Written by Andrew Seale

Arguably, a startup ecosystem isn’t truly an ecosystem until you have an accelerator. And that’s precisely what Alex Blumenstein and his co-founders, Brett Chang, and Taylor Scollon, are trying to change with Leaf Forward, Canada’s first cannabis business accelerator.

“Toronto is very much the capital of cannabis in Canada,” says Blumenstein. But when he and his co-founders initially were looking to get involved in the sphere, there didn’t seem to be any guidance for cannabis entrepreneurs.

“We looked at the tech sector where there's a meet-up every night of the week for every different part of the tech sector,” explains Blumenstein, who previously worked in public affairs. “We saw that didn't exist for the professional cannabis industry so we said, hey, let's go out and do this ourselves.”

Modeled after TechTO, the first professional cannabis meet-up kicked off in January last year featuring Vic Neufeld, CEO of the licensed cannabis producer Aphria. Since then, Blumenstein and co. have been hosting the meet-up once a month.

Along the way, they realized they were building a massive network of entrepreneurs and leaders in the cannabis space, so they decided to pilot an early iteration of an accelerator, “Our version of an MVP (minimum viable product),” says Blumenstein. “(We) held two classes in September, each day eight businesses pitched to a group of these mentors one-on-one… just an informal day of matching people up for mentorship and feedback.”

The crash-course a success, the Leaf Forward crew re-tooled it, running a six-week Sprint to Pitch program in partnership with Dentons and MNP. The focus was on raising money in the cannabis space. It tackled both the challenges every startup faces when it comes to finding investors as well as cannabis industry-specific ones that arise in the complicated, emerging space. Eleven companies moved through the program.

“We wrapped that up and had the demo day for that in mid-April,” says Blumenstein. “Now we’re in our next growth phase.”

Leaf Forward is expanding its meet-ups beyond Toronto and Calgary to Montreal, Winnipeg, Vancouver and Melbourne, Australia (“They’re moving quickly towards legalization,” says Blumenstein.)

The organization has also turned its eye towards cannabis startup boot-camps – a four-day intensive program for people in the very early stages needing help getting their concept off the ground.

“What funding options are out there, what the regulations are… a big part of our mandate is to better help people understand where the opportunities lie because it's not so obvious for people outside (the industry),” says Blumenstein.

By the fall, Leaf Forward is aiming to have a full-fledged three-month accelerator program up and running.

“I think the general population’s literacy around cannabis and the cannabis industry is moving quite quickly,” he says. “We're really focused on creating opportunities, education, and building the ecosystem, that’s the phase we’re in now.”

Photo credit: Cameron Bartlett (www.snappedbycam.com)