Fast Company

INTO THIN AIR

ELECTRONIC-CIGARETTE STARTUP JUUL LABS IS VALUED AT MORE THAN $16 BILLION. IT’S ALSO HOOKING TEENS ON NICOTINE AND DRAWING SCRUTINY FROM THE FDA. CAN THE COMPANY INNOVATE ITS WAY OUT OF A CRISIS IT HELPED CREATE?

TAKING THEIR SEATS across from me in a conference room at their airy red-brick headquarters in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood on a brisk August morning, Adam Bowen and James Monsees, cofounders of the breakout e-cigarette company Juul, lay their smartphones and vapes on the table and begin recounting their Silicon Valley origin story.

It begins more than a decade ago: before the lawsuits and the FDA investigations; before the accusations that their company had unleashed an epidemic of teenage vaping on the country; before regulators, legislators, teachers, parents, and even some devoted users began looking at Juul—with its pocket-friendly design and playfully flavored nicotine pods—as a high-tech, highly addictive second coming of Philip Morris. Bowen and Monsees were simply two graduate students—Bowen, clean-shaven and studious; Monsees, bearded and gregarious—who met in Stanford’s product design program in 2002 and bonded, during late-night working sessions, over an idea that could save millions of lives and disrupt one of the world’s most powerful industries.

“Look, smoking hasn’t evolved in 100 years,” Bowen says, recalling the pitch to their thesis advisers. “It’s killing millions of people. We’re smokers. We’re at risk of suffering the same fate, and we want to work on this: How do you create a new ritual to replace the old one?”

Early e-cigarette models, such as R.J. Reynolds’s “Premier,” which launched in 1988, had failed to win over large numbers of smokers because their nicotine levels were too low and they relied on clunky technology and weak batteries. Plus, they often mimicked the iconography of cigarettes—round tube, glowing tip—but didn’t taste or smell as good. “[Big tobacco] had been trying to build a safer cigarette, and that’s not what anyone wanted,” says Monsees. He and Bowen realized that “people wanted to move past cigarettes.” A video of the pair’s 2005 thesis presentation at Stanford shows Bowen unveiling their prototype, called the Ploom, to professors and classmates. Through elevated design, he explains, it should be possible to “take tobacco back to being a luxury good and not so much a drug delivery device that cigarettes have become.” The presentation includes filmed endorsements from beta users—all cigarette smokers.

“The orthodoxy in a lot of the smoking stuff is, you just quit, man up, cold turkey,” says their thesis adviser, Michael Barry, who today is a Stanford adjunct and founder of Quotient, a design consultancy. “And if you fail, you’re weak.” (Less than 5% of smokers who try to quit abruptly are successful.) The sense of shame that results is “literally the kiss of death for any kind of behavior change.” Early studies suggest that e-cigarettes, which are not nearly as deadly as combustible cigarettes, offer an effective alternative. In the U.K., officials at Public Health England have gone so far as to laud e-cigarettes as “the nation’s

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