Exclusive Interview - Brandon & John from Evolv
Evolv’s President Brandon Ward and Chief Engineer, John Bellinger, spoke with me about their latest chipset, the radical DNA40, the future of the electronic cigarette industry, and the regulatory impact of Ebola.
Oliver: To kick off, would you give me an overview of the product itself explaining a little bit what the departure is here from the DNA30, and what that means for vapers generally moving forward? So, John, are you able to tell us a bit about the new features, especially with regard to heat protection?
John: Thank you. I’m going to correct you, though: It’s actually temperature protection, heat regulation and some features. We’re trying to keep the terminology more specific because of the regulatory kerfuffle in the United States and elsewhere, where we’re working really hard to try to keep things as an open system, so the more specific and scientific we can be and not have random terms thrown around, the more credible were are to to FDA and European regulatory authorities. So it’s temperature and not heat. I hate to be pedantic about it but it is important.
Oliver: No, I think pedantry’s good! It was very interesting when I met Brandon at ECC last month and he explained the difference between heat and temperature and how we really need to start thinking in those terms because it’s a critical distinction. Could you explain it a little more?
John: Sure. We’re controlling heat by controlling power (heat is power x time). Controlling heat with wattage control sets how much vapor you’re getting and that’s all it sets. What we’re doing with the temperature limitation, temperature protection, is we’re controlling what’s in the vapor because, for example, you could have it set at 20 Watts, and if it won’t wick, you get a real burnt taste and it’s terrible. The watts directly set how much vapor you get. The temperature sets what’s in the vapor, because at certain temperatures you start to get breakdown products. So we’re really trying to control those as two separate variables. With the DNA40, you could have a lot of vapor that’s absolutely pristine and if for some reason you wanted a tiny amount of nasty vapor you could set that. We don’t recommend it, but you could! This is really the breakthrough: we can say, “Here’s a ton of vapor: it’s not overheated, it’s not burning, it’s not funny tasting and it doesn’t have weird chemicals”. All other changes are either a usability improvement, or something which supports that overall goal.
Oliver: OK, could you explain a little more about the usability improvements?
John: there were two things that we were really trying to do with this product release. Firstly, we wanted the temperature protection, and much of what DNA40 does is related to this. The usability improvements we worked very hard on too. So now, you don’t have the multiple cutouts that you had with previous DNA when your battery’s weak. Instead of this, the 40 says: “Well, I know I can only put out 14 watts and 14 watts is better than no watts. You’re probably driving home, you don’t have a charger, so I’m going to put out 14 watts”. So, it protects and, as much as it can, it keeps firing on some level. If the atomizer isn’t wicking well, the 40 keeps firing at whatever wattage that won’t cause overheating. If the battery’s weak, it will fire at whatever wattage that won’t damage the battery. If the coil resistance is too low, it keeps firing at whatever the correct limit is. The goal is to keep firing but in a safe state.
Brandon: And we’ve put actionable stats on the screen. So if you hit the current limit, and it’s a function of the ohms being too low. Instead of saying “current limit”, it says “ohms too low”. It’s an actionable step that that the user can take to correct.
John: Yeah, and part of the reason that we’re doing that relates to developments in vaping.
A year ago the big tanks/high power box mods and so on was a small niche enthusiast kind of thing – I’m sure you know that, you know, you run ECF! But it’s come to pass now that in the mainstream people are going straight to big devices.
So we’re trying to take a lot of the specialised knowledge people need and incorporate it and make it easier to use for the guy that’s just coming off cigarettes without taking away any of the functionality.
Oliver: I think that’s an important step. The user experience aspect is being refined and I think that’s critical at this stage because, I don’t know if you see this differently, but it seems that the higher output devices somehow are actually better. It’s not just faddish, it’s that higher output seems to be critical for many peoples’ success in making full transitions. And with respect to the mass market, you can’t really have products these days that don’t have almost… I don’t want to say it but almost idiot-proof capabilities on the user-interface front; we live in a plug-and-play world now and to get to the mass market you really need that kind of functionality.
Brandon: And I think you just touched on it: you need something that’s more accurate compared with what they just came from. So if you have something that’s more accurate to a cigarette it’s going to be more compelling to stay there.
