Jazz Shaper: David Kirby

Posted on 26 March 2022

Elliot Moss

Welcome to the Jazz Shapers Podcast from Mishcon de Reya.  What you are about to hear was originally broadcast on Jazz FM however the music has been cut due to rights issues.

Welcome to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss, bringing the shapers of the business world together with the musicians shaping Jazz, Soul and Blues.   My guest today is David Kirby, Co-Founder and CEO of Avida Global, a medicinal cannabis company.  When David, a classically trained pianist, realised he could follow his passion for Jazz piano and have a lot of fun but be very poor, he switched direction and after working in IT consultancy and with Shell, looking after global projects, David was drawn to the more agile world of venture capitalism, working with technology startups.  But it was at a fundraising day for a Canadian cannabis company that David and his soon to be Co-Founder, Carl Haffner, realised as David says, “The cannabis company knew no more about growing cannabis than we did.”  After researching the market, they felt the timing was right and tried to persuade Carl’s father-in-law, one of Colombia’s cattle farmers, to set aside some his land to grow cannabis – and we’ll find out his initial reaction very shortly.  Nevertheless, Avida Global was launched in the summer of 2018 with a dedicated growing facility in the north-east of Colombia near the Venezuelan border, producing 40 kilograms of medicinal grade cannabis oil per month, the global medical wellbeing and cosmeceutical markets – there’s a word. 

Lovely to have you here.  This is a business which is still in its baby days, it’s still kind of a toddler, as it were, and yet it’s growing super-fast.  Tell me that day which I mentioned earlier, that day when you were like there looking at funding raising and went hold on a second, we can do that.  Tell me why it didn’t fall apart and why we’re here talking and you’re well-funded and you’ve actually made it happen. 

David Kirby

So first of all, I’d say we’re more like an adolescent than a toddler in terms of where we are…

Elliot Moss

Okay.

David Kirby

…but I’ll come to that.  But yeah, in terms of how it didn’t fall apart, you know my colleague, Carl, rang his father-in-law and said you know, can we grow a medicinal cannabis on your land and of course his father-in-law comes from, he’s Colombian and he’s lived through the history of Colombia and he just put the phone down and said, “No!” but he’s a very smart businessman, he read the newspapers, did some research, looked on the internet, found out what the Colombian Government were doing around regulation and the fantastic opportunity in medicinal cannabis and next day picked the phone up and said, “Yes” and that was the start of it really.  And then next we were on a flight to Colombia.

Elliot Moss

And at that moment in time, you had been – so I’ve looked at your history – you know, proper hard consultancy roles, serious, I will call them institutional roles but obviously you know people are very entrepreneurial in these roles, many, many people and now you run your own show.  That’s quite a shift but was it something that you had contemplated over many, many years of working?  And therefore it wasn’t, you know, some people say oh it was an epiphany, was it more of a at some point I’m just going to do this?

David Kirby

Yeah.  No, I mean, I’ve never thought of it like that.  What I did do is spot an opportunity when you see one and I’ve spent years working with startup businesses and you know helping them grow etcetera and you know a good business when you see one and this was a fantastic opportunity and it was industry where there was some questionable people in the industry and so, to set up a business that actually does it properly was a great opportunity and one not to be resisted and initially I was going to be part-time doing it, help set it up but it just became so successful that I was quickly 100%, 120% of my time and it’s been great fun. 

Elliot Moss

I just want to take you back to Colombia and you land in Colombia, you meet your partner’s father-in-law, you go and see the land.  What was your sense then?  Were you sizing things up or were you quite relaxed and just going with the flow?  You know, how nervous and how structured were you in your thinking then versus how open were you to what might evolve?

David Kirby

I think from where we are now, I look back and probably quite naïve really in terms of what we we’re doing, I mean it was a sense of excitement, I’d never been to Latin America before, let alone Colombia.  It is a stunningly beautiful country, I mean one of the most beautiful countries in the world and where we are is right at where the Andes end and it is just stunning and every time I go back, I still have to pinch myself because it’s so beautiful but it was really just a getting to know Colombia, you know, there’s lots of regulation we have to go through.  The first thing we did was get ourselves a lawyer in Bogota, Raul, who has now become a personal friend, you know, he’s great, he guided us through the regulation, getting all the licences which took us 18 months to get those and then gradually established a team in Colombia.  The first guys we got was a lovely, well a great friend now, Carlos Orbegozo, who comes from the pharmaceutical background and then Ricardo Richie who is our master grower.  So, it’s a bit like the wine industry where you have someone that understands the crop and I mean he’s just an amazing individual, well both of them are, and they helped us design what is a world-class facility.

