When Michal Takac lost three fingers in an industrial accident, the idea that he could ever be grateful for his misfortune was unthinkable. Yet now, 11 years on, Michal feels blessed. “The catastrophe led me to a new life and opened the door to an amazing opportunity,” he says.
It took a determined fire crew an hour to free Michal Takac from the industrial printing machine that had trapped his hand at the Bristol factory where he worked. His situation was dire. Not only had he lost his index, ring and little fingers on his left hand, but he was also looking at years of surgery, physio and post-traumatic stress. It got even bleaker when he was made redundant and was forced to enter into a four-year battle to claim compensation.
Through terrible misfortune, Michal – who moved to the UK from his native Czech Republic in 2004 – suddenly found himself in an awful position. Unsurprisingly, this chain of events, together with the intense hospital treatment he was receiving, soon took its toll. “I became ill in my head,” he says. “You can’t control how your brain reacts to trauma. Heavy painkillers and long periods of anaesthesia also made me confused and vulnerable. I’m fine now, but it took me a long time to learn how to cope.”
Today things are different. Michal is not only coping – he’s thriving. In early 2018, he appeared on Dragons’ Den and secured an investment from Jenny Campbell for his business, Carun, which produces organic hemp products. So how did a traumatised, prescription-drug-addled patient transform himself into such a determined, positive-thinking successful entrepreneur?
Michal believes that things started to turn around for him when a friend brought him a gift from the Czech Republic. “My friend brought me some hemp ointment from home and suggested I try using it to ease my pain,” he says. “My damaged hand was giving me discomfort and I was getting through far too many pain killers – which was not healthy for me and were causing nasty side effects. I soon found that the ointment, along with some hemp tea, was much more effective. After using them I was soon able to move my hand more easily, the pain went away, and I didn’t feel down and confused like I had with the painkillers. I became more sociable too.”
Hemp is a variety of Cannabis, but the ointment and the tea that Michal was using were not getting him high – their tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content (the chemical that gets you high) was almost zero. Instead, Michal believes that the other cannabinoid compounds were working their wonders. But at the time he didn’t much care about the science – he just knew he was feeling better.
A little later, he began to look into hemp and its properties, trying to understand how it could have had such a positive effect. Impressed by what he discovered, and finding that the ointment and tea were still working for him, he decided to launch a business selling hemp products in 2013. “I began to think that I could spread the word and help other people like me,” he says.
All guns blazing, he piled £200,000 into his business, renting a warehouse and taking on three full-time employees. “I had no business knowledge whatsoever,” he says. “I’d watched Dragons’ Den a few times and thought I was an expert. Let’s go big, I thought! My warehouse in Somerset was 10,000sq-ft and had just three pallets of products in it. I had zero orders. Most of what I did was wrong. Getting bad advice didn’t help – my accountants suggested I get the warehouse and teed up a deal with its owner – but it was my fault too.”
Seeing his mistake, Michal did not give up. Instead, he moved to London and opened up a shop in Twickenham selling hemp products. Sadly, that did not take off as he would have liked either. “The shop wasn’t very successful,” he admits. “My overheads were too high and I realised that I didn’t want to end up just being a small-shop owner – that wasn’t my long-term goal.”
He stayed positive however, closed his shop and started to expand the business-to-business side of his operation. Still hugely motivated, he applied to Dragons’ Den and before long he was on the show, telling Jenny Campbell and friends his story, revealing how hemp had changed his life and arguing that it could do the same for millions of others. Michal’s business plan – to focus on distributing high-quality organic hemp products to big-name retailers – was met with some scepticism. Michal is now working closely with government, advising how these products could be used more widely, but as far as medical science is concerned, hemp’s effectiveness is, as yet, only partially proven. Scientists agree that certain compounds in hemp do act on cannabinoid receptors in our cells, which alter the action of neurotransmitters in our brains. They also agree that cannabinoids are effective at treating certain types of childhood epilepsy and they can alleviate the pain associated with Multiple Sclerosis. But not enough research has been done for Michal – or anyone else – to make any concrete medical claims when marketing hemp products. And it’s unlikely that the multimillion-pound research required to remove doubt will ever be carried out, since it is impossible to patent naturally occurring compounds such as those found in hemp. Without that incentive, big medical research companies will probably steer clear. “We cannot make any medical claims as a company,” confirms Michal. “I personally believe that CBD [one of the compounds found in hemp] is the key ingredient. I also believe that hemp’s cannabinoids work together in synergy with our own endocrine system. However, the company can only market our products as food supplements or as skincare products.”
This did not put Jenny Campbell off. She saw huge potential in Michal’s company, especially seeing as cannabis will soon be legalised in the UK for medical use – which will potentially lead to exciting new opportunities. And with Jenny’s backing it’s now all systems go for Michal and Carun, as they work to get their products into as many suitable outlets as possible. “Carun is now stocked in Holland & Barrett, Planet Organic, and hundreds of independent pharmacies, with other health and well being chains coming onstream in the coming months,” says Michal. “We want to educate consumers and help as many people to manage pain, as possible. We believe that our hemp products have lots of potential medical uses – pain relief, epilepsy treatment and autism management to name just three. Our product is market-leading in terms of the quality of the raw materials used. And, as we control the hemp farm in the Czech Republic, we control the supply chain, which we think makes our product superior to our competitors. We believe it can change lives and it has no side effects. ”
When Michal Takac was so terribly injured on that fateful day, he had no idea what lay ahead. After a tough battle to regain his health, he suffered yet more adversity after making two serious business blunders – first the warehouse, then the shop. But he fought on. He learned from his errors, evolved his thinking, changed his business model and took his idea onto national TV. Michal took a negative situation and, as the best entrepreneurs always do, turned it into an exciting business opportunity.