Nootropics, Biohacking and Silicon Valley's Pursuit of Productivity

Nootropics are trending right now in Silicon Valley.

A crop of new companies are selling these so-called productivity pills to "biohackers" looking to get an edge in work and life.

Even if you don't consider yourself a biohacker or have never even heard the word before, chances are you already take a nootropic. Caffeine. That's right. Your cup of coffee or tea isn't just a hot beverage you drink because it tastes nice. It's a vehicle for a productivity-increasing, brain-boosting substance some are now calling a nootropic.

The word “nootropic” was coined in 1972 by a Romanian scientist. It refers to substances thought to improve cognitive function, like caffeine. But the term also includes things you probably haven’t heard of, like piracetam, a substance concocted in a lab, and Rhodiola rosea, an herb used in traditional Chinese medicine.

Once a little-used piece of scientific jargon, the word "nootropic" has become a big-time marketing term. Companies are using it to sell all kinds of substances. There are claims of raised IQs and increased amounts of productive hours. Venture capitalist firms like Andreessen Horowitz are funding nootropics ventures. And business analysts are predicting the industry is going to skyrocket.

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An avid internet subculture lies at the root of the movement. Nootropic users have a lively subreddit with around 75,000 readers. And to get advice you can watch any number of self-proclaimed experts on outlets like YouTube. Many, like this guy Steve Cronin, are psyched about nootropics.

Cronin lists all kinds of substances, including drugs like Adderall and Modafinil, which is prescribed for people suffering from sleep disorders. But for most nootropics you don't need a prescription. You can buy the supplements online from a growing number of nootropic startups. Many have been founded by aspiring tech entrepreneurs like Eric Matzner.

Matzner has a company based in San Francisco called Nootroo that sells two pills -- one gold, one silver. They both have caffeine, along with less-known substances like Noopept. KQED Future of You spoke with Matzner about his products and what's in them for this story on the science behind nootropics. Matzner is proud of his formulas. He wears one of each pill in a necklace.

Eric Matzner wants more people to take a daily nootropic pill.
Eric Matzner, founder of Nootroo, wants more people to take a daily nootropic pill. (Sam Harnett/KQED)

Research Purposes Only

Matzner encourages people to take his pills daily, but he says they are not dietary supplements. On the pill bottles, it says they are "for use in neuroscience research only." Matzner says that’s to protect himself legally because there is not an FDA "category for substances that enhance the brains of healthy people." The nootropics pills are not tested and reviewed by the FDA, and they wouldn't be even if he sold them as supplements.

The FDA doesn't regulate supplements the same way it does drugs. Back in the '90s the supplement industry fought off moves for closer oversight. They ran TV ads like the one below. It shows a SWAT team breaking into a man's house to arrest him and take away his vitamins.

[Spoiler alert: The man in the house is Mel Gibson. He delivers a line that became famous in the battle to deregulate supplements.]

Today, if a substance is generally recognized as safe, or GRAS, it’s relatively easy for a company to start selling it, says UC Berkeley nutritional scientist Marc Hellerstein. He thinks the brain-boosting benefits of most nootropics are totally unfounded.

"All you got to do is make a claim, read a few rat studies, and you can market stuff on shelves and make a lot of money," Hellerstein says. "There is almost never a proper study that anyone in real medicine would accept as showing efficacy or benefit in human beings."

Not Just for Biohackers

Many in the nootropics community would dispute the assessment that there's no science behind their supplements. They arm themselves with studies and anecdotal evidence about the substances they take.

The fledgling nootropics companies are spurring the charge for legitimization. One San Francisco company called Nootrobox says it's planning to do some testing on its products with a university in Europe. It’s part of the company’s push to make its products mainstream and reach more customers outside Silicon Valley's biohacking community.

Nootrobox doesn't just make and sell pills. It now has consumer-friendly chewable cubes with a familiar coffee taste. They've got three flavors: latte, mocha and drip. Geoff Woo, one of Nootrobox's co-founders, says he hopes the cubes will one day be on sale near the cash registers at convenience stores.

Woo and his co-founder, Michael Brandt, are both Stanford computer science grads. They have a few million dollars in venture funding and grand ambitions.

Brandt says the company wants to rebrand work as something fun. Nootropics, Brandt says, can help people feel good on the job and make the daily grind more fulfilling and less grinding.

"I think if you actually flip the frame and think about work being incredible and you're writing the next great American novel or you're designing some app," Brandt says, "then it's very fun. You want to dig in more to it."

But most workers aren’t writing the next great American novel or developing world-changing apps. They’re working to earn a living. Still, Brandt thinks his company can help make work fun and that everyday folks will add nootropics to their vocabulary and daily routine.

