OAKLAND, California — The storied Silicon Valley venture firm Benchmark Capital has launched a slew of tech companies: Twitter, Uber, Snapchat, Instagram. Now its search for the next big thing has led it to … pot.Benchmark recently invested $8 million in Hound Labs, a startup here in Oakland that’s developing a device for drivers — and law enforcement — to test whether they’re too buzzed to take the wheel.And that’s just the start. Wealthy investors are pouring tens of millions into the cannabis industry in a bid to capitalize on the gold rush that’s expected when California legalizes recreational marijuana on Jan. 1. They’re backing development of new medicinal products, such as cannabis-infused skin patches; new methods for vaporizing and inhaling; and “bud-tender” apps like PotBot, which promises to scour 750 strains of cannabis and use lab research, including DNA analysis of each strain, to help customers find the perfect match.Among the noted investors: tech and biotech mogul Peter Thiel, who co-founded PayPal and made a fortune with the cancer drug startup Stemcentrx. Thiel contributed $300,000 to the California ballot campaign that paved the way for legalization. And in the first public endorsement of the industry from a major biotech investor, Thiel’s Founders Fund has sent millions to Privateer Holdings, a Seattle private equity firm that backs research into medical marijuana products, among other cannabis-related ventures.
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