Elliot Moss

And now, looking back over that time and you talk about these people, I’ve listened to you and to other people about the family that you’ve created, the Avida family.  What is that binds them now because I know the ambition is to be a properly integrated, you know from growing all the way through to selling and merchandising and so on, where do they all fit in this journey that you all on?

David Kirby

I suppose that we’re all on this adventure together and all share the same sense of purpose, you know, our strapline for the business is about quality of life and you know it is an amazing plant in terms of what it can do and help people, you know, both on the wellbeing side but on the medical side as well and, you know, we just all got on as friends, you know, we had this very clear vision of what we wanted to do, what we wanted to create and everybody was on board with that and it is fantastic because in Colombia we talk about the Avida family, we’re 65 people now in Colombia and everyone that joins effectively joins the family as it were and the same in the UK and Europe as well with our team here. 

Elliot Moss

And in terms of team, obviously you’ve worked for many, many years, 20-30 years before you moved into this and all these different roles I alluded to, people always talk about the importance of the team and collaboration and all those other things and it’s very, it’s sort of easy talk.  In your experience, what is that you tried to create?  How do you create a team that really works because teams in startups are absolutely critical?

David Kirby

No, totally.  I mean, being a musician, I always use the analogy of the orchestra and you are effectively the conductor in this but you know within the orchestra there are people that are far better than you at their instruments, better violinists, better clarinettists, what have you but your job is to get the best out of them, bring it all together and have it all singing as one voice. 

Elliot Moss

And how do you do that, David?  You know, just a couple of things that David Kirby goes about doing in a way that ensures that that happens because again, people do use that analogy but I’m interested in what that really looks like when there’s a complex issue on the table and it’s international because you’re over here and they’re over there in Latin America?

David Kirby

Yeah.  I don’t know, my style has been sort of very egalitarian and you know I don’t like hierarchies and you know you report to me type thing so, you know there is such talent in our business and you know if you give the environment in which people can really shine, you get the best out of everybody and the team, I mean there’s loads of them that are fantastic, you know far better at all of this than I am and you know, it’s just getting everybody working together and playing to their best. 

Elliot Moss

Stay with me for much more from my guest, it’s David Kirby, he’s the Co-Founder of Avida Global and they’re in the cannabis business and it is a business that’s getting a lot bigger globally by the day.  Much more coming from his shortly but right now, we’re going to hear a taster from the Mishcon Innovation series which can be found on all the major podcast platforms.  Natasha Knight invites business founders to share their industry insights and practical advice for those of you thinking about getting into any particular industry and starting your very own thing, as David here has.  In this clip, from a conversation on the supply chain ethics and manufacturing, we hear from Flora Davidson, Co-Founder of Supply Compass, the end-to-end fashion software, changing the way that brands and manufacturers work together. 

All our former Business Shapers await you on the Jazz Shapers podcast and indeed you can hear this very programme again if you pop Jazz Shapers into your podcast platform of choice, or if you have got a smart speaker, just ask it to play Jazz Shapers and there you will find a taster of our recent shows.  But back to today, it’s David Kirby, Co-Founder and CEO of Avida Global, a medicinal cannabis company.  For those people, David, that don’t know about the qualities of cannabis – and this isn’t sort of a ‘Here’s the advert about how fantastic this thing is’ – just explain in simple language, when it became clear that you could use this plant in a way that was not going to have all the side-effects that the drug that people use would have and that could actually be used in medicinal… in medicinal ways.  I mean obviously people knew about this thousands of years ago. 

