Talk about a growth industry. By the end of 2022, the global cannabis industry will have a $22 billion market value, with a jump to $146 billion expected in just three years. It creates an incredible opportunity for payments players looking to add innovation to the field in many ways. Without competition from the major incumbent players like the card networks and big banks — it presents a valuable greenfield on which to build.
Green, but complicated, AeroPay’s founder and CEO Daniel Muller told PYMNTS in a recent conversation. The reason cannabis lacks major player competition is due to its complicated legal status. Though legal and taxable in some form in more than half the U.S. states, cannabis remains a Schedule 1 narcotic that is firmly illegal under federal guidelines in the remaining states, leaving national banks and the payments networks hesitant to touch it for fear of running afoul of the law.
What cannabis dispensaries and other industry players want and need, Muller said, is a way to pay that doesn’t involve handling mountains of cash, especially now when enthusiasm for cash handling across all parts of retail have plummeted to all-time lows. But for dispensaries, their solution choices from moving beyond the cash into digital are highly limited.
“Most other companies are really creating a bottom-up approach, really revolving [around] solutions layered on top of the gray and fuzzy legal area,” Muller said.
AeroPay, which recently announced a strategic partnership and integration with cannabis software and logistic provider Blackbird, is aiming to take on the cannabis industry to offer it a new type of solution — something designed from the top down to be fully digital and fully compliant when it comes to moving funds from point A to point B. Muller said the goal is to bring some clarity to the payments process in a multi-billion dollar industry that very often lacks it — mostly by partnering with those financial institutions that are comfortable banking the space. Institutions, he said, that it can be otherwise hard for cannabis business companies to find.
“In general,” Muller said, “ it’s pretty different to find those partners. We did it by presenting our solution, prior to our entry to the cannabis market, to state regulators while saying, ‘We want our technology to help remove cash from the equation, provide seamless tracking of transactions in the industry, and eventually create a seamless source of fund flows toward state-level governments for tax revenue collection.’ ”
That, he said, sold regulators on the product, which in turn helped sell their financial service partners with whom they can now directly onboard businesses.
Moreover, while this solution is most obviously connectable to the dispensary space — where the cash-connected nature of the cannabis industry is most apparently a problem, the purview of the solution they are developing is wider. Because powering those dispensaries are growers, brands and distributors that all need a better way to pay for goods that is legally compliant and digitized.
“We’re really a full-service solution for the entire value chain,” he said. “So AeroPay is built as a payment service that can work as easily in B2B as it can in consumer retail payments. We really have clients currently throughout the supply and value chain: wholesalers, distributors, ancillary businesses, technology companies, all the way to your standard retail dispensary and delivery companies across the board. We really believe that if you build a platform in a flexible way, you can easily serve all of those use cases without having to be specific in one area or another.”
They do not envision their product as a niche solution, he said, so much as they see it working through the value chain and in a multi-vertical way. Because while they are making a big investment in the cannabis industry — cannabis isn’t the only thing they do. AeroPay is also currently pushing a restaurant expansion that Muller said is going well as it helps small- t0 medium-sized businesses (SMBs) figure out how to push into things like delivery and curbside pickup. They’re involved in nonprofits — and finding ways to do things like removing convenience fees that are often standing as a roadblock between reputable charities and the funds consumers would like to give them.
“What we can offer every firm is a way to save on processing fees and reducing risk,” Muller said. “We see cannabis as a great area for payments innovation, long-term, and we are hoping that a lot of that innovation can extend outward to other industries and be usable for just about any business.”