All posts by Peter Murray

Nerds On Site: Clever solution for small business computing needs drives fast growth in highly fractured market

In today’s global connected environment, with laptops, servers, mobile devices, and other digital equipment collectively running millions of different software applications, in-house IT and network security work is no joke. A single IT professional cannot cover all aspects of this vast technological universe and be up to date on every topic, as things change every day.

In recent years, network intrusion, ransomware attacks and other black-hat activity has reached such proportions that it’s no longer random bad luck when it hits someone. Internet vulnerability is day-to-day reality for companies of all sizes.

If you work at a large company, you’re in luck relatively speaking, as there is likely in-house help to lean on if you have an issue.

For small companies, however, external support is often the only place to turn. There goes the rest of the day, for starters.

Nerds On Site (CSE:NERD) is a practical solution for small and medium-sized enterprises to consider. The company has a large team of carefully chosen technology specialists ready to visit your home or place of work to diagnose problems on the spot and offer ongoing managed solutions to prevent problems occurring in the first place.

Oftentimes, a fix will be at hand and the team member will be able to find and implement solutions before leaving. If software, parts, or a security installation is required, Nerds On Site works closely with suppliers to get things fast and at fair prices.

When it comes to software, Nerds On Site also has the ability to develop unique, state-of-the-art solutions through third-party developers. Examples include electronic records processing and security applications. It’s kind of like having your own IT department without needing to be a large company.

Eugene Konaryev is a director at Nerds On Site and did much of the necessary financial work leading up to the listing of the company on the Canadian Securities Exchange in late November. Sporting a computer science degree from the University of Toronto, he immediately understood Nerds On Site’s capabilities and the concept of addressing its large market when he first met CEO (Capability Expansion Orchestrator) Charlie Regan in 2014.

“What the company does is mobile IT services to small and medium-sized business,” says Konaryev. “We still have a small portion of residential customers, but what we really do is enable SMEs to enjoy high-quality IT service and support without the need for high-priced contracts.”

It is not just hardware and software the company helps with, mind you. Once hired, Nerds On Site provides round the clock network and device monitoring options, on-site and remote support, IT asset management and much more. “We take care of pretty much everything there is in SME IT,” says Konaryev.

Nerds On Site was founded in 1996 and has established a solid presence in 10 major cities across Canada. One way to explain its scale is to refer to the number of Nerds in the network. At present, there are 125, the largest concentration being in Ontario, and specifically Toronto.

Clients include a large number of Canadian Tire locations, with a broader corporate relationship in the works.  Importantly, Nerds on Site has also been named an Apple mobility partner.

When entering a new city, the game plan is to have at least five Nerds, and preferably 10. For example, the planned expansion into 10 US cities entails 100 Nerds – 10 in each city. The company uses a subcontractor model and is starting to use franchising as well in the United States.

“When you enter a new urban market, a sophisticated Nerd force makes a difference,” says Konaryev. “Talent is very important. They call one another ‘enterprise nerds’ in a positive way.” He explains that set-up expenses for the company when it enters a new urban market are around $250,000 for a 10-person team, a pittance compared to almost any other type of business with 10 highly motivated employees serving an entire city.

Underlying the growth opportunity for Nerds On Site is that it operates in a highly fragmented market with the majority of companies in the space being small and short-lived, according to Konaryev. The big IT service companies focus on large enterprises and charge such high fees to their well-heeled corporate clients that catering to the SME market does not make sense for them.

Even though the SME market is largely there for the taking, no company has established itself as the segment leader on a national scale, although there are good local and regional players both in the US and Canada. Nerds On Site sees them as potential M&A opportunities.

“When someone asks who our biggest competitor is, I can’t even give them a name,” says Konaryev. “There are small IT shops in cities and often when you need help, there is nobody available to answer the phone, or you call and they have gone out of business.  That’s why this is such a great opportunity.”

The strategy for the coming year involves an aggressive rollout into the 10 fastest-growing cities in the US, most of them in Arizona and Florida. The plan is to launch in the first 10 US cities in 12-16 months.

“We have the capital to launch Nerdmobiles in these cities thanks to the funds raised during the IPO,” says Konaryev. “And then it’s all about finding talent, and fortunately, talent is in abundance if you know where to look. For example, we did a small campaign about six weeks ago to attract prospective Nerds in Florida and in one week we received over 400 applications.”

The follow-on expansion phase is slated at 50 cities, after which would come a 100-city expansion, the ultimate goal being to offer national coverage in the US. Continued expansion in Canada is also part of the plan.

When it comes to choosing Nerds, applicants need not only IT education and appropriate practical experience, but also the self-starter attitude that all successful entrepreneurs possess. The initial telephone interview has a pass rate of only about 50%, with those making the first cut moving on to a video interview, and then an interview in person with a local team leader.

Qualified applicants get about a month of training at Nerds on Site headquarters in London, Ontario. For US Nerds, training would take place on site in Florida.

Typically, for every 10 applicants, only one or two make it through the process. Once qualified, Nerds get access to competitively priced lease or buy options for a Nerdmobile, a network of other Nerds that is always there to help, a local customer database, low-cost inventory, and any other support they might need from the broader Nerds on Site team.

“We promote a collegial network where knowledge is shared and if someone does not know something, they can reach out to a colleague through IAAN (the company’s ‘I am A Nerd’ tablet-based control system), and the helper can share in the revenue because of their contribution,” Konaryev says.

Nerds On Site raised $4.7 million through its IPO.  Revenue in fiscal 2017 was around $8.3 million. Fees related to the listing are weighing on earnings, but the company would have been profitable had those one-time fees not been incurred, says Konaryev. The 10-city US rollout will use a significant portion of the capital but once that is complete Konaryev says the company anticipates being in the black.

Konaryev recalls that when Charlie Regan joined the company and the team considered how best to scale, they called as many IT specialists as they could identify and found that 80% did not answer. “From our experience, about 95% of SMEs are massively underserviced,” says Konaryev. Slowly but surely, Nerds On Site seeks to make this a problem of the past.

This story was originally published at www.proactiveinvestors.com on January 30, 2019 and featured in the Public Entrepreneur magazine.

Learn more about Nerds On Site at https://www.nerdsonsite.com/.

VirtualArmour International: Keeping the bad guys at bay with customized network security solutions

Every week, it seems, brings another concerning story about hackers infiltrating a commercial or government network and making off with highly sensitive information.  One would think that with the threat having been clear for so long, entities with significant exposure would have devoted appropriate resources to figuring out how to protect themselves properly. Alas, all too often this seems not to be the case.

VirtualArmour International (CSE:VAI) has a solution to this problem, or to put it more accurately, a tailored solution that precisely fits each customer’s risk profile and particular set of network vulnerabilities. Boasting a 100% retention rate across a very broad customer base, the company is obviously doing something right.

Public Entrepreneur spoke recently with VirtualArmour chief executive officer Russ Armbrust about the state of cybersecurity and what his company does to help organizations stay ahead of the curve.

Cyberattacks make the news regularly and the loss of confidence a compromised company suffers can be quite serious. Can you give us your view on the state both of attempts to infiltrate corporate and other networks, and the quality and consistency of efforts being made to counter them?

There are constantly new tactics and techniques being developed to compromise IT assets for valuable information. Considering these tactics are continuously evolving, we make it a point to partner with what we consider the best-in-class technology providers who have proven track records of constantly improving their solutions to stay ahead of this evolution.

The response landscape of cyberattacks has shifted to a proactive approach, looking for behaviour-based activity as opposed to the signature-based approach. Utilizing emerging technologies like artificial intelligence to maintain a proactive stance against hackers will continue to improve and aid in keeping pace with the way we respond to these threats.

As far as the quality and consistency of counterefforts, I would say that 90% of companies are very immature at this right now. That is the reason for the growth of our company. Most of the companies we talk to don’t know what they don’t know. It is a comprehensive process with each of the companies to get them up to the cyber posture they need.

Let’s look several years down the road – what do you project as far as the evolution of network security is concerned?

The traditional model of network security is being challenged and new technologies are becoming commonplace. Everything soon will be connected to the Internet in some way or another, be it wireless, cellular, Bluetooth or something new. We see that each and every day in commercial advertisements. Now your refrigerator is connected, your oven is connected. With nearly everything expected to be connected, this will produce new attack vectors and require constant development of defense mechanisms and techniques, both proactive and reactive.

Walk us through VirtualArmour’s approach to the problem.  What are your competitive advantages – what makes you better? And how does the company keep pace with the constantly changing cybersecurity landscape?

