The In Conversation series is an opportunity for us to go deep with the people behind Victory Square Technologies’ over twenty subsidiaries and give you an in-depth look inside what it is they do and who they are.
The latest in the series is a conversation with Barinder Rasode of Grow Tech Labs and Cannabis Wise. Barinder sat down with former CBC Radio host and current Victory Square communications chief James Graham at the Grow Tech Labs offices in downtown Vancouver to talk about Canada in the post-legalization of Marijuana era and changing the game in business and community building.
James: Of all the hot-button things you could have gotten involved in and especially knowing the diversity of your background, which we’ll touch on, I was curious what is it about the Cannabis market that made you want to get into it?
Barinder: I think it’s a fascinating time where people are making a lot of effort to be more involved and aware of choices around wellness and in getting to know more about their medicines in their own treatment. We came from a time where men weren’t even allowed in the room where babies were born because medical doctors thought that was bad. So we have been a society that listened to what we were prescribed to do by professionals. Now people are making their own calls, doing their own research, being more thoughtful. They are demanding more natural, organic and wholesome choices in that as more and more people started to use cannabis medicinally. I was exposed to it through a number of friends, especially friends, one in particular with aging parents. And what I found fascinating was not only the fact that cannabis relieved pain in ways comparable to morphine, but it kept her mom aware and able to have conversations.
But the bigger piece was her dad who wasn’t able to deal with the anxiety because he wasn’t responding to any of the doctor-prescribed anxiety meds. Then when I began to research more and then when I started to look at legalization, what really concerned me was that there was this gap. The cannabis industry, because of the advocates, had done a really good job putting legalization on the table. The government did a good job in responding to that call, but everybody forgot about the rest of Canada. So whether it’s professional associations, businesses, associations, community associations, as we’ve been talking about legalization, nobody was having a conversation with them. And the reality is that we like to hear messages from people who look and sound like us. It’s human nature. So for me, with my political background on municipal council and then being on the board of Fraser Health, but I think most importantly, being a mom with three kids and in her late forties, It made sense. When we established Niche, we started to share information. We were really embraced by the rest of the business, professional and community associations because they were already familiar with the personalities.
James: For those who may not be familiar with it, what is Niche?
Barinder: Niche is the National Institute for Cannabis Health and Education. It’s a non-profit that is educating people on the legalization and working to ensure that the dialogue is independent. When I was traveling around the country, one of the things I heard the most about was quality. So Canadians as consumers are traditionalists. We are not the American buffet style consumer. Canadians like to know where their product is grown, who’s touched it along the way and what processes were used, especially any product that people are going to consume. That’s why Ocean Wise, VQA and the GMO butterfly are a big part of the Canadian consumer experience on consumable items.
So we developed Cannabis Wise, which is a quality assurance program that is based on scientific metrics on what produces good quality Cannabis. It has lab testing plus a tasting panel. The benefit to the consumer is that with a new product like cannabis, there’s not a lot of time to learn and there has been such limited research and there will be continued to be limited research. With the marketing and brand awareness of Cannabis Wise, we can come into the space and create an easy way for consumers to say, I’d like to purchase cannabis. Why certified product? Because they know it’ll be the highest quality and they will be able to access all of the relevant information very quickly on our site. Why producers will benefit from this is because we know that people will and are prepared to pay more for a higher quality product. We also know that because licensed producers are limited in how they can communicate with their consumers and patients, Cannabis Wise being what it is will be able to do more of a deep dive.
My first introduction to Victory Square Technologies came through the conversation with Shafin as far as Cannabis Wise as a concept, and that was something he immediately recognized as a pain point both for industry and consumers in Canada. As we’re building the Cannabis Wise program, we have set up and co-founded Grow Tech Labs. Grow Tech Labs is an accelerator that will have two cohorts per year. There will be five companies within each cohort. We have within each cohort, identified a stream of funding for indigenous businesses and industry, and funding for women-led businesses.
