Helius Therapeutics has been granted a license to create New Zealand’s largest cannabis cultivation facility after raising NZ$15 million ($9.8 million) in capital.

The Auckland-based startup is just the third firm to gain a license to grow marijuana in the country, along with Waikato’s Cannsouth and Ruatoria-based Hikurangi Cannabis. But its facility will be the most expansive, as plans show a sprawling site replete with a nursery and a research lab.

“Our license allows us to shift up a gear, move into the next phase of development and commence cultivating thousands of plants here in Auckland,” said co-founder Paul Manning.

New Zealand’s Ministry of Health assesses applications to cultivate cannabis on a case-by-case basis and it’s a rigorous process. Helius was successful after demonstrating its ambition to produce affordable cannabis products to cater to the local market.

Cannabis is widely used in New Zealand, but it’s yet to actually legalize cannabis for medicinal purposes. The Green Party has lobbied hard for a referendum on whether to permit cannabis use, and the government has promised to hold it either in 2019 or 2020. But the decision to award a cannabis cultivation license to a firm that is committed to supplying the local market suggests that a regulated medicinal cannabis market in New Zealand is inevitable.

Paul Manning left a lucrative job heading up a major ad agency to set up Helius, and the New Zealand Herald described it at the time as a “$5 million bet on an industry that doesn’t exist yet”. Entrepreneurs Gavin Pook and JP Schmidt joined him as co-founders, with a vision to become a market leader in an exciting new industry.

They are still waiting for it to exist, but tech billionaire Guy Haddleton is also convinced by its potential and he recently stumped up $15 million to buy into the business.

It expects a law change to go through and it plans to start supplying New Zealanders with affordable cannabis products by 2020. A team of product developers will create derivatives designed to treat sleep disorders, anxiety, arthritis, and chronic pain. It has already developed two clinical trials and it now plans to ramp up its research efforts.

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