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Helius Therapeutics’ Paul Manning on five things he learned founding a medicinal cannabis company

Five things you’ve learned founding a company in an industry that doesn’t exist yet

1. At first, everyone thinks you’ve lost your mind

I will never forget the feeling of telling my colleagues, friends and family that I’m leaving my career at the helm of one of the country’s largest advertising agencies to grow cannabis. It was in February that we announced the launch of Helius. Our story first appeared on the cover of New Zealand Herald’s business section. It was a great article and the headline was memorably on point: ‘High risk, high reward’. Things have come a long way in less than a year, but at the time cannabis wasn’t on people’s radar, at least not as a commercial opportunity. Property owners weren’t prepared to have us as a tenant. Banks weren’t interested in handling our money. Insurers balked at protecting us. It didn’t take long to change, but it took a firm resolve to navigate those first few months.

2. It’s a mainstream product consumed by mainstream people

New Zealanders have a strong affinity with cannabis. Over 14 percent of Kiwis claim to have used cannabis and over 230,000 say they regularly use the plant for medicinal purposes. That’s about one in 20 of us. And statistics from developed markets like the US and Canada are painting a clear picture of who cannabis consumers are: they are you and me. They are almost evenly distributed across age groups and socio-demographic profiles. Patients use cannabis therapeutics to treat chronic pain, epilepsy, Parkinson’s, sleep disorders, Chron’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder and even cancer. As our industry emerges from the shadows, cannabis is no longer the exclusive domain of fringe society. It has become a mainstream product, consumed by mainstream people.

3. Be prepared to pivot

The pace of change in the cannabis industry is extraordinary. What’s right in the morning, is wrong in the afternoon. The amount of information you need to absorb when transitioning into a rapidly emerging industry is like drinking from a fire hydrant. We’ve found that while our core strategy has remained largely unchanged, we are having to adapt to a plethora of unexpected twists and turns. These can come in the form of incremental regulatory shifts that influence what we can do and how we do it – and through exciting new opportunities like partnerships, manufacturing contracts and export deals. It’s important for stay true to our purpose, but be prepared to pivot and adapt quickly. We have this analogy that we’re a bit like Team New Zealand right now, we have a fast boat, secure funding, a great crew and we’re tacking towards the start line, so we’re poised to cross first and at full speed.

4. We’re converting a black market to a regulated industry

New Zealand’s regulated medicinal cannabis market will create a new category of therapeutics. We are destined to conquest consumers from the pharmaceuticals industry, and from the nutraceuticals, natural medicines and health supplements sectors. But one of the factors that really makes this new industry unique is the conversion of consumers from the black market. Today, thousands of New Zealanders are being driven underground to source cannabis to treat their medical ailments. Many are suffering chronic or terminal conditions. These patients need quality, consistent cannabis-based therapeutics that can be consumed with accurate dosing and with appropriate delivery mechanisms like capsules, oils and vape pens. Importantly, they need to have ready access to these products through a their pharmacy, just like any other medication. 

5. Prohibition is coming to an end, and when it does, brands will dominate

We’re on the precipice of a new industry. This is one of the greatest entrepreneurial opportunities of its kind since the repeal of alcohol prohibition in the 1930s. And if there’s one thing we’ve learnt, it’s that when prohibition ends, brands dominate. New Zealand’s medicinal cannabis bill is due for royal ascent in February 2019 and the Ministry of Health has suggested a market ‘go live’ date of mid-2020. A key part of our strategy is to build a global brand, applying design thinking throughout our business and especially in our product development. Our ambition is to build a New Zealand cannabis brand that can compete beyond our shores with the best in the world.

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