While living in Oregon, Mike Brenner had a front row seat for the rise of cannabis businesses.
As he watched the green wave rise, he recognized that the cannabis industry is at a similar stage to Web 2.0: A host of businesses are forming to build different parts of the ecosystem to get products into the hands of consumers, whether it’s growing or processing or distributing. But when it comes to the technology behind those processes, there’s a need for tools that connect users to a wider community, and direct them toward what’s in line with their preferences.
Brenner would know. He was a leader in Baltimore’s tech community at the height of the Web 2.0 boom, helping not only to build technology but standing up coworking, incubation and other resources, including Betamore, to bolster a growing community of new companies developing the tools that could help connect us.
A decade later, he is leading Trackwell, a startup that’s applying the functions of the social web and data tools to users’ cannabis experiences. (We told you there were echoes of Web 2.0.)
“We’re on a mission to transform how consumers discover, interact with, and purchase cannabis, and we believe data collection and data transparency are key to this mission,” Brenner said. “Trackwell turns your phone into a digital budtender.”
Through a journal function, the app allows users to make a record of their cannabis experiences and share them with others. Scanning a product brings up profile info and reviews. With tools that track a session and allow users to offer reviews, it builds up info on the user’s experiences. It looks to go beyond naming strains, instead digging down to the level of the science of cannabis and how individual bodies respond. While companies label specific strains with general profiles, the reality is that each doesn’t hit us the same way.
“Even with reliable strain profiles, studies show that the same cannabis products actually affect each of us differently, because of our own unique genetics and biochemistry,” Brenner said. “Trackwell learns your tastes and preferences and uses this profile to recommend the best products for you.”
Along with tracking one’s own use, it’s ultimately a tool of discovery that recommends products based on a person’s own preferences and connects you with others to find out what’s working. The idea is to empower consumers to buy a product, and feel confident that it’s right for them. Then, it can connect them with others.
To do this, Brenner said it takes data of the universe of products that are available. In one sense, the startup is building an IMDB for cannabis products, with all of the granular detail about what goes into each: It offers more than 50 data points per product. On the other hand, it has the “personalization layer,” Brenner said — that individual-level info that can help to deliver a good recommendation for different users, like the engine that powers Netflix. Plus, it has the tools to share and discover that add the social vibe consumers seek, as well.
The app, which is currently available in iOS, is in private beta, with an Android version launching in the coming weeks. The app has 600 people on the waiting list, and is taking signups at its website. Like many consumer apps, the work in front of the company is all about attracting users to download and become active users. In the end, it’s about building community. The idea: “Come for the tools, stay for the network.” That community also includes brands, bringing that universe of producers and businesses working in cannabis into the app, with a business model helping them to market.
Being based in Maryland has allowed me to build a lot of warm relationships with industry leaders and consumers. It's the perfect place for us to test product-market fit.
Maryland will be the first geographic home for that community, as it is being launched in the state first. As with all things related to cannabis, some of the adoption may be driven at the intersection of government and industry. The state currently has legalized medical cannabis. A bill to bring fully legalized adult use didn’t pass the Maryland General Assembly this year, but the idea has been gaining support in recent years.
Brenner said the company chose Maryland to launch because the lab test requirements are some of the most comprehensive in the country, providing data to differentiate the products is it looks to go beyond the usual strain name. Since cannabis isn’t federally regulated, each state essentially has its own mini-industry.
“Maryland’s medical cannabis program launched in late 2017 and we believe it’s somewhat of a microcosm of a ‘future state’ national landscape,” Brenner said. “Being based in Maryland has allowed me to build a lot of warm relationships with industry leaders and consumers. It’s the perfect place for us to test product-market fit.”
For Brenner, Trackwell is bringing the experience to dig in on a product. The longtime web developer and Betamore cofounder had long galvanized entrepreneurship, and started multiple companies. He left the Baltimore incubation hub and moved to Portland in 2015, working for a health tech company. After returning to the Baltimore area a couple years later, he started the company, with the experience of Oregon firmly in mind.
A pre-seed round in 2020 was his first time raising outside funds. And he and a team of four full-time members and two part-time specialists spent most of 2020 building. It’s now launching more widely, and the company is raising a seed round.
As he has developed the product, Brenner said a key takeaway has been to build with the problem in mind. It’s easy for technologists to think their solution is best. But ultimately, what is driving the product is the lack of good personalization tools for the cannabis experience. That led the team to go deep on the science, and to determine what data tools could best apply.
“Become absolutely obsessed with the problem you’re trying to solve, not the other way around,” he said.
Knowledge is power!
Subscribe for free today and stay up to date with news and tips you need to grow your career and connect with our vibrant tech community.