The other thing that we’re very mindful of is because this is a legacy project, we want to make sure that BC maintains its lead is a world leader in the cannabis industry. What we also know is that with the day to day hardships of living in expensive communities like Vancouver or the Lower Mainland, people often do not have the available resources to work on the technology that relieves pain points for the industry. So we are creating space in Launch Academy and in partnership with Launch Academy, we are developing programs that are not only going to eliminate challenges and barriers for women in the indigenous community but for all coming here. This is not only a pet-friendly space but also a child-friendly facility. If mom or dad is busy at work all day, the last thing they want to do is leave their child in the evening to work on their business. The kids can come here once a week, we’ll have a tutor available. We will eliminate barriers for people to make sure that they’re able to provide that balance that they require by at least having their children with them while they’re working on their business. Which I think is really, really important. The other thing is that even for the people who will pitch us, we have a commitment that even though they may not qualify for the available funding, nobody will leave here with empty hands. What we hope to do is connect anybody who is reaching out to other companies or support that might be available in the industry. Really, it’s about creating a community which fosters support for people to be able to reach the kind of success that they want both for their company but also for them as a person.
James: Now, talking about wanting BC to retain its status, are you a proud British Columbian?
Barinder: Oh, absolutely. I grew up in Kamloops, British Columbia, and had been very always engaged and vocal on issues that I think really impact the community. I believe in building healthy communities. It’s about making sure that both economic, environmental and social responsibility are three equal pillars. That’s why I was really drawn to about Victory Square Technologies and Shafin, he’s definitely in a place in his life where he is about creating a legacy and giving back. He has not only been very supportive but aggressive about making sure that we are eliminating barriers and challenges for those people who have ideas that will deal with pain points for the industry. What really fascinates me is his hands-on approach. This isn’t a matter of just signing us up, getting the press release out and then not having any support.
James: Well, it’s far too easy to just cut the cheque and that’s it.
Barinder: And make demands, right? It’s easy to cut the cheque and get the term sheet and then say, here you go. You know, he’s open to innovative ideas. What we’re doing with Grow Tech Labs, some would say is a big dream. It yields more than just an ROI, we’re firmly planting BC as a world leader in cannabis and working with government and private companies to build the infrastructure to support growth. It’s one thing to get on top, it’s another to stay there.
The return on investment here is maintaining B.C.’s position as a world leader and empowering people to be able to achieve the best they can for their business and for themselves personally. And that comes because there are no pressure cooker type timelines that are only based on your quarter or your financial statements
James: Some folks get into this industry and want to get in, build it up, sell it off. Whereas developing your core base as we talked about is a base for your community to grow from.
Barinder: That base for the community to grow from is really, really important because one of the things that we forget is that when you have goals that are only based on one of the pillars, like if it’s economic, there’s only a certain threshold of success you’ll achieve, But you can base your success on the concept’s overall sustainability, which is, you know, the environment that doesn’t only just talk to me, the physical environment, but it can be the work environment. It can be a variety of environments that can be described in many ways. And then the social responsibility component, which is how do we make sure that there’s not that same brain drain that we have with the US on the tech space. How do we make sure that it’s not the “Male, Pale, Stale” crowd that gets elevated to high positions, and I think that’s where building diversity and having women and indigenous-led businesses comes in.
James: I think a lot of companies almost take that for granted, the idea of making room for women and for people of color. Why is it important to put that out there?
Barinder: Well, one of the things I want to say is that we’re actually not doing them a favor. They are doing us a favor. I’m making space because one of the things that we’ve heard at Cannabis conference after Cannabis conference is around the activism that women show to get this industry here. The number of women that have played pivotal roles in the production side, on the retail side and on the process side or the wellness side is remarkable.
Kevin O’Leary spoke at the last Cannabis conference we attended and said he asked his staff to do an assessment of the companies that they had funded. He said he was doing this little happy dance because sixty-five percent of the companies that he had funded had reached their thresholds and then they stopped him, “No, no, that’s not the good news story. percent of the companies led by men reached their success threshold. Here’s the sheet on the women-led businesses. We found it. Ninety percent of them reached their targets or have exceeded them. “
So what we do know is that different groups within the community have a different way of doing things. And I think that Grow Tech Labs is a perfect place to nurture that type of leadership because it’s going to do as well as any other leadership. And I go there, this is not us doing a favor to them. They are doing us a favor by creating solutions to pain points for an industry that only their brain would think of it in that way.
James: Now to make this happen, you’ve developed your own team of superheroes. So, who are these people that you’ve got on board? Where did they come from? What’s going on with this crew that you’ve got together?
