This year’s buzzwords are: nootropics, brain food, brain hacking, mindset — as in “change your mindset” — and stacking, which means combining two or more nootropics for combined effect.

Is that a lot of information for an opening sentence? Yes, but if you’re already taking nootropics you can probably handle it. Many entrepreneurs and investors believe nootropics (brain enhancing supplements) are the next wave that’s already rising.

Smart Drugs or Nootropics?

At the outset it’s best to make a few distinctions and clarifications. There are “smart drugs” and there are nootropics. They’re not the same..

Smart drugs are often prescription-only medications which you shouldn’t use for non-medical purposes. Modafinil is a good example: a performance-enhancing smart drug which is strong enough to modify a person’s behaviour, reducing impulsiveness while decreasing reaction times and postponing fatigue. If you have a tendency to fall asleep at work, your doctor may prescribe it.

By contrast, nootropics are milder, more predictable, and less likely to cause unwanted side effects. They are made from naturally occurring substances, like fish oil, yerba mate, and other nutrients — all right then: “nootrients!” — and they have much the same effect. People take them for boosting memory, changing mood, enhancing creativity, or simply to get more energy when they need it most.

Who Needs Them?

You don’t have to be a genius to see there’s potentially a huge market demand for nootropics — and for smart drugs as well — once people can be reassured about their safety and effectiveness. In fact, taking them would be a “no brainer” even for the dumbest student if they could be guaranteed as totally safe and helpful to people in task such as passing exams.

As the world becomes more reliant on brainpower and less reliant on brawn — even in occupations like construction or the military — people will use every reliable enhancement they can find. After all, there’s a serious challenge to our intellectual dominance being posed by articifial intelligence. No one wants to be outwitted by a robot.

However, in the immediate future the market is limited to pioneering customers who are willing, on the basis of existing evidence, to “give it a go.” Eventually, as anecdotal evidence about safety and effectiveness becomes sufficiently large, the market will begin to expand more rapidly.

It is not beyond the realm of possibility that the Googles, Microsofts and Facebooks of tomorrow will be companies producing and selling brain enhancement drugs and supplements.

Who’s Backing Them?

From an entrepreneurial point of view, nootropics received more than money when Andreessen Horowitz, one of the world’s top venture capital firms, invested $2 million in Nootrobox, a start-up selling smart drugs by subscription. For nootropics in general it was a massive vote of confidence.

Why did they do it? According to Business Insider (Dec. 5, 2015) it was neither Internet browser pioneer Marc Andreessen nor his colleague Ben Horowitz who made the initial play but their partner Chris Dixon. He was already using Soylent, a chalky nutrition drink popular among those in the high tech industry. He liked it so much he led the funding for Nootrobox.

Chris Dixon is fond of pointing to the concept of the “idea maze,” expounded by Silicon Valley evangelist Balaji S. Srinivasan. This is the maze through which entrepreneurs have to thread their way — and it goes way beyond inventing a great product. In Srinivasan’s words it means having a sense of “the history of the industry, the players in the maze, the casualties of the past, and the technologies that are likely to move walls and change assumptions.”

Smart drugs and nootropics fit well into the idea maze, although there are not yet many major players to give us a sense of where the industry is headed. It would appear that competition is the least of the new entrepreneurs’ worries. As Chris Dixon says on his website: “Competition from other startups is usually just a distraction. In all likelihood, they won’t take the same path, and the presence of others in your maze means you might be onto something.”

Onto Something, or “On Something”?

In the past, people in business have consistently used coffee to keep them awake, nicotine to aid concentration, and alcohol to cheer them up at the end of a long day. Each of these has its drawbacks and there’s no reason to suppose they’ll still be popular a hundred years from now.

We can stay healthy through diet, exercise and sleep, but there’s still a real need for substances that help us adapt to specific circumstances. Both smart drugs and nootropics can be used to address particular needs, whether it’s for studying, playing computer games, preparing for combat, or simply delaying the onset of old age.

It’s always been a bit like this. In the distant past, our ancestors must have sampled everything — and noted the consequences. They communicated their knowledge, such as: “Stay clear of the brightly coloured toadstools” (using grunts and gestures to that effect). Healing wounds, curing common ailments like stomach upsets, or inducing a state of rapture were all part of daily life. There was always a good market for the medicine man.

The success of startups in the nootropics space depends largely on being able to meet the needs of the market. It’s the market which, in the words of Marc Andreessen, “pulls product out of the startup.”

The Nootropics Supermarket

Given the nature of nootropics — their complexity, multiplicity and many possible combinations — the companies most likely to succeed are those from which you can get accurate information and purchase safe, effective products.

It’s unlikely that the large pharmaceutical retailers will offer such a service. Their task is to cure the sick, not to supercharge the healthy.

Small, specialist supermarkets — building a trusted reputation online — are meeting the needs of the growing market for nootropics. Maybe the days of coffee, cigarettes and alcohol are already numbered.