A few days after the 2020 presidential election in the United States, Bruce Linton was at home on the outskirts of Ottawa, Canada, pacing and giddy about the results. Voters in four states approved ballot measures to legalize recreational cannabis use and two new states approved medical use. Oregon went even further, taking a page out of Portugal’s playbook and decriminalizing possession and personal use of all illicit drugs.
“We live in times where new stereotypes are being built and a whole bunch of prohibition stuff is falling apart, so it’s interesting to be here,” he said, as an entrepreneur who is heavily invested in the U.S. of late. “We also just passed over casually that a state in the U.S. basically called an entire end to the war on drugs. It feels like the Berlin Wall fell over and somebody said, ‘What was that noise?’ The wall fell over for Christ’s sake…at least get a piece of it!”
Linton is founder and former chief executive officer of one the largest cannabis companies in the world, Canopy Growth Corp. He spent six years building his baby to a $20 billion valuation and a spot on the New York Stock Exchange in 2018 (though he wasn’t allowed anywhere near the bell, mind you). When he forged a partnership with international liquor conglomerate Constellation Brands Inc., which committed more than $4 billion in investment, he thought the partnership would make his company an even bigger gorilla and provide primacy on the international stage. He was king of the mountain in the fastest-growing industry on the planet.
But then things got complicated.
After a fundamental disagreement with Constellation about the direction of the company and the cannabis stock market’s descent into a slow and steady downslide, Linton was terminated in the summer of 2019.
He rebounded quickly. By early 2020 he was back in his comfort zone, researching, advising, and raising money for a new venture: a global hemp technology investment fund that has its sights set high, far, and wide. Linton also is staking a claim in the American Midwest as an executive with Gage, a major player in Michigan, and is overseeing his Ruckify “Rent Anything” tech business, and…well, who knows what else.
Nerd meets suit meets cannabis
As an energetic, curious kid who was prone to mischief, Linton and his parents moved to a farm in an effort to help him channel his energy and interests in creative, more productive ways. Even today, at 54 years old, he said he struggles to sit still and has the curiosity bug stronger than ever.
“I grew up with a farm experience with parents who worked hard, and I wasn’t particularly academic, but I wasn’t stupid,” he said. “I just didn’t know anything. I was extraordinarily naïve, and I went to university because I thought it gave you a universal education. I was quite disappointed to find out you actually had to select certain topics. So, I took six years to do a four-year degree so I could do way more topics.
“I’m just curious about stuff. I want to do things that I don’t know how to do,” he said. “I believe that’s a 100-percent accurate diagnostic test for entrepreneurs, but the regrettable issue is that it’s also an incurable sort of ailment.”
Similar to the tech entrepreneurs who built Silicon Valley, Linton takes pride in being a nerd who will geek out on arcane science and tech until he finds something that sparks his interest and enthusiasm. After working in the tech industry for a few decades—selling software and founding startups like Ruckify—he began looking for a new pursuit in 2012 and stumbled onto cannabis, which was bubbling up fast in the Canadian cultural, economic, and political conversation. Much of the debate boiled down to public policy, which is another realm he likes digging into.
“If you’re worried about keeping your job, you should fire yourself.”
“In grade seven, my mum reminded me, I did a speech on political candidates and why we should care,” he said. “I actually really like to have discussions about public policy, because everybody wants to talk about the economy and politics. But at the end of the day, the primary governing thing over all of us is public policy, which isn’t made by bureaucrats in a vacuum. It’s created by bureaucrats at the direction of politicians who are often wrong.”
As Canadian politicians started to feel the heat to rewrite the rules on cannabis and make weed available to the wider public, Linton found the opportunity of a lifetime while reading an article in the morning paper. “I said, ‘I know a lot of people really like cannabis, so there’s no doubt there’s demand, and they’re going to give a few people licenses to produce it. The police are happy because they can regulate it and secure it. So, I’m starting a cannabis business,’” he recalled. “It took me all of a morning from having read the article to concluding that.”
Over the next six years he became an entrepreneur and activist, promoting his grand weed plan to friends, family, and potential investors. Along the way, he became annoyed by people who were still under the spell of the drug war propaganda and misinformation that prevails in the U.S. “I didn’t want to hear the stereotypes passed down through three generations that are just bullshit,” he said. “I would say to people, ‘Well, I did not invent cannabis, and it did exist before. And because what I’m doing is simply regulating it, I think that’s better than the government ignoring it, because ignoring it is only good for criminals.’ I was kind of like nerd meets suit meets cannabis.”
