“Are you ready to watch us stab ourselves with technology?” asks Michael Brandt on a recent Tuesday evening at the WeWork office of Nootrobox, a San Francisco start-up that specializes in “cognitive enhancement.” Soon Brandt, the company’s COO, and its CEO, Geoffrey Woo, both 27, are settled at a conference table with two small boxes and some alcohol swabs. Inside each box is a FreeStyle Libre continuous glucose monitor, which consists of a little plastic patch connected to a little metal needle, with a chip inside that transmits information to a remote reader. Once the needle is inserted under the skin, it can stay in place for two weeks, meaning there’s no need to prick your finger every time you want data about the amount of sugar frolicking in your blood. “The user experience is getting better all the time with a lot of this stuff,” says Brandt, who should know, since he specializes in “human-interaction design.” Still, the monitor is not yet approved for use in the U.S.; Woo and Brandt had ordered theirs on eBay for about $100 apiece. They plan to wear them for the next 90 days, at least.
This self-mutilation in the name of science is, curiously, part of their business plan. Nootrobox sells nootropics, an umbrella term for a set of chemicals — some naturally occurring, some cooked up in labs — that supposedly do what has heretofore eluded all but evolution: help you chemically grow a better brain. Think Adderall without the lack of creativity, coffee without the jitteriness, LSD without the spiders, nicotine without the cancer, and cocaine without the sniffles. It’s a grandiose proposition strangely well suited to entice Silicon Valley’s particular mix of the scientifically minded, the idealistic, and the ambitious. And while it might not seem likely that two computer-science majors would have figured out a way to leapfrog eons of neural development to unlock hidden brain potential, wouldn’t it be beautiful if they had?
For a mere $135 a month, the Nootrobox “full stack,” as a regimen is called, offers a cornucopia of self-actualization — improved cognitive function, better sleep, and protection against cellular wear and tear — all through swallowing a few pills a day of an herb like Bacopa monnieri, say, maybe cut with a bit of neural precursor a-GPC. (You’re paying that $135 to not have to know what those words mean.) There’s Rise (two taken in the morning “enhance memory, stamina, and resilience,” according to the Nootrobox website), Sprint (to be taken as needed for “clarity, energy, and flow”), Yawn (“optimized for each of the three phases of sleep”), and Kado-3 (a “supercharged” omega-3). There are also Go Cubes, sugarcoated gummies that “combine the kick of coffee with the relaxation of green tea” through a mixture of caffeine, L-theanine, vitamins B6 and B12, glucuronolactone, and inositol; they taste like congealed mocha latte.
Since first hearing about the tantalizing prospect of nootropics a few years back, Brandt and Woo have used themselves as guinea pigs — “bro science,” as they’ve referred to it — to determine the effects various substances and practices have on their own brains and systems. That’s where the glucose monitors come in. Woo stares down the mechanism that will implant the needle in his arm. “That’s pretty gnarly,” he says.
The potential for user error is small, though, since detailed instructions on how to prick yourself are, as Brandt points out, “in the YouTubes.”
“You just gotta just do it,” Woo says as Brandt stands, the needle poised. “Want me to help?” He presses down on the mechanism until there’s a loud click.
“Oh, that was harmless,” Brandt says, fingering the plastic patch gingerly.
“Is it weird?”
“A little bit.”
Woo takes off his shirt, braces himself on the table, and then — click — his needle is inserted as well.
“You kinda feel it after,” Brandt says, grinning. “I didn’t want to say anything.”
“I feel like a tagged elephant,” Woo observes.
Brandt swipes the reader over the patch to get a reading. “Five point two,” he announces when numbers appear on the screen. He looks down at his new implant. “I’m more machine than man!”
“Humans are the next platform,” Woo says casually, sitting upright in a leather armchair not far from the WeWork Ping-Pong table where dudes in hoodies goof around. Woo ignores them. He wears a paisley shirt and a neutral expression. Brandt sits beside him, blinking irregularly behind his glasses and chiming in mainly to make a point more pointed. “One thing that I like to say is that we’re arming humans against the robot overlords. It’s kind of tongue in cheek.” Woo smiles. “But kind of true.”
