Cannabis Technology – An Interview with Releaf CEO Franco Brockelman
A few months back, we partnered with Releaf, an innovate mobile application for medical marijuana patients that allows them to track the effects of different medications, including flower, edibles and concentrates. The app not only keeps track of how patients are affected by the various strains, it records both the relief that they provide as well as secondary effects such as dry mouth, excitability, creativity, etc. We got a chance to discuss the development of Releaf and shortcomings in how medical marijuana has been traditionally presented to patients.
Who are you and what is your role at Releaf?
Hi! My name is Franco Brockelman and I’m the CEO and a Co-Founder of Releaf App.
What is Releaf?
Releaf App is a tool designed to help medical cannabis patients build a strong personal relationship with cannabis. It helps them track their sessions and rate their experiences to learn how different types and forms of cannabis help alleviate their symptoms. We provide reports around this data for patients to share with their doctor, or budtender, and we provide anonymous aggregate information to dispensaries, doctors, and researchers to help us all know more about how to best use this amazing plant.
Is this your first app?
The team behind Releaf App has created many apps and technological solutions in the past. We have another company, Automata Studios, that has helped many companies & groups with their digital and experiential needs. Our client list includes companies like IBM, NASA, Victoria’s Secret, Adobe, PBS, and many other very well known companies. We build everything in-house, which is something I’m very proud of. We do all our own branding, design, development, architecture, marketing, etc. Everything is made in the USA.
We’re applying those same user experience skills to Releaf App to help patients navigate their exploration of cannabis as an option in treating themselves.
How did you come up with the Releaf App idea?
The idea for the app was inspired by my mother, who has been struggling with psoriatic arthritis for years. She tried everything she could to help alleviate her chronic pain, including many prescription medications, but she was getting discouraged with the lack of relief and effectiveness. Her discouragement led to feelings of depression, anxiety, and insomnia. At a certain point, every time I visited home it seemed to get much worse. I suggested she try cannabis. I had been reading a lot about success stories that seemed to point to it being a real solution for some people. At first she didn’t want to try it, due to the stigmas and what we call “stoner baggage”. But eventually when she ran out of other options, she decided it was worth a try as long as I’d help her through it. Deal!
I flew up to MA right away to help her begin looking into which strains to try, since that seemed to be where to start. In going through that experience a few things became immediately apparent.
- There were zero tools to help patients track and understand their experiences. I’ve always been a big believer in mindfulness, and tracking complicated experiences like this could really help. It also occurred to me that if patients did this together, they could learn from each other. Why does everyone have to experiment alone when they share the same core symptoms?
- Leafly and a few other tools out there were operating off an old and incorrect view of how cannabis works. They claimed that strains meant everything. They also claimed that a strain would produce reliable effects for every person similarly. We found that this is not an honest representation of how cannabis works based on the research and experiences collected thus far. It was just easier to pretend that was the case since we all rely on names for pretty much everything else in life. When we used their site to select what would be best for my mother, it told us that the best strain would be Master Kush. It said that it was great at alleviating pain and also in promoting good sleep. There were bar graphs with no scale showing “data” from somewhere unreferenced, With nothing else to rely on, we bought her some Master Kush. After she tried it, her pain felt worse and she stayed up all night, unable to sleep. We did a bit more research and found that strains fluctuate batch to batch and may even work differently for different people. The cannabinoids and terpenes present matter a lot, potentially even more than the strain name. Yes, there is genetics, but we learned about epigenetics. These things weren’t accounted for or even acknowledged by most of the cannabis companies at the time. We were shocked and intrigued, and the idea for tracking your own experience with batches of cannabis in a more local way came to life.
So called “pivots” occur frequently in software startups; Instagram was originally a check-in app for discovering places to enjoy whisky. How much does the current Releaf app resemble your first idea?
Haha, great question and it’s true that we spent more time designing this app than building it. It was a brand new idea at the time so it took a lot of work to think everything through.
