Science & Technology

Bringing Biohacking to the Masses Is Latest Aim of Andreessen Horowitz

The savvy venture capitalists at Andreessen Horowitz are now banking on "smart drug" startup Nootrobox.



Powerhouse venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz announced last week that it will invest $2 million in the "smart drug" start-up Nootrobox, which makes supplements aimed at improving focus, memory, and mental energy. Chris Dixon, the Andreessen Horowitz partner who led the investment, said he was interested by the company's goal of bringing "biohacking" to the masses

Other past recipients of the firm's funds include companies such as Buzzfeed, Skype, Twitter, Coinbase, Medium, Airbnb, Foursquare, Pinterest, Oculus VR, and Lyft.

Some background on the Nootrobox decision, from The New York Times:  

Nootrobox is in the business of nootropics, substances that might improve the way the mind works. The start-up's founders say they are part of the "biohacking" movement, which treats the human body as software that can be improved through constant tweaking.

It's an industry that has drawn enthusiasts from around the Internet, with groups on Reddit drawing tens of thousands of readers, as well as entrepreneurs like Dave Asprey of Bulletproof. It is that sense of movement and community that drew the interest of Chris Dixon…

With the Nootrobox investment, Andreessen Horowitz continues its recent embrace of biohacker-friendly start-ups, from uBiome (a company that makes affordable kits for consumers to sequence their microbiome) to the much-hyped meal-replacement drink Soylent. "We invest in technologists," Dixon told the Times, explaining that while many smart-drug companies "have been more infomercial-driven," Nootrobox is different.

Founded in 2014 by millennials Michael Brandt and Geoffrey Woo, the company claims to take a more scientific approach to nootropics than many of its competitors. "We use the precise ingredients at the right dosages and the right ratios as supported by double-blind, peer-reviewed clinicals," the Nootrobox website claims.

Thus far, Nootrobox has been both profitable and popular among the Silicon Valley crowd.

The company offers three nootropic "stacks," each a blend of allegedly brain-boosting substances. RISE—a blend of bacopa monnierirhodiola rosea, and ?-GPC—is the company's everyday nootropic, designed to be taken twice a day for enhanced "clarity and focus." SPRINT is meant to be taken for a quicker and more concentrated boost of brainpower; it contains caffeine, B vitamins, L-theanine, Glucuronolactone, and Inositol. The last stack—YAWN—is a sleep-aid composed of Melatonin, magnesium citrate, Glycine, and L-theanine. 

"We're not medical doctors nor biochemistry experts," Woo told Fusion, "but we are experts in building teams and building products. … we see ourselves as applying Silicon Valley aesthetics and operational know-how to the murky world of nootropics." And like Airbnb and Uber, Nootrobox is prepared for potential regulatory battles, Woo said.

As long as Nootrobox stacks rely on naturally occuring substances—herbs, vitamins, amino acids, etc.—that are "generally regarded as safe" by the FDA, it may be able to avoid a big one (although the empire-building FDA has had its designs on the supplement industry for a while). But man-made compounds for cognitive enhancement, such as Modafinil, are still getting the FDA side-eye, despite myriad studies showing safety and efficacy. 

"Modafinil may well deserve the title of the first well-validated pharmaceutical nootropic agent," declared European College of Neuropsychopharmacology President Guy Goodwin in August. "If correct, the present update means the ethical debate is real: how should we classify, condone or condemn a drug that improves human performance in the absence of pre-existing cognitive impairment?" 

For more on nootropics and biohacking, check out the Andreessen Horowitz podcast on smart drugs here, or see Reason's previous coverage of self-directed evolution, the domestication of biotechnology, transgenic art, college bans on smart drugs, Adderall panics, brain-preservation techniques, radical life extention, and transhumanist summer camps