Brandt and Woo met at Stanford. “Instead of having kegs of Natty Light at our parties, we would have Two Buck Chuck and EDM,” Woo says of the French House, where they both lived. “I was president of the entrepreneurship club,” he continues. “So, it’s like, ‘I better start a start-up.’ A lot of my predecessors would use it as a cool extracurricular and then take consulting jobs. I thought that was bullshit.”
Using his thesis work on how “modern distributed-systems techniques” could track submarines, he created Glassmap, a location app that could not only tell you where someone was but also predict where they were going. “We were building operating systems and routers in class, and it was like, ‘Dude, people are making all this money making stupid-ass iPhone games! We could totally make some iPhone app and just kill it. That was literally the mind-set, because you saw, like, Instagram — those people were at Stanford at the same time as us. Snapchat? Those guys were younger than us.”
Before he’d even graduated, Glassmap got funded by Y Combinator, the most powerful tech incubator in the world. “In retrospect, it seems like we were just frickin’ kids, just messing around, and they gave us $170K or something. It was an interesting level up in terms of professionalism.” Woo — who had applied for his first patent in high school (“My mom has it framed in the living room”) — eventually sold the app to Groupon, having turned down Facebook before its IPO. “It was in stock,” Woo says of Zuckerberg’s offer. “I can sort of back-calculate it now, but, I mean, it’s meaningless, right? It would have been nice. It would have been nice for anyone having Facebook stock.” He shrugs. “Whatever.”
Meanwhile, Brandt, having been hired by Marissa Mayer for Google’s prestigious Associate Product Manager Program, was tiring of his work product-managing YouTube, which involved “getting people who come around for one video to watch two, three,” he says. He and Woo found themselves simultaneously “between projects,” wandering around the Mission District waiting for the next great idea to strike.
Which is exactly when a brain boost can come in handy. A decent chunk of Silicon Valley’s hustlers were already trying to chemically hack their way to billion-dollar valuations with work aids that included everything from Adderall and Modafinil (developed to treat narcolepsy but especially popular in tech) to tiny doses of LSD. “Some people see that now as a badge of honor,” says David Weiseth, a Nootrobox customer who does software customization. “It’s like, ‘Oh, he’s taking drugs, he’s trying to get an edge, he’s gonna work through the night — that makes sense because it’s so important.’ ”
Woo wasn’t much interested in pharmaceuticals or scheduled drugs, but he was drawn to a third option friends hadn’t mentioned: nootropics, a set of fairly unregulated chemicals that had an underground customer base of people enthusiastically engaging in DIY neurochemical experimentation. Before long, Woo was going down a Reddit K-hole of chatter about various brain hacks. “Any friends out there interested in nootropics?” he posted on Facebook in May 2014. Brandt was the second person to respond: “Yes please.” In fact, he’d already started dabbling — among other experiments, he’d tried productivity guru Tim Ferriss’s BrainQuicken, a mix of 21 ingredients like cogamine and folic acid that promised to end “brain fog.”
The pair quickly realized nootropics’ potential: not just for brain gain but for financial gain. If they were interested in trying them, they figured, the rest of the Valley would be too; and, naturally, whatever the Valley did, the rest of the world would eventually follow. Soon, they moved in together and went into “start-up mode,” ordering random powders off the internet and hoping they didn’t get punked or worse. “We kind of tried everything. I was half-terrified half the time,” Woo says. “If you’re ordering a compound that’s not really meant for human consumption, and you’re ordering it from Alibaba and it’s from China, you’re rolling the dice,” adds Brandt. Woo agrees: “We were kind of stupid … It’s a complete Wild West.” He goes to a shelf in a corner of the glassed-in space that serves as Nootrobox’s office and pulls out a plastic bag full of a powdered white substance that could easily pass for cocaine but turns out to be magnesium beta-hydroxybutyrate, touted online as a superfood for the brain. “I mean, there’s all forms of people trying and mixing all sorts of things. It’s shady.”