Barinder: This is why I’m especially grateful to Victory Square Technologies because there are a lot of people up there. Not only brilliant intentions, brilliant ideas, and a great work ethic, but it’s just having the resources to get done what you need to do. But bringing them all together, it has actually happened quite seamlessly. Through the work I had been doing it Niche and Cannabis Wise, there was a lot of people who were thinking the same thing, that there needs to be a place where people are able to develop a tech that will help the cannabis industry. We need to maintain our legacy as a world leader. Then there are also lots of people who believe that this is a long play.
The production side, that’s the retail side that’s really hyped up now. But it is only really the beginning if the cannabis industry wants academic institutions and government and medical institutions to start engaging in research. There’s gonna be a lot of requirements in the sense of devices that will say regulate your dosage depending on how you feel. Say, do I want more or less CBD?. It’s a big deal. A technology on the growing side is a really, really big deal. The other piece that’s going to be really important moving forward, especially as the conversation in the last two days on my social media feeds have just blown up, is the packaging issue.
James: You look at the giant plastic containers that are being sent out and it’s like, who’s idea was this the first place? For an industry that is usually on top of so many aspects, how do you recycle that?
Barinder: Well, the industry, the way it was pre-legalization, it was a farming community. They farmed the product, they packed it into paper bags and they shipped it in little boxes. Canada Post would deliver it in something in the size of a pack of cards and in it there would be more than enough cannabis than you would need for a period of time. The government has acknowledged that legalization is not an event. It’s a process. They’ve acknowledged they haven’t gotten it right. They’ve acknowledged that as we’re doing this, they want people to be patient. But the packaging, complete epic fail from the environmental side.
James: It’s like we have Amazon box and a tiny box inside. And that’s it.
Barinder: It’s quite fascinating, but I think a lot of the success that is going to be available to people who were engaged in Grow Tech Labs and especially investors, it gives you an opportunity to invest and diversify so that you’re not only tied to one part of an industry. People are going to be coming up with ideas and solutions to problems we don’t even know we have yet.
James: There’s a whole world of opportunity both for entrepreneurs and investors in the industry.
Barinder: I think the other thing I’m most fascinated with is this. We had a conference in Calgary in the last couple of days and there was a medical doctor who is specializing in pain relief, and the type of things, the mechanisms that she requires for solutions for her patients are going to be big.
I bet you a lot of the things that we start seeing people pitch to us expand because how people are going to consume cannabis is changing rapidly. Very few people I think are going to be smoking cannabis. A lot of people will be either engaging in edibles or vape pens or tinctures, but there’s a lot of technology required to be producing them well, distributing them well and then having options for how consumers consume them.
James: We haven’t been talking about the long game. Five, ten years down the road, what do you foresee Grow Tech Labs growing into?
Barinder: Well, I think what Grow Tech Labs is doing by supporting innovations that are going to deal with pain points for the industry is a path for cannabis to become a mainstream normalized product. A lot of the challenges that are occurring now are either on the production side, the process side, but what we will do is facilitate industry to do their jobs so well that cannabis in five years from now will be a completely normalized product.
James: How does getting involved with GTL benefit cannabis entrepreneurs. Say I get on board as part of one of the cohorts, what do I get access to?
Barinder: If you are one of the cohorts, it’s not only the available funding that will be a benefit, it’s a twelve-week comprehensive program. I would say it’s going to be the equivalent of doing a Master’s program where companies will physically come into the Launch Academy space. They will get mentorship and education in the areas of accounting, legal, business development, HR, management, and personal health and wellness. We don’t want a lot of relationships breaking up over people working too much. Those are the kinds of things that aren’t often aren’t contemplated and we want to create a family. I don’t mean that in the sense that when you’re in space that’s cool, a co-working space of other companies who are at a similar stage, is going to be quite fascinating. I think we’ll watch a lot of partnerships and collaborations develop where somebody might be working on a piece of tech that might fit into somebody else’s idea really well and vice versa. And I think that the collaborative approach is way better than the secret dark room in the corporate office where nobody can see our blueprints because somebody might steal the idea. So kind of crowd-sourcing ideas and crowd-sourcing work, I think it’d be very interesting. And that really keeps with the intent of the cannabis culture. Cannabis culture has been one of collaboration. People treat each other like they’re family. Everybody’s got each other’s back and we want to maintain the respect for that culture in Growth Tech Labs as well.
James: Reading the website, you’re talking about to access to industry mentors as well. Can you name drop? Are there any other interesting people that your cohort members are going to get access to?
