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Melissa Sturgess: “You can’t change the rules standing on the sidelines”

CEO of Ananda Developments, Melissa Sturgess, discusses how she is taking on the cannabis industry.

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Melissa Sturgess: “You can’t change the rules standing on the sidelines”

The CEO of Ananda Developments, Melissa Sturgess, tells Sarah Sinclair how a 25-year career in precious metals has set her up to take on the cannabis industry.

Melissa Sturgess knows that success comes when we’re outside of our comfort zone.

“The world is not a safe space, you have to get into an unsafe space and be prepared to take risks in order to make leaps,” the CEO tells me over Zoom from St Tropez, France.

Sturgess is on holiday, but still working she insists, when we speak. Our conversation taking place just weeks after Ananda Developments announced it had been granted a Home Office licence to grow high THC medical cannabis for research purposes.

“If you’re not in the room you’re not in the deal,” she continues. “You have to work out where the power is and go there. If men have the power, you need to get male mentors.”

She is used to being the only woman in the room. Coming from a background in metals and mining equity capital markets, she was the only female chief executive of a publicly quoted company for more or less her whole career.

Born and bred in Perth, Western Australia, Sturgess studied statistics and psychology and worked in corporate finance until her late 20s. Then she met a group of entrepreneurs who were putting mining deals together on the African continent and “fell into” the fast-moving, high-capital sector.

“I never really knew what I wanted to do, I sort of fell into it but found that I loved it,” she admits.

“I got lucky because I was working with a group of guys who were very entrepreneurial and very successful.”

She spent several years moving between continents, living in Perth and orchestrating deals out of Johannesburg, before travelling to London to raise the money and list on the stock exchange.

Over the last 25 years Sturgess has got countless deals over the line, in gold, diamonds, coal and other precious gemstones, operating in complex jurisdictions such as Zambia, Tanzania and Ethiopia.

“I gained a lot of experience operating with complex deals and raising a lot of money as a director of publicly quoted companies,” she says.

“When I started in the mining space it was completely male dominated. The guys used to say to me ‘suck it up princess’. Complaining was not an option – if you complained, you just got left out.

“The approach I’ve always taken is that business is business. It’s a game and there are rules. You learn to play by the rules and when you win you have the power to change the rules.”

She adds: “I think that there are a lot of men who don’t really like the rules either, but they still have to play by them. My gender was just one of many issues, they are going to pick on any kind of weakness and saying that you wanted things to change wasn’t going to change anything.”

Her opportunistic nature came into its own when she moved to London in 2017 after a slump in the metals market and read an article in the Financial Times about a medical cannabis conference in the capital. Soon afterwards she was on a plane to Israel to meet the organiser of the conference and learn everything she could about medical cannabis.

“I went from being opportunistic about it, to thinking actually this is really fascinating and this is going to be more than just a deal, it’s something that I’m going to get really immersed in,” she says.

Through Ananda Developments, a listed company, with shares traded on London’s AQUIS Stock Exchange, she made a few small investments in the space. Production was never on the cards until she was introduced to growers who had produced medical cannabis for GW Pharmaceuticals as part of their trials for Epidyolex trials.

“We had never been interested in growing before, as we thought it was going to be a really commoditized area of the cannabis space. But when you meet guys who have done it successfully and have these amazing insights into growing medicinal cannabis cost-effectively, and in UK conditions, it’s actually pretty incredible,” she says.

Over the next two years the team put together what Sturgess describes as a “meaty” research programme and applied to the Home Office.

The process was “rigorous” she says, but “so it should be” and her experience applying for exploration licenses across the world stood her in good stead.

“Working with licencing that is in the gift of a government, in complex situations is certainly something I have done a lot of,” she says.

“You go out and do your exploration work, you show the government that you are good corporate citizens, that you run an operation that is legal and rigorous and that employs local people.”

The £300,000 purpose-built facility in Lincolnshire will see Ananda’s subsidiary, DJT Plants, grow 65 strains of high THC cannabis for use in large-scale research, focusing on the conditions for which cannabis products are being prescribed in the UK.

Subject to further Home Office licensing, the plan is to move to commercial growing, with the aim of supplying high-quality and consistent products to UK patients, as well as exporting to Europe.

“There’s increasing demand in the UK, but all the material we currently have is imported and quality and consistency seems to be variable. Our aim is to have our own unique strains that will be suitable for the indications that are being treated in the UK, and will be plants or chemovars that thrive in UK conditions,” says Sturgess.

The facility will use the UK’s natural growing season, during which its greenhouses will benefit from long hours of light and the right temperature to avoid having to rely on artificial light and heat. Its material will then be sent to Israel for cannabinoid and terpene analysis.

Sturgess explains: “When you grow under artificial conditions, the power that is consumed is astronomical, so whilst we talk about this natural product we’re ignoring the fact that actually it can be really damaging.