Brandt and Woo may not have had backgrounds in biology, but they had an understanding of something even more lucrative: metrics. “We were like, ‘Okay, where is the puck really heading, where’s the next billion dollars of value created, where’s the next massive change in user behavior?’ ” Woo explains. “What I saw was that the sensors on pure tech are stagnating. Like, people have been complaining about this for the last two or three years — the hardware, the number of sensors on your phone have plateaued. But sensors on the human body were growing really quickly. We’re tracking heart rate, we’re tracking footsteps, your microbiome is being surfaced up … all these things. Pulling data from the human body was now in this explosion phase.” What was the point of all this “data porn” if you couldn’t optimize performance, Woo and Brandt wondered.
In June 2014, after just one month of “research,” they threw up a landing page for Nootrobox after a “weekend hackathon boom launch” and got 32 orders the first day. By December, they say, they were making “in the five digits” a month.
Then again, it’s harder to hack human cognition than it is to build an app. “Ha-ha-ha-ha,” laughs Gary Lynch, when I ask him about the science of nootropics. A professor of neurobiology at the University of California, Irvine, Lynch specializes in the biochemistry of memory. “You use the word science rather broadly,” he tells me. “I’m not sure it really applies in the case of nootropics.” Amy Arnsten, a Yale neuroscientist who studies higher cognition, agrees. “I think many of these companies use a neutroceutical approach just as a way of trying to get around FDA regulation, so they can basically claim anything and there’s no one policing them,” she says. “I would say that they’re going for things that look like they should improve [the brain], and yet there’s very little real evidence. It’s snake oil.” Hank Greely, director of the Stanford Program in Neuroscience and Society, thinks that even that comparison might be giving them too much credence. “I mean, there are at least a couple of studies on oil,” he says. “There’s probably more evidence for fish oil than there is for most of these things.” He adds, “We should all be a little more skeptical about whether the Silicon Valley approach works for everything.”
Brandt and Woo flipped the equation: They say the evidence isn’t there because the medical community focuses on fixing problems rather than enhancing health; and while there’s not an overwhelming amount of research, the studies that they’ve compiled on their website do include a handful from reputable journals with small but statistically significant results. “You can increase reaction time around 10 percent. With working memory capacity, you can see percentage diffs of around 5 to 10 percent,” says Woo, who argues that such numbers are “not necessarily negligible” if compounded over years and across populations — or to get an edge in a competitive field. When I send Greely a link to the Bacopa monnieri studies they cite, he writes back that Brandt and Woo are “not hucksters. There’s evidence here that could lead some people who either weren’t risk averse or were desperate to try it. I would note, though, that even the positive studies say you need to take it for a long time to get any event — 12 weeks to remember seven words instead of six on a memory test.”
At the very least, Nootrobox is certainly a safer bet than the DIY approach, and the company’s value is in its vetting. Since their early days of bro-science (when a nootropic called noopept made Woo see colors more brightly and was scratched from the list), the pair have outsourced their research to M.D.–Ph.D. candidates, switched from hand-filled capsules to ones made by the same manufacturers as Pfizer, and limited ingredients to compounds tested in double-blind, randomized trials on humans.
Woo and Brandt have also played by the FDA’s rules, forgoing compounds like piracetam, the nootropic that spawned the term in 1972 but is now sold only as a research chemical. Until recently, you could buy the powder on Amazon. In fact, you can still buy it from Nootroo, a Nootrobox competitor that sells its products with a disclaimer: “Intended for neuroscience research only.” “Regulators aren’t stupid,” says Woo of his competitors’ risk-taking. “I mean, you’re selling as a pill, so you’re telling people to eat it, and now they’re eating it. But they can worry about that when they go to court.” For its part, Nootrobox sticks to compounds that are classified as GRAS — “generally regarded as safe” — and works with lawyers who represented Red Bull when energy drinks were going before Congress. “I think hallucinogens have an interesting data stream as antidepressants. There’s interesting clinical data on ketamine, MDMA,” says Woo. “But you can’t take institutional money by selling drugs.” And taking institutional money was clearly the next step. Mayer and Mark Pincus chipped in for a first round of investment, before Andreessen Horowitz, Silicon Valley’s top venture-capital firm — which has backed Facebook, Airbnb, and Lyft — got involved and raised $2 million in start-up capital for the company. “The way Nike owns physical performance,” says Brandt, “we want to own mental performance.”
