Smashing the Stigma with Science
Cannabis can be a turn off for investors, but Neil Mahapatra and his investment firm are showing the world that there’s nothing to fear – and much to potentially gain – through a collaboration with Oxford University.
Neil Mahapatra, Stephanie Sutton |
Actually, it started with biology and business. Both of my parents were doctors and I read biology at the University of Oxford. After graduation, I started work at Morgan Stanley, then went to the US to study for an MBA at Harvard Business School. After that, I worked directly for Lord Rothschild – managing the Rothschild family’s and RIT Capital Partners’ investments. Most recently, I set up Kingsley Capital Partners with some friends, which is a private equity and venture capital firm headquartered in London.
Shortly after we set up Kingsley, my mother – who had never touched a cigarette in her life – was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer, and 18 months later she sadly passed away. At the time, I was seeking anything – a novel piece of research or any left-of-field treatment – that could potentially help. It was in this context that I came across cannabinoid medicines and research suggesting they might be able to treat cancer. I read a number of personal stories of people who had seen their cancer growth slow or disappear after taking cannabis, but they were just anecdotes – right now, nobody truly understands the mechanism by which cannabis may act on tumor cells or other indications. But this is largely because not enough research has been done. In the US, President Nixon placed cannabis in the “Schedule I” category in 1972 – limiting the amount of research that could be done. At the time, scientists were mining many natural products for potential pharmaceuticals, but cannabis was left out.
This led me to think about what I could do to make a difference. I went back to my own plant biology professor at Oxford, whom I hadn’t seen in several years, and told him about my investment firm and that we were considering entering the legal cannabis space in the US, and conducting research in the UK. He said he was interested and introduced me to the wider business development team within Oxford’s medical sciences division. This kicked off one and a half years of discussions with the university, culminating in the announcement of a research program in March 2017.
What details can you share about the program?
We have established a portfolio company called Oxford Cannabinoid Technologies (OCT). We will be initially investing £10 million and the goal is to to identify and deliver great new therapies for sufferers of acute and chronic conditions around the world by finding out how cannabinoids work. OCT will be working in close collaboration with Oxford University, and will be involved in the implementation and monitoring of the research projects.
The real benefit will only emerge in the next three to four years. In the meantime, we’ll be screening a variety of cannabinoids, in different combinations, against a variety of indications. There may be some promise in using cannabinoids as cheaper alternatives to opioids – which would have huge benefits given the opioid crisis in the US and elsewhere.
We will be looking at both synthetic and natural cannabinoids. Personally, I am very interested in naturally occurring cannabinoids. Extracting these from the plants is challenging, but mainly because resources have not yet been placed into optimizing isolation and extraction technologies.
What were the challenges in getting the project up and running?
Regulation has been something of a challenge. In the UK you have to get a series of licenses to do research with cannabis or cannabinoids – which takes time. We also had to get a license to export cannabis to our extraction partner on the continent. That aside, it hasn’t been too difficult – especially when you compare the situation with what US-based firms have to deal with. You can’t even transport cannabis or cannabinoids across state lines in the US because of the federal illegality.
I expected to face challenges relating to the stigma of cannabis, and I expect we will in the future; however, the vast majority of people we have spoken with up until now have been very supportive of the medical potential. You might think that an esteemed university like Oxford, with their centuries of history, would be concerned about damaging their reputation by working with cannabis: not so! Oxford are brilliant, supportive partners and there are some deeply clever people working on this program. What excites me is that we have all these experts in different fields now turning their attention to cannabinoid medicines.
What is needed to advance the cannabinoid space?
I do think the US should consider legalization changes to cannabis at a federal level, which would make the US a far more attractive destination for international research – and US companies would become more attractive potential partners; there are many companies I would love to work with in the US, but can’t because of the regulatory barriers. More generally, I think we need to see even more experienced and professional people moving into the space: the clinical potential is clearly there, but the stigma surrounding cannabis still puts people off. It’s important to emphasize that OCT is not in the business of “peddling weed” – we are trying to create drugs that will help millions of people worldwide.
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