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.
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.