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.
Those desires are at odds with business models of struggling retailers such as GNC, but neatly addressed by the start-ups.
The firms also aspire to be more than pill pushers. By adding services such as coaching and offering online videos on healthy living, the start-ups could be as essential to millennials as Centrum or Weight Watchers are to seniors.
About half of U.S. adults and a third of children take supplements: some by choice, some by doctors’ orders, some because they believe that their dietary restrictions (vegan, dairy-free, etc.) leave them unfulfilled. The tech-backed approaches could convert the other 50%, which skews younger, investors say.
Elysium and Nootrobox each say they have tens of thousands of subscribers, and Ritual reports 500% growth in subscribers since Jan. 1.
Many others are getting involved. Actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s online shop Goop peddles pill packs such as “High School Genes.” Life Boost sells a blender that mixes powders into “vitamin shots,” claiming that drinking vitamins leads to better absorption.
Where supplement start-ups fall short
Supplements can launch and boast about improving health without approval of the Food and Drug Administration, as long as they aren’t claiming to treat or prevent specific diseases.
The policy enables companies to sells billions of dollars of goods without authenticated evidence of their worth. Though companies typically stick with ingredients the FDA deems safe, the agency doesn’t test the combinations found in supplements.
“It’s not to say these products don’t have a role in health, but we don’t have a lot of clinical trials investigating that question,” said Regan Bailey, a Purdue University associate professor of nutritional science.
The start-ups’ websites tout research that they argue justifies ingredients and sometimes suppliers. They are far more specific than traditional supplement websites, where suppliers go unnamed and relevant studies aren’t cited.
But researchers the start-ups mention aren’t ready to recommend the pills.
Many study authors expressed surprise that their work has been referenced and shared their dismay about how their findings had been portrayed. The Los Angeles Times contacted authors of about 40 studies described on Ritual’s website, 10 from Elysium and seven from Nootrobox. Altogether, more than a dozen authors raised concerns.
Ritual’s semi-clear, vitamins-and-minerals pill aims to give women more vibrant lives and looks. Backed by $5 million and inspired by its founder’s pregnancy-fueled search for safer products, Ritual promises an “obsessively researched vitamin directly to your door.” It paraphrases studies into short declarations on its website, identifying only the authors, not the works themselves.
Purdue’s Bailey, who is mentioned on Ritual’s iron webpage, and several others described the company’s conclusions as unsound.
Sarah Booth of Tufts University said that by condensing her work into “food sources for K2 are difficult,” Ritual’s site is incorrect because she has found that the vitamin is abundant in pork and dairy products. In addition, Booth said there’s no established dietary requirement for K2, making it difficult to argue that people don’t get enough.
But a Los Angeles Times inquiry prompted Harvard University professor Goodarz Danaei to have a school attorney request that Ritual remove a reference to his study about omega-3 oil. Danaei said the company complied. He had concerns because he examined fish-based oil, not the algae-based variety that Ritual employs. The company contends that the options are scientifically equivalent.
With Elysium, several researchers described feeling conflicted about the New York City firm’s efforts. The company — co-founded by a former venture capitalist and a Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher — has received more than $20 million to produce sand-colored pills to combat aging. They say ingesting chemicals in quantities not feasible to attain through consuming blueberries, grapes and milk kicks the body into a state of hunger that extracts more life out of cells.
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.