“Patients and prescribing doctors will know they are getting a UK product, which hasn’t travelled very far, meaning it’s probably going to be fresher and hasn’t chewed up power or transportation costs coming from the other side of the world.”

Meeting campaigners and patient advocates in the space over the last few years, including Hannah Deacon, the mother of Alfie Dingley, the first UK patient to be issued an NHS prescription for medical cannabis, Sturgess has seen the need for producing a consistent and high quality product for UK patients.

“Having met Hannah three years ago, shesits on my shoulder virtually the whole time,” she says.

“All I think about is that we should be providing medicinal cannabis in the UK for people like Hannah, who need it for their kids or for themselves or their friends, family, loved ones.”

Despite being the driving force of the industry, Sturgess fears that when capital gets tight it’s these advocacy roles which will disappear as larger companies swallow up the space.

“Women will say to me that they find it hard because the industry is so male dominated, but I don’t feel that because of where I have come from. However, what I observed in the early days, certainly in North America and Canada, was a lot of women in the grassroots and advocacy roles. As the industry matures you get the bigger companies coming in, and it tends to be mainly men running those companies,” she says.

“Women can do themselves a disservice when they portray the caring side so much. They tend to think that if they work really hard, someone will offer them a pay rise, or
if they volunteer, someone will offer to pay them. But it’s about knowing your worth
and putting a price on things.

“When you get to the business side of things, it’s about money and if you want to make money for shareholders it becomes really competitive. There’s only so much money out there, so people are often competing for the same pool of capital.”

But Sturgess has played the game for a while now, and is in prime position to help change the rules.

“I want to encourage [women] not to stand back and wait to be noticed,” she adds.

“You’re not going to change the rules of basketball by standing on the sidelines, you’re going to change the rules by getting in there, playing the game and becoming a respected player.”

Leadership

Cannabis Trades Association now under new leadership

The UK Cannabis Trades Association has appointed a new executive director.

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Cannabis Trades Association now under new leadership
Home » Leadership » Melissa Sturgess: “You can’t change the rules standing on the sidelines”

The Cannabis Trades Association (CTA) has appointed Marika Graham-Woods as its new executive director.

Graham-Woods was voted in by the CTA board in November as executive director. 

The trade body is Europe’s largest representing the interests of the cannabis and hemp industry, and the only Association formed to work with Government to create a legal and sustainable European cannabis industry.

Graham-woods brings specialist experience in strategic international marketing and market development as well as business growth and change leadership.

The CTA stated: “Over the last year we have become an outward looking organisation which exists to support our members, and their businesses by opening up the Hemp and Cannabis Markets in the UK, EU and further afield.

“The UK markets are set to open rapidly with legislative changes during 2022. The CTA is at the centre of these changes helping to remove the legal barriers to hemp and cannabis markets and enact legislative change.”

Speaking in a public post, Graham-Woods, stated: “I am the new Executive Director for the CTA, and together with my fellow Executive Director Sian Phillips we are changing the CTA together. I was elected to my role at the end of November…

“The CTA is forming the Industrial Hemp Marketing Board to organise and market growers, production facilities and the products that vertical integrated markets needs eh building materials and bio-fuels.”

In July 2021, the body struck a deal with a local UK authority, Oxfordshire County Council, to help it navigate regulations – a relationship is known as a primary authority partnership.

The partnership was formed due to Novel Food regulations on CBD products  – for which the Foods Standards Agency, recently announced local authorities will need to ramp up efforts of enforcement as applications make their way through the approval process. 

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“Every milestone we go through as a business gives me a moment of pride.”

Matthew Anderson shares his journey from marketing to the CBD wellness space with the launch of his new business, RAIN.

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RAIN: CBD pens

Matthew Anderson, managing director of RAIN speaks to Cannabis Wealth about his start in the CBD industry.

Matthew was inspired to enter the CBD industry after it was recommended to him during a stressful period in his life. As he began to feel more relaxed, he wondered if there was a way he could combine his marketing skills with wellness products.

“I tried CBD after a friend gave it to me to help me with how stressful things were at the time. I had no experience with CBD and zero knowledge about it other than it was related to cannabis. It blew me away and I was surprised by how much it helped me,” he said.

“That was the beginning of my curiosity on a purely personal level. I began to realise that the career I was in wasn’t sustainable in a lot of ways. I had been interested in wellness and the area of CBD was becoming something I was interested in.”

By chance, Matthew was introduced to Harry Jameson, the personal trainer and wellness consultant. Together they developed the idea for RAIN. The brand launched in 2021 with a selection of three products including their RAIN cloud CBD pen, a balm and a candle. The candle is described as containing a “fragrance contains only non-synthetic essential oils which evoke delicious notes of the cannabinoid sensory experience… without unnerving the neighbours.”

RAIN founder Matthew

Why RAIN?

Matthew explained the reason behind the name. “We liked it as it is symbolic of renewal. Cleanse the old and tend the new is our line which is what rain does. It embraces the natural world which is what the brand is about. Everything we do is 100 per cent natural in terms of ingredients in our products, even our pens.”

