Taking the Lead in Medical Cannabis Research
Atlas Growers is a research-focused licensed producer of medical cannabis based in Edmonton, Alberta that produces cannabis flower and cannabis processed goods such as oils and capsules. The company is also in the process of developing some soon-to-be-released products to prepare for when the Canadian market permits transdermal patches, topical creams, ointments, edibles and vape pens. With the exception of retail and distribution, Atlas is a fully vertically integrated cannabis producer.
Atlas Growers was founded with the goal of advancing medical science and research involving cannabis and cannabis derivatives, and this remains its purpose today. It has an ongoing research partnership with the University of Alberta, it is beginning to work on some neurological disease projects with institutions in the United States, and it is also expanding overseas.
“We have production being set up globally, and our vision is to create the world’s most trusted cannabis products – being flower and derivatives – for not only Canadians but the world’s medical market,” says Sheldon Croome, President and CEO.
The company was created by Croome after a close family member was diagnosed with melanoma of the optic nerve and was given a five percent chance of living, but saw remarkable results from a cannabis treatment that was not yet readily available on the market. Over 30 days alongside chemotherapy treatment, the tumour had shrunk from four centimetres to one centimetre, which baffled the oncologist and prompted the development of a new research-focused cannabis producer.
“After he saw that tumour growth reduction, I was inspired to find out why and how that happened and that was ultimately what led me to open this company in February of 2015 with the goal of advancing the scientific research behind the plant,” says Croome.
Gaining a lot of popularity in the media these days is cannabidiol (CBD), a non-intoxicating compound in cannabis that has been revered as a saving grace for multiple ailments, most notably anxiety, epilepsy, inflammation, and nerve disorders. “Because of a few notable cases it’s become very popular, but a lot of our research is showing that while CBD can be quite effective, it’s really an entourage effect of multiple cannabis chemicals – different cannabinoids and terpenes, in addition to THC and CBD that really produce different effects,” explains Croome. CBD is one small part of a larger solution, and while it may be effective for certain individuals, it is an area that requires much more experimentation.
It is likely that CBD alongside some of the other non-psychoactive chemicals could produce a reliably effective treatment in the future after further study. Atlas is driven by research to discover how different cannabis chemicals interact and how those combinations affect diverse patients.
Atlas is a powerful resource for the newly formed cannabis industry because it is a company committed to its focus on research and development. By beginning numerous clinical trials, it aims to provide evidence-based research that demonstrates the medical benefits of cannabis and its components. Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis (MS), cancer, chronic pain, and Huntington’s disease are all areas that Atlas is looking to cover with its clinical trials.
The company has invested heavily into state-of-the-art equipment sparing no expense, enabling it to use its facilities as a microscope into the cannabis world. Growing in an indoor setting is key for quality and reliability because it removes the unwanted environmental factors and allows for the growth of a consistent product throughout the year. Consistency between crops is a major factor for its medical customers when choosing a supplier. “We have to be able to grow the quality and replicate that same quality every single time… and the only way to achieve that is to have tight environmental parameters on the crop, which is difficult for a lot of producers to achieve if they’re not growing under highly controlled environments,” explains Jim Hole, Vice President of Cultivation.
A cultivar is a cultivated variety of a plant that is specifically selected by humans to be grown. There are already a number of cannabis cultivars and the industry will continue to push the development of superior genetics in the future. Similarly, edible crops for the food industry have been using genetics to produce higher quality products for years and many of those same parameters can be incorporated into cannabis breeding. Atlas employs a professional plant breeder that is registered with the Canadian Seed Growers’ Association (CSGA), which gives the company the expertise to deeply explore the diverse genetics of the cannabis plant and take it to the next level by developing proprietary cultivars.
At present, the company has approximately 500 cultivars, which are all different strains of the plant, to produce and experiment with. Beginning in late summer is a five-year breeding program created by Atlas that will allow it to cross-breed different genetics in order to increase the potency of certain cannabinoids. The program directly serves the company’s medical research by enabling the team to focus on a particular cannabinoid for a treatment and purposefully producing more of that specific chemical in one of its cultivars.
Atlas grew quickly from one employee in December 2017 to well over 50 employees today and it anticipates hiring upwards of another 100 people over the next twelve months. Much of this growth is driven by its international expansion, as Atlas has two projects in development overseas. The one that is closest to fruition is located in the city of Odense in Denmark, which is in an area known as the cannabis valley, where its fellow Canadian peers such as Aurora Cannabis and Canopy Growth are also setting up shop. There are many reasons that make Denmark a location of choice for licensed cannabis producers, but for Atlas, it came down to the available infrastructure, the low electricity costs, a favourable government to work with, and easier transportation to some of its largest overseas buyers.
The challenge of supplying cannabis products to multiple countries lies in complying with all of the different laws and packaging regulations in each country. “Making sure we’re compliant and ready to compete and to get licensed in other areas is unfortunately not a quick process,” says Croome. “It takes a lot of time and effort and work with the government to really understand what’s required so that we cannot have any roadblocks when we’re dealing with distribution or licensing in other countries or jurisdictions.”
On top of the many regulations within a given country, there are international drug treaties established by the United Nations that limit the trade of cannabis between countries. Fortunately for Atlas, cannabis products used solely for research and development purposes are the easiest to move across borders. “Unraveling the international treaties that all these countries are a part of is going to have to be a key point that these countries tackle together so that cannabis can actually move freely across the world for all purposes,” says Jeffrey R. Gossain, Chief Operating Officer.
The banking dilemma has improved significantly in Canada, particularly since the Bank of Montreal began to support cannabis-related ventures. Atlas has managed to develop good relationships with banks; however, international transfers continue to be an issue for any licensed producer.
In Canada, there are roughly 175 licensed cannabis producers and as a country with a population of 37 million, it is relatively limited in total market size for medical cannabis. For this reason, many of the larger cannabis companies in Canada are also focusing in on the markets in the United States and in Europe. Atlas has chosen Europe for expansion rather than the United States where it is still not legalized on a federal level because Europe is a medically focused market, which will give the company an advantage as one of the first to market. As Central and South America both open up to medical cannabis, the team at Atlas hopes that the global economy will soon begin to fully accept the medical benefits of the plant.
Atlas Growers is taking advantage of its opportunity to unlock the potential of the cannabis plant and create treatments for illnesses with medication that is not harmful to a patient’s health. “One of the things that excites me the most about this industry is the accessibility to less harmful medicines and a future that may not involve the risk of coming out of a treatment addicted to a substance, and that’s really a future that I’m personally very excited for,” says Croome.