“why would you noot rop­ics? ”

I t ’s l i ke, OK, go to work with­out your lap­top— do that? Go to work with­out tak­ing What ’ s the ad­van­tage of that?

Bloomberg Businessweek (North America) - - Focus On/mid-market -

It’s 8 a.m. on a re­cent Wed­nes­day in San Fran­cisco, and Yan Zhu, a 24-year-old blue-haired soft­ware en­gi­neer, sits at a com­mu­nal ta­ble in a Thai-ital­ian restaurant munch­ing on a stick of but­ter. She’s too hun­gry to wait for food; she hasn’t eaten in 36 hours. “This is my first time fast­ing, and I was feel­ing faint, so I brought some but­ter from home,” Zhu says. Her friend Ayumi Yu (pink hair, 27) ex­plains they’re on a ke­to­genic diet, which re­quires eat­ing mostly fat and al­most no car­bo­hy­drates. “I’ve been on it for a month and feel amaz­ing,” she says. “Take how you feel and imag­ine feel­ing twice as good.” Danny Fri­day, a 23-year-old startup founder, emerges from the bath­room. He’s just done a urine test to check his ke­to­sis lev­els, which in­di­cate how the body is me­tab­o­liz­ing fat. “I’m shocked,” he says, dis­mayed. “My body is barely in ke­to­sis.”

All three, along with about 25 other peo­ple, are here to take part in a weekly break fast. The hosts, Ge­of­frey Woo and Michael Brandt, are the 27-year-old co-founders of Nootrobox, a startup that sells “nootrop­ics,” or pills in­tended to en­hance mem­ory, cog­ni­tion, and men­tal stamina. Although fast­ing is not nec­es­sar­ily part of a nootropic reg­i­men, the widely ac­cepted health­boost­ing ef­fects of pe­ri­odic star­va­tion make it a nat­u­ral fit for peo­ple who think a monthly pill sub­scrip­tion ser­vice can make them more per­fect hu­mans. “We’ll do a 36-hour or 60-hour fast ev­ery week,” says Woo, Nootrobox’s chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer. “It’s hard at first, but we found a lot of ben­e­fit to our lu­cid­ity and clar­ity of mind.” The com­pany’s on­line fast­ing fo­rum, We­fast, has about 600 mem­bers.

Nootrobox’s mis­sion is to im­prove the way we func­tion on a daily ba­sis. “In the of­fice of the fu­ture, peo­ple will get to work, sit down, and pop a pill to help them fo­cus bet­ter,” says Brandt, Nootrobox’s chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer. When that fu­ture will ar­rive is un­clear. But if of­fice drones are al­ready will­ing to give up their lunch break to slurp Soy­lent, what’s to say they wouldn’t like to ben­e­fit from other ef­fi­cien­cies? Many al­ready bend the truth with their doc­tors to score Ad­der­all. Nootrobox is just tar­get­ing the vast pool of up­wardly mo­bile pro­fes­sion­als who want an edge but may not be ready to com­mit to pre­scrip­tion drugs, Woo says. Per­haps this is why he and Brandt have been able to per­suade some heavy hit­ters in Sil­i­con Val­ley to in­vest in their vi­sion, in­clud­ing Ya­hoo! CEO Marissa Mayer, Zynga Ex­ec­u­tive Chair­man Mark Pin­cus, and ven­ture cap­i­tal firm An­dreessen Horowitz, which led a $2 mil­lion fund­ing round that closed in Oc­to­ber. (Bloomberg LP, which owns Bloomberg Busi­ness­week, is an in­vestor in An­dreessen Horowitz.) Woo says only that Nootrobox, with its thou­sands of monthly sub­scribers, is a “mul­ti­mil­lion” dol­lar busi­ness, but he de­clines to elab­o­rate.

For two fast­ing worka­holics, Woo and Brandt look healthy. The friends and room­mates met as un­der­grads at Stan­ford, where they ma­jored in com­puter sci­ence and bonded by trad­ing self-im­prove­ment tips. Af­ter col­lege, Woo founded a lo­ca­tion­track­ing com­pany that Groupon later ac­quired; Brandt joined then-google COO Mayer’s elite as­so­ciate prod­uct man­ager pro­gram. In 2014 they got into the nootrop­ics busi­ness. “Friends were play­ing around with Ad­der­all and smart drugs,” Woo says. Some were even or­der­ing nootropic pow­ders on­line and mix­ing their own con­coc­tions. “They lit­er­ally have a drug scale and are weigh­ing out, like, 50 mil­ligrams of pow­der in their kitchens— it’s messy,” he says. “We re­al­ized that if peo­ple are will­ing to go through this much trou­ble, this much sketch­i­ness to tap this re­source, there must be some­thing there.”

Brandt and Woo read stud­ies and be­gan ex­per­i­ment­ing with nootropic pow­ders avail­able on­line. Some had un­ex­pected side ef­fects. “I tried noopept, a Rus­sian Alzheimer’s ther­a­peu­tic,” Woo says. The drug made him alert—but it also al­tered his sen­sory per­cep­tion. “I re­mem­ber walk­ing to the BART, the pub­lic tran­sit sys­tem in San Fran­cisco, and the flow­ers on the side of the road, daf­fodils, looked really bright.” In the end, the co-founders de­cided not to sell a prod­uct that trig­gered mild hal­lu­ci­na­tions and, in­stead, to work with sup­ple­ments ap­proved by the U.S. Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion. “You can’t make a busi­ness sell­ing il­le­gal, gray-area stuff,” Woo says.

Nootrobox’s of­fice, in a cor­ner of a We­work co-work­ing space in the Soma neigh­bor­hood, is cov­ered in slo­gans such as “Hus­tle Harder.” The com­pany’s prod­ucts, for­mu­lated us­ing a com­bi­na­tion of peer-re­viewed stud­ies and “bro sci­ence,” are as preva­lent as imacs. There’s Rise ($44 for 60 pills), which touts a ra­tio of com­pounds shown in stud­ies to im­prove mem­ory; Sprint ($36 for 30), packed with B vi­ta­mins, caf­feine, the caf­feine-en­hanc­ing amino acid L-thea­nine, and in­os­i­tol, which mit­i­gates panic at­tacks; and Yawn ($36 for 30), which makes it eas­ier to sleep af­ter a day of down­ing the other two. Go Cubes are es­sen­tially gummy ver­sions of Sprint. Two cubes have 100mg of caf­feine, equiv­a­lent to about a cup of cof­fee—“ex­cept with cof­fee, you have no idea how much caf­feine you’re get­ting,” Woo says, ex­plain­ing that lev­els vary by bean and brewer. His Twit­ter wall­pa­per reads, “Cof­fee Is Dead. Long Live Go Cubes.”

The pills are in­tended to be “stacked,” a term taken from body­build­ing that means pair­ing syn­er­gis­tic sub­stances to achieve a de­sired out­come. All eight em­ploy­ees, in­clud­ing three M.D.-PH.D. can­di­dates, stack the pills and Cubes daily, even while fast­ing. “I can’t imag­ine go­ing back to life” with­out nootrop­ics, Brandt says. “It’s like, OK, go to work with­out your lap­top—why would you do that? Go to work with­out tak­ing nootrop­ics? What’s

Founders Brandt and Woo (far right) with Nootrobox staff

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