Employees in start-ups all over London are misusing prescription medications for their performance-enhancing properties, taking drugs such as the analeptic Modafinil, known in America as Provigil or “professor’s little helper”.
Top US universities have been awash with the drug and with other, similar substances for a decade or more, and Silicon Valley start-up executives have been taking drugs to help give them the edge since at least 2008 – probably because many founders and C-level executives graduated from those same universities.
But this is the first time that widespread abuses have been uncovered in the UK, as British start-ups, buoyed by the positive coverage around “Tech City”, seek to gain competitive advantage over their American rivals.
Of the 40 east-London based start-ups we confidentially surveyed, 22 of whom were venture-funded, we found the drug in regular use (defined as “someone in the team taking the drug at least once a week”) at 21 different companies.
There was a significant bias toward the venture-funded companies, suggesting that as start-ups take funding and begin to scale, the pressures of working in a young company take their toll on founders and employees.
Modafinil is prescribed for the treatment of narcolepsy, excessive sleepiness, sleep apnea and other sleep disorders. Taken in the absence of these conditions, it “helps you focus for exceptionally long periods of time,” as computer programmer John Withers told ABC.
According to a study by academics at Imperial College London, people who took Modafinil without being prescribed it for narcolepsy “performed better in tests of working memory and planning, were less impulsive decision-makers, and were more responsive to changing demands during a task”.
One chief executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told The Kernel: “I take it myself to keep going. The rest of the team goes home at 6 p.m., but I’m often here until 10 p.m. or later and it can be difficult to concentrate for that long.
“I don’t see it as a problem. I only do it once or twice a week, when we have a deadline or a board meeting or something coming up and I want to be super-productive during the day and still have a bit of free time in the evening.
“I don’t offer it to my team as a matter of routine, but people have asked in the past and I have given it out.”
Our investigation uncovered five instances of chief executives or management team members regularly distributing the drug free of charge to their employees.
Unlike their American counterparts, British start-up founders and executives are not sourcing their drugs from over-filled prescriptions for Provigil (as Modafinil is more commonly called in the US), but instead from online pharmacies that source blister packs from India.
Doctors in the UK are far more reticent about prescribing such drugs to young people, whereas the patient choice-centred culture of the American healthcare system means that almost any drug can be obtained, if only you’re prepared to shop around for a willing physician.
That explains why so many founders have ready access to prescription medication. Only yesterday, a start-up executive who flew in from San Francisco announced to me over supper she was woozy because she had “done too much Ambien on the plane”.
And painkillers such as Vicodin, the most commonly prescribed painkiller in the world, are being regularly used recreationally by work hard-play hard types who are reluctant to dive into the world of illegal drugs but who aggressively seek out short cuts to relaxation and euphoric highs to “take the pressure off”.
There’s no telling what damage these ambitious young men and women are doing to their bodies with the new cocktail of chemicals they are regularly sinking, since the long-term effects on the brain of drugs such as Modafinil are yet to be thoroughly researched.
We do know that Modafinil can be addictive. It can cause withdrawal symptoms in users who abruptly stop taking the drug.
But in a globalised information economy, in which European companies are competing not just with Silicon Valley but with the vibrant emerging economies of China, India, Russia and South America, it’s natural that founders should want to seek the advantage.
What’s surprising is that the trend is now firmly taking root in London in an industry more commonly associated with triathlete and marathon-running CEOs than harassed, pill-popping executives.