In this interview for The Cannabis Extraction Report from Prohibition Partners, Joel Sherlock, Chairman and Co-founder of Vitalis, shares his insights about EU GMP complexities, supporting producers like Valcon Medical, and more.

What are the important factors for EU GMP?

A lot of producers think that GMP is simply a certificate when in reality there are so many factors that go into achieving it. The great news is that we have seen a shift where many of those entering the space are utilizing consultants to guide them through the process. High quality, consistency in storage, transportation, and handling are all the key ingredients in the EU’s Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP).

As a Canadian-based manufacturer and having been a part of the trailblazing in the cannabis landscape, we knew that whatever we engineered needed to account for global future regulations. Vitalis has a range of EU-GMP-compliant systems, as well as internal and external support from experts that we lend to our customers in achieving equipment qualifications, as well as in-country service, plus spare-part centres across the world.

When you combine all of these together, it gives us such an interesting oversight of the market. Ultimately, we have a very unique ability to support a customer in achieving EU GMP.

Who have you been collaborating with recently?

Over the years our operations expanded globally, with customers currently on 5 continents—each one with very different needs. Those in the EU GMP space have been the most unique.

Most recently, we have been working with Valcon Medical, a Danish cannabis concentrate and medical formulation provider, which has been issued with a European Union Good Manufacturing Practice (EU GMP) certification for the manufacturing of medical cannabis extracts.

Valcon’s manufacturing process is based on the CO2 extraction and solvent recovery technologies provided by Vitalis. They have been a phenomenal partner to work with. They are one of the leaders in EU quality production. In working with these types of teams so closely, we’ve learned an exceptional amount on how much goes into an EU GMP facility on top of, and in addition to, the equipment.

Your QMS, your documentation, air handling—even what you make your roof and walls out of—will come into play. It’s a holistic programme that really does take into account everything on site, but it really does all start with the extraction system.

What’s your prediction for the regulatory environment?

The one thing we are certain of is that regulations are only going to go one way—up. Now that the industry has matured, the level of quality and safety are absolutely a key focus from every side of the equation.

On the production side, systems and process are going to follow like the control you see in the pharmaceutical space. On the other hand, the stringent regulation on the production process, or at least the way it’s written, for CBD products is likely to ease.

Right now, there are barriers in certain parts of the world where the way laws have been written can hinder the production because they do not understand the process fully. How you get to the end result of CBD requires stripping THC, and that can often mean going against regulation.

Changes around CBD, which may be coming in the future, will mean more access and more readily available products to the public. In North America, we’re also witnessing a shift in the sales structure of these products. The drugstore model is continuing to take shape over the traditional ‘over-the-counter’ model.

Do you feel that some extractors are struggling to provide adequate GMP support and equipment?

This is a huge issue and a controversial one. The manufacturers and the regulators are still figuring it out as they go. The quality of product is being scrutinised. A study showed that CBD products purchased in the UK had a lot less CBD than stated; some of them even had THC.

As an original equipment manufacturer (OEM), Vitalis has all the necessary certifications and compliance, as well as in-house expertise in providing a comprehensive offering. Every jurisdiction has different requirements when it comes to GMP, which is why we tap into trusted consultants who are experts in GMP.

It’s a practice that continues to fuel our knowledge in the space and applies to how and what we innovate on our systems.

What are your customers asking for?

We have assisted previous customers who have built a facility and then want to have EU GMP status. Vitalis has also worked with very experienced pharmaceutical teams who understand the EU GMP pharmaceutical regulations but know nothing about the CBD market. We are able to work very collaboratively. We are the specialists and experts in what we know. For everything else, we have a network of extended partners we can bring on board to support.

Have the past few years been a steep learning curve?

The more sites we build, the more we learn at every location. That’s been one of the great advantages to Vitalis. If someone needs some customisation, it’s no problem for us to do that. Vitalis is much more than a manufacturer and engineer of extraction equipment. In every market expansion, we need to continue to drive change regarding standards and safety measures in global jurisdictions.

Collecting data and learning from past experiences is what has kept Vitalis at the forefront of the industry. Problem-solving and coming up with solutions are addressed as a pressing issue. We wanted to know where the customers’ bottlenecks were and how we could innovate solutions to remove them. That’s been one of the biggest drivers for us.

What trends keep you on your toes?

As the product landscape and research evolves, so must we—to be a couple of steps ahead in order to have comprehensive information and really understand Standard Operating Procedures.

A significant aspect of success in the cannabis space comes down to training, which is why we do not outsource our service to third parties. We have a trained service team in-house that is dedicated to our customers’ uptime and there whenever they have a question or hurdle they cannot figure out.

It’s been equally valuable for us in that having a collection of feedback and communication from our operators helps us understand what we can do better, either in our design or in how we help LPs establish their process from the very start.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic reshaped the company?

Vitalis took on a characteristically lateral approach. We’ve applied a very uncommon sense mindset to the pandemic. While others were contracting, we saw this as the optimal chance to expand and explore what was possible.

We have brought in more labour on the engineering side, invested in R&D, and moved some of the key projects that had been sitting on the back burner forward. This included the recent launch of our new Cosolvent Injection system, which answers the need for efficiency and quality.

Investing in core staff on the service side was also one of the most critical decisions Vitalis made. Having a Vitalis service representative positioned in the location of our customer operations to look after the machines has made a significant difference. If you own a machine in Denmark it will be serviced by a Vitalis technician, not a third party.

There is also a big focus on Vitalis’ ancillary team, because the extraction machine is only one piece of a complex puzzle. Our customers work with up to 30 vendors to put their lab together. For them, it could be the first or second time they’ve done it. We’ve done it hundreds of times, so we can truly help them make those right selections with trusted vendors that have the same quality and safety standards as we do.

We have a dedicated team in-house looking after everything that Vitalis doesn’t make, which has simplified the entire buying process for customers and given them the confidence in what they are investing in.

What do you see in your crystal ball for the industry?

Innovating new product that continues to raise the bar for our customers is very important to Vitalis, as is opening up new geographic markets and parallel industries. Buyers in the GMP space have evolved their mindset to those of the likes of seasoned manufactures like ‘Coke’.

We are starting to see companies requesting preventative maintenance once a quarter or once a month. This is because companies are bringing in experts from other industries, where quality control levels are at a premium. Those who have built pharmaceutical factories, or teams who have put together manufacturing plants, are bringing their thinking with them and applying that regimented approach to cannabis.

For the manufacturers who aren’t thinking that way, it could be difficult to compete with those who are. Truly successful EU GMP is where the regulator, the entrepreneur, and the licensing body are communicating and coming to an understanding of how the market thrives.

This is essential in getting good regulation in place that is going to work in a cannabis market. In the not-too-distant future, we can also expect to see the innovation that’s come about in the cannabis space to drive other industries forward. One of the areas we have been heavily involved in is waste-free across a range of product lines.