THIS MIGHT JUST BE THE FIRST GREAT E-CIG

EVERYONE AT PAX Labs
is vaping. Puffs of white clouds rise every few seconds, from seemingly every
desk on the second floor of this unassuming building in San Francisco’s Mission
district. As the haze clears, the office comes into focus: bustling, cramped,
and messy. The eight-year-old company is growing quickly, and the space is too
small. It’s also one floor below the offices of Burning Man, which, judging
from the loud thumps coming through the ceiling every few minutes, exists in a
perpetual state of Burning Man-ness.

Inside a glass-walled conference room,
Pax Labs CEO James Monsees leans back in his chair and tells the story of the
company’s newest product, Juul. It’s an e-cigarette
system, with a pocket-size vaporizer and nicotine juice cartridges you swap in
and out.

It’s not a stretch for a company known
for cannabis vaporizers, but its arrival in the e-cig market signals a major
shift. Once known as Ploom—the name is still on its doors and business
cards—the company made two beloved vaporizers, the
Pax and Pax 2. Both showed strong design savvy, which lead some to call it
“the Apple of vaping.” But it recently sold the Ploom
brand name and some of its intellectual property to Japanese tobacco
conglomerate JTI in order to escape their corporate partnership. Now it’s known
as Pax Labs.

With a new name comes a new product, Juul. The $50 e-cig is
aimed at nothing less than leveling-up the market with a delicious, beautiful,
safe, and just flat-out better product. It comes at a pivotal moment for the
industry, which is exploding in popularity even as its health concerns and
advertising regulations are hotly debated. Whatever the future, though, Pax is
betting on Juul.

The
underlying vaporization technology is valuable, and can be really disruptive in
a lot of different markets.

PAX LABS CEO JAMES MONSEES

So far, even as they’ve become mainstream, e-cigs have come
in one of two packages. They’re either small and round, designed to look and
feel as much as possible like a cigarette, or they’re huge, assembled from many
parts, and spectacularly complicated. Even the best of them look like you’re
smoking from an oboe.

The Juul is nothing like that.

It’s a long, thin, slightly rounded rectangle. It’s mostly
battery, I’m told, save for a slot at the top where you pop in a tiny pack of
nicotine-infused “juice,” which Pax will sell in color-coded flavors.
You don’t clean it, and there’s no work involved: just put it in your mouth and
inhale. The juice comes in four absurdly-named flavors—tabaac, fruut, miint,
bruulé—and costs $16 for a four-pack of cartridges (a cartridge is roughly
equivalent to a pack of smokes).

Pax is trying to build something
different. The team searches for the right analogy: It’s like a Nespresso
machine, if a Nespresso machine still made great coffee. No, it’s like a gun.
Wait, Monsees cuts in, it’s not like a gun.
Please don’t make that comparison. What’s a thing where you make it easier and
better all at once?

Not to get all cliché about it, but here’s the analogy: Pax
is trying to make the iPhone of e-cigs.

It purposely doesn’t look or feel like a cigarette. Pax
wants the Juul to be an evolution of the cigarette, not a technologically
advanced approximation of it. Plus, Monsees argues, what makes a cigarette
enticing isn’t the burning paper and nasty smell. It’s something more
ineffable. “It’s just objectively cool,” says Ari Atkins, an R&D
engineer at Pax. “How do you make somebody look cooler? Give them a
cigarette.” That’s why Pax paid so much attention to the gray-and-black
design, which looks far sleeker and better than your average gigantic
multi-piece vape. You do look a little like you plugged a USB stick into your
mouth when you use it, but it’s undeniably cooler than that insipid mess of
tubes and glowsticks you’re probably using now.

Smoking is also all about rituals,
which Monsees calls “the fidget factor.” Rolling your own, if you’re
into that, or banging the pack against your palm if you’re not. The first smoke
of the day, the last smoke of the day. Just lighting the damn thing. The Juul
offers a few tics of its own: tap the side of the device twice, and the LED
light on the front blinks an indication of your remaining battery. It charges
in a tiny dock that slips into any USB slot, and there’s something wonderfully
satisfying about dropping it into the magnetic charger. (Magnets!) If you wave the Juul around, it lights up in a
rainbow of colors.

That last one is completely pointless. But it’s fun.