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A Q&A with Matt Hawkins, Co-Founder & Managing Partner at Entourage Effect Capital

By Aaron Green
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The cannabis industry saw close to $15.5B in deals across VC, private equity, M&A and IPOs in 2020 according to PitchBook data. Early and growth stage capital has been a key enabler in deal activity as companies seek to innovate and scale, taking advantage of trends towards national legalization and consolidation. Entourage Effect Capital is one of the largest VC firms in cannabis with over $150MM deployed since its inception in 2014. Some of their notable investments include GTI, CANN, Harborside (CNQ: HBOR), Acreage Holdings, Ebbu, TerrAscend and Sunderstorm.

We spoke with Matt Hawkins, co-founder and managing partner at Entourage Effect Capital. Matt started Entourage in 2014 after exiting his previous company. He has 20+ years of private equity experience and serves on the Boards of numerous cannabis companies. Matt’s thought leadership has been on Fox Business in the past and he has also recently featured on CNBC, Bloomberg, Yahoo! Finance, Cheddar and more.

Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?

Matt Hawkins: We’ve been making investments in the cannabis industry since 2014. We’ve made 65 investments to date. We have a full team of investment professionals, and we invest up and down the value chain of the industry.

I had been in private equity for 25 years and I kind of just fell into the industry after I’d had an exit. I started lending to warehouse owners in Denver that were looking to refinance their mortgages out of commercial debt into private debt, which would then give them the ability to lease their facilities to growers. I realized there would be a significant opportunity to place capital in the private equity side of the cannabis business. So, I just started raising money for that project and I haven’t looked back. It’s been a great run and we’ve built a fantastic portfolio. We look forward to continuing to deploy capital up to and through legalization.

Green: Do you consider Entourage Effect Capital a VC fund or private equity firm? How do you talk about yourself?

Hawkins: In the early stages of the industry, we were more purely venture capital because there was hardly any revenue. We’re probably still considered a venture capital firm, by definition, just because of the risk factors. As the industry has matured, the investments we make are going to be larger. The reality is that the checks we write now will go to companies that have a track record of not only 12 months of revenue, but EBITDA as well. We can calculate a multiple on those, and that makes it more like lower/middle-market private equity investing.

Green: What’s your investment mandate?

Matt Hawkins, Co-Founder and Managing Partner at Entourage Effect Capital

Hawkins: From here forward our mandate is to build scale in as many verticals as we can ahead of legalization. In the early days, we were focused on giving high net worth individuals and family offices access to the industry using a very diversified approach, meaning we invested up and down the value chain. We’ll continue to do that, but now we’re going to be really laser focused on combining companies and building scale within companies to where they’re going to be more attractive for exit partners upon legalization.

Green: Are there any particular segments of the industry that you focus on whether it’s cultivation, extraction or MSOs?

Hawkins: We tend to focus on everything above cultivation. We feel like cultivation by itself is a commodity, but when vertically integrated, for example with a single-state operator or multi-state operator, that makes it intrinsically more valuable. When you look at the value chain, right after cultivation is where we start to get involved.

Green: Are you also doing investments in tech and e-commerce?

Hawkins: We’ve made some investments in supply chain, management software, ERP solutions, things like that. We’re not really focused on e-commerce with the exception of the only CBD company we are invested in.

Green: How does Entourage’s investment philosophy differ from other VC and private equity firms in cannabis?

Hawkins: We really don’t pay attention to other people’s philosophies. We have co-invested with others in the past and will continue to do so. There’s not a lot of us in the industry, so it’s good that we all work together. Until legalization occurs, or institutional capital comes into play, we’re really the only game in town. So, it behooves us all to have good working relationships.

Green: Across the states, there’s a variety of markets in various stages of development. Do you tend to prefer investing in more sophisticated markets? Say California or Colorado where they’ve been legalized for longer, or are you looking more at new growth opportunities like New York and New Jersey?

Hawkins: Historically, we’ve focused on the most populous states. California is obviously where we’ve placed a lot of bets going forward. We’ll continue to build out our portfolio in California, but we will also exploit the other large population states like New Jersey, New York, Arizona, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio and Illinois. All of those are big targets for us. 

Green: Do you think legalization will happen this Congress?

Hawkins: My personal opinion is that it will not happen this year. It could be the latter part of next year or the year after. I think there’s just too much wood to chop. I was encouraged to see the SAFE Banking Act reappear. I think that will hopefully encourage institutional capital to take another look at the game, especially with the NASDAQ and the New York Stock Exchange open up. So that’s a positive.

