This is your brain on innovation. / ClevrCat
David V. Johnson,  August 10, 2016

Noo in Town

Silicon Valley’s new VC darlings are out for your brain

This is your brain on innovation. / ClevrCat


The biggest economic advances often arise not from boom industries garnering big VC paydays, but from the support businesses that sprout along the periphery to exploit the boom. They fasten on to major economic trendlines the way that fungi, moss, and lichen exploit trees.

Take the 1848 California Gold Rush. In the wake of the first big strike at Sutter’s Mill, opportunities to clean up quickly dried up for everyone but the big mining companies. But the real money was being made by those who could sell picks and mining pans to the get-rich-quick 49ers. One of the era’s savvy entrepreneurs was Levi Strauss, a Gold Rush émigré from Kentucky who retrofitted his family’s dry goods business to serve a San Francisco Gold Rush clientele. Soon, Levi Strauss became known for his sturdy denim overalls, which would later morph into the jeans that launched a $60 billion industry.

The same holds for today’s California Gold Rush in Silicon Valley. Sure, most coders are frenetically chasing down the next Pokémon Go—but the real innovation is taking root at the companies exploiting the desperation of tech’s gold hunters. In another hypercompetitive industry of bubble thinking and iterative learning-through-failure, who has positioned themselves to make money off those taking the risky plunge?

Consider the anxiety, fear, and perverse incentives to shape the subculture that lead someone to an engineering degree at an elite university, followed by a job at Google—the desperate need to perform at peak for hours on end, despite biological limits. There’s only so much coffee one can drink, so much time that your ritual infusions of Soylent and Juicero can save, and so much Adderall you can pop before anxiety, addiction, and hallucinations drag you down. The tech meritocracy will spend good money on performance-enhancement hacks, and the meritocracy at large will inevitably follow the lead of this lionized cohort of early adopters.

Eureka! Enter nootropics, the brain-boosting supplements, prescription drugs, and controlled substances long touted in college dorms and on bio-hacking subreddits. Once restricted to shopping ad hoc on Amazon and shadowy websites on the dark web, would-be “psychonauts” can now turn to one-stop shopping at companies such as Nootroo, Trubrain, and Nootrobrain. But no company represents the coming wave quite like San Francisco SoMa startup Nootrobox. (Mission: “To create a better society through smarter, better brains.”) This brave new nootropics concern comes bearing all the hallmarks of Valley-branded success. It was founded by two Stanford computer scientists, and it’s been funded by A-list Valley luminaries like the legendary VC firm Andreessen Horowitz and executives Mark Pincus, of gaming company Zynga, and Marissa Mayer, lately of Yahoo!

“In a lot of ways apps seem played out,” Nootrobox co-founder Michael Brandt told New York Times journalist Farhad Manjoo at this year’s South by Southwest festival. “No one is looking for another photo-sharing app. People here are really interested in what we’re doing because we’re innovating on something we haven’t seen innovated on before.”

And what’s that, exactly? Why, nothing less than the wellspring of all tech innovation: the human brain. Nootrobox sells cannisters of supplement “stacks”—the bodybuilding term for synergistic combinations of supplements optimized to produce specific outcomes—for improving cognitive performance. “Rise” is a “daily nootropic designed to enhance memory, stamina, and resilience” ($49 for a month’s supply); “Sprint” is your upper, to be used as needed on those coding deadlines. “Kado” is your brain protector, while “Yawn” is for peak sleep. For quick jolts of more conventional energy rushes, Nootrobox also sells GO Cubes, the chewable units of caffeine that are the Soylent-inspired hack of Starbucks coffee.

Who’s the target audience for these artisanal brain boosters? Let the company explain:

It’s 3 a.m. and you’re alone at your desk. You’ve just hit your second wind on a project that’s taken almost three months of consecutive long nights to accomplish. Sometimes you push through meals; you wake up early to get back in the zone; your world is a testament to how much you want this: a groundbreaking dissertation, a competitive LSAT score, a one billion dollar company—you’re hungry.

Yes, some of us know these people—or have even been them at times. But Nootrobox has its sights on bigger fish—or fish with bigger ambitions:

It’s a fundamental understanding that there are people who in their lifetime, will change the world. We all play roles. Many of us decide to be adjectives or nouns; a few try their hand at being verbs. Then there are those who strive to carve sentences, pages and even whole chapters in life. There are those who’ve come to change the game—the visionaries, the titans, and the pioneers—these are the folks we all want to be. It’s a smaller subset of the population that dream this big, and that work this hard to get things done. You are a member of that select few.

And as any Calvinist will tell you, even if you’re one of the elect, you’re not going to pass up any opportunity, no matter how small, to prove it.

As any Calvinist will tell you, even if you’re one of the elect, you’re not going to pass up any opportunity, no matter how small, to prove it.

Nootrobox’s line of products, like a Whole Foods vitamin aisle, has transparent ingredient labels and uses only supplements that the FDA deems “generally regarded as safe” (GRAS) for consumption. This hasn’t prevented customers at big-box retailers from being bamboozled by GRAS products that tout phony ingredients or poisoned by heavy metals and toxins arising from their poorly regulated production. But Nootrobox insists it is extremely careful about its suppliers and manufacturing. What Nootrobox may lack in street cred—some hardcore psychonauts prefer Nootroo for its highly effective Russian drugs that haven’t been approved by the FDA and have been banned by the International Olympic Committee and World Anti-Doping Agency—it gains in market viability and consumer confidence.