We focus on customer experience. Everyone’s cyber posture is unique, so our goal is to understand the potential cyber gaps of each customer.  We focus on becoming a true partnership and acting as an extension of their team. In today’s world, the new modern MSSP (Managed Security Service Provider) should help a customer solve problems, not just send alerts. And that is our true differentiator.

As to how we keep pace, we believe that we have hired some of the best engineers in the business. With such a broad range of customers in so many industries, as well as interacting with our customers’ highly skilled engineers, it enables our engineers to constantly evaluate and stay on top of this ever-changing cyber landscape.

Where do you find the majority of cyberattacks are coming from? Are they just people seeing if they can penetrate networks for the challenge of it, or is it cybercriminals seeing if they can enter networks to obtain information and use that to generate profit in some way? Who is who in the zoo out there attacking these networks?

It is all across the board. We see attacks coming from the outside to gather information, and we see attacks coming from inside of corporations. It is literally all across the board in terms of how people are trying to penetrate networks.

What types of companies choose VirtualArmour to protect them?

They don’t necessarily come from any specific industry, but they do have common traits. They typically are highly regulated and lack the proper resources or skillset to deliver what is required on any security practice.

We have customers in health care, retail, financial, oil and gas, mining and many others. With the customer service we provide we have been able to maintain a 100% retention rate to date with our customer base. And what is really exciting about that is our typical contract ranges anywhere from one to three years.

Our business is built solely around services. Professional services are helping with architecture and projects. And then managed services is where we are the eyes and ears to a company’s network and security. We are monitoring 24/7. We are not just alerting but we are helping with a customer’s entire network.

Where you do stand right now in terms of revenue and what is the outlook?

As of our reported results for Q2 2018, our managed and professional services increased 78% to a record US$1.2 million versus the same year-ago quarter, and total revenue increased 50% to a record US$4 million. And with our current growth, we are well on track to continue at this tremendous pace.

Looking at our margins, you can see our business continues to grow and a favorable shift to our higher margin, managed and professional services business.

Are there any industry dynamics people are unaware of right now that you think have the potential to drive more business to VirtualArmour in the long term?

Cybercrime is expected to hit US$6 trillion annually by 2021.  Due to these numbers they are also expecting cybersecurity jobs to more than triple. This talent pool will remain flat, which is going to create a shortage of talent and make it more difficult for customers to maintain their existing talent. And that will drive customers to sign with companies like VirtualArmour to deliver on all these services.

And to wrap things up, how about some client feedback or observations from your team on making sure the companies you serve want to continue working with VirtualArmour. What’s the secret there?

I’d point out that we typically come across the same competitors when we compete for an opportunity. What’s really been exciting for us is that we have been coming out on top and it is due to the customer service experience.

When we win a new client, I always like to ask them why they chose VirtualArmour and we get the same answer over and over. We truly do take a different approach. We are more customer-focused. We provide playbooks around their business needs rather than telling them they have to do things a certain way. When they meet our engineers during the sales cycle, they come to believe they are some of the best in the business and that makes them comfortable about the services they are going to receive.

This story was originally published at proactiveinvestors.com on January 3, 2019 and featured in the Public Entrepreneur magazine.

Learn more about VirtualArmour International at https://www.virtualarmour.com/.

NameSilo Technologies: Achieving superior investment returns requires looking where others do not

Mention the name Paul Andreola in Canadian financial circles and those in the know require no further explanation, given his outstanding track record as a stock picker in non-resource microcaps. Taking the methodology that has served him so well as a private investor, Andreola has painstakingly created a portfolio of investments in small companies for NameSilo Technologies (CSE:URL) (note: NameSilo Technologies began trading under its current name and symbol on December 6, 2018. The company previously traded as Brisio Innovations).

NameSilo shares have more than doubled in value over the past year and Andreola credits this in part to a shift in strategy that will see the company take larger percentage positions in its portfolio holdings going forward. Diversification that sees everything from drug research to truss manufacturing included in the portfolio is a big help as well.

The other key to delivering strong returns to shareholders is a fascinating private-public arbitrage concept that requires experience and a broad, deep network to achieve.

Andreola shared the NameSilo approach to generating superior investment returns with Public Entrepreneur during a mid-November discussion in Vancouver.

NameSilo Technologies has some similarities to a classic investment fund, but plenty of differences as well. Can you explain the NameSilo concept and business model to get us started?

The company is run by investors first and foremost. We use a model we think is quite rare, especially in the microcap space. We look for companies that are more advanced than pure start-ups. Companies that we think have significantly less risk than the typical business entity that gets listed publicly but with as much, if not more, upside. We are looking for situations that have that perfect risk-reward scenario that allows us to feel comfortable putting in a significant amount of money. We take a private equity model and put it inside a public vehicle.

We are looking for high-growth companies. We want to invest in companies that have proven there is a viable model and, in most cases, viable products and services that they are offering. And we want to catch them just as they are getting that explosive, hockey stick-style growth.

The model itself is something that we have been doing personally for years, and we have now put it into a vehicle such that we can take advantage of the scale that goes with being a public company.

Tell us about the boss. Who is Paul Andreola and what led you to build NameSilo?

I have worn a lot of hats over the many years I have been at this. I used to be a stockbroker and spent roughly 10 years in the investment industry. I have seen a lot of deals and most of them are not good. The key is to try to say “No” as many times as you can and find that one little gem that comes along every now and then.

I’ve also started two technology companies. One we took public and it did extremely well, and then the other one actually did not do so well. And we learned as much from that one as we did from the one that was successful. So, I’ve got the start-up and the go-public experience and that helps us when we look at new opportunities.

Thirdly, I have an investment newsletter and a network of investors who all have the same mentality. We all want to find these little gems that are obscure and undiscovered. And we want to try to bring these companies everything they need to be successful. It’s a model that we have proven works.

My other director is Colin Bowkett. He comes from a much purer venture capital background and has been in the markets for over 10 years. Compared to me he was a lot more involved in the speculative side of the business and is more of a people person than I am. The thing about investing is there are a lot of personalities involved and having someone with good people skills enables you to figure things out that you wouldn’t have been able to without the right skills.

The third key person is Kristaps Ronka. He is an IT specialist who has worked for several tech companies, but his real claim to fame is that he and his partner started a tech company from scratch and took it from zero in sales to a run rate of around $100 million before it got bought out. He took some of the funds from his sale and has invested in a collection of other businesses.

The NameSilo website states that there are lots of good investment opportunities, but NameSilo is looking for great ones. What makes a great investment opportunity?

We take a GARP approach – Growth at a Reasonable Price. There are a lot of cases where you find a great company but it is priced for perfection, and that is not what we are looking for. We are trying to find situations where there is a great company at a great price. And we don’t just look at the public markets. We have managed to find several high-growth, low-priced public companies and have done it on the private side, too. That is where it gets really exciting because we think there is a very strong pricing arbitrage where you can find a company that might sell privately for 3 or 4 times earnings and the public comparables trade at 10 or 15 times earnings, so immediately there is a lift just by taking these companies public.

How do you find these companies?

We turn over a lot of rocks and are constantly looking. As far as public companies, we are numbers guys and we read every single SEDAR filing in Canada. There are very few companies we haven’t got at least a cursory understanding of. We have a formula we are looking for and if a company doesn’t meet that formula it gets crossed off.  We literally go through thousands of them – to find even one you have to go through a lot.

The private ones are a little bit harder to find. We have a network of people who know what we are looking for and typically the network brings us private deals to assess. A lot of them are companies not necessarily looking for money, but they may be looking for an exit. Great little businesses, run well, not necessarily needing money, so we don’t have the risk of financing them, but they just want a partial exit or something. We take them public and achieve that partial exit for them.

Let’s look at your portfolio and how a company fits into the greater whole and creates value for shareholders. Perhaps begin with the latest acquisition, which also brought the company a new name.

NameSilo is actually an anomaly. Until now, all of the companies we became involved with, we took no more than a high single-digit percentage ownership position. We’d find companies where in the process of going public we had the opportunity to purchase shares and then when it went public we would get that lift on our 5% or so.

NameSilo is a company we have actually purchased 100% of, though we have carved out a percentage for the management team running it. But here is an opportunity where we think we are going to get 100% of the lift through that private-to-pubic arbitrage. That is likely to be the way we will perform going forward, taking a much larger stake in each company.

NameSilo’s stock price has been doing well of late. It has doubled since the beginning of the year. What is driving that and what feedback do you get from shareholders?