I think with the election of President Biden and with the Senate runoffs in Georgia going Democrat, the timeline to legalization has sped up, but I don’t think it’s an overnight situation. I certainly don’t think it’ll be easy to start crossing state lines immediately, either.

Green: Can you explain more about your thoughts on interstate commerce?

Hawkins: I think it’s pretty simple. The states don’t want to give up all the tax revenue that they get from their cultivation companies that are in the state. For example, if you allow Mexico and Colombia to start importing product, we can’t compete with that cost structure. States that are neighbors to California, but need to grow indoors which is more expensive, are not going to want to lose their tax revenues either. So, I just think there’s going to be a lot of butting heads at the state level.

The federal government is going to have to outline what the tax implications will be, because at the end of the day the industry is currently taxed as high as it ever will be or should be. Anything North of current tax levels will prohibit businesses from thriving further, effectively meaning not being able to tamp down the illicit market. One of the biggest goals of legalization in my opinion should be reducing the tax burden on the companies and thereby allowing them to be able to compete more directly with the illicit market, which obviously has all the benefits of reduced crime, etc.

Green: Do you foresee 280E changes coming in the future?

Hawkins: For sure. If the federal illegality veil is removed – which means there’ll be some type of rescheduling – cannabis would be removed from the 280E category. I think 280E by definition is about just illegal drugs and manufacturing and selling of that. As long as cannabis isn’t part of that, then it won’t be subject to it.

Green: What have been some of the winners in your portfolio in terms of successful exits?

Hawkins: When the CSC started allowing companies in Canada to own U.S. assets, the whole landscape changed. We were fortunate to be early investors in Acreage and companies that sold to Curaleaf and GTI before they were public. We are big investors in TerrAscend. We were early investors in Ebbu which sold to Canopy Growth. Those were huge wins for us in Fund I. We also have some interesting plays in Fund II that are on the precipice of having similar-type exits.

You read about the big ones, but at the end of the day, the ones that kind of fall under the radar – the private deals – actually have even greater multiples than what we see on some of the public M&A activity.

Green: Governor Cuomo has been hinting recently at being “very close” on a deal for opening up the cannabis market in New York. What do you think are the biggest opportunities in New York right now?

Hawkins: If it can get done, that’s great. I’m just concerned that distractions in the state house right now in New York may get in the way of progress there. But if it doesn’t, and it is able to come to fruition, then there isn’t a sector that doesn’t have a chance to thrive and thrive extremely well in the state of New York.

Green: Looking at other markets, Curaleaf recently announced a big investment in Europe. How do you look at Europe in general as an investment opportunity?

Hawkins: We have a pretty interesting play in Europe right now through a company called Relief Europe. It’s poised to be one of the first entrants to Germany. We think it could be a big win for us. But let’s face it, Europe is still a little behind, in fact, a lot behind the United States in terms of where they are as an industry. Most of the capital that we’re going to be deploying is going to be done domestically in advance of legalization.

Green: What industry trends are you seeing in the year ahead?“We’re constantly learning from other industries that are steps ahead of us to figure out how to use those lessons as we continue to invest in cannabis.”

Hawkins: Well, I think you’ll see a lot of consolidation and a lot of ramping up in advance of legalization. I think that’s going to apply in all sectors. I just don’t see a scenario wherein mom and pops or smaller players are going to be successful exit partners with some of the new capital that’s coming in. They’re going to have to get to a point where they’re either selling to somebody bigger than them right now or joining forces with companies around the same size as them and creating mass. That’s the only way you’re going to compete with companies coming in with billions of dollars to deploy.

Green: How do you see this shaking out?

Hawkins: That’s where you start to look into the crystal ball. It’s really difficult to say because I think until we get to where we truly have a national footprint of brands, which would require crossing state lines, it’s going be really difficult to tell where things go. I do know that liquor, tobacco, beer, the distribution companies, they all are standing in line. Big Pharma, big CPG, nutraceuticals, they all want access to this, too.

In some form or fashion, these bigger players will dictate how they want to go about attacking the market on their own. So, that part remains to be seen. We’ll just have to wait and see where this goes and how quickly it goes there.

Green: Are you looking at other geographies to deploy capital such as APAC or Latin America regions?

Hawkins: Not at this point. It’s not a focus at all. What recently transpired here in the elections just really makes us want to focus here and generate positive returns for investors.