David Kirby

Yeah, well I was going to say, the glib answer is that it became clear thousands of years ago when the Chinese were using it, you know in Asia, and then in the Sixties with the draconian crackdown on drugs by the US at the time, it got classed as a narcotic, banned and I mean, in Victorian times, Victorian ladies used to go to chemists to buy cannabis then, so it’s always been known in terms of what it’s capable of but the research has really accelerated since the Nineties, there was a gentleman in Israel called Dr Raphael Mechoulam who, he was the one that discovered the endocannabinoid system, which is the system in your body which controls reactions to various things, you’ve got receptors in your body and the cannabis plant has a cannabinoid system which maps directly onto the endocannabinoid system in your body so, it can either enhance the receptors or block the receptors and he started discovering all the cannabinoids in the cannabis plant and everybody’s heard of CBD, that is just one of about 121 different cannabinoids, and they all have a different purpose, or together they can do different things from you know, anxiety, sleep deprivation, pain relief, I mean there are studies going on in long Covid, PTSD, Parkinson’s, epilepsy and so on, and I think the reason it’s not accepted as quickly now as it is, is because it’s the crossover between I suppose Eastern medicine and Western medicine, western medicine has always been single molecule, take this pill, whereas Eastern medicine has been about the whole plant extract but, you know, eventually people will get it, there’s a groundswell of research, very capable people that are driving this, both in the UK and globally as well. 

Elliot Moss

The interesting thing as an entrepreneur in this space is of course though because there’s that fight, cultural fight between it being legal, not legal, and people sort of saying, ‘oh yeah, the research, whatever’, and you know doctors not necessarily wanting to prescribe it, it means that you in a heavily regulated business and that must be right anyway for all sorts of, you know, in anything you put in your body or you put on your body, you want to make sure it’s safe.  The regulation you referred to, the eighteen months it took in Colombia and so on, how do you balance the need for creativity and to, you know, think about how you sell really interesting products, which I want you to talk about as well, with that need for also to be scrupulous and to be utterly thorough about what it is that you’re having to kind of abide by because some people may just say, ‘cor it’s just not worth the effort’ but you haven’t, you’ve gone through that and you continue to.  So, how is that you managed to do both things?

David Kirby

Well I think when we got into it, we took the decision that this was for the long-term.  There were lots of people getting into cannabis at the time, thinking, we’re called the Green Rush, thinking there’s a quick buck to be made here and lots of corners were cut and you know, those companies really aren’t around anymore and it was about building a business that had integrity, not cutting corners.  I mean we were heavily guided by Carlos and Ricardo in terms of how we should shape this business and all the processes and facilities that could put in place and you know at some times, you know I have to admit it was quite frustrating because it was taking longer than I expected but it’s been worthwhile because we just have a world-class facility now. 

Elliot Moss

And in terms of the people that have gone on the journey with you, investors, the story to them, is it relatively straightforward when you tell this and you know, you say there is a long-term play here because obviously you’ve raised a fair amount of money, there’s you know, this is capital intensive work if you’re building plants and you’re creating products and so on?  How have you found their levels of receptiveness over the last few years?

David Kirby

It’s been extremely positive.  We have a fantastic shareholder base.  Most of them have gone on the journey with us, you know reinvesting in the business.  Probably a frustration is that it’s taken longer than expected but we’re dealing with an organic product here and a very, very highly regulated market but we’re now right at a tipping point.  Countries are starting to change, both in Latin America and Europe etcetera.  We’re in full-scale production now, we’ve actually acquired some businesses as well and we’re seeing great growth in the business so, you know, there couldn’t be a better time to invest in this business as now. 

Elliot Moss

That wasn’t an advert though so, it’s… 

David Kirby

So, I’ll leave my phone number afterwards. 

Elliot Moss

Yeah, you can send your money to the following number and just put Elliot.Moss in front of and that would be great and then David and I will square it off later.

The products that you start to make, are they dictated by, and this may be an obvious question as a bit like thousands of years of knowing that cannabis kind of makes people feel better, but are they dictated by the things that they fix or are they dictated by the market that might be there for the problems, if that makes sense?  You know, where does, where does solution and problem meet in terms of how you are looking at developing the Avida Global line up?

David Kirby

I think it’s a bit of both actually so, we talk about cannabis but there are thousands and thousands of different strains so, we’ve got a lot of genetics that we grow and it can be from high THC products, which is the psychoactive side of things which is very good for work in neurotherapy or anxiety, through to high CBD or balance and there are literally thousands of different strains and so, around the world there’s lots of research going on, you know in Tel Aviv, in the UK, in Colombia, we’re involved in research in Colombia as well, looking at you know what works for what and it isn’t one size fits all, you know being a plant based solution, often it’s not one thing, it’s a whole variety of things and how you take it, volumes etcetera so, yeah. 

Elliot Moss

So, there’s no sort of science on its own in the sense that there’s a bit of an art to which product will go next because it’s important to have a product that develops followership, if you, and that it does well obviously but that says something about the things you are trying to do beyond the product itself. 