The biggest driver is the biggest part of our portfolio, which is NameSilo. We think it is outstanding. NameSilo is a domain registrar similar to GoDaddy or Tucows, but it is arguably one of the three fastest growing in the world. The company has been able to automate itself to be able to drive prices down to where nobody can compete on price with our core product. We are growing much faster than GoDaddy on a percentage basis.

We think we bought it extremely cheap in comparison to the other publicly listed companies. We trade at a fraction of the metrics they trade at and we are growing anywhere between 80% and 90% organically, whereas GoDaddy is growing at about 15%. What is driving the NameSilo share price, I believe, is that people are beginning to recognize the undervalued nature of our major asset.

Investing involves looking into the future and making certain assumptions. What do you see around the corner in some of the industries your companies are involved in?

We are always looking for trends but not trends as you typically see in the venture capital market. We want to see established trends. We didn’t invest in the cannabis space. We didn’t invest in the blockchain space. We want to see trends that actually show up in financials.

For example, one of our investments is a company called ImmunoPrecise. They’re a contract research organization for major pharmaceutical companies. What that means is major pharma companies don’t do a lot of the R&D in house but will contract it out to a company such as ImmunoPrecise. That is a major tailwind that a lot of people don’t recognize but that we are seeing in the numbers. We want to see high growth in the businesses we are investing in, because that is a sign the business is working.

The other major trend to be aware of is the topic of passive versus active investing. The FAANG stocks – Facebook and Amazon and those names – there is a massive amount of money going into opportunities that have to be big enough for institutional funds to participate. The old active investor has given way to investing in ETFs or big funds that mirror the indexes or just buy a basket of the biggest stocks.

I think we will see the pendulum swing back to the active investor who is a good stock picker. In the microcap space, liquidity has dried up and institutions have gone upmarket. In the long run what that does is open up a lot more opportunities for investors like me to go after these great little deals without the competition you would usually see. It also opens up a lot of opportunities for bigger companies to buy the smaller companies on the cheap.

Any words of advice for up and coming entrepreneurs from your years in the business?

The model that we have in Canada in the public markets really is second to none. As entrepreneurs, people should be aware that this tool is there for them. Especially if you have some degree of success. If you have a real business that is generating revenue, and in some cases profits, the ability to take advantage of the model here and some of the valuations you ultimately get, and the options that being public give you, is something entrepreneurs should seriously look at.

This story was originally published at www.proactiveinvestors.com on January 2, 2019 and featured in the Public Entrepreneur magazine.

Learn more about NameSilo Technologies at http://brisio.com/namesilo-technologies-corp/.

The CSE Year In Review

It is clear from speaking with people both inside the Canadian Securities Exchange and around the broader financial community that 2018 is going to be remembered as perhaps the most transformational year in the CSE’s history.

Huge financings, billion-dollar market caps, a steady stream of international listings, and financial institutions investing in CSE issuers like never before are only some of the talking points. Fast-growing, well-capitalized companies and strong investor interest in them have elevated the exchange to a new level.

Total capital raised by CSE issuers looks set to increase by over 500% compared to 2017, with a chance at topping the $5 billion mark.  Curaleaf Holdings certainly played its part, raising $520 million during its listing transaction in October. The company stated in a related news release that over 100 financial institutions had supported its financing.

Rapid expansion of market capitalization
“Clearly, standout events have been taking place over the last few months, with the number of very large US-based cannabis issuers that have joined the exchange,” remarks Richard Carleton, CSE Chief Executive Officer, during a discussion in late November. “We are seeing the most rapid expansion of market capitalization and impact on the exchange since our inception.”

Climbing 13.25% year-to-date, the total market capitalization of CSE listed is growing appreciably thanks to the contributions of several larger entrants to the marketplace. And while Curaleaf leads the way with its $2+ billion valuation, there are plenty of other issuers that qualify as solid mid-caps in the Canadian market. Microcaps still constitute the majority of listings, but bigger companies are finding the exchange to be a suitable home as well.

It’s no secret that the CSE is the go-to exchange for listing cannabis companies with operations in the United States. The CSE never shied away from the cannabis industry in Canada, and when considering how to manage prospective issuers from south of the border, exchange officials spent time with regulators and professional services providers to confirm there was a high degree of comfort with the industry’s risk profile. One of the advantages of investing in public companies, after all, is strict disclosure standards designed to ensure that investment risk can be accurately assessed.

The next development in the cannabis sector at the CSE, beyond more large listings almost ready to debut, is the development of cannabis index products in 2019. “The CSE is the only location globally where you see as heavy a concentration of US cannabis issuers, so we are the logical place for such an index to be calculated and disseminated,” notes Carleton. Could related ETFs be far behind?

Whilst cannabis stocks may be dominating the headlines, the CSE has also welcomed a strong contingent of new mining companies in 2018, a total of 57 through the end of November.

“We have in fact seen a significant number – and in absolute numbers almost a record – of mining companies get onto the exchange and receive funding this year,” says Carleton. “My sense is that some of the profits from trading in the cannabis space over the last couple of years are being applied to the mining sector.”

Tech listings have been increasing as well, even though appetite for everything blockchain has slowed compared to the enthusiasm of late 2017. Interestingly, the industry enthusiasm for cannabis might just dovetail with ongoing international outreach initiatives by the CSE to put new funding alternatives on the table in the tech space.

Canadian public equity markets a viable alternative for
US companies

Smaller companies in the US and other international markets are finding it increasingly difficult to obtain private funding as private equity funds increase in size and need to make larger investments in portfolio components. A primary Canadian listing on the CSE would be worth considering for many young growth companies.

“We are being exposed to advisors in the United States who are beginning to understand that the Canadian public equity markets are in fact a viable alternative for US companies looking for growth capital,” says Carleton. “We’ve had conversations with a number of these professionals about taking what we have learned from the capitalization efforts in the US cannabis space and applying that to companies from other sectors that perhaps have not been that well served by the venture capital and provide equity models that are the principal source of growth capital for early stage US companies.”

Speaking of tech, the CSE has an ongoing project of its own in the form of a blockchain-enabled clearing and settlement facility. The project team is in the late stages of quality assurance and plans call for moving to external testing with dealers and other interested parties before the end of 2018.

“Dealers continue to be extremely eager to get their hands on it,” Carleton explains. “They understand the business case and the client service benefits, as well as the number of companies that would like to use security tokens as a means of securing capital.  We continue to be very excited about this facility and it is going to be one of the things on the agenda for 2019.”

Continually working to improve the issuer experience is an important part of the CSE’s culture, and that’s reflected in exchange staff organizing or participating in over 80 events during 2018.

New Toronto office
The CSE seeks to make that part of its business even stronger in 2019 with relocation to a new office, the highest office floor in Toronto, no less – 72 stories up at First Canadian Place. “This was really brought on by the anticipated growth in our staffing levels, particularly in the listings regulation area,” says Carleton. “It is important that we continue to maintain high service levels for our issuers and deploy our regulatory responsibilities as an exchange.”

A full-blown market opening centre is in the works and it will be just one of several first-day activities designed to ensure that a new issuer’s launch into the public markets gets off to a good start. “The new First Canadian Place location will provide the space and a spectacular backdrop to have exactly that kind of experience.”

New issuers will be pleased to learn that they are joining an exchange that again set full-year records for trading volume, trading value, and other measures of investor participation.

Trading volume up
In the first 11 months of the year, trading volume was already 54.97% higher than the total for all of 2017, topping 27.05Bn shares. Most measures of investor activity had actually surpassed last year’s record levels by mid-summer. And with the listing application pipeline exceptionally healthy as we head into year-end, look for 2019 to be another blockbuster.

Granted, capital markets in Canada are having a better year in general, but the CSE’s pace of growth in 2018 is validation of a business model that puts the needs of issuers first.  Fund managers from around the world confirm this, sophisticated management teams who choose the CSE over multiple alternatives confirm this, and investors trading tens of millions of shares per day in individual companies confirm this.

Carleton and his team see it first-hand and fully anticipate 2019 to be another year of growth and progress in many forms. Be it cannabis and tech businesses listing from the US, Israeli companies following up on the CSE’s multiyear effort there to introduce the listing concept, or new investors learning about the many opportunities presented by CSE issuers, the outlook could hardly be brighter.

“Things are going well but we need to keep our foot on the accelerator,” Carleton concludes. “Top-quality service for our issuers, a fair and well-regulated trading environment, and continued innovation in the exchange’s technology and business practices. It has worked so far, and we are going to keep at it.”

This story was originally published at www.proactiveinvestors.com on December 31, 2018 and featured in The Public Entrepreneur magazine.

