The Business of Cannabis: Aqualitas

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By Jason Gorber

As part of our Business Talks with Canada’s top cannabis CEOs, we had the pleasure of speaking with:

Myrna Gillis

CEO/Founder, Aqualitas

Brooklyn, Nova Scotia

What does your company do? We are a medical cannabis producer. We have a processing and cultivation license and, hopefully in the next week or two, have our complete unrestricted sales license. For us, our focus is on the value-added production. We’re looking forward to having products in the edibles, extraction, and topical markets as well.

How have you seen the industry changing over the last little while? The most obvious is the reduction in stigma associated with the consumption of cannabis. I see a lot of activity in the value-added part of the sector around a lot of the specialty equipment with extraction and product research and development.

What would you like to see in terms of changes, and, more importantly, what are you doing to contribute to that change? People are looking to us for leadership. The industry is seen as a huge energy consumer. It’s also seen as being somewhat wasteful in the use of its products. We do grow aquaponically, we don’t use pesticides in our process, we recapture our water, [and] we use LEDs, so we use 50% less energy and about 90% less water. That’s part of how we’re contributing to the ecosystem and the environment.

We had a third-party energy audit of our facility, and we received the largest energy rebate that was ever awarded under that program in Nova Scotia. We also have a recirculating system, and we capture the transpiration off of our HVAC units to reuse that water as well. We have geothermal opportunities, and we also can burn our own biomass – it comes back to us in the form of steam. Relative to our competitors, we have a lot of areas that we are looking to for an environmental position. We are growing the greenest green in the world with our practices, and that’s something that we’re quite proud of. We also are looking at biodegradable packaging that’s more environmentally friendly, using the hemp for inside liners.

We have a fully functioning lab at Acadia University, and we’re working with the A lab on product development. We’re doing a partnership on an FDA clinical trial with a company that is in the process of trying to develop cannabis drugs with a drug identification number, so those are some of the things that we’re working on. And then finally, from a corporate social responsibility, we try to do education and outreach about corporate responsibility in the areas of consumption, environment, diversity, and using renewable resources in our industry and practices.

Another area of leadership is in the area of advocacy. My background was as a disabilities lawyer – I practiced for about 25 years, so that’s an area of personal interest to me but also a part of the value systems of our company. When it came to the excise tax, we certainly tried to do our part in lobbying our provincial and federal representatives and respective tax ministers. We did a lot of speaking on disabilities for different organizations.

Like many industries, this one seems heavily male-dominated. You provide a refreshing differentiator there. We’re one of the few women-led companies. We have nine PhDs and three Master’s [and] two engineers in our scientific team. The majority of the STEM positions in our company are actually occupied by women. We’re trying to do our part for social responsibility and diversity in our workplace.

What do you see as the biggest challenge or roadblock to your success? One of the biggest challenges is the speed with which producers are able to get licenses in the industry. Even for ourselves it takes several years, and so being able to access capital [is difficult], and we are not able to generate revenue because of the regulator. The market ebbs and flows with enthusiasm and some volatility, and so for companies that can be a challenge. Atlantic Canada is the highest per capita market in the country. We’re doing our first export in a couple of weeks, and we’ve got great proximity to the European market. The challenge to get to those markets is you need to have the resources to get there. You have to recruit and retain really quality staff because they’re critical to executing your plan.

What do you see as the biggest misconception surrounding your industry? The biggest misconception is that it’s just a big gold rush for everyone. There are a lot of really principled and good people that are very much motivated by doing really good innovative work in research and development in medical, ancillary, and in adult-use products. Obviously, there’s people who see a good business proposition. Another misconception is about who the cannabis consumer is – with the reduction of the stigma, everybody is seeing the diversity of consumers is as broad as the diversity of our population.