Article by Roger Taylor The Chronicle Herald
While much larger cannabis producers that are publicly traded have grabbed the majority of attention, privately held and relatively unknown Aqualitas Inc. has been on a roll of its own.
Aqualitas, headquartered in Bedford and with grow operations in the former Bowater Mersey paper mill in Brooklyn, Queens County, has been quietly built from the ground up over the past four years but, more recently, the company is drawing attention.
“It has been a good year, just this quarter was our first quarter that was operating cash flow positive, our first positive EBITDA, but we’re still off target of where we’d like to be,” says Aqualitas CEO Myrna Gillis.
“But considering how the year went, we couldn’t have expected to do any better.”
Gillis says Aqualitas has been very fortunate. Despite the COVID-19 effects on the economy, the company didn’t have any layoffs. In fact, it started the year with 80 employees and will be ending it with 92.
Recently, head grower Jake Ward was named Canada’s top grower by Grow Opportunity Magazine, a publication serving the Canadian cannabis industry.
Ward was chosen from cannabis growers across the country for his commitment to sustainable, aquaponic cannabis cultivation. He told me he doesn’t hold a horticultural degree, or a degree of any kind, but he has more than 26 years of cannabis cultivation experience and an admitted passion for growing the plant.
“Mike (O’Keefe, CFO), Myrna and Barb (Darby, vice-president and chief counsel) took a chance on me and I appreciate the opportunity I was given,” he says, adding that it hasn’t always been easy but he likes the challenge.
EMPLOYEE NO. 1
Before joining Aqualitas as its first employee, Ward was a licensed cannabis grower serving patients who had a prescription. After coming to Aqualitas, he travelled all over the world to research the best methods for growing cannabis. However, he insists that some of the world’s best scientists on that topic are already based in Nova Scotia.
Ward is credited with being instrumental in setting up the hydroponic design for Aqualitas’s grow operation, and he led its scale-up from a 600-square-foot research lab at Acadia University to a 40,000-square-foot commercial facility in Brooklyn.
Ward says some of the top medical researchers in the European Union, Israel and the United States have come to Aqualitas to investigate the cannabis his team has growing because of its high quality and consistency.
“The passion for this plant is what drives me to do better,” he says, adding that his growers are not afraid to investigate new methods and innovate.
Aqualitas holds multiple Health Canada licences to conduct research and to cultivate, process and sell cannabis. The company is Canada’s first Clean Green Certified cannabis producer and processor, which means it’s recognized for its commitment to international organic management practices, compliance, quality and sustainability.
With a mission of supporting people’s wellness with research, care and passion, Aqualitas has been described as committed to providing safe, organically grown cannabis and value-added products. Its research and development division, Sindica, explores cultivation, product development and pharmaceutical drug development.
Reef, Aqualitas’s recreational brand, is sold in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Alberta, Ontario and Saskatchewan, and the company plans for further expansion in Canada. Its medical products, sold under the Aqualitas brand, have been distributed across Canada and exported to the E.U. and Israel.
Gillis says she was working as a lawyer in the field of disability advocacy when she first thought of starting a cannabis company. Working with vulnerable members of society, sufferers of chronic pain and mental health issues, she says, allowed her to learn from her clients how cannabis was helping them cope with personal issues.
With that in mind, Gillis says, she decided to start Aqualitas. At that point, she didn’t know it was going to be a hydroponic, organic cultivator of cannabis that uses long-lived koi fish as a source of nutrients for the plants. At that time, there was no indication the federal government would be opening the market to recreational use of pot.
As a private company, she says, management at Aqualitas has been able to focus on growing the business without having to worry about the ups and downs of the stock market. Rather than expanding capacity beyond demand, Gillis says, Aqualitas has in a deliberate fashion started in Nova Scotia, expanded to the rest of Atlantic Canada and other parts of the country, rather than trying to supply all markets at the same time.