As legalization approaches, scientist-turned-entrepreneur Jonathan Page plans to use his growing business to unlock the plant’s secrets–and breed better marijuana for pain and pleasure
Botanist Page at the UBC headquarters of Anandia Labs, which tests pot for cannabis producers
Bright grow lights beam upon shelves filled with lush marijuana plants, bursting with buds and ready for harvest. Jonathan Page points out a specimen that to my eye looks identical to the neighbouring flora. But this leafy and fragrant individual, a heritage plant that is a queen among commoners, holds a special place in the UBC botanist’s heart.
“That’s the purple kush, the great-great-granddaughter of the plant that we sequenced,” the Anandia Laboratories Inc. co-founder says as a technician in a crisp white lab coat scurries past carrying a tray of vials filled with cannabis tissue extract.
Purple kush is one of roughly 800 known strains of cannabis. Back in 2009, when procuring ganja for research required creative interpretation of the law, Page co-led a yearlong effort that saw him become the first scientist to sequence the cannabis genome—a road map that contains some 30,000 genes.
Genomics—the science of charting an organism’s genetic makeup—may induce most pot enthusiasts to yawn and reach for the vaporizer, but for a research scientist like Page, sequencing the marijuana plant was molecular biology’s answer to writing Beethoven’s Fifth. It was also a calling card that made his name in North American academic circles and beyond as the go-to guy for understanding the inner workings of cannabis.
As a result, Page is a sought-after speaker at academic and pot industry conferences. He’s also recently leveraged decades of experience with this controversial plant and its constituent chemical compounds, the cannabinoids—some hailed as an unrivalled therapy for pain, nausea, anxiety and other conditions—into a thriving business.
Page’s Anandia Labs, a testing and research firm, is one of the brighter lights in B.C.’s fast-growing cannabis space. As president and chief scientific officer, he has steered it from a startup with a skeletal staff of four in 2016 to a company with $3.5 million in annual revenue, a valuation of $60 million and a staff of 24 highly educated scientists. For Page and Anandia, testing pot is a means to an end: developing new marijuana varieties for medical and non-medical use.
Backers of the private company he founded with chemist John Coleman have high hopes. “I think Anandia could be the leading cannabis company not just in Canada but in North America,” says investor Marc Lustig, CEO of Ottawa-based CannaRoyalty Corp. “There’s a fantastic synergy between Page’s genetics experience and John Coleman’s chemistry background.”
Page, who has the lanky build of a basketball forward and thick black hair peppered with grey, leads me to a room filled with scores of tiny cannabis seedlings growing in a sterile medium of agar. “High-quality genetics will be the cornerstone of Anandia’s future growth,” he says. The air is sweet and slightly skunky, like that of a small grow-op, but security here is almost Fort Knox–level: as mandated by Health Canada, all entrances and the doorways between labs can only be unlocked with a code.
In the short term, cannabis testing is Anandia’s lucrative bread and butter, given that Health Canada requires all producers licensed under the Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations to test each harvest before going to market. Page admits he didn’t anticipate the magnitude of demand for this service. And if you think it involves lounging around the office lighting up and hitting the vending machine for snacks, guess again. At a fee of $1,125 for five tests measuring potency (the level of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the compound that gets users high), arsenic and other heavy metals, aflatoxins, microorganisms and pesticides, this is complex biochemistry with a five- to seven-day turnaround.
“Some people ask me if I had some sort of crystal ball. Did I know marijuana was going to be big?” Page asks on this grey November day as bland as the three-storey institutional structure, tucked in a warren of academic buildings a block from Wreck Beach, where Anandia leases space from UBC. “I guess I had an idea, but really I was just fascinated with medicinal plants.”
Big is an understatement when it comes to the burgeoning medicinal and recreational pot industry. As Canada lurches toward legalization—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals plan to bring Bill C-45 into law by this summer—it’s home to 64 publicly traded cannabis companies. (Ontario’s Canopy Growth Corp. is the world’s largest such player, with a market capitalization of about $3.6 billion as of December 2017.)
There are 69 licensed cannabis producers across the country, according to Health Canada, 16 of them in B.C. alone. “Every batch has to be tested, so that means our business is growing,” Page says.
The 48-year-old scientist took the long road from academic research to business. Born with a twin brother (now a biologist) in Victoria in 1969, Page grew up in the Comox Valley. There he inhabited a laid-back Vancouver Island culture where attitudes to marijuana and hallucinogens like magic mushrooms were much more permissive than the prohibitionist mainstream ethos of the day. As a kid, Page—a botanist before he knew what the word meant—spent hours poking around under logs for wild mushrooms and scouring his parents’ rural property for interesting plants. “I was never a druggie, but I was very interested in hallucinogens and plants with medicinal properties and cultural significance,” says the recreational cannabis user.
