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Airgraft Is Making Safe Vapes From The Future

Whether he's designing cars or vapes, it's all about quality and safety for Airgraft CEO Mladen Barbaric.

Breaking into vapes is no easy feat. Between endless variations of cartridges, pods, all-in-one varieties, it often feels as though vapes have reached their full potential. But as a former car designer, Mladen Barbaric knew there was infinite room for improvement. And with the recent surge in vape-related illnesses, his invention could not have come at a better time. Airgraft is a vape brand committed to delivering full-spectrum cannabis oil in the safest means possible—that means no additives, no artificial flavorings, and a vaporizer that maintains the integrity of the oil. Sounds simple enough, right? Getting there, however, was complicated. This is Barbaric's story as told to Proper. 

On winning competitions to pay for school

I was born in Bosnia and grew up in Bosnia as a kid. I was there until I was about 14 when we got pushed out by the Bosnian Civil War. My parents escaped through a crazy set of events. Basically, because I was just about to hit military age or, at least the military age at that time, they were trying to smuggle me out. We sort of just left everything. It was a long journey entering into Canada. So, at 14 I was learning to speak English to get pushed into this new life, and within six months, I spoke English and went to school sort of by force. There, I very quickly realized that I wanted to create stuff.

I thought I'd look into schools for that because initially, I was a competitive swimmer. Then I realized that that wasn't going to pay the bills. That's the age at which most kids realize, "Wait a minute, wait a minute, I can't pay for stuff with that." So I ended up going to school for car design. I went to the College for Creative Studies (CCS) in Detroit. It’s probably the most expensive school I could go to and couldn't afford. It’s a crazy story, but I ended up paying for school for the current semester by winning competitions, design competitions. If I didn't, I couldn't pay for school. It was kind of a forced thing.

Then, in my second year, I won this motor gen competition, and the judges were heads of design at Ford and GM and so on. So, they all competed over who would offer me an internship, which to a poor refugee kid, was a big deal. After that, I worked at Ford for a while, while I went to school full-time and that paid the bills. I did a lot of stuff in cars and I think after working on about 40 cars that went on the market I decided I was going to leave the car industry and then design everything else.

On getting roped into cannabis

I did a few consulting gigs before starting this product development and branding firm called Pearl. After a long set of events I ended up in Montreal and of all places, my wife really wanted to stay in Canada. There's really nothing going on in Canada for what I was doing, but I realized that I was going to be on planes all the time anyway, so it didn't matter. So I started this company and it took off immediately. We started working with a Qualcomm with LG, with big names and started to establish ourselves as leaders in tech product development. And over the years I started to do that and launch companies and help sell companies and so on.

Clean Vaporizer Unwind Pod

None of them were in cannabis. And to be clear, not even close. We did a lot of stuff in mobile, we did a lot of stuff in wearables. We helped build the Misfit wearables and sold it to Fossil Group. We did a bunch of medical devices. Between the team, we’ve shipped over a hundred million devices worldwide. In the process, we built relationships with a lot of investors who just continuously support projects that we work on because we have a pretty good track record.

Most people who consume vaporized cannabis don't actually know what they're consuming.

So something like three years ago we met some of these investors that were now starting to invest in cannabis. They'd say to us, "Hey you should really look at vaporization, there's a big need as a whole here." And we totally put them off for a good two years because it seemed like it was a simple mechanical design. We didn't want to re-skin the brand or something like that. We didn't really scratch under the surface at first. And so I dismissed it.

And keep in mind, I was personally not a cannabis user at the time. When I was a competitive swimmer, I would get tested all the time so I got used to not using anything—not even cold medication. However, my brother Boris, who works with the company as our marketing and sales VP, was an avid consumer. I remember our basement being… pungent. Which was always funny growing up because he’s nine years younger than me.

But anyway, I kept saying no to cannabis. And then at some point, one of them sat me down in person and said, "Look, it's a real opportunity and more importantly you have a specific skill set to solve a real problem. Just do me a favor and do the due diligence." So we spent six months really digging through the research, understanding what we're doing, understanding how people are consuming, understanding the intellectual property around it, and who's done any sort of innovation. And then we realized that there really is a gaping hole.

So one thing is most people who consume vaporized cannabis don't actually know what they're consuming and just buy some brown liquid that's branded in some way that's not necessarily helpful in describing what it is. That was one issue. The second issue is, because there's lack of regulation, there is serious concern about how some people are making this stuff. And so for me, who's a total square geek, it was flabbergasting that people would consume strange brown liquid without actually knowing what's in it.

