Josh, a banker at a hedge fund in Manhattan, loves his Pax vaporizer.
He uses the small, sleek gadget to heat up his stash of weed just to the right temperature in under a minute — hot enough so he can inhale it and feel the effects, but not so hot that it burns — a few times each week.
He presses a button to turn it on while it’s in his pocket, and about a minute later, pulls it out, puts it to his lips, and inhales.
“You breathe in, you breath out, and you’re done,” he recently told Tech Insider.
Josh (we're not using his real name for obvious reasons) said he’s used his Pax to get high outside of a movie theater, on the subway, at concerts, and even on his way into the office.
He likes it because it’s not only convenient, but also inconspicuous. Because you’re not actually smoking, there isn’t as much of an odor, and it doesn’t create a huge cloud of smoke that draws attention.
Pax, he said, “has truly pushed the envelope and brought [smoking weed] into the 21st century.”
The Pax vaporizer is made by Pax Labs, one of the leading — and certainly one of the buzziest — companies cashing in on the growing demand for small, handheld battery-powered vaporizers that have revolutionized how people smoke weed in public.
The second generation Pax, the Pax 2, came out last year and is packed with technology: It has multiple sensors to measure temperature and an accelerometer that detects movement. The mouthpiece recognizes when your lips touch it, telling the heater to turn on and start heating up whatever you've packed inside of it. Insulation keeps the smooth exterior cool while the oven heats up to temperatures as high as 455 degrees Fahrenheit.
Engineers at Pax Labs have worked on medical devices, batteries for electric cars, self-balancing electric motorcycles, and at IBM. Other employees come from Acer, the design firm Ideo, and Foxconn, the company that makes many of Apple's devices.
But Pax Labs has positioned itself as a lifestyle brand as much as a technology company. It's made itself a fixture at some music festivals and fashion shows and has commissioned artists to paint walls in cities like Berlin, Denver, and Seattle. You may have seen one of its billboards if you were recently in LA, Chicago, or New York.
Last fall, it forged a partnership with the Grammy Award-winning artist The Weeknd, sponsoring his tour and selling a limited-edition vaporizer with his “XO” logo engraved on it.
The nine-year-old company has raised almost $50 million in funding, and says that a million people around the world use its products.
Pax’s vaporizers are in such high demand that the company has had to deal with knockoffs. A year and a half ago, the Department of Homeland security raided the Massachusetts home and office of an alleged counterfeit Pax trafficker.
Like many other tech companies, Pax Labs can trace its roots to the campus of Stanford University.
More than a decade ago, James Monsees and Adam Bowen were working on their master's degrees at Stanford — Monsees in product design, and Bowen in mechanical engineering.
The two friends would take breaks from their intricate class projects (one such project involved using nothing more than a piece of foam core, hot glue, a paper clip, a rubber band, and some string to make a machine that would automatically distribute 10 pennies into 10 different plastic cups, Monsees said) and smoke cigarettes outside.
They were struck by how primitive smoking seemed.
“We looked like cavemen doing it,” Monsees, a cofounder and now the chief product officer of Pax Labs, told Tech Insider in a recent interview. “We’d go back inside [the lab and be] surrounded by computers and robots and machines and then we’re throwing this burnt stick in the trash.”
As design and engineering students, the two were trained to question products and consumer behavior. And smoking, Monsees said, “was a weird one that stuck out to us.”
The smoking industry, he said, “was low on innovation and real big on market size.” In other words, a lot of people smoked, but not much was being done in the way of innovation.
So they set out to change that.
From Ploom to Pax
Pax Labs was originally called Ploom, and the two classmates incorporated the company in 2007.
They had just a handful of employees for the first couple of years as they raised money, created business plans, and dove deep into learning about vaporization technology, consumer electronics, and the tobacco industry.
It wasn’t until three years later that the company launched its first product — an electronic-cigarette-type of device that used pods filled with tobacco.
It was far from a hit, which Monsees attributes to the fact that they were a bit early to the e-cigarette market.
So they set their sights on loose-leaf vaporization — taking dry material, like tobacco or marijuana, and heating it to different temperatures.
For legal reasons, the company never mentions marijuana — it’s still illegal in the vast majority of the country. During a 90-minute phone call recently, Monsees never mentioned marijuana, referring to whatever people put in their own Pax vaporizer ovens as “material” or a “compound.”
