BY JESSICA CASTILLO | Images courtesy of PAX
PAX—the company behind some of the most technologically advanced and trustiest vaporizing systems out there—is making its mark as an all-in-one brand. And according to Chief Operating Officer Steven Jung, it’s the right time to both make a splash, and to push the cannabis industry forward collectively.
The company launched its first cannabis pods with live rosin in February, centering an extraction process that flash-freezes cannabis flower right when it's picked and avoids the use of harsh chemical solvents. To Jung, it was both the right thing to do, and a natural next step in an industry where consumers are demanding higher standards and more transparency in their products.
Because, sure: Companies in industries ranging from beauty to food have all used the term “clean” with varying agreement in what that term means, and cannabis is no different. But Jung believes applying rigorous standards to PAX’s pod production can help the industry come to a consensus on standards sooner rather than later.
Ember recently spoke to Jung about how his Silicon Valley tech, finance, and military background informs the work he’s doing at PAX; how the cannabis industry can collectively create standards that set everyone up for success; and why listening to what customers want is driving both innovation and social change. The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
EMBER: What led you to joining PAX? What was so appealing about the brand that you knew that this was the right next step for you after your role as President and COO of Weedmaps?
STEVEN JUNG: First and foremost, it really was just asking the question, "Cannabis or not cannabis?" Staying in the cannabis industry is still incredibly rewarding for so many reasons, because it's still early in the industry. Beyond that, PAX is an iconic brand, and it really was about the opportunity to take PAX into this new direction, where we have now started touching the plant and we actually have our own products out there.
Historically, PAX is known for innovation and quality when it comes to devices and all the award-winning technology that we've built around the cannabis experience. Now we're expanding that to the full cannabis experience for consumers, and I couldn't say no.
What does it mean to be able to provide that 360-degree experience? And why is PAX the right company to do it now?
Our technology has always been focused on bringing out the best of the flower and providing the fullest expression for consumers. It became very clear that in order to continue achieving that mission, we had to have our own product in our vapes as well, so we could leverage this entire system for consumers using either the Era line or the PAX line of devices. Consumers had already been asking for it, and I think the overall reception from the industry is that they completely expected it and were wondering when we would do it. We really were just growing into our shoes.
Beyond that, PAX intends on building a high-quality experience that is the safest and cleanest experience for consumers as well. We really felt like we had something to innovate here. When you look at our live rosin product that we just released a couple months ago here in California, we took innovation, applied it to the formulation, applied it to the process behind it, applied it to the hardware in terms of the pod we were putting it into, and leveraged our award-winning technology into a single experience.
What was the process of deciding exactly what this product was going to be, and why did you settle on live rosin?
A lot of people still have yet to truly experience live rosin. If you look at the data and you look at the market, it's certainly moving in the direction of live rosin as a product specifically. What that indicates is that people are asking: What is this? What is in this oil? And ultimately, what am I putting into my body?
Live rosin involves taking the cannabis flower at the peak of harvest, flash freezing it right away in order to lock in the full cannabinoid and terpene profile of the plant itself, then putting that through an extraction process that only involves ice water and pressure. When you understand live rosin and the process behind it, the resulting product and that experience is really going to be that full-flower concept that we believe in.
How did the PAX team decide on what strains to feature in the live rosin vapes?
On a high level, it really came down to knowing that the market has always had a very close signal around classic strains and flavors that they were used to. We wanted to pay homage to those classic strains and included them as part of the portfolio. One of the other clear signals from consumers is that they do want to experience fresher, more modern cultivars that they may not have been exposed to in the past. We try to layer some of that into the portfolio as well, knowing that it also gives us an opportunity to continue to experiment and see what new, bleeding edge strains or flavors may actually be popular.
How do the live rosin vapes fit into an average cannabis user's lifestyle? Are there people who you think might prefer it more, or are those who might want to mix and match?
It depends on every market, because every local geography is a microcosm unto itself. California, specifically, is a bellwether market when it comes to trends in extraction technology; it's ultimately the consumer form factor for what we create and produce for consumers.
California leads when it comes to new product development, and live rosin was gaining traction with consumers here. We care about innovation, we care about quality, and about ultimately bringing the best experience for the consumer. Live rosin met all of those requirements.
Is it the product for everyone? It may or may not be. It really is going to come down to a question of price elasticity and whether or not it's the right product for a consumer's tastes. In our case, the formulation that we created allowed us to create a premium product and experience at a really disrupted price. That way, we could create a premium, yet accessible category within it. As we look to the future, there's an opportunity for us to continue to take that approach for other products along the spectrum.
You touched on this a bit, especially with noting how people want to know what they're putting into their bodies. What does "clean" mean to PAX?
When we think of this concept of clean and safe within the industry, it's always important to make clear we can't make medical claims. If we zoom out and consider combustion as an alternative to vaporizing—combusting anything, no matter what, is generally going to have some harmful byproducts.
In the world of vaporizing, you're going to have different levels of experiences, which are going to be dependent on things like the hardware itself. What kind of materials are being used? What's the temperature control and the technology behind it? Then you have the oil itself, in terms of the input materials.
So when we, at PAX, looked at building an incredibly full-flower experience that could be the cleanest and safest alternative for consumers, we took all of those things into account. It was critical for us to have an end result that we knew would be free from harmful levels of pesticides, heavy metals, and toxic byproducts. In the past, when we didn't have a regulated market, products certainly had all of those things, and we've been slowly but surely evolving away from that.
"Being able to clearly show in a standardized fashion that cannabis products are tested in a rigorous manner... that's going to be critical for destigmatization, and ultimately mainstream adoption."
To the point about regulations, do you have any thoughts on how the industry can collectively make the idea of "clean," or purity standards really mean something to consumers? What do companies owe to consumers with regard to these kinds of promises?
