Over 250 million suffer from ailments where medical cannabis products have proven to help alleviate pain or suffering. A large portion of this audience lives in emerging markets — states where medical cannabis has only been legalized in the last few years.
Georgia is one such state, legalizing the use of low-THC cannabis oil for patients with a limited list of conditions such as Parkinson’s Disease, cancer and seizure disorders in 2015. In 2017, Governor Nathan Deal added to that list of medical ailments.
And, out of the 15,000 total patients in Georgia that have successfully received a the recommendation card from a doctor that allows them to possess these products, one startup has helped shepherd 1,500 of them — 10 percent — through the process.
Brandon Terrell was working for a startup in North Carolina that was acquired the same year that Georgia legislators passed medical marijuana legislation. He was pondering his next move and noticed the challenges the emerging cannabis industry was facing — specifically, the difficulty providers had connecting with patients, and vice versa.
To do his research, he went to markets where the industry was much more established.
“I went to California and Colorado for a number of months and spoke to several doctors about the issues they were having,” Terrell says. “It seemed like across the board, everyone was having trouble with patient acquisition and marketing. So I took some time to determine what I could do to help solve some of these issues.”
His marketing background helped him figure out how to pull data on the chronic pain physicians that can provide the recommendation cards required for patients to possess these products. He paired up with technical co-founder David Rifkin and founded Treehab, a platform that connects patients to certified physicians and caregivers.
“Today, Treehab is a fast-growing referral platform for prospective patients to discover certified physicians from our network of hundreds of preferred doctors and caregivers in their local area,” says Terrell.
Once a patient registers on the platform, the team pre-screens them to ensure they’re good candidates for the doctors, and then matches them to a geographically-convenient physician, even going so far as to schedule the appointment. The patient pays Treehab a fee for the service and then the startup steps out, allowing the provider to handle the diagnosis and recommendation.
They’re currently available in three markets — Florida, Georgia and Maryland — though they’ve helped patients in a few other “emerging” medical cannabis states as well.
“When a state approves cannabis for medical use, Treehab is able to immediately begin registering patients and doctors in that state with minimal operational cost,” Terrell explains.
But they found their best traction in Georgia. Even before he relocated to the state, Terrell says they were seeing much higher inbound numbers from the Peach State than anticipated. So, he moved and continued building his startup in Atlanta.
Though Georgia laws are still very limited — patients with 20 approved conditions can possess CBD and low-THC oil, but only few of those products can actually be manufactured or brought into the state — Terrell is hopeful that in the coming election there will be positive movement.
“We are expecting to see legalization of cultivation and dispensation in the next year,” he says. Once that happens, he says he has observed the process move quickly in other states.
“That’s a big part of what we are about, is informing people about what the legislation is, making sure they’re informed of the current regulations.”
They field about 50 inquiries a week, and Terrell says 10-15 of those actually get a card, a fairly high turnover rate for a health startup. Much of their marketing is through word of mouth.
“If someone has an illness and they get this recommendation, they’re often connected with others with the same issue and they’re going to share that. I also think that we’ve seen such a huge uptick in participation because people are really interested in what’s going to happen next [regarding future legislation].”
It’s also easier on the physicians when the patient has been pre-vetted. The Treehab team knows if someone is a good candidate for a recommendation card or whether they’re just cannabis-curious.
“What we’re finding is that the patients we speak with and that we pre-screen, they’re much more informed so they’re converting at a much higher rate,” says Terrell.
And now that the legalization law has been in place for some time, patients are starting to need to renew their registration with the state department of health. Treehab is figuring out how they can tap into their network and help their 5,500 patients through that process as well.
“We’re capturing a lot of data from these patients and now, we’re coming up on the first year of the program. So we’re focusing on retention, just going back to those patients and saying, hey, you need to get your card renewed.”
The startup has been self-funded entirely thus far — they began generating revenue right away — but is looking to raise a $250,000 seed round. The funds will be used to expand to 16 new markets, all emerging medical cannabis states.
They initially had trouble talking to investors, Terrell shares, because the concept is so new.
“In Colorado and California, what we’re doing here is nothing new to them. It’s not a big deal in terms of scale. But here in emerging markets, speaking to investors, so many people have misconceptions when they hear cannabis.”
The team thought through their narrative and backstory, changing the focus to laser in on how these products help the chronically ill. They’ve since seen much more positive feedback. They’re participating in Goodie Nation’s Pre-Accelerator focused on health issues, pitched in the Startup Runway competition and are finalists in North Carolina’s New Ventures Challenge accelerator.
With that planned expansion, Terrell says they’ve projected $2 million in revenue in the next year.
“This is happening, it’s big business, it’s growing all over the country, and we’re going to just keep looking for the people that get it,” says Terrell. “If they don’t, we’re just going to move forward.”