Green: As cannabis goes more and more mainstream, federal legalization is maybe more likely. How do you think the institutional investor scene is evolving around that? And is it a good thing to bring in new capital to the cannabis market?

Hawkins: I don’t see a downside to it. Some people are saying that it could damage the collegial and cottage-like nature of the industry. At the end of the day, if you’ve got tens of billions of dollars that are waiting to pour into companies listed on the CSC and up-listing to the NASDAQ or New York Stock Exchange, that’s only going to increase their market caps and give them more cash to acquire other companies. The trickle-down effect of that will be so great to the industry that I just don’t know how you can look the other way and say we don’t want it. 

Green: Last question: What’s got your attention these days? What’s the thing you’re most interested in learning about?

Hawkins: We’re constantly learning about just where this industry is headed. We’re constantly learning from other industries that are steps ahead of us to figure out how to use those lessons as we continue to invest in cannabis. We all saw the correlation between cannabis and alcohol prohibition. The reality is that the industry is mature enough now where you can see similarities to industries that have gone from infancy to their adolescent years. That’s kind of where we are now and so we spend a lot of time studying industries that have been down this path before and see what lessons we can apply here.

Green: Okay, great. So that concludes the interview!

Hawkins: Thanks, Aaron.

Learning from the First Wave Part 2: California’s Cannabis Supply Chain and Vertical Integration, with a Grain of Salt

By Todd Feldman
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Part One of this series took a look at how the regulated cannabis market can only be understood in relation to the previous medical market as well as the ongoing “traditional” market. Part Two of the series describes how regulation defines vertical integration in California cannabis, and conversely, how vertical integration can address some of the problems that the regulations create. But first:

A Grain of Salt

Take the conventional wisdom about vertical integration with a grain of salt. Expected benefits may not materialize under the current circumstances:

  • Overall, the business environment is highly challenging due to extensive regulation, over taxation, insufficient retail capacity and competition from the “traditional” market. As a result, integrating businesses upstream or downstream may mean capturing losses, not profits.
  • The three major types of cannabis activity span three major industrial sectors: raw materials (i.e., cultivation), manufacturing and service (distribution, testing and retail). As a result, a vertically integrated company needs to carry out very different types of activity, which require very different types of core competencies, equipment and facilities.
    • Developing core competencies is especially challenging because each of the major cannabis sectors is still evolving.
    • Realizing the benefits of vertical integration requires an additional core competency in cross-sector operations.

 Regulations Define the Supply Chain

California’s regulations define the cannabis supply chain by defining both the individual links (licensees) and the relationships between those links. Therefore, an understanding of vertical integration must be grounded in an understanding of the underlying regulatory definitions.

The regulatory definition of each link is extensive. For example, each licensee is tied to a specific facility, and must have its own procedures for production, inventory control, security, etc. When the links are strung together, this definition tends to preserve operational redundancies, and impede operational integration.

Overall, the relationships between the links are primarily defined in terms of preserving the chain of cannabis custody. On top of that, regulations define very specific (and very consequential) links between certain licenses, as discussed below.

A Taxonomy of Links

There are currently 26 types of cannabis license in California, 25 of which can be vertically integrated:

  • Cultivation – 14 licenses, including 4 sizes each for Indoor (up to 22,0000 sf), Mixed Light (up to 22,000 sf) and Outdoor (up to 1 acre), as well as Nursery and Processor (drying, trimming and packaging/labeling). Note that cultivation licenses are the only licenses that restrict the scale of activities.
  • Manufacturing5 licenses, including volatile extraction, non-volatile extraction, everything but extraction (i.e., infusion) and packaging/labeling.
  • Testing (Type 8), for testing cannabis according to state standards prior to sale. The owner of a testing license cannot own any other type of license.
  • Distribution (Type 11), acts as the gateway between cultivation and manufacturing on the one hand, and retail on the other. The distributor’s gateway status is entirely an artifact of regulation – cannabis must be officially tested before it is sold to a consumer, and only a distributor can order the official test. All products must stay in a “quarantine” area at the distributor until they pass testing. Products that fail testing must be destroyed if they cannot be remediated.
  • Transport (Type 13), which can move cannabis between licensees (with a narrow exception). This license does not allow for official testing.
  • Storefront Retail (Type 9), which is the best license to have, and the hardest one to get.
  • Delivery Retail (Type 10), for delivery services that are subject to the vagaries of software platforms and the intransigence of local authorities.
  • Microbusiness (Type 12), which allows the licensee to carry out cultivation (up to 10,000 square feet), non-volatile manufacturing, distribution and retail.
  • Event Organizer

Self-Distribution – A Case of Useful Integration

You may gather from the previous section that shoving a gratuitous and mandatory distributor into the middle of the supply chain creates problems for cultivators and manufacturers. Savvy operators solve this problem by getting a distribution license. This allows the cultivator or manufacturer to:

  • Pick the time and place for the testing of its cannabis products.
  • Avoid paying someone else for the storage of cannabis products as they await test results or purchase.
  • Reduce transport costs (particularly if the distributor is near the other operations).
  • Sell directly to retailers.

