Venture capitalists look beyond tech to the dietary supplements market. Scientists express worry.


How do you stay sharp and fit despite fatigue and age? By consuming substances extracted from blueberries, flowers and algae, say the makers of a new group of unregulated and unproven health pills.

Trusting natural chemicals to solve inevitable ailments is familiar to anyone who has visited a GNC store or contributed to the $30 billion spent annually in the U.S. on dietary supplements.

But the new supplement firms are grabbing attention because they’re founded and funded by people more at home at a Silicon Valley technology campus than a late-night infomercial.

Led by tech world veterans and funded by venture capitalists, dietary supplement start-ups such as Ritual, Elysium and Nootrobox are peddling daily multivitamins and energy-boosting gels with transparency and testing that’s turning heads in the industry. They’re taking the unusual steps of pointing to studies that justify ingredient choices and even publishing full lab test results.

“We’re not introducing a new drug or something very different,” Ritual Chief Executive Katerina Schneider said. “We’re making something a lot better. The industry needs this disruption.”

That’s plausible in an industry long associated with unreliable promises and dodgy characters. And the start-up’s deep pockets and tech pedigree may cut through skepticism and instill a sense of authenticity craved by younger customers.

But there are signs that these start-ups, like many supplement companies before them, leave out key facts and overstate health claims.

Why investors fund supplement start-ups

Supplement start-ups are gaining traction as venture capitalists spread hundreds of millions of dollars in cash to lucrative areas beyond apps and gadgets.

The investors are lending their credibility from successful bets on Snapchat, Uber and Dollar Shave Club to offbeat ideas in food and health. They’re backing products that resemble eggs and meat — hoping to produce them in more environmentally friendly ways — and start-ups seeking to turn breakfast, lunch and dinner into slurpable meal-replacing drinks.

Professors whose studies Elysium cites online question its speculative science (there’s no evidence that Elysium is using the right dosage, for example), though some are intrigued by its unconventional approach.

Company officials are right that “the FDA is not likely to approve a drug to extend lifespan, so a vitamin supplement with the prospect to do so … is a soft approach to the problem,” said Anthony Sauve, an associate professor of pharmacology at Cornell University, whose work Elysium references.

Elysium reached out to several researchers, but not everyone who is referenced on its website.

Even scientists contacted by companies early on found issues with later references to their work. Matthew Pase, a fellow in Boston University’s neurology department, said Nootrobox’s website wrongly implies that his study found that the plant Bacopa monnieri improved memory. Nootrobox executives said the company’s citations and explanations could have been clearer.

Nootrobox, based in San Francisco and financed by investors such as Yahoo Chief Executive Marissa Mayer, churns out several pills and gummies that aim to help “ambitious” people stay alert, executives say. That would include its techie co-founders, who concocted drinks and slipped powdered herbs under the tongue in hopes of extending workdays better than coffee does.

Nootrobox could face scrutiny for including links on its website to studies about diseases. For example, text on one ingredient webpage could be seen to imply that Nootrobox pills guard against Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

Chief Executive Geoffrey Woo said ingredient pages don’t have “buy” buttons for fear of that very implication. Woo sees the ingredient guide as distinct, but he said he “can see where the confusion is.” The company removed some disease references after a Los Angeles Times inquiry.

Start-ups must balance their “enthusiasm and blue-sky thinking” with the realities of a precarious industry, said Duffy MacKay, senior vice president of science and regulatory affairs at industry trade group Council for Responsible Nutrition.

Ritual, Elysium and Nootrobox don’t do their own verification of suppliers’ labor and environmental practices. But all say that they put pills through quality control — and that consumers haven’t had issues yet. They’re all preparing the type of product-effectiveness studies that the academic community wants to see.

For people who receive plentiful nutrients through food, supplements remain unnecessary, according to healthcare experts. In some cases, they’re viewed as harmful because chemicals may produce unreliable effects outside the items in which they’re normally found.

Elysium Chief Executive Eric Marcotulli acknowledged that there’s “a lot of work to do” on the research front, but said the company believes the “right thing” is allowing the public to join the experiment.

“We shouldn’t have to wait until we’re broken to fix something,” he said.

Those who abstain are “missing out” and thus worse off, Nootrobox co-founder Michael Brandt said. If something can improve your work performance, and the effects compound, “it’s better to start sooner than later,” Brandt said. / PGP

Twitter: @peard33


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