Beyond Nootropics

Companies like Nootrobox and Nootroo draw many of their customers from Silicon Valley's community of biohackers. This is a group of people that does far more than pop nootropics to achieve maximum productivity. Take the case of Dan Wiggins.

Dan Wiggins has done far more than drink coffee to try and increase his productivity levels.
Dan Wiggins has done far more than drink coffee to try and increase his productivity levels. (Sam Harnett/KQED)

I spoke with Wiggins at a weekly meetup of biohackers at a cafe in San Francisco. They come to trade tips and find solidarity as they try to hack their bodies. Many are fasting, which they say helps improves focus. Others, like Stephanie Haughey, are taking dozens of daily supplements -- between 50 or 60 a day in her case. That's known as a “stack” in biohacker lingo.

Biohacking has a range of definitions and includes a variety of activities. There is a more extreme wing where people are actually trying to augment their body with hardware. Some have implanted magnets and LED lights under their skin, and these will probably be some of the first images to pop up if you type biohacking into a search engine. Be prepared for glowing human body parts.

But Wiggins and the other self-described biohackers at this breakfast are not implanting hardware so they can glow in the dark or whatever it is that people want to do with magnets under their skin. No, people like Wiggins are trying to become more effective, especially at work. For Wiggins, the impetus to optimize came from the hypercompetitive tech startup world.

"It started about nine months ago when I was working on my own startup," says Wiggins. "I was trying to figure out how do I get 10, 12, 14, 16 hours of productivity per day."

How it Begins

Wiggins started with some measures that might seem familiar to anyone wanting to make a life change. First he altered his diet, exercise and sleep routines. Then he began taking supplements and experimented with prescription drugs like Adderall and Modafinil.

Modafinil, by the way, has become a hot drug in the tech world. There's a whole subsection of the nootropics subreddit where people share questions and experiences about this drug. See in the photo below. Also, notice the pill-shaped "i" in the nootropics subreddit title -- it's a little testament to the group's interest in capsulated compounds.

Directions for posting on the nootropics Subreddit
Directions for posting on the nootropics Subreddit (Screenshot)

Biohacking can be a slippery slope. Just ask Dan Walsh. He works in marketing and started taking some nootropics in the morning a few years ago. "Then a heart rate monitor got involved," Walsh says, "then different supplements started slipping in, and before you know it I was electrocuting myself."

He means that literally. He hooks up electrodes to his head and shocks his brain.

Now we are not talking electroshock therapy here. It’s just a tiny 9-volt battery, very subtle. This is a thing. You can buy kits online to do it. Walsh says the kick is the same as eating a whole bar of dark chocolate. Although you aren't eating chocolate. You're jolting your brain.

"I approach it from a kind of kick in the pants kind of way," Walsh says, "like I am really stuck on this creative problem and then zzzz, and let's see what happens. Maybe it helps, maybe it doesn't."

Help With Hacking

For extra help sorting out their different body hacks, some go to doctors like Vinh Ngo.

Dr. Vinh Ngo helps patients get prescription drugs to try and increase their productivity.
Dr. Vinh Ngo helps patients get prescription drugs to try and increase their productivity. (Sam Harnett/KQED)

Biohackers come to Ngo’s San Francisco office looking for an edge -- an edge most doctors won’t give. "They're coming in asking like, 'Hey I am a CEO of this company, I sleep like 4 hours or less,' " Ngo says.

Ngo helps them get prescription drugs like Adderall and Albuterol, which is used for asthma. Ngo has some patients sign waivers acknowledging their behavior could be dangerous. Sometimes people lie to him to get drugs they think will make them more productive.

"So I’ll be like, 'Look, you can be honest with me,' " Ngo says. "You can say, 'I'm here to get 'X' drug and I'm doing it for this purpose.' Then I can say, 'OK, I've worked with people like this. Let's do this safely.' "

Next-Generation Coffee

Most people who take nootropics aren't going this far. Many, like Dawn Currin, just wanted to be a little more productive and feel a bit better at work. She’s a 33-year-old business analyst for an IT company in Washington, D.C. She doesn't consider herself a biohacker, but she does takes nootropics every day. She thinks of them as her generation’s coffee.

"We went as far as we could with caffeine," Currin says. "Everyone was getting tired of Red Bull. And we started drinking yerba mate. And someone was like, 'Hey, nootropics. Let's check what that's all about.' "

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This is the kind of insatiable quest for productivity-inducing substances that new nootropics companies are banking on. If all goes their way, in a not too distant future we'll all be waking up in the morning and popping a few pills before we head off to work.

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