At some point in your 20s, the reality of drinking will finally hit you. Following a night of whiskey-soaked debauchery, you will wake up, hungover; feeling disoriented and with a throbbing pain between your temples. The hangover is so real to so many that it is ingrained in our culture. Americans, specifically, have come up with a myriad of rituals surrounding it: eating greasy breakfast sandwiches, chugging Pedialyte, and taking “hair-of-the-dog” shots.
But 28-year old entrepreneur Sisun Lee wants to eliminate hangovers altogether with a 100ml bottle. Misleadingly named Morning Recovery, the beverage is meant to be consumed after a night of partying and not the day afterward. Having worked as a product manager for Facebook and Tesla, Lee is applying a Silicon Valley ethos to both his drink and the Los Angeles based-company umbrella research company, 82 Labs (soon to be More Labs). And with momentum from both investors and consumers, Lee plans to venture into solving other everyday issues like stress, insomnia, and fatigue in 2019.
For now, Morning Recovery provides an interesting case study on how Silicon Valley philosophies are creeping into our nightlife. Lee peppers his speech with buzzwords like “productivity” and “pattern recognition” that could have come from the mouth of any hoodie-wearing founder giving a TED talk. The entrepreneur has lofty ambitions too, claiming that his product could transform drinking culture and eventually join the ranks of corner store heavyweights like Red Bull and 5-hour Energy.
Such a grandiose vision for 82 Labs came by accident. The entrepreneur never had an elaborate plan or even a particular interest in drinking culture. In the autumn of 2016, he visited his native city of Seoul, South Korea to reconnect with family and friends, and spent his nights partying and his mornings paying for it in bed. South Korea has a notorious drinking culture that ranks the highest in the world in liquor consumption. At their liquor stores, they have bottled elixirs mitigating alcohol’s debilitating side effects. Lee was recommended one of these remedies, tried it, and then was pleased to see that it worked.
“It was a fun experiment, this doctor gives you a white powder—let’s get drunk!”
When Lee returned to the U.S., he went back to having brutal hangovers and remembered the Korean drink. After ordering it online and giving it out to friends, he began researching the product more thoroughly. It turned out that these remedies contain Hovenia, an East Asian herb that allegedly treats a range of conditions from hangovers to liver disease. Lee says that much of East Asian medicine is clouded with an unscientific mystique that conceptualizes treatments merely on a “plant level.” His father used to boil Hovenia leaves to detoxify his liver and the earliest Chinese encyclopedia of medicine—dating back to the year 659 C.E—referenced the herb as a hangover cure. But was there any science backing it up or was it just another placebo passed down by generations?
Lee looked into the components of the plant. DHM, the chemical extract of Hovenia, minimizes alcohol’s impact by helping the liver break it down. From scavenging the internet, he discovered that UCLA researcher Dr. Jing Liang and a team of scientists had conducted a study into DHM back in 2012. The Tesla product manager contacted her to learn more and during their first meeting in Los Angeles, Liang gave Lee a ziplock bag of DHM powder. Lee and his friends tested out quantities during nights out, simply mix it into a cup of water after partying. He recalls, “It was a fun experiment, this doctor gives you a white powder—let’s get drunk!” After Liang sent him more DHM powder, he teamed up with an Uber designer and created a website promoting “The Hangover Drink.”
Coming from the world of tech, he had to reconcile that his customers weren’t merely drawn to efficiency and results. Understandably, they were wary of a powder that looked like cocaine, so Lee linked up with co-packers to create beverage prototypes with flavoring and proper packaging. In the summer of 2017, he started an Indiegogo to crowdfund the costs of increasing production. Aiming for $60,000 as a goal, the fundraising drive ended up raising an astounding $251,905 and proved to Lee that there was enough demand to quit Tesla and start his own company.
The young company has had $8 million in revenue, $9.5 million in total investment, and has expanded its team to 19 people in two years. Part of this success, Lee claims, is that he embraced a tech model to production. Typically, beverages go through months of testing before hitting the market. Morning Recovery applied the “ship fast, learn, and iterate” philosophy that’s prevalent amongst software launches. Now on Version 2, the product has gone through 20 iterations. Though the beverage has been successful, he acknowledges that it’s been handicapped by the realities of how hangovers work. Morning Recovery allegedly helps your body break down toxins in your liver. It’s not meant to make you feel better after your alcohol blood level is at zero—its purpose is fundamentally preemptive.
Despite having scientists like Dr. Jiang on board and funding a team of University of Southern California researchers to further investigate hangovers, the product lacks FDA approval and is merely considered a dietary supplement. But that might not even matter. The entrepreneur says there’s a giant market potential; he cites a study which found that the American economy lost $249 billion dollars because of the consequences to “excessive drinking” as evidence that there’s a massive “problem space.” According to him, Morning Recovery is cheaper and more scientifically sound than the numerous other foods and drinks people consume to combat hangovers. The future of Morning Recovery rests upon the public’s willingness to swap a late-night burrito for an esoteric elixir.
The day after meeting with Lee, I tested the drink myself at Red Lion Tavern—a Los Angeles Biergarten famous for its beer boots. After chugging a 1-liter boot and chasing it with even more beer, I downed a Morning Recovery. It had a peculiar taste that was reminiscent of Snapple’s peach-flavored iced tea. But this beverage is more about results than taste: I woke up the next day feeling unscathed from all the beer. Normally, I would need a couple of Advils and a Gatorade to even answer a text. With Morning Recovery, I was able to have the kind of “productive” day Lee waxed poetic about. Was it all a placebo? Perhaps.
After conquering drinking culture, 82 Labs plans on commercializing Nootropics that improve cognitive abilities to increase productivity. Much like Soylent—a drink Lee referenced as an influence—82 Labs conceives of humans on mechanical terms. The slogan is “do more,” alluding to all the things you could get done if you weren’t hopelessly lying in bed or devouring a caloric brunch with a friend. Morning Recovery’s success suggests that Silicon Valley philosophies have started to infect our nightlife. Maybe we shouldn’t be eating greasy meals after downing alcohol. And sure, absolutely no one enjoys being hungover. But when carrying around this strange, tiny bottle all night, I was more focused on what I was going to accomplish the next day than simply enjoying the moment. I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic for a time when you could have the perfect excuse to do less.