“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,” co-founder and CEO Geoffrey Woo told Bloomberg Businessweek (whose owner, Bloomberg LP, happens to be an investor in Nootrobox funder Andreessen Horowitz).

Although the company says it is already profitable, it’s assiduously plowing profits back into research and development, to discover the stacks that will someday birth the Tech Übermensch. Here’s how Woo and Brandt envision the coming productivity-utopia in a TechCruch blog entry entitled “Nootropics aren’t just for tech millionaires”:

While the industry is in its early stage, the future is bright. Imagine a world where nootropics are widely available, well-understood, and publicly accepted. We’re not talking about Limitless where Bradley Cooper takes a super drug and gets unique mental prowess. Imagine a full society of Bradley Coopers. Intelligence is a network effect, and imagine the new forms of interaction, social relationships and productivity that we don’t yet comprehend.

It’s precisely this sort of marketing verve and STEM-induced hubris that has made me bullish on Nootrobox. Woo and Brandt are the prophets of the forthcoming nootropic-enhanced age—a golden Anthropocene in which brainier humans optimize themselves and their environments. The evangelical zeal of company leaders has garnered press clippings across the media, from the New York Times to Vanity Fair, with tales of how they lead their company on weekly 36-hour fasts from Monday night to Wednesday morning’s biohacker breakfast to induce ketosis-inspired clarity and focus. The company’s website is so replete with guides, manifestos, philosophies, blogs, SoPs, FAQs, newsletters, and forums that it’s practically the of biohacking. And if you’re looking for another podcast to grace with a hate-listen, I recommend Woo and Brandt’s brand new weekly show “Thinking” in the highest possible terms. It’s such a delightfully odious mix of technocratic snobbery, late-night dorm philosophizing, and unselfconscious douchebaggery that I can’t wait for the next installment.

The podcast sets out to explicate the company’s five basic axioms:
1. The human is a system.
2. Intellectual ability is the driving force for civilization today.
3. Hard work is a means to self-actualization.
4. Human enhancement technologies are inevitable and will be ubiquitous.
5. A smart society is a better society.

The first three podcasts delve into these first three propositions. The human is, as our anthropologists (by way of Stanford computer science) inform us, just a system of inputs and outputs. To engineer a brighter destiny for the human system, all you need to do is to control the former to optimize the latter. Or, to put things another way: Humans are really platforms—a combination of hardware and software, and engineers know you need regularly to tweak both. “You do this, like, regimen to your computer, and then, like, its CPU goes faster,” Woo enthuses. “Improve your CPU, right? Instead of a 1 Gigahertz processor, get a 1.2.”

And how do you, like a World of Warcraft gamer, become a conqueror of the intellectual realm?

The other core lesson of the first episode is “participant evolution”—the harebrained idea that unlike other animals who passively undergo evolution through natural selection, humans participate in, and can control, their own evolution; that, indeed, is what makes us human. The implication, of course, is that only those who take active control of their evolution—say, by popping nootropics—are living truly human lives.

In the second podcast, which fearlessly tackles the expansion of our intellectual ability, Woo and Brandt denigrate manual and craft labor as something that can and should be replaced by robots. This will permit us to free up our creative intellects, since “nowadays a country succeeds by more intellectual input.” Imagine, they suppose, if the maki rolls of a top sushi chef could be produced by extremely dexterous robots. Surely you would support this, because where is the added value of the sushi chef’s craft beyond the maki? By iterating this same life-hack over all professions, we will have more and more intellectuals making the world a better place. The synergistic effects can’t help but add up to exponential growth in world betterment. “The intellectual class is going to be everyone soon,” Woo gushes. And when that happens, historians will see this epoch in a different light. “In a thousand years, when we look back, the Julius Caesars of our generation will be, like, the Jobs, the Zuckerbergs, and the people who are creating these tools and battling in the intellect realm, not the physical realm. These will be, like, the conquerors.” These—and, like, Woo and Brandt, too!

And how do you, like a World of Warcraft gamer, become a conqueror of the intellectual realm? As the third episode on hard work and self-actualization explains, think of it this way: You start on level one with low XP, and there’s no skipping levels. You have to work “110 percent” at whatever you’re doing, no matter how menial the task, “crush” that level and move up. And you have to find something that you enjoy enough to go 110 percent, and if you don’t have that now, you should go 110 percent to find it. You don’t jump to running your own company overnight and you don’t build an empire like Kanye without a lot of nights of experimenting in the studio. And where is that extra 10 percent supposed to come from? Woo has your answer: “Biohacking is that meta-tool that enables you to be that 5 percent or 10 percent better version of yourself – a little more stamina and creativity and more memory—more RAM—to mix and remix ideas.”

There you have it: an Orwellian 2.0 vision of the future. Only instead of a boot crushing a human face forever, this one features a bio-hacked worker covered in Quantitative Self wearables, hyperactive and hyperfocused, thanks to nootropics, operating on minimal sleep, food, and breaks, working at a hamster-wheel stand-up desk forever.

David V. Johnson is a writer and editor in Berkeley, California.

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