By Mike Montgomery
Getting a Rocky Mountain high may soon be legal in all 50 states, which means pot is fast on its way to becoming just another industry, albeit an exploding one. And as the marijuana industry comes aboveground, it’s opening a huge space for the usual disruptors — tech startups and data analytics firms.
Startups like Eaze in California began with medical marijuana, using technology to provide on-demand marijuana deliveries via an app. Eaze also provides data to help retailers predict supply and demand. MJ Freeway offers an agricultural tracking product that helps marijuana license holders manage their businesses and comply with regulations in Colorado. Both companies can be scaled up easily as more states come online with recreational use.
Dozens of other startups are devoted to finding ways to use technology to improve mundane tasks, including human resources, transportation, regulatory compliance, insurance and mobile payments.
On the analytics side, Cannabase is a Colorado-based wholesale market that treats marijuana just like any other commodity. It provides real-time market insights to wholesale growers and retailers, helping them anticipate market trends, price changes and volume fluctuations in both the medical and recreational markets. Cannabase also provides analytics to advertisers looking to market to growers and dispensaries. “Data-driven operations are the ones most likely to survive,” says Jennifer Beck, Cannabase co-founder.
Beck is talking about when marijuana is legalized across the U.S. Right now, it is still a Schedule 1 drug, regulated in the same manner as cocaine and heroin. But a trio of new bills proposed by members of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus in the House of Representatives brings federal legalization one step closer. The Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act is self-explanatory, while the other bills pertain to pot-industry taxes and reforms to banking and research regulations.
Although it’s legal for recreational use in just a handful of states, marijuana already is the fastest-growing industry on the planet, according to Arcview Market Research’s 2017 report on the marijuana market. Sales hit $6.7 billion in 2016 — a 34 percent jump from the previous year. Arcview expects the legal marijuana market in North America to be nearly $23 billion by 2021 — all without federal legalization.
Those are the kinds of numbers that draw venture capital. The total amount of capital raised by cannabis companies in 2015-2016 was more than $2 billion, up 45 percent from the previous year, according to Arcview, which itself has invested $118 million in more than 145 companies.
Another cannabis VC company is Poseidon Asset Management, which has more than $15 million invested in technology firms like Headset and Wurk. Poseidon invests mostly in ancillaries — genetic research, biotech, agtech and, of course, data analytics. “The industry is evolving and that’s where technology companies come into play,” says Emily Paxhia, managing director of Poseidon Asset Management. “It’s being powered by people who are entrepreneurial in spirit and willing to participate when it’s still a little more high-risk.”
When legalization happens — and it will — companies with access to big data will have a big advantage in the multibillion-dollar market. As legalization spreads, prices will decline and the number of products will explode, making branding and marketing vital. Big data in particular is necessary to gain insight into the potential of the pot industry. “Data allows people to make informed decisions, track trends, merchandise products and advertise effectively,” Paxhia says. “From a regulatory standpoint, this is critical to demonstrate the evolution of the industry.”
Right now, the entire legal-marijuana industry is a somewhat unknown space, but soon it will be filled with unlimited data on sales, markets and consumer behavior. “The rest of the business and innovation world is infatuated with data, and there is no reason for cannabis to be the exception,” Paxhia says.