At CES in January, amid the robotic armoire that folds clothing and the suitcase that doubles as a go-kart, there were only two cannabis companies. Vapium, a Canadian manufacturer, was there to debut its new medical marijuana vaporizer. The other company, Puffco, had spent the prior two years rebuilding itself from the brink of failure. Its founder, Roger Volodarsky, had not only managed to resurrect his Brooklyn-based startup, but his team would be unveiling what they believe to be cannabis tech's biggest breakthrough yet: a "smart" bong.
CES denied Puffco a booth, Volodarsky says, but that wasn't going to stop him from his company's coming out party. The 34-year-old flew to Vegas and booked a suite at the Mirage Hotel overlooking the Strip. The night before CES started, during a media event for tech companies to demo their gadgets for journalists, he revealed the Puffco Peak, a high-end electric water pipe for vaporizing THC concentrates. At the after-party in his 28th-floor suite, Volodarsky then hosted a live demo with a smaller group of reporters, leading to rave reviews everywhere from Engadget to CNET.
CNET described the Peak's functionality as "easy to work as a Keurig coffee maker" and noted that Puffco "ambitiously domesticated the dab rig through refined design." It was hardly faint praise, considering dab rigs (a particular type of bong used to vaporize a potent, sticky marijuana extract that contains THC) typically resembles an oversize crack pipe. Among Puffco's other high-tech tweaks, the Peak managed to redesign the most unsavory part of the smoking device's user interface: Instead of requiring an actual blowtorch to heat it (like the ones chefs use on a creme brulee), the Peak is activated by a simple double click of a button. By the end of the massive Vegas trade show, the Peak was nominated for the "most unexpected" tech product to debut, according to Engadget.
The competition in the vape tech industry is cutthroat. At the top of the food chain are the originators of innovative cannabis vaporizers like Pax, founded by two Stanford grads; Firefly, founded by a former Apple designer; and the Volcano, created by a graphic designer and civil engineer from Germany. At the bottom end, there are counterfeiters and rip-off artists who buy other companies' products, ask factories in China to make a few tweaks to the branding, resulting in low-cost vaporizers. Somewhere in the middle is Puffco, a small hardware startup that has had to fight for space and recognition.
Volodarsky, a Coney Island native, isn't your typical cannabis startup founder. With sleeve-length tattoos and the ability to smoke any self-respecting cannabis aficionado under the table, he doesn't bother portraying a squeaky clean image. (In 2012, he was arrested for marijuana possession in Fort Lee, New Jersey.) He also didn't set out to raise a bunch of money like other green rush entrepreneurs. Instead, in 2013, Volodarsky bootstrapped Puffco after being disappointed with the existing vape pens on the market. Since then, he's had one simple vision: To make the indiscreet act of dabbing more socially acceptable through smarter technology and great design.
His company didn't start gaining traction until 2015, when Volodarsky launched the Puffco Pro, a small pen-size vaporizer made to consume concentrates on the go. That summer, the Pro won one of the industry's highest honors--the best portable concentrate pen vaporizer at the High Times Cannabis Cup. Suddenly Puffco was on the map, and orders were flying in.
In 2016, from Puffco's former headquarters in a Brooklyn basement, Volodarksy and his team of two engineers and industrial designers came up with a new product, the Puffco Plus. The vape pen, which features a ceramic bowl, went on to win a string of awards from High Times. But Puffco's success and attention came with increased competition and supply chain issues.
The commercial launch of the Plus faltered because the first 2,000 units delivered from its factory in Shenzen, China, were defective. A competitor seized the moment, and posted on social media that all Puffco customers were welcome to send them their broken Puffcos, in return, receiving a free vape from their brand. To make matters worse, Puffco's factory in Shenzhen then went out of business.
The prior year, Puffco had made $5 million in sales, but now it had zero product to sell and hundreds of angry customers. For the first three quarters of 2016, Puffco stayed afloat by selling replacement parts to existing customers. Without a functioning product and no factory, Volodarsky decided to discontinue his products and fly to Shenzhen to try and build a new supply chain.
"We were on the brink of failure and didn't know how to become a well-oiled consumer product company," says Volodarsky.
Volodarsky decided to build a supply chain that was purposely fragmented, to make it harder for competitors to steal his partners. "We did it with boots on the ground. We visited every assembly house and manufacturing partner in Shenzhen," he says. He also worked with his lawyer to write stronger contracts with manufacturers to stem counterfeiters. With the supply chain in place, Puffco started taking new orders by November; during the last 60 days of 2016, the startup brought in more money than they had the prior year.
While the experience was challenging, it also helped Volodarsky refocus his priorities on the one thing competitors couldn't commoditize: great design. He decided to channel all the company's resources to what he believed was his secret sauce--a killer in-house engineering and design team, led by Avi Bajpai, the former senior design engineer at Ben Kaufman's Quirky. "Innovation grows old fast, so you only have one option--make products that are hard to copy," says Volodarsky.
For one year, Volodarsky and Bajpai had a singular focus--creating a smart dab rig that did not require a blowtorch and wasn't embarrassing to leave on the coffee table. If the dab rig was ever going to make it to the mass market, it would have to look more like an Apple product than something fit for a college dorm. The result was the Peak, a sleek electric bong that uses "intelligent" temperature calibration to heat up in 20 seconds. The Peak retails from $379.99 on Puffco's website.
Puffco's next big move will be a literal one, across the country to a new headquarters in Los Angeles. Volodarsky says California, which just legalized adult-use sales in January, will be a more welcoming business environment for a weed tech company. New York has a strict medical program that allows only edibles, tinctures, and pre-filled vape pens. Patients in New York could not legally buy THC concentrates and use Puffco's products.
"It's going to be hard to leave New York, but I sacrificed a lot, all of us at Puffco sacrificed a lot," says Volodarsky, explaining that there was, and still is, a level of risk running a cannabis-related business in certain states. "There weren't many believers, or supporters, when we started."