Eric Gomez: Overseeing a Cannabis Startup Incubator

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Eric Gomez is the CEO of Canopy San Diego, a San Diego-based startup incubator for tech companies who are focused on serving the cannabis space.

Eric recently joined our podcast host TG Branfalt to discuss the current climate for investors who are looking to get started in the cannabis industry, understanding the difference between making safe vs. disruptive investments, international investment opportunities as new medical and adult-use markets pop up around the globe, and much, much more!

You can listen to the interview through the media player below or keep scrolling down to read a full transcript of this week’s podcast episode.

Listen to the interview:

Read the transcript:

TG Branfalt: Hey there, I’m your host TG Branfalt and you are listening to the podcast where we try to bring you actionable information and normalize cannabis through the stories of ganjapreneurs, activists, and industry stakeholders. Today I’m joined by Eric Gomez who’s the CEO and founder of Canopy San Diego. How you doing today, Mr. Gomez?

Eric Gomez: I’m doing well. Thank you, Tim.

TG Branfalt: Excellent. I want to thank you for joining me and congratulations on your spring accelerator program. I’m sure you got a lot going on with that, right?

Eric Gomez: Thank you. Yeah. This is our second cohort so it’s pretty cool to have eight new companies in here. We’ve got about 16, 20, got about 22 new entrepeneurs in here so you can imagine the amount of energy that’s in the building.

TG Branfalt: I’m sure it’s absolutely incredible. We’ll talk about that, the energy, the accelerator program a bit more, but before we get into that I want to know about you. What did you do before getting into the cannabis industry and how did you end up there?

Eric Gomez: I came here in somewhat circular fashion. I graduated UCLA with an engineering degree and went into data com, so that was in the late nineties. I basically got into really the dot com and the data bubble right near its peak and near the end of that. When that ended I went back to school, got an MBA in real estate finance and went into the real estate world. This was in the late 2000’s, so again right at the peak of the real estate bubble and obviously the crash on a global basis this time, that that caused.

I got in on two of our lifetimes biggest bubbles right at the end and so now that I’ve had a few years to make some money and become an investor myself I started looking around at what was the next big industry. After an analyst brought some information to me and I made a trip to Denver I realized that cannabis was the right place to be. I came in really as an investor and looking to, if the opportunity came about, to be an operator. This time at the beginning of what is this decade’s great industry.

TG Branfalt: I got to ask. You’re probably the third or fourth or maybe even fifth person that I’ve interviewed on this podcast that has worked previously in the real estate sector. Can you maybe offer some insight as to why so many people who were in real estate end up in this space?

Eric Gomez: I would say if they’re currently operating and investing then there’s clearly a reason for elevated values. My experience has led me to be very, very wary of real estate investments at this point in time in cannabis because they are elevated. We all know that right now margins and pricing is higher than they will be tomorrow and we’ve seen that data prove that out in Colorado and Washington and now Canada’s starting to see the same thing. I think that that’s probably why real estate guys say, “Wow, this is great because now my property that was useless out in the desert is worth four times as much as it was six months ago.” I would say that’s reason number one.

Reason number two might be because, let’s face it, real estate is a bit, it’s a bit boring. When you have a little bit of cash, again, from previous investments and now you look at a new and upcoming thing that is slightly tied to something you’re familiar with, which is real estate, I think a lot of guys are jumping in and saying, “Hey, let’s build a portfolio.”

TG Branfalt: Can you draw any similarities between the emerging cannabis industry and what you noticed while working in the tech sector during the dot com boom?

Eric Gomez: Yeah. I would say there’s a lot of similarities. Number one is venturing into the unknown. I know we’ll get into the investment landscape in a bit here but a lot of investors are really, really taking a big risk and they’re saying, “Hey, I don’t know where this is going to go but I know it’s going somewhere, I know it’s growing very rapidly, and I know if I get in with the right teams and in the right sectors and protect myself well enough that I’m going to have a decent investment.” There’s that similarity.

