Jomie Raymond was in an office in Los Angeles with a syringe, cracking open Juul pods and sucking out the juice to analyze it. It was early 2016, and Raymond and three other 20-somethings were starting a company called Solace Technologies to make flavored vape juice for refillable e-cigarettes. And they were bent on analyzing the recipe behind e-cigarette giant Juul’s meteoric success.
San Francisco-based vaping company Juul has been making headlines because of its recent $15 billion valuation and its alarming popularity with teens. Sales spiked 641 percent between 2016 and 2017, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, and that was just in brick-and-mortar stores. A recent Wells Fargo Securities analysis pegged Juul at controlling more than 70 percent of the estimated $6.6 billion e-cigarette market. But with increased success comes increased scrutiny from both addicted Juul users who are suing the company and from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Just last week, Juul announced that it plans to stop supplying products in kid-friendly flavors to brick-and-mortar stores, and it pledged to go silent on social media in an effort to keep the popular vape’s appeal from spreading. On the heels of that announcement, the FDA released data showing a 78 percent increase in high school vaping and a 48 percent rise in middle schools. The agency issued its own plans to restrict the sales of kid-friendly flavored products to places that are only accessible to people over age 18.
Public health officials and worried parents aren’t the only ones watching Juul closely: the company’s competitors are, too, and some may be less scrupulous than others. Juul has filed a complaint against more than 15 companies that it alleges are infringing on its patent. That list doesn’t include Solace, which was first profiled by Inc. in May 2018. Even before Raymond started breaking open Juul pods to analyze the liquid inside, he dug through the company’s patent to try to avoid a legal wrestling match with the vaping giant. “If they’re doing something special, they’re a big enough company, they would have patented it,” he says.
Raymond’s patent sleuthing told him that Juul’s special sauce had something to do with its patented nicotine formulation, called JuulSalts, which are more generally known as nicotine salts. It’s the same version of nicotine that predominates in the smoke produced by most cigarettes, and it’s the reason that Juul hits like a cigarette instead of a cigar. The nicotine in nicotine salts is ionized, which means it carries a slight positive charge. That makes it less volatile and less harsh.
The form of nicotine more common in other vapes — as well as in cigars and pipe tobacco — is freebase nicotine, which can stick to a smoker’s upper respiratory tract and make them cough. Big Tobacco discovered decades ago that freebase nicotine makes puffing on a cigar much harsher than inhaling cigarette smoke. And that’s probably why salts products can afford to pack a bigger dose of nicotine, according to David Peyton, a chemistry professor at Portland State University. “You can have a less harsh vape than you can with freebase with the same nicotine content,” he says. “Combine that with the addiction that will follow with such a high dose of nicotine.”
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