Canada: The CEO of the first marijuana company to IPO in the US reveals why this was the right time to go public

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Tilray, a Canadian-based company, became the first marijuana producer on Thursday to conduct an initial public offering in the US.

The British Columbia-based cultivator's stock soared in a sign of the increasing momentum behind the legal marijuana industry. In its first day of trading on the Nasdaq, the company's stock surged 32%, closing at $22.39, up over $5 from its IPO price of $17.

"We truly believe we're in the midst of a global paradigm shift," Tilray CEO Brendan Kennedy told Business Insider in an interview. Kennedy said listing on the Nasdaq — as a company that touches the plant directly — is a "huge milestone" for the mainstreaming of the marijuana industry in the US.

While Canada recently voted to legalize marijuana for both medicinal and adult use nationwide, it's a different story in the US.

The US federal government considers marijuana a controlled, Schedule I substance, though nine states have legalized it outright, and another 30 have medical marijuana laws on the books.

Many public marijuana companies have found a home on Canada's CSE, a secondary exchange, but Kennedy told Business Insider he wanted to go public on the NASDAQ after talking to a number of large, institutional investors who expressed interest in the booming marijuana industry, but were reticent to put money into an industry that's federally illegal.

"When we started talking to institutional investors in the US a year ago, the feedback from them was that they wanted a company to list on a US exchange," Kennedy said. "They wanted it to be regulated by the SEC, and they wanted it reported by US GAAP (generally accepted accounting principles)."

Institutional investors, like multi-billion dollar mutual funds, pension funds, and insurance companies — as well as the large asset managers they back — are generally risk-averse organizations. The marijuana industry has suffered from capital constraints as these big-money organizations have generally sat on the sidelines.

Some institutional investors, however, have put money into ancillary marijuana companies like Green Bits, which provide software and services to the industry but don't touch the plant directly — and haven't made the leap to invest directly in cultivators.

Kennedy said that hunt for institutional capital led Tilray to have conversations with the SEC, NASDAQ, and Canadian regulators. Kennedy is also the CEO of Privateer Holdings, a Seattle-based holding company that invests in marijuana brands. Privateer owned 100% of Tilray heading into the offering.

"Nasdaq is where global disruptors list, and we consider Tilray to be a pioneering company," Kennedy said. The company raised $153 million through the IPO, which it hopes to use to expand production capacity and gain access to lucrative new export markets.

As more countries around the world experiment with legalization, Kennedy hopes Tilray is poised to benefit by getting the first-mover advantage to export high-quality marijuana to big markets like Germany.

"One of the things I'm particularly proud of is that 70% of our investors today came from the US, 18% came from Canada, and 12% were international," Kennedy said. "So when we were out marketing this, we really took a global view. We went to Hong Kong and Sydney, Frankfurt, and London and had a tremendous response."

Two other marijuana companies, Cronos Group and Canopy Growth trade on US public exchanges, though both were already public in Canada.

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