Chem Tales: Cannabis Shark Tank

Six hopefuls pitched their pot concepts to a panel of judges in hopes of netting a $10,000 prize.

On Thursday night, no one mistook Libby Cooper for Dallas Mavericks owner (and Shark Tank investor) Mark Cuban.

Quick to ask insightful questions of those pitching their cannabis businesses, the former Creative Director of Eaze and current Co-CEO of Space Coyote was a far cry from the stern, suited figures who often populate the ABC series on which inventors ask rich people to fund their ideas.

Instead, Cooper and fellow judges Kevin Hale (Y Combinator), Jonathan Small (Green Entrepreneur), cannabis writer Elise McDonough, and Flower Co.’s Tony Diepenbrock and Ted Lichtenberger appeared engaged and supportive as they quizzed various speakers on the viability of their concepts.

Hosted by Flower Co. — a business looking to bring the Costco concept of wholesale prices to cannabis — the event was held last Thursday in a parlor room at San Francisco’s Hotel Zeppelin. Mingling around a Skee-Ball game, a pool table, and a wall decked out in basketball hoops, freshmen of the industry engaged seasoned veterans over slices of pizza.

Following that were some introductory remarks from Lichtenberger chronicling his path to Flower Co.

Emphasizing the importance of actually meeting and engaging with local cultivators, Lichtenberger’s journey is a fairly typical case for the younger generation now currently launching operations in the legalized cannabis space. There was a lot of driving around — 100,000 miles by his count, over the course of several years — and an immediate need to revise some elements of his plan following the success of Proposition 64 in 2016.

With his feet now on solid ground, Lichtenberger and his colleagues at Flower Co. decided the time was right to offer a package that included a $10,000 investment as well as incubation and support for the winning pitch. The six companies chosen to present — no information was provided as to how they were selected or the full size of the initial applicant pool — reflected a diverse array of concepts.

First up were two former Airbnb employees pitching Berbix, software that captures driver licenses and other forms of identification for a simplified dispensary check-in process. They also suggested the feasibility of using their product as a way for dispensaries to share information on “bad actors” through the network. Limited to five minutes and a brief question-and-answer period with the judges, one could sense favorites emerging based simply on how engaged the judges were during the latter portion.

Such was the case for Mathew Pasqual, whose Altogether Marketplace Solutions was ultimately declared the winner. It’s not entirely clear what precisely Pasqual is selling, but the basic idea revolves around increased sales for brands at events. The holder of a license that permits his company to sell cannabis on-site at events, it’s somewhat difficult to distinguish if the judges were more excited for the pitch itself or simply Pasqual’s access to coveted authorization.

Regardless, the selection of Altogether for the grand prize seems pertinent given that some of the most polished concepts — including Entrc, which designed a native app that, in part, allows farmers to scan the barcodes on their plants — were, for lack of a better term, perhaps too “inside baseball” for the marquee honors.

While the presenters were varied in race, gender, and age, a few common themes bound the majority of their concepts together. One was data collection, an inevitable yet troublesome development that is sure to dominate headlines in the industry in the years to come. Another was the simple fact that four of the six presenters were offering technology solutions. It’s likely no coincidence that the two outliers — the social equity-inspired organization the People’s Dispensary and the locally sourced “cannabis ingredients” company Potli — were two of the more engaging presentations.

In a quote provided to SF Weekly, Flower Co. co-founder Ted Diepenbrock elaborated on the judges’ choice.

“Three weeks ago at Hempcon, Mathew’s client had over 100 people in line — his product works,” he said. “As more events are licensed for on-site consumption, Mathew’s market only gets bigger and we are excited to welcome him into the Flower Co. family.”

As a concept, Flower Co.’s event is something the industry could use more of. With so many avenues for improvement, there is sure to be a glut of ideas eager to find their way to receptive ears. However, understanding who is allowed to enjoy such opportunities is an equally important facet of this venture. With regulated cannabis overwhelmingly homogenized in favor of the rich, white, and technology-oriented, providing transparent reasoning for wins will be critical if cannabis truly wants to distinguish itself from the Mark Cubans of the world.

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