Over the past several years, institutional investors had largely shied away from China’s e-cigarette makers, an industry that was teeming with shoddy workshops and lacked regulatory oversight. But investors’ attitude is changing as China sets in motion its strictest ever regulation on electronic cigarettes.
Myst Labs, a Chinese e-cigarette maker co-founded in 2019 by Chenyue Xing, a chemist who was part of the team at Juul that invented nicotine salts, a key ingredient in vaping, recently raised “tens of millions of dollars” from a Series B funding round. The financing was led by its existing investor, IMO Ventures. Thomas Yao, CEO and another co-founder of Myst, is a founding partner of IMO Ventures.
In March, one of China’s top tech policy makers published a set of draft rules that would bring e-cigarettes under the same regulatory scope as traditional tobacco, which means vaping companies will need licenses for production, wholesale and retail operations in the world’s largest manufacturer and exporter of e-cigarettes.
These changes will deal a blow to small producers with poor quality control, leaving the industry with a handful of established and compliant players, Fang Wang, head of marketing at Myst, told TechCrunch.
For one, standardizing production is costly, Wang said. From ceramic coils, batteries, to fragrance, every component and ingredient of a vape will need to meet stringent requirements. E-cigarette companies will also need to pay tobacco taxes, an important source of tax revenue for the Chinese government.
The other challenge is how to lower nicotine content. Many current products on the market have a relatively high nicotine concentration at 3-5%, so if China is in line with the European Union standard of 1.7%, many small brands will be forced out of business because they lack the know-how to produce low-nicotine vapes that still satisfy users’ crave, suggested Li.
“We’ve received a lot of investor interest in the past few months. Before that, professional, institutional investors often avoided e-cigarette companies, but they are showing more willingness now as regulations take shape,” Wang added.
Myst declined to list its other investors but said they include high-profile individuals invovled in the e-bike sharing company Lime, Facebook and the bitcoin industry.
Most of Myst’s current sales are from China, where it has opened 600 stores and plans to reach a footprint of 1,000 stores in the next few quarters. Overseas, the startup has a retail footprint in Malaysia, Russia, Canada and the United Kingdom, where it’s selling in over 30 shopping malls and a few hospitals through its distribution partner, Ecigwizard.
The new funding will allow Myst to further expand its sales network and strengthen its research and development. The company prides itself on its product containing 1.7% nicotine, which it claims can deliver the effect of a 3% counterpart. At her lab, Xing is currently working on e-liquids with “natural tobacco contents” and without organic acids, additives that allow nicotine salts to vaporize and be absorbed.
Myst is still a relatively small player compared to China’s market dominator Relx, which went public in New York earlier this year and is applying for a license to sell in the U.S. But Yao is optimistic about Myst’s future. Vaping, he said, is one of the fastest-growing consumer categories in China. Myst’s recent sales are tripling every three months.
“In other consumer areas, you rarely see a top player commanding 60-70% of the market, so there is still a lot of room for the top 10 players to grow,” the CEO said.