PAX vaporizers have long been lauded for both their form and function, combining sleek, modern and discreet styling with the technological underpinnings of 21st century America. In mid-June, the company took another step forward as a leader in the cannabis tech space with the release of its new app for the Era, incorporating even more gizmos into what The Cannabist originally called “the vape that George Jetson would have used.”
While options like temperature control cater more to the enthusiast market, the session control feature is designed for the new user, giving the Era broader appeal among the increasingly diverse community of marijuana consumers. Session control allows users to measure doses more effectively than in the past, so they never get the feeling of being out of control or uncomfortable — similar to the way a wine drinker, for example, can count the number of glasses they drink.
Bharat Vasan, a veteran of the consumer technology and video game industries, took over the reins of PAX Labs in February 2018 and looks to shepherd the company through the minefields of increasing competition and the unknown landscape of expanding legalization. Marijuana Venture spoke with the newly minted CEO about the company’s latest innovations, the future of cannabis consumption products and how PAX remains relevant as the majority of the industry embraces interchangeable cartridges.
Marijuana Venture: In the relatively short time you’ve been CEO at PAX Labs, how much have you seen the cannabis market change and more specifically, how much has the market for consumer products changed?
Bharat Vasan: It’s changed a fair amount. California just went legal. Canada is going legal. So you see the market changing in these big swaths that you normally don’t see in other places where you’ve got 10 million or 15 million people who are all being exposed to cannabis for the first time.
I think for PAX, three things have been different.
The first thing is that we’re out there and we recognize the need for education, so it’s not just building quality products, but it’s educating folks on why it’s better, what makes sense for them and talking about cannabis a little more openly.
The second thing is that we recognize the need for people who are new to this space to feel like they’re in control. The PAX Era had temperature control before; if you’re a connoisseur, you understand that terpenes flash off at higher temperatures. But for folks who are new to the market, features like session control really bring it home in terms of making them feel like they’re in control and they’re not going to have a bad experience.
I think the last part is that it’s really fun building a company. We’ve got so many great folks who are not just from the cannabis space, but also from some of these mainstream CPG (consumer packaged goods) or consumer technology spaces. We’re trying to put together a pretty experienced group of folks who are super skilled, but also have that common desire to help make cannabis mainstream.
MV: What parallels do you see between consumer technology and cannabis?
BV: I came from video games, and when I worked at EA, we thought the entire category was maybe $20 to $25 billion. Today it’s over $100 billion. When I went into it, my parents were like, “Oh my god, this is what you went to school for? You’re basically playing video games for a job.” I don’t think people understand the impact the games have.
At one point, it was all PC games and console games. Then there are Facebook games and mobile games. Now you’ve got people watching other people playing video games. It’s kind of crazy.
I really see cannabis the same way. It’s a very nascent category. It’s very messy, the regulations are unclear. I think cannabis is going to follow that similar trajectory of becoming more mainstream and new brands being built and new forms of delivery being developed.
MV: With this market being so dynamic, how does PAX ensure it can remain a leader in vaporization innovation for years to come?
BV: I think the first thing is that we’ve always had a pretty solid technology background with the engineering that goes into the hardware, the safety and reliability that goes into it, the software features we push out. We think very, very carefully about the whole experience — what the relationship between PAX and the user looks like.
Probably the second part is education. We can do a lot better in terms of explaining the blends we have on the PAX platform and helping people pick what’s right for them. I feel like that’s still kind of messy between the budtenders and the stuff you can find online or from friends. There’s got to be a more logical way.
MV: So much of that education process right now feeds through the budtenders and sales associates at the retail or dispensary level. Is that a challenge? Or how do you approach things from that educational perspective?
BV: That’s a really great question. One thing we’ve ramped up this year is budtender education, where we spend a lot of time in the field. I don’t know that we view it as a challenge as much as an opportunity. I feel like PAX fits in that same vein of great brands like Patagonia, GoPro or Apple, both in quality, but also in emotion that it inspires at the ground level.
MV: Where do you see the future of cannabis consumption products heading? Or does anybody know?