Learn more about the Canadian Securities Exchange at https://www.thecse.com/.

The World According to Victory Square: Global tech making a difference on multiple fronts

Technology is changing the lives of every living thing on our planet and at a speed difficult to grasp.  Then there is the question of direction – where is the tech world taking us, and to what end?

To begin understanding these issues, it helps to have insight from someone who lives and breathes technology, but at the same time is not so consumed by it that they lose touch with everyday realities.  Someone driven by the outcome of their efforts for human beings, rather than the pursuit of technology for its own sake.

Shafin Diamond Tejani, CEO of Victory Square Technologies (CSE:VST), is firmly in the former group.  With a vision for his company built around clear opinions on future trends, he speaks sincerely about both increasing shareholder value and the positive influence he and his team can have on local communities…and those not so local.  At the end of the day, Tejani believes the benefits are there for all of us to share.

Public Entrepreneur visited Victory Square headquarters in Vancouver recently for an in-depth discussion of Tejani’s philosophies and thoughts on where technology is headed.  Investors and entrepreneurs alike could learn much from one of the city’s leading lights in technology investing and helping entrepreneurs realize their business and personal goals.

Victory Square invests in companies that are shaping the future, and that means you have some precise views on where technology, and the world in general, is going.  Can you share that outlook with us?  What are you focused on and what do you see for the future that some people might not?

Human nature is very predictable, and history is very cyclical.  If you look at the past few decades you see very clear patterns.  Our focus recently has been on new emerging technologies, which are disrupting established technology and creating completely new industries.  We are seeing things like decentralization, artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, and virtual and augmented reality being the next big movements.

I started my first company during the early dotcom boom of the mid-1990s.  The Internet and the Web democratized access to information and connected people from all over the world.  We have seen that impact every walk of our lives on a global scale, and it accelerated further with the explosion of mobile phones and smartphones.  We can now say that humankind is almost entirely connected.

Humans generally want to do the same things.  On the Internet they want to access information, purchase things, play games and watch movies.  They also use social media to connect and communicate with one another.  But for the last 25 years, most of these activities have taken place on centralized servers.  Facebook allows you and I to communicate but it’s a centralized platform.  We input the information, but they own that input, and they monetize it to third-party advertisers without us getting a cut of the money.

The impact of global platforms like Google, Twitter, and Facebook leads to problems ranging from the threat of government-ordered censorship to more subtle, algorithmic biases in the curation of material that users consume. These platforms which host and inform our connected public perspectives are unelected, unaccountable, and often difficult to oversee or audit.

We are now living through a new movement to create technologies and services to address these issues. Decentralized technologies that are open source, enabling peer-to-peer interactions in lieu of mediated centralized platforms are the remedy to our current global landscape.

In a centralized system, everything is kept in the same place and can be hacked.  In a decentralized network there may still be a Facebook that can create the network, but we all own our own information and we all participate and benefit from how successful that network becomes.  People will want to do the same things, but the underlying architecture is going to be different.

From an innovation standpoint, Victory Square focuses on things we know.  We like verticals that are commercial and virtually recession-proof.  Sports betting is a good example.

Let’s vector in a little closer.  How do you choose companies to invest in based on your broader view for the future of the world?

Given that we begin by focusing on verticals we know well, the next thing we do is identify a large customer with a pain point.  Then we look at some 80 accelerators we have relationships with around the world to see what problems talented people are trying to solve.  We can bring teams to Canada to evaluate them if they are overseas.  The evaluation will take place over anywhere from three to six months, and by bringing entrepreneurs to Canada there are a number of programs we can take advantage of that help to mitigate our risk.

We focus on verticals that we have a strong track record and experience in, identify a large customer in that vertical, look wide globally to find the best talent, bring it to Canada to give it all of the advantages of being based in Canada, and then we are able to evaluate the tech and the team as they validate with that large customer we have brought them to.

Tech has been commoditized, so it’s your ability to have an operator who can execute efficiently.  Execution becomes the real key.  We look for strong teams and leaders who have built a product that customers are willing to pay for.  And given that commoditization, you need differentiating factors – someone who can speak well and articulate what they are really doing, and then there is that work ethic and hustle that we also look for in an operator.

Give us an example of an investment and the impact it stands to have on the future.

There are 19 companies in our portfolio doing exceptional things.  One of those is FansUnite, which was founded by an accountant and a lawyer who are very passionate about sports betting.  We acquired the company about 18 months ago for $2 million, worked with them to build a unique product, and they just oversubscribed a financing of $4.45 million at a pre-money valuation of $13 million.  FansUnite is aiming to go public in early 2019.

In the sports betting industry, all bettors are generally betting against the house.  You are trusting the house to manage the lines appropriately, trusting them to put the player funds in escrow, and then to pay you out accordingly when the time comes.  Paying exorbitant fees and trusting a centralized third party with your funds was what led to FansUnite incorporating blockchain into their business.

A main pain point is that the house is using a third party to process payments, which means they must charge a fee, and it can be as high as 10%.  That means if you bet $100, only $90 is actually going into the pool, so you have to win 54% of the time just to break even.  They realized that decentralization and blockchain could address this and built their own protocol and currency. FansUnite will become one of the first companies to build the infrastructure that allows any operator to build a blockchain based sports betting application on the protocol.  FansUnite is building the first decentralized application which will be a low-margin sportsbook, taking the fees per bet down to an industry low 1% margin for the book.  There are many other efficiency benefits as FansUnite aims to change the landscape of the sports betting industry.

Your company materials suggest giving back to the community is important to Victory Square.  How does investing in things that make the world a better place fit into the structure of a capitalist enterprise?

My family is from East Africa, and in the early 1970s there was a military coup and we ended up in Canada.  We basically won the lottery by landing in Canada, where we had access to good education, stable government, safety and security.  The advantage we had in Canada and the thankfulness is tied into a responsibility I have always felt, and it has trickled down to our portfolio companies in the form of something we call TKM: Time, Knowledge and Money.

There are some in our team who might not have financial resources to give, but they have time and knowledge.  A graphic designer might donate design services to a philanthropic organization in need of that skill.  Lawyers or accountants can provide legal advice or business planning for charities.

Our focus at Victory Square is on vulnerable children and making sure they have the basics, which means access to nutritious food, education, safe environments, love and support.  We found that not only do we have the time and capacity to do it as a capitalist enterprise, but if often benefits us because it aligns us with the interests of other socially minded entrepreneurs.  There is no negative impact – it is only positive.

There is no typical day for you, but how about a typical week or month?  Give us a look inside the world of a manager at the top of an investment organization.  What are your biggest challenges and how do you keep on top of all the moving parts?

I am fortunate to have an amazing team and we divide and conquer.  If we take September as an example, we are hosting a conference in London called the World Blockchain Forum, where investors, thought leaders and emerging tech companies from all over the world will be gathering, including some of our own.  We’ll be connecting with investors and accessing deal flow in the UK.

Right after that we head to Asia, where we have some portfolio companies.  We will be stopping in China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, and then we end in Singapore.

Thankfully, Asia is a day ahead because we come straight back to Vancouver for conferences, one of which is Cambridge House’s Extraordinary Future, which we sponsor and are actively involved in, and then the AR/VR Global Summit.  At the end of September, we are in Malta for the Malta Blockchain Summit.

Portfolio companies are global, events we host and speak at are global, our talent pool and investors are global, so we are spread out.  And alongside all of that, we are managing our portfolio companies and day to day responsibilities, so we have to ensure we have a really organized team, but also a really deep and hard-working team so we can successfully execute on everything.

And there are also lots of activities we run on the philanthropic side – educational programs, food drives, golf tournaments, galas and other events.  That initiative is important to us and we have a team that makes sure we devote appropriate time.

Victory Square must have a shareholder group a little different than that of the average public company.  Can you discuss the type of investor that backs you?

We attract a wide variety because we are in many different verticals.  We have exposure to artificial intelligence and machine learning, to VR/AR and blockchain, as well as mobile games and film.  They fall into three categories: institutional investors who have a longer vision, retail investors who don’t fully understand the sector but want exposure, and then there is a big group of investors who support our portfolio companies from the global crypto community.  Given that tech is borderless, we are seeing investor interest from all over the world.

If you could convey just one lesson to a talented, budding entrepreneur, what would you tell them?

There are lots of things I think are key, but forced to make a shortlist, I’d offer an analogy.  If we needed to go to Florida we could get in a car and start driving, but we might not have enough food or money or gas.  We might eventually make it to Florida, but it would not be the most efficient way.

