Pose a simple question to Dave Asprey, the founder of Upgrade Labs and the self-proclaimed father of biohacking, and you may get a complicated answer. Like, how old are you? “I identify as 28 percent old,” declares the smooth-faced and serene Asprey as he perches on a couch in his Santa Monica, California, biohacking studio, puffing on a vape now and then.
Huh? “I’m going to live to be 185. Chronologically I’m 49, but I’m 11 years younger biologically,” he adds to explain, although how that math works out is a mystery. “Our current best is 120. Of course we’re going to do this,” he says about increasing longevity, and he’s not the least bit afraid of living too long in a burning world. “I’m exceptionally excited about it. Let’s just make old people young. We can do it.”
Asprey is well-known in the field of biohacking, a term attributed to him when it was added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2018, he says. His “The Human Upgrade” show is tops on YouTube; he’s the author of four New York Times bestselling books, including “Superhuman.” With Upgrade Labs, the franchise just beginning to roll out, he’s hoping to take the “art and science of improving your biology”—his definition of biohacking—to the masses.
Upgrade Labs is far from alone in an exploding franchise space. Serotonin Centers, for example, is billed as “the nation’s first human longevity franchise” with the aim to “slow down the human biological clock.” QC Kinetix takes “natural biologics” from the customer, which means blood or stem cells, and injects them into those aching baby boomer joints. Restore Hyper Wellness, with more than 130 units in 34 states, offers hyperbaric oxygen therapy and cryotherapy, among others.
In a fast-growing variety of new-age wellness brands, franchised or not, you can get a hormone pill inserted under the skin for a mood booster. An IV drip could rev up your sex life. A weighted sleeping bag can crush your legs and stomach to pump lymphatic fluid into the upper body for detoxing. The introduction of healthy fecal matter into the system can improve gut health, or so the icky story goes.
Does any of it work? The founders of the brands—at least a dozen wellness franchises have popped up in the last few years— and their fast-growing number of franchisees believe so. All are quick to add they are prohibited by the FDA and other agencies in what they can claim.
Why are these services so alluring? Because they promise eternal life? Because our healthcare system is broken? Because traditional Western medicine is unaffordable and doesn’t work? All of the above, devotees might say, about a niche that could be called wacky or wondrous or maybe a little of both.
“It’s been a 20-year journey,” says Dave Asprey about his pathway to health.
Dave Asprey ‘willing to be a guinea pig’
Dave Asprey, the founder of new franchise Upgrade Labs, has tried just about everything to biohack his body for peak performance. He pops 100 pills a day—at one time including vitamins like B12, K1 and D3, plus “smart drugs” like Ciltep and aniracetam to improve cognition—loading them in one hand and tossing them back all at once. “I remember my college days, when we did beer bongs,” he told Men’s Journal. “It’s just like that.”
What’s the weirdest thing he’s tried? Concerned about his digestive system, and as a computer hacker knowing electric currents play a role in any network, “I got a pill from Russia with a battery and two electrodes, and I swallowed it,” he recalls. For two days it moved around, “lighting things up.” Did it work? “I don’t think so but it got stuck by my nerve in my left leg, and the leg was kicking up all the time. I’m willing to be a guinea pig.”
Desperation was his original motivation. “I used to weigh 300 pounds. I had the diseases of aging before I was 30,” he says, such as diabetes and hypertension. “I started running an anti-aging group in the Silicon Valley,” where he worked as a computer wiz.
All the members were in their 60s and older and had five times his energy, he says, so he started interviewing them about their methods. After making Bulletproof Coffee a success—his former company that sold yak-butter coffee, which he discovered on a meditative and climbing retreat in Nepal— he began buying and testing pieces of equipment to use in his home.
“I’ve tried 20 different technologies. It’s like a playground for adults,” he says about his studios in Los Angeles and Victoria, Canada, and he decided he wanted more than elite athletes and astronauts and hedge fund managers to have access. “I want to bring this to the world.”
The regular mantra of “diet and exercise” just wasn’t cutting it, nor was the shame he felt when those methods didn’t work. “When I was 22/23, I’d had three knee surgeries. I’m going to the gym every day. I was sitting at Carl’s Jr. and I ordered chicken salad with no chicken and no dressing,” and meanwhile his friends were wolfing down the big burgers “and they weighed half of what I did. I thought, it’s not me, it’s my body,” he says.
