Civil and structural engineer Zoe Reece tells Jane Phare how and why she has launched a medicinal cannabis company.
The young Kiwi engineer, newly arrived in Boston, was faced with two job choices. One was to work on Harvard University's new science and engineering building. The other was to join a medicinal cannabis startup company.
Says Zoe Reece, "Much to my mother's dismay I took the cannabis startup."
It was that decision, four years ago, that gave her the experience and know-how to establish her own cannabis company, Ora Pharm, on her return to New Zealand in 2019.
In the two years she spent with US company Curaleaf she witnessed explosive growth in the medicinal cannabis industry. When Reece joined the company it had 16 facilities in six states, growing, processing and selling medicinal cannabis. By the time she left, Curaleaf had 83 facilities in 16 states and was the largest cannabis company in the US, valued at more than $15.8 billion.
Now Reece, 31, is preparing to launch Ora Pharm into the next growth phase through a multimillion-dollar capital raise with investment bankers Bancorp. The plan is to build a 4000sq m greenhouse in North Waikato and convert an existing 500sq m building into a manufacturing facility.
The property now has high-tech security and cameras to protect it from intruders. Cows graze on the other size of fencing topped with razor wire.
Ora Pharm now has licences to cultivate, supply and import/export medicinal cannabis from the Medicinal Cannabis Agency, part of the Ministry of Health. Once the next lot of funding has been raised, Ora Pharm will import medical cannabis to service the market until the Waikato plant is producing enough.
With "less than seven figures" in seed funding Reece built a prototype processing facility and smaller greenhouse, based on a design she helped perfect at Curaleaf which enables cannabis to be grown all year round.
As Curaleaf's director of engineering, reporting to the COO, she worked on the design, planning, build and startup of more than 80 operational facilities, including retail outlets, dealt with licences in different states, and brought the company's new acquisitions up to Curaleaf's standards.
It is experience that has served her well in setting up a similar business in New Zealand.
With New Zealand's medicinal cannabis industry in its infancy Reece knows timing is everything, hence her move back to New Zealand in July 2019.
Once back home, Reece and her husband Karl, now COO of Ora Pharm, drove 10,000km looking at more than 100 properties before settling on the North Waikato property.
The 44.5 hectares of land, halfway between Auckland and Hamilton, is currently leased and will be bought by Ora Pharm after capital is raised, leaving room for expansion.
Close to market garden territory and halfway between two universities, Reece says the company will be able to draw on a talent pool needed for all aspects of the business, including running clinical trials to establish the product's efficacy for the treatment of a range of medical conditions.
Reece's aim is to have Ora Pharm GMP (Good manufacturing practice) accredited so the company can grow, extract and package medicinal cannabis in New Zealand. Within nine months she plans to have a staff of 14 working in the greenhouse, up to 14 in the processing facility and another 10 in the corporate team.
Her former COO at Curaleaf, Stuart Wilcox, now chairs Ora Pharm's board, talking regularly with Reece via Zoom. He has invested in the company, plans to invest in the next round and has a network of US contacts interested in the Kiwi startup. Apart from local supply, the company has its sights set on the export market.
Medicinal cannabis worth $67m in NZ by 2025
Last year the New Zealand medical cannabis market was worth $5m. Predictions for this year are $13.2m, rising to $67.5m by 2025, according to analysis done by Chicago-based market research company the Brightfield Group. The Australian market was worth $121.2m last year and is expected to increase to $891.2m by 2025.
The total global medicinal market was $11.85b last year and is expected to increase to $21.8b by 2025.
When Reece left the University of Auckland 10 years ago with a civil engineering degree, specialising in structural design, she never imagined she would one day be growing cannabis for a living. But medicinal cannabis is a product in which she has faith, having suffered from extremely painful endometriosis while working at Curaleaf.
Staff were encouraged to try new products so she did, putting a CBD (cannabidiol) tincture under her tongue. The cannabis oil brought pain relief that standard medication, including opioids, had not.
"Within 15 minutes the pain had completely gone. It just melted away and it's been incredible having that as a form of relief when I need it," she says.
"CBD is the non-psychoactive compound of cannabis so I didn't have any issues taking it at work or travelling around and having that with me."
The following year she was told she needed surgery on her inner ear to remove a mass that had grown there. She dreaded the surgery and the weeks of post-operative pain having gone through a similar operation on her other ear while working on engineering projects in Perth. Pain relief hadn't worked and opioids made her dizzy and nauseous.
She talked at length with senior Curaleaf staff before trying the THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) cannabis tincture with the CBD. She replaced four opioids every eight hours with four drops of the THC cannabis oil, giving her pain relief.
"There were no side effects at that low dose taken with the balanced CBD. I didn't get the high either."
In New Zealand both CBD and THC will need to be prescribed by a doctor, including dosage and frequency. Ora Pharm will engage a clinical trial company to conduct research to establish which combinations of tinctures provide the best outcome for various conditions.
Reece hopes that CBD will eventually be available as an over-the-counter medicine, much like Panadol, and that medical cannabis can be prescribed for patients suffering pain in hospital.