Sometimes succeeding in Silicon Valley means sliding metal sensors under your skin to track the amount of sugar in your blood. That’s what a community of biohackers, coders, and CEOs are doing in a 90-day Biohacker Challenge to see how far they can go to successfully track, tweak, and optimize their minds and bodies.
The experiment (of sorts), which began in mid-September, is part of the burgeoning biohacking movement that aims to live a longer, more “enhanced” life, says Geoffrey Woo, co-founder of Nootrobox, the company leading the 90-day challenge. Nootrobox primarily sells substances known as nootropics, also known as “smart drugs,” that claim to enhance cognitive function in a variety of ways. “It is using an engineering mindset and systems approach to manipulate the human body and its performance,” he wrote in a post on the company’s website announcing the 90-day challenge.
Woo and co-founder Michael Brandt are a little over a month into their public biohacking odyssey. Each week, they measure everything from blood work biometrics to computer productivity while fine-tuning their “optimal” mix of nootropics, food, and routines. The continuous glucose monitors allow them to record their bodies’ sugar levels every 15 minutes in response to fasting, exercise, sleep, and other interventions. The sensors, such as Abbott’s Freestyle Libre, use a thin metal probe to penetrate the skin, and wirelessly relay data to a small external monitor. Although the devices are not yet legal to be prescribed in the US, they are approved in the European Union and freely available on eBay. In the video below, Woo is shown peeling off the sensor.
Woo says the effort is not a formal scientific study, but that’s not the point. “The goal here is to spark and motivate our readers to be more thoughtful about the inputs into their bodies, their daily regimens, and how these factors may affect performance outputs and outcomes,” he wrote by email.
Nootrobox wants to be a pharmacy of sorts for this this community, selling pills named Yawn, Sprint, Rise, and Kado-3. These products contain substances believed (although not always proven) to enhance mental performance—like L-Theanine, vitamin B-12, and Vinpocetine—and the company insists everything used in their products have been declared safe by the US Food and Drug Administration.
In some ways, “quantified self” aficionados have been promoting this approach in Silicon Valley for years. The focus has typically been on tracking routines, and making changes based on the data. Biohackers go one level deeper. They ultimately want to re-engineer the human organism. At the moment, they’re using nootropics and implantable devices as a first step to collecting data and applying it to intervene to ideally improve how the mind and body work.
Nootropic enthusiasts create “stacks“: personalized combinations of supplements and routines designed to aid memory, learning, focus, or motivation. By plugging their genome into services like Promethease, which analyzes areas of genome shown in scientific studies to influence metabolism, disease, and others factors, they customize their stacks based on their DNA.
Eventually, says Woo, biohacking community members hope to be able to start altering their genomes directly—Nootrobox could, he says, be the one to provide that service.
It’s all rather theoretical at the moment. Biohackers are organizing meetups, Slack groups, and communities to share tips. They’re using powerful if ad-hoc technology. But most approaches remain DIY, and only a few reputable companies are commercializing products.
It may not stay that way for long. The VC-firm Andreessen Horowitz has already led a $2 million investment in Nootrobox, and Andreessen partner Chris Dixon told the New York Times “for a long time, I’ve invested in movements like this.” A medical practice called Smart Med in San Francisco specializing in nootropics has patients from Facebook, Google, Uber, and other tech startups, reports the San Jose Mercury News. The San Francisco biohacking meetup Peak Performance boasts more than a 1,000 members.
The rewards to work in a place like Silicon Valley are too high not to consider nootropics, argues Brandt. Every individual’s performance advantage can be scaled around the world at a major technology company. “This is even more intense than an Olympic sport,” he says. “Why not have a coder fully optimize their regime for their work product?”