Planting a new industry in Brooklyn

by Gayle Wilson

  • <p>GAYLE WILSON PHOTO</p><p>Myrna Gillis, CEO for Aqualitas, on the building site at the Port Mersey Commercial Park with the company&#8217;s head of operations and strategic initiatives, Jeff Garnhum.</p>
  • <p>GAYLE WILSON PHOTO</p><p>Myrna Gillis, Aqualitas CEO, was a disability lawyer for 25 years prior to initiating the medical marijuana production company.</p>
  • <p>GAYLE WILSON PHOTO</p><p>Aqualitas hopes to have its medical marijuana production plant up and running at the Port Mersey Commercial Park in Brooklyn in the fall.</p>

For Myrna Gillis, a South Shore lawyer specializing in disabilities, it wasn't exactly a leap to become the instigator and chief executive officer of Aqualitas, the medical marijuana plant under construction at the Port Mersey Commercial Park in Brooklyn.

However, with Aqualitas gearing up to begin operation this fall, she hasn't looked back since.

As someone who built up a law practice from scratch, Gillis says she's always had an entrepreneurial spirit.

"That part of it wasn't a leap for me. I think what was a leap was more just leaving the comforts of something that I knew for 25 years, which was practising law. And my clients are very important to me, so that was a transition for sure."

Representing people with disabilities, Gillis was well informed about issues and benefits surrounding medical marijuana.

When the federal government opened the doors in 2014 for companies to begin producing medical cannabis commercially, she saw an opportunity.

"Nova Scotia has the highest per capital consumption of recreational and second highest per-capita medical consumption in Canada," she commented to LighthouseNOW last week.

"Just in the last quarter, Nova Scotia, amongst all of the provinces in Canada, placed 55,000 orders for medical [marijuana]...Behind Ontario and Alberta in that order. So we have a lot of participation. There's a great demand for medical cannabis here."

Handing over all but select "active" clients to one of her colleagues, Gillis effectively jumped with both feet onto a plan to build a 70,000-square-foot, multi-million-dollar production plant using unique aquaponics technology.

And she's collected a stellar team of 15 experts along for the ride.

"I knew when you're looking at a project of this magnitude, you need to have a diverse group of skill sets to ensure the success of the project," she said.

In the spring of 2014, she called a meeting with friends and acquaintances with financial, managerial, legal, health industry, scientific and security experience. She told them of her interest in building a medical cannabis production plant and asked if they would like to join her.

"And every single person said yes."

Moving forward required regulatory approval from Health Canada,

"The application itself was about 2,000 pages. It's not a small undertaking at all," notes Gillis.

One of the main components concerned security.

Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations (ACMPR), which replaced the previous Marijuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR), require the commercial premises to be in an "appropriate location, secure with necessary cameras and basically the anti-theft process is in place," she explains.

Another important component of the regulatory approval is good manufacturing practices, covering such aspects as quality, safety, testing and environmental controls.

Health Canada accepted the Aqualitas application in March, 2015. However, Gillis notes, "That was just the first step." There are seven stages in the regulatory process.

Aqualitas is through most of them now.

"Essentially we're just waiting to finish the building and confirm some review questions and get the building ready for inspection."

The company is hoping to have the inspection completed, licence in hand, and the plant operational by November.

But Gillis is quick to point out it's not a done deal yet. It's for that reason Aqualitis hasn't yet begun hiring the additional 50 or so workers it expects to take on when the business is up and running. (There is already a core of about six to nine employees there at any one time.)

Nonetheless, the Aqualitas team is gearing up for a fully-fledged medical marijuana facility.

Aqualitas will be one of two medical cannabis producers in Canada using an aquaponics process, which involves growing fish, in this case koi, and the marijuana plants together.

The plan is for 70,000 square feet of production capacity. The actual number of plants depends of a variety of factors, says Gillis, "but it's literally thousands and thousands of plants."

She expects selling price will fall within the current market range of $7 to $15 per gram of medical cannabis.

According to Gillis, Aqualitas is one of only a few companies in Canada that has a medical patient advisory board. The board has guided the company on a variety of production and marketing aspects.

It suggested, for example, physicians prefer to offer oils, rather than something to be smoked or vaporized. Doctors would like to see a variety of Cannabidiol (CBD) products for patients with inflammatory issues, and look to offer a natural product for those with environmental sensitivities.

While Gillis won't say specifically how much the company development is costing, she suggests, "You're looking at $6 million to $9 million to get a project of this magnitude off the ground."

Financing for the company is entirely through private investors., and the future looks promising, given the 50 companies currently operational in Canada are unable to meet the demands of the medical market.

According to Gillis, that market initially was projected to be 450,000 patients by 2024.

"That number has been eclipsed already, and the projections are closer to 750,000 by 2020."

She notes that's just the market for medical cannabis. The shortfall will be even more dramatic if recreational or adult use is legalized next year.

Aqualitas is prepared to serve a national market, but Gillis says she and her team are first counting on the local one.

"One of the things that is really important to Nova Scotians is the buy local mentality. We have a very good history of supporting local businesses and local producers. And we're all authentically Nova Scotians."

Gillis maintains that if they act as "good corporate citizens" and produce a quality, natural product, "we have an expectation that will resonate with the local buyer."

And a local supplier can get the product to the consumer quicker, she notes.

"Because right now it's a mail-order system. If we have a client in Nova Scotia, we can get it to them a lot quicker than someone in B.C."

With the market for recreational marijuana potentially set to open next year, Gillis notes the licence they hope to receive from the government now should cover both avenues of production. And she's not ruling out expansion into the other arena.

However, for now anyway, the company's strategy is to focus on the health benefits.

"The medical side of this is what motivated us to get into this," said Gillis.

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