An Interview with Vice-Chairman Jack Kay

Your impressive career in pharmaceutical leadership surely provides you a long-term perspective on the pharmaceutical industry in Canada. What has changed since you first entered the industry?

I’m going to go back a little before I entered the industry to describe how I arrived there in the first place. Professionally, I am a registered psychiatric nurse. After completing the three-year training program, I graduated as RPN. I began my work in a psychiatric hospital in Weyburn, Saskatchewan. I was soon approached by a brand name pharmaceutical company to come and work for them as a sales representative. The company approached me because many of their products were in the psychiatric field and they needed somebody with the medical knowledge to provide detail to psychiatrists and general practitioners.

Back then, the generic industry in the ‘60s was in its infancy. There was a scattering of small companies located mostly in Ontario and Quebec, and they didn’t do a lot of their own manufacturing. They bought products from other small Canadian manufacturers. They purchased product from custom manufacturers. It was a very small domestic industry.

Canada was really a branch plant for the foreign-owned branded pharmaceutical industry, which it is still to a great extent. Most of the research and development is done by the industry in a company’s country of origin. There are no Canadian-owned branded companies left with their genesis in Canada, except for the generic industry. EmpowerPharm is an exception to that.

EmpowerPharm Vice-Chairman Jack Kay

Canada has a severe shortage of domestic pharmaceutical companies, especially in manufacturing and R&D. How important is it that EmpowerPharm is a Canadian company? What are the strengths and drawbacks of the Canadian pharmaceutical landscape?

First, let’s look at Canada’s strengths. Canada does really well in research and development. We have a phenomenally high knowledge-based group of scientists who are as intelligent, knowledgeable as scientists throughout the world. We have a cohesive science knowledge base which enables us to work with scientists across Canada. We do not have to look outside of Canada to find that core competency because we have it domestically.

I think that Canada has learned a big lesson from covid-19. We cannot depend on the rest of the world. We must find a way to sustain our quality of life. Otherwise, should another crisis hit our country, we will have shortages. This lesson also applies to the pharmaceutical industry. If we do not synthesize the raw material in this country, we are going to and be dependent on other countries. And as we know, when you are globalized, the power of the bigger countries outweighs that of smaller countries. We have to accept the fact that Canada is a relatively small country— only two percent of the world population. We cannot depend on other countries for providing us with essential goods and services.

I’ve seen what happens when you work for a multinational company and things do not go as smoothly as one might expect them to. Where do they rationalize? They rationalize in countries where they do not have a very large infrastructure and downsize. In many cases, they take the research and development, and manufacturing back to their home country. For a small market country like Canada, we are left with a sales and marketing organization.

You have to be where the head office of the corporation is, which is what attracted me to EmpowerPharm. When I left the generic pharmaceutical industry I had a few discussions with pharmaceutical companies, but none were Canadian-owned. Then, I had a discussion with Aubrey Dan which led me to where I am today: the Vice Chair of EmpowerPharm, which will be a Canadian success story. I am very confident of that.

Why CBD? Why did you get involved with EmpowerPharm?

From my career of 55+ years in the pharmaceutical industry I knew when I saw something that I wanted to be a part of. I was aware of the work that was being done domestically and internationally on the use of cannabinoids in the treatment of various illnesses. Because of my background in psychiatric nursing, I also knew what modalities were available for the treatment of anxiety and depression, and there are a lot of negatives involved, especially when you look at some of the devastating outcomes from benzodiazepine dependency for the treatment of anxiety. Anecdotally, CBD offers a greater alternative, but we need the research to back it up. And it is very easy to say, yes, I know it works. But that isn’t good enough. EmpowerPharm is in the process of conducting clinical trials for both the safety and efficacy of our products. No different from those companies developing a vaccine for covid-19.

I’ve gone through this before in my career with Apotex. We started in rented premises of ten thousand square feet. When I left, we had over a million square feet and a half a dozen different manufacturing facilities. So, I know what it is to be small and build. With EmpowerPharm, we’re doing something similar. I am 100% confident that through this work we will help people live a better quality of life. This is especially true during covid-19. The anxiety/depression that people are suffering from because of this pandemic will require the right type of treatment. And patients require an option that doesn’t lead to drug dependency.

What is the biggest misconception that you are coming up against— and what you see as incredibly important for investors, future patients, researchers, to understand?

When you look at the cannabis industry, it’s mostly focused on the recreational market. People don’t always understand that if you are going to make CBD pharmaceutically, then you have to meet the requirements of the regulatory agencies. You have to have a GMP manufacturing facility not only to synthesize the raw material, but also for the manufacturing of the final dosage forms, be it a capsule or a tablet. This ensures the safety and the purity of the products which you are going to promote, to be used to treat anxiety as well as other indications.

Doctors and patients need to learn about the differences in cannabis and pharmaceutical CBD. EmpowerPharm will help them learn by education. EmpowerPharm treats the development of this medication like any other pharmaceutical product, whether it’s for high blood pressure or to lower your cholesterol levels. It has to meet the stringent requirements of the regulators from a safety and efficacy perspective. The difference between what’s available on the cannabis market, and the rigour of a pharmaceutical drug with CBD is extreme. We can be incorrectly categorized with any other cannabis companies, and that’s simply not what we’re doing here. Pharmaceuticalized CBD requires meeting stringent regulation and proven research for safety and efficacy as with any prescription drug.

What challenges stand before you and the rest of the EmpowerPharm team?

Time stands before us. Building something as big as this does not happen overnight. We have to go through well-defined steps to prove our products are safe and effective. And I am not getting any younger, even though I am full of energy for someone who is going to be reaching a milestone this year!

The EmpowerPharm team has a large mandate ahead.

The team that we have put together has the knowledge and experience to make us successful. If covid-19 has taught us anything, it’s that even when you know what you’re doing, you don’t know what tomorrow will bring. When you’re in the pharmaceutical space and you’re dealing with people’s health, you have to be 100% certain that you’re doing the right thing. With that in mind, we have assembled a best-in-class experienced team. I’m extremely proud of the work this team is doing and will continue to do to ensure our success.