There’s also clearly a bubble effect. A true bubble happens not because there’s organic growth that is deserving. It’s when that growth starts pulling funds from other industries that are also equally deserving. I think cannabis is not quite there yet but I’m starting to see signs of people throwing money at cannabis simply because they have the money. That’s a bit scary. Warning to all investors. Really do your due diligence as you normally would. Really think through all the possible scenarios. Protect yourself on a legal side. Make sure you’re getting the right teams and research everything two, three times over because a lot of the information that’s out there today is largely hyped.

TG Branfalt: We’re definitely going to talk more about the investment stuff in the second part of the show, but I want to move back a little bit. You guys over in Canopy San Diego, you’re the first cannabis industry accelerator in southern California. Why do you think that took so long?

Eric Gomez: That’s a great question. We’ve asked ourselves that exact same question many, many times. The startup scene here is a bit disjointed. It doesn’t have the organization that Silicon Valley has, that Austin, Boulder, Boston, New York has. And I think it might be just because there’s so many different industries at play here in southern California and I think a lot of the VC firms, wherever they put down roots, that tends to flow down and then create those other groups that start building accelerators and other sort of startup structures. It’s a great question. I honestly don’t have a certain answer for you. I can only kind of guess at the different reasons.

As far as cannabis, SoCal is the biggest probably consumer region in all the United States in terms of consumption. Obviously it’s a huge population base. The manner in which it’s developed has been largely gray market. There are thousands of dispensaries in Los Angeles. Thousands of dispensaries in the rest of SoCal, but only, what? 20-30 are operating legally. I think maybe there’s a larger gray market here than in other markets and I think that’s because of the slow roll through the regulations and also because we do have such a disperse population.

TG Branfalt: You did a lot of your overview, I don’t really want to call it training, with the guys over at Canopy Boulder. What are some lessons that you learned from that experience that you brought with you to SoCal?

Eric Gomez: Yeah. Those guys, they’re the reason we duplicated the model, because when I went out to Denver as an investor I found a couple of companies, one of which is BDS, which is still doing quite well and just closed, I believe, a two million dollar round. It was that investment philosophy that made sense to me and I understood that due to the stage of this industry, basically being brand new, that an accelerator model made sense. Because you really need to have a safe place for people to come together for mentors, for entrepreneurs, and for investors to come together, share ideas, and really build value in these new companies in a very strategic manner. Due to the legal risks and the banking risks, it’s just not as easy to just sort of create startups and invite entrepeneurs in and develop enough of a critical mass of companies that you can produce enough investible companies.

The accelerator model that Canopy adopted, which is essentially a copy of Tech Stars, Y Combinator, the big guys out there, made sense to me at this particular point in time. Because as I just mentioned the gray market feeling out here in SoCal for cannabis just doesn’t lead to any platform where you can access information and invite entrepeneurs, mentors, and investors in and have them sort of feel safe.

TG Branfalt: That makes a ton of sense. I’ve spoken to a lot of investors who simply won’t invest in any sort of gray market system such as … I’m in Michigan. No one will invest in Michigan because of all the questions. Mark Twain, he had said during the gold rush, “It’s a good time to be in the pick and shovel business.” Over at Canopy San Diego you guys have embraced this philosophy. You’re only investing in ancillary businesses, none of the startups that you’re working with touch the plant. What sort of growth are you seeing right now in California’s ancillary industry in the lead up to the recreational regime?

Eric Gomez: It’s exciting because I think the way it rolled out was almost perfect. You had legalization in Colorado in 2014 and that led … And kudos to all the regulators in Colorado that really kind of let it take its own form. Now that that small market, relative to California, has fully developed or not fully developed but is getting the are, they were able to really give us an example of what to do out here. Because we just passed the vote in November and now in 2018 we’re waiting for the actual licenses to be handed out we’ve got plenty of runway to develop software, develop hardware, develop solutions, put those all in place, put them through the accelerator, make sure they ramp up with the licensed dispensaries for medical marijuana here in San Diego and SoCal. Then once everything comes onboard in 2018 we’re ready to really go and have all of our ducks in a row ready to go.

