PAX Labs: Origins with James Monsees
Some people think of Silicon Valley as a foreign land of luxury prototypes and endless apps that may or may not change the world for the better. But it can also be a place where the most innovative of dreams can be realized. Few inventions made anywhere ever actually live up to that kind of promise on any level. The PAX vaporizer by PaxVapor is one of those exceptions. Sleek enough to fit in a three-piece suit, discreet enough to be pulled out on the dance floor, and cool enough to start a conversation, the portable PAX has helped revolutionize the smoking experience. Today, “vaping” is quickly becoming the method of choice for smokers of all kinds.
The device and related products were first envisioned in the early 2000’s by two Stanford product design grad students, James Monsees and Adam Bowen. Standing out back of the design lab, smoking cigarettes, Monsees and Bowen had a thought.
“[We said to each other] ‘We’re relatively smart people and we’re standing out here burning sticks,” laughed Monsees as he recanted the origin story to me at Ploom HQ in San Francisco’s Mission District. “We kind of love this ritual and these products in certain ways. But we had a lot of problems with it. What would happen if we try to design a better experience for ourselves?”
Where that shared vision led them would culminate in their 2005 Master’s Thesis and ultimately into a successfully growing company that has just scratched the surface of it’s potential.
“We realized really quickly this is probably the largest innovation to market size ratio of anything, right? There’s almost no innovation [to the cigarette]. At least at that time . The e-cigarettes had not been out at all yet,” said Monsees. “Cigarettes are not the only smoking experience but they are the majority. Cigarettes are 90% plus of everything that smoked tends to be cigarettes. The cigarette is probably the most successful consumer product of all time. It’s hardly changed in its life cycle. It’s been highly optimized. There are cigarette manufacturing machines. One machine can spit out 20,000+ cigarettes a minute. It’s insane. Get in your car and what’s red line on a car? 5000, 6000 RPMs? So your car, every minute is cranking its motor 5000 RPMs. That’s like its limit, right? You go to a cigarette manufacturing plant and its spitting out 20,000 cigarettes a minute. It’s doing four times as much work and weighing each of these things down to the microgram. It’s unbelievable the level of refinement that’s gone into that industry. It’s an amazing product. But it’s got some problems, right? Some long-standing problems that just aren’t going away.”
Webster’s defines the word “PAX” as “a tablet decorated with a sacred figure (as of Christ) and sometimes ceremonially kissed by participants at mass.” It’s otherwise known as “the kiss of peace in mass;” a fitting name for a device that will bring peace to smokers everywhere who’ve always had to take their chosen luxury with a touch of dread about their future health.
Following their epiphany, Monsees and Bowen began to educate themselves on tobacco and its consumption. Along the research path, they came across a treasure trove of information on the tobacco industry.
“We started looking at patent literature. We are pretty fluent in ‘Patentese.’ And we were able to deduce what had happened historically in the tobacco industry. In particular, after the “Master Settlement Agreement,’ the big settlement where everyone was suing the tobacco companies and there was one master lawsuit that was kind of rolled together. One of the results was that a lot of tobacco industry documentation was mandated to become public,” explained Monsees. “You can still go to a website called tobaccodocuments.org and you can read board minutes and other things. [Writer’s note: that site is now down but offers info on where to go get those documents: UCSF Legacy Tobacco Documents Library ]. “It became a very intriguing space for us to investigate because we had so much information that you wouldn’t normally be able to get in most industries. And we were able to catch up, right, to a huge, huge industry in no time. And then we started building prototypes.”
The testing phase featured many prototypes of varying quality tested on both themselves and campus smokers.
“We’d sort of hand something to [test subjects] and help them use it because it was usually a really shitty prototype,” laughed Monsees. “And we’d see how it kind of worked for them. And as the prototypes got more refined, we’d give one to someone for a week for them to use and check in with them every once a while and see how it was going. None of these were market-ready. But it gave us a lot of insights we kind of knew to some degree because we had done all this research on the tobacco industry. We kind of knew that these weren’t the kind of insights that these guys were looking for. And they were ultimately really valuable.”
By 2006, Monsees and Bowen were living and working in San Francisco, chasing down the finished version of their dream.
“We had a friend with a fuel cell startup that was co-founded by the head of Mechanical Engineering at Stanford. They give us space in their office in exchange for us brainstorming stuff with them once in a while. Figure that was a good way to start a company. Low-cost,” he laughed. “And Adam and I sat across from each other at a tiny coffee table desk like this [indicating the smallish low glass table in front of us] for about a year working on prototypes and trying to create something that was potentially commercializable, building a business plan, meeting with potential investors, understanding the landscape, that sort of thing.”
By 2007, the partners had enough money to get started and incorporate the business. PaxVapor was born.
“We started working in the pods business. Sort of “espresso for tobacco.” The start of what is known as the PaxVapor’s products. The pods products,” explained Monsees.
What’s a pod? I’ll let the creators tell you. From the Ploom website: “Ploom pods are single-serving tobacco capsules used in the Ploom modelTwo. They are filled with the highest quality ingredients including whole leaf tobacco, botanicals and all-natural flavors. Ploom pods are made from anodized, food-grade aluminum. Pods can also be recycled.” https://www.ploom.com/pods
“It’s very forward thinking. Although a little ahead of it’s time, right?” Monsees asked rhetorically. “The e-cigarette industry by that time had really started to show some life. And one of the reasons was that it was more understandable. ‘Hey, If you want to smoke, people are making these things that look like cigarettes and they’re trying to mimic cigarettes.’ While those products didn’t quite deliver on that promise, it was really understandable to consumers.
