Before he launched Ārepa, founder and CEO Angus Brown experienced two life events that influenced his future. In high school, Brown lost a close personal friend who had mental health issues. After he graduated from the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand with a degree in commerce, accounting and finance, Brown got a job with Japanese drinks company Frucor Suntory, maker and distributor of the ‘V’ energy drink brand in New Zealand. In his first year working for the company, Brown lost two grandparents to brain-related illnesses. Soon after, he had an epiphany. The biohacker who wants to become cyborg to be more perfect “I remember being in a store and watching a very young girl walking out with a giant can of energy drink and I asked myself: ‘What am I doing?’” said Brown. “Selling caffeine and sugar to the masses … I realised I was adding no benefit.” The idea for Ārepa came from this. It is a caffeine-free, natural drink that Brown and his team have been developing for nearly a decade. Brown likes to call his product “brain food” but it would more typically be categorised as a nootropic – any drug, supplement or substance that claims to boost cognitive function and energy. According to a United Nations report, one in six people suffer from neurological concerns – which could be anything from epilepsy to a headache to dementia – making it the number one cause of disability worldwide. The global nootropics market is projected to reach more than US$5 billion by 2026, and the Covid-19 pandemic and poor mental health are increasing demand. Nootropics have gained significant traction over the last four years as they transition from pill form to more welcoming, consumer-focused products like drinks. Many brands have popped up, and some are winning celebrity endorsement. Brown supplies his products to people in all walks of life, from the Google offices in Sydney and Auckland, to the set of the new Thor movie (which was recently shot in Australia), and the locker rooms of the New Zealand All Blacks national rugby team . He believes that one day, brands like his could sponsor and endorse public events such as music festivals and inspire people to indulge in a mentally stimulating substance as opposed to a depressant like alcohol. Ārepa has three patented formulas that use ingredients such as blackcurrant, pine bark extract and L-theanine, three substances that are said to help with mental function. There are very few non-prescription substances with established evidence supporting their ability to improve cognitive performance Associate professor Michael Bowen is sceptical of the drinks The company’s mission: to develop a science-backed natural formula that can optimise brain function on a day-to-day basis while reducing the risk of future neuro-disorders. Currently, Ārepa is sold worldwide, including in Asia and Hong Kong, where it can be found at zero-waste grocer Slowood in Sai Wan. The industry is attracting some big names. That includes international model Bella Hadid, who is now a co-founder of New York-based nootropic drinks brand Kin Euphorics. “[ Bella] actually found us!” said Jen Batchelor, the CEO and founder. “She is very passionate and genuine about sharing her challenges with mental health with the world, and more importantly, the tools that have helped her live a vibrant, healthy, happy life.” Batchelor markets Kin Euphorics as a substitute for alcoholic beverages. Its nootropic products offer a way to relax, unwind and socialise while also having something that may improve your brain functioning. “We learned early in our research that the common thread between drinkers of all walks was that they a) drank to relax and b) loathed the dreaded hangover, so we set out to solve for both, only better.” What does reaction to a Bella Hadid post on IG say about celebrity worship? Batchelor says that nootropics have been used in high doses for professional performance for years. Her company’s method is to raise people’s awareness of nootropics – and to make them a bit more personal. “We found that with a more approachable dose, [nootropic drinks] could be enjoyed in social situations to enhance presence, joy, creativity, and empathy – which is way more than what alcohol can deliver in a night.” A nootropics bar recently opened in the Standard Hotel in London’s King’s Cross area. Its cocktails feature ingredients from reishi mushrooms to ashwagandha , designed to improve cognitive function and mental well-being. It sounds smart, but Michael Bowen, an associate professor and team leader at the Brain and Mind Centre at the University of Sydney, says these products should be taken with a grain of salt . “There are very few non-prescription substances with established evidence supporting their ability to improve cognitive performance,” said Bowen. “One substance that does have support is caffeine .” “But it’s important to note that caffeine’s effects are generally mild and involve its ability to cause small increases in wakefulness and alertness.” Aerial yoga at 75, Pilates and diving too – he’s ageing well As a psychopharmacologist and behavioural neuroscientist with more than 13 years of experience, Bowen is not convinced of nootropics’ purported benefits. “There’s insufficient evidence to say whether any drug helps prevent cognitive decline in healthy individuals,” said Bowen. “The best advice for healthy brain ageing is to keep your mind active , exercise , get enough sleep , stay on top of any vascular risks [like high blood pressure] and maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle.” Like what you read? Follow SCMP Lifestyle on Facebook , Twitter and Instagram . You can also sign up for our eNewsletter here .