With less than eight months to go until recreational cannabis legalization rolls out across Canada, many of those looking to take a bite out of the impending industry are already well on their way – thanks, in large part, to programs like Leaf Forward.
The country’s first cannabis business accelerator launched its inaugural sessions this fall; providing a dozen early-stage cannabis-focused businesses with mentorship, networking, and learning opportunities from industry leaders like Canopy Growth Corp., Cannabis Wheaton and Ample Organics.
Jeffrey Stewart was one of the 12 eager entrepreneurs in that first cohort. His business, Ovandi, is developing a smart vaporizer.
“We’re designing a product that basically brings the technological experience of a smart home device to cannabis,” says Ovandi, adding that the product will be marketed to those who are new to cannabis or simply new to vaporizing.
Stewart says the device will come equipped with a mobile app, through which users can input their cannabis product information. This will allow the vaporizer to personalize each consumption experience by “controlling and optimizing temperatures” depending on what form or strain of cannabis users desire.
“Our thought was: how can we lower the barriers to entry for those who know nothing about cannabis or who are brand new to vaporization? So, we designed an experience around doing that.”
The next step was figuring out how to turn that idea into a full-fledged business, which is where Leaf Forward came in. Stewart called the program “very interesting.”
“We got to sit down with people already in the industry and get feedback on our tech,” he says. “It helped give us a core of what to focus on.”
This is music to Alex Blumenstein’s ears. The Leaf Forward founder says the accelerator is geared toward helping budding cannabis businesses like Stewart’s find focus and, from there, build the foundation for a stronger nascent industry.
“A lot of what we’re trying to do at this point is build up the ecosystem around the cannabis start-up scene,” says Blumenstein. “We need to educate people both inside and outside the cannabis space on what opportunities exist and build up a network so that there’s continuing innovation within it.”
During a separate interview this past summer, Blumenstein told Civilized that the age of Canada's cannabis market being dominated by licensed producers is coming to an end. Therefore, now is the time to start preparing entrepreneurs for that new cannabis industry, which is right around the corner.
“While it’s unclear right now what kinds of new products and services will get involved as we don’t have fully-formed regulations yet – it will obviously depend on what distribution looks like and that will depend on each province – we want to help foster that innovation starting now and going forward," he said at the time.
While the takeaway for each entrepreneur from the program inevitably varied, Blumenstein believes all participants received "actionable advice."
“Say there’s a business that’s looking to serve licensed cannabis producers; the fact that they actually got to sit down and speak with representatives of LPs or people who have worked closely with LPs really helped them make that pivot to actually serve the market they’re looking to serve,” says Blumenstein.
“Participants also had the chance to connect with other entrepreneurs who have either sold products inside the industry or outside of it ... When you sit down with somebody who has done this before, you get a really good feel of what it’s like to be an entrepreneur and how to get over some of those [classic] challenges.”
One of the most common difficulties in starting a new business, of course, is figuring out how to raise the money to fund it. This is, in fact, the focus of a new Leaf Forward program aimed at helping entrepreneurs navigate the financial challenges of entering the cannabis industry.
The six-week ‘Sprint to Pitch’ program will help prospective business leaders “open doors” for themselves, says Blumenstein.
“The first track of the program is the legal/finance side, so it’s all about about understanding... how the actual process of raising money works. The second track focuses on the creative side; i.e., how to put together a good pitch deck, how to tell your story, and how to present it in front of an audience,” he says.
“We want to help train people to speak the language of finance and law in order to compete in what is a pretty formal environment right now.”
The program will include a ‘pitch day’ at its tail end, wherein entrepreneurs will have the chance to pitch to industry leaders “who are investing in these types of businesses and building them up.”
Applications for the program can be found here and are due by Dec. 11. Blumenstein encourages all those who are on the fence about whether they’d be a good fit for the program to simply submit an application.
“We want you to have a proof of concept because that’s what you’ll need to actually go out and raise money, but if you’re unsure, it doesn’t hurt to fill out the application,” he says.
“We’re going to continue to offer programming as we grow, so we want to get to know you right away even if you’re not ready for this program. We’re all about building the industry up and if you want to help build it up, let’s do it together.”