The bottom line is that vertical integration in California cannabis is useful as a means to an end, as opposed to an end in itself. Therefore, cannabis operators should carefully consider how vertical integration will benefit their core business before incurring the risks and expenses associated with an additional license.

This article is an opinion only and is not intended to be legal advice.

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Break Up Vertical Integration

By Ryan Douglas
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Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from chapter ten of From Seed to Success: How to Launch a Great Cannabis Cultivation Business in Record Time by Ryan Douglas. Douglas is founder of Ryan Douglas Cultivation, a cannabis cultivation consulting firm. He was Master Grower from 2013-2016 for Tweed, Inc., Canada’s largest licensed producer of medical cannabis and the flagship subsidiary of Canopy Growth Corporation.


Cultivation businesses should consider specializing in just one stage of the cannabis cultivation process. The industry has focused heavily on vertical integration, and some regulating bodies require licensees to control the entire cannabis value chain from cultivation and processing to retail. This requirement is not always in the best interest of the consumer or the business, and will likely change as the industry evolves. Not only will companies specialize in each step of the value chain, but we’ll see even further segmentation among growers that choose to focus on just one step of the cultivation process. Cannabis businesses that want to position themselves for future success should identify their strengths in the crop production process and consider specializing in just one part.

Ryan Douglas, former Master Grower for Tweed and author of From Seed to Success: How to Launch a Great Cannabis Cultivation Business in Record Time

Elsewhere in commercial horticulture, specialization is the norm. It is unlikely that the begonias you bought at your local garden shop spent their entire life inside that greenhouse. More likely, the plant spent time hopping between specialists in the production chain before landing on the retail shelf. One grower typically handles stock plant production and serves as a rooting station for vegetative cuttings. From there, rooted cuttings are shipped to a grower that cares for the plants during the vegetative stage. Once they’re an appropriate height for flowering, they’re shipped to the last grower to flower out and sell to retailers.

Cannabis businesses should consider imitating this model as a way to ensure competitiveness in the future. In the US, federal law does not yet allow for the interstate transport of plants containing THC, but the process can be segmented within states where vertical integration is not a requirement. As we look ahead to full federal legalization in the US, we should anticipate companies abandoning the vertical integration model in favor of specialization. In countries where cannabis cultivation is federally legal, entrepreneurs should consider specialization from the moment they begin planning their business.

Cultivators that specialize in breeding and genetics could sell seeds, rooted cuttings, and tissue culture services to commercial growers. Royalties could provide a recurring source of income after the initial sale of seeds or young plants. Contracting propagation activities to a specialist can result in consistently clean rooted cuttings that arrive certified disease-free at roughly ¼ the cost of producing them in-house. This not only frees up space at the recipient’s greenhouse and saves them money, but it eliminates the risks inherent in traditional mother plant and cloning processes. If a mother plant becomes infected, all future generations will exhibit that disease, and the time, money, energy, labor, and space required to maintain healthy stock plants is substantial. Growers that focus on large scale cultivation would do well to outsource this critical step.

From Seed to Success: How to Launch a Great Cannabis Cultivation Business in Record Time

Intermediary growers could specialize in growing out seeds and rooted cuttings into mature plants that are ready to flower. These growers would develop this starter material into healthy plants with a strong, vigorous root system. They would also treat the plants with beneficial insects and inoculate the crop with various biological agents to decrease the plant’s susceptibility to pest and disease infestations. Plants would stay with this grower until they are about six to 18 inches in height—the appropriate size to initiate flowering.

The final stage in the process would be the flower grower. Monetarily, this is the most valuable stage in the cultivation process, but it’s also the most expensive. This facility would have the proper lighting, plant support infrastructure, and environmental controls to ensure that critical grow parameters can be tightly maintained throughout the flowering cycle. The grower would be an expert in managing late-stage insect and disease outbreaks, and they would be cautious not to apply anything to the flower that would later show up on a certificate of analysis (COA), rendering the crop unsaleable. This last stage would also handle all harvest and post-harvest activities—since shipping a finished crop to another location is inefficient and could potentially damage the plants.