John: And, I mean, one of the things that we’ve discovered as part of our research where we go out and look at the actual data people have generated for cigarettes. We spend actually more time with the cigarette research than we spend looking at the vapor research. And the cigarette’s really well researched. So, for example, we found a paper that was looking at “what’s the wattage level in combustion coming out of cigarettes?” And it turns out that they spike initially and then it’s between 20 and 30 watts. So, if you’re not throwing 20 or 30 watt heating power at somebody, it’s going to be not as much heat in the vapor stream and the air stream as they were getting with a cigarette. This also speaks to “Well why didn’t you make a 500 watt one?” Well it’s because 20 or 30 is what’s going to be kind of like a cigarette. If you want to be filling your room with fog, well that’s cool, you can do that, but for the vast majority of people we don’t think that’s really where it’s going.
Oliver: So, I’ve read quite a bit of the research on tobacco myself and there are a variety of perspectives. So obviously there’s the alkalinity and the free nicotine and these kind of things and then you’re talking specifically about what the tobacco industry used to call “impact”. But, that seems to me to be far too broad, so under ‘impact’ you’d have things like free nicotine, the throat hit, you’d also have the deliverability of the nicotine to the bloodstream and all of those things. But then from my perspective, I do sometimes wonder the degree to which some of that research is a little bit self-serving to an extent, in the sense that it is a truism to say that tobacco is the most efficient delivery mechanism for nicotine because of the physics – at the moment at least – but the reality is that it’s not the be all and end all. And you’re talking about something that really comes under what I would call the ‘pleasure surplus’, so the heat and the sensation are not necessarily related directly to the pharma-kinetics or the bioavailability of nicotine, they’re something else.
John: Well (laughs)
Brandon: How much do you want to talk about that? (laughs)
John: Well, I have to keep my mouth shut because we have several ongoing projects, so obviously we’re not just working on this. What I will say is that we look at the e-cigarette as a separable problem. So, we’re attacking the vapor integrity in the DNA40, and really we’re doing this much earlier because we were kind of pushed into it by the FDA. We need to come up with a regulatory framework where we can guarantee that we know what’s in the vapor stream, or we’re never going to see an approvable product. But, we see there’s a finite number of things to solve before the e-cigarette is as good or better than a tobacco cigarette.
Brandon: Let’s talk a little bit about the open system too. One of the things that this does is it facilitates an open system. John’s belief, and I tend to stand behind it, is that, we can regulate these on a component by component basis saying, “Okay, flavour in A, flavour in B, flavour in C, don’t break down below this temperature”. We need to remember that big tobacco are pushing for this to be regulated as a complete closed system. because if you have a closed system you can control everything and then you have to buy your cartridges from Vuse or whoever. So, if we have devices which can control accurately, then juice makers can have a list of ingredients they can use, and still be able to make their 250 juices from those ingredients.
Oliver: So, in theory, a juice could be rated for a particular style of device. So, you could say: “This is a 20 watt juice. Don’t go any higher”
Brandon: But why are you going to go that far? Why not make it completely open and as long as you’re using this list of approved flavors it’s fine. There are probably 80 different base flavours: how many different juice flavours can you make? Thousands. That’s what we would like to see. I mean, do you disagree with that, John?
John: It really becomes a question of permutations. If you’ve got eight different combinations of fluid components that’s 8 factorial: how many permutations you can have and you will never be able to approve each of those permutations individually. So if that happens what will realistically happen is it will cost a fair amount of money to have a flavour, and you’re talking completely about closed systems where it just goes back to convenience stores. The whole vapor store model goes away, because it’s not supported by a market where you can only sell Vuse or a Marlboro flavour, or Newport flavour, which I think Big Tobacco would love because that’s the distribution, you know, well handled.
Oliver: Well my friend came up with this wonderful conceptualisation which is, you know, one of those great things where something’s obvious but it’s obviousness somebody rather smart has to point out! The radical nature of this industry isn’t just the way that nicotine is delivered to the user by the product, but it’s also the way it’s distributed to the market; it’s radically changed because of the online and vapor store segment which, you know, never had a look-in for cigarettes. But that’s entirely down to inventory issues, you know, in other words if you can just package everything up or if regulators make everything packaged up into very small boxes then, you know, it just goes back to the c-store.