After high school, Page enrolled at UBC (he pondered studying ethnobotany but gravitated to research and the laboratory), where he earned a B.Sc. in plant biology. His honours thesis landed him in a lab then run by the late and respected professor emeritus of botany Neil Towers. As part of his studies, Page travelled to Tanzania for field research on chimpanzees’ use of medicinal plants. By the time he completed a PhD in botany at UBC in 1998, his work had appeared in top academic publications like The Plant Journal and Genome Biology. A Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) grant took him to Germany for post-doctoral studies of the alkaloids in opium, then cannabis.
“At the time, we knew a lot about what is in cannabis but not a lot about the process of biosynthesis in the plant,” Page says.
In 2003 he returned to Canada to head a lab at the National Research Council’s Plant Biotechnology Institute in Saskatoon. Toward the end of his decade there, he grew weary of battling a conservative Stephen Harper federal bureaucracy reluctant to support cannabis research. Page quit in 2013 and returned to UBC as an adjunct professor, somewhat bored with the insular world of research and academia.
“I guess I have Stephen Harper’s government to thank for my decision to go into business,” he says with a laugh.Pooya Nabei
In 2012, Page shared his business idea for Anandia with chemist Coleman, whom he had met a few years earlier when the latter was head of project search at the UBC-based Centre for Drug Research and Development. Page got Anandia from the well-known cannabinoid anandamide, whose name comes from the Sanskrit word ananda, meaning bliss—a nod to both biochemistry and the euphoric uses of marijuana.
Coleman, who says the time was right for a “business to support the legal cannabis industry,” jumped on board as COO. Two years later the pair applied to Health Canada for a grower’s licence so they could cultivate cannabis for research. The application wound through the approval process at a glacial pace. In February 2016, Anandia finally got the green light.
“Health Canada didn’t have the staff to handle the influx of interest in cannabis,” Page says. “It felt like a rush to get into a rock concert.”
There’s a palpable excitement at Anandia these days. Page’s hectic schedule shows no signs of slowing down, as he juggles the duties of a company president who answers to a board of directors, speaking engagements and keeping his hand and mind in the lab.
“He’s really the man in Canada when it comes to cannabis. In scientific circles, he is the guy who sequenced the genome and figured out the enzymology behind why cannabis plants produce THC and other plants don’t,” says Tim Hughes, a molecular geneticist who holds the John W. Billes Chair of Medical Research at the University of Toronto. Hughes was Page’s co-researcher in the cannabis genome sequencing project—an idea he hatched over a beer with a colleague as something “mischievous to do,” triggering a search that quickly led him to Page.
Last April at a UBC alumni conference in Toronto, called A Budding Industry: The Future of Cannabis in Canada, Page shared the podium with Raf Souccar, an ex-RCMP member of the federal Task Force on Cannabis Legalization and Regulation, and Sana-Ara Ahmed, a physician specializing in pain management and anesthesiology.
“I was trying to go out for a beer with Jon after the conference, but everyone was trying to talk to him,” Hughes says. “His message to the audience was basically that there’s still a lot we don’t know about cannabis because we haven’t been allowed to study it properly.”
That’s what Page hopes to do with Anandia: unlock more of the plant’s secrets and give it the scientific attention our culture never permitted in the past. So far, the company has been funded through two rounds of equity financing, including $4 million from cannabis-focused investor CannaRoyalty, as well as financial support from Genome BC, the National Research Council’s Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP) and non-profit Mitacs’s Inspiring Innovation program.
Anandia remains majority owned by Coleman and Page, who likens the opportunities facing it to lying on a surfboard with a huge wave looming on the horizon. He expects annual revenue to top $100 million by 2021, growth that will be fuelled by a major expansion this year. As of last December, Anandia was close to sealing a deal to buy property in an undisclosed Vancouver Island community, where it plans to build a cannabis breeding facility that will employ 30 scientists and technicians. The operation will include space for indoor and greenhouse growing, plus labs “for large-scale extraction, analytical chemistry and tissue culture,” Page says.
Entrepreneurship may have a hold on Page, but the biochemistry of marijuana remains this plant nerd’s passion. “I want this to be a first in Canada and the world: a cutting-edge research centre focused exclusively on the cannabis plant,” he says.