The timing was really great and we’ve already seen, I mentioned BDS earlier. That was an early Canopy company. They just closed a two million round. Werk is also an early Canopy company. I think they were the cohort following BDS. They just closed a two million dollar round. Tradiv, which is also a Canopy company, actually has had an office out here in Serrano Beach. They raised a decent amount of money.

Those guys are our role models and they’re all looking at California as the next market that they want to go into. Now that they’ve got a foothold, they’ve got investors behind them, and those investors include California investors, Florida investors, Chicago investors. A nice geographic differentiation that’s really focusing on these companies and really that’s the growth potential for them, is California. We’ve got two-three billion dollar business today and that’s expected to double in 2018 when rec comes online. The growth is all ahead of us.

TG Branfalt: Are there any kind of internal discussions to get involved with businesses that touch the plant eventually?

Eric Gomez: In terms of our accelerator?

TG Branfalt: Yes sir.

Eric Gomez: Discussions, yes. The exact pathway to that is yet to be determined. You’ve got to, number one, align with your investors and so one of the big pitches for being the picks and shovels is that we are highly de-risking cannabis investments. That’s the best way to take advantage of all the upside of the industry without assuming the full risk profile of touching a plant. That would be the first task, would be to go to the investors and say, “What is your appetite for this? Are you willing to basically take two times the risk here, right?” You’re touching the plant and you’re talking about startup companies and we all know that the percentile of startup companies that actually make it big is very small.

I think that risk appetite might be trough to swallow. If we can find people that are willing to do it then by all means we could set up a separate fund and put investors into that vehicle that are now dealing with those kinds of companies. I don’t know that we’re ready for it here yet. There’s certainly a lot of science that’s being developed but speaking to various scientists that are starting to look at cannabis, including our managing director Jack Scatizzi who is a PhD in immunology, the viewpoint is you’re not looking at tech startup scalability, right? You’re not talking about building a company in three months, producing revenue in six months, and potentially scaling up to an exit in three years. You’re talking about doing research for a number of months if not years and then the actual commercialization of that research may not even be possible. It may just end up being something that’s shared with the community in general. There’s a lot to think about there and we haven’t committed to that yet.

TG Branfalt: I want to talk to you a bit about the projects that you are working on and you have worked on but before we get into that we got to take a short break. This is the Ganjapreneur podcast. I’m TG Branfalt.

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TG Branfalt: Welcome back to the podcast. I’m your host TG Branfalt here with Eric Gomez, CEO and founder of Canopy San Diego. Before the break, we were talking about being in the pick and shovel business and not in any sort of way touching the plant with your accelerator program. With regard to that program what types of projects get you excited? How long into a pitch or a proposal before you know whether or not you are going to accept a company into your program?

Eric Gomez: What gets us excited is the things that aren’t exciting. We want the boring, basic, already done before solutions that we can apply in the cannabis space, simply because A, it’s not exciting, and B, because the big companies that provide these services are willing to get in. We’ve got a programmatic ad company in here. We’ve got a point of sales system company in here. We’ve got an asset tracking system in here. We’ve got an event management company. Real basic stuff. And you can probably name off the top of your head two major players in each one of those industries I just mentioned in the global mainstream, but those companies aren’t coming in. They are not coming in because they can’t have a national solution because their banks won’t allow them, because their shareholders won’t allow them, etc. That’s left us with a huge gap and we’re filling that gap. We’re taking advantage of this two to seven year gap, whatever it is, before all the states come online. Before there’s some sort of federal easing on the banking regulations. That gives us the opportunity.

If an entrepreneur comes in and pitches me on some brand new idea that’s going to disrupt the entire world, that’s not for us. That might be for Y Combinator or one of these guys that is unicorn hunting. We want the real basic software business services solutions that these guys have done before. Maybe they’ve done it in the mainstream retail business and now they’re just applying it to cannabis. That’s what we want. We want singles, doubles. We’re not looking for those home runs because that’s the opportunity we’ve been handed and that’s the perfect storm that we’re playing in.

TG Branfalt: What do you look for in company leadership?

