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Idealog: Changing the game: The Hemp Store's Chris Fowlie launches Zeacann

Updated: Feb 1, 2019

Changing the game: The Hemp Store's Chris Fowlie launches Zeacann to democratise access to medicinal cannabis

By ELLY STRANG, 30 Oct 2018

Photo Idealog/Shutterstock

The budding New Zealand cannabis scene has a new kid on the block: Zeacann. The company was launched last year as a portal to sell medicinal cannabis products, but thanks to a partnership with AUT University’s Drug Delivery Research Group, it is also going to produce them. Now, the start-up is seeking up to $20 million in investment in a private capital raise managed by PwC to get its operations off the ground. We talk with co-founder Chris Fowlie about how he’s planning on making medicinal cannabis cheaper and more accessible for all.

Zeacann was founded in 2017 in response to patients and medical professionals' demands for quicker, simpler and more affordable access to medicinal cannabis products.

To solve this issue, it is developing an online portal for health practitioners and pharmacists to order products from.

While it was originally called PharmaCann, it has recently relaunched as Zeacann to capitalise on more liberal policy makers coming into power – and as a consequence of that, a pivot in its business model that now means it will be producing its own medicinal cannabis products.

“Our name was actually geared to be more acceptable to a conservative regime with law reform off the agenda,” Fowlie says. “That all changed last year, of course, when the new Labour-led government introduced legislation to make medicinal cannabis legal. Part of that includes encouraging a domestic cannabis industry, and that is a massive game changer.

“While we still retain rights to the PharmaCann brand here, our new branding reflects our New Zealand origin and our status as a top-tier company representing the best cannabis that can be produced here. We wanted a brand that really resonates with local patients and allows us to tap into export markets, and we feel Zeacann captures that effectively.”

Zeacann co-founders Thom Hooker (left) and Chris Fowlie

Fowlie is a well-known figure in the medical cannabis industry, with over 20 years’ experience in both the cannabis and hemp sectors.

His background includes founding what he says is the world’s longest-running hemp outlet (The Hemp Store on Auckland’s Karangahape Rd), being a lobbyer for legislative and law policy reform around medicinal cannabis, as well as the president of NORML, an organisation which campaigned to end cannabis prohibition in New Zealand.

Fellow co-founder Thom Hooker comes from a tech background and previously co-founded internet start-up SMX.

From lobbying to building a business

Fowlie says he made the transition from lobbying for medicinal cannabis reform to dipping a toe into entrepreneurial waters after witnessing medical cannabis advocate Helen Kelly’s tireless campaign to liberalise New Zealand’s drug laws.

Kelly was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and denied access to medical cannabis by the Ministry of Health before she passed away in 2016.

“The person who really spurred us on, and who made such a difference to so many other people, was Helen Kelly,” Fowlie says. “We tried to find a way forward under the old government and under the current law, which only allows very limited access in certain circumstances.

“Medicinal cannabis products are incredibly difficult to obtain because the rules are so convoluted, and most doctors don't have the time to read and understand them. They also worry about keeping up with their ongoing obligations from prescribing controlled drugs or unapproved products. The few existing products are unaffordable for most patients.”

While Zeacann begun as online portal that planned on streamlining the process of selling overseas-produced medicinal cannabis products to medical professionals, a partnership with AUT University’s Drug Deliver Research Group has opened up the door to develop its own unique, locally grown cannabis-based products.

This means Zeacann can produce its own products locally and significantly bring costs down for patients and practitioners.

“We know importation tends to double the final cost,” Fowlie says. “Our distribution model can spread fixed costs over larger volumes, but that can only go so far. To really reduce costs for patients we need to produce medicinal cannabis products here in New Zealand, so Zeacann has partnered with Auckland University of Technology to research and develop a range of novel medicinal cannabis products that are more effective and cheaper to produce.”

Its first range is called Satinol and will be made up of THC and CBD-rich oils and capsules, with further products being rolled out based on patient needs.

Ministry of Health figures show cannabis-based products are used by one in 20 New Zealanders. Fowlie says currently, most patients want medicinal cannabis to treat chronic pain, anxiety and sleeping problems.

For New Zealanders who can’t afford it, compassionate pricing will be offered via a non-profit foundation spun out of the company.

Fowlie says AUT’s research group will be working with Zeacann to develop new products, using high-tech techniques like nanotechnology and 3D printing to increase bioavailability and reduce production costs.

This includes developing new extraction methods for THC and CBD properties, as many used methods used by pre-existing medicinal companies are protected by copyright.

Finding funding

The $20 million capital raise is available to wholesale investors and will go towards funding its expansion, via building of two cutting-edge tech greenhouses in Auckland, cultivating the first crop of its cannabis and more investment into research and development.

“We are looking for strategic partners who share our passion,” Fowlie says.

Under the current laws in place in New Zealand, Zeacann can begin production for research purposes and import medicinal products to distribute to health practitioners and pharmacists, but a timeline released under an OIA request has shown that medical cannabis legislation will pass early next year.

“Although the start date for the Government’s medicinal cannabis scheme has been reported as mid-2020, most of the scheme is not dependent on the law change, and licenses for research and for export are permitted under current law,” Fowlie says.

“We expect regulations for domestic sales will be progressively phased in from the middle of next year, and this could be brought forward with better resourcing.” 

One of the markets that Zeacann is eyeing up to target is Canada, which recently legalised the use of cannabis for adults.

“We’re in a perfect position in New Zealand to become a global leader of medicinal cannabis manufacturing,” Fowlie says.

“Canada needs cannabis, and New Zealand can help. By servicing export markets immediately, we can reach the scale needed to lower costs for local patients.”

And although New Zealand’s geographical isolation has meant it has fallen behind other markets in both legislation and product development, Fowlie says it’s also an advantage, as companies here can learn from their mistakes and not repeat them.

“What makes it challenging but also incredibly exciting is that the medicinal cannabis space changes so rapidly,” he says. “We are literally designing and building an industry alongside the law change that will make it legal.”

Find out more about the capital raise via Zeacann's website.

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