The signature product for the brand is their CBD pen which contains 40 per cent of high-quality broad-spectrum CBD with a carefully selected array of terpenes. The pen has a citrus flavour and contains terpenes such as linalool, citral and terpinolene. The pen design is sleek and it can fit easily into a pocket or handbag.

“Our RAIN CLOUD sums up the real essence of the opportunity we saw. On a formulation level, we saw the chance to make a product that is genuinely cleaner than others by using the best ingredients. The vape industry was lacking an elegant beautiful device as vapes were traditionally clunky, big devices.”

RAIN: A CBD candle from the company RAIN

Marketing RAIN

With his background in marketing, Matthew has a head start on how to position the brand or advertise. But, the CBD industry is a difficult one to advertise in due to restrictions and now, social media bans.

Matthew said: “Social media is not our friend in the way it is to a lot of brands at our stage. It is the go-to marketing channel for early-stage consumer business and there is no getting around that. We would like it to be for us as well and we can do that but to a very limited extent. We can’t put any money behind paid marketing on a lot of platforms.”

He added: “It can be incredibly frustrating when you are trying to figure out a strategy, how to scale or grow your business. You may not have the money to put into traditional advertising channels and PR isn’t a cheap thing to do either.”

RAIN: CBD balm

As with a lot of brands, the changing nature of the CBD industry has had an impact on the products Matthew and Harry have decided to launch. The novel foods regulations have meant they decided not to launch an oil.

“The novel foods regulations have been the biggest headache for the business. We would have had a sublingual oil on the market were it not for that regulation. It has been a big frustration for us. We refocused what we wanted to do and hopefully one day we can make a product like that.”

RAIN is Matthew’s first business and as a result, he feels incredibly proud about what he has achieved. He has been delighted by the success of the business but feels that the reaction from customers has made it even more worthwhile

“As it’s my first business, every achievement is cool. The fact that people wanted to put their hard-earned money into the business I run is something in itself. Then there is having a business which is on the shelves in shops, including Selfridges as well, he said.

“The most meaningful thing has been the customers who love the products. The feedback has been phenomenal. We really believe in our products like our balm. We’ve had people find it incredibly useful for things like arthritis and I use it when I play tennis.”

“On a professional level, just about every milestone, we go through as a business gives me a moment of pride.”

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Productive start to 2022 for Apollon Formularies

The company has secured new agreements, confirmed the renewal of licenses and has appointed a new non-executive director.

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Productive start to 2022 for Apollon Formularies

After ending 2021 initiating the treatment of cancer patients in Jamaica, UK-based Apollon Formularies has continued with a productive start to 2022.

International medical cannabis company Apollon Formularies has announced the appointment of Roderick Claude McIllree as a non-executive director of the company.

McIllree, who was instrumental in bringing the company to the AQSE Growth Market via a reverse takeover in April 2021, has advised, funded and run public companies across multiple global exchanges in several sectors for more than 20 years. He has specific experience in technology, mining, international logistics and finance.

The news follows announcements across January 2022, including the renewal of its licenses in Jamaica which will enable the company to operate its new pharmaceutical processing laboratory, as well as to operate consumer dispensaries and provide spa services. It also announced the signing of new agreements with Jamaica’s Cannabis License Authority (CLA) licensed cultivators allowing access to high-quality flower, working with Jamaican farmers.

CEO of Apollon, Stephen Barnhill, MD, commented: “We are delighted to welcome Rod to the Board as a non-executive director.”

McIllree currently owns ordinary shares in the Apollon, representing approximately 29.06 per cent of the issued share capital.

“Rod, a significant shareholder in the company, has a long-established career with a demonstrable record of growing small-cap companies and creating shareholder value of many business ventures over a long career,” continued Barnhill.

“He brings a wealth of financial and directorial experience to the team, and I look forward to working with him as we move our business towards the global rollout of Apollon’s product range and medical expertise to supportive jurisdictions.”

Currently charmian of AIM-listed Bluejay Mining Plc., McIllree has been a long-time advisor to, and investor in, Apollon. The company has stated that it believed his appointment strengthens its board at a time that the company expects to experience significant growth.

In July 2021, Apollon announced results of third-party independent testing of its medical cannabis formulations, which demonstrated they were effective in killing hormone-resistant and hormone-sensitive prostate cancer cells in 3D cell cultures. 

McIllree commented: “Apollon is an excellent example of utilising research and development to help improve people’s lives. 

“The compelling results of Apollon’s formulations killing cancer cells in 3D-cell culture and the upcoming opening of the International Cancer and Chronic Pain Institute in Jamaica are important milestones for the company and offers outstanding potential on many fronts. 

“I look forward to working with Dr Barnhill and the wider Apollon team at this exciting time for growth as the company looks to execute on the various business partnership opportunities becoming available.”

Apollon expects to appoint further high-profile directors to the board in the coming month.

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