Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez, The Chronicle
“Cognitive enhancement” supplements manufactured by San Francisco-based startup HVMN, formerly called Nootropics, may be less effective than a cup of coffee, an independent study funded by the company found.
CNBC obtained the results of the yet-to-be-published study from Maastricht University researchers, who found that caffeine offered more performance-enhancing benefits than HVMN’s Sprint, the $40-a-bottle supplement purported to promote “alertness and relaxation” simultaneously.
“In healthy young students, caffeine improves memory performance and sensorimotor speed, whereas SPRINT does not affect the cognitive performance at the dose tested,” the researchers told CNBC. One Maastricht scientist said the Sprint formula was “not really effective.”
The pills were found to be more effective than caffeine “on subjective alertness at the 30-minute mark,” CNBC reports.
HVMN CEO Geoffrey Woo told the news outlet that he was “excited” by the findings and that HVMN stands behind the research.
“We tried to make a study that would show effects,” he said. “In some cases, it did show positive effects. On some measures, they were negative effects.”
The Marissa Mayer-backed company touts nootropics, or “smart pills.” Other offerings include chewable coffee cubes and “Rise” supplements that HVMN claims “have been shown to enhance memory, stamina, and resilience.”
A source familiar with the company’s financials told CNBC that HVMN reached monthly subscription revenue of $3 million to $5 million in 2016.
After the dismal results of the Maastricht study came to light, CNBC claims Woo emailed the researchers asking that the product not be labeled Sprint. Sources told the news site that the tested compounds differed slightly from the Sprint supplement currently sold on HVMN’s website, although Woo admitted the pills were “very similar.”
As such, CNBC says the research paper, to be published in January, will describe the tested compound as “CAF+” rather than “Sprint.”
In June, one month after receiving the study results, CNBC notes that the company changed its name from Nootrobox to HVMN.
HVMN published a blog post refuting many of the CNBC story’s claims on Thursday and reaffirming its confidence in Sprint:
“It’s invigorating to see the broad interest in our work on human enhancement. CNBC recently obtained a pre-review manuscript of a clinical trial we commissioned on a non-commercial, research variant of SPRINT, our acute effect nootropic product, and wrote a story on it. The search for truth is the cornerstone of product development at HVMN. We follow the data and conduct research transparently. We continue to conduct studies and collaborate with our various research partners and will publish all results, whether positive or negative, through the peer-review process.
Earlier this month, HVMN launched its eponymous Ketone product, a $99-a-bottle product that Woo likes to call “the fourth macronutrient.”
“It’s not a fat, it’s not a protein, it’s not a carb, but your body gets fuel from it,” he told Business Insider. A small study from Oxford University researchers found high-performing cyclists went an average of 400 meters further during a 30-minute ride than those who had a carb- or fat-rich drink. As Business Insider notes, research supporting the beta-hydroxybutyrate supplement has only been tested on athletic performance, not cognition. Perceived benefits could be resultant of the placebo effect.
Nootropics are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.