An imagined tale of how Silicon Valley, looking for its next edge, fell for a parasiteJuly 25, 2018
This week, a study in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B found that university students who had been infected with Toxoplasma gondii — a mind-controlling parasite found in cat feces — were more likely to be business majors. “Toxoplasma, found in cat feces, makes mice unafraid of cats, and it could give people the courage to start their own businesses,” said NBC News. (Later, the article said the researchers “haven’t actually shown that” in reference to the links to business.) After raw water, nootropics, and other Bay Area trends, I imagined what it would be like when toxo took the Valley.
“Sure, it hurts a little,” says Shane Dutton, pulling up the sleeve of his white button-up. “It’s a shot. What do you expect? But pain is weakness leaving the body.” He winces as the doctor injects his arm. “Or in this case, fear leaving the body. Or whatever that saying is.”
The doctor puts a Band-Aid on Dutton’s arm. All done. He gets off the exam table, and we walk back to the waiting room. “I’m telling you, man,” he says, “these shots. It’s like a complete 360 from a year ago.” He probably means “a complete 180,” I point out, but Dutton ignores this. “Business is better,” he says. “Things are going well with my girlfriend, my body fat is down to under 10 percent again.”
Three years ago, when his third consecutive startup failed, Dutton, then 23, felt lost. It was expected that his first startup — “Uber for pizza, except it delivers a slice to you at any location, even if you’re just standing on the street” — wouldn’t work, but he was grateful for the experience of fundraising and building a team. When his next idea, a sort of MoviePass competitor, didn’t take off, he could feel himself losing his nerve. Then, he tried to “put dating on the blockchain,” an endeavor he won’t even talk about.
“You’re supposed to fail early and often, but I had failed early, and I had failed often. But when was I going to succeed?” he says, over lunch at the Old Siam in Sunnyvale. Then, his friend told him about the Nine Lives Clinic and its experimental therapy, Toxo™. That treatment, he says, changed everything.
A decade ago, the Toxoplasma gondii parasite was most famous for making rats desire their own sweet deaths. Infected rats lose their innate terror of cats and instead become attracted to cat urine. Infected cats become lethargic and weak, but the parasite can pass through their bodies and into their feces, living in the litter box, where it can spread to humans and make them neurotic. And, suggested one key paper, it could make humans more entrepreneurial and less afraid of failure. Like liquid courage for the startup set, but longer-lasting. The paper wasn’t replicated. The results might not apply. Even the paper authors noted that Toxoplasma in humans is associated with car accidents, mental illness, and drug abuse. But in Silicon Valley, where seemingly the bare minimum is being a boy genius in a hoodie staying up for 100-hour hackathons, an edge is an edge.
Dutton went for his first Toxo™ shot as soon as his friend told him about Nine Lives. “I didn’t notice anything at first. But just a few weeks later, I felt so energized,” he says over yellow curry. Hs new startup that sells raw water just went through a successful Series A funding round. “I reached out to Kim Kardashian about advertising with us on Insta, and she said yes, and we saw our sales spike. Holy hell,” he says. “I would never have reached out to her before.”
Dutton goes back for the shots — $10,000 a pop — every six months. “I owe everything to Toxo™,” he says, his hand trembling as he spoons the curry in his mouth.
The Nine Lives Clinic looks like any doctor’s office, except instead of the usual waiting room reading material of Reader’s Digest and Oprah Magazine, there’s Inc. and Entrepreneur. Business has been booming, CEO Justin Casey — a 40-year-old man who’s wearing the gray fleece vest and chinos that have become the Valley uniform — tells me. The number of clients has doubled — at least! — every month since Nine Lives was founded six months ago. New Toxo™ clients have to be waitlisted; the clinic simply cannot accommodate the wild demand. “To be honest,” Casey tells me. “I think the talk of the startup bubble popping has been driving our growth.”
The real action is not at the clinic but at the laboratory a few miles away where the cats are raised. It’s storming the day I stop by the cat lab, and it was eerie to come in from the rain into a room with rows and rows of cats in cages, most of them yowling.
“Most of these are stray cats,” chief scientist Noah Garfield tells me. “We get them from the local pound and give them a good home.” Nine Lives employs 10 research assistants who are responsible for taking the cats in and out of the cages each day and making sure they’re fed with Fancy Feast. They truly love the cats here, everyone tells me. The cats all have personalities. They all have individual names, mostly after local companies. A fat gray-and-black one is named Uber. A smaller tabby is named Lyft. An ancient and evil-looking one is named Google. A lethargic but somehow furious one, Twitter.
Garfield leads me down the hall to a shut door with a “HAZARDOUS MATERIALS” sign on it. Peeking through the window in the door, I see an enormous, wall-to-wall litter box. A research assistant — who is decked out head-to-toe in hazmat gear — walks past, opens the door, and wades into the sand. Twice a day, Garfield tells me, the assistants go in and dig through the litter, collect the feces into buckets, and analyze all of them for signs of Toxoplasma gondii. Then, they extract the parasite, put it in fluid, and send the fluid over to the clinic for injection.
This enterprise, in case you were wondering, has not been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. “Technically, we’re not treating a medical issue, so we don’t need approval,” says Casey, the CEO. “Toxo™ is classified more like vitamins and supplements, so we’re under different regulatory rules.”
Back at the cat lab, Garfield leads me away from the litter room to another area that holds the vials, which are all full of a translucent, amber-colored liquid. A different research assistant walks by holding three plastic buckets of cat feces. The smell is strong.
“So, are all of you who work here infected with Toxoplasma?” I ask Garfield.
Not all of them, he says, “though we all should be.” Garfield was once an executive assistant at a Valley startup, a “glorified secretary who hated the work and felt depressed.” He heard about Nine Lives through his cousin, one of Casey’s business partners, and was the first person to get the treatment.
“I’ll never forget the day after I got my first Toxo™ shot,” he says. During one of their regular AM staff meetings, he stood up, told everyone that they were wasting their lives working for “the man” and walked out. The next six months were dark: Garfield tried his hand at founding startups, but both closed. He kept going for treatment. Then, his cousin asked if he wanted to be chief scientist at Nine Lives.
“In another life — my life before — I would have been too scared,” Garfield says. “I don’t have an advanced degree in biology or anything. My degree is in English. I would have been too afraid of failure to take a ‘chief scientist’ job.” But Toxo™ gave him the push he needed.
After lunch, Dutton and I wander around the strip mall. He has a slightly manic look and gets visibly angry when I ask if he’s worried about the health consequences of the shots. “Look, I think a lot of nutrition science is crap,” he says. “It’s faked or paid for by the companies. I mean, did you see those stories about Big Pasta? We can’t trust it, we have to do our own research and solutions. For me, that means raw water, paleo, and Soylent sometimes if I’m having stomach problems.”
He’s shouting now. “My body is my temple,” he says. “But I think one thing people get wrong is focusing too much on the body. What about mental health? Toxo™ is for the temple of my brain.” He takes another swig of his raw water and walks away. That evening, Nine Lives announces that next month, they’ll partner with Google to provide injections as a staff benefit.