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Venture capitalist Peter Thiel is investing in marijuana.
Well, sort of. Founders Fund, a venture capital firm he cofounded, is announcing today that it participated in cannabis-focused private equity firm Privateer Holdings‘ $75 million round of funding, of which it has secured about $50 million so far. (To be clear, Founders Fund partner Geoff Lewis is leading this investment, not Thiel.)
Privateer Holdings is a bit of a hybrid between an investment firm and an incubator, and it focuses entirely on the legal cannabis industry. So far, it counts premium cannabis brands Tilray and Marley Natural, and Leafly, an online community focused on cannabis, as part of its portfolio.
Although Privateer is mainly focused on investing in and incubating cannabis brands — largely because it’s convinced legalization is inevitably coming — its early acquisition of Leafly is its secret weapon in developing its portfolio. Leafly provides an online (web and mobile) community for people using and interested in medical cannabis. It lets them connect with other consumers as well as access and share information about strains, dispensaries, stores, doctors, and more. And it’s also how Privateer keeps its finger on the pulse of its end-users.
“We think about Leafly as a source of data, a source of information,” Privateer Holdings chief executive Brendan Kennedy told VentureBeat. “We know what strains they’re searching for, they provide that information,” he added.
It’s cleverly doing its market research through an online community of pot consumers, if you will.
When Privateer acquired Leafly in 2011, its team was made up of three engineers living in Orange County, Calif. Since then, Privateer has moved it to Seattle, and today it has 30 employees and 4 million unique visitors per month.
Leafly is also how Lewis — and ultimately, Founders Fund — got involved with Privateer. About a year and a half ago, a friend of Lewis’s introduced him to Leafly, which she relied on while recovering from cancer and using medical marijuana.
“She really opened my mind to the fact that [cannabis] has real benefits,” Lewis told VentureBeat. From there, he eventually got in touch with Leafly and its owner, Privateer Holdings.
Regulations and legal obstacles are, of course, a concern for everyone involved, but both Lewis and Kennedy say they strongly believe that the U.S. and other countries are inevitably moving towards legalization.
“We believe [Privateer Holdings] can be one of the most important companies in the cannabis market,” Lewis said. “We believe that Privateer can help contribute to the end of prohibition.” Lewis also pointed out that Founders Fund is an investor in companies like Airbnb and Lyft, which are still facing regulatory challenges, something the firm isn’t afraid of.
“The capital is important for us … but it’s also a major milestone for the industry as a whole,” Kennedy said. “There are partners at other firms that are going to see this investment, and it’s going to give them permission to look at this industry,” he said.
Privateer will use its new funds to continue expanding its operations and its portfolio internationally. It’s looking to expand Canada-based Tilray into Europe and continue to grow Leafly’s community.
Privateer Holdings was founded in 2010 by Brendan Kennedy, Michael Blue, and Christian Groh, and is based in Seattle. It previously raised $22 million in funding from its first round ($7 million) and a convertible bridge note ($15 million). A filing to the U.S. SEC in July revealed it had $18.7 million in the bank at the time from this latest round.
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