Linton dove headlong into cannabis in 2012 and never looked back. He sees himself as an entrepreneur through and through and understands and embraces the inherent risks that come with the turf.
“Entrepreneurs aren’t the most malleable people. If they’re super malleable, you’ve never heard of them because they never got anything done,” he said. “If you meet a person who says they’re an entrepreneur and then they say, ‘I’ve never been pushed out of a company,’ I say, ‘Well, I don’t know how to do that.’ If money knew what to do, if all the cash in the world knew what to do, they wouldn’t need entrepreneurs. We need each other, and we don’t always agree.”
A complicated Canopy
From 2012 to 2018, Linton steered Canopy from a bright idea to monolith. Then came Constellation’s investment, which bought the owner of Corona, Modelo, and other major alcoholic beverage brands about 35 percent of the company and a major influence on the board of directors. Linton said he expected no less, and he was fine with the arrangement because the alternatives were not feasible or favorable for Canopy’s long-term success.
“I knew that if you want to put more money in, if I’m not accommodating to [an investor controlling the board of directors], then you might take everything out. And how bad would that turn out?” he said. “The other side is, I had done sixteen rounds of financing, and [Canopy] was pretty close to going bankrupt on two occasions. Not too close, but maybe close on the third. What I did not want was the headline ‘Biggest Cannabis Company in the World Runs Out of Money.’ So, with those two book ends, you optimize the deal, but you always do the deal. If you’re worried about keeping your job versus those two considerations, you should fire yourself.”
When Linton proposed Canopy spend billions of dollars to secure intellectual property that would give the company strategic advantages over the long term, instead of focusing on short-term revenues, the new board disagreed. In a global market that could be worth as much as $500 billion, he said, investing $8 billion to be the top dog wasn’t a crazy idea.
“Science enables all other branding, because you can make things people stand in line to get because they’re completely different than what anyone else has—and that costs money,” he said. “I wished to create intellectual property that would have a generation of benefit and do it through very focused science to carve the world into three players. And the result would be the best products in each market.”
As an analogy, Linton said Amazon probably could have been very profitable had it stayed small and in the book business. “Wouldn’t that have been a great idea? That’s what the market would tell them to do: Only sell books, stay small, and be profitable,” he said. “But what you actually have to do is have your earnings per share go negative sometimes if you’re investing money back into creating something that has a lifetime of durable value. I had a major agenda on science because I don’t think people necessarily want to buy marijuana. I think what they want is an outcome that marijuana delivers. I don’t care if it’s medical or rec, it’s what outcome do you need? And those are all science activities.”
In 2019, cannabis stocks became a rollercoaster ride that eventually sent the global weed market into a tailspin. Canopy shares peaked in May at $49 and plummeted to $15 over the next six months. In July, the Canopy board decided to take a new direction with the company and terminated Linton. By December, the company had chosen a new chief executive officer: David Klein, Canopy’s chairman of the board…and the finance chief at Constellation Brands.
As a veteran of the tech industry, Linton didn’t find the turn of events hugely surprising. During the first wave of the dot-com boom in the late 1990s, startups were hit-or-miss ventures and the CEO was the first one out the door when the board of directors found balance sheets disappointing. Ironically, those same CEOs became attractive job candidates to lead other startups. Their “failure” was a badge of honor, more or less; presumably, they had learned important lessons about the pitfalls and challenges of the game and would do better next time.
Linton said he doesn’t harbor any serious regrets about the direction he took Canopy or the way things ended, and he looks back proudly on what he built. “I always say thanks for that, and [the investment] must validate that maybe we built something interesting and valuable.”
These days, he is on a mission to build something new, interesting, and valuable out of the plant, but the goal has nothing to do with smoking.
A new direction
As a geek and an entrepreneur, Linton always evaluates the science and research before plunging into a new market or opportunity. When he began investigating hemp, he soon recognized its limitless, virtually untapped potential. Particularly in the U.S., investors view the hemp industry through the lens of CBD products, which have exploded in popularity over the past few years. But Linton sees much more potential for hemp and its sustainable and disruptive industrial applications. He believes the plant can play a significant role in more than 200 product categories.
Shortly after he founded Collective Growth Corp. in early 2020, Linton raised $150 million—not bad, considering there was a worldwide pandemic at hand. The new acquisition company went public on the Nasdaq exchange in May. The company intends to explore the potential of hemp and invest in disruptive technologies that can turn the plant into food, pharmaceuticals, sustainable building materials, and who knows what else. When Linton talks about the hemp industry, he sees unlimited potential but likes to put the opportunities in “two buckets”: food-to-farm and disruptive industrial.
