Even as cannabis has become more widely accepted as medicine in recent years, many people still view it as a treatment of last resort.
Whether they’re looking to treat insomnia, anxiety, chronic pain or one of thousands of different ailments, most doctors will recommend all the prescription medications and pharmaceutical options before suggesting patients try a cannabis-based medicine.
Oludare Odumosu is on a mission to change that.
As the CEO of Zelira Therapeutics, a global biopharmaceutical company, Odumosu believes cannabinoid-based medicines are right on the cusp of becoming front-line treatment options for a wide range of ailments, delivering both the efficacy and the safety for patients where pharmaceuticals have often fallen short.
But Zelira is not a cannabis grower or a retailer. The company focuses on clinical research, development and commercialization of cannabinoid-based medicines for multiple therapeutic areas and making them accessible to patients and prescribers throughout the world.
“Our mission is driven by a very, very intentional push to improve the lives of patients,” Odumosu says. “How we make and leave the world a better place is something that is very close to our heart.”
In addition to being a central part of Odumosu’s vocation, cannabis has a deep personal significance for the 38-year-old CEO.
“Cannabis saved my life,” he says.
Odumosu emigrated from Nigeria to the United States as a teenager, then earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in public health, epidemiology and biostatistics. He began struggling with severe insomnia while he was studying for his Ph.D. at Loma Linda University in California, and days began to melt together, one sleepless cycle after another. Eventually, desperation — along with the suggestion of a friend and the authorization of a doctor — led him to try cannabis. And it worked, almost miraculously.
Odumosu went on to complete his doctorate in biochemistry, and more than a decade later, he is the chief executive of a publicly traded company that is doing some of its most groundbreaking work in the treatment of insomnia.
“Some people call it coincidence, I call it providence that I would join a company that was developing and creating medicines that impact insomnia,” he says.
With a footprint in countries like Germany and Australia, where cannabis is federally legal for medicinal use, Zelira can conduct thorough clinical trials in a way that is highly limited in the United States — the type of double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized trials required to pass the scrutiny of regulatory agencies throughout the world, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration.
In April 2020, Zelira completed the world’s first clinical trial of a cannabis-based insomnia medication, called Zenivol®. The study was also the first of its kind to be peer reviewed, in SLEEP, the preeminent international journal on sleep and circadian science.
“It’s humbling because it is peer reviewed,” Odumosu says. “For the world to recognize the work that we did, and for SLEEP to publish that, was as good a validation as we needed. And that made it very exciting.”
Zenivol® has since launched in Australia and has been licensed to partners in Germany and New Zealand, but it’s far from the only research area Zelira has had success.
In the last two years, Zelira has created, launched or developed about 14 unique products and well over 100 actively prosecuted or granted patents across 26 regions of the world, according to Odumosu.
“We are a lean, mean, excited machine that is focused on creating medicines in different therapeutic areas,” he says.
The company has in its pipeline products targeting sports-related pain, chronic pain, cancer, non-cancer pain, autism, anxiety and aging-related diseases, specifically Parkinson’s, among other areas of research.
In addition to developing proprietary formulations of regulated cannabis, the company has launched a number of hemp-based skin care and oral care products, available for retail in the United States. RAF FIVE is the first multi-product skin care line that uses CBD to specifically target and treat acne. SprinJeneCBD is toothpaste brand that combines CBD, black seed oil and zinc to help maintain a healthy mouth.
The company recently introduced its groundbreaking, free-flow powder technology for making cannabinoid-distillate capsules and tablets. While cannabinoids don’t naturally lend themselves to being captured in free-flow powders, Zelira’s Enhanced Distillate Capture and Dissolution Matrix (Zyraydi™) allows product manufacturers to easily make high-quality capsules and tablets that look like any other pill found in a drug store, using the same setup they’re already using.
“It’s getting a lot of buzz right now because it solves a lot of industry problems,” Odumosu says.
And Zelira is currently targeting an acquisition that would be part of a major expansion into the European market, providing the company with an established distribution network and access to highly regulated European markets, while accelerating revenue growth, improving margins and improving its capacity to scale.
Despite all the progress that’s been made in recent years, federal regulations in the United States continue to shackle scientists trying to do research and development on cannabis — research that could unlock tens of thousands of medical applications for everything from acne to cancer.
Odumosu says it’s time cannabinoid-based medicines are allowed to be compared side by side with their counterparts in the pharmaceutical world.
Not only is cannabis one of the oldest known medicinal plants in human culture, with more than 6,000 years of documented history, but it’s also one of the safest drugs, based on the Center for Disease Control’s annual report on deaths caused by various drugs in the United States.
Odumosu says cannabinoid medicines do not need to be treated like second-class medicines. And he’s not saying they should skip a step in the FDA’s approval process.
“We’re saying open the doors and allow cannabinoid-based molecules to go through the same rigor,” he says. “Just take away this sham of a regulatory veil.”
Insomnia medications are a prime example of the hypocrisy of cannabis prohibition. The current options on the market, which are approved by the FDA, often leave people with debilitating side effects and/or have a measured efficacy that “leaves a lot to be desired,” Odumosu says. And sleep-related disorders affect roughly 30-40% of Americans.
But with public opinion shifting in favor of medical and recreational cannabis, the regulatory veil that has existed for decades may soon lift, making now a great time to be a scientist researching the unknown wonders of the cannabis plant.
“We are absolutely at the beginning of all the excitement,” Odumosu says. “The world is beginning to open up as people become less scared of cannabis.”
In some ways, being CEO of Zelira Therapeutics is the perfect job for Odumosu. As the leader of a publicly traded company with operations on multiple continents, it’s a big responsibility and one that requires a certain level of aptitude, leadership and foresight.
But it also keeps him tethered close to his first love, science, and allows him to trade his business suit for a lab coat once in a while.
“I’m a scientist who happens to have operational and leadership capabilities,” he says.
In 2020, when he took on the role, he was one of the youngest African American to be the CEO of a publicly traded global cannabis company.
Odumosu says it’s a humbling experience to be in the position he’s in, and he’s fortunate to be surrounded by scientists and colleagues who share in his mission.
“My job is really ‘visionary in chief.’ My assignment is to manage the vision of Zelira as a company, and to do that I have to be surrounded by co-visionaries who happen to be fantastic managers.”
That allows him to be highly strategic and creative and to be a leader. And that allows the company — relatively small in stature, but large in influence and value propositions — “to work efficiently and precisely, to be crisp and to be innovative,” Odumosu says, “and to have fun while we’re doing it.”