Sometimes it isn’t easy to occupy a “niche” in the business world. The niche doesn’t present itself for occupation, it has to be found, or created, by the ingenious.
Four professionals in Chicago have come together in order to play a so-far unique role in the medical marijuana market in that state—and perhaps, over time, in other states in the nation—the role of finding the spaces and buildings into which the entrepreneurs in this field will settle down and do their business after they’ve jumped through all the necessary regulatory/licensure hoops at the state and local levels.
Though many in the world of finance use the phrase “rocket scientist” loosely these days to refer to someone with a science background whose work involves quantitative analysis, HerbFront has a literal rocket scientist on board, a veteran of NASA.
The company’s four founders are: Nathan Glaisner, Matt Chapdelaine, Alan O’Connell and Dennis O’Connell. (The two O’Connells are unrelated.) The key to HerbFront, Inc., their startup, is proprietary software (“mapping technology”) that can identify locations where marijuana can be cultivated or retailed without violating any of the restrictions that applicable zoning and other land-use regulations may place upon such activities.
It addresses a major concern of the new legal cannabis industry. Unless such concerns can be addressed, restrictive zoning laws, town by town and then street by street, threaten to void the experiments that the states concerned have tried to launch, often in response to great popular agitation.
The Who and the What
This might happen even if town authorities don’t intend a complete prohibition on cultivation or dispensaries in their backyards, simply due to the patchwork and cumulative effect of specific restrictions, such as prohibitions on what facilities can be opened within 500 feet of the nearest school or other places in which (as an Agawam, Mass. Ordinance puts it) “children commonly congregate in an organized ongoing formal basis.” Who the heck keeps track of all such places where children congregate on a formal basis? Who draws the lines 500 feet out?
Ah, the founders of HerbFront will tell us: it isn’t as much as a “who” question as a “what” question. The right algorithms can keep track of such things.
The HerbFront business plan involves a link between HerbFront, Inc., on the one hand and the HerbFront Real Estate Advisor Network on the other. The network is what the term implies, a collection of real estate brokers who will be given access to HerbFront’s proprietary mapping technology which will help them pinpoint suitable properties for the legalized cannabis industry.
Herbfront has had its start in Illinois, with the help of a tech incubator. From the perspective of that state’s licensing system, the need for this service seems clear, “properly zoned real estate in good condition is one of the biggest keys to getting a license,” said Glaisner. But the founders of HerbFront don’t intend to stay within the friendly confines of the Prairie State, “Our platform is built out for the entire nation.” At present, the company is contemplating expansion to at least a couple of other states “both on the east and on the west coast,” Glaisner said in a recent telephone interview.
The four men think of themselves as equals, co-founders with coordinating functions, but “from a business development standpoint, you could call me the CEO,” Glaisner said.
Glaisner discussed how the founding group has various special skills which allow them to work together harmoniously.
In this connection, he boasted a bit about his friend Dennis O’Connell, one of the founders and an actual “rocket scientist,” that is, a one-time employee of NASA. O’Connell now serves as the chief technology officer.
The other O’Connell, Alan, is the zoning expert of the group. He says that there is “nothing spectacular, nothing extraordinary about the zoning laws here,” in Illinois. If their business model works there, it can presumably work elsewhere.
One might imagine these four founders together in some college dorm setting (like so many dotcom founders according to industry legend) coming together around a common brainstorm. But the four didn’t come together in any such mythic fashion. They were simply a collection of professionals who knew each other socially. One day during the long gestation of Illinois’ legalization, Alan O’Connell said, “Let’s take a hard look at the industry,” and at what supportive roles remain unfilled.
Glaisner said the group isn’t all that concerned that political winds will sweep away this opportunity. They think the groundwork that has been laid in recent years is in place to stay. Glaisner added, “This is for some states and it might not be for other states.” But they’ll have their market.