Aiming high: Pot entrepreneurs look to Silicon Valley for inspiration

Marijuana startups are imitating companies like Airbnb and Dollar Shave Club as they chase anything related to the weed biz. Getting high is just an app away.

Daniel Yazbeck is on what might be the most expensive, obsessive quest in the history of toking to find ideal bud.

For the past two years, the bearded chemist-turned-entrepreneur has been building a portable analyzer that profiles the chemical makeup of weed. Think of it as Shazam, the app that identifies songs, but for pot.

Put a nug in the $699 MyDx, short for "my diagnostic," and its sensor will sniff out more than 20 traits, including the level of psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol. That's more commonly known as THC. You know, the stuff that gets you high.

Then MyDx takes advantage of your smartphone's Internet connection and runs its findings against a database of more than 500 cannabis strains, like OG Kush, Grand Daddy Purple and Pineapple Express. Give it three minutes, and you'll know exactly what you're putting in your pipe.

"Blue Dream from this dispensary or Blue Dream from another might have different chemical profiles," says Yazbeck, who's raised $7.6 million to fund his project. MyDx, he says, helps you find the same strain on a "consistent basis," regardless of what it's called.

Budding Ventures

Welcome to the world of canna-business, where tech and weed are bonding over a bowl. Driven by changing attitudes toward pot, entrepreneurs are transforming the way marijuana is grown, bought, sold, eaten and smoked. Many are lifting pages from Silicon Valley, applying everything from mobile technology to Big Data in the service of getting you stoned.

So-called potpreneurs include MBAs, chemists, attorneys and pharmacists. I met one guy, Michael Steinmetz of delivery company Flow Kana, who worked at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory before turning his focus to weed.

It isn't just stoners and rastas who are anxious to see these ventures succeed. Moneymen have poured $154 million into marijuana-focused startups in the first six months of 2015, according to venture capital research firm PitchBook. Funding is already twice what it was last year, and nine times greater than in 2013.

"Some of the best minds of our generation are starting to put their attention" on the cannabis industry, says Troy Dayton, CEO of The Arcview Group, a marijuana investor network.


Sincerest flattery

Pot startups are delivering medical marijuana using knock-offs of the on-demand model pioneered by Uber and Lyft. At least three services — Flash Buds, SpeedWeed and Nugg — keep Los Angeles buzzed, while Eaze and Meadow do the same for San Francisco. Pull out your smartphone, choose your strain and a car is on its way with your smoke.

Other companies sell software that tracks marijuana cultivation and inventory, a la Salesforce.com or SAP. There's an Etsy-inspired marketplace for handcrafted glass pipes called Leafcart, and even a Kickstarter-like crowdfunding site for cannabis investors.

Last month, I spoke with Dhaval Shah, who runs Ganja Boxes. The name sort of says it all; Shah is borrowing the box-of-the-month concept that Dollar Shave Club uses for razors and BirchBox for makeup. Except Ganja Boxes is selling high-end paraphernalia that would look at home on Pottery Barn shelves.

Shah tells me he got the idea for Ganja Boxes as he watched his fiancee unpack a monthly supply of beauty products. "I was like, 'I want a box. I want a box with cannabis accessories,'" he says.

Later this month, smokers will be able to order monthly or quarterly boxes at $45 or $80 a pop from the Boulder-based startup. But Shah gave me an early peek of what to expect.

A Ganja Box arrives at my San Francisco office. It isn't subtle. One side features a map of Jamaica, the other a map of India, where I learn the term "ganja" originated. 

My colleagues needle me to open it. So I do.

Buried under wood curl packaging, I find a plastic grinder, "organic hemp natural unbleached" rolling papers, a joint holder Hunter S. Thompson would have used and a box of breath mints bearing the legend, "Tastes so Good, It should be Illegal." There is also a home drug-testing kit and a polished-wood one-hitter.

The one-hitter quickly disappears from my desk.

Shah isn't the only cannabis entrepreneur imitating existing companies. TravelTHC, which features 420 "marijuana-friendly" rental properties in Colorado and Washington, cops from Airbnb. So does Bud and Breakfast, which lists 169 rentals where you can get a blaze on. High-end stoners can book a seven-acre estate in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, for $2,500 a night.

Looking for pot reviews and recommendations? Turn to Leafly, a Yelp for dispensaries and strains. It even has Buzzfeed-style quizzes, like one titled, "Which Cannabis Sativa Strain Are You?" Last month, 7 million people visited the site.

There's also Ananas, a maker of high-tech, "medical grade" smoking devices; the Hemp Business Journal, an online publication devoted to the cannabis industry; and Grownetics, a software company helping farmers grow bigger buds.

Still budding

It's one thing to ape a successful model. It's another to achieve the same success.

MyDx proves the point.

Since going on sale in July, Yazbeck's company, CDx, has sold roughly 500 devices. Its creator admits the gadget isn't as accurate as it could be.

So Yazbeck's been busy adding new capabilities to the mobile app and is working to tie his database to a network of cannabis dispensaries. Now, the software asks if a bud of, say, Bubba Kush makes smokers "happy," "energetic," "focused," "relaxed," "social" or "intelligent."

"We want them to test and report how they feel and what ailment it helps relieve," says Yazbeck. "That's why it's called MyDx, my diagnostic."