Alex Blumenstein wasn’t sure what would come of Leaf Toronto, a monthly cannabis meet-up that he started with fellow Torontonians Brett Chang and Taylor Scollon earlier this year.
The trio of young adults started the monthly meetup because they wanted to get more involved in the industry. Between the three of them, they had years of communications and public affairs experience, and they saw a big gap in the Canadian cannabis sector.
“When you look at the tech sector, if you want to get involved there’s a meetup every day of the week,” says Blumenstein. “In the professional legal cannabis field, there is not a super-accessible way to get involved on the professional side.”
Their first meetup in January 2017 featured Vic Neufeld, CEO of the licensed cannabis producer Aphria, and drew a large turnout, from leaders in the industry to curious newbies. Since then, they’ve built their Leaf Toronto community with monthly fireside chats, complete with free pizza and beer.
Now, Blumenstein wants to build on Leaf Toronto’s success with Leaf Forward, a new “business accelerator” initiative that he hopes will attract Canadian cannabis businesses and provide them guidance and mentorship.
“An accelerator program takes entrepreneurs who have early-stage businesses and gives them the resources they need to take them to the next level,” Blumenstein tells me. “You may have a business with a good idea, a great team, and an idea for a product or service. We bring in experts from the cannabis industry and from outside the cannabis industry who have built and scaled companies. We have this great network of industry leaders, people who are entrepreneurial, people who want to get into the business. We bring them all together, give them the support, mentorship, applicable lessons, all that sort of thing, to grow and raise money and be a successful business.”
Blumenstein launched Leaf Forward’s one-day boot camp for budding businesses in September 2017. At the premiere event, would-be weed entrepreneurs pitched the whole group, then went one-on-one with mentors in break-out sessions. “They get to have some questions answered on legal and regulatory side, have some help with their branding, fundraising, everything.”
With the ongoing boot camps supplying valuable feedback from businesses and mentors, the next step is turning Leaf Forward into a full-scale accelerator program. As it does, will Leaf Forward be putting resources into companies in exchange for equity, like CanopyBuilder and other cannabis accelerators in the United States do?
“That’s likely the end goal,” says Blumenstein. “But we’re probably going to go through a few phases to get there. The idea is for it to be a full-scale accelerator where there will be some sort of equity take.”
Blumenstein believes he has just the right crew of Canadian talent to mentor the new businesses. “John Prentice is just fantastic. He built the standard of software [known as Ample Organics] for the Canadian cannabis industry. Mike Lickver, part of Cannabis Wheaton, has massive industry knowledge. And Jonathon Tonge is a startup guy so he brings good tech experience.”
Why does Blumenstein think there hasn’t yet been a successful cannabis-based business accelerator in Canada?
“The real reason is that we’re early,” says Blumenstein. “We’re getting to the table early so people can start to think about what the opportunities are and we can start to guide them in the right direction—even though [with so much pending legislation] it’s not entirely clear yet what that direction will be.”