Interviews

Stephen Gardner, CMO Of Tikun Olam USA, Talks Medical Marijuana, Marketing, And Brand Expansion

Stephen is helping steer Tikun Olam through the largest marijuana market in the world

Stephen Gardner, CMO of Tikun Olam USA, is helping steer a very big ship in the worlds largest marijuana market. Tikun Olam is a global brand dedicated to research and creation of medical marijuana genetics. Now, entering the US market, Tikun Olam has their eyes set on every state to help spread their message of wellness. We sat down with Stephen to talk everything Tikun Olam.

 

Marijuana Retail Report:                     Can you tell us a little bit about Tikun Olam, and how it all got started?

 

Stephen Gardner:        Tikun Olam, to start this story, it really goes back into the ’60s with Raphael Mechoulam, identifying THC. That certainly led to a lot of interest within the Israeli community, continuing that on through the year and allowing the research within the Israeli system. That led to a gentleman by the name of Tzahi Cohen, basically developing specific strains for medicine. He was doing this for several years as a non-profit to about 1,000 patients in which he was literally just growing these strains, trying to improve the efficacy, providing it to patients to a point in which it got so large that he finally really worked hard towards petitioning the Ministry of Health and the Israeli Government. Thousands of patients in wheelchairs basically clogged the streets of Tel Aviv, demanding the Ministry of Health review cannabis as a medicine for its citizens. That led to the Ministry of Health granting a license for not only Tikun Olam to be a grower and purveyor of this medicine, but also several other companies as well. That’s how we started. We were really the main advocate to start out through some very tenacious hard work by Tzahi Cohen and his team, finally getting this to be legal within the state of Israel. From that time we’ve now grown to be basically the largest provider of medical cannabis in Israel with approximately 40% of the market share. We have worked for over a decade in Israel, delivering patients our specific strains through our nursing clinics. The way that works, is we would sit down with a nurse, go through a patients entire medical history. We go through all their ailments, their quality of life index, and then through the interview process, the nurse will be able to work towards prescribing strains that they believe will truly help the conditions that that patient is suffering from. That process then is repeated again a month later, in which that patient is having, in essence, that type of qualitative interview to see if there are any adjustments to the medication. Then again that process happens again six months later. This goes through for patients for a wide array of different ailments. Over that time frame, Tikun Olam has developed a genetics program. Through a lot of this type of empirical data, we have worked towards manipulating the genetics of these unique strains to improve the efficacy to alleviate these symptoms these patients were experiencing. From that, we have taken these strains now and worked towards doing numerous clinical trials, double-blinded placebo tests in Crohn’s disease, for colitis, inflammatory bowel disease, and numerous other clinical trials. That’s really how his company was born out of a desire to help the citizens of Israel, a desire towards improving the efficacy of these specific strains to help these patients, and from there, it has grown to be at the forefront of cannabis research, considered around the world. Tikun Olam, I think as you are well aware, means repair the world, or heal the world. Its meaning in Hebrew is very much aligned within the culture of what the company is trying to accomplish.

 

Marijuana Retail Report:                    Can you speak about the decision to expand operations beyond Isreal and reach into additional markets?

 

