Jennifer O’Donnell
Executive Director - BioNB

Canada Must Focus on Building Clusters of Expertise in Cannabis

Takeaways

  1. The bioeconomy will soon be a major segment of the Canadian economy. To capture its value, Canada must focus on its biomass resources that typically go to waste, and explore ways to turn them into cost savings, revenue streams, and profitable businesses. This includes exploring the hidden value of the cannabis plant.
  2. The cannabis industry is large and has many stakeholders. Creating more cohesion in the industry between governments, industry, academia and the non-profit sectors will allow for public policies to advocate and pursue initiatives that can capture value for Canada’s national economy.
  3. Jurisdictions around the world are competing to attract investments and companies that work in the cannabis space. If Canada wants to compete globally, the federal government must develop policies specific to the cannabis industry that support the R&D of cannabis and its producers.

Action

The potential and benefits of the bioeconomy are vastly misunderstood. It cuts across what we think of as traditional industries and impacts agriculture, forestry, cannabis, natural health products and more. So, I would pitch Canadians to learn about the bioeconomy. The more Canadians we can inform and educate about the opportunities to advance this movement, the more opportunities it presents for creating jobs and economic growth that are sustainable for our economy and for our planet.


How do you view the connections between the bioeconomy and the cannabis industry? What opportunities should we be maximizing in this space—and how?

The bioeconomy focuses attention on numerous biomass resources going to waste that could be turned into cost savings, revenue streams, and profitable businesses while using sustainable practices. Biomass resources are all forms of organic materials, including plant matter both living and in waste form, as well as animal matter and animal waste products. As such, biomass resources are generally classified as being waste materials.

There are many ways to transform waste. For example, we can transform biomass resources into energy, such as electricity and transportation fuels; into biomaterials, which are often used for medical purposes; and into biodegradable plastics and composite materials. Most of these biomass resources are not currently used commercially, but steady improvements in technology and agricultural practices are paving the way for the bioeconomy to become an important segment of Canada’s future economy.

“If the purpose of the bioeconomy is to unlock the hidden value of biomass resources that would otherwise be wasted, then the cannabis plant has yet to be explored.”

Today, the recreational market is harvesting the whole cannabis plant, but using only the flower to extract and refine high-value products that contain THC, CBD and other bioactives. But, once the flower is extracted, the rest of the plant is being discarded as waste. So, if the purpose of the bioeconomy is to unlock the hidden value of biomass resources that would otherwise be wasted, then the cannabis plant has yet to be explored.Already, the science community knows that the cannabis plant contains many applications that can be used to create biomaterials and bio-plastics.

With Canada holding a long history of ground-breaking research in health and agriculture, this sets a strong foundation for the cannabis sector to evolve. It also provides opportunities for cross-collaboration with other leading jurisdictions in Canada, such as in biotechnology.


What should our governments and industry focus on to maintain our early legalizer advantage in the cannabis space?

The cannabis industry is large and made up of several small firms across the country. Currently, there is no open communication among all stakeholders, fragmenting the industry’s efforts.

To start, the federal government should focus on developing a cannabis cluster of expertise, or clusters across Canada, so that we can start to create a network that has fluid communication and support, linking industry to government, government to research, and research to industry.

“The federal government should focus on developing a cannabis cluster of expertise, or clusters across Canada, so that we can start to create a network that has fluid communication and support, linking industry to government, government to research, and research to industry.”

Without the guidance that such clusters of expertise could provide, the cannabis industry and governments are both flying blind in their efforts to reap the return on investment of the cannabis industry. If it were clear what the priorities and challenges were, and what economic opportunities could be brought up to scale and implemented quickly, then companies, investors and governments would know where to concentrate their resources.

The focus needs to be on establishing open communication in these clusters of expertise—which would include government officials, industry leaders, academia and the non-profit sectors—to start identifying what priorities to tackle as a rising economy. Having more cohesion in the industry will give it the power to influence public policies, and to advocate for and pursue initiatives that can capture value for Canada’s future economy.


