“Do you mind if you tell us more about what’s in it before we eat them? I don’t wanna get roofied.” – Chris Sacca
Back in 2016, Geoff Woo and Michael Brandt went on Shark Tank to pitch Nootrobox, a company that catered to “biohackers,” or people who see the human body as an organic computer program that you can “hack” with just the right mixture of ingredients.
Their flagship product, at the time, was Go Cubes, or coffee — nootropically enhanced — in chewable form. Their ask was outrageous, even for Shark Tank: $2 million for 5 percent, or a $40 million valuation. After they were roundly crucified by the sharks, Woo told Inc. the problem wasn’t with the product, but the panel.
“I think our community, the biohacking community, and the products just totally went over the heads of the other Sharks on the show. And I think they’re just of a different generation, a different segment of humanity.”
As dismissive as Woo’s comment may sound, he had a point: on a show where basement entrepreneurs and family-run businesses typically hold court, Nootrobox was largely out of its element. The product’s core selling point — “biohacking” — was lost on investors who knew the mass market would just as soon grab an energy drink or cup of coffee.
Nootrobox was an ill fit for the Shark Tank canon, as it had none of the elements of a successful pitch. Woo and Brandt were flush with cash, had a strange product and came across as pretty arrogant. They didn’t even have an inspirational story of overcoming tragedy to sway the sharks, or the audience.
And after Shark Tank aired, the story of Nootrobox seemed to make even less sense. Woo told Inc. the purpose of the appearance was to gain exposure. If that’s true, it’s perhaps an odd place to do it – ABC on a Friday night.
Woo claims they did see a six-fold increase in sales after the broadcast. But by May, 2018, Nootrobox had changed its name to HVMN. The apparent rebranding followed a leaked research study — commissioned by the company itself — that showed, according to CNBC, that SPRINT, another performance-enhancing product under the Nootrobox brand, was actually less effective than caffeine.
The company responded with a blog post on its website where it seemed to critique the methodology of the study itself. It also pushed back against claims in the CNBC piece that Nootrobox had tried to change the name of the product in the study to CAF+ from SPRINT, the latter the product on the market. Those claims implied that the company was trying to hide the less-than-flattering results. Nootrobox said the decision to use CAF+ was to be accurate about the product actually tested, since the formulation of the product SPRINT would evolve over time.
The abstract of the published study is available here.
Nootrobox, after its rebranding, shifted its attention to HVMN Ketone, which Inc. says is the first drink with Ketone Esters. While in development, it apparently cost $25,000 per bottle to produce. The product is supposed to mimic the effects of intermittent fasting, or a ketogenic diet.
The HVMN website boasts the drink was the result of a partnership with TΔS Ltd, University of Oxford and the Department of Defense, utilizing $60 million in research funding. Now that it’s available for sale, it’s substantially cheaper than $25,000, but according to Inc. still costs $33 a serving and “tastes like nail polish remover.”
Olga Khazan, writing in The Atlantic last fall, had a similarly vivid description:
“It tasted like cough syrup that had been poured into a garbage bag and left in the sun.”
Khazan’s piece also explained how that “collaboration” happened to create the product. A University of Oxford professor, Kieran Clarke, researched ketones starting in 2003. Her research was funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, whose aim was to improve performance of members of the military.
Clarke founded TΔS Ltd to market the results of that research. She licensed her intellectual property to HVMN, so the company could package, brand and sell HVMN Ketone. So that $60 million may not have actually come from HVMN’s high profile investors — Andreessen Horowitz and Marissa Mayer among them — but the U.S. taxpayer.
As Woo and Brandt revealed on Shark Tank, they are computer scientists, although they claimed at that time to have M.D.s and Ph.D.s — presumably in biological sciences — on their team.
Which begs the question: if Nootrobox/HVMN is a marketing play, since neither of the co-founders have the scientific background to create the products themselves, why were they invited to be on Shark Tank? While plenty of Shark Tank products are all about marketing, typically the person pitching the business can sell it to the intended audience. As Lori Greiner said during the Nootrobox pitch, Woo and Brandt were all about the science and needed to learn how to sell, or partner with someone who already knew how to sell.
Despite the founders’ commitment to the idea of biohacking — TechCrunch called it a major trend in some subcultures over the past few years and HVMN encourages intermittent fasts among its own employees — it still seems to have aways to go to reach broad appeal. It’s hard to imagine Greiner would have ever been able to sell Nootrobox — or Go Cubes — on QVC.