YOU know the medical marijuana business is going mainstream when a startup can hire a former senior administrator from a large medical institution as its CEO.
That's what Bonify Medical Cannabis, a would-be Winnipeg start-up, has been able to do, hiring Jeff Peitsch the former longtime chief operating officer at CancerCare Manitoba to lead its efforts to get into a business where valuations and visibility are skyrocketing.
Bonify has acquired a 260,000 square-foot facility in Winnipeg and Peitsch said the intention is for the company to phase in production to eventually become one of the most significant medical marijuana producers in the country.
That's more than twice the amount of space Delta 9 Bio-Tech -- currently the only licenced medical marijuana producers in Winnipeg -- has at its disposal and it still operates out of only a fraction of its total space since starting production in April.
But Delta 9 has one very important thing Bonify does not have -- a licence to produce from Health Canada.
There are only 13 licensed commercial producers to date and Peitsch knows there is no guarantee Bonify will be awarded one.
There is said to be about 1,200 applications on file and some say Health Canada will only issue another 10-to-20 additional licences over the next two-to-four years. Officially, a Health Canada spokeswoman will only say the agency "will not impose a limit on the number of production licences."
Peitsch said, "We are waiting with bated breath for an inspection from Health Canada. We have had an abundance of correspondence where they are seeking additional information. They have been very responsive to our original application."
Bonify -- whose founder and chief investor is a community-minded Winnipeg real estate investor whose identity is not being disclosed -- has a full-time staff of nine and has already spent in excess of $5 million over the past four months as it tools up to be eligible for a licence.
"We have not crossed the finish line yet and there will likely be subsequent investment," he said.
There is no way to know if Bonify will land one of the coveted licences despite the bona fides it clearly has, but there is no denying there is demand out there.
John Arbuthnot, one of the founders of Delta 9 Bio-Tech -- which has just started shipping its initial production run a few weeks ago -- said his company had to put a cap on patients it can supply and has an extensive waiting list.
"It is a large marketplace," he said.
"As much as we might want to be the only player in town, there is certainly enough room for competition."
Without trying to overplay his hand, Peitsch said Bonify anticipates being licensed within the next two-three months.
In the meantime Peitsch, who has an MBA as well as law and science degrees, said the company is building a top-notch team that already includes one PhD candidate.
"This is a highly legitimate operation and we hope to become a significant economic driver," said Peitsch, who resigned his position with CancerCare in November.
He said his original intent was to do some contract work for the bio-pharmaceutical business in Manitoba.
"I did a short contract stint with Bonify and they have not let me go," said Peitsch.
The company is forecasting it will need to have a payroll of 40 to 50 people after a year of operation.
The industry's legitimacy might also calibrated by the willingness of local government to embrace it.
Peitsch said he's had discussions with both the city and the province, "And to date they have been very supportive."
Yes! Winnipeg has helped the company expedite its way quickly through some of the permitting requirements with the city as well as get the company connected with some strategic service suppliers.
"We have been very impressed. They seem to have their act together," said Yes! Winnipeg's Bill Morrissey. "We're happy to be involved with them."