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Jack Naito, Co-Founder & President for Luna Technologies – Interview Series

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Jack Naito is President of Luna Technologies, where he oversees operations, strategic growth, and R&D for the company he co-founded in 2016. Jack entered the cannabis industry after time spent as a Materials, Process, and Physics Engineer for aerospace giant Boeing. Jack obtained an Economics and Business degree from Colorado College and a Master's degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Washington.

Could you share the genesis story behind Luna Technologies?

Certainly. We founded Luna Technologies in 2016 and we primarily engineer and manufacture end-to-end, state-of-the-art extraction equipment for cannabis processors, all in Portland, Oregon, USA.

The automated extraction equipment we create at Luna empowers operators to process fresh-frozen or cured biomass more efficiently, with greater quality, consistency, and safety than ever before.

But the story of Luna actually dates back to 2012 with my co-founder, Kyler Buck, who began producing extracts for the medical cannabis market. The equipment available back then was woefully inadequate so he began looking at other options, including calling me. Kyler and I grew up together and have known each other since elementary school. When Kyler called me, I was working as an aerospace engineer at Boeing. I didn’t have much chemical engineering experience, let alone cannabis experience, but I was intrigued by the challenge and the opportunity to build equipment and a business from scratch.

After looking around the industry, Kyler and I realized we could produce purpose-built extraction equipment that was much safer and significantly easier to use than what was available. Luna Technologies was born and today we have our flagship BHO Extractors (the IO Extractor) installed throughout the United States and Canada, with more machines on the way, including our first ethanol extractor, the Elara.

We announced the Elara late last year along with the Oberon. Both are industrial-scale, fully automated extractors designed for larger processors. The Oberon is the largest hydrocarbon extraction machine Luna has ever built. Meanwhile on the ethanol side, the Elara Extractor will provide our clients greater flexibility and efficiency for high-volume producers, featuring low-temp cryoextraction technology.

The Luna Technologies Elara ethanol extraction machine

Before Luna Technologies came along, most equipment was not purpose built for extraction, why do you believe there was such a void in the market?

One of the biggest factors is an inherent hesitancy from large, established engineering firms to invest and develop cannabis extraction equipment due to the stigma associated with the product, and the fact it remains illegal in the U.S. at the Federal level.

Compounding the issue, it can be difficult to find the right entry point to the market. It has been difficult for manufacturers to find the right balance of cannabis knowledge and process design expertise. Most are strong in one area or the other, but not both.  So you end up with well designed equipment that can’t make the products consumers want, or equipment that can produce high quality craft extracts but is difficult, costly, and unsafe to operate.

Lastly, just five years ago there wasn’t as much venture capital money in cannabis. As a result, small processors didn’t have the capital to purchase specially engineered cannabis extraction equipment. They found it easier and less expensive to scrape something together, leveraging equipment that was designed for different purposes. Fast-forward to today, cannabis processors are increasingly well capitalized and able to invest in the specialized equipment they need to compete now and into the future.

Why was your background working for Boeing perfect for capitalizing on this market opportunity?

Coming from a culture of safety was a huge benefit. When we started Luna Technologies back in 2016, there was a huge safety gap within the hydrocarbon extraction market. Approaching every problem from a perspective of operator safety made it easy for us to fill that gap in the industry.

Coming from aerospace, a non-process engineering industry far from the cannabis world, turned out to be a great asset. Although there was a steep learning curve, it also empowered us to look at problems in a different way. Luna Technologies truly started from scratch. My co-founder, Kyler Buck, came with significant cannabis expertise while our first employee, Pat Norris, came with process engineering experience, so we were able to come together with our varied backgrounds to approach engineering problems from a fresh perspective.

What were some of the biggest challenges behind building this equipment?

We have a few extreme process conditions that are unique to hydrocarbon extraction of cannabis oil. Cryogenic temperatures, volatile liquid solvents, and a very sticky product are three conditions that don’t overlap in most other industries. Because of that, it’s difficult to source some of the measurement and control equipment necessary for automation. Companies just don’t design products if there isn’t a need. And our extraction process is the first use case for some of these sensors, valves, and pumps. So we’ve worked diligently to source components, find unique work-arounds, and work with manufacturers to design products to work for us. But these challenges are becoming easier. Five years ago, many automation suppliers wouldn’t even talk to us. Now that Luna has grown and the industry has grown, more and more component manufacturers see the opportunity and are excited to develop products for our equipment.

