The lobby of the WeWork on San Francisco’s Market Street looks like The Truman Show, but for startups: It’s the middle of the afternoon, and people are actually playing ping pong. The jug of complimentary “fresh fruit water” is icy and glistening. Stay in the same place long enough and the same Macbook-toting twentysomething is bound to loop by again.
On a sunny day in late January, Nootrobox co-founder Michael Brandt ventured onto this soundstage for startup utopia to talk about his company’s newest product: a line of chewable coffee-flavored gummy bites called Go Cubes. They, like all of Nootrobox’s wares, are nootropics: substances designed to make you think harder, better, and faster, also known as smart drugs. (Nootropics are typically marketed as dietary supplements, which are not reviewed by the FDA, although the agency has issued warning letters. Nootrobox says it only uses ingredients that the FDA has classified as generally safe.) Brandt strode into the lobby wearing a neon baseball hat that said “THINKING CAP.” See? It's unnerving when reality is too on the nose.
Go Cubes represent a big departure from Nootrobox’s other products, a trifecta of pills called Rise, Sprint, and Yawn, which are supposed to help you start the day alert, conquer deadlines, and ease into sleep, respectively, and come in spartan glass containers. The cubes, on the other hand, come in bright packaging that Brandt told BuzzFeed News was inspired by Winnie the Pooh’s honey pot and Keith Haring. Nootrobox raised the money for Go Cubes through an Indiegogo campaign and also has funding from Andreessen Horowitz. The geometric treats begin selling online today.
Each Go Cube contains as much caffeine as half a cup of coffee, as well as six grams of sugar. The nootropic elements are B-complex vitamins and l-theanine, an amino acid found in green tea. (L-theanine plus caffeine is a popular pairing to start with because the combination reduces jitters.)
Brandt hopes that Go Cubes will introduce consumers to the idea that “your smartness is something to be optimized,” he said. “Own the fact that when you’re going to get coffee, 80% of the time you’re doing it to enhance your work abilities somehow.” And if coffee drinkers are trying to “modulate” performance, “Wouldn’t you want something more precise than coffee?” he said. “That’s our whole hypothesis there.”
He opened up a fat jar of cubes before we made our way to a conference room, so that I could try one. It tasted sweetly dank, like the first sip of a cold brew coffee, but with a Haribo mouthfeel and no hint of bitterness. My editor later described the taste as “synthetic,” but said she loved it.
Brandt believes that Go Cubes could be a breakthrough product. “We’re just trying to take over the world so that this is an iconic logo before anyone else can follow us,” he said. “For every Coca-Cola, there’s a Pepsi and a bunch of others. That’s OK as long as we’re the Coca-Cola.”
Brandt was an associate product manager for YouTube, and his co-founder Geoff Woo is a former product manager at Groupon. Although Nootrobox’s line of pills is taking off, Brandt said he recognizes the limits of the company’s reach. “Ninety-nine percent of the world has never tried a nootropics in general, hasn’t heard about Nootrobox.” Chewable coffee seemed like a good gateway food. It looks approachable, and it’s portable so you can take it “on a long road trip or when you’re going hiking or into outer space,” he explained, but didn’t specify the planet.
Later this week, Go Cubes will be available on Amazon Launchpad, a portal for all things startup or crowdfunded. Brandt said he got the Amazon introduction through Andreessen Horowitz, which has also invested in BuzzFeed. The most popular items on the launchpad right now include Sphero’s app-controlled BB-8 robot and FitBark, a dog activity monitor.
Roughly two minutes after we moved from the lobby to a conference room, I asked Brandt if it was possible to feel the effects already. I had walked into WeWork groggy, but suddenly found myself on a higher plane of mental acuity. Shit was coming together. Ideas were ~~~~connecting~~~~. Brandt and I had a sharp-angled conversation about unexplored corners of human physiology, the earliest uses of caffeine in Ethiopia, how to achieve peak cognitive performance, and Elon Musk’s theory about first principles. I felt like I was on office Molly.
Half an hour later, I started to crash. Brandt’s and my conversation grew sluggish. Overall, it felt like good part of a caffeine high, but a little higher, a little more focused, and without the dehydration. After a week or so of eating cubes, my peaks and valleys flattened somewhat, but I still felt like the cubes were effective.