David Kirby

Yeah, I know, I mean the science is developing all the time and is becoming much, much more accurate, for example, we’re working with an American company that do DNA genetic sequencing but then they couple that together with years and years of research on cannabis and so as an individual, you know you can take a DNA test and then, you know they can say it is, you know, for this type of individual, your weight, sex, what have you, this is the amount or this is what you should take, be it a balance product of high CBD or high THC and the amount that you should take and the whole industry is in desperate need of education because there are many GPs out there that would really like to prescribe this and lots of patients asking their GPs can you prescribe this and it is largely a lack of education that they don’t know what to do or how to do it. 

Elliot Moss

As you are speaking David, it’s clear that you’ve got the macro picture sort of mapped out, role of education, role of science, importance of processes, team over there, sometimes I meet people who are at the beginning of their journey in business and they’ve had a couple of years, you’ve obviously had a full career.  Where do you sit for you in terms of that distinction between many years, seeing thousands of problems and the benefits that it brings versus very few years and almost sort of naively bumping into things, I mean, I’m not saying there’s a right or wrong but you’ve met a lot of entrepreneurs.  What’s your sense of your own view of what really works, in terms of becoming an entrepreneur?  Does it matter that it’s immediate?  Is it better that it’s thirty years later? 

David Kirby

No, I mean it’s certainly not thirty years later but, you know, it is having a clear vision, sense of purpose in terms of what you are doing.

Elliot Moss

But you’re calm as well, I mean that’s the thing I really, I mean I suppose I wanted to… you know, there’s a…

David Kirby

Talk to my wife.

Elliot Moss

Our other halves, husbands and wives who have got partners who are entrepreneurs or whatever of course have got the real story but my sense is you’re calm generally about the business.  Does that come from experience of just life as well as business?

David Kirby

I mean it’s a bit like the swan analogy I suppose, sort of gliding along the surface but you know underneath you know paddling like…  Yeah, no, it comes about through having a great team around you as well which gives you confidence that we can solve problems but you know I just have such confidence that we are on the right journey in what we’re doing and you know I’ve been in lots of businesses and worked for many, many years but you know, one I’ve never worked as hard as I have in the last three years and gone through the ups and down that I’ve been through in the last three years but it’s also the most exciting thing I’ve ever done. 

Elliot Moss

That’s pretty good, isn’t it, there’s a good piece of news for you if you’re thinking about doing your own thing.  Final chat coming up with my guest, it’s David Kirby and we’ve got a gem from OV Wright, that’s in just a moment, don’t go anywhere.

David Kirby is my Business Shaper just for a few more minutes.  You talked about being in an exciting place and you know you’ve been able to sort of construct this business from scratch and create in an image that you want to and sometimes it’s hard because people get off on the wrong footing and all those other things.  You’ve embedded, I think, a purpose, a sense of values in the business, which is… it goes to the benefits of the product but it also goes to about, I think, that looks like the benefits of you as a business on the local community and on the wider world.  Those sense of values, has that just come from what was obvious to you on this project or has that come from a sense of wanting to do something good always in your working life?

David Kirby

No, it’s a sense of wanting to give back, really and I mean when you arrive in a country like Colombia, you know you are in Bogota, it’s a you know very rich cities but you go to rural communities and it’s very poor and what we didn’t want to do was set up a business in that country without giving back so, right from the beginning, we started a local charity called The Avida Foundation, which is looking at helping with local education, local enterprise, the environment and arts and culture and we’ve sponsored a lot of things, we’ve helped rebuild a school which all the farmers’ children go to, we’ve given them satchels and then during Covid, they had a very strict lockdown in Colombia and we helped with food parcels for lots of families that had to stop working so, you know, it’s been incredibly effective but also really good and when you get out there and see the school that we’ve helped, it’s you know, it is very heart-warming to see that and how the community appreciates what you’re doing rather than just getting in there, make money and move it out the country. 

Elliot Moss

And Carl your partner’s father is still happily involved?

David Kirby

Well, he’s not involved, he’s still raising his cattle in other places now and does various other things.  He’s been hugely supportive of us and watched this whole thing grow from you know what was a cattle field to now looks like a set from James Bond.  So, no, he’s a lovely guy. 

Elliot Moss

How often do you get to go out there to Colombia?

