LIVERPOOL, N.S. - A desire to make a difference for people with disabilities prompted the woman behind Aqualitas to form a medical cannabis company that could bring 60 new jobs to Queens County.
Myrna Gillis, the chief executive officer and founding director of Aqualitas Inc., spoke at the Best Western Plus in Liverpool at a South Queens Chamber of Commerce luncheon Nov. 29.
Aqualitas was started in 2014, she said, at a time when access to medical cannabis was a problem. While working in disabilities law, Gillis said she often did disabilities appeals for people.
“It’s well known that if you have a disability and you haven’t returned to work in two years, there’s very little hope that you ever will return to gainful employment. About five per cent of people do,” she said.
During that time, Gillis said she met a number of people who had found medical cannabis and were returning to work after two years of being on disability. This was something she said she hadn’t seen before.
“That made me a believer,” said Gillis.
Gillis also knew people personally who were benefiting from medical cannabis, and she wanted to make sure there would be an accessible and a safe product. When the industry opened, she said there was room for different perspectives.
Particularly, Gillis said, there was room for disability advocacy.
“I gathered together a group of the brightest, most ethical, interesting people that I knew, and we had a meeting at our office in Bedford,” she said.
Gillis told the group about her idea and asked if they would be interested in joining her.
“And every single person said yes, and every single person is still on the team today.”
Why Queens County
Gillis said every decision that has been made so far has been very deliberate.
“We tasked our operations person to go find us a location, and we literally looked across the entire province,” she said.
The company ended up in Queens County for a number of reasons, said Gillis. One reason was the company wanted technology. The Region of Queens Municipality was also very welcoming. Another reason Aqualitas liked Port Mersey Commercial Park was because of the already-existing security, including a fenced off perimeter.
There was also a building on site the company liked because it gave them an “open canvas.”
“Finally, it had an excellent, job-ready market,” said Gillis.
In each community the company explored, it looked at the employment market. Gillis said the Region of Queens had done a workforce analysis report, and that was available to Aqualitas.
She said the report was beneficial to the company.
Gillis said there were more than 300 people at a job fair in Liverpool Nov. 28. There was standing room only, she said.
“We’re staring with 60 positions, but to give you some rule-of-thumb, for every acre that we will develop outside of our 70,000 square-foot footprint is 20 to 25 jobs,” she said. “We have the potential for expansion for 20-plus acres.”
That would mean more than 300 jobs, added the CEO and founding director.
The company would be looking for people with science, IT and sales backgrounds, and it would be seeking people with business and administrative experience. Other jobs would include administrators and accountants.
“We have sanitation positions, security positions, cultivation positions,” Gillis said.
She said there would be a lot of job opportunities as the company grows.
Gillis said a second-floor expansion should be finished by March. Phase two is set to start Jan. 1.
“So we will be at full-run right in that building by December of 2018,” she said.
“The other company we have is called Finleaf Technologies, and Finleaf Technologies is really our differentiator, and that is the company that does our research and development,” explained Gillis.
She said it’s also going to be the product development for the work Aqualitas does.
Some of the products in development on the medical side are a transdermal patch, sublingual spray, encapsulated oils and a topical cream.
“It’s a pretty robust medical line of products that will be unique to us,” said Gillis.
“We are a women-led company,” said Gillis.
“At least 50 per cent of the key positions in our company are held by women.”
Gillis said women make or influence 85 per cent of household buying decisions with respect to medical cannabis. Women also tend to be caregivers for older parents or other people in their homes.
Before drawing up a plan, Aqualatis also recruited a medical-patient advisory board, consisting of health-care professionals, specialists, researchers, nutritionists and pharmacists.
“And they, along with patient advocates – either NGOs or people that support persons with disabilities, or persons with disabilities themselves that utilize medical cannabis – they have informed our decisions that we’ve made in relation to products and strains from day one,” said Gillis.
Already, having those relationships with the medical community has giving the company legitimacy, she said.
Gillis said the company also has individuals with backgrounds in each area required by regulators, such as legal, business, finance, environmental compliance, health compliance, research and development, marketing, security, quality assurance, and good manufacturing processes.
“One of the things that we also like to highlight about our company is we are all Nova Scotians,” said Gillis. “This is a startup company; we’re very committed to our communities and the province.”
Did you know?
Myrna Gillis completed her undergraduate degree at St. Francis Xavier University. From there, she got her law degree from Dalhousie. For 25 years, Gillis practiced disabilities law as a labour-employment lawyer.