“Whereas the product that we were building, we were like ‘This is like the dystopian future of tobacco,” Monsees reflected with a wry smile. “[Pods are] a totally different ritual and it’s pretty cool but there’s a ton of consumer re-education involved.”
With knowledge and trial comes understanding and the path towards a creative breakthrough. Everything learned has value.
“So what we ended up doing is understanding, ‘Hey, we’ve built a lot of know-how in vaporization in general and we wanted to leverage that into new categories,” Said Monsees. “We realized that vaporization is a really valuable core science that is really simple and deployable across a lot of different industries and consumer groups. And there’s a lot of needs besides directly people that are just smoking cigarettes. People that are smokers or want something in the more broad smoking experience. Anything under that umbrella, which is actually pretty big , there are different verticals that we can address. And that’s where PAX kind of was born.”
I’ve heard variations on how the PAX heats up. Some call it a convection device. Others conduction. Monsees explained that a variety of things that make the PAX go.
“Convection, conduction and radiation, right, those are the three general modes of thermal transfer,” explained Monsees. “A lot of the products that are sort of in the PAX space are pigeonholed into one of those three things. It makes sense. One of these three methods is going to be the primary way that you heat whatever it is [you are vaping]. They don’t work alone. PAX is primarily conduction-based. There is also a radiation and convection components to the product. So you’re always kind of optimizing all these different thermal transfers. Some people would label it as a conduction-based vaporizer but when you really dig into it, there is a lot more going on to make [the PAX] work really well.”
I’ve tried a variety of vaporizers. Only one, in my opinion, compares to the PAX. [Writer’s note: See the other vaporizer articles I’ve written for socialunderground.com. It’s kind of rude to advertise another brand in this article]. But of those two in my home, only one makes the cut when I want to go out dancing or for an herbally-enhanced run: the PAX. Lightweight and small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, The PAX is as sleek as vaporizers come and easier to use than most. On the bottom is a magnetically sealed heating chamber to put your material in. The device is activated by pushing down on the top, which reveals the mouthpiece. The device takes a moment to heat up but once it does, the logo on the side glows green and let’s you know the time is now. And with a strong battery life, that time lasts quite a good long while.
“Our methodology was we just don’t want this thing to look overtly gadgety,” said Monsees of the design. “These are luxury experiences for lack of a better way to put it. Smoking anything, the whole smoking experience, is not like eating, right? You don’t have to do it but you want to do it. It’s something that you decide to do and because it’s sort of a chosen thing that you want in your life, you want that to be an awesome experience, right? Just a sort of elegant, refined experience. Because food doesn’t have to be that. It can be at times. You go out to a nice restaurant or whatever, you want it to be a refined experience. You’re elevating something that you just have to do every day into something that is something more of a social moment. But generally, you have to eat, right?
“Smoking is in a different category,” he continued. “It has the capability of always being luxurious, always being sort of a wonderful experience. The products that were on the market before then were sort of wooden boxes. weird stuff. That’s fun in a sort of novelty way, right? That’s fun from time to time. We want to build products that have kind of a magical consumer experience that you can have all the time and keep with you and it’s sort of precious. A sort of obvious and intuitive consumer interface. And something that is really elegant and, contrary to concealment, you’re sort of proud to be with it. That’s what we were going after.”
The vaping space is a wide open one. Walk into any smoke shop today and what used to be your dad’s tobacco store is now overrun by vaporizers of varying kinds. Mod shops where vapeologists piece together devices of their own are also all the rage now. It’s tough to stand out in a rapidly changing world. But Ploom has done exactly that by taking all the knowledge gleaned through their pioneering trial and error and applying it to a simple, elegant and user-friendly design: The PAX.
“We saw people with looseleaf vaporizers and a lot of companies doing that. We knew that we could do that a lot better and there would be a lot less consumer education because we make something that’s radically better and differentiated. But it’s good to be comparable, right, to these other products. So we did that. And PAX did really well,” said Monsees. “And with [Director of Marketing Sarah Richardson’s] help and other people we were able to get that product out there and get people to understand the virality of that product because it was such a superior experience and there was a lot of interest in that category. It just grew really rapidly.”
Today, Ploom is a growing company looking to the future in a variety of directions. Ploom shares a building with Burning Man. The company not the festival.
“They’re the only people who could make us look like squares,” joked Richardson.
Ploom HQ is equal parts engineering lab, office space and creative think tank. As I stepped off the elevator and into the Ploom offices, the first thing I saw was a full size pool table where the team blows off steam between ground-breaking ideas. I only spent about an hour there but the vibe was pleasant, relaxed, and low pressure.
“At this phase, we’ve been able to build a much bigger team with a lot of core competencies in the science behind vaporization, file a ton of intellectual property on new things and over the next couple of years, we will be doing some really, really cool stuff in those categories as well as others,” said Monsees.
With the past paving the way for a vibrant present, the immediate future of Ploom is top secret. For now.
“We are a company that are never satisfied with what were doing,” said Monsees. “We’re happy about it. We’re real proud of PAX and our other products but we’re always looking at what’s next, what could be better. Because if we don’t look with an overly critical eye at our products, someone else will.”
Will there be a next-gen PAX? Or an expansion of the pod product line? Or something none of us has dared to dream? What is next for Ploom and its products?
“A lot of great stuff,” Monsees smiled conspiratorially. “We can’t really say at this moment right now. It probably won’t be long. The business has some exciting new announcements. Things that we’ll be really excited to talk about. But at this moment all I can say is that we will have more than one really awesome new product out this year.”
Needless to say, the vaping world can’t wait.
“A person with knowledge of the situation.”
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