From Zynga coder to marijuana CEO

April 3, 2014: 3:35 PM ET

Tom Bollich is the new CEO of Surna Inc., which wants to cash in on the burgeoning commercial cannabis market.


Former Zynga exec wants to help pot growers.

FORTUNE -- Six years ago, Tom Bollich was working out of a small office on Vermont Street in San Francisco, as part of the founding team of a small gaming startup called Zynga. It was a natural progression for the onetime robotics engineer, who had gone on to software development jobs at such companies as AdExchange and Golden Palace Online Casino. He left Zynga (ZNGA) in early 2009 to launch a Toronto-based gaming studio, and also to dabble in the restaurant industry.

Today, however, Bollich is in a very different place: A small hotel ballroom 20 miles north of Boston, explaining his company to a roomful of 150 accredited investors who share little with gamers outside of a common interest in marijuana. This event is the latest pitch session for the ArcView Investor Network, a group of individuals who pay thousands of dollars annually to learn about the hottest companies in the burgeoning cannabis sector.

Bollich is the chief executive of Surna Inc., a Boulder, Colo.-based maker of indoor climate control systems for commercial marijuana growers. The company previously was known as Hydro Innovations, before being acquired earlier this week by OTC-listed Surna (SRNA) in a reverse merger.

"This is the next gold rush," says Bollich, in the midst of glad-handing potential customers. "It's kind of like Internet gaming was when Zynga started, except this isn't a hits-driven business. People get tired of games, but I haven't seen many people who get tired of pot."

RELATED: The big business of Marijuana Inc.

Most commercial cannabis growers use their local HVAC supplier in order to keep indoor temperatures and humidity in line. But Surna argues that existing technologies aren't optimized for marijuana crops, are not comprehensive (i.e., temperature and humidity) and that air-chilling systems are not as energy-efficient as their water-chilling products. The company's products run from $1,200 for a small system to nearly half a million dollars for a very large one (Surna isn't disclosing sales information, except to say that it has sold systems valued in the "hundreds of thousands of dollars"). It also installs each of its own systems with full-time Surna employees (of which there are only about a dozen right now).

"For some reason, most of the companies creating products for growers have focused on lights," Bollich explains. "But that's only part of the equation."

Surna expects to eventually expand into other industries -- including broader agriculture and server farms -- and to move up from its OTC listing to the NYSE Amex. But, for now, it's working to gain traction in one of America's fastest-growing markets.

"The cannabis market is only going to get larger and larger as regulations loosen," said an ArcView Investor Network member, after I finished speaking with Bollich. "A company like Surna only needs to worry about execution, not demand."

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