Joe Mimran on Canada’s budding cannabis industry

Joe Mimran is regarded as a Canadian fashion pioneer, first for building the Club Monaco brand and then creating Joe Fresh for Loblaw.

But he’s also a Canadian cannabis pioneer of sorts—an early investor in the country’s first legal medical marijuana grower Cannasat Therapeutics Inc. back in 2004 (Cannasat was founded by Lorne Gertner, who later started Tokyo Smoke with his son Alan).

Looking back, Mimran believes his first cannabis play came too soon. “I always tell people you have to look for a seam in the market, but sometimes you can be too early,” he says.

Mimran has got back into cannabis in a big way in the last couple of years however, joining the board of Canopy Rivers last year and Khiron Life Sciences this year.

“I’ve been around the space, I’ve certainly seen a lot of deals, and [I] understand what’s happening in a very volatile, ever-changing market,” he says. “It’s a really, really incredible opportunity.”

In a wide-ranging conversation with The Message, Mimran talked about what that opportunity looks like, how tight marketing restrictions make it tougher to take advantage in Canada, and how his work in the fashion space helps him in cannabis.

You’re excited about cannabis in Canada?

“Look at the landscape—you just can’t help but get excited,” he says. “Now, some of the froth is off of the market, but I think that’s a good thing. It was steadily climbing and everybody was getting huge returns.” That has changed in the last six months or so, he says, because the market is looking at cannabis more seriously and assessing businesses in a different way. “But that doesn’t take away from the potential of these businesses at all.”

What specifically excites you?

“There are three aspects to it,” he says. Obviously the legalized recreational space has a lot of room to grow, particularly as the stigma around cannabis fades and people discover what strains and products they prefer. “There will be status brands that emerge [and] value brands that will emerge,” he says.

“Then there’s the the pure medical side of it—they’re doing a tremendous amount of research,” he says, pointing to progress by businesses like GW Pharmaceuticals and Charlotte’s Web. “As it gets more accepted by the medical community, I think we’re going to see a lot more of the medical side.”

And the wellness aspects of cannabis are emerging quickly, he says. It is increasingly being used in skincare, for pain relief, to help with mobility issues, for sexual enhancement, and as an anti-inflammatory. “These are all areas that fall under that whole wellness space that I believe is as big as any,” he says.

“From an investment standpoint, it’s very exciting. From an entrepreneurial standpoint, it’s very exciting. And from a branding standpoint, it is super exciting,” he adds. “There are restrictions that make it very difficult in Canada, but outside of Canada, there are lots of branding opportunities.”

A lot of people are frustrated by the restrictions in Canada.

“And rightly so,” says Mimran. “I’m not going to criticize what the government’s doing. I think the government is trying to manage a very complicated new area.

“But I think [that] where Canada was absolutely at the leading edge and one of the first countries in the world to really attract capital in a major way and gain knowledge in a major way, we’ve given up some of that leadership role due to the restrictions. Hopefully, the government will understand that and we don’t lose that competitive edge,” he says.

“But there’s no doubt that everybody understands the amount of opportunity there is, even in spite of the regulations.” In particular, he says, there’s real opportunity for Canada’s big cannabis marketers to grow globally.

Do you expect Canadian cannabis businesses to build their brands in other markets on the assumption their branding will leak into Canada?

“One hundred percent. From a regulatory standpoint, that’s not supposed to happen [but] that doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen,” he says. For now, Mimran is more intrigued by the ability and freedom to build brands outside of Canada.

“Down the road, I believe that the play is absolutely going to be building them in the U.S.,” he says. “I don’t want to say that I’m not excited about being in Canada, because I think that sends the wrong message in terms of investing [and] in terms of the market potential. Just because it’s not as lax as the U.S. doesn’t mean there aren’t still opportunities in Canada.”

Where do you see this opportunity?

“Retail is going to loosen up,” he says. “Brands are going to be created. We don’t know where edibles is going, we don’t know where the CBD thing is going. That’s going to be a big opportunity.

“You’ve got to be positioned to take advantage of it. If you don’t set yourself up now, you’ll be late to the party.

“And I do like businesses that have opportunities that extend beyond the Canadian border,” he adds. That’s why he joined the board of Khiron, which is based in Toronto but operates in Colombia and has plans to introduce its Kuida CBD skin and body care line to the U.S.

How does your work in fashion help you in this space?

In a lot of ways, fashion is like cannabis, says Mimran. It’s complex, you have to consider social issues, and it requires the artful blending of art and science to build brands.

And although the regulations may be different, the fundamentals of branding still apply. “You always have to offer the consumer something that is unique, something that is relevant, something that comes from an honest place and, especially these days, it’s got to be authentic.

“At the end of the day, you have to really fill a consumer need and desire. You have to talk with a voice that people understand, and have a product that people relate to. When you do that you get rewarded by consumers.”

David Brown