What policies would you like to see put in place to ensure that Canada builds and maintains a leading global position in cannabis?

In New Brunswick, several companies and institutions are waiting for their research or production licenses. All three levels of governments should pursue expediting that process so more Canadians can work in the space, and build innovation around existing but underutilized assets to create new opportunities for our economy. 

Once producers get their licenses, there should be policies in place that support them in order to help them develop as anchor producers and accelerate the development of expertise clusters in the cannabis industry.

“There should be a focus on developing policies that dedicate funding to research and commercialization in the cannabis space. This would be very impactful.”

Next, there should be a focus on developing policies that dedicate funding to research and commercialization in the cannabis space. This would be very impactfulsince jurisdictions around the world are competing to attract investments and companies that work in the cannabis space.

At the moment, R&D in the cannabis sector faces challenges in acquiring funding.  The problem is that many of the traditional sources of research funds and capital aren’t familiar with the cannabis industry. Thus, when applicants apply for research funds, cannabis falls between the cracks of the existing research funds that support cleantech, agriculture and forestry.Cannabis also doesn’t fall into the agricultural innovation category. If Canada wants to compete, it must develop policies specific to the cannabis industry that support R&D in cannabis.


What competitive advantages does New Brunswick offer entrepreneurs, investors and top talent who want to grow the province’s cannabis companies?

New Brunswick is facing the challenges of an aging population and the shrinking of traditional sectors of the economy. The bioeconomy offers great opportunities to revitalize the economy and the cannabis industry has already developed at an unprecedented pace.

Outdoor cannabis producers should know that New Brunswick has some of the least expensive agricultural land in the world that has not been under production for decades.Another value proposition New Brunswick can offer is its human capital. There are several academic and research institutions in the province and in Atlantic Canada. It gives companies established in the region the opportunity to leverage academic and research expertise along their entire cannabis supply chain.

“Outdoor cannabis producers should know that New Brunswick has some of the least expensive agricultural land in the world that has not been under production for decades.”

For example, cannabis companies could look to acquire funding from the national funding organization Mitacs, which has earmarked numerous scholarships to the training of graduate students in the cannabis sector for industrial research projects. So that is a great opportunity for the cannabis sector since it seeks to activate R&D and is looking for talent. 

There is so much potential for cannabis producers to establish their company in New Brunswick, become stable companies, and become the anchor companies of the Canadian cannabis industry.


You have spent much of your career in biomedical research, agriculture diagnostic testing, high-throughput genomics, and crop biotechnology. What fields excite you most when looking at the possibilities cannabis offers?

The research and the opportunity the cannabis space present are the two elements that excite me most. To me, it’s fascinating that it was illegal to do any research on this plant for a very long time. That makes it different from any other biomass we currently explore in Canada.

Every week, my team and I review the news and reports about people using cannabis products to treat ailments and the advancements in cannabis-related medical research. There is so much more to explore.

It seems cannabis could be a game changer for conditions such as epilepsy and chronic pain. There are also some striking therapeutic benefits that seem to evolve from cannabis compounds. It’s always exciting as a biochemist to understand new mechanisms of action for treatments of diseases and being able to transfer these functions into the healthcare space—it’s thrilling.

“It’s fascinating that it was illegal to do any research on this plant for a very long time. That makes it different from any other biomass we currently explore in Canada.”

Canada has a strong biotechnology ecosystem and a strong network of universities, hospitals and research institutions across the country. This sets the foundation to be doing more clinical trials on medicinal cannabis and answering important health care questions. 

Another exciting possibility to explore with cannabis is looking at the plant science angle. There are endless opportunities to improve the genetics of cannabis. The seed business has been huge for other agricultural crops. And now, with cannabis, it’s a new area to explore. It will be fascinating to see how scientists discover everything the cannabis plant has to offer, and how these benefits can be transferred into various industries.