At first we pictured the app opening up to an image of the human body where you would tap to indicate what you were treating. We also had a “High” or “Buzz” slider for patients to indicate their intoxication level in case they were trying to avoid that. Eventually, one of our user experience designers, Carolyn Marut, came up with a brilliant idea to record what we call “Feels”. From testing prototypes of the app with my mom, it became clear that not only did it help to record the changes in your primary symptom level, but also to keep track of these secondary feelings as well. Are you too sleepy? Do you feel anxious? Are you couch-locked? These things matter just as much as the symptom reduction, so we added that in as a major part of the session flow. With that in place, we were able to move the concept for recording High and Buzz into the feels as buttons you could toggle on or off. It made the app much stronger and patients have loved it. Many of our current feels were sent to us by patients and medical professionals. Some even draw the icons they suggest we use which is very awesome. We really love receiving feedback and suggestions.
What has been the most surprising thing you have learned from launching Releaf?
I’d say the most surprising thing so far is seeing just how much people want to help their close friends and family members develop a close relationship with cannabis. We’ve had numerous Releaf patients take it upon themselves to share and promote the app to their friends, relatives, and local communities — all without us ever asking them. There are clearly a lot of good people out there that simply want better medical options for their loved ones. It’s amazing to see and it fuels the team to try even harder to help people.
Did you encounter any problems with iTunes, being a cannabis oriented app?
Apple/ iTunes has been very kind to us so far. They typically review and approve our releases the same day we send them in and we’ve had zero problems. We were blocked from the Russian iTunes app store, but they were the only country that blocked us. Can’t win them all I guess!
There is a huge research gap caused by the long term federal prohibition of cannabis, and the scientific studies being conducted since widespread access has grown are amazing. Can the data gained from Releaf help fill in the gap?
Absolutely and that’s one of our big goals with this project. Cannabis is so safe that we can work together to find answers for each other. Before Releaf App, each patient was playing guess & check in a silo. We built this tool to collect anonymous data from patients to help us work together to find answers. We currently have partnership relationships with dispensaries in over 10 US states and are finalizing agreements in Canada. With our data, we can help anxiety patients work together, pain patients work together, insomnia patients work together, etc. There are so many strains and products to try, it’s not even reasonable for a single each to try them all…although that does sound like a good challenge, ha! When you go into a Releaf partnered dispensary, you can learn from the patients around you as well as from your own experiences and I think that’s an exciting development not just for cannabis, but for medicine in general.
We also have some very exciting research initiatives and partnerships underway, but you’ll be hearing more about that as we can disclose more details.
What role does cannabis play in your creative or engineering process?
It plays a big role for a few reasons. The most important reason is that we believe it’s important to deeply understand how patients feel on cannabis in order to design and architect a tool that’s easy to use in the states of consciousness cannabis provides. We gather feedback from patients who are “under the influence” and we also use cannabis within our core team to explore how to make the best experience we can. Another reason cannabis plays a big role is because with the right strain, cannabis can greatly enhance our creativity and abilities to reflect on what we’re making. It’s been tremendously rewarding to review our work with the team while using cannabis over the weekend or at night and get a new perspective around what we’re building. A lot of terrific ideas come from those in depth reviews and it’s a pleasure to know that cannabis experiences are helping create this tool for better future cannabis experiences. It’s a glorious cycle!
What do you have planned for the future of the app?
Absolutely. There’s a lot of very exciting things coming up. Two of my favorite upcoming features are Multi-Symptom Tracking and Cannabis Leads. Many of our patients have asked for multi-symptom tracking capabilities in the app but it’s been a bit tricky to deliver a smooth real-time experience and also accommodate all the backend data needs. We’ve recently settled on a design and solution and are beginning to develop the feature in September. When released, this will be the very first time patients have a tool to capture their experiences with cannabis across multiple symptoms in real-time. That’s extremely exciting and will help the world learn more about cannabis. The second feature is just as awesome and we’re calling it Cannabis Leads. Cannabis Leads brings everyone’s cannabis experiences together so we can learn from each other. Today, patients have to try everything themselves to see what works for their symptoms and there is no clear way to learn from other patients who share your symptoms. With our Cannabis Leads feature, patients will be able to see what is providing relief for others and also where they can go purchase that cannabis. This will be a tremendous help to all the patients out there who are playing guess & check by themselves currently. Let’s work together. It’s better that way.
Thank you Franco! Check out Releaf on the App Store or Google Play. You can also follow Releaf on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.