The office for Pax Labs, the San Francisco company behind the stylish and popular Pax loose-leaf vaporizer, is located in the same building as the headquarters for Burning Man. Sometimes the two tenants have joint happy hours and the Burners help out with costumes. It's "a good cultural match for us," Sarah Richardson, Pax's director of communications said during a recent visit to the company. "They make us look conservative."
Richardson was sitting at a conference table puffing on Pax's newest product: a slim, rectangular e-cigarette called Juul. Seated around the table were the mechanical and electrical engineers behind Juul, including Pax's research scientist Chenyue Xing, who has a PhD in chemical engineering and experience with inhalation products.
The key to smoker satisfaction is hitting peak nicotine five minutes in
The small team has helped create what Pax Labs (formerly known as Ploom) is calling "an intelligently engineered and intensely satisfying new vapor experience." What makes it intelligent? "That’s up for personal interpretation isn’t it? Just kidding," CEO James Monsees told me later, by phone.
In Monsees' interpretation, Juul is smarter than the competition because of its ability to mimic the satisfaction of smoking a regular "combustion" cigarette. The key to that buzz is a sharp peak of nicotine in the consumer's blood profile about five minutes after she takes her first puff. To recreate that spike, the team started with the chemistry of its liquid-nicotine cartridges, or "Juulpods," which use nicotine salts, rather than "free-base nicotine." Using salts allowed Pax to increase the nicotine concentration from two percent to five percent without being unpalatable. Adding organic acids were also a key part to make inhaling smoother. It's not delivering more nicotine overall, it's delivering it in a more satisfying way, the team told me.
"Juulpods" just rolls off the tongue
The other differentiator that makes Juul smarter is temperature control, using what they called a precision resistance measurement circuit to figure out the ideal temperature for vaporization. "When you’re able to control the temperature really well," said Monsees, the flavor doesn't change and you don't create degradation compounds that you don't want to inhale. Although tank-based e-cigarettes allow users to adjust the temperature, it's less controlled because the liquids and device are from different companies and changes depending on whether the user puffs faster or slower.
To demonstrate Juul's precision in this area Ari Atkins, an R&D engineer, connected Juul to his Macbook, started inhaling, and the graph below appeared on the conference room screen.
Juul is definitely not for the keep vaping weird crowd, who care about customization, but I found Juul's design simple and intuitive. The disposable cartridges easily popped into the device. Each puff did seem standardized. Sure, I felt a little like an alien whipping it out at a bar, but a really minimalist alien. The device comes with a one-year warranty and uses a magnetic USB deck to recharge. It takes one hour to charge and that will last you for about one pod or 200 "puffs per charge," the company says. To figure out whether it needs to be charged, you gently tap the device twice and a little light on the front glows red, yellow, or green.
A really minimalist alien
Consumers can purchase Juul starting June, 2015. Pax is selling the starter kit (the device, a multi-pack of Juulpods in four flavors, and a USB charger) for $49.99 and the 4-packs of the pods for $15.99.
For novices or fans of clean design, it's less clunky than skeuomorphic devices like Njoys, which are built to look like a cigarette, and involves fewer parts than Blu's rechargeable model. Plus, there's no glowing light or specter of Jenny McCarthy.
Pax Labs recently released a new model of its vaporizer (happy belated 4/20, buddies). But it's a dicey time to get into the e-cig business. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) formally proposed regulations for e-cigarettes last April. According to The Hill, the FDA is unlikely to act before June, but academics and researchers aren't waiting around. In February, a study was published showing that exposing mice to e-cigarette vapor for just two weeks had damaged their immune system. For the study, they tested Njoy, one of the biggest brands in the market. The most alarming report came from a survey published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week, which found that e-cigarette usage was now more popular than cigarettes in middle and high schools. However as The New York Times pointed out, the shift could also suggest "that some teenage smokers may be using e-cigarettes to quit."
E-cigarettes are more popular than cigarettes in high school
While the data is being debated, officials like the California Department of Public Health, which put out the video below, are already campaigning over advertising e-cigarettes to kids.
Pax Labs is very careful not to make any claims about health or smoking cessation. Monsees is the first to acknowledge that his company has "a vested interest" in calling itself a healthier cigarette, and therefore should not be the one to analyze its own risks. E-cigs have been popular for the past five years, but the industry still doesn't have the kind of "conclusive studies" the agency requires for over-the-counter medications, food, or cosmetics, he said. "All I can do is encourage regulators." When I pressed Monsees about how Pax thinks of the issue, he called combustion cigarettes "the most popular consumer product of all time that has known issues." Pax's goal is to make "compellingly better products."
"The most popular consumer product of all time that has known issues"
Atkins, the R&D engineer, was a less diplomatic. "We don’t think a lot about addiction here because we’re not trying to design a cessation product at all," he said, later noting "anything about health is not on our mind," before his colleagues collectively winced. Atkins, who used to smoke close to half a pack of Marlborough Reds a day, may make a good poster boy for Juul regardless. While developing the product, "I just realized one day that I hadn’t smoked cigarettes in a month," he said. Atkins didn’t think of it as quitting smoking, "I just like it better."
Addiction and obligation are issues that Silicon Valley would rather avoid. Filings with the Security and Exchange Commission from earlier this month show that Pax has been trying to raise $25 million in funding, but has only sold investors on $6.5 million so far. Companies sometimes file Form D's before the round has closed and Monsees would not disclose anything about ongoing funding efforts, but he did acknowledge that Sand Hill Road hasn’t welcomed him with open wallets. "Venture firms are generally set up to invest in innovation, but the kind of innovation that comes out of the Valley, and we’re not exactly that." Although he declined to share revenue, Monsees said Pax was in a "growth phase" and now "well beyond" the milestone of selling half a million Pax devices, which the company announced in February.
Juul's name is supposed to be a play on the word jewel because Pax wanted to create something more lasting and precious than throwaway cigarettes. "We didn't want to spell it the same because we like being different," said Monsees. The four flavors of the liquid — miint, fruut, bruulé , and tabaac — also exhibit the same devil may care attitude towards spelling. This contrarian impulse may serve Juul better when it comes to its thin, rectangular design. As Atkins put it: "I like to wear skinny jeans."
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