Two years ago, Alan Gertner was head of Google’s Asia-Pacific sales team in Singapore, handling more than $100 million in business.
Now, he begins his day in a small Toronto office, building a cannabis brand that sells fancy smoking accessories such as vaporizers and bongs that cost up to $261.72.
Gertner is among a growing group of entrepreneurs and investors who are trading in high-paid corporate jobs in the technology and finance sectors to launch start-ups focused on the fast-growing marijuana industry.
Two decades after the first legalization of medical marijuana by a US state, pot-based businesses are professionalizing their operations by luring top talent from other industries and billions of dollars in investments from Wall Street firms. A new commodity index even offers data on the going rates for greenhouse and field-grown weed.
Gertner still gets surprised reactions to his career change, as when his mother asked: “Can’t you just get another job at Google?”
And yet he’s raised $10 million in capital in ten months as the chief executive of Toyko Smoke, despite the continuing taboos and legal risks in the industry.
The legal cannabis market, currently worth about $8 billion, is predicted to triple in size to $22.6 billion in total annual sales by 2021, according to cannabis industry tracker, Arcview Market Research. That could make it bigger than the America’s most profitable sports organization, the National Football League, which saw about $13 billion in revenue last year and aims to reach $25 billion by 2027.
So far in 2017, there have been at least 27 investments by venture capital funds in cannabis companies, compared with just 10 deals in 2016 and 9 deals in 2015, according to venture capital data provider CB Insights.
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The influx of capital helps finance the paychecks of 150,000 workers in the legal US pot industry, representing job growth of 20 percent from a year ago, according to an estimate from the cannabis website Leafly, a marketing firm for dispensaries and other cannabis firms.
Eric Eslao, founder of Defonce Chocolatier - which makes artisanal cannabis-infused chocolates costing $20 a bar - was a senior production manager at Apple just over a year ago. He feared the stigma of joining the weed industry, but it didn’t stop him.
“The opportunity was too good not to make the jump,” he said.
Legal risks, challenges
Thirty states have legalized marijuana for recreational or medical use, but possession and sale is still banned at the federal level.
The administration of President Donald Trump has sent mixed signals on its enforcement policy. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has vowed to crack down on the pot trade in states with legalization laws, but Trump has extended a ban on using federal funds to interfere with the industry through the end of this year.
Americans increasingly support marijuana legalization, according to the Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll. The number of adults who believe it “should be legal” to possess small amounts of marijuana rose to 54 percent in a poll conducted between Oct. 27 and Nov. 10, up from 41 percent in a similar poll in 2012.
Still, the specter of federal enforcement makes it difficult for cannabis-related firms to get banking services. Many continue to deal in cash or pay hefty fees for accounts.
The banks that work with cannabis-related firms are mostly community institutions in states where the industry is legalized, and their service is limited to accepting cash deposits.
Cannabis investment is still dominated by wealthy individuals, but that is changing as the industry grows, attracting venture capitalist and equity investors who until recently were reluctant to finance cannabis firms.
They are drawn by a wide-open landscape of opportunity, said Eric Hippeau, managing partner at Lerer Hippeau Ventures, a New York-based venture capital firm well-known for its investments in high-profile media startups such as Twitter Inc and Buzzfeed.
“It’s an industry that is starting from scratch with no infrastructure,” Hippeau said. “There are many promising cannabis-related software startups that are able to easily raise money.”