A well considered plan is one of the biggest things.  You need a roadmap for where you want to go.  But you also have to realize that the direction you initially started out on might not work, so you have to be flexible and adjust.  The entrepreneurial journey does not always look like a hockey-stick curve.  It can be very volatile, and having that plan enables you to be better prepared to face the challenges and difficult periods and be persistent and determined to get past it, rather than become frazzled and quitting early.

You also need the right attributes, such as strong work ethic, leadership skills, passion and determination.  If you put enough smart people together with a good idea or opportunity, you are going to figure it out.

This story was originally published at www.proactiveinvestors.com on September 19, 2018 and featured in The Public Entrepreneur magazine.

Learn more about Victory Square at http://www.victorysquare.com and on the CSE website at https://thecse.com/en/listings/technology/victory-square-technologies-inc.

Going Public? Put a Communications Upgrade Near the Top of Your To-do List

Congratulations on taking your company public on the Canadian Securities Exchange.  You have made a wise decision that will benefit you, your team and your company in many ways.

With your new status, however, comes responsibility to an expanded base of shareholders and a duty to maximize the value of your company in a manner different than when you were private.  Now, the value of your organization is reassessed by the investment community every second of the business day.

Build it and they will come?  Don’t believe it for a moment.  There are thousands of listed companies in North America vying for the attention of the investors you seek, and the companies that attract them are the ones who combine business success with marketing savvy to ensure they are at the front of the line when investors scout around for ideas.

Unless you know every shareholder in your company and have a good portion of the financial community in your digital rolodex, you will need assistance with communications.

How much assistance?  A typical IR budget for a microcap stock is in the range of $100,000 per year.  This includes travel to meet investors and investment professionals, participation in a handful of carefully chosen events, digital outreach to keep the story live 24 hours a day, and perhaps an external IR firm to bring an instant base of interested parties.  If you are sufficiently mature as a corporation, an internal IR manager might be a consideration.  And…we’re already closing in on $200,000.

A lot of money, right?  Well, if a $200,000 outlay adds to your market capitalization by $3 million (6 cents per share assuming 50 million shares outstanding), few will argue the money was not well spent.  Especially if you plan to raise equity capital anytime soon.

Add in satisfied investors and better sleep at night, and it really is a prudent decision.

You’ll need people you can trust to guide you in putting your strategy together.  There are plenty of hands who will take your money – ask around to make sure you team up with the ones who follow through with the promised effort.  And while a company needs to be connecting with existing and prospective shareholders regularly, only spend money on a full suite of resources when you have the corporate developments to really leverage them.

A prevented sell has the same value as a buy.  Inform your existing shareholders with regular written updates, media interviews, and an increasingly popular tool — video.  Complement important press releases with a brief video explaining your latest results, how your process works, or what your new facility looks like inside.  Let shareholders look the CEO in the eye online and take his or her measure.

A favorite related story involves a company whose stock was stuck between $0.50 and $0.80.  Management put tremendous effort into investor relations, but no matter how hard they tried they could not break through $0.80.

One day, on meeting number 200+, the company met an analyst who got the story right away and encouraged their trading desk to begin buying the stock in size.

It was not long before the stock broke through $0.80…on its way to more than $3.00.

The point is that if you have a good company, there are investors out there who will see what you see, adopt your vision and back you with money.  But connecting with them is a numbers game.  Reach out to a few dozen people and you will have to be very lucky to find backers.  Reach out to a thousand and your odds can start to look pretty good.

This story was written by Peter Murray  and featured in Service Providers magazine.

 

Friday Night: Focus on specific US markets reflects outlook for national, regional catalysts

Brayden Sutton is one of the pioneers of the modern Canadian cannabis industry and is also fast becoming an authority on the business in the United States, where he believes resources are currently better deployed in most cases.  Public Entrepreneur spoke with Sutton, Chief Executive Officer of Friday Night Inc. (CSE:TGIF), recently about the different outlooks for the two markets.

We’ll get into the US regulatory environment around cannabis and your opinions on cannabis stocks in a moment, but first can you explain what Friday Night does and why you chose the US market as your focus?

Friday Night’s primary asset is the very first cultivation license for cannabis in Las Vegas.  We bought this asset early in 2017 and took it public in June of that year.  It was July when things went recreational, and since then we’ve experienced very good growth.  It was all a function of making sure we were ahead of the trends, not chasing them.

I’ve always been one to go where the puck is going to be, not to follow others.  I was a first mover on the investment banking side of the cannabis space with my own capital in 2013, and then in cultivation and later in various forms of extraction and processing.  I have been fortunate to be able to get in front of trends and I knew that Las Vegas was going to be a great market to be in.

One staggering statistic is that the US cannabis market is estimated to be over $75 billion, and yet not one group controls even 1% of that market.  Now that is the opportunity of a lifetime for investors.  I was personally invested over 10 years ago in the Canadian cannabis industry, as the MMAR (Medical Marihuana Access Regulations) eventually gave way to the MMPR (Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations), and I co-founded Supreme Pharmaceuticals in early 2014.

I began to feel that from 2014 to 2017 things had become stretched on the Canadian side.  Canada has a very limited market in all aspects.  Despite it leading the world in capital for cannabis initiatives, there are only about 7 million cannabis users coast to coast, so it is a tiny market versus a state such as California or somewhere such as Las Vegas, regardless of whether you are talking adult use or medical.

I know the company has holdings in businesses outside cultivation.  Can you talk about those as well?

We own 91% of a company called Infused Manufacturing, which operates as Cannahemp, and they are solely a hemp-derived CBD business.  It doesn’t come with the same restrictions and the products appeal to a much broader base.  From tinctures and creams to bath bombs and lip balms – there is a very impressive list of products that apply to far more people than cannabis does on its own.

More recently we have acquired Spire Secure Logistics, a Canadian company focused on due diligence and security in the cannabis sector.  That branches us into exposure to Canada and once again a growing trend – there is a major lack of discussion around infiltration of organized crime, diversion of product, internal theft of product, products making it into stores when they should not be there, and many, many other issues.  It gives us a magnifying glass into the operators we are considering and the ones we have in terms of ensuring we are only working with top-notch business people who put shareholders first – and as important, don’t bring with them any negative history.

What are some of the unique aspects of operating in the US market and how do you make the most of them?

One big one is the opportunity today.  With Canada, everyone took at face value Prime Minister Trudeau’s promise of legalization by July, which will not happen.  It remains to be seen if it will even happen this year.

If you go south of the border, however, you’ve still got many federal catalysts to come.  I would argue that Canada has had its primary growth in the space already from 2013 through 2017 as far as investment is concerned.  Now it’s all about market share and who will ultimately shake out as the “Big 5” to serve a recreational market and a much less fragmented medical market.  It is much like when people buy a stock on the rumour and sell when the news comes out.  In Canada, I feel if cannabis were to become legal tomorrow a lot of people would sell on that catalyst and look for the next big thing.  That’s the nature of venture capital; it gets bored easily and needs new opportunities and to blaze new trails.

Just recently there was a conversation between President Trump and the Governor of Colorado, which sent US cannabis stocks higher.  There is so much to look forward to and I really see America today much like Canada was in 2013 in terms of the financial opportunity that exists right now.  It has years of accelerated growth ahead, and as people wonder if they have seen the peak, it just continues to get bigger, as it did in Canada for the last five years.

As far as operating in the US, I have enjoyed it and our partners municipally and locally are far better to deal with than Health Canada in every way.  There is much more of an entrepreneurial mindset in the US.  It’s just a lot more enjoyable of an environment, and people seem to be more accommodating to this business, be it construction companies or bankers, they all seem to be happier to have the business.  My experience in Canada was people were more hesitant and unsure of the muddy legal landscape.  In Nevada, it’s black and white.

Observers are aware of the conflicting positions of US state governments and the federal government.  How does that environment get reflected in your corporate strategy?

What if the United States suddenly voted on a rescheduling of cannabis this year or next?  Something to consider.  Big Pharma spends more money lobbying than any other industry in the US, by far.  Big Pharma has an interest in not missing the boat.

Just take Merck, Ely Lilly and Pfizer as examples.  Think of the money they are losing every day because this drug is Schedule 1 (no currently accepted medical use in treatment) and not Schedule 2 (has a currently accepted medical use).  There is going to be a major push from them and it is already happening behind the scenes.  I continue to be of the opinion that we may see more federal catalysts in the US before we do in Canada and for that reason as a company we are very much focused on Nevada and we are fairly confident in an overall softening on the Federal stance, allowing the sector to mature further.

