existing in the cannabis space but maybe on the horizon in, you know, the next year or years to come?

24:07 Nohtal Partansky
I know I don’t see a lot of AI being used in cannabis at the moment really at all. I don’t know if you guys have a different perspective than that because I guess you’re talking to a little bit other people, at least from top of mind. I’ll break that answer into two parts probably. I guess the lowest energy place where you can use AI is where everyone is using AI and like advertising and marketing, the ability to generate content, both written and image form, it’s pretty unparalleled when it comes to using that.

24:42 Nohtal Partansky
So improving SEO improving reach, formulating your messaging is so much easier with AI than it was before. And if you’re a brand, it’s like the first thing you wanna look into as soon as possible because you’ll just start saving money and you’ll be able to be a bit more proliferated than before.

25:07 Nohtal Partansky
And then on our end, where we see the most interesting use for AI is one thing that we really want to kind of move forward doing is we build our machines to be very user friendly. I would say like if you look at our machines and you compare them just at least visually to other manufacturers in the space, they look strikingly different, right? They don’t look like these dead stainless steel boxes. They, their design is different, their user interface is extremely different.

25:42 Nohtal Partansky
But we make that that way because we want it to kinda be the iPhone of manufacturing equipment where, you know, you don’t really, you don’t even need to know English to run the machine. And what we want to do moving forward, and this is something kind of our like long-term vision, but we want to inject like chat GPT into our machines.

26:05 Nohtal Partansky
And so instead of you going up to the machine and like punching in a bunch of numbers, instead you have a conversation where you say, Hey gco robot, I want to make some hash holes today. And he is like, oh, you wanna make some hash holes? Okay, what type of rosin do you think you’re gonna be using? Oh, well I’m gonna be using this web add rosin and I wanna inject, you know, 500 milligrams into a two blunt. Okay, well let me set up these settings for you, sets up the basic settings. Alright, now let’s go through the calibration process. Okay. And then the person goes through it.

26:37 Nohtal Partansky
And I think that would be like, awesome <laugh>, I think that would be really cool. And it’s kinda where we’re going, going right now. I think there’s a few, you know, larger items on the list before we make our robots, you know, artificially intelligent.

26:55 Nohtal Partansky
But that is, that’s kind of the top level of where we, we want to use this kind of latest and greatest in AI because AI as like a term is really just like machine learning. And we’ve been using machine learning since the company started. Yeah. In terms of computer vision, calibration of the machines, predictive maintenance, like all that stuff. Like we already, we already use them but these, this new generative AI concept is, is new. And that’s something that I think we’ll wanna put in as just like a really cool way to make the machines even more user friendly and more robust to, you know, failures or user error, right?

27:33 Nohtal Partansky
That we’ll get to the point where there won’t really be user error. ’cause maybe the user is just like a vessel for the AI <laugh>. So I think that’ll be really cool.

27:46 Eric Schneider
Yeah, that, I mean that, that would make things a lot easier. I know, especially for folks such as myself that are not the most technologically savvy. So I I think that’s great and, and like I said, you know, what you guys are building is, is is really incredible and, and something that I think, you know, as operators continue to look at areas where they can increase their yield and product efficacy, but also trimming costs as as much as possible and being really efficient, you know, looking to resources such as sorting robotics is I think gonna become just more and more the norm.

28:26 Eric Schneider
So that’s great and very cool to see that you guys are looking at other industries as well. You know, I’m sure if you can build something for the cannabis industry with how, you know, regulatory like complex it is, you know, other industries now won’t be a, a walk in the park, but definitely set you guys up for success and, and build a, a solid foundation.

28:51 Nohtal Partansky
Cool. Yeah, definitely. I think, yeah, I think New York is definitely gonna be very interesting. <laugh>

28:59 Eric Schneider
Amazing. Well thanks, thanks for being on here. We really appreciate it and I think that this was very informative and and everybody should definitely tune in to, to learn more and obviously if you’re interested in, you know, speaking to Natal, we, we have your information and thanks again. Really interesting and, and I think it was awesome to hear about what they’re doing currently, how they got into the space, the, the problem that they’re solving and, and really when operators take a look at it, you know, they can see the immediate benefits.

29:35 Eric Schneider
I think also it’s, it’s great too that they, they’re manufacturing it themselves, whereas we see a lot of companies use third party providers and obviously given the, the intricacy of the machines, you know, it, it makes a lot of sense for them to do it in-house and also they’re installing it, right? I think a, a large value add that they provide is not only the machinery themselves, it’s the expertise, it’s the maintenance, it’s the installation. So it’s great to see what they’re doing and, and obviously they have a lot on deck for 20, 24 and years to come.

30:08 Eric Schneider
So I’m, I’m very excited to see what they’re able to put out and how they continue to assist the cannabis industry.

30:14 Isaac Bock
Yeah, absolutely. I mean I think what they’re building definitely helps solve us for a lot of inefficiencies and additional costs that the canvas industry has issues with to begin with. So it’s great to hear, you know, what they’re building and also, you know, how the customer acquisition has kind of evolved with each of their products and how some things are easier than others depending on what their clients are currently doing. But I think it’s gonna be great for the industry overall to have more of these kind of innovative technologies available to other members of the industry.

30:48 Eric Schneider
Absolutely. And I think he gave a a great perspective of, you know, what’s to come and how we can leverage AI in the now and also in the future. It’s not going anywhere. And so I think it’s just important to take a step back and say like, how can we utilize it to our benefit and, and help grow the organization and, and reduce costs, I think is a big theme that I just got from, from this, this podcast today. And it was great to have him on and and get his insight and thanks for your time as well, IB as always.

31:22 Isaac Bock
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, definitely good to get his insight. Looking forward to the next couple.

31:28 Eric Schneider
Absolutely. Have a good rest of your day man. You too.

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