Eve & Co. Produces Cannabis for Women, by Women

Features - Cover Story

Eve & Co. CEO Melinda Rombouts transformed a 120,000-square-foot ornamental greenhouse into a 1-million-square-foot, publicly traded, international cannabis operation by harnessing an untapped market.

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March 29, 2021

Photos by Steve Galicza

Southwestern Ontario is home to some of North America’s largest commercial produce greenhouses.

But Canada’s greenhouse heartland has gained attention lately for a different kind of grower. Eve & Co., a cannabis cultivator in Strathroy, is making waves with more than its 1,000,000-square-foot greenhouse and cannabis crop. Boldly women-centric—from its leadership to its marketing to its product lines—it’s welcoming everyone to come along for the ride.

Eve & Co.’s cultivation operation includes more than 780,000 sq. ft. of flowering canopy. Pictured here is the company’s Flowering North Room.

Early Evolution

When founder and CEO Melinda Rombouts applied to become one of Canada’s first medical cannabis Licensed Producers (LPs) in 2013, her decision was practical. Rombouts operated a wholesale greenhouse that grew seasonal flowers, such as bedding plants and hanging baskets, for U.S. and Canadian markets. But the seasonal flower business had grown increasingly unpredictable and competitive. “I had this greenhouse, and I knew that we had to do something different,” she recalls.

When Canada’s Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR) program launched, Rombouts thought the new crop might keep her greenhouse business alive. The process took more than two and a half years, but Canada awarded license No. 34 to Natural MedCo Ltd., now a wholly owned subsidiary of Eve & Co. The company promotes itself as “Canada’s first female-founded licensed producer of medical marijuana.”

Many applicants struggled with Health Canada’s requirement for a qualified Quality Assurance (QA) person. But Rombouts’ greenhouse had been growing algae, such as spirulina and chlorella, for the nutraceutical market. With that background, augmented by a degree in plant biology, Rombouts qualified as Natural MedCo’s QA person.

“It was kind of a perfect storm between having the greenhouse, knowing that we needed to do something different, and being able to act as the quality assurance person,” she recalls. Rombouts, who was also the company’s original head grower, also wrote the standard operating procedures (SOPs).

At the time, Rombouts says the 120,000-square-foot greenhouse made Natural MedCo Canada’s largest LP—though other companies soon had massive projects underway. A retrofit ensued to accommodate the future medical cannabis crop—particularly in security and processing areas—with most of the work done in-house by staff. Natural MedCo blossomed with the market. A new 100,000-square-foot addition soon followed.

Rombouts says the most difficult thing in the new industry was simply the growing pains—for LPs and Health Canada. “Canada was only the second [country] to have gone with a national program, right after Uruguay. So, there were a lot of growing pains, and we were all learning together,” she recalls. Though Health Canada faced criticism, Rombouts gives credit as well: “The great thing that they did do was they ensured that we had a standard that was respected worldwide.”

A Woman’s Perspective

Look at Eve & Co.’s employee roster, and women comprise a majority. Given the company’s branding, it’s easy to assume Rombouts planned a women-centric company from the start. But she says that’s not the case. As a woman founder, she attracted a higher percentage of women applicants and naturally hired more women as a result. “We get a lot more female applicants just because they’re interested in working for a women-led company,” she says.

Both women and men hold key Eve & Co. positions, but the contrast is evident. “In Canada, the cannabis companies have about 65% male employees. We’re almost the exact opposite with 65% female employees,” Rombouts says. Women account for roughly 70% of department heads and 50% of management. A robust policy of promoting from within perpetuates those ratios.

When Canada legalized adult-use cannabis in 2018, Eve & Co. launched as an unapologetically women-centric brand. Despite the misgivings of some advisers who suggested toning down the female focus, Rombouts and team held their ground. Eve & Co.’s early marketing research revealed an untapped market in women consumers. Rombouts says most cannabis companies were focused on 25- to 35-year-old men. But while men represented more than 50% of cannabis consumers, research showed almost 60% of cannabis buyers were women. “It’s interesting that that demographic could be ignored,” Rombouts says.

With a limited marketing budget and a desire to soar, the women-led team believed they were uniquely qualified to address what they saw as the cannabis industry’s oversight, particularly regarding women who may be less experienced and comfortable with cannabis in the 35+ age group, where Rombouts says they once saw themselves. “We decided we were going to go after women like us and make sure they got from cannabis what they were looking for,” she says.