Stephen Gardner:        Tikun Olam understood the possibilities throughout other markets and they have done a similar approach to Canada with MedReleaf. MedReleaf now, being one of the more successful operators in Canada. I think they recently, this summer, launched their IPO with a valuation of approximately $900 million. One of the main drivers of their revenues has been some of these key strains within Tikun Olam, such as Avidekel, our Midnight strains, our Alaska strains, who have had significant medicinal benefits in our opinion, and obviously the opinion of the Canadian citizens as they want it. I think they make up something like 40% of the MedReleaf sales with those strains. In addition to that, the license was obtained by Tikun Olam, in essence, as a joint venture for the US. Basically, my position here as the CMO is to work towards building a nationwide brand across the United States, pertaining to Tikun Olam, our research, and these strains. We are now operating here in America in Delaware, Nevada, Washington, and we’ve just basically concluded agreements to get into Maryland, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Illinois with MariMed as our partners. We’re excited about that. We’re currently actively seeking Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, California, Michigan, key states that have a well-backed medical program, who are obviously state licensed and regulated. We’re continuing our state expansions in every market in which it’s legally regulated. We have not entered the California marketplace yet, but we plan on doing so when it is a regulated market. As far as Tikun Olam in terms of a global reach, we are working and speaking to other operators around the world. The world really looks towards Israel as, in essence, the epicenter for scientific research revolved around cannabis, primarily due to the regulatory environment that has been provided within Israel. With that, you have a lot of these countries, and other partners looking towards not only trying to work towards utilizing these strains, but also working with the clinically backed data that goes along with these strains to help assist people with, whether it be epilepsy or other ailments, within their own countries. That’s kind of what the expansion programs are working towards. It’s working more on a medicinal understanding of, “Here’s a company that’s done a lot of research, and therefore they’re looking towards expanding that capability and being advocates in other countries in terms of what this plant, or the plants with Tikun Olam, and cannabis, in general, can do.

 

Marijuana Retail Report:                     Can you tell us a little bit about the medical benefits of cannabinoids?

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Stephen Gardner:        What I would say is the following, is there are a lot of ailments and everybody is different. A lot of the symptoms that people experience are different. The way we look at our products is as a whole plant capability, combining it not only with the main cannabinoids THC and CBD, but looking at the entire terpene profile and the other minor cannabinoids such as CBN or CBG. We can’t look at it and say in any one in isolation is going to provide symptom relief. I think that really is the key. These strains aren’t designed to cure any ailment. I hope maybe someday research can get to that point, but really what we’re finding right now is that a lot of these strains are very effective in providing a quality of life index. They’re working towards symptom relief, which is improving their quality of life, which certainly helps to assist in battling any of the specific ailments that our patients might be suffering from. What we really worked with our customers, it’s not always just a high CBD low THC or vice versa, it’s really looking at what their ailment is. People who have anti-inflammatory issues, or neurological issues, they might find a higher CBD assisting it. I think it’s been very clear when we look at some other Pharma products like Marinol, it’s just a synthesized THC, they do not get the same measured results as you will with a whole plant entourage effect with the full cannabis plant. That’s been demonstrated multiple times. I think that’s why it’s really important that patients look at it as finding the right strain and the right balance that works for them because it’s not just about those two cannabinoids.

 

Marijuana Retail Report:                     How do you see recreational marijuana expansion affecting the medical marijuana market?

 

Stephen Gardner:        We have entered into the markets for Nevada under the medical program. It has shifted over obviously now into a medical and recreational program. Our core focus truly is on markets like Delaware, or Maryland, or Rhode Island, looking to come towards Florida, or Pennsylvania, or Ohio where you truly have a clear medical program that is working towards assisting the patients in those states with these ailments. That is really our core focus. We are a wellness brand. That bridges a little bit of the gap between patients who truly need this for medicinal reasons, and then also patients who looking to this for a wellness point of view in terms of say, anxiety, which might not always be a true medical condition. Or sleep disorders, or any other issues where we find that they could be of assistance towards helping patients to obtain a better quality of life. We have never positioned ourselves as the “Saturday night” type of brand on the recreational side. Certain strains, like Avidekel, has approximately 1% THC to it, it’s basically high-less marijuana. We certainly are not trying to position ourselves at all to accommodate just the crowd who’s just out simply to get high. Not saying that some of our strains are not effective for that, but that’s really not our market position. However, the pie has increased dramatically, with most of the emphasis obviously on the revenues because it is on a much larger scale for the customer base. It just makes clear sense now that it’s open to the entire market, people are going to be looking at it more towards the recreational side of it. That’s fabulous. I’m actually happy to see that. This is a product that can be an alternative to alcohol. If I was to align the two, frankly, there’s a lot of negative side effects that happen to people who consume alcohol, as well as other recreational drugs. I look at the opioid crisis as one of the key issues in America right now. I would say that today nobody has ever overdosed on cannabis, which is extremely important. This is not a gateway drug. I look at cannabis for the opioid issue as an exit drug, to be quite frank. When I look at the overall aspects of the medical markets in these states that have turned recreational, I think it’s really important that they’re still maintains that brand position of a reliable, trusted, researched back brand that these patients can also rely on. That’s why if you look at Tikun Olam in terms of how our positioning is, is I don’t want to use the word clinical, but our brand would be just as comfortable in a pharmacy as it is alongside most of the other pharmaceutical products because we are really working towards delivering a wellness brand. Just as easy on a CVS or Walgreens type of shelf than it would be on a dispensary shelf. We’re continuing to expand our products and our portfolio to gear towards the medical patients, as well as the wellness patients. We understand there’s a lot of variety for people just on the full recreational side of it. I think the customers who are looking for something that they feel that’s tried, true, trusted research back, less gimmicky, if I may, we have a position for them in that recreational market as well.

