Ralph Risch, COO, of Phylos is an experienced entrepreneur and business leader who has founded and successfully exited multiple companies in the high tech industry. He has a BS in Engineering and Computer Science from the University of Colorado.
1) What was your motivation for co-founding Phylos and pursuing a career in the cannabis and industrial hemp industries?
Our founding team saw cannabis as a plant with tremendous potential, but for which there was relatively little published research and which carried a huge stigma. They wanted to bring genomic science to the industry both as a foundation for other research work and as a step toward legitimacy.
2) What is the Phylos galaxy?
The Phylos Galaxy is an interactive, evolutionary map of cannabis, featuring thousands of varieties from over 80 countries. People around the world use the Phylos Galaxy to better understand the identity, ancestry, evolution, and genetic relationships of the cannabis they grow and use. Phylos also submits DNA data to NCBI and links to the Open Cannabis Project ensuring that heritage and popular varieties will remain open source and protected.
3) How was it developed?
In 2014 we started the Cannabis Evolution Project in collaboration with the American Museum of Natural History. The goal was to collect DNA from cannabis varieties grown around the world. It was a multi-stakeholder effort to source a diverse variety of cannabis samples. The initial set of varieties — around 1,000 — became the foundation of the Phylos Galaxy and also our Phylos Certified – Genotype Test. Anyone in the world can have their variety added to the Phylos Galaxy to understand how it is related to all of the other varieties from around the world.
To make the Phylos Galaxy, we sequenced the DNA of the cannabis samples and compared them. We then mapped those relationships into three dimensions based on a Principal Components Analysis, a well-established technique in the field of population genetics. We combined this approach with other statistical genetics methods that generate “heredity lines” connecting closely related samples. Finally, we made it interactive. These techniques have never been combined into a single visualization before, for any species.
3) How will genetic breeding with industrial hemp and cannabis cultivars help progress future advancements in these industries?
Compared to other major crops, cannabis is relatively undeveloped. It has been bred, in secret, but mostly for the production of THC and for other recreational traits. It is missing important agronomic traits such as drought tolerance and pest resistance, which will be required by the cannabis farmers who are now gearing up for massive production. By applying marker-assisted selection and the other techniques of modern scientific breeding programs, we can accelerate the development of cannabis as an agricultural crop.
4) Identify the benefits of utilizing the Phylos Plant Sex Test for cultivators.
Growers use the Plant Sex Test to identify male and female plants at the seedling stage, and it can be done as early as 7-10 days after the seed has germinated. This is a huge advantage versus waiting up to 2 months for plants to show their sex. Identifying males early means saving a significant amount of time and resources, avoiding the risk of crop pollination, and increasing grow space. Most growers can cull their males before transplanting. All types of cultivators use the Plant Sex Test, from small home growers to large-scale commercial operations.
5) What does it mean for a product to become Phylos Certified?
Cannabis plants are currently sold under unreliable names (not every “Blue Dream” is the same plant variety), meaning inconsistent experiences for everyone — from farmers to consumers.
Phylos Certified is a public and verified genetic ID based on DNA sequence analysis of individual plant varieties. It allows businesses all along the supply chain to publicly show what they’re growing, which significantly reduces the risk of mislabeling confusion. Any Phylos Certified variety shows up in our public database, meaning anyone can explore its genetic makeup, explore similar varieties, and learn more about the farm that grew it.
The end goal is about consistency for the consumer—from patients in need of reliable medicine to moms looking for a repeatable way to unwind.
6) How would genetic tests help companies market their cannabinoid-based products to consumers?
Genetic testing enables cannabis producers to give their customers confidence about the nature of the products they are buying, and a guarantee that they will get the same product every time.
7) How will further research into the genetics of the cannabis sativa plant shed light on the medicinal uses of cannabinoids?
While environment can affect the phenotype and chemotype of a plant, the genotype ultimately determines its range of potential. This genetic baseline is the critical “third leg of the stool” when it comes to understanding the whole plant, which is particularly important for scientific studies related to the medicinal use of cannabis. The end goal is to ensure patients can access consistent, reliable medicine. And understanding the genetics will help us breed plants that have high levels of rare but medically important cannabinoids that we have not yet had the chance to study.
8) Do you expect future cannabis and industrial hemp varieties to become patentable?
Utility patents have already been granted, though there’s some debate around the defensibility of them. We do expect to see significant IP protections, especially within the pharmaceutical and ag-tech industries. The challenge is going to be protecting genetic diversity and creating a landscape that enables small-scale breeders and growers to thrive. But we believe it’s possible. And we believe everyone should be able to grow medicine in their own backyard.
Crop Today would like to give a special thanks to the Phylos Bioscience team, especially to Ralph Risch and Carolyn White, for allowing us to conduct this featured interview with the company.