Part of achieving that goal means becoming a truly all-encompassing lifestyle brand. At nine on a September morning, members of the WeFast group were gathering at a café called Elmira (“Slow Food Flavor for a Fast World”) just a few blocks from the Nootrobox offices. They were mostly young, mostly male, mostly involved in tech, and mostly wrapping up a 36-hour fast — though one Nootrobox employee, a handsome Stanford grad named Paul, had been going for 60. “I ate a muffin, and now I’m at 9.1,” Brandt announced, motioning to his glucose monitor, as I came in. He chuckled. “I was just trying to get robust data. But doesn’t it make you think twice about getting a muffin?”
At a large, L-shaped table by the front window, Woo and Brandt held court. WeFast is a group started by Nootrobox, and it works as a marketing device, rounding up a community of so-called biohackers to whom their products might appeal. But it’s also part of the recommended Nootrobox regimen, since even Brandt and Woo had quickly come to realize that truly optimal brain function wouldn’t happen with their products alone. In addition to fasting (“If you’re basically starving, your body is like, Hey, go find prey. Be smart”), the pair are drawn to the ketogenic diet, in which you get the majority of your calories from fat, eliminating carbohydrates, which supposedly provides the brain with better fuel. And they are in the process of kicking off a 90-day “biohacker challenge”: After a monthlong “washout” period in which they stopped taking nootropics to flush out their systems, they’ll spend the next three monitoring certain markers in their saliva, urine, spit, breath, stool, and blood (hence the glucose monitors) and taking online cognition tests as the nootropics build back up in their system. As a community-building experience, others have been invited to take the challenge with them, which has the added bonus of allowing Nootrobox to crowdsource data about their products — though from an admittedly self-selecting group. (Mostly: “My boss was like, ‘If you don’t fast, I’ll fire you,’ ” announced one guy.)
The core WeFast crew are all textbook early adopters. “Ayumi is one of our more adventurous biohackers,” Woo said, introducing me to a tall woman with peroxide hair.
“Wow,” Ayumi replied, pleased in a Zen sort of way. “Thank you. I love adventures.” She goes on to explain how she wouldn’t consider implanting a magnet into her finger, as some in the group have done (“I don’t think that’s really useful”), but she would theoretically like to extend her capabilities through implants as opposed to genetic manipulation. “I think becoming a cyborg is better,” she said, inserting the end of a knife into a jar of coconut oil and cleanly licking it off. Until that goal is achieved, she takes about 30 supplements a day, though not from Nootrobox (“I can buy the components on my own for less”). She believes that in a few decades’ time, this will be the norm.
In anticipation of such a moment, Brandt and Woo are developing tools to help people adapt more readily to the biohacker way of life — a next step in their business plan that also happens to draw more directly on their computer-science background. They’ve built Coach, a cyberbot app that engages in conversations with users to encourage them through their fasts (“get a good night’s rest. I bet you’ll feel great tomorrow ”), soon to be available in the app store. And there’s Introspect, a mood-tracking matrix that Brandt and Woo hope will allow people to connect certain “mood states” to inputs like food and supplements. They see themselves as the Steve Jobses of nootropics, visionaries doing the work needed to streamline the user experience and help Nootrobox, as they say, scale. “Thirty years ago, when people were carting around Ataris and piecing together motherboards, I think you would have had the same kind of skepticism,” says Woo. “Reasonably so. But we’re literally addicted to our computers now. All of this experience is going to be made so seamless that it becomes mainstream. You don’t stop progress, right?”
Back at the office later that afternoon, Woo pulls a slender envelope from his stack of mail. “This is funny,” he murmurs. Inside, on lined notebook paper, someone has handwritten: “Dear Sir or Madam, Please respond to this EXPRESS REQUEST for information about Nootrobox, for my personal use. A FREE brochure or catalogue about obtaining chewable coffee by post, would be especially helpful. A prompt response by snail mail would be appreciated.”
Orders for Nootrobox products were arriving every two to three minutes, but there’s something about this letter that draws the team in. It isn’t a relic so much as a beacon, and the message is clear: The future is coming, even to those who are stuck in the past. “I’m going to write him back,” Woo announces. Then he sits down at his computer and picks up a pen.
*This article appears in the October 17, 2016, issue of New York Magazine.