BV: Your guess is as good as mine. For PAX, in particular, I would say it’s new technologies that make the experience more predictable, so folks understand what they’re getting into before they get into it. And it’s beautifully designed hardware, so it takes some of the stigma out of the space.
I also think there will be a lot more understanding about what different user segments are like. You’ve got everything from folks who really need cannabis for their medical needs to recreational users to a large, emerging middle class, if you will, who use it for sleep and anxiety and all these other needs. How do we speak to each one of them? How do we create features for each of these different segments? It’s something we spend a lot of time thinking about.
MV: Can you talk more about the new app you released? What does it mean for PAX?
BV: We think it’s on the same magnitude as temperature control. When we put out temperature control, the goal was to give connoisseurs — who understand that terpenes flash off at higher temperatures — that fine-grain temperature control.
Session control is for new users who don’t want to feel out of control — giving them the tools to figure out what a session or a dose should be, so they can figure out what’s right for them.
With wine and other stuff, you can count the number of glasses. Session control tries to bring that same function to cannabis.
We’re trying to build features that respond to the needs of all these new users that are coming into the market, in addition to the connoisseurs. We feel like it’s a pretty big step forward. Temperature was kind of the one axis, and this fills out the other side.
MV: Do you track user data through the app?
BV: We don’t do this right now. Privacy and security are pretty important to us. Before we start doing that, we’d want to think through it a whole lot more.
MV: How do you address those concerns at a time when data mining and privacy are such big topics?
BV: For us, I think it’s a matter of not collecting data we don’t need without telling users what it’s for. That’s kind of the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) standard. Even before that went into effect (in the European Union), PAX had taken that same view for the last few years. It’s not something I came up with over the last four months. The corporate philosophy has been that if we don’t need it and it’s not delivering value to users, then let’s not create situations that put folks’ privacy at risk.
MV: While most vape product manufacturers are now using the interchangeable 510-thread disposable cartridges, PAX has gone the opposite direction by requiring a specific cartridge. Can you talk about the decision to go that direction and address some of the challenges or advantages you see in that regard?
BV: I think it all comes back to our first principle of what would make a really great product. For us, that means it first needs to be safe. That means we need to control the supply chain to know what goes into it. Do they crack? What happens under high temperature? What happens under pressure? All that type of stuff. I think one of the hard things with pen cartridges is that you have so many Chinese contract manufacturers that you don’t actually know what goes into every bit of it.
The second thing is the messy factor that turns folks off. One of the things that happens is 510 cartridges — not many, but about 10% of them — tend to leak. We want to solve that as well. We want to make sure the products are not messy if we’re trying to make them mainstream.
The last thing is that for power users, we want really fine-grain temperature control. You can’t really have that with a 510 cartridge because of the core technology of the coil, the wick, the heating element.
The easiest thing would be to say, “Hey, everybody’s doing this. Why don’t we do it as well?” But our focus will always be delivering the best experience and hopefully that pulls the space up into a different tier of folks who say, “Oh, that’s what ‘good’ looks like.”
MV: Does that put an extra emphasis on partnering with the right oil manufacturers?
BV: We want quality plants for quality pods. We spend a lot of time engineering these pods and making sure they’re just right. We want to work with the best fillers out there and work with them on their standards to ensure everybody we work with produces a certain quality of oil that goes into the PAX product. It’s symbiotic. I wouldn’t say PAX is leading the way, so much as it’s a partnership between us and all our partners. We’ve got more than 35 partners right now in different states and as legalization grows, who knows what that number will be. It’s grown substantially just this year.
MV: What do you look for in a partner?
BV: The first thing we look for is a company that is legally compliant. There are a lot of folks taking a lot of short cuts and they may not be on the up and up. We have a whole compliance team over here to look at folks and make sure they’re licensed, we look at their testing process, we make sure they know where their plants come from.
On the flip side of things, from a business perspective, we look for folks who have the same vision around delivering quality oil and a good experience. When you don’t have that alignment and people say they just want to make as much money as possible, that’s not PAX’s number one goal. Yes, we’re a business, but we’re in it for the long term. We’ve been around for 10 years. We intend on being around for the next 50. And part of taking that long view is working with folks we can rely on.
We try not to work with partners who say one thing, yet three months later they’re doing something else.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.