Eric Gomez: It’s passion for the product and for their solution and it’s also that they’ve done it before. We all know that entrepreneurs, founders of companies and our companies in the accelerator have between one and three people in them. These are the founders and we know that they’re not going to be the CEOs that are going to take them to a series B. The percentage of founders that end up being the CEO at that stage are tiny and we’re very clear with them about that. But we do want them to be passionate and have the technical knowledge and the market knowledge to take those companies, get them out of the seed stage, get them that initial funding, and make them attractive to a VC which can then add that additional layer of expertise and corporate management. It really comes down to passion and knowledge of the product that they’re building.

TG Branfalt: You had mentioned earlier that if somebody comes and pitches to you, you don’t have the appetite for disruptive ideas, but what sectors in your opinion as an investor, might be ripe for disruption?

Eric Gomez: I would say that because we’re looking at a plant that is traditionally, that’s been farmed for centuries, in the gray market here in the United States for a century, they’ve developed a lot of art in their farming. Now we’re looking at turning this into a raw material that produces for a number of different industries ranging from lifestyle artisan products to FDA-regulated pharmaceuticals. You now have to apply real science to getting the most out of a plant. From clone, all the way to oil extraction, there are a number of ways you can improve on what’s been done in the past because now you’re going to attract PhDs from all over the world and they’re going to start working on these challenges. That, I believe, is where the disruptive solutions are going to come from.

I do not have a lot of optimism that those solutions are going to necessarily come out of the United States. I think because we’re so slow to regulate this and legalize it that a lot of the medicinal research and a lot of the PhDs that are required to work on this stuff are going to be, they’re going to be doing this in Israel or Canada or Colombia. One of these countries that is going to be a lot faster to realize the medical benefits of Cannabis and accelerate those programs and support them.

TG Branfalt: We’re just about the get into the investment stuff and I’m really happy that you briefly touched on some other legal markets. But before we get into that we have to take our last break. This is the podcast. I’m TG Branfalt.

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TG Branfalt: Welcome back to the podcast. I’m your host TG Branfalt here with Eric Gomez, CEO and founder of Canopy San Diego. Before the break, we were talking about investments and you had mentioned some of these other countries, Canada, Israel, Colombia. Two countries that … Australia and Canada have, they have very strong cannabis, publicly traded cannabis industry. My question to you is what’s your advice to US-based investors when dealing with non-US markets?

Eric Gomez: Wow. Great question. First of all I guess we’d have to determine their access. Their level of access to those markets. Let’s assume they have open access. It’s so hard investing in any international entity simply because you can’t touch and feel it and unless you’ve got a local contact there it’s really tough to fully understand what you’re dealing with. I would say that right now in the cannabis industry looking at public markets I think you just need to understand and create an analogy of what is cannabis and what is a similar industry that we’ve seen and how have those companies and how have those stocks reacted over time. We’ve already seen, Canada is about the size of California so it’s relatively similar in terms of size. We’ve seen already the value of Canopy growth and a couple of other Canadian cultivators really skyrocket to levels where if you do some basic metric analysis you realize that they’re quite overvalued. Then you look at the size of the market and you realize, wow, even if they do extraordinarily well they can’t support these valuations.

I think it comes down to basic market analysis and your ability as an investor to do some real basic reasoning on how big is the market? How much can it possibly grow? Where are these companies going to look for growth? Canada and Australia are good examples because naturally their exporters by nature, simply because they’re small countries. Where are those international markets going to be? What kind of contracts do they have? You really have to dig in to the growth projections of these companies. I would say that Canadian stocks are probably the one place where the value may have already been realized. Understanding that whoever the leaders are today, unless they go on a very aggressive acquisition strategy or really lower their cost of production, like I think it is Aphria if I’m not mistaken, I could be mistaking that with Aurora. But I think they have a lower cost of production than, for example, Canopy Growth. You’ve got to start looking at fundamentals of these companies and see who’s doing the right thing to grow in the next year, two years.

TG Branfalt: Since the election of Donald Trump here in the US have you seen any … What’s been your experience in terms of … What have you seen on the investment front? Have they slowed down? Or not investment, yeah, investment’s probably the right word. Have you seen any slowdown in investments since Donald Trump’s election?

