By Eric Peterson | Apr 28, 2014
Long before medical marijuana vending machines were part of its product mix, Tranzbyte has been on the leading edge of tech trends since the late 1990s.
"It's a technology company that's been in its current iteration for about 14 years," says COO Stephen Shearin, who joined Tranzbyte after a career that spanned home video in the 1980s, Internet backbone in the 1990s, and digital advertising in the 2000s. ("I've kind of run the gamut," he says of his background.)
The company started as SunComm a digital rights management (DRM) provider for BMG before it was acquired by Sony in 2004. "That was back in Napster times," says Shearin. "The record labels were very concerned about theft and piracy."
After 2004, "The focus turned to the medical marijuana sector," says Shearin. Tranzbyte also has operations in nutraceuticals and private-label credit cards, but Shearin says its "flagship” division is American Green, the aforementioned marijuana-focused business.
"Any time you have a nascent industry coming out of prohibition, you're going to see a lot of efficiencies missing," says Shearin.
"It's way overdue," he says of legalization. "It's an amazing plant on a lot of levels."
American Green's aim is to be vertical, offering consulting for marijuana dispensaries, growing technology under the Jurassic Water brand and marijuana vending machines under the ZaZZZ brand.
Jurassic Water ups the oxygenation of water in hydroponic system via "nanosuspension," says Shearin. "This means the plants don't have to expend as much energy [ to produce oxygen via photosynthesis]. There's a reason trees and plants in the Jurassic era grew to become megaflora, hundreds of feet tall: The oxygen levels were higher."
Unveiled at a medical marijuana dispensary in Avon, Colorado, on April 12, the cloud-connected ZaZZZ machines, manufactured by Vending Design Works in Winnipeg, Manitoba, "a network, not just a machine," says Shearin. "It's a concept and a process."
Shearin says the machines feature all sorts of high-tech features: glass that goes from opaque to transparent after the customer swipes their driver's license, which assures they're not buying more than the law allows. "It tracks who, what, when," he explains. Other features include proprietary "active biometrics," an information-rich touchscreen interface, and the ability to accept, cash, credit, or bitcoin.
Shearin is targeting Denver with ZaZZZ, noting, "It could be a couple of days or a couple of weeks before a public launch. We're going to let people kick the tires a bit first."
After Denver, the plan calls for expansion into Washington state and other medical-marijuana states from "California to Maine, "Shearin says. "We can make 10-plus per week."
Shearin sees the vending machines as the antidote to long lines at dispensaries. "If we can ease that," he says, "it's a win for everybody."
The dispensaries will lease ZaZZZ machines with no money down, with payments coming from the proceeds. "We provide simplicity, not difficulty," says Shearin.
Challenges: "Overcoming 80-plus years of negative propaganda," says Shearin. Marijuana "is still a Schedule I drug. Once that comes off and the stigma is lifter off of this amazing plant, it'll be a significantly different landscape."
Another hurdle: "Keeping up with the growth. That's an exciting challenge, but a challenge nonetheless."
Opportunities: "The medical opportunity alone is so exciting," says Shearin. Same goes for recreational marijuana, he adds.
But he doesn't see American Green going head-to-head with dispensaries. "Our mission isn't to compete with those guys, but enhance them."
Needs: Shearin says Tranzbyte needs to "staff up appropriately but not get out of control," adding, "I don't need to have an office in every state with a medical-marijuana law. We need to sync with the growth of the market."
The key is making the right hires, he adds. "Three average hires won't hurt you, and one great hire can take you to the next level, but one bad hire can set you back six months."