Monsees said the company saw an opportunity in this market because people were already using loose-leaf vaporizers, but felt that they weren't designed for the average person. Instead, they were relatively large tabletop devices that you had to keep in your closet or out in the open in your home.
"There were a bunch of gadgety sort of wooden boxes or giant set top things that weren’t necessarily what we would think of as elegant consumer products," Monsees said.
He also thought there was a sort of “mental hurdle” you had to get over to buy one — people with large vaporizers out in the open are essentially expressing something about themselves to their friends and anyone who visited their homes. So Monsees and Bowen wanted to create something that people would use regularly, but not feel like they were becoming an “extreme user.”
The company, which until 2015 was called Ploom, released the first version of the Pax vaporizer in 2012. “[It] was the first thing that really clicked," Monsees said.
Monsees said that the company documented each consumer complaint and issue (both models have 10-year warranties) and took them into account when designing the Pax 2, which came out last March.
“Every bit of data we get from customers is something we’ve taken and tried to incorporate,” Monsees said.
The Pax 2 is smaller, has a longer battery life, a bigger oven, and has four temperature settings rather than the three the first Pax had. It's also more expensive.
And people love it.
The Chill Bud, a site focused on marijuana reviews and culture, called it "the gold standard in handheld vaporizers" and wrote that it's "the last vaporizer you need to buy."
Gizmodo's Adam Clark Estes said using the Pax 2 is like "smoking in the future."
Pax isn't the only high-tech, portable vaporizer, of course.
Industry insiders Tech Insider spoke to mentioned the Vapir Prima, the Da Vinci Ascent, and products from Storz & Bickel, the company behind the Volcano vaporizer, as worthy competitors.
But Matthew A. Karnes, the founder and managing partner of GreenWave Advisors, an independent research company that focuses on the growing cannabis industry, estimates that Pax has been one of the top-selling vaporizers in the US over the last year.
And Graham Wallace, who owns Vail's Exhale, a smoke shop in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains (Colorado is one of four states where the recreational consumption of marijuana is legal), says that the Pax 2 is one of the top-selling vaporizers in his store. “They cost a lot, but they’re worth a lot,” he told Tech Insider. “They actually function superbly.”
The Pax 2 is usually the first vaporizer Wallace shows prospective buyers, he said, because it’s easy to use, easy to load, and easy to clean. He also likes that it comes with a 10-year warranty, but he said that in the year that he’s owned the shop, he’s never had someone return them.
The personification of Pax
Monsees speaks slowly and laughs a lot — he seems like a pretty relaxed and cerebral person.
He likes to think of the Pax like a person — simple on the outside, but extremely complicated on the inside. He calls the Pax’s microprocessor “the brain,” and the sensors, oven, and other parts “extremities.”
What we see when we look at another person is their skin, he said. "But inside there are inordinate amount of things going on — complex systems controlling things, doing all sorts of stuff that enable us to be people.”
“To some degree that's part of the philosophy that we want to convey in the products — that personification … to get to that place where a consumer product can have a personality."
And like a person, the Pax 2 is basically always on — it’s just asleep when it's not active, waiting for you to press a button on the mouthpiece to wake it up and start vaping.
The accelerometer recognizes when you’re moving it, so it turns on the oven to heat whatever material you’ve packed in it.
It senses when you’ve put it down, so it cools the oven to save the battery and preserve whatever you've packed inside of it.
It knows when you put your lips on it, and a sensor in the oven gives feedback in real-time, recognizing how big of a draw a person takes on the device — if you’re taking a big draw, it heats it up more, because the incoming air cools the oven down. “It’s sort of the cool secret sauce,” Monsees said.
The company says that each Pax 2 processor monitors the temperature of the oven 30 times a second to make sure that it’s consistent.
The vapor travels through a stainless-steel air path that cools it down before it reaches your mouth. Three shakes of the device are needed to show the battery life.
Monsees' ultimate goal is to design a product that fits into someone's life so well that it becomes part of a person's routine. He wants people to use a Pax Labs product the way that people eat a certain type of doughnut in the morning, put on a specific pair of socks before bed, or even follow religious traditions.
"We want to make things that become ritualistic parts of life," he said.