Nootropics Proponents Find Big Business in Silicon Valley

By Paul Gaita 01/30/15

Entrepreneurs like Dave Aspery are marketing nootropics as a natural supplement. But is taking them really smart?

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The pressure cooker atmosphere in California’s Silicon Valley, where companies race against the clock and each other to develop the latest technological success, has spawned an interest in nootropics, or “smart drugs,” to hone memory, attention, and motivation without the side effects inherent to controlled substances.

To that end, entrepreneurs like Dave Asprey have launched their own nootropic companies to market what are known as “stacks,” a combination of natural supplements, experimental products, and even prescription drugs like Modafinil, a narcolepsy medication, which nootropic proponents claim also boosts intelligence. Asprey came into the business after finding that the high delivered from selling his first company for millions was countered by his poor physical and mental health.

Weighing 300 pounds, Asprey also claimed to have “really bad problems with brain fog,” which he alleviated by “hacking his own biology” over the course of the next 15 years. After spending more than $300,000 to discover the proper “stack” for his desired potential, Asprey claimed that supplements and brain exercises have allegedly boosted his IQ by 20 points.

His line of nootropics has found favor among Silicon Valley workers, who have in turn transformed the substances from black market contraband to mainstream products available through major online retailers, like Amazon. To meet the growing demand for such supplements, an army of entrepreneurs has filed applications to launch their own nootropics companies in the region.

But Sam Altman, president of the Silicon Valley accelerator Y Combinator, said that while “there is clearly consumer demand” for such companies, his company has yet to back one. “We’re still getting to understand the space,” he said.

Part of the hesitancy over committing to nootropics is the fact that many of the supplements are either still in the experimental phase of development, or its makers have obscured the fact that they contain prescription drugs or other substances that cause an array of harmful side effects. For example, the supplement Alleradd, which is purported to provide the same memory and energy enhancement as the prescription drug Adderall, contains piracetam, which has been restricted for sale by the FDA.

This information is not noted on Alleradd’s list of ingredients. Still, nootropics proponents stand by their claims of cognitive enhancement and other health benefits, and advise that first-time users should use caution when exploring these uncharted waters

“People should follow the Hippocratic Oath with themselves: do no harm,” said entrepreneur and smart drug investor Tim Ferriss. “It’s hard enough to understand the long-term consequences of a newly developed single drug, let alone if you take two, three or four different drugs together.”

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.