To James Monsees and Adam Bowen, the biggest problem with the smoking industry is that it stopped innovating 50 years ago. And the two San Francisco entrepreneurs have set out to get that innovation engine moving again.
Monsees and Bowen, who were classmates at Stanford's design school, worked on a master's thesis together about smoking and in their research, discovered that many smokers love the ritual and the social elements of having a cigarette, but hate the fact that doing so often bothers people and is known to be unhealthy. With their degrees in hand, the two decided to build a product around helping people maximize those positives and minimize those negatives.
That was four years ago. Now, their company, Ploom, has just released its first product, the Model One. The $40 Model One is a vaporizer built around patent-pending technology that heats tobacco to a temperature that releases its flavor, but doesn't burn it. It's intended to be a white-gloved slap to the face of the traditional cigarette and the companies that make them.
The Model One looks something like a cross between a flute and a high-tech pen. Yet, despite what the company says is a design totally dependent on technology, it contains no electronics. Rather, the Ploom system enables a mixture of air and fuel in a small area with a heat exchanger. The system catalyzes the butane fuel, which is pushed out of the sides of the vaporizer, allowing a smoker to get the flavor from the tobacco without the contamination of actual smoke.
Ploom says its patent claims "revolve around an 'old' but very important idea: heat anything to low temperature and only the more volatile compounds will escape. The tobacco industry left us a large patent loophole...because we believe they were completely focused on perpetuating the cigarette icon: burning tobacco stick."
The Model One, by comparison, is built on a new design principle popularized by the Nespresso and other "capsule" based coffee systems. That means that Ploom's customers will buy packages of small "pods," essentially small, thimble-shaped and foil-covered containers that are placed inside the Model One and then punctured and heated.
The pods come in several flavors--like "kick ass mint," "cafe noir," "blue tea," and others--and cost $6 for a pack of 12. The pods are said to last about 10 minutes of continuous use.
The requirement of using these small pods will probably discourage people using the Model One to smoke their own tobacco or other substances--such as marijuana, Monsees and Bowen said. However, if one simply refilled the pods, it would seem to be possible to put just about any smokable substance in them.
While Ploom clearly is hoping to attract users looking for a new and better way to get their tobacco fix, the company is unwilling to say that its system is healthier than cigarettes.
Health is "a delicate topic," said Monsees. "We have to tread carefully, but always the goal was to introduce something we feel comfortable with [regards to] health."
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has strict guidelines on what companies like Ploom can say about health issues regarding products, Monsees added. But Ploom was "started to be as safe as possible, and if we ever felt that wasn't happening, we'd just pack our bags."
Regardless of whether vaporizers like the Model One are healthier than cigarettes, the two founders said their system is legal to use in indoor public places because rather then emitting smoke, they essentially give off steam. That doesn't mean that every Model One user should be blowing clouds in people's faces at bars, though. Monsees and Bowen say they take a much more cautious approach and encourage their users to be respectful of those around them.
In the end, it's too early to know whether smokers are really looking for a new solution. The cigarette business is still earning huge profits, and companies like Ploom are barely on the radar.
But Monsees and Bowen have put years of research and design into their new vaporizer, and they intend to convince smokers that applying some new technology to their tobacco indulgence might make them happier. And not least because their design is built around the most efficient heating system they could imagine.
"The device uses so little butane for maintaining temperature that sometimes it shuts off the flow of fuel completely," Monsees explained in an e-mail. "The design of the Model One's catalytic heating system keeps the platinum above light-off temperature for several seconds so that the device continues working even after it's starved of fuel for some time.
"The completely mechanical nature (no electronics) of the Model One maintains the allure of smoking: fire, glow, heat, sound; and achieves all of the above design constraints without the luxury of programming it into a chip. To the user it's magic and one of the rare technical devices that they may own with no electrical components."