‘Hemp gave me chance to do meaningful work’

JERSEY HEMP’S new chief scientific officer Alisia Ratliff loves being a ‘nerdy chemist’ just as much as the business side of working in one of the Island’s most exciting fledgling industries.

Having recently moved to (Old) Jersey from Florida, she spoke to Ian Heath about what attracted her to the Island and what lies ahead for her in her role with the Warwick Farm-based hemp growers.

Born in California, before moving to Florida at a very young age, Alisia Ratliff quickly developed a career in the field that led her to Jersey after graduating in 2010 with a degree in chemistry from the University of North Florida, in Jacksonville.

She said: ‘I started working for an environmental laboratory, Columbia Analytical Services, later acquired by ALS Environmental, in 2011, performing similar functions to what I’m doing now. I was doing soil water extractions and methods for the FDA and the EPA [US food and environment regulators].

‘That really was the foundation of my skill set and building upon the knowledge that I had gained from university. I moved into working for a contract analytical laboratory, where we did stability studies, dissipation studies and magnitude of residue studies for a number of pesticide products.

‘We were the liaison between big clinical research organisations, such as Bayer, Syngenta and BASF, when they needed to register one of their active ingredients or components inside a pesticide product. We would do all of the studies to make sure it was going to be safe, if it was used on fruits, vegetables and it wasn’t going to be harmful to humans.

‘I wasn’t inside the lab as much as I was outside. I was a project manager. I was doing a lot of business acumen things, such as drafting up contracts, managing budget and laboratory data. I did all of the data interpretation and I actually wrote all of the technical reports that were submitted to the government agencies and to our clients.

‘It was really shaping who I was as a chemist.’

After cutting her teeth in her field, she was soon drawn to the newly-emerging field in the US of medical cannabis, where she gained close to five years’ experience before moving to Jersey Hemp.

She said: ‘I was looking for somewhere I could have a high impact and do something meaningful. I believe the cannabis and hemp industry really gives me that opportunity to do something for consumers and for people within work, who don’t really know about the industry, processes of extraction and different things.

‘I can really exercise a lot of my knowledge. I started looking for a job and I actually had an email from a previous professor at my university. It was really serendipitous. She said that there was a start-up company in Jacksonville that was looking for some experienced chemists. I found out that they were the one of the first licences that was awarded in Florida for its medical cannabis market and I was contracted to come on as the laboratory director at VidaCann.’

While excited to be moving into such a cutting-edge field, Ms Ratliff soon discovered her skill set might need to expand much more quickly than she thought.

She said: ‘I did all of my interviews off site, so I didn’t have an opportunity to look at the building that I was going to be working in, as far as leading the laboratory. Then, when I came on my first day, it was so funny.

‘I walked into this building and it was nothing but dirt and a few cinder block walls. I remember looking over at the VP of operations at the time, and I said “Where’s the lab?” He was like: “Oh, here’s the lab” and pulled out all these plans. I didn’t read blueprints, know anything about engineering or construction management and it was that role that really helped me start to understand all of those aspects of building out an extraction facility essentially for the cannabis industry.

‘I loved the challenge, learning all these different new processes and getting to use new equipment. It really started to speak to who I was and it started to build this niche within myself.’

Moving on to her role at Jersey Hemp, Ms Ratliff said that she will be exercising both the technical and business skills she has gained.

She said: ‘What I’m doing here as the chief science officer is a very overarching role that is infused at the technical level too. I’m able to really exercise both parts of my career that I love.

‘That’s being the nerdy chemist in the lab – doing all the extractions, playing with the equipment, plus mentoring and teaching staff – and also being in the boardroom and explaining to investors how we’re going to be using the money that we’re gaining here.

‘What is our expansion going to look like? What is our growth strategy? What is the marketing strategy? How are we going to diversify the product portfolio? I’m able to really infuse my wet chemistry experience and techniques along with all of the business acumen that I’ve learned over the years.’

Explaining her choice to move to Jersey, she said that she was looking for a ‘long-term’ option and a key driver in her decision was the infancy of the industry on this side of the Atlantic.

She said: ‘Back in the States, it’s becoming more of a saturated industry versus over here, where it is extremely infant right now. Hopefully, having more experts on this side of the pond, we will be able to guide legislation and really help politicians understand what this industry can become. Then we can have a very robust industry over here, similar to North America.’

