Interview with Doug Sommerville, CEO of PlantEXT Ltd.
On February 26, 2019, Doug Sommerville, CEO of PlantEXT Ltd., will be speaking at Kahner Global's Cannabis Private Investment Summit in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. The event will host more than 130 industry leaders and investors for a day of collaboration and networking.
1. What industry did you work in before moving into the cannabis industry?
I spent thirty years in the medical pharmaceutical industry. I spent many of those years with a company called Baxter, which is a Chicago-based medical pharmaceutical company focusing mainly on hospitals. I was Vice President of the medication delivery division in Canada. I then spent a couple of years in Chicago, where I was the Global Vice President for their infusion device group, which is basically device equipment for IV infusion.
I then had an opportunity to join TEVA, the world's largest generic drug manufacturer in 2005 and stayed with TEVA until March of last year. I retired as President in Canada and, as part of the restructure they went through, I had a great opportunity to take retirement and what else I may want to do in the latter part of my career.
When my retirement was announced, I received calls from a few people, including Joe Oliver, Chairman of the Board of our company, PlantEXT. Joe was formerly the Minister of Finance in Canada under Stephen Harper's cabinet. He was also the Minister of Natural Resources, and he's a very well-known Canadian columnist who writes for a number of the newspapers. He asked me if I'd be interested in exploring an opportunity with an Israeli corporation with ties to Canada. I ended up coming on board at the beginning of May.
2. What experience did you have with cannabis prior to deciding to work at PlantEXT?
Prior to this, the only experience I had had with cannabis was a personal one. A relative who has Cystitis was having some difficulty with medications not being effective. They'd had the condition for a number of years. They'd become extremely thin, didn't sleep well, and was on eight to ten medications at the time. They weren't working. A doctor eventually recommended trying different formats of CBD.
It was almost life-changing for them. They gained weight, sleeps like they haven't slept in a long time, and was able to reduce a number of her medications. It was not a placebo effect. They were not someone who basically wanted nothing to do with cannabis, and yet it has really gotten to the point now where they changed their vacation plans because taking medications could be an issue—that is how important treatment has become for them.
So that was enough for me to see that there's more to this than hype. Probably the most interesting thing I heard from this experience was, first, they weren't told to use this medication but rather was told to try a bunch of combinations. Coming from pharma, you would say that's not the best approach. Secondly, they didn't know why it worked.
I thought if you could be more targeted and actually deliver a medication for particular disease states, and then understand why it works, you can fill in a lot of the anecdotal gaps. So that was what I thought was going to be the possibility of PlantEXT, and why I chose it over a couple of very well known LPs that were offering some very senior positions. I wanted to deliver a product that would probably have more impact and more legacy.
3. What is PlantEXT?
PlantEXT is basically a pharma company that uses cannabis as our API, as our active pharmaceutical ingredient, and we focus on inflammatory diseases. Now, when I say inflammation, I mean everything from inflammatory bowel diseases to asthma to psoriasis...inflammation is a huge area within medicine, and because we know that cannabis has anti-inflammatory properties, we're trying to become the world's experts at formulations, particularly for inflammatory diseases. A formulation for IBD will be the very first that we launch.
4. How effective is PlantEXT’s formulation at treating the symptoms of IBD and general inflammation, and when do you expect to launch?
We are actually going to be launching the IBD format at the end of the quarter, and we will be doing clinical concurrent. That was at the suggestion of a leading GI specialist. She is extremely excited about what we've been able to find up to this point in time. Her feeling is that it's a very safe, effective product, and we should get it to patients because she truly believes that it's better than what they're using today. What they're using today is often steroids, which are extremely difficult on the body.
5. Provided you can disclose this information, what ingredients does PlantEXT use besides cannabinoids?
First of all, our formulation is non-psychoactive. It's a very low concentration of THC [tetrahydrocannabinol]. In some cases it's a combination of different cannabinoids. There is also some cannabinoids in the acid format—in other words, the product that you get without decarboxylating the plant—and other things that are extremely important, such as terpenes and flavonoids. When we checked formulations with and without these compounds, we found that you get a much more effective impact when they're included. Some of the terpenes have been known to be anti-inflammatory for many years and people have been extracting them from spinach and other natural plants. When you do a combination with CBD, you can almost supercharge the effect.
6. Does PlantEXT plan on creating any novel delivery methods?
For Crohn's and colitis patients, a very acceptable application is a suppository. We would prefer to have suppositories in all markets. Some of the cannabis regulations don't necessarily allow it as of yet, but it's important for a couple reasons. Number one, it provides a lot of the active ingredient to the site quickly. Second, it's bioavailability makes it one of the best formats that you can use. In Europe, many people use suppositories for basic medications because it's very quick, very efficient, and very rapid onset. In other markets, we may introduce coated gel caps that dissolve lower in the intestine.
7. Where does PlantEXT plan to market its products?
We're going to start in Israel because it's closest to the actual research that we're conducting. We're doing research with the Agricultural Research Organization of the state of Israel (“ARO”). We also have our own research facility and staff in Tel Aviv that is one hundred percent PlantEXT research that's not tied in with the ARO.
By launching in Israel first, it gives us a great opportunity for us to get some patient experience. We'll launch shortly afterwards in Canada. We're in discussions right now for Germany within the year, Mexico within the year, and Australia. For the United States, we're looking at sometime in 2020. We're crossing our fingers that perhaps the Schedule I status of cannabis changes or that there is a move to legalize it federally for medical purposes. It's not like it would be breaking new ground. 35 countries in the world—very sophisticated and developed countries—have already legalized it.
8. What is the regulatory environment for cannabis like in Israel?
It's legal medically. It has been legal for a number of years now. They have been conducting research on it for many years, going back to Raphael Mechoulam of Hebrew University, who was the gentleman back in the Sixties who discovered THC and CBD. They have been the pioneers of research in cannabis by a long shot and part of that has been they've been allowed to do it. We're seeing a lot of research companies popping up in Israel right now that are trying to harness some of the research that's been done at places like ARO or other government-run institutions.
Israel is supposed to vote on exporting, which would be very interesting if they allow Israeli companies to export to markets. [The bill legalizing the exportation of medicinal cannabis was passed by the Israeli cabinet on January 27, 2019.] Right now, the two target markets for export are Canada and Germany.
9. What has surprised you the most since you began working in this industry?
The most interesting thing I've found since I got into this industry is that I meet people, and they quickly tell me they have been four years in the business and they're an old veteran. I can't think of any industries where somebody who's been in four years is “the old veteran” of the business. So it just goes to show how new this science is and how new the industry is.
10. How do you believe the industry will change in the future?
I think you're going to see more and more of a pharma-type approach to it because you're not going to convince all the doctors to go down this path without some very good science. They're going to want to see science to be able to feel comfortable recommending it to patients. At PlantEXT, we're trying to at least fill the gap to some extent, and then down the road people can hopefully do more.
PlantEXT is an Israeli company focused on developing and commercializing the world's most effective medical cannabis formulations for the treatment of inflammation related medical conditions. PlantEXT has entered into a strategic partnership with the State of Israel's Agricultural Research Organization (“ARO”) to develop and commercialize a treatment for inflammatory bowel disease (“IBD”). PlantEXT also operates independent research and development facilities near Tel Aviv, where it is developing a pipeline of anti-inflammatory products supported by pre- clinical and clinical research. PlantEXT is preparing to begin commercial marketing of ARO’s IBD product in Israel during Q1 2019 and internationally when Israel’s export regulations are implemented.
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