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Helius in the NBR

Helius CEO Carmen Doran recently spoke to Fiona Rotherham at NBR about Helius progress. The written article is outlined below and the link to the full article including a video interview is here: Helius expects medicinal cannabis sales to near double this year (

Helius Therapeutics, the country’s largest licensed medical cannabis producer, expects industry-wide sales will nearly double this year based on 2022 growth rates.

Helius chief executive Carmen Doran – who is also a member of the industry body, the NZ Medical Cannabis Council – said she was “pleasantly surprised” to see how quickly sales have grown in New Zealand, given regulatory restrictions around advertising the products.

“A lot of how people are finding out about medicinal cannabis is talking to their neighbour or to their friends, talking to their doctors or their pharmacy – a lot of it is through word of mouth and is patient driven.”

OIA requests by Helius to the Ministry of Health show there were just over 36,000 medical cannabis prescriptions in 2021. While the official numbers are still incomplete for 2022, Doran said they had estimated it conservatively at around 60,000.

New Zealand doctors can prescribe medicinal cannabis for any health condition but, so far, regulators have ruled out a switch to allowing over-the-counter sales as Australia has done.

Helius raised an additional $13 million from existing and new investors last year, almost doubling the size of its shareholder base. The total it has raised to date has now hit $60m.

New investors included former Infratil chief executive Marko Bogoievski and Tappenden Holdings, one of the investment vehicles for NBR Listers the Farmer family.

The largest shareholder, Guy Haddleton, also participated in the round. He has previously told media he expected investment in Helius could rise to $75m to $100m over time to build it into a globally competitive pharmaceuticals company.

Going first

Doran said despite the current economic environment, Helius was able to attract more investment because it had hit its milestones, including becoming the first medicinal cannabis company to gain Good Agricultural and Collection Practice (GACP) certification at its $22m East Tamaki cannabis cultivation, processing, and manufacturing facility late last year. Recognised globally, the GACP will open more doors for Helius as it ramps up to export this year, Doran said.

It had already been the first to achieve a GMP licence for manufacturing medicines in 2021 and the first to gain approval for products derived from locally grown cannabis plants. It now has six products approved for sale here.

“Expanding our certifications, bringing products to market, signing export deals – all of those things has really helped us to be able to validate the market, to validate Helius Therapeutic’s business plan as we grow,” Doran said.

The final step to full site certification is getting a GMP certificate for cannabis flower, which is another dosage form for medicinal cannabis. It is expecting to achieve that this year.

Doran said many of the company’s investors had a personal connection somehow to health or wellbeing. “Maybe they’ve had a family member who has used medicinal cannabis or who could have benefited from it and medicinal cannabis wasn’t available. Absolutely, our shareholders expect a return as well but they understand that medicines is a long game, they understand that what we’re doing is helping people on the way, as well.”

Export challenge

Helius plans to be the first medicinal cannabis company to start exporting from New Zealand this year, with several deals in the pipeline.

Doran wouldn’t specify the timeline for that, saying that was the beauty of being a private company rather than listed, as its competitors Rua Bioscience and Cannasouth are.

Target markets for Helius include Europe, where medicinal cannabis has been around a couple of years longer than in New Zealand, and in Australia where their rules have changed to up the standards required to match that of New Zealand. The company is also looking at South America.

“One thing we do see around the world is just the growth rates are really huge as people are looking for a more natural approach to their medicines, a plant-based approach,” Doran said.

New Zealand’s regulations and high standards for medicinal cannabis and the supply chain were well-trusted around the world, she said.

“We are vertically integrated, we know exactly what happens to every single part of our process, and that has been really well respected around the world, as people look to really understand where things come from, what the background of them was, and each step of the process.”

Helius signed a five-year supply deal last year with Marlborough-based organic cannabis grower, Puro, which would see it provide the company with more than 10 tonnes of organic medicinal cannabis, the equivalent of approximately five shipping containers of dried cannabis flower.

The global medicinal market is estimated to reach US$65 billion by 2025.

“For us, even a small piece of that pie is a big thing for the New Zealand economy and that also helps us to be able to drive more money back into research and development, to be able to bring more effective dosage forms into market, different genetics to market, for our New Zealand patients and around the world,” Doran said.

She wouldn’t reveal Helius’s current revenue or what it is targeting to make in its first year of export. The company now has 25 employees and hopes to hit profitability in 2024.

Doran said she’s not allowed to talk directly about price comparisons with imported product but: “We have seen with the New Zealand-made products coming to market that those prices have come down for our patients.”

Industry sources say prices have reduced by about half since locally made prescribed products hit the market in October 2021, but critics say they are still too high for many on limited incomes and many GPs remain reluctant to prescribe them, particularly without clinical trial evidence of the medical benefits.

Rule changes

The industry is going through a delayed consultation process with the Medicinal Cannabis Agency over proposed changes to the Medicinal Cannabis Scheme, which came into effect on April 1, 2020.

New Zealand has about 35 medicinal cannabis companies and imported products were allowed into the country from 2017.

From an industry perspective, the changes that were put before them in December will really help deliver better outcomes for patients, Doran said. But it could take 12 to 18 months before they take effect.

Advocacy group, Norml (National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), has published on its website a copy of the proposed changes. It said they were great news because the scheme had been widely criticised for exceptionally tough standards that had restricted the availability of cannabis medicines.

New Zealand has the highest medical cannabis standards in the world, and imported products have to meet them as well.

“Since the scheme came into effect, we are only now seeing the first approvals of locally made CBD and THC products, no commercial exports have been made, and no locally grown flower is available yet,” Norml said.

One of the changes Doran is most keen on is no longer requiring exporters to have to meet both the New Zealand standards and those of the country it is exporting to, as is the case with other medicines made in New Zealand.

Just like food, plant-based medicines are a degradable product with a relatively short shelf life, she said, making time to go through the regulatory checks in two countries rather than one quite important.

“The changes being considered around export would really allow the industry to take off. We would love to see that change happen faster for the industry and that’s something we’re discussing with the Ministry of Health.

“For this industry to survive, export is going to be critical,” Doran said.

Mon, 13 Feb 2023

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