Eric Gomez: That’s another good question. I would say that sort of macro influence, headline influence, if you will, affects public markets much more than private markets. We can have the conversation with our LPs. We can have the conversation directly with our entrepeneurs and directly with the operators in the industry here in SoCal to kind of work through whatever rhetoric comes out of DC and really figure out if it’s going to really affect us and what would that look like downstream, right? What would a raid or a shutdown look like in our local economy with local operators? Is it actually possible? How far away is it? What have we done to protect ourselves? Public markets, which are much more fluid and move on headlines, certainly I would imagine are subject to that. But for what we’re doing, which is more localized, more private, we really haven’t seen a slowdown. It might have required a few more conversations and a little bit more in-depth analysis of our protection. But I think the people that are interested in this industry already have the understanding that this industry is going to grow and keep growing.

We’ve seen it already for the last few years and no matter what rhetoric comes out of DC you’re not going to … You can’t deny the fact that the consumer base is there and that people will buy it, whether it’s on the black market or on the white market or somewhere in between, which is where we’ve been operating for the last couple of years. Sorry for the long-winded answer there but I guess the answer really is, for what we’re doing, no. We haven’t seen the Trump presidency have a huge effect.

TG Branfalt: But I’m sure that you’ve had a lot more conversations with investors in this space than I have. What’s the feeling? What’s the weather like in the investment, for investors, what are your conversations like?

Eric Gomez: Again I think once we get past the fact that the things coming out of DC are not really feasible in terms of slowing down the markets.

TG Branfalt: That’s the sense? That’s the sense?

Eric Gomez: Yeah. Then it comes back down to, again, fundamentals. What are we developing. Why did we choose to go into tech as opposed to a dispensary licensing financing or something like that? That’s because we don’t want to be affected by what Trump or Sessions or anybody else says in DC. We want to be insulated from that initial reaction. If for some reason there were police or legal action in our community, who would be the first to be affected? It definitely wouldn’t be us? They’re not going to come after a business tech accelerator. Those are things we’ve already thought through. I never got into this wanting to be subject to regulatory changes and that’s why we chose the vehicle that we did and that’s why we’re choosing the companies that we are.

Sure, it’s we’re all in this together and that rhetoric does cause a certain amount of waves throughout the entire industry but we feel we’re pretty well insulated.

TG Branfalt: What’s your broader advice for investors, both the ones who are comfortable in this space but maybe others who are treading lightly right now? Kind of dragging their feet whether or not they’re going to get into the industry?

Eric Gomez: I would say it’s the same for investment in any industry, right? Understand what you’re getting into. If you have A, the money to invest and B, the appropriate amount of knowledge of what you’re investing in, then go for it. Then jump in. If you don’t have the money, if you don’t have the knowledge. If you have these doubts and you’re counting on other people telling you things in order to make you feel comfortable, then don’t do it. I certainly understand that there are people across that entire spectrum when it comes to cannabis and we don’t try to change people’s minds if they are dead-set that the federal government is going to come crashing down on this industry.

If they can’t sort of come to that conclusion based on a real quick conversation with us then we know that they’re probably going to need to wait for another two or three years, or they might have to wait until it gets descheduled. We sort of put certain investors into certain buckets of these guys are interested, we’ve got them, we’ve shared as much knowledge as they need to get past that concern and now it’s a business decision. Then we’ve got a bucket of guys who just simply, we just won’t be able to convince. They don’t have that risk appetite.

TG Branfalt: Finally, what’s your advice for entrepreneurs looking to get into this space?

Eric Gomez: My advice is to really pick one thing, one thing that you know how to do, and do it well. One thing we’ve seen is there’s so much white space in this industry. There’s so much opportunity because big companies aren’t coming in. Because a lot of entrepeneurs aren’t coming in. Because institutional investors aren’t backing traditional startups, that it’s really quite tempting to come in and try and solve all the problems at once. To be an enterprise solution to all cultivators and dispensaries at the same time. We all know that that’s a recipe for disaster. Pick one thing you know how to do, do it well. Once you establish some market share and some revenue then start looking at M and A. Then start looking at tacking on more technical expertise or looking at partners in the arena. That’s going to fuel all the M and A activity that’s going to become pretty active here in the next couple of years.

