Business Spotlight: NY HempLab

Last year, farmers and businesses prospered when congress passed The Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (the “Farm Bill”) , rooting out hemp from the controlled substances list, giving all fifty states the freedom to approve it for industrial growth. Prior to this, growing hemp was restricted to academic research institutions. But now, thanks to congress, the newly-legalized plant, Cannabis sativa , has circulated New York State, expanding opportunities in the market for farmers and causing businesses to boom, especially when growing hemp for CBD.

NY HempLab , a local non-profit hemp industry incubator that began last year, whose goal is to innovate a thriving cannabis industry in NYS. However, it’s main focus currently is on education and community development, to make certain NYS is prepared for the industry. Zach Sarkis, founder and Executive Director of NY HempLab, has been an advocate for the hemp industry since 2007 and is currently working out a business model that is essential to help individuals and industry stakeholders to find their place in the field that relies on education of the industry, incubating businesses to find their niche and opening up the industry to create opportunities for businesses to get the support they need in NYS.

“We’re [NY HempLab] looking out to build an ecosystem of experts and resources that can be made available through a membership as well as public based, where we hope to further refine the services we can offer from office hours to like webinars, seminars and events and moving into what we think is the opportunity for an incubator that's focused around cannabis,” Sarkis said.

Having spent years in the recreational and medical markets mostly as a laborer, Sarkis noticed the potential of hemp could have as a booming crop for New York farmers and how it could present a real opportunity for rural economic development that was hardly being acknowledged at the time of his discovery.

“You couldn't touch hemp with a stick,” Sarkis said. “Binghamton had millions of dollars pouring into other parts of the state. So like, this industry is booming and taking off, but no one's talking about it in the Greater Rochester and Finger Lakes region and it was driving me nuts.” Frustrated over the lack of conversation causing the absence of education and engagement, Sarkis strongly believed Rochester, New York could be at the forefront of this industry. Before the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp wasn’t federally legal. The only access before came from the 2014 Farm Bill , which only allowed research in conjunction with universities. This and the frustration over the lack of acknowledging this market, led Sarkis to hold his organization’s first event at the Wegmans School of Pharmacy at St. John Fisher College last year. The event had over 125 attendees and several credible keynote speakers who were researching the hemp industry. The event was not only a success for Sarkis’ organization, but it led his business to some incredible networking. He partnered with the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce and various organizations in other parts of NYS, building a community and incorporating his organization’s philosophy into this new ecosystem he was establishing.

Due to this success, the NY HempLab will be hosting its now second annual NY HempLab conference on Dec. 7 at the University of Rochester. It’s an educational event, with presentation topics ranging from the evolving role of policy and advocacy of hemp in NYS to the mechanical innovation behind it. Sarkis says his goal is to aspire and create an inclusive educational platform led by hemp industry experts and stakeholders to discuss the market and opportunities for New York businesses and entrepreneurs. He also says the conference will differ from the one he held last year.

“Last year, we just brought all these great minds together. It was incredible. It was legitimizing. But this one is very much including people who are on the ground level by doing, selling, producing, like literally have been like in it year round and are bringing their blood, sweat and tears to the table,” Sarkis said. “Again, the context here is New York businesses, New York problems and New York solutions. So we're trying to shape around that of like, can we actually learn, can we actually move forward with this in our minds? But hopefully with how people are informed in this particular event is something that advances their ability to engage or make decisions in the industry.”