Exclusive Interview With Zelda Therapeutics Co-Founder Dr Stewart Washer

Dr Stewart Washer, co-founder of Zelda Therapeutics, and now a Director on the board of Botanix Pharmaceuticals, sat down with The Green Fund CEO to discuss his extensive career in cannabis.

When it comes to the Australian cannabis industry, few people are as omnipresent as Dr Stewart Washer, with two decades of experience across medical technology, biotechnology, and agrifood companies, Dr Washer has since shifted to play a major role in the cannabis space. Dr Washer currently serves in companies such as Emerald Clinics, Zelda Therapeutics, Orthocell, Botanix Pharma and Cynata Therapeutics, to name a few.

With a resume like Dr Washers, he was an obvious choice to be included in our inaugural 'Top 5 Cannabis Thought leaders in Australia' list, and so we sat down with him to discuss his extensive career.

Dr Stewart Washer

Dr Washers' cannabis journey, like many, was the result of following the road less travelled. In Dr Washers' case, this meant avoiding becoming a doctor or a politician.

"My dad was a doctor for many years and went into obstetrics and anesthesiology and different things."

"But, I didn't want to be a doctor, I wanted to be the guy that either made medicine or was involved with teams of scientists in coming up with the next big thing. I was very interested in predicting the future."

Previously, Dr. Washer has been an Investment Director at Bioscience Managers, a life sciences investment firm, and was a Venture Partner with the Swiss Inventages Fund, a €1.5bn life science fund. Dr Washer has also had numerous Board positions such as Chairman of Hatchtech, which sold in 2015 for A$279m.

5 Australian Cannabis Thought Leaders

Finding Cannabis

In searching for "the next big thing," Dr Stewart Washer found himself in the field of plant genetics.

"I switched completely and did my PhD in plant genetic engineering. We were putting some of the first mammalian genes into plants and seeing if they express and work. The work got me interested in the molecular biology approach, so I went out and started a number of companies in the plant biotech space."

"We thought we were going to solve the world's problems by producing plants that could defend themselves and take away the need for herbicides, which are toxic. But we were completely naive. We stepped on the landmine of genetically modified food. We found out, people don't actually want this stuff."

In realizing that genetically modified food wasn't as exciting to the public as it was for plant geneticists, Dr. Washer shifted, and started a testing company for companies to ensure their ingredients were free from genetically modified foods.

From there, Dr Stewart began to explore a wide array of avenues, becoming a founding chairman on Cynata, a company that develops stem cell therapies, and Orthocell, a company which cultures tendon cells to repair damaged tendons.

Through these innovative technological practices, Dr Washer gained the skills, and the fascination with cutting edge technology, which ultimately propelled him into the cannabis space.

I guess I've become a little bit of a passionate advocate for cutting-edge medicine. Dr. Stewart Washer

"When cannabis came along as a potential medicine, I felt, well this is Green Gloop in a tube, I've worked with Red Gloop in a tube, which was the stem cell, so how different could this be?"

This led Dr Washer to assist his father, Dr Mal Washer, in listing his AusCann Group, one of the most prominent competitors in the Australian medicinal cannabis market.

Through his work with AusCann, Dr Washer quickly learned that cannabis' stigma was far-reaching.

"Auscann taught me a lot, I travelled the world, looking at the cannabis industry, and seeing how different it was to the medical industry I was used to."

"This is an ancient product, that dates back to the Egyptian days and ancient Chinese and Indian medicine, and we're bringing it back because prohibition stopped us working on it. So it's almost bringing something that people have recognized for millennia, that can be used in modern science to the field of medicine. Yet, doctors were not only sceptical, but they were also outrightly hostile, to medical cannabis."

Synthetic and Scalable – An Evolving Cannabis Career

As a result of the scepticism surrounding cannabis, Dr Washer found himself wanting, again, to go along a different path – this time, to pursue synthetic cannabinoid formulas that could be clinically validated.

"I like real-world evidence, clinical studies and getting data around what works, what doesn't, and then the biotech approach of a novel delivery modality," states Dr Washer. "I found that I'm absolutely disinterested in the cultivation side of the business. Anything further down the value chain, however, and I'm very interested in it."

Through his desire to explore different aspects of the cannabis value chain, Dr Washer noticed an overlap between his prior experience in regenerative medicines such as stem cells and the cutting edge of cannabis science."

"Exactly the same problems apply within the cannabis realm, as they do within stem cell products. How do you say that every batch is the same and that you're going to get the same outcomes in patients?"

When asked that question, Matt Calahan responded: "the only way to get consistent results, is synthetics."

And so Dr. Washer left AusCann, remaining only as a shareholder, in order to co-found Zelda Therapeutics, an Australian-based biopharmaceutical cannabis company.

"What attracted me to Zelda at the outset as well, was clinical studies, proper robust clinical studies, and real-world patient evidence, of how this stuff is working. So you can de-commoditize the product and make an actual medicine, which will be worth something, in a year or two from now."

Starting Emerald Clinics

Alongside Zelda, Dr Washer also became a board member on Botanix Pharma, an Australian medical dermatology company engaged in the development of cannabinoid-based products for the treatment of a range of skin conditions.

"Botanix had a similar approach to developing synthetic cannabinoids to Zelda, which was "yep, let's do this properly, let's make medicines." I've always liked the dermatological space and Matt Callahan."

And in 2018, during his time at Botanix and Zelda, Dr Washer noticed a unique advantage to the Australian medicinal marijuana market, that didn't exist in more established markets like Canada and the US.

"Real-world evidence is quite important, in terms of, well, let's look at how patients are doing, in a realistic setting, on these medicines. In places like Canada, however, the patient journey is broken up."

"A patient will go to the doctor, get authorization, then go to Canopy and get the medicine, with neither the doctor or Canopy able to see the whole journey of patient outcome. Meanwhile, here in Australia, with the federal regulators and the TGA oversight, you can have a proper, prescription-based medicine."

And so, yet again, Dr Washer saw a new opportunity in the cannabis space and co-founded Emerald Clinics, an independent medicinal cannabis clinic group which collects information on patient outcomes in order to create data reports on the efficacy of cannabinoids.

Through collecting what he calls "deep data", Dr Washer believes he'll be able to provide invaluable information to bigger cannabis players and even to those not directly in the cannabis space.

"Emerald's got over a thousand patients now, where we've collected that deep data, and have seen some amazing trends. We're starting to see amazing effects on sleep, we're seeing that opiate use is reduced significantly on people taking cannabis, and so many other amazing things even in autism and nausea."

"As you can imagine, this data is very valuable, not only for the Canopy's of the world but also to the biotechs like Zelda and Botanix. Then you've got the pharmaceutical companies and reimbursers, like the Bupa's and HBF's of the world, who can now finally get access to real-world, properly collected patient data to make decisions."

And when it comes to the future of cannabis, Dr Stewart Washer has big expectations, particularly when more concrete data piles up on the benefits of the plant.

"Pharma will move into this space, in a big way, and they've got very big chequebooks, amazing marketing arms and big clinical trials, experience and budgets. So they can really come in, as soon as they see that it's real."

"That's a very powerful place for Emerald to play in."

We agree Dr Washer, we wholeheartedly agree.

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Louis O'Neill
Louis O'Neill

Louis is a writer based in Sydney with a focus on social and political issues. Having interviewed local politicians and entrepreneurs, Louis now focuses on cannabis culture, legislation & reform.

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