Zak Williams had long dealt with anxiety. Then, in 2014, his father, the actor Robin Williams, died by suicide, and Zak began battling extreme depressive episodes. Self-medicating with alcohol and cannabis made him feel only more anxious. Prescription drugs, on the other hand, made him "feel numb and not like myself," he says.
He finally found healing when he discovered two things: the power of community service--he taught financial literacy to inmates at a California prison--and supplements containing L-theanine, an amino acid found in tea, and Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a substance the body produces from the amino acid glutamate. "It was like a weight lifted for me," Zak says. "It allowed me to go about my day feeling like my self, clear-headed, and with a sense of focus and presence."
At the time, Zak says, it wasn't easy to find high-quality amino acid supplements, so he and his now-wife, Olivia June, saw a business opportunity. They spent a year of developing their own "mood chew," working with Lena Kwak, a food scientist and the former head of research and development at the famed French Laundry restaurant, and testing it on friends and family. The couple raised $1 million from angel investors to launch their company, PYM. Pym is Zak's middle name and he's fashioned it into an acronym for the startup's tagline, "Prepare Your Mind." The product became available for sale in September, and the company officially launched on October 22. A three pack of the 20-piece tins costs $30 or $27 with a subscription.
The wellness industry has seen a boom in vitamin and dietary supplement companies in recent years. Some of the most well-known startups include vitamin companies Ritual and SmartyPants, adaptogenic herbs-focused companies like Moon Juice and Four Sigmatic, and, of course, Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop, which sells its own line of vitamins and supplements, among operating other lines of business. Established startups like HVMN and Olly have products in their lineups featuring amino acids.
PYM seeks to carve out its own niche by focusing exclusively on such supplements--and by highlighting Zak's own mental health journey. "We want to be the amino acid company," says Zak, noting that the company is working on an extra-strength version of its product. Some studies suggest that boosting your levels of GABA and L-theanine can improve mood, sleep, energy, and your ability to handle stress.
Americans spend more than an estimated $30 billion a year on vitamins and dietary supplements--and Covid-19 has sent demand even higher as consumers seek ways to enhance their immune systems and overall health. At the same time, while the U.S. Food and Drug Administration stipulates that supplement companies must make truthful claims backed by substantiation about their products' health benefits, some argue the bar is low to do so.
When it comes to proving amino acids have health benefits, much more research is needed, according to Carol Haggans, a scientific and health communications consultant who works for the Office of Dietary Supplements within the National Institutes of Health. "It's not clear whether there's a link between protein/amino acids and mental health," Haggans says. "Amino acids are involved with the production of neurotransmitters, but if someone wants to increase their protein or amino acid intake, consuming protein-containing foods is the easiest way to do this."
Zak says PYM wants to take an evidence-based approach to its products. To that end, the company is working with its scientific advisory board--which includes University of California San Francisco professor of neurology and psychiatry Adam Gazzaley and Harvard Medical professor Ronald Kessler--to establish a clinical framework for its first double blind study in December to test the effectiveness of its chews.
The ultimate goal for PYM, whose eight-person team is currently working remotely, is to become a mental-health platform that offers support and education, he says.
"I think my dad would be appreciative of what we're doing, as someone who dealt with high anxiety for most of his life," Zak says. "I would hope he would understand why we're doing what we're doing--to advocate for mental health support and break down stigma at scale."