So to answer your question, on a state versus federal level we very much enjoy where we are and are perfectly happy to paint within the lines of the state.  One thing I admire very much about the US is the Tenth Amendment and individual states’ rights, and with that we are very confident in our strategy that we will be able to take full advantage federally, once able to do so.

What is the difference between doing business in the various states?  Why would you choose one jurisdiction over another?

Nevada has been extraordinarily regulated for decades, and it has to be for things like gambling.  Compare Nevada to other states; Washington has thousands of cultivation licenses, as does California, as does Oregon, as does Colorado.  Nevada has less than 200.

Colorado legalized the plant in 2014 and the cartels involved in trafficking cannabis moved back into the state because there was an economic point at which they could still be in business.  So the state was forced to lower taxation by a couple of dollars per gram and immediately the economics shifted for organized crime and they left.

Nevada was forward-looking in saying they want to ensure illegal players are pushed out and that their new licensees are not going to be underwater in 12 months.  I would point to Canada again, where we have over $15 billion of market cap making up the public companies in the space, never mind the private ones, and they are fighting over a total market share of only about $200 million a year in business right now.  To me, that represents a bubble in the truest sense.  Yes, legalization will launch that number to more like $5 billion-plus, but legalization is not guaranteed.

Look at Nevada versus Canada, Canada probably has 50 times the square footage in terms of canopy space and it has perhaps a fifth of the user base.  It is just back of the napkin math.  If Canada flicked a switch tomorrow and said it was legal tomorrow, what are they going to do with the surplus product?  Export to Europe? In one or two years Germany, Australia and other countries will be caught up and won’t want or need imported weed.  Canada will not be important at that point from a global supply standpoint.

I still scratch my head and wonder why there are millions of square feet of canopy on the way for a country as small as ours.  Particularly when THC will more than likely eventually come from a petri dish, not a flower pot as the trend moves further and further from the combustion of flower to get THC in your body.

From an investor standpoint, anyone owning US assets in any form needs to have a far greater risk profile than one owning only assets in Canada.  The general consensus could be said that Canada is safer, but has far more downside than upside, whereas the US is far riskier, but brings much higher upside potential.

Tell us about the feedback you get from investors and financial professionals on the cannabis sector and Friday Night in particular.

Investors are always hungry for the next thing to get excited about – the next catalyst.  We have always been focused on revenue and profit.  We are currently at a run rate of well over $10 million a year, which I think is notable in less than 12 months of being in business.  Shareholders are very picky nowadays and they demand perfection, as they should.  But there is no such thing as a perfect company, so all we can do is our best.  And right now I would say we are extremely pleased at our progress to date as well as our trajectory and future prospects.

We are always looking to improve.  We are looking at vertical integration, and right now we are looking at owning a strong retail presence, so that is taking a lot of my time, to determine what the best course of action is regarding final sale of the product.  Once we are fully vertically integrated we can be exposed to that seed-to-sale margin that so many others enjoy.

There are certain things that are hard to invest in.  I am not going to spend CDN$25 million on 20,000 square feet which is the going rate on a Canadian ACMPR grow, when I could spend US$5 million and buy something that is already doing a million dollars a month in sales.

On the banking side and institutional side, they are more pragmatic and see things on a numbers basis.  What is our maximum funded capacity, what is the maximum money we can make relative to our current market cap if everything goes as planned, and where would we be in the worst-case scenario?  Shareholders tend to be younger, more astute and better educated, but since there is so much misinformation out there, they are looking at it as more of a land grab, which is not the way to look at it.  You want to consider if a company is sustainable and profitable many years out, and what they are spending today to get there.

We are generating a million a month and moving towards profitability.  All we can do is block out the noise, build value and continue to do what we’re doing.  I see a lot of companies buying smaller companies for the sake of owning more companies, mostly due to investors and I think that’s a dangerous strategy long-term.

Any other thoughts you want to leave us with?

I have been an investor for 14 years.  When you hold a stock, if you hold XYZ company, you should ask yourself every night when you go to bed if the state or country I am in goes legal, how will I do?  If it does not go legal, how will I do?  If there is an influx of competitors, how will I do?  If key management leaves, how will I do?  Just make sure you check all those boxes.  If 30 months from now nobody is buying flower, will this company survive?  When Merck and Eli Lilly and Pfizer step into the scene, they could literally make this plant obsolete within decades.  What I mean by that is that a tiny fraction of the world rolls cannabis and smokes it.  But, for example, if and when a 50mg THC/CBD capsule is made for 10 cents in a lab and sold for $5, good luck to the company growing $2 grams and selling it at $6.

So, just make sure that whatever stock you hold does not have any one lynchpin.  Know what will happen to that share price in any environment.  If someone came along who was stronger and better than me, I would be gone in a heartbeat.  I am not a lynchpin for this company.  If I ceased to exist tomorrow, the company would still flourish.  Those are the type of companies you want to own.

This story was featured in The Public Entrepreneur magazine.

Learn more about Friday Night Inc. at http://fridaynightinc.com/ and on the CSE website at http://thecse.com/en/listings/diversified-industries/friday-night-inc.

Sunniva: Groundwork laid for cannabis production “at Scale” in Canada and the US

Sunniva Inc. (CSE:SNN) Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Dr. Anthony Holler remembers well a lesson from his success building ID Biomedical, a vaccine manufacturer acquired by British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline: produce at low cost, at a high level of quality, and at scale.

These guidelines play an important role at Sunniva, which is moving quickly to initiate production of cannabis at facilities in both Canada and the United States.  Dr. Holler offered insight on the company’s marketing and risk management strategies in a recent telephone discussion with Public Entrepreneur.

Sunniva is progressing toward large-scale cannabis cultivation in both the United States and Canada.  Let’s start by reviewing your basic business approach.

Sunniva is focused on the two largest cannabis markets in the world – Canada and California.  Our concept involves large-scale, high-technology facilities in a greenhouse format.  That means we can be a low-cost producer, also producing at the highest quality and at scale.

Our facilities, when fully completed and operational, will produce about 100,000kg of dried cannabis per year in each location.

Pre-selling a significant portion of our production is also an important pillar of the business plan.  We have announced that in Canada we have pre-sold 90,000kg of dry cannabis to Canopy Growth.  The idea is to de-risk our business model.

In Canada, we also plan to grow the Sunniva brand through our specialty cannabis clinics, where we have about 95,000 patients registered with Health Canada.  And as that number builds we expect that some of those patients will be taking a Sunniva-branded product.  We are primarily focused on the medicinal market.

Importantly, our facilities meet GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice) standards, so we will be producing pharmaceutical-grade products.

Can you give us timelines to production on each side of the border?

We’ll start commercial production in California probably in the third quarter of 2018, which means we have the potential to harvest our first crop by year-end.  After that we scale up the facility over a period of about eight or nine months.  By the end of 2019, we should be in full production on our initial Phase 1 in California, that will produce about 60,000kg.  And I’d see us starting on Phase 2 almost immediately after Phase 1 is completed.

In Canada, we are just breaking ground right now, and construction is expected to take eight months.  At the earliest, production will start in the first quarter of 2019.  And similarly, it would take eight or nine months to get to full scale.  My estimate is that Canada reaches full production in 2020.

Take us back to your initial decision to produce in the United States and how you first recognized the opportunity.  What has been required to develop the business to its current status?

In California we saw a very large opportunity and we travelled throughout the state looking at lots of facilities.  Our conclusion was that California was about five years behind Canada.  It is a very fragmented industry with many small growers, lots of dispensaries, and, at that time, no regulation.

We realized that regulation would be coming, both legalization for adult use as well as medicinal cannabis.

This meant a couple of things.  The first is that quality of product would become important, and the second was that there would be a scarcity of safe products that would meet California laws once they were enacted.  That is why we decided to build this 500,000 square foot high-technology facility for growing cannabis.

Things have been moving along quite quickly.  We now have all of our temporary licenses in California that allow us to be compliant with California law.  And recently you saw that the Trump administration is basically saying that they will let the states regulate their use of cannabis and the federal government will not interfere with that as long as they are not breaking federal laws through such activities as exporting across state lines.

Looking ahead we are preparing for what is called annual licensing.  At the end of the day you need annual licensing to be compliant in California.  The state decided it would be a two-step process.  It would start with temporary licensing so they could get compliant production and sales going.  A lot of people have not done that, so they are going to be offside with California laws.

You are going big into production in both the US and Canada, and the countries have two very different operating environments.  Can you give us some insight into those differences?

In the US, everything has to be done within the state – you cannot ship product out of state, you cannot export it to other countries.  You have to grow and sell everything right in California, in our case, and the other states are like that as well.