John: Exactly, and we’d prefer not to see that because we don’t think necessarily that all the tobacco players are being very honest about e-cigarettes. They’re saying: “Okay, we’d like them to be just slightly worse than a real cigarette.” So, they’d like to keep it as a poor cousin of a cigarette for when you board a plane, or a train, or are in prison, or something else! They’d like to improve to the point where it’s slightly safer, slightly worse than a cigarette. Then it’s no real threat to them.
Oliver: Well, I think the other thing to remember is that the tobacco industry works on very long time frames. So, they wouldn’t mind if everybody moved onto e-cigarettes, just so long as they can manage the transition and do it over a 15–20 year period.
John: I disagree. I think they wouldn’t mind just as long as vaping ends up more expensive and they control the revenue stream. So if we stick with an open tank system, total costs of vaping versus smoking goes down and this is disaster for Big Tobacco if people are migrating. So I think that’s why an open system is threatening to certain people, and by ‘certain people’ I mean primarily RJ Reynolds because for a total publicly traded company, that’s kind of a disaster. If everything is regulated by components I don’t think they could control that stream: It becomes a fashion market, and I don’t think they move that fast. So, I mean, if we can keep vapor stores, we keep safe juices, it prevents this industry from becoming another oligopoly
Oliver: John, I think you’re absolutely bang-on, there’s nothing I would disagree with on that at all. And again, you know, it is partly about this pleasure surplus factor: one of the things that has enabled e-cigarettes to be so successful is the degree to which people can pick and choose and customise their overall experience. Whether that’s the juice they buy or the way their device is configured. One thing that strikes me is in the absence of a device that does fully replicate the smoking experience, whatever that is, and I don’t necessarily think that’s a totally desirable thing, but in the absence of that thing existing then it’s all down to –
John: The “gives you electronic cancer” experience? (laughs)
John: There are certain parts of the smoking experience we definitely don’t want to replicate. But no, I agree, it’s not inherently just like a cigarette and I don’t think that’s where we end up either. But it’s sort of our first hurdle, and then from there you say, “Well what do we actually want to do with it?”.
Brandon: And John and I have talked about this that once you’ve hit that point where you’ve solved those issues it ceases to be interesting. I mean, it really does: our job is to solve the e-cigarette, it’s unsolved, and I think once you solve it it ceases to be interesting
John: It ceases to be technologically interesting, it becomes fashion, it’s like stupid phone software. But, we don’t think we’re there. There’s a lot of work to be done before that happens so it’s not next Tuesday we’ll be like, “Well that’s done”.
Oliver: No, of course. And I suppose the big worry - and, you know, this is partly the impetus for the CNN article I wrote – is that my biggest concern is that the innovation gets cut. I don’t know what your estimated timeframe for this being a solved problem is but let’s say the FDA comes in with the worst possible thing and that’s it: everybody pulls out and there’s no investment capital available and companies can’t get to market. Innovation right now, it strikes me, is at a sort of critical point.
John: I agree, we’re very much at a critical juncture here, even from an Evolv standpoint, things are moving somewhere between uncomfortable and frighteningly fast now. So for a while we we were able to run at a sort of a more casual pace, and, okay, people will all adopt wattage control and it’ll take them three years. Now, we announced DNA40 and certain Chinese companies that only exist by ripping us off, that afternoon were saying: “Oh yeah, we’re going to have a clone of that in December”.
Literally the same day, they announced they’d have a clone by December.
John: So it’s really at a critical juncture and for the FDA to say: “Oh well, it’s probably good enough, let’s just freeze it right here.” I think that would be a hideous mistake to make. And it’s one of the reasons that we were sort of going as fast as we could with the temperature control, which we’d been sort of playing with in the background for a couple of years, is so we could get it in before the FDA went, “Well this what it should look like,” because I think It is an important part of the safety standards. There are a hundred things that we’ll be solving and some of them are actually working rather nicely in the lab. I won’t say more about that yet, but at Evolv we finally have enough money where we can reinvest in new equipment as and when we need it. The industry went from rolling around to crawling to toddling to walking, and I think left alone we’ll start running in a year or two as an industry, not specifically just Evolv. So it would be really nice if we were left alone for a year or two.
Oliver: Well it sounds to me like you believe it’s on almost a sort of hyperbolic uplift at the moment, which is very exciting. But many people reading this will say, “Well, hang on a minute, where do the mechanical devices fit into all of this?” and, I don’t know how you guys feel about that whole side of the market but, Brandon, you briefly told me that you’d done some research, and we know that Konstantinos is crowd sourcing a big project coming up soon on high power output. But you used thermal imaging on your initial research and can you tell a little bit about what you kind of found, generally speaking?