She added that when she applied for a job in Jersey, she did not expect it to be quite so... British. But that was not a disappointment for her.

‘I did think when I applied that it was New Jersey and I was pleasantly surprised when the managing director reached out to me for an interview and I heard his British accent.

‘I’d only briefly heard about the British Channel Islands. Then I started to do a bit of research and, honestly, it was attractive. I had already gone to London in 2019, where I spoke on a conference panel about supply chain in the cannabis and hemp industry.

‘I was fascinated with British culture and with being in London and all of the history, all of the museums that you can visit and the people. I felt as if the culture was very inviting, warm and welcoming. You would go out to a restaurant and I would barely see people on their smart phones. People were conversing and talking with each other and not just talking about what’s on TV, but talking about world events and what’s going on in industry.

‘I remember going back home in 2019 and telling my husband, we’ve got to get over there. For me, Jersey Hemp was a really awesome opportunity to do that,’ she said.

She said that among the ‘many reasons’ that Jersey was an attraction were its farming heritage, government support for the hemp industry plus the more cautious regulatory approach of European markets.

‘Jersey specifically has such a rich history in agriculture that it just made sense. Jersey Hemp were the first licence here in Jersey and they had already built a really reputable brand.

‘They had so many considerations when it comes to sustainability, eco-friendly processes and a cooperative with the Island, not just with the government but also local farming. I was attracted to that. I really loved the inclusion that this company specifically wanted to bring into their ethos.

‘And when I started to look at the regulations and the laws, Jersey seemed to be a much more penetrable market in my opinion than the UK at the moment. The UK does have some red tape when it comes to importing materials from the States, so Jersey has experienced some of those challenges.

‘We’ve been actively refining our products and making sure that we’re going to be compliant so that we can sell in the UK. We’ve also submitted for novel foods application, which is our authorisation to be able to sell our products in the UK and in Europe and that is a very stringent and difficult task.’

She added: ‘Something that the US is battling is the wild, wild west of opening up these markets that were semi-regulated. Now they’re in a position where you have products that are on the market that are harmful.

‘I felt as if the approach of the EU and the UK at the moment, in my opinion, was a bit better. I would rather you come out with tighter regulation and start to bring that back than to come out with no regulation at all and try to regulate. It’s going to give consumers much safer access to medical cannabis and hemp products. It is challenging at the moment, but if you’re doing the right things and speaking to the right people to understand compliance fully, then it’s really just paperwork, making sure that you have everything in order for all of your certifications and making sure that you’re staying compliant to all of your regulators.’

Ms Ratliff said that she believes the development of the industry in Jersey in recent years had been ‘nothing short of remarkable’.

She said: ‘I’m sure there’s farming practices that have been known for years here but no one had been cultivating hemp.

‘That was something that Dave and Blair, our founders, were very adamant about tapping into – the agricultural richness of the Island. Building out the lab was the next phase. Understanding not just the farming of the crop, but how do we do this in a regenerative manner to where we’re not generating waste.

‘We’re actually limiting our carbon footprint where we are taking every bit of the seed of the leaves, the stalks, and reusing those somehow in the cycle and in the chain of making our product. There was also the government issuing licences to us and being very open to the medical cannabis licence that we’re applying for as well because of our track record.

‘We’re now in a place where we have a recognized brand, we have a few product SKUs [stock-keeping units] that are doing very well – our hemp seed oils, our CBD oils, we have a CBG oil and we also have expanded our product portfolio to include a hemp protein powder as well. There’s just so many benefits to the crop.’

She added: ‘I think really my main focus in the long-term is to expound upon what they’ve built currently, as far as their product portfolio goes, and really help in the awareness and education piece for the market. What is it that we do? What is it that our product will provide? That’s a very touchy subject.

‘It’s very difficult to talk about any health claims and benefits right now, but there’s many case studies online that anyone can go to and look at how CBD oils have affected people, how they use it, how they cook with it or how they use it sublingually [under the tongue].

‘There’ll be a big focus in developing the business further and really working alongside our chief executive to realize that vision that they had in the beginning, which was not only to create a product locally that can be loved but also a product that can be distributed into the UK and the EU, so we can really share what we’ve done here in a loving manner, globally.’

Jersey Hemp recently announced a £6 million fund raising programme with the aim of accelerating its development and commercialisation.

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