The venture capital firm co-launched by billionaire PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel is making a big investment in a marijuana company, a high-profile move in a new, ballooning industry.
Founders Fund—a firm with more than $2 billion in assets under management and whose investment portfolio includes Facebook, SpaceX, Airbnb, and Lyft, among other tech companies—has made a multimillion dollar investment in Privateer Holdings, a private equity firm that invests in the legal cannabis industry, the two businesses announced on Thursday.
“We always try to find founders with huge, audacious visions and the chops to actually pull those visions off in markets where they’re going to grow massively,” says Geoff Lewis, a Founders Fund partner. “And this company checks all those boxes.”
The companies would not provide details on the size of the multimillion dollar investment, but it’s nevertheless noteworthy for the industry, which has seen activity ramp up in recent years.
According to one count, deals in the industry grew more than fivefold last year from the year before. In 2013, there were 11 deals valued at $22 million, while there were 63 deals valued at $204 million through Sept. 30 of the last year, according to data compiled by Matthew A. Karnes, founder of GreenWave Advisors, a new marijuana industry research and analysis firm.
Founders Fund also has a very different profile from the typical marijuana industry investor, often individuals or groups formed specifically for that purpose, says Taylor West, deputy director for the National Cannabis Industry Association.
“It sends a signal to the rest of the financial world that there are strong, smart opportunities out there,” West says.
The move is also unique in that the firm isn’t shying away from the publicity, says Emily Paxhia, a founding partner with Poseidon Asset Management, a cannabis industry hedge fund.
“The fact that it’s a high profile fund and the fact also that they’re talking about it openly is actually what’s almost most unique about it,” Paxhia says. Other firms that have made sizable investments have been reluctant to publicize them, she says.
Privateer owns a trio of companies that reflect its three-pronged strategy of investing in data, medical and recreational marijuana companies, says Privateer CEO and co-founder Brendan Kennedy. Those three businesses are: Tilray, a Canadian medical cannabis company; Leafly, a Yelp-like service that lets users share reviews of marijuana dispensaries, strains and other products; and Marley Natural, a new cannabis product line branded on one of the plant’s highest-profile consumers, Bob Marley.
“Our primary focus is on brands, on the brands that will be standing when prohibition ends,” Kennedy says.
Founders Fund’s Lewis, who first reached out to Privateer about a year and a half ago, expects to see marijuana prohibition end on the federal level. Voters in Colorado and Washington approved legalization by sizable margins in 2012, a historic achievement for the plant. Last year, voters in Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C. did the same. The question isn’t if federal legalization will happen, Lewis says, but when.
“If it takes five or 10 years for it to happen, we’re okay with that because we believe that Privateer can build a really powerful business even before there’s federal legalization, which we do believe will happen,” he says. Privateer Holdings was formed in May, 2010. Founders Fund was formed in 2005.
While national polls show support for legalization has slipped some, it remains near all-time highs. A majority support the idea, according to a recent Gallup poll.
The investment is part of Privateer’s ongoing $75 million Series B round of financing. To date, the firm has raised more than $50 million for that round—from Founders Fund and others—and expects to raise the full amount as soon as next month, says CEO Kennedy.