When Eve & Co. went public on the TSX Venture Exchange in 2018, Rombouts says the eye-opening experience reinforced her track. She made the rounds to pitch investment bankers in Toronto, New York and Vancouver. Out of the 200 to 300 bankers she saw in the financial roadshows, only four were women. “It was very interesting as a female CEO to always walk into a room full of men,” she says.

Though she didn’t fit the norm for the CEO of a public company, that didn’t stop her. “I guess the one thing they noted about me is that I seem genuine,” she says. “This was my company. I was building it, and my heart and soul was in it.” Eve & Co. also listed on the American OTC (over-the-counter) exchange in 2019.

Eve & Co.’s cannabinoid- infused bath bombs are produced on-site at its Strathroy facility.

Cultivation Expansion and Automation

Going public allowed Eve & Co. to build an 18-acre, state-of-the-art greenhouse expansion designed specifically for cannabis cultivation. The 780,000-square-foot greenhouse pushed the company’s total footprint over one million square feet. February 2020 saw the first plants moved into place.

The custom-designed facility emphasizes attributes to increase air circulation, control humidity, and optimize the company’s focus on sun-grown plants. With airflow in mind, Rombouts insisted on full butterfly roofs, which open like giant butterfly-wing vents. The diffused glass used in the new greenhouse expansion increases uniformity of light and temperature within.

Director of Cultivation Tom Jobson joined the company in early 2018. Like many Rombouts hires, Jobson came from an agricultural background. While many cannabis companies focused on cannabis growers who had grown in small-scale, indoor grows, Rombouts looked to growers with large-scale greenhouse or ag experience who were familiar with growing at scale. Jobson started as an IPM (integrated pest management) scout and worked his way up.

For all practical purposes, like many commercial-scale greenhouses, Eve & Co.’s greenhouse is one large production space. The older greenhouses, now being retrofitted with new systems, house a clone room and two vegetative rooms.

The 18-acre expansion has north and south “flower rooms” that run 11 acres and 7 acres, respectively, with a combined capacity for 272,000 flowering plants at a time. “We do have it divided into 10 sections, but it is all open,” Jobson says. The emphasis is on natural sunlight, but that is supplemented by high-pressure sodium (HPS) lighting during cloudy weather and short winter days on a limited, as-needed basis.

There’s unmistakable appreciation in Jobson’s voice as he talks about the fully automated facility. Beyond the butterfly venting, additional features include a boiler system that drives environmental controls. A water reclamation system reclaims, treats, and recirculates excess water from a four-zone fertigation system. Carbon dioxide captured from the boilers enriches plants with CO2.

Data is captured and analyzed at every turn. “It’s really allowed us to dial in the nutrients that we’re supplying to the plant. It’s really optimized plant health and really increasing cannabinoids and terpenes and all the things that our customers are looking for,” Jobson says. A high-pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC) machine allows in-house testing to ensure harvests hit optimal levels.

Twelve to 15 strains stay in rotation at a time, with 25 available in the company’s genetic bank. Jobson is always interested in new genetics: “The biggest thing is the big three: yields, cannabinoids and terpene profile.”

“With everything from start to finish, we’re trying to always be proactive with the plants and never reactive,” Jobson says. A strict IPM program of biologicals and spraying focuses on prevention. “From the way we’ve minimalized any problems with our plants, you know it has paid off,” he says.

As the leader of the cultivation team, Jobson prioritizes strict production planning, scheduling and communication. Every strain in production operates on a different schedule, driven by sales and sales channel. Communication within the cultivation team and between the team and other departments is critical to production plans. “We’re making sure we’re not just growing cannabis to grow cannabis, that we have a detailed plan in place and make sure we’re sticking to that,” he says.

Eve & Co. keeps clones for home growers safe during shipment using special containers that maintain plants’ vegetative state.

Product Lines and Personas

Canada’s first wave of recreational products, often called Cannabis 1.0, was limited to combustible cannabis, oils, plants and seeds. Each province determined what it would allow. Eve & Co. 1.0 offerings include dried flower, pre-roll five-packs, and clones for home growers. Only the province of Newfoundland and Labrador allows clone shipments to date, but the team expects provincial distribution will eventually expand. Careful considerations went into shipping procedures. Eve & Co. designed and created special shipping containers that include a small light to maintain the clone’s vegetative state and ensure its safekeeping during travel.

Canada’s second phase of adult-use cannabis opened the door in 2019 for edibles, beverages and similar products. In November 2020, Eve & Co. launched its first Cannabis 2.0 product and was first to market with what the team says has been a huge hit: bath bombs.