It's incumbent upon the industry—as companies, business, and operators—to really come together and figure out how to continue to elevate standards together. We need to be proactive about achieving the highest level of quality for consumers.
At some point, we're going to be looking at the hope of federal regulation and legalization. In a perfect world, we'll have already started to establish all the standards that would ultimately be sought after by any agency that would be overseeing cannabis as an industry. Right now, we really just need to take that step back and keep pushing ourselves as an industry to keep advancing those standards.
Do you think these kinds of standards could help the push to destigmatize cannabis?
No doubt. There are a couple things that are blocking that, but it does have very much to do with a lack of education; it's that knowledge gap that then leads to cannabis being stigmatized. Being able to clearly show in a standardized fashion that cannabis products are tested in a rigorous manner—and that the result of that testing and structure is that we have products that are as clean and safe for you as possible—that's going to be critical for destigmatization, and ultimately mainstream adoption.
What work is PAX doing to help consumer education and industry knowledge?
Recently, we published a peer-reviewed research paper that looked at the impact of applying heat to oil when you're vaporizing. We had other research organizations and researchers review it and thereby approve it, so it was published officially. We want to make sure that we're having a dialogue, and helping to elevate that industry standard.
When I think about PAX and about cannabis as an industry generally, what's really exciting is our ability to have a social impact. I was in the military at one point in my career, and after I left, there was a lot about it that I missed, including this concept of serving a greater mission, and being a part of something bigger than me.
Cannabis as an industry is incredibly rewarding, because you have social impact in terms of making the world a better place, but then you also have personal impact depending on the organization that you're in. You get to help move the needle every day. As an industry, this is so rare.
A lot of other companies that you could work for, sure, they could be mission-driven, but they're usually very linear and singular in nature. When you look at cannabis, it's so much more than that: It's freedom of choice, it's access to wellness and care, it's taking care of veterans. It's social justice. It's social equity. All of these things are equally true. It's the only industry I can think of that that actually has that. It leads itself to a lifetime of service.
What can you tell me about the other work that PAX is doing, especially in the social justice, equity, and impact space?
I think about the mission of the Last Prisoner Project, which is to free every last one of the folks that are in prison for nonviolent cannabis crimes, estimated to be over 40,000 people. In the context of an industry that's on path to make $25 to $30 billion in topline revenue, it's mind-boggling to think that that is true—that you actually can have those two things coexist in the same world at the same time.
We've done a lot of work partnering with Last Prisoner Project, and we've also worked with veterans organizations like Weed for Warriors. Last Veterans Day, we were able to effectively create their own brand, Veterans Releaf, which was a major fundraising initiative for that organization.
We did something similar with the Wounded Warriors project in Canada, and we're closely tied to other organizations, working with folks like the Veterans Alliance for Holistic Alternatives, led by Gary Hess. From my perspective as a veteran, certainly I care very much about that mission, but it extends far beyond any one category. It's very much focused on helping the community at large when it comes to cannabis.
Given the revenue that the industry makes, what obligation does the industry have with regard to making sure that things are equitable all the way through?
It falls into the exact same category of making sure that we have the cleanest, safest products available for consumers: It is just the right thing to do. This is a legal enterprise that involves publicly traded companies on the stock exchanges of both the U.S. and in Canada, that has massive enterprise levels of business and revenue behind it, that's driving incredible amounts of state income in tax revenue across the country, and that's driving legalization in levels never before seen.
Cannabis has never been more approved by both sides of the aisle in terms of political parties, and across the general U.S. population. Yet we still have this world where folks are in prison and those communities that were disproportionately affected by the War on Drugs don't actually have a fair and equitable entry point into the industry or to be a part of it. It very much is our responsibility to take care of our industry and our community, and that means that we have to focus on social justice and social equity.
"Cannabis as an industry is incredibly rewarding... You get to help move the needle every day. As an industry, this is so rare."
Your past experience is really extensive in both tech and finance. How has that informed the work that you're doing at PAX?
When I look back on joining this industry, I had been coming from Silicon Valley, where I'd been for about a decade. I came in with a fair amount of confidence that I understood what it was to be a part of a fast-moving company, and a fast-moving industry, generally at startups. But this is like nothing I've ever seen before. It moves at a pace more dynamic than anything that I've ever seen.
In a normal world, you go in one direction and you make your decisions knowing that you had yesterday, you have today, and you can connect all the information and make a decision pretty clearly off of that. In a dynamic industry, that which is true yesterday or today may not be true tomorrow. And what I found in cannabis was, that which is true today may not be true tomorrow—but then might be true again the day after that.
This kind of four-dimensional reality, changing conditions, and environment requires a certain level of flexibility and adaptability, but certainly the experiences that I had leading up to that were really helpful. You certainly get used to being adaptable and flexible, and trying to come up with innovative and new solutions to solve problems that may not have already been solved.
I also happened to be in worlds where I also had to face complex regulatory structures, and that certainly helped when it came to cannabis, which I would argue is probably one of the most complex structures out there, from a regulatory perspective. If we go further, there's the time that I spent in the military, in terms of operationally learning what it meant to build high-performing teams and being a part of them.
As you continue to work with PAX, obviously some things have to be kept under wraps, but what's your vision for the next few months and years?
First and foremost, our vision is to continue to stay focused on bringing the live rosin with natural diamond product to the market here in California. We've already had an overwhelmingly positive response to the product, so we're excited to continue to bring that to as many consumers as possible.
Unsurprisingly, because California is such a leading market for the overall industry, we got a lot of requests from other markets to bring that product to them as well. We're looking to expand scale for that product and the consumables business generally, out to all these folks both here in the U.S., and in Canada.
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