“Turns out all the things I’ve been told about diet and exercise were just not true. Our bodies are elegantly designed to respond to a signal to change. We’re using AI and machine learning to get a very pure signal” sent to your body so it heals faster, or to your brain so your thinking is clearer, or to your skin so it looks smooth.
“So it took us about seven years to build a business around it,” he says, and the new franchise will include machines to address such common health issues as energy levels, brain power, muscle building, recovery and stress and resilience.
Beth Ewen of Franchise Times tries The Big Squeeze at Upgrade Labs.
Take The Big Squeeze, for example, a medical grade compressor that pushes cellular waste from the lower body to the upper where it gets flushed out through the kidneys. Bryan Torrellas, assistant manager at the Santa Monica studio, helps me into an oversized pair of white pajama-type pants and zips me into the compressor, which looks like a sleeping bag with separate legs. The crushing feeling starts at the toes and works up through the abdomen, then down again, like the most intense massage ever.
The Cheat Machine is based on adaptive resistance, Torrellas says, so if you use 50 percent of your maximum ability to push the weights out, it adds 50 percent of resistance on the way back. “It can add up to a week’s worth of lifting in 15 minutes,” he says.
The Cold HIIT uses cold compresses around your thighs and upper arms to mimic the beneficial hormone-boosting effects of a long workout in 20 minutes, he says; after the workout, you lie on a cold bed so the lactic acid in your muscles disperses quickly and evenly to avoid soreness.
When new clients come in, they step on a machine that analyzes the health of each individual cell and prints out the results, which “biohack techs” then use to create a program based on the client’s goals.
Range of investment to start an Upgrade Labs is $663,000 to $1.07 million; unlimited-use memberships in the Santa Monica studio cost $499 a month, but that amount will be lower in the franchise model because not all the equipment in that studio will be in the franchise store. A rendering is not yet available for the new model, which will feature greenery and open spaces, says Ashley Costantino, a recently hired marketing executive for Upgrade Labs.
Three agreements had been signed as of mid-March, in Boise, Idaho; Salt Lake City; and Nashville, Tennessee. Early adopters are fans of Asprey’s “Human Upgrade” and other offerings. “Dave has a big following and people trust what he does,” she says. Costantino was with Xponential Fitness, marketing several of its fitness concepts including Row House and Club Pilates.
Efficiency is the name of the game for Upgrade Labs, Asprey says, because who has the time for the regular way. “What’s the return per minute you spend here?” is the question front and center. “Based on your goal, we create a menu for you to get there the quickest.”
“It’s been a 20-year journey,” from an unhealthy youth to today, which he says was eventually determined to be caused by toxic mold in his household as a child.
At 6-foot-4, “I weigh 220 and I’m around 11, 12 percent body fat. I did all the stuff that was supposed to work back then. Low-fat diet, an hour and a half in the gym six days a week. I’m mad about that. I want that time back,” he says.
Asprey was an avid reader of science fiction in his youth, and notes things in those books are now coming true today. “My grandmother was a nuclear engineer. My grandfather worked on purifying plutonium.” Asprey Labs at Vassar is named for an aunt who worked there, he says; another aunt taught computer science at Stanford.
“I had a computer when I was 8 years old, before DOS,” which is saying something for someone who is 49—or 28 percent old—today. Albuquerque and Roswell, New Mexico, were the cities where he grew up. “I’ve got aliens and radiation in my makeup so that explains everything,” he says with a laugh.
As for other franchises popping up in the wellness space, or even the wide adoption of the term he says he coined—biohacking—in 2011, he’s all for it. “I’m happy to be a curator of awesomeness,” he says.
“A lot of people worry: what if everyone who goes to Upgrade Labs lives 25 years longer?” What will happen, he says people ask. “It’s going to do great things for the world,” creating a group of village elders with peak wisdom to guide the rest of us. “If you live to be 180 you’re not going to throw that bottle in the ocean.”
He broadens the point. “Life on Earth will be here forever.” The question is, will humans be part of it? “It’s up to us to take control of ourselves. It’s my moral responsibility to turn your energy on all the way so you can do what you’re supposed to do.”