In Canada, you can ship your product across the country, and if it is GMP-compliant you can ship it to the European Union.  The other difference is that in Canada there is clear delineation between medical use and adult use.  Licensed producers can deal directly with medical patients, whereas adult-use will go through provincial authorities and they will regulate provincially.

Can you walk us through the business components generating your revenue right now?

Currently, our revenue comes from two areas.  One is our device company, FSD.  They produce vaporizers and cartridges.  Smoking of cannabis is becoming less common and use of vaporizers and other devices is becoming more common.  And our entry into this business was strategic, as we saw it being more valuable once we are producing cannabis ourselves.

The business currently sells empty devices to a variety of brands across the US.  It is a relatively low-margin business, but it is profitable and brings us significant revenue.

The real opportunity for us is that once we are producing our own oils and other products, we can go to the customer and offer not only to sell the cartridge and pens, but a loaded cartridge with the component of oil you want.  If someone wants a high-THC oil we can do that, or if they want pure-CBD oil we can do that.  The high value part of the business is filling the device, packaging it and then giving it to the brand.

That was our strategy right from the start.  What’s happening in California is that a lot of the brands just want to be marketers and sellers, but they need a reliable source of flower, oils and devices.  We fit that niche for them.

The other component of our cash flows are natural health services, which have seven clinics across Canada.  We have doctors, nurses and highly educated helpers who take care of patients when they come to our clinics.  The doctor will make recommendations, we educate the patient, and then we connect with a licensed producer from which they can buy their cannabis.

The business generates healthy revenue already, and we generate revenue through licensed producers – we have 25 signed up to our software package.  We get paid based on their use of the software.  It allows the doctor and our clinic to communicate directly to the producer, so patients can literally get their delivery a day later.  It automates the whole ordering system.

And when we are in production, some of those patients will be using Sunniva-branded products.

Let’s look at the financial market side of things.  How are investors and financial professionals reacting to your story?

What we hear from analysts is they like the approach of de-risking the business by forward-selling the product.  The question in investors’ eyes is that it is great companies can produce cannabis and dry product and oil, but can they sell it?  Where is the market going in terms of pricing?

Our view is that if we can lock in some pricing on the sale of a majority of our production, it safeguards the whole business strategy.

The fact we are selling pharmaceutical-grade product also means we can sell it in Canada, or we can sell it internationally.  And the fact that we are a grower at scale of high-quality cannabis, that’s what people like.

Can you tell us what your competitive advantages are beyond the strategy you have laid out so far?

Sophisticated management.  My background is from the pharmaceutical industry.  I was a founder of a company called ID Biomedical and that was purchased by Glaxo Smith Kline for a total of about $2 billion.

We built one of the largest flu vaccine manufacturing facilities in Quebec City.  We produced at low cost, high quality and at scale.  We could then go to the big distributors and ask them how much they wanted.  We pre-sold about 40 million doses in the US and supplied about 75% of the Canadian marketplace.

We have those types of people in our company who went through that.  Similarly, our CFO was the finance person for Lululemon as it went from $150 million in sales to $1.5 billion in sales and became a $12 billion market cap company.

One of our big advantages is that people look at our team and see that we have executed on a number of very significant companies, and expect that we should be able to do it again.

Are there any closing thoughts you would like to offer?

We have been judicious with raising capital.  We have been able to finance our facility in California through a large developer out of Los Angeles, Barker Pacific Group.  And that has enabled us to not have to raise that $50 million to build that facility.

Fully diluted we only have about 40 million shares outstanding, and I think our shareholders appreciate that we are very careful about issuing shares.  At some point we will issue more, but we are going to be careful because we don’t want to dilute our shareholders.

I also believe our shareholders appreciate that management and board members are significant owners in the company, too.  Shareholders see that we are invested and that we need to make this a success for ourselves as well, and then we can all succeed together.

This story was featured in The Public Entrepreneur magazine.

Learn more about International Sunniva Inc. at https://www.sunniva.com/ and on the CSE website at http://thecse.com/en/listings/life-sciences/sunniva-inc.

 

Phivida Holdings: Outstanding team with a vision for international CBD leadership

It was insights earned from years of hard work and dedication that led Phivida’s senior management team to choose a greater vision.

Founded in 2014, Phivida has shifted its focus from a pure-play wholesaler of CBD (cannabidiol) hemp-oil extracts into a premium portfolio of CBD-infused clinical and consumer brands, offered in a variety of formats, and formulated to serve the needs of patients, practitioners, professional athletes, and active professionals.

President and Executive Chairman of Phivida Holdings Inc. (CSE: VIDA) John Belfontaine has moved as fast as anyone to take advantage of the growing interest in all things hemp/cannabis, as legalization efforts – and greater acceptance of the plant’s medicinal properties – continue to progress in North America, and around the globe.

Belfontaine, working with key advisors, first saw the opportunity, brought it to the capital markets and quickly found himself fully capitalized, with an all-star line up of experienced executives.

Fast-forward to Q2 2018 and the company has a flush treasury and a newly evolved senior management team with proven success in taking products through regulatory labyrinths – plus a vision to build a CBD brand which appears destined for success.

The Phivida executive team now includes Chief Executive Officer Jim Bailey who, with his team, built the energy drink category in Canada from scratch, taking Red Bull Canada to over $150 million in annual sales. Energy drinks such as Red Bull were not even approved for sale in Canada when Bailey agreed to head the Canadian operations of what is now a household name.  There are clear parallels to his success in that role with the quickly evolving regulatory environment within the global CBD hemp and cannabis industry.

Bailey is new to the team, having joined Phivida in mid-March, following the appointment of Michael Cornwell as Chief Marketing Officer.  Cornwell’s vast experience in brand marketing and sales for top CPG (Consumer Packaged Goods) companies includes his former role as Business Unit Director for Red Bull.

The most recent addition to the executive team is another top Red Bull alumni, former Red Bull USA Director of Sales Doug Campbell. Campbell joined the team in early May in the role of Chief Commercial Officer, now overseeing international distribution and sales.

Clearly, Bailey and his new teammates qualify as star power for a company of virtually any size but for one at Phivida’s growth stage their leadership is truly remarkable.  Their decision to join was based on a clear potential to grow the company into a leading brand in a product category in which they all share a common passion: functional foods, beverages and natural health products infused with CBD from medicinal hemp.

The Phivida product line currently encompasses CBD capsules and tinctures both for consumer and clinical markets, as well an appealing selection of CBD-infused beverage innovations. Phivida’s CBD beverages use encapsulation technologies which make the CBD oils faster acting, longer lasting, and soluble in a fluid format. Perfect for CBD beverages, higher than average consumption rates, and a USA health and wellness market that tends to place a premium on price and convenience.

The company is continuing to innovate on new CBD-infused beverage brands and formulations, and the finer details of its marketing strategy, ahead of a USA roll out.

As a first order from the new chief executive, the creative vision for the future of the brand is now led by award-winning creative agency Sid Lee. This is the same creative agency that assisted Red Bull’s launch in Canada, as well as other notable names in their portfolio, such as North Face and Grey Goose. Phivida has also engaged world-renowned brand designer Brian Schmitt to act as a creative director in the evolution of the brand, with a portfolio of work that includes global brand juggernauts like Nike and Apple.

“The consumer beverage side of the business is what we are really going to focus on,” says Bailey.  “We are going to start with a launch in the United States in four major metropolitan areas: Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and San Diego.  We’ll begin with a targeted approach and then look to broaden distribution nationally.”

Bailey came to believe in the potential of cannabinoid-infused products during his recovery from a cycling accident several years ago.  The hospital that performed his surgery had him on opiates while under its care, but even before being discharged he was looking for natural alternatives.

“I did a lot of research on cannabinoids and their potential for helping with pain management,” Bailey explains. “Knowing Phivida was in the CBD-hemp space really intrigued me.  In food and beverage, distribution and retail are both looking for natural alternatives right now.  People are more aware of what they are putting in their bodies and are seeking healthier choices, so for me this sector is ripe for growth.  I know we have the potential to equal the success we had with Red Bull.”

Both Belfontaine and Campbell share similar stories, and one that many relate to.

Bailey says the only way to beat competitors in the current environment is to “out-market them and out-professionalize them.” He explains regional distributors are forced to operate in somewhat of a wild west environment for the time being, often turning to manufacturers making small batches and selling product on the fly.

“They see that we are very different, the investment we are making in the consumer, and the investment we are making on the creative side,” notes Bailey.  “And working with top quality ingredient suppliers that bring authenticity for each product is important.  Everything we use is premium quality, professionally manufactured, and thoroughly tested for purity, safety and function, putting Phivida in a class above.”