 

Marijuana Retail Report:                    You talked a little bit about how you guys originally started in Israel and then slowly expanded out. Are there some markets that you guys are looking for? How far would you guys like to expand operations in the future?

 

Stephen Gardner:        We’re currently actively seeking Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, California, Michigan, key states that have a well-backed medical program, who are obviously state licensed and regulated. We have not entered the California marketplace yet, but we plan on doing so when it is a regulated market. We come from an understanding of a lot of the regulations. We’ve always operated that way. It’s very comfortable for us to work into these new states. Understanding a lot of the requirements that go in terms of the testing, and packaging requirements, and advertising requirements, and what medical conditions are being alleviated with these strains. Those are some of the key states right now.We’re also in talks in other states like in Oregon. Probably missing a couple but right now, as I say, we’re in about seven of them. We have an expansion plan going out through 2018.

 

Marijuana Retail Report:                     What’s next for you in Tikun Olam?

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Stephen Gardner:        The end of 2017 to 2018 are going to be really exciting years for us. I think the industry is very well poised to expand in numerous markets. The genie is out of the bottle. What we’re really focusing in on is state expansion, continuing to work with the research that we’re doing, continuing to educate customers through seminars, or through conferences. We were just over in Cologne, Germany with the World Medical Cannabis Conference, and we were quite honored in the fact that they had nine keynote presenters, six of them were from Israel. Out of those six, three of them were specifically from Tikun Olam. It’s that level of education and expansion of information, providing people knowledge that we hope to expand into numerous more states, and sign up a lot more partners at the end of 2017, beginning of 2018. That’s kind of what our main goals are right now, is trying to build a nationwide brand, get it into more states where it’s legally regulated. Hopefully in a year or two from now, we can be in every legal regulated state, and then really work towards developing this nation branding on a nationwide level to really impact the discussions of where cannabis should fit within the medical community. It doesn’t always just come to the clinical research aspects of it. But when you have a decade of people looking through their patient history, and looking at some of this research that we’re doing, not on a gold standard clinical trial, but really just working with patients to understand their symptom relief, on just simple things like whether it be anxiety, or not able to sleep, or working through. We’ve been able to actually drill down into each and every symptom and finding with certain strains. For example, we can find with our Alaska strain that we have had with our patients an 80% reduction, or I should say an 80% from slight to significant improvement in ailments like depression, or anxiety, or reduction of dizziness, or insomnia. We can help people just as a wellness brand because it’s not just helping specific, really neurological or seizure issues, but it can just be in terms of helping them in terms of day-to-day living in terms of anxiety, or headaches, or drowsiness, or sleep issues. We’re proud of that research. We’ll continue that research. Hopefully we’ll continue to open more minds in terms of what cannabis can do for the US.

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