My colleagues’ reactions were mixed. The same editor said the cubes “were like Adderall but less sweaty.” Another co-worker who had two cups of coffee before trying the Go Cube said: “OK, very suddenly, I’m jacked,” adding, “I kind of think I may need to go for a run.” One writer said she had been “depending on them to get over the 1pm lunch slump” and may be addicted. “WHAT SORCERY IS IN THOSE WEIRD CUBES ON THE TABLE. I’M SO AWAKE AFTER BEING SO TIRED,” said one of the journalism lab fellows, while another called the gummy bites sugar bombs of evil.
Go Cubes capitalize on a few shifting trends among tech workers, as well as widespread changes in workplace culture and health. That may sound highfalutin’ for a sugar-coated pick-me-up. But marketing and pedigree mean something in tech — otherwise columnists for top newspapers wouldn’t keep reviewing Soylent, earnestly asking each time if a venture-backed beverage could “replace” or “end” food.
Among Silicon Valley locals, the idea of smart coffee plays into the idealization of the hacker lifestyle and the drive to self-optimize — both of which tie into the industry’s insistence that personal fulfillment comes from work, rather than out-of-office pursuits. In terms of more mainstream phenomenons, Go Cubes fits thematically into Americans working longer hours and the growing anxiety around productivity, whether that’s keeping up with the pace of news and technology, or just one’s inbox. Oh, and our coffee addiction.
“Humans are the next platform,” Brandt explained. “Five or six years ago if someone was measuring their footsteps, they were a crazy person, right? That wasn’t a normal thing. But now your aunt or your cousin can have a Fitbit and they don’t consider themselves a biohacker, they just have an Apple Watch.” Brandt sees an increasing interest in treating ourselves like machines. “We want better insight into how our body is performing and we want better ability to affect it,” he said. “We want to be able to pull the levers.”
Venture capitalists and founders sometimes make analogies to computing in order to justify funding low-tech small businesses — perhaps because tech startups command higher valuations than, say, a power bar company.
People in the nootropics or quantified self “movement” use the word “stack” to describe their regimen of pills. Bodybuilders use supplement stacks, but in software, a stack is a set of applications or subsystems needed to build platforms or websites. (Rumor has it that Facebook prefers to hire “full-stack” engineers.) Nootrobox sells all three pills together in a package called the Full Stack.
Another way to align your company with Silicon Valley is by having the same heroes. Brandt told me Nootrobox has modeled its approach after what Elon Musk calls "first principles" — in other words, stripping something down to the basics so you can be truly innovative. When it comes to coffee, Brandt said, that means: “What do people want? What actually works? What are the intended effects?”
The on-the-nose vibe around Nootrobox comes from the prevalence of all these startup tropes: for example, the tech industry’s infatuation with new entrants over experience and expertise. “We’re both pretty young, we’re 27, so for better or for worse, I think mainly for better, we don’t have huge decades of experience in supplements,” said Brandt. Consumers have found Nootrobox “refreshing,” he said, compared with the supplements industry, where companies tout proprietary blends that turn out to contain “whatever happens to be on deck.”
Then again, if channeling Elon Musk is what it takes to get to chewable coffee, more power to them. Whether Go Cubes goes mainstream or only lasts a month, it made me more aware of how mindless it is to reach for a cup of coffee when I just want to feel smarter.
Nootrobox rejected 200 other ideas — including selling Sprint as an energy shot and making a chewable version in fruit flavors — before arriving at the obvious conclusion of chewable coffee: “Coffee connotes a performance aspect that lemon just doesn’t,” said Brandt. He and Woo made a down payment for R&D with a factory in Los Angeles that does “truckloads a day of jellybeans, gummy multi-vites, and things like that,” Brandt said. They opted to coat the cubes in a fine layer of sugar so they don’t stick together, he said, spinning the jar around.
Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk may be international idols, but the universal need for validation persists.
The Nootrobox team “likes to think” that they're good at brain sports too, said Brandt. “No one has really talked to nerds like they’re Nike athletes, right? But I would like to be talked to like that.”