Ensuring reliable supply of high-quality ingredients and at the same time opening a new potential market in Canada is par for the course for Phivida. However, the company’s biggest move to date is one the capital markets have, arguably, yet to fully appreciate.

Phivida’s prospective foray into the Canadian cannabis market is through a joint venture agreement with licensed cannabis producer WeedMD (TSXV:WMD) in what would be a co-owned company called Cannabis Beverages Inc., or “CanBev”.

WeedMD is fast becoming a major cannabis producer under Canada’s ACMPR (Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations), with a 26,000 sq. ft. facility operating with annual production capacity of 1,500 kg of high-quality cannabis.

Their second facility has an estimated 33,000 kg of capacity with an option that could take it over 50,000 kg. This 14 acre (609,000 sq. ft.) expansion project in Strathroy Ontario boasts world class genetics, top-tier management and the infrastructure to support large-scale growth, with a low cost of production, by using state-of-the-art greenhouse technologies, yet maintaining premium quality production standards.

WeedMD also recently announced a merger agreement with Hiku Brands (CSE:HIKU) which may add recreational THC brands to the CanBev project, as well as west coast licensed production with their ownership of DOJA, and a national network of retail locations for cannabinoid infused products through their ownership in Tokyo Smoke.

“Our joint venture with WeedMD is designed to build and operate the first ever federally legal cannabis-infused beverage production facility in Canada,” explains Belfontaine.

The CanBev joint venture also enables Phivida to bring their products home to Canada by navigating an important aspect of the Canadian regulatory environment.

“Industrial hemp is not an option for us in Canada,” explains Belfontaine in discussing legal sources for the oil Phivida needs to make its products.  “The WeedMD partnership provides sufficient supply of high-grade CBD from a legal source. We are partnering with an ACMPR licensed producer to source cannabidiol in Canada, and we are thrilled to joint venture with what we consider to be the ideal partner in the Canadian market.

In the US, Phivida products use full spectrum hemp oil extract, with 0% THC, “for all of the health and none of the high,” Belfontaine says. To date, Phivida has focused on the medicinal CBD market and the Phivida brand in Canada will remain true to this ethos.

As a complementary partnership, the WeedMD-Hiku collaboration also opens a whole new market to the CanBev project in the adult-use recreational side of the sector.

“Phivida will maintain CBD-only, THC-free products under our brand labels,” says Belfontaine.  “But with a Red Bull pedigree at the helm, and a solid operations team, we will also be assisting in the manufacturing, marketing and retail distribution of THC products with WeedMD/Hiku under their premium adult-use brands, and labels.”

Looking to ensure every possible base is covered, Phivida has its eye on a launch across North America, while preparing for expansion to new and emerging markets overseas.

“We have secured distribution partnerships across the western United States, as well as in Japan through Asayake,” says Belfontaine, adding that a deal with Namaste Technologies provides exposure to UK, German and Australian markets via online sales.

Phivida has completed two major financings in the past five months, including its long form prospectus IPO in December 2017.  The appreciation in share price out of the gate resulted in the company having almost $7 million worth of warrants exercised. In April, they completed another prospectus offering in bought deal which grossed $8 million.

“As of May, Phivida has just over 60 million shares outstanding with over $16 million in the treasury,” points out Belfontaine. “We now have expert management, a solid structure, tier-one supply and manufacturing partners, and the capital we need to execute our plan. There is now very little standing in the way of the Phivida brand becoming synonymous with leadership in the CBD sector internationally.”

International Cobalt strategy takes shape following $10mln financing

International Cobalt Corp. (CSE:CO) focuses on primary cobalt projects, and while it has a couple of good land packages under its control in Idaho, a recently closed $10 million financing means the company now has the wherewithal to consider additions to its portfolio as well.  Chief Executive Officer Tim Johnson explains the outlook for cobalt, why supply constraints are here to stay, and how International Cobalt is positioning itself to take advantage of the favourable supply/demand environment.

What outlook for the cobalt market do you hold at International Cobalt and how does that shape your strategy in terms of project acquisition and allocating human and capital resources?

We think prices will remain strong both near term and long term.  Basically, we just cannot see anything on the horizon that’s really going to change the amount of cobalt coming on line.  In December 2017, Glencore announced it was going to double their production in the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo) and there was no effect on the market whatsoever.  As long as the battery space stays strong, we think cobalt will stay strong.

This environment really puts us into acquisition mode – we are actively looking for new projects in the space.  Exploration in the cobalt space is not very mature at all, and there are going to be a lot of discoveries and news releases from various companies over the next few years.  We want to be right in the middle of the mix.

Walk us through the components of your project portfolio.  What has you the most excited and what work is upcoming?

We’ve got two projects in the Idaho Cobalt Belt and we bracket eCobalt Solutions’ advanced project.  Although there has been a fair amount of historic work done on our landholdings, the majority of it by Noranda in the 1980s, our team has not really had boots on the ground yet except for a site visit.

We anticipate doing a full geological work-up on both projects, to include extensive soiling and mapping.  I’d say half of our Blackbird project has not been mapped geologically.

So, we are excited to get to work on the projects and because there are many companies in the belt, including us, there is going to be a lot more exploration.  It is a world class belt as far as cobalt goes, so you are going to see lots of news coming out of it.

You mentioned that you are in acquisition mode.  What types of additional projects would appeal to you, and how do you assess them?

We are looking for primary cobalt.  We are not as interested in nickel secondary cobalt or silver secondary cobalt.  Primary cobalt projects are few and far between and we are doing a lot of digging to find good ones, looking mostly in North America.  We have feelers out in Africa as well, but any acquisitions we make in the near term are likely to be North American.

Cobalt really is an underexplored mineral.  It is not like the molybdenum days of the early 2000s, when once moly started to rise in price everyone had a near-term moly mine.  A lot of work will be needed to bring supply on line.

Does that mean most of the projects are early stage?

Right now, most of the cobalt supply is from secondary sources such as nickel and copper.  There hasn’t really been a focus on looking for primary cobalt projects, so anything you find is quite early stage.  It is not like you are going to find something that was almost a mine and didn’t make it because of prices and now it is coming back up.  And if you do find that it is most likely in the DRC.  You know anything you get into is going to be a long-term project and you’ll have to structure your efforts to support that.

The financial markets are supporting mining exploration companies once again.  What observations do you have on the current health of the market, and particularly with regard to the cobalt space?

Cobalt is definitely popular.  There are a lot of financial professionals we have talked to who would like to get in on the space, but there are limited opportunities to do so.  It has to do with the maturity of the exploration cycle – there really aren’t a lot of high-quality projects out there and the price of cobalt does not seem to be going down.  Any decent projects have high valuations, and those are the projects the money is looking for.

What kind of timeline are you giving interested parties in terms of the work you have planned.  And are you only interested in projects you can own 100%?

We are open to looking at other opportunities, whether it be joint ventures or strategic investment.  Because we are an early entrant into the Idaho space you kind of wait to see how things shake out.  I think the belt will potentially see consolidation, as there are some smaller players getting good results but there are no majors there yet.  Once some of the juniors have more success the majors will come knocking.

Cobalt is hot and there are lots of entities jockeying for position.  Are they mostly Canadian companies or are some from other jurisdictions?

There are a few Australian companies in the space, and money is coming out of Australia as well.  We got some backing out of Australia and other companies we have seen did as well.  Some groups that had success in the DRC are starting to look for safer jurisdictions.

How are you going to pay for the acquisitions and work on the project portfolio?

We recently closed a $10mln financing.  Our plan is that the new capital would support at least two years of exploration.  We are talking all of our ground proofing this summer, a potential initial drill program in the fall, followed by another drill program in 2019.  That is the plan with our existing assets, so things could change, of course, if we completed acquisitions.

International cobalt has enjoyed a good start to 2018 in the markets and on the corporate front.  Is there anything else you’d like to comment on?

Just that we are very happy with our land position in the Idaho Cobalt Belt.  The historic data we are turning up is proving our theory right.  There are new reports being made available by the Idaho Geological Survey all the time and each time we find one we get excited again.  Most of the work is by Noranda so we have high confidence in its quality and really want to get boots on the ground and follow up on everything.

This story was originally published at www.proactiveinvestors.com on March 2, 2018 and featured in The Public Entrepreneur.

Learn more about International Cobalt Corp. at http://internationalcobalt.com/ and on the CSE website at http://thecse.com/en/listings/mining/international-cobalt-corp.