In a recent chat with Michael Sassano, the CEO of Somai Pharmaceuticals, we delved into the intricacies of the cannabis industry, gaining perspective from his vast experience, especially concerning European operations.
Starting as an investor, Sassano’s journey in the cannabis industry saw him transition from constructing facilities to managing them.
His background in banking and real estate development made him recognise the need for robust infrastructure. “We’ve constructed 16 facilities to date and by around 2015, I began running them,” he stated.
Now, his attention is centred on Europe, where they’re setting up a pharmaceutical manufacturing unit.
Pictures of these facilities adorn Somai’s website, giving glimpses into a growth trajectory that began modestly and expanded to include dispensaries, cultivation, and production facilities. Sassano shared, “Cannabis has become the only thing I know how to do.”
The facility located just outside Lisbon was once a distribution centre for Movianto. “We transitioned it into a major team. The staff might be compact, but our concentration on manufacturing aims to produce the most varied product line in the market,” Sassano explained.
Highlighting the edge they hold in manufacturing, he added, “Most manufacturers have a single formulation room. We boast three.” This size and diversity enable them to offer a broader product line.
Drawing from a rich talent pool in Portugal’s once flourishing pharmaceutical sector, Somai is uniquely positioned in the European cannabis landscape.
They not only source from local growers but have also forged connections in South Africa, Colombia, and Uruguay, underscoring their global outreach while supporting the local economy.
When asked about his reasons for choosing Portugal over other European locations, Sassano referred to the region’s trained regulators and the proximity to vast biomass sources.
He recalled the challenges in Greece, “The regulators were untrained. It would take years to clear a product.” This contrasts sharply with Portugal, where there’s an efficient, understanding regulatory system.
Comparing his experiences in the US and Europe, he noted, “In the US, regulations were state-specific, akin to restaurant grade inspections. However, in the EU, the rules are clear, especially with EU GMP.” This structured system suits Sassano’s economist mindset, appreciating the stringent standards.
When probed about the distinction between American insurance-based healthcare and the more social health systems in Europe, Sassano expressed concerns over the ‘medical’ definition in America.
He elaborated, “In Florida, within minutes, one can acquire a medical card online and purchase cannabis without a real doctor’s prescription. The term ‘medical’ there has become a misnomer.”
Yet, the differences go beyond definitions. Each market has its quirks. “In Germany, we face established giants like Tilray, while in Australia, we’re creating an edible line because the doctors want one comprehensive brand,” he detailed.
With a pioneering approach, Somai aims to keep the core product consistent, offering clarity to consumers and ensuring medicinal needs are met.
Touching upon the future, Sassano mentioned, “We’ve started working on soft gel caps. Currently, we might be the only manufacturers, but these will soon become significant sellers.”
How to get these medicines available for patients remains a challenge, however.
“The number one question that keeps me sleepless is how to get doctors on board with these products,” Sassano stated.
To tackle this, pharmaceutical salespeople traditionally knock on doctors’ doors and introduce their products.
However, with countless brands vying for attention, doctors are overwhelmed. “They would rather not jump from one brand to the next. We aim to provide one brand that services all their patients’ needs,” he added.
Part of the issue lies in the various regulatory challenges throughout the world.
Sassano’s advocacy for change is palpable. He believes the present UK system, requiring three treatment attempts before accessing cannabis, is “archaic”.
“Not everyone wants to roll a marijuana cigarette. People require choices without the stigma,” he stressed. According to him, doctors need to prescribe cannabis freely, especially when it can be a safer alternative to drugs like Valium.
Despite this, Michael Sassano remains optimistic about the overall cannabis market, Somai’s place in it and encourages entrepreneurs to join the industry.
“Find your niche in the industry. Whether it’s manufacturing, distribution, or the health side, there’s a place for everyone.”
He encouraged networking through platforms like LinkedIn and emphasized on the industry’s growth potential. “Europe will be the second-largest cannabis market soon. Now’s the time to join.”
In conclusion, as the CEO of Somai Pharmaceuticals, Michael Sassano is not just steering a company, but also helping sculpt an industry in its nascent stages, backed by passion and the dream of making cannabis accessible and stigma-free.