Tilray Inc. investors could probably use a bit of the company’s products right now.
The Canadian maker of medicinal cannabis extracts finished a whipsaw session Wednesday with its share price 38% higher. But Tilray was up as much as 94% earlier in the day, peaking at $300. Fifty-three minutes and four trading halts later, it was in negative territory. The closing flourish that added $63 to the share price — it finished up $59.08 to $214.06 — took just six minutes.
“It left a sea of bodies, both longs and shorts, behind in its wake,” said Dave Lutz, managing director at JonesTrading.
Tilray’s massive surge this week has investors comparing cannabis shares to the cryptocurrency rage of last year. And it delivered a multibillion-dollar windfall for a little-known private equity fund backed by tech investor Peter Thiel.
Tilray, which had just $20 million in revenue last year, is trading nearly 13 times July’s initial public offering price of $17. Its wild Wednesday followed a 30% increase Tuesday after the company got approval from the Drug Enforcement Administration to import cannabis into the U.S. for medical research.
Based in the Vancouver Island town of Nanaimo, Tilray now has a market value of nearly $20 billion, making it the most valuable cannabis company. Its market capitalization exceeds those of American Airlines, Clorox and CBS.
Tilray has benefited from the surge in demand for pot stocks as Canada gears up to legalize the drug next month, and companies including beverage makers Coca-Cola Co. and Diageo show interest in the cannabis business.
The company has drawn more interest than most pot stocks, in part because of its listing on the Nasdaq, which makes it easier for U.S. investors and hedge funds to get a piece of the action. The limited number of shares available for trading may also be adding to the volatility, making it more expensive for skeptical investors to short the stock.
Thiel’s Founders Fund became the first institutional investor in the cannabis industry through Privateer Holdings Inc.’s $75-million Series B financing round in December 2014, according to the company’s website. Privateer Holdings, a Seattle fund started seven years ago to focus on the marijuana business, holds 76% of Tilray, a stake now worth more than $12 billion.
Thiel, 50, was an early investor in Facebook Inc. and is known for making unconventional investments in different industries. Founders Fund has also backed Airbnb, Lyft, SpaceX and Palantir Technologies.
Privateer’s partners include Brendan Kennedy, 46, who serves as Tilray’s chief executive, Michael Blue and Christian Groh. All three are now billionaires, at least on paper and presuming the gains don’t go up in smoke. Kennedy and Groh formerly worked together at SVB Analytics, a nonbank affiliate of Silicon Valley Bank.
Tilray, which has agreements to sell pot in Canadian pharmacies including Shoppers Drug Mart, has ambitious plans well beyond Canada. It’s focused on medicinal marijuana in 12 countries on five continents.
“Our long-term vision is if a patient walks into any pharmacy in any country in the world that has legalized cannabis, that patient should be able to obtain a Tilray product. That’s our global goal,” Kennedy said in an interview this week from New York.
Kennedy said he’s not interested in getting taken over by a large consumer company. In a testament to the euphoria surrounding the space, he said the company may one day be worth more than $100 billion.
“I don’t want to get bought by AB InBev or Diageo, I want to be that company,” he added.
The pot stock surge has some analysts and investors wondering if the sector will meet the same fate as crypto stocks. Companies that rebranded with crypto or blockchain late last year saw dramatic gains in their share prices, but the euphoria was short-lived. Many of the stocks plummeted when the bitcoin bubble burst.
Long Blockchain Inc. surged 400% after the former machinery maker for the biotech industry ditched its old name, Bioptix Inc., in October. But it had lost 90% of its value within about 75 trading days after bitcoin’s peak.
Some analysts have speculated that some of the same money is rotating from crypto to cannabis.
“Crypto traders I know are getting into pot stocks,” said Jeffrey Van de Leemput, founder of investment education platform Cryptocampus. “But I don’t know if that’s a pattern or just coincidence.”
For some investors, the comparison — and sessions like Wednesday’s — is all the more reason to be skeptical of pot stock mania. Citron Research said it remains short on Tilray, meaning it’s betting on the shares falling. It called the stock’s surge “beyond comprehension” in a tweet Wednesday.