Before we launched Vuse, we spent years making sure we got everything just right. One of the things which took so long was finding the right technology and developing it until it met our standards. The vuse.com blog sat down with Alfie Spencer, who manages the Innovation and Exploration team, to talk about the painstaking work which goes into making sure that Vuse develops technology of such high quality.
In this first part, we talk about how the team started searching for the best technology partners, the challenge of a changing market, and some of the inspirations behind Vuse’s devices.
The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Hi Alfie. What was it like starting out looking for the next generation of a technology as big as the eCigarette?
In 2010, after launching our cig-a-like devices at Vuse, we started looking at technologies for other ways people could enjoy vapour. At that time the question was ‘is there a way we can deliver the same satisfaction?’ And we looked at different ways of producing a similar sensation. We looked at drinks, strips, lozenges, gums, sprays, and we ended up looking at aerosols.
At the time we weren’t just asking ourselves ‘what is smoking?’ or ‘what is vaping?’ We were also thinking very hard about the experience around it all. We were asking questions like ‘why does a smoker choose a cigarette over a vapour product?’
So even then the market was changing all the time?
That was one of the things which made this an interesting challenge. You have to have an idea about where the market is going to be in three to five years’ time.
At that time, the market started moving towards a second-generation eTank-style system. After that you started getting into the early stage box mods like the eBox. And now we are at generation four, the variable voltage, bigger, sub-ohm, deep lung devices.
If you can understand where the market is going in adjacent industries, then you can form a vision of where eCigarette technology will be in three, four, five years’ time.
So when you are at the beginning of the search, how do you work day-to-day?
After a while we formed a team called the ‘Innovation and Exploration’ group, which I managed. We had six people, and from then on it was very much a group effort.
When you’re just starting out, a lot of the searching is based on networking and having a vision of where the industry is going. You have to define the problem you’re trying to solve and then look at another industry which has the best answer to that problem, and get a sense of which technologies are going to affect this one.
For example, an eCigarette is a way of creating a vapour and inhaling it into the lungs. So you look at inhalation devices in adjacent industries which are doing similar things. We looked at inhalation medicines for asthma, throat remedies - anything which was also creating a vapour which you inhale.
The next task is to try to map out that industry. We did a lot of patent searches and literature searches to work out who the key players in that industry were. And once we know who the key players are, we can build an idea of the technology life cycle.
For example, we might be thinking about putting a sensor into one of our devices. In which case, we ask ourselves ‘where should we go for a sensor?’
We could go to a sensor manufacturer, but in truth, they’ll probably only make one kind of sensor.
So instead we think a little bigger, and ask ourselves ‘who else uses sensors?’ And with that kind of thinking, we ended up at an aerospace expo, full of planes, cars, boats, and so on, because planes use sensors to regulate airflow and temperature. And eventually, that kind of technology and those kind of sensors can go into an eCigarette.
Were there any technologies which didn’t come up to your standards?
There were plenty. We analyse a lot of technology, and we decline or park most of them. For example we were looking at a technology from the medical device industry, and we started to develop it, but it didn’t come up to scratch.
Over the past three or four years I’d say we’ve reviewed maybe twenty or thirty different technologies. Of those, I’d say there are only two or three which we’re still working with at the moment. To keep our standards up we have to be very, very fussy.
There are so many things which never make it past the early stage of development. Ninety percent of the technologies we look at, read, or discuss will never make it out of our team, and certainly never make it to market. I can’t think of the number of times that I’ve seen something at a trade show, or at an expo, or read in a science journal, which I’ve thought was the best thing ever, which I’d love to see in a shop, but which hasn’t launched because it just doesn’t meet our standards of quality.
I’d say that’s both the best and the worst thing about technology scouting.