"In 2022, we achieved both GACP and GMP certification. Moreover, we brought NZ-grown, NZ-made products to market for our Kiwi patients – a first in NZ," explains Carmen Doran, CEO of Helius Therapeutics. The New Zealand company is vertically integrated, working from plant to patient. In their 8,800 square meter facility in Auckland, diversity is key. "With a diversity of backgrounds and experience, we are able to bring international best practices to New Zealand cannabis." Interestingly, the company also brings black-market genetics to the medical cannabis market. "In NZ, we have a process where we can bring genetics from the illicit market into the legal market."
Diversity as key for cultivation
Helius grows their THC biomass in an 8,800-square-meter facility in Auckland. "We also have our own R&D labs and make our own finished goods. As it's all under one roof, we handle the process ourselves all the way through the value chain," says Carmen. The site has a growing capacity of up to 12 cultivation rooms that are 200 square meters each. The company is currently only using two rooms and will scale up as the demand requires. "We run a fully controlled indoor growing system supplied by Conviron and Argus controls. We reutilize rainwater from the roof and are able to catch the run-off water, which we recycle and reuse as well."
Marc Tamani, Cultivation Lead from the Philippines, who brings experience in indoor horticulture, pictured with the Conviron clone chamber
According to Carmen, a very international team is behind their cultivation process. From the Philippines to Uruguay and the United States, these people bring best practices from around the world to the company. "Helius runs an IPM program covered by our SOPs where we monitor and treat as required. We are fortunate to have a highly skilled team of cannabis growers from around the world who bring their expertise to the NZ market as we ramp up. I love bringing that diversity of backgrounds and experience together to share best practices and deliver the best products and medicines to patients around the world."
Regarding pest and disease control, Helius works with a white list in terms of pesticides available in NZ. "Helius works very closely with the Medicinal Cannabis Agency to make sure that the appropriate pest control meets the needs. It's an ongoing job, as some of the things available internationally are not available in NZ, but our cultivation team has done a great job improving it. I think the regulations around what we can and cannot use is something that we will have to continue to work on with cultivators across NZ and with the NZ Medicinal Cannabis Agency."
Ikaika (Kai) Keliʻihoʻomalu is Helius' Cultivation Manager, who is a third-generation grower from Hawaii. Here he is in the Veg room tending to the plants
Black market genetics
Helius genetics come from a variety of sources: others growers, seed suppliers, and even the illicit market. "In NZ, we actually have something that is quite unique compared to other countries around the world. We have a formal process where our genetics can come from the black market into the legal medicinal cannabis market through a declaration to the Medicinal Cannabis Agency. So some of our genetics come from the illicit market, especially when we know that they grow well. As far as I'm aware, there's no legal pathway for this in other countries like we have in NZ."
Members of the Helius Cultivation Team proudly received GACP Certification for the site
In order to help move forward the new NZ cannabis market, Helius also works closely with local universities. "A big part of that is to utilize the knowledge that they have, but also to create a product pipeline and a talent pipeline. This is necessary as the industry is so new here in NZ. Therefore, the best place for us to get people who are excited and passionate about the industry is at those universities. These students are already learning and working in research fields as part of their university time."
When it comes to R&D, several collaborations are in the works. "First of all, we are working with Biolumic on using UV light to increase yield and potency. We have had some good results so far, and in 2023, we look to move into a commercial phase." With Greenlab, based at Lincoln University, they are working on a breeding and genetics program. "Here, we are doing research on cannabinoids and terpene profiles that we are looking to be used as medical cannabis products." Helius also works with Auckland University of Technology and Callaghan Innovation on a tissue culture program. "It's about taking the best practices and transferring them across into tissue culture, which will give us a lot of advantages in the future. Not only in terms of commercial strains but also to build a library of genetics."
Regarding their NZ-grown, NZ-made CBD products launched last year, Helius has a partnership with the country's largest cultivator Puro. "We partner with them for volume as they can grow a lot more outdoors than what we can grow indoors for the CBD. They are also GACP certified plus organic certified, making them one of the few in the Southern Hemisphere who are organically certified for cannabis growing. Great for our patients to have full transparency on what goes into their medicines."
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