Thursday, 4 Mar 2021

CEO of high profile cannabis firm Helius Therapeutics resigns

The CEO of one of New Zealand’s highest profile cannabis firms quietly resigned from his leadership role at the end of last year.

Documents filed with the Companies Office on 21 December last year show that former chief executive Paul Manning’s directorship with the company ended on December 8.

Manning’s LinkedIn profile has since also been updated and now describes him as a co-founder and consultant for the business.

Manning confirmed to the Herald today that there had indeed been changes at the business.

He said he had made the decision to hand the leadership reins over to someone who was better equipped to deliver on technical and operational aspects of running a pharmaceutical business.

He said the company would this year be moving into the commercial manufacturing and distribution of cannabis-based medicines and that this necessitated a different kind of leader.

Manning’s role will be taken over by former chief operations officer Carmen Doran, who joined off the back of a long career in the pharmaceutical industry, including a 10-year stint at Novartis.

Manning told the Herald this was about acknowledging his limitations.

“My background is advertising and media,” Manning told the Herald.

“You don’t get out of bed one day and decide to run a pharmaceuticals business. It’s a sector that requires specialised expertise. I’ve taken Helius as far as I can with my entrepreneurial skill set.”

Manning said he didn’t want to be guilty of holding on to the leadership of the business when it clearly wasn’t the best course of action.

“Carmen has a Masters in biomedical engineering and I didn’t even go to university,” Manning says.

Manning will stay with the business in an advisory role, focusing on his area of expertise in helping to develop the brand and take products to market.

According to the Companies Office, Manning continues to hold a 15 per cent stake in the organisation.

Helius Therapeutics was founded in 2018 by former ad man Manning alongside local entrepreneurs Gavin Pook and JP Schmidt.

Schmidt is the only founder who remains listed as a director at the business.

Pook and Manning originally served as co-CEOs in the business, but Pook’s directorship ceased in January 2020 with his departure from the business.

Helius Therapeutics has established itself as one of the best-known names in the cannabis industry, so far attracting $48 million in investment.

Manning tells the Herald the company raised an additional $15m as part of a third capital raise at the end of last year.

This adds to two earlier tranches of $15m and $20m, both of which were spearheaded by software entrepreneur Guy Haddleton, who joined the company as the inaugural chairman in 2018.

Haddleton continues to serve as a director and chairman and currently holds around a 40 per cent stake in the business with his wife Sue Haddleton.

Apart from Haddleton and Schmidt, the only other director listed at the business is medical professional Dr Richard Acland, who joined the board in November 2019.

Since its inception, Helius has spent more than $20m on a state-of-the-art facility in Auckland’s East Tamaki, conducting clinical trials and hiring staff.

Last year, the company also said it had put $2.5m toward Helius Animal Health – a subsidiary focused on developing a medicinal product range for targeting ailments suffered by pets.

Haddleton told the Herald that running a pharmaceutical business required a significant amount of capital and that he anticipated the need for further capital raising in the coming years.

He said developing a globally competitive cannabis business would necessitate north of $75m in investment.

“We will continue to drive investment in this high-potential company within this exciting
sunrise sector,” Haddleton said.

“Without question, unlocking the opportunities in this multibillion-dollar export
industry demands substantial funding. To achieve this, I see the investment in Helius lifting to $75-$100m over time.”

“We’re not running a cannabis business. We’re running a pharmaceutical enterprise and that’s highly capital intensive. It’s not for the faint of heart.”

Helius management has thus far resisted the urge to list on the stock market, opting instead to go directly to the institutional investment community.

Thus far, Rua Bioscience and Cannasouth are the only cannabis firms to have listed on the New Zealand stock exchange.

Manning told the Herald early last year that a Canadian-based investment bank, which had raised C$3 billion in the cannabis sector, had valued Helius at $105m.

However, this was before the impact of Covid-19, which has pushed back timelines for an industry that remains in the pre-revenue stage.

The impact of the pandemic saw Helius apply for the wage subsidy earlier this year and receive $91,000 for 13 employees.

The wage subsidy proved controversial in the cannabis sector, given that most of the players in this space are yet to generate any revenue.

Cannasouth is thus far the only cannabis firm to have declared the return of the $85,000 wage subsidy it received.

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