Women leading the way at New Zealand's largest medicinal cannabis company

Updated: Mar 8

On International Women's Day, we take look at two of the inspiring women who are striving to improve lives in New Zealand, and around the world, through the country’s largest licensed medicinal cannabis company.



International Women's Day 2021


Helius Therapeutics is a young business, formed just three years ago, but has already become a brand synonymous with New Zealand's newest sunrise industry. Leading both arms of this innovative business are women, each playing a role in developing locally-made cannabinoid medicines to improve countless lives, both human and animal, here and abroad.


Despite common misconceptions, medicinal cannabis producers like Helius are, in fact, pharmaceuticals companies that use cannabinoids as the active ingredient in the medicines they produce. Success demands a diverse team with deeply specialised technical and management skills.


Therefore, it comes as little surprise that, according to one US study, close to 37% of senior-level jobs in the medical cannabis industry are held by women. This puts the national average, 21% for other industries in the country, to shame. New Zealand's medicinal cannabis industry is so new that employment statistics haven't been compiled, yet it's clear that women have taken an early lead.


From propagating and tending to the plants that produce these highly therapeutic compounds, to analytical testing, quality assurance and control, financial management and strategic leadership – talented women have not held back from taking their rightful place at the top of this leading cannabis company.

Carmen Doran, CEO, Helius Therapeutics

Carmen Doran

Chief Executive Officer

Helius Therapeutics


At the helm of the country's preeminent medicinal cannabis company is Chief Executive Officer, Carmen Doran. Certainly too young to be referred to as a veteran, yet Carmen has accumulated more than 15 years’ experience in the global pharmaceuticals and animal health industries. She also holds a Master’s Degree in Biomedical Engineering and an undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering focused on Control Systems, Manufacturing Optimisation and Leadership from the University of Canterbury.


Prior to joining Helius in 2020, Carmen spent 10 years with Novartis Pharmaceuticals before a move into consulting with medicines companies around the world. During her time in Novartis she held both site and global roles across operations, engineering and operational excellence. Carmen was in global strategy and operational excellence roles, supporting 24 sites in 22 countries around the world.


With a passion for building collaborative teams to improve performance, Carmen is a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt – a method for systematically eliminating waste and reducing variation. Lean Culture, pioneered by early Japanese manufacturers, has a high focus on respect for people and problem solving by experts who know the job well.


Carmen also served as Head of Operations for the Novartis Animal Health UK site (now Argenta) in 2013 and 2014 through a significant period of change. More recently, in 2017 and 2018, Carmen was engaged as a General Manager for Siegfried Malta, a major contract manufacturing site of 135 people.


Carmen first joined Helius' executive team as Chief Operating Officer in 2020, bringing deep domain experience in pharmaceuticals manufacturing. This year, as the company shifted gears from its entrepreneurial start-up phase into a vertically-integrated pharmaceuticals enterprise, Carmen was promoted to Chief Executive, now leading this highly innovative team.


Marking International Women's Day 2021, Carmen says:


"Whilst I am optimistic that one day we will not need a day to celebrate Women, it is important to take a step back and realise that there are still challenges in breaking down historic cultural, socio-economic and cultural barriers faced by women all around the world. At Helius, I love the highly supportive cultural environment we are growing for all people and see this as a real strength in achieving goals in future."

Speaking recently at Columba College, a leading girls' school in Dunedin, Carmen shared her experiences with students in the Year 12 Agribusiness Course about working in the country's new medicinal cannabis industry. The school is currently examining the concept of 'future proofing', so she led a brainstorming session on how to future proof the medicinal cannabis industry. This covered a wide range of topics raging from the impact of Covid19 on the sector, through to changing patient and public perceptions about cannabis.


Carmen Doran (center) with students from Columba College's Year 12 Agribusiness Course

The school's agribusiness program is designed to provide students with a broad agribusiness experience. It covers the agri-innovation, agri-science, agri-

management and finance, and agri-marketing concepts that provide female students with the opportunity of pursuing a career in the agribusiness sector.



Leila de Koster, MD, Hale Animal Health

Leila de Koster

Managing Director

Hale Animal Health


In May 2020, Helius announced it was launching a second innovative business: New Zealand’s first medicinal cannabis company for animal health.


The establishment of Hale Animal Health was driven by Leila de Koster, the company's co-founder and Managing Director. This business operates alongside Helius Therapeutics, at its East Tamaki headquarters in Auckland.


Prior to launching the company, Leila and her husband Karl spent nearly 5 years working to perfect a range of companion animal health supplements, which have just hit the shelves in leading New Zealand pet retailers. These products are the forerunners to CBD veterinary medicines which Leila and her team will launch as soon as clinical studies are complete.


“We’ll be starting with a range of premium supplement products made from natural ingredients, then we’ll be moving to deliver cannabis focused products, including clinically-proven animal medicines. Thanks to this partnership, the large-scale manufacturing facility at Helius will allow us to produce full spectrum, New Zealand Grown cannabis oil and medical-grade products at real scale,” says Leila.

Leila comes from a background in brand strategy and marketing, working from some of the world's most innovative communications agencies. She spent 5 years in London working for cutting-edge firms such as VCCP and Forever Beta, before joining Clemenger Group's 99 in Auckland as a Group Business Director.


Leila de Koster at Hale Animal Health in East Tamaki, Auckland

As medicinal cannabis is set to become more widely accessible for human patients, Leila is delighted that New Zealand’s many suffering companion animals are set to benefit from this plant’s extraordinary potential.


"Pets are family members too. Animals suffering from arthritis or anxiety, for example, may well benefit from natural, New Zealand grown and manufactured CBD products", she says.


Celebrating International Women's Day


IWD's 2021 campaign theme is Choose to Challenge. Today, Carmen Doran says she's choosing to challenge herself in making assumptions about others (unconscious bias) and instead will be curious to learn.


"For me, diversity and inclusion, encompasses diversity of thinking and backgrounds which come from the experiences we all have. A key area of focus for us at Helius is how we bring together the backgrounds we have from cannabinoid manufacturing and research to pharmaceutical systems and commercial experiences in a way that delivers the most innovative solutions we can to our patients”

Carmen Doran

In an email to all staff today she called out one of the company's values "Be the Entourage Effect". She notes that when cannabis compounds work together, they have a therapeutic super-effect. People are the same. So don’t be a single compound.


"It's about truly pulling this together and creating an environment where we challenge each other and ourselves to be better, every day."

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Happy International Women’s Day. You can read more about this year's there, here.

#ChooseToChallenge #IWD202






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