Cannabis firm Helius has high hopes

An Auckland company is intent on taking cannabis from the illegal to the legitimate as a drug of choice. Not for recreation, but for medicinal use. Richard Rennie from Farmers Weekly spoke to Paul Manning, one of the men behind the largest brand in this nascent sector, Helius Therapeutics.

To follow is an excerpt from a story in Farmers Weekly (Agribusiness) by Richard Rennie.

You can view the original article here.

Of all the recreational drugs available cannabis is one of the most prolific in terms of its descriptors – wacky baccy, electric puha and dope to name a few, with Wikipedia crediting more than a thousand terms to one of the planet’s most popular drugs.

Auckland company, Helius, is intent on taking cannabis from the illegal to the legitimate as a drug of choice – not for recreation, but for medicinal use.

The likelihood of cannabis becoming a crop that can legitimately be grown in New Zealand has improved after the passing of the first reading earlier this year of the Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Act. 

With that comes the chance for New Zealand to be a world leader in the development of plants, their intellectual property and treatments, creating a pharmaceutical industry that is experiencing rapid growth globally.

Ex-advertising mogul Paul Manning is one of four entrepreneurs leading the charge in what he describes as the riskiest start-up to be in, establishing Helius, a pharmaceutical company producing products based on marijuana extracts.

“We are looking at a start-up business in a start-up industry currently working as a black market so it could really be described as the ultimate entrepreneurial challenge and all a bit wild west. 

“There is little experience in New Zealand in this industry, except for around hemp production, and only some academic work has been done and even the law itself is still an unknown. We believe it will become legalised for medicinal uses but the question is when will that happen?”

But Manning is no fool. Having established, at the tender age of 22, a full-service ad agency, Metro Media, he went on to build it into the country’s largest privately owned agency worth about $15 million at its peak, which he ultimately sold. 

As an ad man he admits he is conscious for the pharmaceutical marijuana industry to succeed in New Zealand it needs something of a rebrand.

Repositioning the crop as a valued, horticulturally grown input for a burgeoning therapeutic market dispelling the wacky-baccy sniggers is vital to attract the skill sets spanning horticulture, pharmaceuticals, marketing and science the industry will demand.

Despite being a marketing whiz, Manning has come up to speed quickly with the components and science that make marijuana a legitimate drug component, equalling and even exceeding other grown crops like poppies for its effectiveness in certain treatments.

“When we consider the opioid crisis, with 63,000 people a year dying in the United States from abuse, and its effects starting to be felt here, it makes you question – why is it that cannabis is so stigmitised by comparison?”

As a treatment cannabis is difficult to overdose on and while having additive characteristics it sits lower on that scale than society’s other addictive options. 

“In a population you will get 8-9% of people addicted to cannabis, that rises to 14-16% for alcohol and 30% for tobacco so cannabis sits low on the scale.”

As a pharmaceutical ingredient cannabis contains two main therapeutic compounds, THC and CBD, which, when mixed in varying ratios, are effective for epilepsy treatment, burns, pain management, arthritis and sleeplessness.

“There is what's known as the entourage effect, where the combination of the parts can be greater in therapeutic effect than each individual compound.”

There is also a strong interest by Helius’ founders around horticulture and growing productive crops. 

Manning grew up in Whenuapai, on the outskirts of Auckland, on a market garden and his father Dr Mike Manning is one of the Plant & Food Research team recently awarded the Prime Minister's Science Prize and $500,000 for their work on Psa diagnosis and testing. 

Scientists at Plant & Food Research, Mike Manning (centre, right)

“Dad has just retired so he is proving a valuable source of information when it comes to growing processes.”  

With 15,000 strains of cannabis in existence globally, Helius aims to start out growing twelve strains hydroponically once the legal green light is given. 

The selected strains are to be sourced from Helius’ US partner that has so far established six medicinal marijuana growing facilities and the company already has a portfolio of products with brand names and packaging all set to go.

Funding such an excercise is not for the faint-hearted but the venture has managed to raise $15 million in only four months. A significant portion has come from low profile HNW investors keen to be involved in an industry they view as ultimately about improving people’s quality of life.

“We have proven we have the ability to sell a high-grade therapeutic cannabis based product at almost one fifth the cost of the equivalent product brought in from the United Kingdom and about the same price as what people may buy illegally here on the black market, of unknown origins.”

The value of the market in NZ is estimated at over $1 billion, based on Department of Health estimates that 250,000 people a year access medicinal cannabis. 

But beyond New Zealand is where the serious money lies with estimates the market will ultimately be worth $200b, more than double today’s value.

Production will initially come from a 6500 square metres facility in Auckland, under 24-hour, three-man security guard with state of the art security and hydroponic growing capacity geared around the 10-week growing cycle cannabis requires. 

The facility will start with Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) certification, the Rolls Royce ticket for manufacturing standards, sitting even higher than Food Grade standard.

Manning expects the Helius site to employ about 60-100 people and is excited about the opportunities the business opens up for young horticulturalists who want to work in a cutting-edge industry, turning their growing skills to a crop previously shoved to remote forests and farm corners.

“This is an opportunity for people who may have shown their skills growing tomatoes or capsicums hydroponically and for people out of university, all who want to be part of an exciting sunrise industry that New Zealand has the skills to lead the world in.”

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