Business Insider just loves to reference Burning Man. Their latest is a long story about Firefly, a $269 portable electronic vaporizer designed for people who make $75,000/year or more and want to, ummm, smoke tobacco and scented herbs?
photo by Mike Nudelman/Business Insider
the inventors of this high-end vaping implement built the Firefly for legal substances, such as tobacco or, as the Vape World website delicately puts it, “aromatherapy blends.”
You know, this tool is supposed to appeal to that market of people who would be puffing away on pipes like John Cheever and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but have been clamoring for a beautifully designed high-tech gizmo that produces a lung-caressing vapor instead of a bronchi-blistering smoke.
“The tobacco is the business,” says Firefly co-founder Sasha Robinson. “To ignore that market or to think it’s a secondary market is just wrong.”
That said, if someone happened to want to load the Firefly’s chamber with another dried out herbaceous substance, who’s to stop them?
“We respect the consumer’s right to choose,” Robinson adds patriotically. “We have to be respectful of federal laws while understanding that the market in the United States is changing rapidly.”
It’s a different world now than it was back in 2007, when Robinson and Firefly co-founder Mark Williams met and bonded over their shared passion for Burning Man — a wholesome gathering in the desert where upstanding citizens come together to engage in perfectly innocent activities.
…Instead of igniting the leaves — a technology that hasn’t been updated since Prometheus — vaporizers like the Firefly heat it to extremely high temperatures, slowly drying the vegetable matter and emitting a smooth vapor for the user to suck in.
Business Insider then takes us on a look back into vaporizer history, and the lengths tobacco and aromatherapy smokers will go to in order to get their fix a different way…
Five years ago, if you encountered a vaporizer, you were probably sitting in a college dorm room surrounding a clumsy, vaguely sinister-looking contraption with a motley collection of hygienically challenged dudes — alternative types, hobbyists. The kinds of kids who order mysterious packages from websites that end in .net. You probably also saw a few computer parts scattered around and maybe some Grateful Dead posters on the walls. It was a very niche audience.
This was pre-Firefly. The vape of choice back then was a desktop contraption called the Volcano. Developed by German manufacturer Storz Bickel, it has a base that looks kind of like the bottom of a blender, and it comes with a plastic bag you fit over the top of it.
You load your herb of choice, plug in the machine, turn it on, and wait. The bag fills with vapor like a Snoopy balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and once it’s full, you take it off the base and inhale. It’s a little like huffing glue or getting anesthesia — neither one of which are especially appealing to a mass user base.
Adam Schoenfeld, one of the early distributors of The Volcano and now a prominent business consultant in the shadowy vaporizer industry, calls The Volcano “the Mercedes G Wagon of vaporizers.”
The Firefly, on the other hand, is more like a Tesla. It’s a high-end luxury product — one aimed at consumers making upward of $75,000 a year. Retailing for $269, it would take months of grocery bagging to afford one.
The Tesla comparison is also apt in that the Firefly — and similar handheld vaporizers on the market— depends on advances in lithium battery technology, just like the Tesla. The Firefly was not the first handheld vaporizer on the market. In 2008, the butane-heated IOLITE, by Oglesby and Butler debuted.
In terms of the best vape pen or battery-powered vapes, another pioneer was the Magic Flight Launch Box. It hit the market around 2010, and is basically a tiny box of wood that comes with a rechargeable AA battery. Jamming the battery into a hole in the side activates the device. It’s not the sexiest or most powerful gadget, but it gets the job done.
In the high-end vape market, a device called the Ploom Pax beat the Firefly by a year or so. And while the Pax is smaller and lighter (and thus more discreet), the Firefly is far more powerful, running on 50 watts rather than Pax’s 4.
The Firefly also works differently. Whereas the Magic Flight and the Pax use conductive technology, heating up the area on which the plant matter rests, the Firefly is convective, heating the air in the chamber to an astonishing 400 degrees. Some purists argue that this technique, known as convection, makes for a better tasting experience.
How did it all come about?
Try this: Graduate from one of the best schools in the country, have a wildly successful career in Silicon Valley by your late 20s, get a prestigious job at a firm people would die to work for, get married, be sort of happy.
Then chuck it. Quit your job, ply your savings into a new venture all your own, and design a fetish-like new product for a vaguely shady industry that few people even know exists. Then take a look at your knuckles — they’re white.
When they met in 2007, Robinson and Williams were dancing to a mix by a party crew called The Space Cowboys at San Francisco’s Burning Man Decompression party.
It’s a party for people who wish they were at Burning Man.
Both were health-conscious smokers (a rare but growing species). They had experimented with vaporizers and found the results promising. But there was a problem: The older models looked like bulky science experiments — like model spaceships — and they weren’t always reliable.
“The early inventors were great pioneers,” says Williams. “We have a lot of respect for what they did. But neither of us wanted to buy any of the products that were around at that time.”
Normally that would be that, but Williams and Robinson were not your typical “burners” (as aficionados of Burning Man are called).
Williams spent years rising through the ranks at Apple designing Mac OS software, and Robinson had been working at prominent Silicon Valley companies for decades.
They’d both built things, and they had that hacker mindset where you look at a problem and assume you can solve it. Together, they resolved to invent a vaporizer of their own, one that would do for smoking what the iPod did for music. It would be the perfect meeting of form and function, a sleek, intuitive device that would make vaping “as quick as lighting up.”
It wasn’t exactly an easy decision.
“I walked away from a pretty sizable amount of money to work on this project,” Williams told Business Insider. “I could’ve ridden Apple into the sunset.”
Robinson had it pretty good, too, having bounced from Silicon Graphics Incorporated, to Juniper Networks, a networking equipment manufacturer, before bailing out before he was 30. “I retired,” says Robinson. “I was basically like f— this tech stuff. I’m going to learn to weld.” He cashed in some stock, bought a house in San Francisco, and traveled — to Thailand, Cambodia, Poland, Costa Rica. You name it, he wandered there for weeks.
Back home in San Francisco, he got pretty good at metalworking. He constructed jaw-dropping installations for Burning Man and danced a lot. “I achieved every single career goal I had for myself by the age of 29,” says Robinson, now 41. “It’s a weird feeling to be both really proud and lost.”
Proud and lost – welcome to Burning Man.
Since becoming friends, Robinson and Williams were constantly meeting at house parties, or at late-night events in San Francisco’s vibrant electronic music scene. It was Williams who came up with the idea to build a vaporizer. They began spending their Tuesday nights tinkering with coils and testing different power supplies in Robinson’s basement, which was jammed with everything from power tools to Burning Man projects, including a colorfully painted bike with a fur-covered seat. Because “if you’re wearing short-shorts and not much else in the desert, it’s nice to be sitting on fur,” Williams explains.
The device is now out, with an order backlog of 5000 units. It seems a lot of tobacco smokers really want a new device to get their nicotine from!
The Firefly launched at the end of last year to much acclaim. Gadget site Gizmodo declared it “portable perfection.”
In other words, after over three years, they can finally exhale.
But Williams and Robinson aren’t through innovating. They want to expand the Firefly line to vaporizers that accept cartridges of liquid or wax, and to make improvements to the core product, which could be lighter, sleeker, faster. And while the Firefly is definitely being marketed for tobacco users (in total compliance with the U.S. criminal code), the partners have no way to control what a consumer might do in the privacy of his or her own home, or dorm room, or the back of a van.
Or, for that matter, at massive music-and-art festival under the stars in the desert of northern Nevada.