When I’m a total newbie, I make it a point to really, really get to know whatever I'm working on. Which is how I realized how different oils are. All of these oils are so different based on different extraction methods, different cannabinoid contents, different terpene contents, different contents altogether, which means they should all be boiled at different temperatures. And yet vaporization today is literally an on-off switch. So when you turn it on, it's like your stove is set to high and it just ramps up to the highest heat. Somewhere along that curve is the boiling point or set of boiling points, and beyond that it combusts. So sure enough, we tested a lot of vapes and realized that most people are combusting their oil, which is why everybody's coughing up a lung. It also explains why the vapor often tastes burnt.

Most people are combusting their oil, which is why everybody's coughing up a lung.

So we went, "Okay, there's a real opportunity to create a net positive.” And the moment I said, "Yes, we'll do it," a group of investors wrote a check. I didn't really go fundraising for the first couple of rounds, it just materialized. It's been a crazy ride. I don't think anything else I've done in my life has been this crazy. The industry is crazy and the velocity at which we're moving is crazy. The amount of excitement we've created is absolutely nuts, but it's fun.

On working with equally obsessive extractors

When it comes to the oil we use in our pods, we have a lot of requirements so it naturally filters down who we can work with. The first thing is we don't do any distillate or isolate oil. We work with people who do whole-plant extractions because we believe that's the right approach. There is much more to cannabis and than just isolating THC. So that's one. Second, we don't allow any additives, any cutting agents, any multipliers, any solvents, anything like that, which limits the type of extraction, which limits extractors themselves.

Liftoff Pod

Beyond that, we allow zero detectable contaminants and zero detectable pesticides, which is a more stringent requirement than even the California state requirement. And that further reduces the number of people. And then the most important requirement for us is the people we're working with. We're kind of strange, highly obsessive folk that really love what we do and we look for that in others. If they're real craftsmen that love everything about the plant and that love everything about extraction and just pour their heart and soul into it, those are our people. When we look at all of that together, it makes for some pretty good oil. If you try the stuff, it's usually just the best that you've ever had and very much like a nice flower experience.

On the recent surge of vape-related illnesses

I'm surprised that it didn't happen before. I'm surprised that this is the first time we're seeing this surge. Like I was saying, when we first decided to do this, the first glaring issue is there is no transparency and accountability. Or very little and so California has been kind of leading the charge constricting and providing new guidelines, but there was really no tracking throughout for vaporization. There's no transparency. You don't know what it is that's in it.

You should know exactly what that lab report says.

So how the heck has it not happened before? Obviously, people have been consuming cannabis for years and so logically speaking, it's not cannabis that’s the culprit. Whatever it is that's added to it—that's the culprit. It's not that all these people have been consuming for 10 years and all of a sudden they're having an issue. I think the previous commissioner of the FDA also commented in the same fashion saying it's clearly something that is now present that wasn't present before. And so I think it's absolutely paramount to make sure that everybody's accountable, that people can actually see what it is that they're consuming.

We, for example, require our oil producers to upload the certificate of analysis for each batch so we can be sure it complies with all the regulations plus our standards to be activated. And then we make it available through the app for the user to see. You should know exactly what that lab report says and you should absolutely be comfortable ingesting something that could possibly be dangerous for you. You have to know what's in it, you have to know that it doesn't have contaminants, that it hasn't been cut, that it doesn't have pesticides or heavy metals. It's timely perhaps, but we've been on this mission from the get-go and it has always been core to what we're doing.

On not being a newbie anymore

I’ve been converted and now consume cannabis responsibly. I'm not consuming all the time, but I am now consuming. I was an athlete before and now I'm more of a sit-behind-the-computer dude, so I get a lot of inflammatory issues and pains. I haven't found anything that actually works better than cannabis, so I'm a total convert. With vaporization, for me, the big turnoff was just the way it made my throat and lungs feel. I would cough up a lung and everybody would laugh at me. But we've made this vaporizer now that doesn't do that. It's very smooth. So I actually use our products all the time.

There’s so much more to the plant than just the high percentage of THC. 

Right now, we have three pods: Liftoff, Unwind, and Relax & Recover, which is a CBD-only, full-spectrum hemp extraction. The other two are single-strain, full-spectrum extractions. I like Liftoff a lot because it doesn't slow me down. I also use the Relax and Recover all the time because obviously it's hemp-based and doesn't have any psychoactive effects so I can chill out and keep in the recovery mode.

Some parting advice

If you don't know what's in it, please don't use it. It doesn't matter what brand you choose. What matters is that at the end of the day you're consuming the plant and nothing else. Cannabis is such a wonderful plant full of aromas, flavors, delayed effects and additional effects. You should really explore it and not settle for the best bang for the buck or what people perceive as the best bang for the buck. Because there’s so much more to the plant than just the high percentage of THC. 

About the Author

Kate is Proper's Editorial Director. As a mutt mom, sci-fi buff, and soft athlete, she likes low-dose products that have an intoxicating edge with a side of relief. Don't expect her to try anything without a balanced ratio of THC to CBD.

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