“So, you’re thinking about largely the same material, and there’s everything from thinking about creams for psoriasis to a super-stable protein option that is from the U.S. and is a third crop. There’s all kinds of technologies now figured out on how to make it taste great and have the protein as one of the most stable plant proteins,” he said. “The disruptive industrial bucket is how everything from the fender on your car to the way you make your next injection-molded garbage can is created. They’re both equally interesting, but you couldn’t put them all smashed together. That’s how we’re bucketing the world as we look at all the prospects.”
For now, Linton is focused on Europe, where regulations are more relaxed than in the U.S. and technology development is more advanced in hemp manufacturing, and where companies have been building out and scaling up their operations. In terms of investment, Linton has been looking in countries that have created successful cottage industries, including Holland, Italy, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. “They are doing things with hemp, but they haven’t been doing them at scale because the biggest market in the world wouldn’t let it come in,” he said.
Once he identifies the products he is most interested in developing and the technologies and manufacturing capabilities needed to produce them, Linton plans to set up shop in the U.S. “That’s my whole mission,” he said. “I’m going to buy this stuff up all around the world and then create at least one and probably three instances of it in the U.S. Then you can create this interesting facility that’s somewhere between the farmer’s fields and the factories that need to do all the things they need to do, from building cars to making products you wear and food you eat. We monetize the entire plant for its many virtues and potentials. And that is naturally disruptive in everything from hydrocarbons to cotton.”
While Linton’s new obsession is primarily with the THC-less version of the cannabis plant, he also has a leading role with a major player in Michigan that is using high-tech indoor cultivation facilities to grow heavy-hitting strains with some of the most popular genetics on the market.
In 2019, Linton was named executive chairman at Gage Cannabis Co., a vertically integrated cannabis producer operating five dispensaries, with plans to open three more by the end of 2020. Aside from its own branded products, Gage is the exclusive retailer and producer of Cookies, which may be the most popular and successful flower brand in the industry. Gage also operates Cookies-branded stores in Michigan. Linton believes the company has a unique opportunity to thrive in both flower production and retail in one of the most promising new markets in the Midwest.
“Part of the reason I like Michigan is that it’s not a young-person state, so a high percentage of the people will be eligible to be customers,” he said. “I also like the vertical stack, because you want to be able to have your own retail, but you don’t want to be stuck with crappy product.”
When he discusses other cannabis opportunities, he first mentions some of the voids he sees in the market. “One thing I’m looking for is a company that’s terrific at animal care,” he said. “Cannabis for geriatric people is a good idea if it’s done right. I think it’s going to be a very good idea for animals as well. I just haven’t found a really solid, thoughtful, research-oriented company that wants to do that, but I think it’s a mega-market that is under-tapped.”
One of the markets expected to blossom in 2021 is cannabis beverages, but Linton believes companies haven’t yet developed formulations that will take off among mainstream consumers. “I haven’t tasted any beverages that I was wowzered by,” he said. “And imagine, I spent five years at Canopy saying, ‘We are going to lead the world in making beverages because it’s a socially normal way for people to become intoxicated who don’t currently buy cannabis.’ It’s way easier if you’re going to have a concert to have a special-occasion permit for beverages than it is to have a smoking concert. But I do think we’re going to see—next summer, probably—five great beverage entrants in the U.S.”
Like any geeky entrepreneur worth his salt, Linton also is taking a long view on plant-based medicinal therapies and is intrigued by the potential in psychedelic drugs, most notably psilocybin.
“Why am I looking at the psychedelic stuff now? I just think they were treated poorly,” he said. “If they make you hallucinate and have all kinds of psychedelic effects on you, that sounds like a pretty powerful molecule. So how could you amend that molecule to make it into something else that maybe works better?
“A lot of people are using ketamine and going to therapies and realizing why they’re angry at themselves,” he added. “If you feel better and you don’t hurt anybody, I think that’s a good outcome.”
As he looks forward to 2021, Linton said he can’t wait to start traveling again so he can get an up-close look at new technologies. He’s particularly excited about designing facilities that could lead to scientific and manufacturing breakthroughs in the future. For now, though, he’s stuck puttering around at home. “While I’m talking to you, I’m pacing back and forth because I hate sitting around having conversations,” he said. “I would much rather be taking you on a tour of a facility and explaining all the stuff we built and telling you how version two is going to be even better. But right now, all I’m thinking is, ‘This poor bastard. I hope he’s microdosing so he didn’t have to tolerate all of me.’”