Peter Crock is CEO of Cann Group, one of Australia’s leading medicinal cannabis companies. He helps cultivate high quality crops to improve the lives of people in pain.
Where do marijuana and medicine meet? As CEO of Cann Group, a medicinal cannabis start-up headquartered at La Trobe’s Bundoora campus, alumnus Peter Crock (Bachelor of Agricultural Sciences with Honours, 1987) is growing the answer.
‘Medicinal cannabis is a fascinating new field. It offers a once-in-a-century opportunity to establish a whole new industry in Australia, with a product that will make a profound difference to people’s lives,’ Peter says.
Cann Group cultivates cannabis to treat a range of diseases and medical conditions, from chronic pain and epilepsy, to cancer symptoms and the side-effects of chemotherapy treatments. But if, back in the late 1980s, you’d asked Peter whether he’d one day be involved in the new frontier of medicinal agriculture, he’d have reacted with surprise.
‘A number of people have commented, “Crocky, you’re the last person we expected to grow drugs!”’ he laughs.
So how did Peter become the cannabis industry leader he is today? By taking everything in his stride – including a life-or-death experience that remains a miracle to him today.
Agricultural science, ‘the best generalist degree you can do’
Despite not growing up on a farm himself, a career in agriculture always appealed to Peter.
‘Historically, my family was off the land near Yass in NSW. We went back to the 1800s as graziers, so I’ve always had an interest in agriculture.’
On finishing high school at Melbourne’s Xavier College, he enrolled to study agricultural science at La Trobe’s Bundoora campus.
‘At the time, La Trobe was the lead institution for agricultural sciences and offered the preeminent course in Australia. There were high-powered academics working there, who’d taken the degree in a different direction by incorporating computing and statistics subjects,’ he says.
‘The course structure meant you could do an industry placement and also specialise in an Honours year. I had a strong research mindset, so I spent my Honours year working on a livestock production computer modelling project at the State Research Farm in Werribee, under Dr Kaye Webber, one of the early graduates from La Trobe's agriculture degree.’
After uni, Peter worked on an animal drug delivery project by Captec. This early career choice would prove invaluable when the company was acquired by agriculture chemical pioneers, Nufarm.
The year I joined Nufarm, the total group turnover was $150 million. By the early 2000s, they’d become a $3 billion turnover company and one of the top 10 agricultural chemical companies in the world. It was amazing to be part of that expansion.
Peter enjoyed a 28-year career at Nufarm and completed an MBA while working there. He advanced from animal health R&D, to heading up IT at a national level, then onto global responsibilities. ‘This century’ he moved into marketing, mergers and acquisitions, and finally into the licensing and commercialisation of new agribusiness technologies.
He credits his La Trobe degree for preparing him for such a varied career.
‘I always say agricultural sciences is one of the best generalist degrees you can do. It gave me a platform to work in a number of areas and put my hand up to whatever opportunity arose. Of the 30+ people who graduated in my year, we’ve all ended up in different areas of agribusiness and beyond.
Stepping up to CEO and reconnecting with La Trobe
Peter’s strengths in building strong teams and taking new ag-tech to market brought him to the attention of Cann Group’s Board in 2016. It was the same year the Federal Government had legalised pathways for patients to access medicinal cannabis, and the race to cultivate high quality crops had begun.
He accepted the role of CEO and began looking for collaborators to build the company’s research capability. La Trobe’s AgriBio facility, a centre for agricultural biosciences research, immediately caught his interest.
‘I was aware of the AgriBio development, so I tapped back into my La Trobe connections. Cann Group moved onto campus in late 2017 and we’ve grown from four staff to a team of 67 employees.’
But only six months into his leadership role at Cann Group, Peter’s health took a dramatic downturn.
We’d just applied for our licence to research and cultivate medicinal cannabis, and a month later I was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma.
A radiology scan showed Peter had 50 lesions on his lung, liver and spine. When his brother, a plastic surgeon, came to see him in hospital, Peter knew things were bad.
‘He’d been operating ‘til one in the morning. He came in at 2am to see me and he was in tears. He said, “They’re going to talk positively about this, but in reality your prognosis is zero.”’
Surviving cancer, with thanks to a revolutionary test
Peter was fortunate to access a breakthrough melanoma liquid biopsy test developed at the Olivia Newton John Cancer Research Institute, home of La Trobe’s School of Cancer Medicine. The test method meant he could receive a result in four hours instead of the usual 14-day wait time, speeding up treatment decisions.
From there, Peter was put onto an immunotherapy trial. He received four double doses of cancer treatment drugs, three weeks apart.
At that time, I lost 15 kilos in four weeks. It was seriously touch and go, a real ding-dong battle in terms of which was more advanced, the cancer or me?
‘Immunotherapy targets the melanocytes, which are cells that make the pigment melanin. My oncologist knew the treatment was working when I lost all of the pigment in my hair, hence my white eyebrows.’
Then, in February 2017, Peter received some extraordinary news.
‘I was told my lung and spine were clear and my liver had three lesions that were reducing. The treatment had worked. It was just incredible.’
For Peter, fighting cancer was a test of his faith, but also proof of his optimism.
‘For me, it’s a miracle I’m here. There’s no doubt my faith was an important part of it. But I’m sure that having a positive mindset was important, too.’
Firsthand lessons about acute pain
For Peter, fighting cancer affirmed the significance of his work as Cann Group CEO in helping people living with chronic pain.
‘I tell people now I dipped my toe in the cancer side of things – though others would say I threw myself in the deep end,’ he quips.
Throughout his illness, Peter experienced levels of pain that many medicinal cannabis users live with every day. He felt pain from an arthritic shoulder, as well as from a fracture in his spine, both of which were amplified by his immune system’s increased activity.
I ended up with rheumatic pain and back pain I’d never had before, so I was on opiates. For me, they were just fleeting symptoms, but it’s given me insight into the impact medicinal agriculture can have and what people deal with, in terms of chronic pain. I think it probably happened for a reason.
So, did he get to sample Cann Group’s medicinal cannabis?
‘I looked closely at cannabis in relation to how it sat with melanoma. Interestingly, cannabinoids are antagonistic to immunotherapy, so it’s not something I will be trying.’
A second chance and a healthy outlook
Today, Peter’s cancer is in remission and he’s down to fortnightly immunotherapy treatments. He’s relishing being in the CEO’s seat and leveraging Cann Group’s ‘first-mover advantage’.
‘We were the first Australian medicinal cannabis company to receive research and cultivation licences in March 2017. More importantly, we received the first permit to cultivate in May 2017 – a full 12 months ahead of the next to be issued in Australia,’ he says.
‘Cann was also the first medicinal cannabis company to list via an initial public offering (IPO) with the ASX, and continues to be a strong performer.’
Looking ahead, Cann Group’s primary focus is to supply product for Australian patients. They've started providing cannabis resin to a patient access program run by the Victorian Government’s Department of Health and Human Services. And with a large-scale cultivation facility under construction and new product lines underway, the company looks set to become a global competitor.
It’s just one of many budding opportunities in agriculture that await new graduates. Peter advises those thinking of a career in agriculture to embrace the possibilities.
Agriculture is such an exciting area. It’s going to be instrumental in feeding the world and working through the issue of climate change. Opportunities are going to come in areas you wouldn’t have dreamt of. Had I dreamt that this would ever happen? No. Will it change lives? I hope it will.
Last updated: 2nd August 2019