From Farmville to pot farm: Tech entrepreneur moves to ‘Silicon Valley of weed’

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Photo: Marijuana business cannabis money iStockIf you’ve played Farmville or Words with Friends, you’re familiar with Tom Bollich’s old business. Bollich made a fortune with the gaming apps company Zynga. He recently moved to Colorado to get in on the ground floor of what he says will be the next big thing.

"Denver, Colorado has really turned into, like, the Silicon Valley of weed," Bollich says. "This is kind of ground zero. As countries and states start to think about flipping to making it legal, they actually come here first. This is where everyone comes." He says that's why he believes it's so important to be in the business here in Colorado.

Bollich now leads Surna, a company that makes equipment and technology for growers. He says right now, the industry is dominated by startups.

"You don’t really see the really big conglomerates going into this yet, because they’re scared federally," Bollich says. "You have to remember, GE, Phillips, all these big companies have contracts with the federal government. So, that’s why we see such an opportunity for us, because we can be the GE for cannabis."

Surna makes a climate system that optimizes temperature and humidity to grow large amounts of marijuana in greenhouses. Bollich says he believes entrepreneurs like him have many opportunities to solve technical problems for growers. In particular, he points to the massive amounts of electricity and water it takes to grow the crop.

"[Lack of water] is a big problem already. It's about to be a major problem, I think," Bollich says.

Bollich sees nearly endless room for growth in ancillary marijuana businesses. And many investors agree. A San Francisco company called The ArcView Group hosts events that connect wannabe cannabis entrepreneurs with potential funders. "In the last year we know of at least 14 companies that have attracted $10 million through our group," says ArcView CEO Troy Dayton.

"That's just the money we know about," he adds. "We don't police the deals, so it may be much more."

Casual investors interested in making money in the new pot economy are buying shares in publicly traded cannabis companies. That's despite warnings from the SEC and from many stock market analysts, including Peter Leeds, author of "Penny Stocks for Dummies" and a popular newsletter for penny stock traders.

"These companies are awful. Their financials are brutal," Leeds says. "It’s just a mania, and the worst thing to do is buy when everybody else is buying." He says he's seen this kind of hype before: "It’s a lot like what we saw in the dot com bubble."