We’ve seen a number of companies start off with pretty lofty aspirations and then once they realized that they couldn’t get funding because nobody got behind them because their ideas were too grandiose, now they’ve sort of dialed it down and realized, “Okay, hey. This is what we really do well.” Now they’re getting funded. Now they’re moving forward in the industry. That’s my primary advice is just to know what you do well and stick to it. Start small and let the growth happen organically.

TG Branfalt: Before we go would you mind telling us a bit about who you have in your spring accelerator program?

Eric Gomez: Sure, absolutely. We’ve got eight teams. We had eight teams in our fall cohort and eight teams in the spring cohort. One company is a lab-in-the-box company. We all know that lab testing of cannabis is now required at a number of different levels. We’ve got a company that’s figured out how to scale and create a lab testing solution that can actually scale across borders, state borders. We’ve also got a company that is going to be focused on corporate training, so they’re going to be training budtenders. They’re going to be training people in cultivators for safety, for sales, to really make these institutions more professional in the way their employees interact with the outside world and internally. We’ve got a company that’s going to do consumer experience management. Really working on getting feedback from consumers as they interact with different retailers in the industry and making sure those retailers have that knowledge to understand how to make … better.

We’ve got an event management company that’s really tying in the three stakeholders in event management, which is the attendee, the sponsors, and the exhibitors. Sorry, the event sponsors. And making sure they’re all getting what they need out of the events. We’ve got a company doing travel and experience connecting. Kind of an Airbnb meets Meetup if you will, for 420. We’ve got a company that’s doing vertical grow hardware design. So maximizing the square footage in a growing facility. We’ve got a company doing online or app-based, I should say, ordering. They’re going to be focusing on the Canadian market which is coming online in 2018 as well. I think I covered all of them.

TG Branfalt: I mean, it’s exciting stuff. The idea that you guys have a Canadian company, is that unique to your guys’ program compared to the other accelerators?

Eric Gomez: I believe so. It’s a luxury afforded to us by the industry and by the fact that Canada is moving forward with federal legalization. Being in San Diego, we had a definite intention to go south and to encourage Latin entrepeneurs to come into our accelerator and to encourage Latin investors who know this industry is going to grow to invest in US companies. We’ve got that outreach going south and obviously Canada developing as rapidly as they are, they saw the opportunity to join our accelerator and use Canada as their primary market, but obviously they’ve got an eye on the US, being the size that it is.

I don’t know if any other Canadian companies that have gone through the other accelerators. I know Canopy Boulder has a Brazilian company in there.

TG Branfalt: As I said, this is all really exciting stuff coming through the pike, seeing all these companies get all the startup money and the fact that there’s options for them out there thanks to accelerators such as yourself. Before we go would you mind telling us where they can find out more about those companies and about Canopy San Diego?

Eric Gomez: Sure. They can go to Canopy spelled as it normally is and then S-D, for San Diego, dot com. They can visit our portfolio page and check out the companies in our previous cohort. Also look at some videos from our demo day. They can contact me, Eric, E-R-I-C, They can also visit our facility out here in Serrano Valley. If you’re local come on by. We have lots of networking events, happy hours, and we do speaking engagements. We have some tutorials through one of our partners at Alko Labs to get people more educated on cannabis and a lot of the science behind it. That’s one of our primary functions as an accelerator is to create a community which invites in mentors, invites in entrepeneurs, invites investors and people generally looking to get involved in the cannabis industry.

TG Branfalt: Well, Eric. I want to thank you again for taking the time to appear on our show and definitely keep us posted on the upcoming programs and the status of your graduates.

Eric Gomez: I sure will. I appreciate it and yeah, let me know how I can help.

TG Branfalt: You can find more episodes of the podcast at the podcast section of and in the Apple Itunes store. On the website you will find the latest cannabis news and cannabis jobs updated daily along with transcripts of this podcast. You can also download the app in Itunes and Google Play. This episode was engineered by Jeremy Sebastiano. I’ve been your host, TG Branfalt.