Silicon supplements: The rise of ‘biohacking’ amid tech workers

Silicon supplements: The rise of ‘biohacking’ amid tech workers

Silicon supplements: The rise of ‘biohacking’ amid tech workers
Photo courtesy of Momentous

For decades, a culture of “biohacking” has been taking hold in Silicon Valley. Mythologies of famous CEOs like Steve Jobs famously eating only fruit abound. One startup head allegedly downs 61 pills every day (and told Yahoo! Finance he’s “never been happier”). Tech leaders’ attempts to unlock the mysteries of our bodies have become well enough known that biohacking is now as stereotypical as practicing Zen Buddhist meditation.

It’s no surprise, then, that tech-facing supplement companies are taking off with the support of venture capitalists—both nationally and in Utah.

Unlocking the wellness code

Before founding Mixhers, co-founders Cody Sanders and Jess Toolson suffered from PMS symptoms—and the frustrating realization that there weren’t a lot of available options for women to seek treatment—for years.

“I was postpartum with my kids when, for the first time in my life, I really started struggling with PMS symptoms,” Toolson said in a 2022 YouTube interview. She explained that prescription medicine wasn’t really helping her and that she decided to be her own health advocate and find her own solution.

Sanders, meanwhile, had been making at-home “herbal concoctions” to help provide women’s bodies the hormones needed to alleviate the intensity of, at times, debilitating period symptoms.

Together, Sanders and Toolson founded Mixhers. The social network provides customers with real-time answers to questions about supplements and women’s health, as well as several drinkable supplement products and merchandise.

A muddied market

In 2019, as Sanders and Toolson were launching their enterprise, the supplements market was changing. Up until that point, the field had been dominated by sensational claims unsubstantiated by scientific studies—prompting the Daily Beast to label it a “$40 billion snake oil industry” in 2017. Harvard Medical School published a report in 2020 arguing that supplements don’t undergo complex testing like pharmaceuticals. “The widespread belief that most dietary supplements are effective and safe simply isn’t true,” the report stated.

Jeff Byers, a former NFL center who is now CEO of the Park City-based supplements company Momentous, similarly noticed a market that was lacking scientific rigor when he transitioned out of professional sports.

“When I was in the NFL, you have access to the best practitioners in the world. You have the cutting-edge knowledge, and you’re given the best quality products ever,” Byers says, pointing out that even after finishing up his work in the field, he still wanted to take health supplements. “And when I left, I just found this black hole, this sea of craziness. Like where do I go, what do I trust?” 

He later co-founded the company Amp Human, which created lotion for athletes. His interest in addressing the issue around optimized nutrition helped motivate the company to acquire the nutrition supplements firm Momentous, rebranding around that product in 2021.

“There’s a huge amount of a lack of transparency and lack of trust in the sports nutrition supplement category. ... Momentous started really as a consumer, biotech-facing company, and we transitioned into the supplement and nutrition category really by seeing that we could make a big impact by leveraging really incredible access.”

The great tech rebrand

The combination of a need for more hardened science and an interest from the tech community helped create a shift in the market. As technology became a powerhouse industry at the turn of the century, the trends of its high-earning workers carried more weight among investors. The nutritional supplement industry has proven reliable for venture capitalists, bringing in far higher returns and wealth than other trendy areas like crypto, NBC reported last year.

VC money has also brought a culture change to how the companies are built and advertised, as the Mixhers case shows. New companies are built around subscription models, involve building apps to track overall health and conduct in-house scientific research—and many cater to a specific piece of the market by focusing on a key problem to solve.

Companies like Momentous are aiming to build their brands around serious scientific findings. According to Byers, the company’s key focus is on athletes, which helps the company maintain a level of credibility that the nutritional supplements industry isn’t usually known for.

“Momentous is really founded upon this principle that there’s a huge amount of a lack of transparency and lack of trust in the sports nutrition supplement category,” Byers says. “Momentous started really as a consumer, biotech-facing company, and we transitioned into the supplement and nutrition category really by seeing that we could make a big impact by leveraging really incredible access.”

Momentous has partnered with about 200 college sports teams and has 10 contracts with the Department of Defense for their products, Byers says. But though its background focuses heavily on athletics, Byers believes the company’s customer base includes a lot of tech workers and other science-minded folks who are interested in perfecting their nutrition.

“What we consider our core customer—we call them the ‘life optimizer.’ Those people are making very conscious decisions on a daily basis to improve their collective performance, whether that be cognitive, athletic or sleep,” Byers says. “And what you’ll find is a lot of those people live as entrepreneurs or live in tech, as they’re the ones kind of on the front foot.”

The market hasn’t completely changed, however. In Ogden, the nearly century-old Nutraceutical corporation heads a series of vitamin brands and sells 5,500 products in 60 countries, according to its website. Wellness trends have benefited the market as a whole, with Yahoo! Finance reporting that the industry grew from $372.27 billion in 2022 to $409.12 billion in 2023.

Byers’ focus is to do something that breaks the mold of previous supplement market norms. The growth of a customer base that’s increasingly aware of their health habits and has the tools to track those habits with data is a key part of Momentous’s strategy.

Sleep is an area that people have changed attitudes about recently, he argues, pointing out how people have begun to understand the need for better rest—and an increasing number of people are tracking and taking supplements for sleep.

“We’re trying to do it differently. How can we do it better than it’s been done before, get people the right products at the right time for them, and create a model that makes it incredibly easy for them to stay involved as well with the business?” Byers says. “Certain types of people in our core customer, the life optimizer, definitely gravitate into that realm.”

A digital doctor

Utah angel investor and former Wooly CEO Scott Paul recently invested in Phi (previously called Stack), a new company that will connect a supplement regimen with an app that logs all its user’s crucial health data. For him, the appeal is using science to break ground on something new and shift the market away from apparent scams.

The product will launch in early 2024, but Paul says he’s curious to see how users will respond to something that breaks conventional patterns—and the vision is deeply tied to tech.

“Our first solution is basically 1,000 grains of sand that you have to kick back, and it gives you about 24 of the core vitamins and minerals we need each day,” he says. “We just kind of deconstructed what people in supplements were doing right now. … We went after the technology of, ‘Can we make a better pill?’”

But Paul’s breakdown for the company is more ambitious: to connect the dietary supplement to a larger system of health tracking, intervention and insight from doctors, all routed through the company and its app.

“We’re building studios where you go in and get a baseline blood test, and we do a vial of blood that’s just for testing where your vitamin levels are at,” he says. 

The overall goal, Paul says, is to see if we can take our health into our own hands.

Jack Dodson is a reporter and documentary filmmaker most recently based in Palestine-Israel from 2018-2022. He has reported for Vice, BBC, The Intercept, Middle East Eye, among many others. He has a master’s in investigative journalism and documentary from Columbia Journalism School and a bachelor’s degree from Elon University in rhetoric.