Jan Bornman, Financial Mail
Cilo Cybin founder Gabriel Theron says he was hoping that a JSE listing would enable his group to scale up significantly and go shopping for assets. But he’s confident he’s chasing the right market and will be building Cilo Cybin organically from the foundations upwards.
This article first appeared in the Financial Mail on 22 December 2022.
Cilo Cybin founder and CEO Gabriel Theron is not someone who is easily put off. So when his efforts to raise R500m and list on the JSE failed recently, he dismissed the setback as merely “disappointing”.
He tells the FM that it has not changed his goals for a company that has bet the house on cannabis. It’s the healing potential that excites Theron about the once notorious herb, which has undergone an image makeover from dagga, a pot-smoker drug, to a plant with “endless medicinal possibilities” and its more acceptable appellation: cannabis.
This is why, in 2018, Theron founded Cilo Cybin Pharmaceutical to develop cannabis as a viable mainstream pharmaceutical alternative to other drugs on the market.
Theron was hoping for the listing to act as a “springboard” but is reconciled to the company now moving “a bit slower”. “Maybe that’s not a bad thing because it means we can put our foundations down properly and secure the revenue streams and grow the company organically for the next two years,” he says.
He says there was a lot of interest from about 2,000 retail investors and the company raised just over R20m. He says there is still work to be done to break down negative perceptions about cannabis. “The first thing people think is cultivating it and smoking it,” he says. Only later do they consider its medicinal benefits.
Theron has had a varied career since obtaining a BCom Hons. He worked in the beer industry as an internal auditor with SAB, in forestry as an acting CEO of the South African Forestry Company Ltd (Safcol) and as an entrepreneur in the IT field.
Theron says he used cannabis “probably three or four times during university”. Some years later he discovered that the drug had qualities which were helpful and that was why he went on to found Cilo Cybin, a company that combines biohacking (lifestyle changes to improve health), biotech and pharmaceutical methodologies to provide health-care solutions.
“The industry is very interesting because you have those guys with the dreads and the whole lifestyle: the hippy sitting here with bare feet. You have that big time. But then you have the corporate guys coming in saying ‘hey, this is a really good business opportunity if you can run it like any other business’,” says Theron.
The second category is where he fits in. He emphasises that his uses of cannabis-related products are for longevity. They are not psychoactive, which alters brain functions and behaviour. “They are for boosting longevity and boosting performance. That is what I will use, and I have been using that for the past four years, every day.”
Theron says Cilo Cybin is getting ready to hit the markets in South Africa once the law and regulations allow it. It is also looking to profit from the global cannabis market, with the company having already exported its first batch of flowers so as to be ready when Europe opens up cannabis entirely, which is expected by 2025.
President Cyril Ramaphosa, in his state of the nation address this year, said the government would review policies and regulations affecting industrial hemp and cannabis to exploit its economic potential. He said it could create about 130,000 jobs with the National Cannabis Master Plan adding about R28bn to the fiscus.
The Global Cannabis Report by New Frontier Data estimated that illicit cannabis sales in South Africa were more than $1bn and could reach $1.5bn by 2025. The World Health Organisation estimates South Africa to be the third-largest illegal cannabis producer in the world already, with about 2,500t of cannabis grown each year.
It’s that potential, Theron says, that can be legally unlocked. “On the one side they want to legalise it so that they can tax it. Cannabis is an interesting environment because it has the recreational side to it and the medicinal side. From a hemp side, I think that’s a no-brainer, they have to open that side,” he says.
Hemp, one of the fastest-growing plants in the world, can be refined for a variety of commercial items, from paper, rope and textiles to animal feed and biofuel.
Theron says South Africa, along with Lesotho and Colombia, is well placed to take advantage of a freed-up cannabis trade worldwide. He says the three countries have perfect growing conditions and are able to produce at low cost. “We are just super-competitive,” he says.
“We’ve exported our first batch. I believe we are the only guys in South Africa so far who have exported a final label product to Australia, meaning it’s got a label on it and it’s ready for the consumer.”
That’s all fine for Down Under, now he needs the legal permission to go ahead at home.