A woman works at the BOL (Breath Of Life) Pharma greenhouse in Israel, one of the largest medical cannabis facilities in the world. A woman works at the BOL (Breath Of Life) Pharma greenhouse in Israel, one of the largest medical cannabis facilities in the world. A woman works at the BOL (Breath Of Life) Pharma greenhouse in Israel, one of the largest medical cannabis facilities in the world. (Photo: Jack Guez / AFP/Getty Images)

Israel at the forefront of cannabis tech

The country, which produces more pharmaceutical cannabis than just about anywhere else, is poised to become a leading exporter.

Coca-Cola has been in business for more than a century, and the company continues to innovate. New flavors – like Coca-Cola Zero Sugar Orange Vanilla – are constantly being introduced. Earlier this summer, the Atlanta-based beverage conglomerate launched Coca-Cola Plus Coffee, which offers more caffeine than the original. But soon, America's favorite soft drink may be taking an even larger leap. In the not-too-distant future, it's possible you'll see cannabis-infused Coca-Cola on grocery store shelves. That brings a whole new meaning to the classic slogan: Have a Coke and a smile.

And where are they going to get all that cannabis from? Well, if Saul Kaye has anything to do with it, the soda giant will be importing it from Israel.

The affable Kaye, whose thick Australian accent belies his move to Israel 25 years ago, is the founder of iCAN. His group helps incubate Israeli cannabis startups – offering everything from science expertise to business fundamentals. He also organizes CannaTech, one of the world's leading cannabis conferences. It brings together interested parties like agronomists and business leaders and patients with events in London, Davos, Sydney and Hong Kong, just to name a few of the cities it's been held in during the past decade. An event in Tel Aviv earlier this year drew 1,200 people. "We probably see 400-500 companies a year that come through either looking for funding or help getting from an idea to a real cannabis company," Kaye told From The Grapevine. Last week, he brought some of his favorite Israeli cannabis startups on a roadshow to New York, where he introduced them to potential investors.

There are several reasons why Israel finds itself at the forefront of the cannabis industry, specifically for CBD – the chemical compound found in plants that can relieve anxiety and pain. The Mediterranean country – which is about the size of New Jersey – is home to the world’s largest facility for medical marijuana. Farmers across the nation are producing so much that Israel is poised to become a top exporter of CBD. "We’ll be able to produce more cannabis here than the entire state of Colorado,” one grower told Rolling Stone magazine, which dubbed Israel a "medical weed wonderland."

"We're making pharmaceutical cannabis on the scale that nowhere else in the world is doing," Kaye added. The country is simply producing more than it needs. Not surprisingly, Israel has passed a law allowing for the exportation of medical cannabis. Kaye sees this process starting as early as 2020, instantly expanding the market for Israeli-made CBD products to millions of people overnight.

A greenhouse worker carries medical marijuana at the growing facility of the Tikkun Olam company on March 9, 2011, near the northern city of Safed, Israel. A greenhouse worker carries medical marijuana at the growing facility of the Tikkun Olam company on March 9, 2011, near the northern city of Safed, Israel. (Photo: Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

The second reason Israel is at the epicenter of this trend is because of the confluence of research that is being done at startup tech companies as well as in academic laboratories. Israel chemist Raphael Mechoulam, commonly referred to as the "Grandfather of Medical Marijuana," still operates a lab at Hebrew University.

Full-blown clinical trials are often easier to do and face less regulation in Israel. Dozens of U.S. companies have set up medical marijuana R&D facilities in Israel. Dr. Alan Shackelford, a Harvard alum who was one of the first U.S. doctors to prescribe cannabis, has also set up a research lab there. "We have the highest number of Ph.Ds per capita in the world," Kaye explained. "We're No. 2 in cannabis patents outside of China. And we're No. 2 in investment funding outside of Silicon Valley. So that makes this a robust place to begin a new industry."

Saul Kaye speaking at a cannabis conference he helped organize in Tel Aviv. Saul Kaye speaking at a cannabis conference he helped organize in Tel Aviv. (Photo: Ilyan Marshak / iCAN)

The Israeli tech sector is known for taking risks and thinking outside the box, and that mindset is evident in the cannabis industry. Some of the startups there include:

  • Cannibble, which is developing cannabis-enriched pizza and popcorn.
  • ReaGenics, which has discovered a way to make cannabis oil without actually growing the cannabis plant.
  • Weedley, which makes cannabis dog treats for anxious pets.
  • Syqe Medical, which makes inhalers for providing precise dosages of medical cannabis.
  • Premier Dead Sea, which infuses CBD into skin care products.
  • Telegrass, a cannabis delivery service which has been called an "Uber for weed."

In particular, one company that excites Kaye is called iCanSee, which harnesses nanotechnology to deliver medical cannabis via eyedrops. The idea, like other novel delivery methods being developed in Israel, is to veer away from inhalation, which can lead to lung disease, and edibles, which don't always have the accurate dosage baked in.

"This fits right in my wheelhouse," said Kaye, a pharmacist by trade. "But this compound is way more fun than half the other drugs we build."

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Israel at the forefront of cannabis tech
The country, which produces more pharmaceutical cannabis than just about anywhere else, is poised to become a leading exporter.