Right now, like with a lot of industries, lead times present the biggest challenge. We are affected by the supply chain bottlenecks that continue to reverberate through the global economy as a result of the pandemic.

What are some of the benefits of automating Hydrocarbon Extraction products?

Luna’s hydrocarbon extraction equipment enables producers to create an innumerable array of BHO-based and now ethanol-based concentrates with Luna’s proprietary recipe book–all without sacrificing yield or quality.

It starts with the Luna biomass packer, which allows operators to more safely and consistently compress cannabis biomass by up to 85 percent. This significantly reduces utility costs and the amount of storage required, as it enables operators to pack 60 percent more material versus hand packing.

The packed biomass, known as a puck, is then placed in a protective sleeve and loaded into the Luna extractor machine. From this point forward, the extraction process is entirely automated.

All of our machines are IoT-enabled. This means that throughout the extraction process, operators can remotely track key data points in real time via a mobile or desktop app, including monitoring pressures, temperatures, valve status, fluid levels, and more, to ensure a consistent, precise run every time. That data is then logged daily for future use while also future-proofing the system for potential Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) compliance.

Each Luna extractor also features a custom-designed temperature control system designed to enable back-to-back batch processing with just a few minutes of downtime. The cooling system keeps the extraction solvent at precise temperatures at every stage of production to help maximize product quality.

To further improve quality, each extractor can also be equipped with a color remediation cylinder (CRC) inline add-on. This device improves safety and increases product quality via color remediation with little-to-no lost throughput.

What type of cost savings can be seen from this automation?

Luna Tech extractors use automation to qualify more employees, preserve intellectual property, and remove the guesswork out of staffing. In essence, the automated process means operators don’t have to rely on highly skilled labor that is in short supply these days. New operators can be trained on the use of Luna extraction machines in a single day.

As I mentioned earlier, Luna Tech extraction equipment requires very little downtime between runs thanks to the purpose-built cooling system and our tool-less operation. Again, this will help operators maximize production.

Could you share some details regarding Luna Technologies flagship hydrocarbon machine, the IO. What are some of the specs of this machine and what can cannabis businesses expect?

Luna Technologies produced the IO Extractor to increase safety, quality and consistency through automated control for BHO/hydrocarbon-based extractors. It can process 18 pounds of dried or cured biomass and about 25 pounds of wet or fresh-frozen biomass per batch, with a cycle time of about 50 minutes, depending on the recipe and if the operator uses butane or propane. For operators who require greater capacity, the new Oberon hydrocarbon extractor can process 30 pounds of cured or dry biomass and up to 45 pounds of wet or fresh frozen biomass per run.

But more importantly, the built-in automation process controls on both machines eliminate manual error to produce high quality, consistent product, run after run. There is no need to unbolt collection pots, material columns, or hoses. The IO is operated with two buttons and three hand-turn latches.

Computer control of the entire extraction process allows users to then fine tune extraction recipes to maximize yield and efficiency while automatically data logging all process parameters including temperatures, pressures, fluid levels, valve status, and more.

This automated control extends to pre-programmed recipes to eliminate operator error by tracking pressures and temperatures hundreds of times per second so there’s no risk of an operator turning at valve at the wrong time, for example.

How many of these machines are currently being used throughout the world?

There are 50 to 70 and they are all in North America (US and Canada). While Luna Technologies has received many intriguing inquiries from South America and Europe, we have chosen to focus on North America for the time being so we can guarantee excellent customer service and support.

Is there anything else that you would like to share about Luna Technologies?

At Luna Technologies we strongly believe that the future of solvent extraction is hydrocarbon based, as it enables producers to create live resin that is strain specific, with the ability to capture the terpenes and minor cannabinoids that provide the entourage effect that increasingly sophisticated customers’ desire. Other technologies, such as ethanol for distillate products, will have their place, but increasingly live-resin-based products will likely experience the strongest growth over the next few years, at the expense of CO2 based processes.

Furthermore, Luna Technologies is focused on more than just producing quality machines. We help our customers at each stage of procuring, installing, and maintaining Luna extraction equipment to ensure customers can get the most out of their respective investments in our technology.

Thank you for the great interview, readers who wish to learn more should visit Luna Technologies.

A serial entrepreneur Antoine Tardif is an advisor to MyCannabis, he is also the founder of multiple internet start-ups, and is a member of the Forbes Technology Council.