John: On mech devices, unregulated with no airflow, we saw 1200, 1300 Farhenheit. What we really found, while we were developing the temperature regulation, our big insight there which we’re happy to share, is that a lot of the research is doing this wrong; where you get the problem isn’t during the draw. During the draw you’ve got airflow, you’ve got a fairly fixed boil rate: you’re at the boiling point of your fluid during the draw. Where you run into problems is priming the device: you hit the button, you’re getting temperatures there without airflow high enough to start carmelizing your juice or, towards the end of your draw when you’re not sucking as hard. So the important times are the times you’re not drawing consistently.
Brandon: If you’re slowing the draw, the temperature shoots up.
John: That’s right - the temperature can spike to potentially problematic levels. So from our thermal imaging work, that was our really most interesting finding. Because other people are saying: “Well yeah, we hooked it up to a smoking machine, we pushed the button and it started to draw fine, we look at these things,” and that’s really looking at the wrong time. The interesting things happen in the the other times: the non-steady state is where you really need the protection.
Oliver: Circling back slightly to the power/heat and heat limitation: When you’re putting in higher wattages I presume what you’re actually doing ultimately is you’re getting the device hot more quickly, that’s the advantage of the higher wattage systems?
John: No – that’s not it. And there’s actually a fairly excessive write-up I did in the non claim section of our patent. Essentially, if you had infinite wicking what you’re doing with higher wattage is that you’re actually generating more vapor. If you can wick it, the amount of vapor you get is directly proportional to the wattage you’re putting in exactly on a one to one basis. So given infinite wicking, twice as much wattage gives you twice as much vapor, and given infinite wicking it’s actually at the same temperature. What happens is you heat up the liquid to the boiling point, you apply a finite amount of power at the boiling point and then it turns into a vapor and goes off in the airstream. So you don’t need high temperature to get high wattages or to get high amounts of vapor because the vapor will always be at the boiling point.
So we are wattage dominant. The DNA40 is a temperature protected system, not a temperature regulated system. In a temperature regulated system you might say: “Okay, I’m going to keep this playing at 410 degrees,” but you would have literally minimal to no control over how much vapor comes out: if that temperature’s above the boiling point it will simply boil off everything that gets to it immediately, which isn’t really what you want: that’s not very controllable. So what we do is we say, “At 21 you’re going to get a certain number of millilitres of use per hour or second or whatever,”. So you say: “I want this much vapor, that gives me this much nicotine per draw,” and then if it gets to the maximum temperature then and only then will it back off the wattage, and it will give you less vapor to hold it below that temperature.
Brandon: And the only time it would do that is if your wicking were constrained or your airflow were low.
John: The only time you should be hitting a high temperature is if there’s somthing non-optimal about your system. Otherwise you’ll be at the boiling point which is around 380–390F. It depends on the juice. So, for lack of a better word, what we’re doing with the wattage control is “direct dosing”.
Oliver: So what part of that, whatever combination of circuitry and microelectronics you’re using, what part of that is novel to this device? Is it the protection element or is there something novel in the DNA40 itself that is detecting the point at which things are boiling?
John: The biggest hardware difference is the different coil material and that coil material changes resistance as it heats. Because with our wattage control we don’t care what the resistance is, we’ll put out eight watts in real time, which is one ohm or two ohms or whatever, we can keep putting out eight watts as the restance changes, and then read the resistance to calculate the heat. It also has more circuitry, takes a lot of software and has more processing power.
Oliver: Now, the next question I’d like to ask is there there may be some mech mod users that want a Kick type device to go in their tubes. Is this a possibility?
John: Yeah, we played with that. We’re not doing it. The problem is some of the things that the DNA40 does better than DNA30 that it’s always keeping tabs on the heating coil. A kick wouldn’t work if you’re working out on an oil rig and it’s the middle of December and it’s 20 degrees below zero because it needs to know that at 20 degrees below zero that the coil’s at 20 degrees below zero. And fundamentally, with mech mods, once the circuit is broken by the button, on a bottom-button mod, or by disengaging the coil on a top-coil. I don’t want to be a party-pooper there but that’s really why we’re not doing a kick version. It works in sort of a symbiosis between the coil and the device so it’s either the device isn’t always on or the coil isn’t always connected.
