Silicon Valley entrepreneurs pursue brain hacking with nootropics. From late nights out to early mornings on the job, 30-year-old entrepreneur Erin Finnegan says she has a secret boost that keeps her going. She uses “nootropics,” also called “smart drugs,” or supplements claiming to boost brain function, helping to improve memory, focus and maybe even make you brilliant.
“I’m bicoastal, I’m in New York and I’m here [in Los Angeles], and a lot of times traveling,” Finnegan said. Much like how actor Bradley Cooper played a character who took a pill and his focus went from zero to 100 in the movie “Limitless,” there are some saying the effects of these supplements are nonfiction. Countless users on Reddit swear by these pills, heralding benefits from “increased focus” to “mental stimulation.” Finnegan said nootropics is one of the keys to her success. “I would not give them up willingly,” she said. “The additional focus that I can have with them, yes, it does sustain the speed I am going at now and the many things, I would have to take a couple things off my plate if I wanted to keep going without them.” And she takes a pill every day. “It’s not like press a button and all of a sudden turbo charge and switch into ‘nootropics mode,’” she said. “I found that it helped lessen the time it took me to switch gears, if that makes sense.” Nootropics stacks, or pills, are mixes of different components and can include different ingredients from caffeine and L-Theanine: a type of amino acid, to herbal supplements to the brain-boosting supplement, piracetam. Although they claim to alter brain function, nootropics are marketed not as a drug but as a type of dietary supplement, which means they don’t need FDA approval.
Geoff Woo, 29-year-old co-founder of nootropics company, said he got interested in the supplement because he “wanted to be smarter.” “I grew up very competitive and wanting to be the best version of myself possible,” Woo said. “If there’s one really smart person in the world, great we have another Einstein, but if everyone was super smart there’s like an exponential amount of information and innovation.” Four years ago, Woo was working at a venture capital firm when he started digging around the internet and experimenting. “We were tinkering with things from laboratories from China, from off-label compounds, everything,” he said.
Today, it’s become much more than a hobby for Woo. He says business is booming, and he caught the attention and financial backing of top Silicon Valley titans like early Facebook investor Andreesen Horowitz and Yahoo’s Marisa Mayer. He even made his pitch on an episode of ABC’s “Shark Tank,” but didn’t get any bites. “I’ve tried nootropics, that’s what people use to go on 48-hour coding binges,” Shark Chris Sacca told Woo when he appeared in a “Shark Tank” episode that aired in December. “But at the end of the day, you’re left with a headache, lack of recall, sometimes. I’m worried about the long-term consequences so I’m out.”
Inside Woo’s tightly controlled lab, located an hour outside of Los Angeles, his team pumps out thousands of little pills every day. “For our company, we have four different pills, or four different types of stacks,” he said. Woo claims his pills to do everything from boosting “immediate clarity, energy and flow” to enhancing “memory, stamina and resilience.”
“It’s based on understanding of biological mechanisms,” Woo said. “Our science team, which consists of actually practicing doctors and M.D. Ph.D., walk through that and actually validate any cross indications.” But some experts caution that this temporary boost could have side effects, with many citing the lack of studies about long-term impacts. “You may have several ingredients on the label and there may be one of the many ingredients on there that may interact with your blood pressure medicines or it may interact with something else,” Dr. Isaacson said. “While these drugs by itself may be generally safe, it’s hard to generalize. They may interact with other things … so that’s why we always recommend discussion of approval by a treating physician.”