The biggest company in the psychedelic market is Compass Pathways. It has a billion-dollar valuation on the stock market, and is set to be the 800-pound gorilla in the psychedelic jungle. It’s using its money to do a large-scale test of magic mushroom therapy for depression, and to train up a large cadre of psychedelic therapists.

It is funded by a fund called ATAI Life Sciences, which is run by an investor called Christian Angermayer, who is an interesting fellow (check out this interview). He has statues of various roman emperors in his home, as well as a statue of Demeter, goddess of the ancient mystery rite of Eleusis. He also invests in life-extension companies. ATAI has raised several hundred million dollars in investment from people like Peter Thiel, who also invested in Paypal, Facebook ,and a military / intelligence company called Palantir. They’re both gay German libertarian billionaires who invest in psychedelics and radical life extension…Probably just them in that particular club.

What has caused consternation in the psychedelic field is that Compass has filed a patent application for its business model, which includes a patent of a type of psilocybin, and of the basic model of psychedelic therapy — ie you take the pill, lie down, listen to music etc.

This article by the great Vice journalist Shayla Love explores some of the concerns about this apparent land-grab. It’s not the only aggressive patent claim in the space, by the way — companies are rushing to try and patent other drugs like DMT.

Yesterday, Tim Ferriss, the podcaster and investor, who has invested several million dollars into psychedelic research, expressed concern about this in a tweet. He wrote:

“I am very concerned by the patent land grab warming up in the for-profit psychedelic world. Is anyone working on an IP Defense Fund — or coalition of pro-bono lawyers — of some type to file USPTO objections/comments, etc. when companies attempt to secure broad patents that could hinder scientific research, reasonable competition (i.e., for “scale” and wide accessibility, we need competition to help drive costs down), and so on? Who are the smartest people thinking about this?
cc @michaelpollan, @Drug_Researcher, @RickDoblin, @RCarhartHarris

Rick Doblin, founder of MAPS (a leading psychedelic research and therapy organisation), replied saying MAPS ‘has recently engaged patent attorneys to assist in strengthening our anti-patent strategy for uses of MDMA, and to prepare easily accessible information for patent examiners so patents will not be issued in the first place.’.

At that point, Christian Angermeyer weighed in: He tweeted:

‘Tim, I am a HUGE fan of your work, but on this topic your are incredibly misguided. You’ve donated a few million dollars to the cause — that’s great and I applaud you for that, but it’s a drop in the ocean relative to what’s needed. ATAI and Compass have raised close to $650,000,0000 for this cause….This is the level of resource, talent and commitment required to finally change things and it’s been made possible by having a viable business model. If these companies succeed, hundred of millions of people who are currently suffering stand to benefit, and because the drugs will likely be approved as medical drugs, there is a significant probabilitly that insurance will cover it.’

Ferriss replied with a blog-post today, in which he challenged Angermayer to let scientists publicly reveal their agreements and work with Compass, and also to answer his concerns on patents. He writes:

Do you think a monopoly/duopoly of any type (Compass or ATAI or otherwise), patents on basic elements of the psychedelic experience, or patents covering dozens of possible conditions that might be treatable (some of which are being treated/researched at universities) would be good for the ecosystem, for innovation, or for ensuring affordable pricing?

For-profit ventures have a critical role to play in the expansion of psychedelic medicine, but for-profit ventures don’t get a free pass. They can also cause harm, and they often do. There will be compelling temptations to make unethical decisions, pursue unfair anti-competitive practices (e.g., patenting “inventions” that aren’t inventions), generate revenue without adding value (e.g., IP trolling), charge as much as possible (e.g., NYT — “Drug Goes From $13.50 a Tablet to $750, Overnight“), and treat the psychedelic landscape as a winner-take-all or zero-sum game. “Disruption” can be white hat or black hat; “scaling” can be done with net-gain or net-loss to an ecosystem.

There are bad actors and mercenaries in every industry. But here’s the part that people forget: even if the founders of a company rival Mother Theresa in their moral character and strength, that isn’t enough. Leadership changes, incentives change, power dynamics change, and all situations change (Suggested reading: We Will Call It Pala). That’s why both internal guardrails and external watchdogs are important. Once again, even the purest of intentions can warp when they collide with the harsh realities of business. I’ve seen it.

It will be interesting to see how the debate develops. I’ve also seen scientists who work for Compass write journal articles attacking competitors who run psychedelic retreat centres. I wonder if they will get such a bad name for themselves that no one will use them. Then again, maybe there won’t be any competitors left!

The problem at the moment is the large-scale trials to prove the efficacy of psychedelic therapy are being paid for by the company that wants to patent and monopolize the business. You see the problem there? It creates an incentive to hide any adverse effects or negative results (this is exactly what big pharma companies did with anti-depressants). And it forces the field in one direction, rather than letting alternative approaches develop as well, such as retreat centres, or psychedelic churches, or other models of psychedelic therapy.

In effect, and I may be wrong here, it seems to me Angermeyer is trying to create ONE privatized religion. He’s trying to own Eleusis. I don’t think this is going to work out well…because I don’t think the gods are going to smile on such hubris. I think there is something sacred in psychedelics, something spiritual and powerful — and attempts to monopolize it are bad for your soul and will backfire.

But I am not close to the action — I am more than happy to discuss the topic with Angermayer if he feels I have mischaracterized his position. I should add that I sometimes do talks for Synthesis, a Dutch psychedelic retreat centre, and for The Psychedelic Society, both of which could be seen as competitors / alternative providers to Compass…so I should declare that interest.

Author of Philosophy for Life and other books. Honorary fellow, Centre for the History of the Emotions. www.philosophyforlife.org.

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