Date: Dec 03, 2015 Author: Michael J. de la Merced Source: NY Times (
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SAN FRANCISCO -- Since its inception, Andreessen Horowitz has bet big on investments that became home runs, including Facebook, Skype and Airbnb.
But one of the investment firm's latest wagers is on a nascent manufacturer of the advanced supplements known as smart drugs.
The firm plans to announce on Thursday that it has led a $2 million seed investment round in Nootrobox, whose products include "Rise" pills aimed at improving memory and "Sprint" pills aimed at bolstering energy and focus while keeping users in what its founders call a positive "flow state."
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, the Andreessen Horowitz partner who led the investment. He had already led the firm's investment in Soylent, the ballyhooed and popular meal replacement, and saw similar potential in a company aiming to bring nootropics to the masses.
"For a long time, I've invested in movements like this," he said in a telephone interview.
(The investment will come out of Andreessen Horowitz's main fund, Mr. Dixon said, rather than a new biology-focused vehicle that the firm announced last month. But that was because the investment process had begun before the new fund was born; otherwise, it would have originated from that pool of money.)
He argued that unlike other nootropics providers, Nootrobox advocates a more scientific approach, bringing on board advisers with Ph.D.s and focusing on publishing research. The company also sticks with ingredients that have been cleared by the Food and Drug Administration, presenting itself as a safe way to try out nootropics.
The start-up plans to introduce apps to help users better track how its products affect their bodies.
"No one is being quantitative about it," Geoffrey Woo, one of the company's founders, said in an interview.
Or as Mr. Dixon put it, "We invest in technologists," saying that most of the other nootropics companies "have been more infomercial-driven."
Mr. Woo and his co-founder, Michael Brandt, note that skeptics dismiss their industry as the province of people who ply their wares in late-night commercials. They zealously defend the nootropics field, even printing Theodore Roosevelt's "The Man in the Arena" -- "It is not the critic who counts," the speech begins -- on boxes of their products.
But they acknowledge that there are hurdles to overcome if their products are to catch on beyond the biohacking community.
The two met while studying computer science at Stanford, where their interest in the "quantified self" -- the term used by enthusiasts for collecting data on their own bodies -- began. Behind their belief is the idea that the future of society lies in improving the mind.
"One hundred years ago, the ideal was to be strong like a bull," Mr. Brandt said, curling imaginary dumbbells. "But we think the jobs of the future will be very cerebral."
So far, Nootrobox is profitable, according to Mr. Woo. It plans to use its new funds to focus on investing in expanding its product offerings, its research and its marketing.
But the start-up is also trying to play for the long term and do its best to avoid perhaps the worst fate of all: being deemed part of a passing trend.
"We don't want to be a fad diet," Mr. Woo said.