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An Interview with Ionization Labs Chief Science Officer Shawn Helmueller


Ionization Labs sits down with Shawn Helmueller, Chief Science Officer, to discuss his previous experiences, the hemp industry, and analytical testing.

Explain your background in science/data analysis. What sparked your interest and led you to the Research & Development role you are currently in?

I studied Supercritical Fluid Chromatography (SFC) in college and there were extremely nuanced and counterintuitive characteristics associated with the technique and technology. Also, supercritical fluids are just cool. I was hooked on understanding chromatographic processes at that point, and I have pursued that in one way or another my whole career. It led me to study Analytical Chemistry and Analytical Instrumentation. Ultimately, it led me to a product development and marketing role at Waters Corporation. That led me to cannabis science and eventually to my current role here at Ionization Labs.

Why is the work you are doing important? How does that work apply to the future of chemical analysis/testing?

Early on in my career, I was a subject matter expert on processes involved with using CO2 (carbon dioxide) as a solvent for chemical separations and other analytical and industrial processes. I constantly had to try and make my very narrow sliver of expertise relevant to other people who were not Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) in my field. It was hard. I had my baby, and I had to try and convince people that my baby was cute, and it’s difficult news to take when people don’t think your baby is cute. It’s your baby. But this taught me that the most important thing you can get good at is helping other people understand and care about the stuff you are doing. Make it relatable and make the technology or concepts accessible to them and they will stop thinking about the boring concepts. Just use the technology as a tool for information like it was intended for. The work we do at Ionization Labs makes technology accessible to people in emerging markets. This allows an entirely different and new class of users to take that technology and do cool stuff in the future.

If you could change one thing about the industry you are in, what would it be?

This is already changing, but I will reiterate it here. People in the cannabis industry need to care about the quality of the products they are producing. In the past, there was a ‘get rich quick' or ‘first to market’ push and quality suffered. People are beginning to understand that long-term success in this industry is tied as much to quality and consistency as it is to innovation and safely pushing the boundaries of their products. You can’t push the boundaries on product formulations without ensuring they are safe high-quality formulations.

What are the largest obstacles that you foresee for our company, and for analytical labs in general in the future?

I’m not big on future predictions, but analytical labs are going to need to be able to differentiate their suite of laboratory services from that of other labs. This is what our company is trying to do with Cann-ID, and we are excited to partner with other labs that wish to offer a similar suite of laboratory services to their clients.

How does testing hemp/cannabis impact the cultivation, extraction, distribution, and sales of the product?

Testing generally, and specifically, potency testing, acts as a hub in the product development and manufacturing workflow. Commodity value is tied directly to potency. The consumer experience and potential therapeutic effects are correlated to a product's potency. No business gets done in the cannabis industry without detailed information about how the potency of these products changes throughout the product's life cycle.

What are the economic stakes of potency testing from your perspective? Your employer’s or funder’s perspective? (i.e., whose profits/earnings might be harmed or helped by this study? Who is invested in it?

Before coming to Ionization Labs, I worked as a chief scientist at an industrial processing equipment manufacturer called Deutsche Process. They manufactured some of the largest cannabis processing technology available in the market. Believe me, the clients who are looking at large-scale processing operations know exactly how much revenue they are losing per processing hour if they experience even a modest decrease in processing efficiency. For many of these processors, it is in the tens of thousands of dollars per hour for even minor processing inefficiencies. Without continuous detailed and accurate insights into these processing inefficiencies, clients could lose hundreds of thousands of dollars per week without ever realizing that there was an issue.

What surprised you the most about your studies?

There’s a common observation people have as they study a topic in-depth. They start out and they realize they know nothing, and they see very clearly how much they have to learn; this lights a fire and gets them going. Then something amazing happens. They learn a little bit about a topic that not many other people know about, and they think that they know everything. Some people stop there. They graduate from university and go on with their lives thinking that they are the smartest people in the world. I’m joking now, but only a little.. Other people continue studying their topic and start to realize that everything they thought they knew was lies or maybe oversimplifications and their eyes are opened to a whole world of things that they didn’t know they didn’t know. Understanding something better only seems to raise more complicated questions. I’m continually surprised by how humbling science is. Work is never actually "done", we just seem to get to a point where our narrow perspective is no longer able to make any more progress. I’m not there yet, don’t worry. That’s one of the reasons analytical science coupled with cannabis science is so interesting. We don’t even know what we don't know yet.

Where do you see yourself in a decade? How does the work you do now impact the future of the field?

I’m hopeful that in a decade, chemical information and technology will be as ubiquitous and simple to use as computers or cell phones have become. I think decreasing barriers to entry for sophisticated technology will open doors that narrow-minded analytical chemists like myself have missed. It takes a new perspective sometimes to make the most impactful discoveries. I’m excited to see how these types of improvements in software and technology will enable future users to take that technology and do amazing things that benefit people.

If you could leave a message for any aspiring young scientists that are interested in chemistry/analytical testing what would it be?

Trust, but verify. Trust that you are being given information in good faith, but also trust your skills as an analytical thinker; be skeptical and verify that the information you’re given is correct. It’s easy to do one or the other. Always trust without verifying and risk propagating misinformation, or always be skeptical and you might be right sometimes, but people won’t like you and you won’t change any minds. It’s hard, but you need to be able to trust people. Also, it’s okay to double-check their work when they are not looking!

Checking and replicating scientific work is the foundation of the scientific method. It is a skill that can be controversial in some instances, though. With this advice in mind, it is so important to allow future scientists to have the courage to be skeptical or to speak out, and question possible misinformation. Reminding aspiring chemists and scholars alike that it is OK to double-check work is crucial. It is our duty as scientists to have inquisitive minds, and questioning data doesn’t equivalate to assuming the data is wrong, but rather ensuring that it is thoroughly analyzed.

About Shawn Helmueller:

Shawn obtained Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) degrees in Chemistry, and Biochemistry/Molecular Biology from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He earned a Master of Science (M.Sc.) in Analytical Chemistry from the University of Minnesota studying supercritical fluid separation theory, and adult education.

Shawn Joined Waters Corporation in 2015 as a product development and applications chemist in the purification and SFx separations product development and marketing group. Considered a subject matter expert in applications and systems utilizing carbon dioxide (CO2) as a solvent, Shawn consulted with internal and external stakeholders on systems research and design, product development, and applications utilizing CO2-based technology.

In 2019 Shawn joined Deutsche Process as Chief Scientific Officer. His lab was involved with new product research and development and scientific evaluation of new and existing industrial sanitary processing technology for implementation in emerging markets.

In 2020 Shawn joined Ionization Labs, a Green Ocean Sciences Company, as Chief Scientific Officer. Ionization Labs is a life sciences solutions and software provider. Shawn blends his background in analytical and industrial systems development, food and natural products application research, and new product research, development, and marketing to deliver robust, innovative, and intuitive application and software solutions in support of new and emerging markets. He collaborates with the business and software development teams to support and manage new product research, development, and marketing of Ionization Lab’s flagship cannabis potency testing solution, Cann-ID. Shawn also supports scientific operations in Ionization Lab’s Austin Texas based commercial ISO 17025:2017 accredited cannabinoid testing and research laboratory.

Shawn Helmueller was featured in The Cannabis Scientist Power List 2022. Visit the link for more information.

Updated 1/20/23


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