Oliver: I guess the reason that I asked this is because the mech has been the big story of the last year, as we discussed: the big explosion over the last 18 months:
Brandon: Yeah, no pun intended, right?
Oliver: Well, thankfully we’re seeing less of that than we did two year’s ago. But some people will be concerned about the temperatures you’ve found, and that Konstantinos is looking at in his new study. My view is that whatever works and keeps you off cigarettes is a good thing, and it’s as simple as that. But it’s almost certainly not going to be good enough for the regulators.
John: The biggest threat to vaping is regulators doing something misguided, so that’s what we’re trying to focus on. But, vaping is ridiculously new and, even with the worst device possible it’s probably still safer than smoking. Personally, I see mods like I see cigalikes: I see them both as transitional products existing until regulated mods can do everything they do, plus some. And, the thing about electronics is that the get smaller and cheaper every year. So, I guess I don’t see mechs as being a thing ten years from now, even if all the regulators just caught Ebola and went away! Eventually, there won’t be a compelling case for mechs because, and this is very depressing for us, the cost of electronics falls to zero, and the size decreases. I don’t mind mech mods, although I do worry about the “if one explodes it looks bad on all of us” perspective.
Oliver: Right. I think it speaks a little bit to the fact that we are dealing with a sort of innovator type market at the moment that is not representative of the future market necessarily. We might tolerate coil builds and find it very exciting and interesting, but in reality, most people probably find, or would find, building their coils a bit of a pain in the ass. That’s just reality.
John: It’s an exciting time to be an enthusiast. It’s similar to how cell phones were really, really exciting four or five years ago. When the iPhones were new there were colossal wars all over the internet. They’re just not exciting anymore because they are much more mature technologies. So I think you’ll still have an enthusiasts’ market like you have for wine, for example. The guy who winds his own coils will be more like the ham radio enthusiast, rather than the guy who opens his phone, makes a call and it’s done. This is going to be 4, 5 year’s from now, mind you.
Oliver: That’s very interesting, and it’s great to speak to somebody that is actually thinking in very long timeframes. There is a tendency in this industry for people to feel like things are up in the air at the moment and I think a lot of people feel like it’s the revolution that still might not happen, and are not really thinking about this stuff going forward.
Brandon: That’s just human nature, though. i think people tend to believe that what’s possible is “what we’re doing right now”. We believe that what’s possible is what we’re not doing right now. The way things are moving the pace of things is unbelievable. But what you have is a community of enthusiasts who are the opinion makers - and of course we listen to them. But you have to walk outside of that sometimes to come up with the next thing. Although, temperature: I think people have been talking about that for some time.
John: Yeah, temperature protection is not a “we had an out-of-the-blue revelation”. We happened to be first to market with it, but it’s nothing new conceptually. There are not-obvious e-cigarette innovations that are coming down the line, and there are the obvious one. Some of the not-obvious ones will seem very obvious looking back on them in many year’s time.
I think personally that most everybody from Big Tobacco down to the guy who’s got a vapeshop on the corner of his house sees the market as, especially with the regulators now, consolidating and shaking out.
So I think a lot of the people in the vapor side of it are operating with a fair amount of fear right now or maybe should be, or just they’re not thinking long-term, “But well, you know, eventually Philp Morris will just crush the whole thing, you can’t fight the big evil man”. And so I think one of the things that we’re doing differently as Evolv is, I very much believe after the shake-out happens we’re still going to be standing; And I think a lot of people are thinking “Let me get in quick and then when it goes away I’ll move on“ whatever the case may be.
Oliver: Finally, Brandon - when I first met you in 2012, you said “we’ve invented a new technology that really only has one application: E-cigarettes”. I wonder if in the intervening two years you’ve managed to find any other applications the DNA might be used for?
Brandon: No, no - we haven’t come up with any!
John: We had a meeting with this tech guy from San Francisco a little while back and he was all: “what are you guys doing with this wattage control - it’s totally pointless..” and so forth. We explained why, but even he couldn’t see any other applications. So, we’ve not come up with any other interesting uses for it. For almost everything else there’s a better way of controlling, but it just happens to be the best in our space: fortunately, our space looks to be getting quite large!