Kelsey Jobson, the company’s director of product management, describes the bombs as a perfect match for Eve & Co. customers. “We were looking for products that specifically spoke to women who maybe aren’t necessarily as experienced with cannabis, who could really benefit from all of the wonderful properties of the plant,” she says.

The single-use bath bombs pack 200 mg of cannabinoids. Kelsey Jobson says most competing products now on the market offer half that. Eve & Co.’s bath bomb SKUs include:

  • The Boss – a balanced, citrusy bomb with 100 mg THC and 100 mg CBD.
  • The Dreamer – a top-selling lavender and chamomile bomb, also with a 1:1 ratio.
  • The Lover – a THC-dominant, cinnamon-peppermint, pre-Valentine’s release that promises to “tingle all of your senses.”
  • The Optimist – a CBD-only option set to join the trio this spring.

The personas reflected in the names continue throughout Eve & Co.’s marketing, designed to help inexperienced consumers know what to expect across all product lines. “We converted [strain names] into what we felt were really strong archetypes that represented the desired effect of that specific product,” Kelsey Jobson says. Marketing and product information always includes strain names, as well, for consumers who prefer to identify with those monikers. For example, if someone’s searching for Delahaze on the Ontario Cannabis Store (OCS) website, Eve and Co.’s The Boss branded flower will come up in the results.

Eve & Co.’s fan base transcends women. “The women who get to know and love our brands go into the store. And if they’re thinking of something for their spouse, their partner, their friend, they’re aware of our brand and the quality of it. So a lot of our customers that we hear from are not women,” Kelsey Jobson says.

Eve & Co. products and partnerships must meet certain criteria. “We want to make sure that they’re female-focused. We want to enhance the lives of women through the use of cannabis … We want it to be self-care and not have that guilt or stigma attached to it, because we find that that’s a huge barrier, especially for women,” she says.

Upcoming 2.0 products include a cannabis-infused, non-alcoholic wine substitute developed with Ontario vineyard and winery Colio Estate Wines, maker of Girls’ Night Out Wines. The company is also partnering with U.S.-based Dr. Kerklaan Therapeutics for Canadian “extra-strength” THC-enhanced versions of Kerklaan’s topical formulations.

Blackberry Gum, week 6 of flowering

Inter-Provincial to International Markets

Logistics of the Canadian market are an exercise in diversity. “It’s challenging because every province runs a little bit differently,” Rombouts says. Everything wholesale in Ontario runs through the state-owned OCS, while Newfoundland and Labrador’s privately owned stores operate very differently. That regulatory diversity is proving valuable as Eve & Co. moves beyond Canadian borders.

In early 2020, the company received its European Union (EU) Certificate of Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) Compliance through Natural MedCo. Out of approximately 600 Canadian LPs, Rombouts estimates only eight or nine have EU GMP certification. The company sent both scientific and commercial shipments to Germany last year.

“We basically have two aspects of our company,” Rombouts explains. On one hand is the Cannabis 2.0 women-centric line. The other side is the flower- and tincture-focused EU market made possible by the EU GMP certification. As a result, the company has a full government affairs, regulatory affairs and quality assurance team devoted to EU shipments.

“It’s a huge opportunity, where Canada is an oversupplied market,” Rombouts says. “So, it really opens a world for us.” And the bath bombs and topicals will be ready as EU markets open to broader lines.

“People have recognized us in countries like Germany as being a female-focused brand. Some Israel companies are very interested in a female-focused brand as well. So, I think that it’s a unique opportunity for us to bring a unique product to the foreign markets. That’s where it becomes really exciting,” she says. Though not part of the EU, Rombouts says Israel requires EU GMP certification or equivalent—and it imports about twice as much cannabis as Germany. Consumer demand in both countries seems to focus on high-THC products now, Tom Jobson adds.

Looking back on the perfect storm that swept her into the cannabis industry, Rombouts becomes reflective. “It wasn’t apparent to everybody how big this was going to become in Canada. They really weren’t sure of how the program was going to go,” she says. “At the time, there was only medical. There wasn’t recreational, so that would have been limited opportunity. But the further we went along, the more we realized that it was a much bigger opportunity than anybody really recognized.” And the perfect storm that is Eve & Co. continues to grow, abroad and at home.

Jolene Hansen is a Minnesota-based freelance writer specializing in the cannabis, hemp and horticulture industries. Reach her at jolene@jolenehansen.com.