David Kirby

So, pre-lockdown I was going out probably once every six weeks, you know, eight journeys a year but during lockdown was not able to get there and had my first trip four weeks ago, which was just fantastic to be back as, you know, they’d literally all my friends out there but, you know, we’ve gone from when I was last out there two years ago, 8 people, and now it’s 65 people and all very proud of what they’ve created. 

Elliot Moss

And in terms of the growth trajectory, where you’re shaping things going forward, are you envisaging this is going to be a rapid growth in the size of the team or is there a plan to say no, no it’s an incremental piece?  Just interested in the sorts of… you’ve talked it, we’re at tipping point.  I’m just wondering how fast scaling up is to you?

David Kirby

Yeah, so, in Colombia it will be fairly rapid growth of the team as we scale up in terms of rolling out more greenhouses etcetera.  In Europe, less so.  We have a smaller team in Europe, about 20 people, you know very, very skilled team but we’re also going through a process of acquisition as well so, you know, buying companies, you know, you take on the number of people with that so, we will still see step changes in the business as we go forward. 

Elliot Moss

Quite a lot to keep you busy then?

David Kirby

Very. 

Elliot Moss

It’s been really nice talking to you David, thank you.  Thank you for your time.  Good luck with the Big Band stuff that you’re doing currently, I hope that goes well.  You can enjoy your Horace Silver and other numbers, I am sure, other standards.  Just before I let you go though, what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

David Kirby

So, it’s a sax player called Bob Berg and probably chose it for two reasons, well three reasons actually.  One, he’s probably one of the best sax players that ever lived and it’s just a wonderful solo.  Two, I saw him at Ronnie Scott’s in a band called The Four Walls of Freedom, just before he was tragically killed in a road accident and three, when I lived in Holland for two years, it was a very difficult time of my life in sort of transition period of my life and I used to just get on my bike and cycle up to the coast with headphones on, listening to this, which was just took me away. 

Elliot Moss

That was Bob Berg with Sometime Ago, the song choice of my Business Shaper today, David Kirby.  He talked about being an egalitarian, how important it is to listen to voices, especially those of the people who are smarter than you, doing their thing and making sure they can really bring an impact to the business.  And beyond being egalitarian, he talked about the Avida family and the sense that the people that he had chosen to work with have become his friends.  And finally, he talked about having a long-term view, critical in any industry but especially a new one that is trying to make its way in the world.  That’s it from me and Jazz Shapers, have a lovely weekend.

We hope you enjoyed that edition of Jazz Shapers.  You’ll find hundreds of more guests available for you to listen to in our archive, to find out more just search Jazz Shapers in iTunes or your favourite podcast platform or head over to Mishcon.com/JazzShapers.

Headquartered in Surrey, the company runs a cultivation and production facility in North-East Colombia which produces 40kg of medicinal grade cannabis oil per month. Driven by the motto “Bringing quality to life,” the company takes great pride in sourcing sustainably produced, high-quality medicinal cannabis oils for the global medical, well-being, and cosmeceutical markets. Avida Global also owns Avida Labs, one of the largest CBD white-labelling and manufacturing facilities in Europe and Green Stem CBD, its own CBD brand and Amazon bestseller. 

Prior to founding Avida Global, David had a successful career in consulting working for companies including CapGemini, where he was on the UK board and European Management team, and  Shell as VP of Application Development and Project Management. He then went on to set up Oxalyst Partners, a Venture Capital firm, before co-founding Avida Global in 2018. Alongside his work, David is a classically trained jazz pianist, having studied music at university, and played professionally for a few years before deciding to keep it up as a serious hobby. He still performs regularly as a jazz pianist in various groups from trios to big bands.

Highlights

I’ve spent years working with startup businesses and helping them grow. You know a good business when you see one, and this [Avida] was a fantastic opportunity.

At first it was quite frustrating because it took longer than I expected. But it’s been worthwhile, because now we have a world-class facility.

We’re all on this adventure together and all share the same sense of purpose. Our strapline for the business is about quality of life.

Being a musician, I always use the analogy of the orchestra. You are effectively the conductor, but within the orchestra there are people that are far better than you at their instrument.

My style has been very egalitarian. I don’t like hierarchies.

There is such talent in our business. If you create an environment in which people can really shine, you get the best out of everybody and the team.

It’s about getting everybody working together and playing to their best.

It’s a sense of wanting to give back. In Colombia there are very rich cities, but in rural communities it can be very poor. We didn’t want to set up a business without giving back.

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