Stressed start-up entrepreneurs turn to drugs for help

In a city like Bangalore that plays host to over 6,000 start-ups, performance counts when the difference between success and failure could hinge on a meeting with prospective investors

October 07, 2017 09:02 pm | Updated October 08, 2017 08:40 am IST - Bengaluru

Illustration: Sebastian Francis

Illustration: Sebastian Francis

When he quit his comfortable job with an IT firm in 2016 to launch a start-up with four friends, 30-year-old Raj ( name changed ) braced himself for the challenges ahead. But the Computer Science graduate found the journey tougher than expected: in a city that plays host to over 6,000 start-ups, a place at the top of the food chain is not guaranteed.

Performance counts when the difference between success and failure could hinge on a meeting with prospective angel investors and venture capitalists. Many among Bengaluru’s start-up elite are not averse to taking additional help to get an edge. While caffeine is easily the most abused substance, a few young entrepreneurs are moving to performance enhancers that promise cognitive benefits and improved concentration when it comes to executing complex tasks or putting in longer hours.

This goes by the name of ‘body hacking’. Prescription medicines with agents like modafinil (promotes wakefulness), methylphenidate (to treat attention deficit disorder) and nitrazep- am (for short-term relief from severe, disabling anxiety and insomnia) are popular drugs consumed by ‘achievers’ with shiny resumes and promising careers. The effects of the drugs range from increased attention spans that allow users to put in all-nighters while the competition sleeps to more mundane abilities such as focussing on the task at hand without having to worry about fatigue.

“It gives me a few hours of increased cognition. I get work done much faster,” said Ojas ( name changed ), who founded a big data startup earlier this year.

Users dread crash

However, users dread the crash that comes after the effect of the drugs wear off. Entire pages on online forums are devoted to discussions on where to procure the drugs and which of them have the fewest side effects.

Forced to travel out of the city almost three times a week, Raj has started taking tablets that help him stay calm, and also sleep. “I use a nitrazepam-based tablet, which I can get easily for around ₹50 (the actual price is around ₹20 for 10 tablets). Taken the previous night, before a meeting, I sleep for around eight hours and wake up fresh,” he says.

These drugs are normally prescribed for those with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and even narcolepsy or excessive daytime sleepiness.

Vivek Benegal, associate professor, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), Bengaluru, and a consultant at the NIMHANS Centre of Addiction Medicine, said that while the chances of becoming addicted to performance drugs is low, an abrupt stop can lead to withdrawal symptoms.

“Stopping usage leads to withdrawal symptoms in the opposite direction. These are stimulants, so the person will experience a crash. He or she will start to feel dull, and have zero motivation,” said Dr. Benegal. “It is also possible that persons taking such drugs to enhance cognitive function may be micro-dosing on other drugs like LSD,” he added. Although not many cases come to the clinic, Dr. Benegal estimated that he gets around one case in three months.

( With inputs from Cinthya Anand )

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