Barinder: You know we’re gonna launch a secret list. We’re just finalizing somebody as an advisory board member. We have Ryan Lee who’s renowned in the area of genetics. We have Dr. Natasha who is a Ph.D. and a doctor who spoke before the Senate and has worked with the Canadian Center on Substance Abuse. Philip Quan, who is doing a lot of work on extractions. All of those names are really important because they’re who they are as defined by not only your education at work but their commitment to cannabis for personal reasons. Phil as an example, came into the space because he was treating his own Multiple Sclerosis. So I think that that personal experience with the product also helps and that passion helps because they understand that this is a product that fundamentally changes people’s lives and there’s a lot of opportunities here to help things run better.
James: Now the flip side of the coin, what do investors get out of involving themselves with Grow Tech Labs?
Barinder: Investors not only have the opportunity to give back and help build BC and Canada as a Cannabis industry, but they have the protection of their investment in that it’s diversified in a number of portfolio companies that are being guided to success. It’s like Ohana, nobody gets left behind. I trust that with the support mechanisms that we’re working in a place that we will have a number of companies that will hit it out of the park. I say it with confidence because of the experience that Victory Square Technology brings to the table in terms of being able to identify companies, but then also with the group of advisors and mentors that we have are taking this job very seriously and are going to help individuals grow their company.
James: What does working with VST and Launch bring to the table, not only for Grow Tech Labs but also for people getting involved with the cohorts as well?
Barinder: Grow Tech Labs is one accelerator, however, Launch Academy and Victory Square Technologies have access to over 80 accelerators around the world and their Visa Startup Program and a host of mentors that are actually world renowned and world class. They also already have a very strong list of portfolio companies, for example, PayVida may become a payment solution for one of the companies. We have people who are developing gaming apps, so if somebody’s got a cool cannabis video game they want to develop them, we can partner and build on that knowledge and experience.
James: How does Canada sustain its reputation in the post-prohibition market?
Barinder: By taking the lead on innovation and research full stop. Are we willing to be able to do that? Yes. We have to work really fast and we have to have a solid commitment. I believe this government is committed. They announced over $46,000,000 of funding and education and research, but it’s not lost on this government that countries like Israel have had government-funded cannabis for some time now. So I definitely think that we will be ok.
James: Your overall thoughts on what you’ve seen from the markets post-legalization? Has it been generally feeling positive in what you’ve seen from the public and from the government, or are there things that we should be worried about?
Barinder: I think we have a huge opportunity and it’s ours to lose. And I think even just in this last week with legalization, we’ve seen the issues of the shortage of supply. So I think from the policy and regulatory side there is going to be a lot of tweaking that has to happen. But from the industry and financial side, we have now seen the realization of the market and the evaluation of some of the companies in the market wasn’t looking too pretty the last couple of days. I think that the one thing that will help the market is initiatives like Grow Tech Labs that are bringing new, strong, financially-sound companies into the space that will deal with some of the pain points that have caused some of these other larger companies to dip into the red right now.
James: What’s coming up for Grow Tech Labs and for Cannabis Wise that people need to know about?
Barinder: We’re accepting applications. The first cohort will be in January. In the next two weeks, we will be announcing a very significant partner on our indigenous cohorts. They’re coming to the table with no expectation in terms of being involved in the company part of it, but we’d really like to fund the indigenous piece. So there’s some exciting news happening, but we’re really looking forward to launching the first cohort in January.
James: Final words, shout outs, words of advice for young people?
Barinder: I think the cannabis industry is a fabulous opportunity to, in a collective fashion, create success for everybody who’s involved. What I’m most excited for is coming up with solutions for people who are taking cannabis as a wellness product or for a medical ailment so that they’re not dealing with things like the uncertainty and the lack of a supply that’s specific to what they need and to create an industry where it’s not only affordable but also an opportunity for investors who may not have the significant large amounts of dollars to invest. We are certainly also going to be accepting investment from people who want to give a few hundred bucks or a few thousand dollars because why should this industry only be limited to people who have double digits to be able to invest?
Barinder Rasode is the co-founder of Grow Tech Lab and President and CEO of Niche Canada. Like her children, she loves all her companies equally.
James Graham tells the stories at Victory Square Technologies. He is getting over his coffee problem, really.