As the cannabis cultivation industry normalizes, so, too, will the process by which the product is produced. Entrepreneurs keen on carving out a future in the industry should focus on one stage of the cultivation process, and excel at it.

Four Payroll Best Practices for Cannabis Companies

By Michelle Lanter Smith
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Among the myriad business challenges facing cannabis companies, processing payroll ranks right up there. On top of the industry’s overarching banking and regulatory hurdles—not to mention prohibitive tax liability—its varied, sometimes unconventional pay models can fall outside the scope of traditional payroll processing.

Obviously, despite the many business issues clamoring for attention, the cannabis industry is powered by people—and for a business to succeed, employees must be paid accurately, legally, and on time.

While the industry is still evolving in many respects, there are steps cannabis businesses can take right now to ensure payroll is processed correctly and compliantly—including these four best practices.

1. Implement Foolproof Tracking Processes for Each Pay Model

In addition to salaried and hourly employees—who can be difficult to time-track, depending how they’re distributed—some growers pay bud trimmers by the ounce or pound of trimmed, manicured product. While such productivity-based compensation may make absolute sense for your business, most conventional time and attendance and payroll software isn’t equipped to administer this pay model.

As a result, some companies may resort to manual tracking—but that can create regulatory recordkeeping challenges of their own. The answer: flexible time and attendance software that allows companies to track employees’ time and/or productivity using a variety of data collection methods for different elements of the workforce. It may mean using conventional biometric time clocks at processing facilities and retail dispensaries…mobile time-tracking apps for gardeners and growers in the field…and versatile apps that track employee output by work order or piece rate, however your business chooses to define it.

Furthermore, regardless of how it’s collected, all that data needs to flow seamlessly into your payroll processing system, ensuring pay is calculated correctly for every pay model. The HR payroll software is out there, but you may need to look for it.

2. Verify that Your Payroll Provider Is Cannabis-Friendly

Perhaps you’ve heard horror stories of cannabis companies getting abruptly dropped by their software providers with a mere 30-days’ notice. Some leading HR payroll software companies have made seemingly overnight decisions to withdraw from servicing the cannabis industry, leaving employers struggling to pay their people. Who can implement new HR payroll software in 30 days?

Make sure your payroll provider is committed to serving the cannabis industry for the long haul. If the commitment isn’t there, start looking elsewhere. Beyond avoiding potentially damaging business disruptions, partnering with a software provider that actively services the cannabis industry will offer unique capabilities you may not find elsewhere.

3. Become an Expert on IRS Code 280e (COGS)

Thanks to section 280e of Internal Revenue code, state-compliant cannabis business cannot deduct business expenses except for the cost of goods sold (COGS).

The saving grace here for growers and processors: labor costs that are inventorial in nature are considered cost of goods sold. That includes the cleaning, trimming and curing of product, as well as packaging and inventory labor.

Therefore, for tax purposes, it’s critical to assign each employee a specific title and role within your operation. This is particularly important for vertically-integrated companies whose employees wear more than one hat.

Say, an employee works part time in cultivation and part time in your retail dispensary. You need to be able to track their work time and compensation separately—i.e., you need a time and attendance system that can track split shifts—and keep detailed records of what labor costs are and aren’t deductible.

 4. Consider Integrated HR Payroll Software

Because of payroll challenges, many cannabis businesses are still piecing together disparate HR systems, such as applicant tracking, time and attendance, payroll and benefits. But when their integration isn’t flawless it can create the need for duplicate inputting and elaborate manual workarounds.

Furthermore, a patchwork software can stop businesses from accessing reports and analytics that inform decision-making and better position the company for growth—while also ensuring the company is in a position to provide whatever regulatory information may be required.

The answer: choose a payroll provider that offers complete, integrated HR payroll software—one that that can demonstrate its long-term commitment to serving the state-licensed cannabis industry.

Cannabis and the Connected Indoor Farm

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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Cannabis Cultivation Virtual Conference Part 3

Cannabis and the Connected Indoor Farm- Technology Spotlight Sponsored by VividGro

By David Friedman, President of VividGro

This presentation discusses:

  • SMAA- Sensing, monitoring, alerting & automating
  • Hardware & software integration
  • Protecting & using your data