The man bringing artificial intelligence to the masses through the viral chatbot ChatGPT wants to revolutionize mental health care and addiction treatment with psychedelic drugs.
Jeeshan Chowdhury, Journey’s CEO, says such drugs are powerful tools, comparing them to performing complex surgeries. “Surgery is done in a safe environment in specialized facilities by highly experienced teams,” he said. “We aim to demonstrate that rehab centers … are the safest place for these interventions.”
Altman’s foray into psychedelics showcases the buzz that the drugs have kindled in Silicon Valley, with venture capitalists betting millions of dollars that such therapies will transform treatment for mental health disorders and drug addiction. Since 2019, the year the Food and Drug Administration approved a variation of ketamine to treat depression, companies developing psychedelic drugs or related services have raised more than $560 million in venture capital, according to data provider PitchBook.
Spravato, a nasal spray derived from ketamine, remains the only psychedelic drug approved for depression, but several candidates have begun or completed late-stage clinical trials. MDMA and psilocybin have obtained “breakthrough” status from the FDA, a designation that expedites development for drugs that show “substantial improvement” over available therapies.
“There’s been a sober reappraisal of what our current treatments are capable of,” said Brian Barnett, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Cleveland Clinic. Citing a lack of innovation in psychiatry and unpleasant side-effects of existing drugs, he said, “that’s what’s led to giving psychedelics another look.”
Classic psychedelic drugs — like psilocybin, mescaline and LSD — can retune brain activity by activating receptors for serotonin, a chemical that plays a role in regulating mood, and leaving the brain more open to different perspectives, research shows. Though their potential as medicine was recognized decades ago, the drugs were also abused recreationally and fell out of favor by 1970, when the Controlled Substances Act criminalized them.
The Drug Enforcement Administration places MDMA and psilocybin, known by their street names “Ecstasy” and “magic” mushrooms, in the most restrictive category of drugs it regulates as having “no currently accepted medical use.” That is despite psychedelics having far less addictive potential than opioids, which are in a less-restrictive class of drugs, according to researchers.
As studies have validated the promise of psychedelics, the regulatory landscape has also begun to shift. Oregon legalized psilocybin in 2020 and is in the process of licensing facilities providing such care, while Colorado passed a ballot measure last year that will allow adults to use psilocybin in licensed facilities starting in 2024. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) proposed legislation last month that would remove regulatory barriers for certain psychedelics used in research.
The new momentum has inspired a proliferation of businesses betting on a psychedelic future — but one that is fraught with risks of raising enough money and convincing regulators to greenlight substances that are still largely illegal to use.
Among the largest players is London-based Compass Pathways PLC, which has adopted the conventional biotech strategy of modifying naturally existing psilocybin into a patentable drug and taking it through clinical trials. The firm, founded in 2020, boasted a stock market value of $2 billion in November 2021, but its shares since have slumped 80 percent.
Small Pharma, a small Canadian start-up that is modifying the psychedelic DMT to treat depression, recently revealed promising results from a study that failed to excite investors. “These results are extremely promising but they had no effect on the share price, zero,” said Jan Hardorp, a founding partner at venture capital firm re.Mind Capital that has invested in the company.
The leader bringing psychedelics to market is, in an unusual turn, a nonprofit called Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies that has raised more than $130 million since its founding in 1986. MAPS, as it’s known, has taken MDMA — a synthetic compound that is off patent — through late-stage clinical trials for treating post-traumatic stress disorder and is preparing to file for approval with the FDA later this year.
MAPS has exclusive rights to the data supporting MDMA, preventing competition from generics for at least five years, and has a for-profit subsidiary to handle the launch if it is approved. Amy Emerson, CEO of the public-benefit subsidiary, said she is focused on making sure that insurers cover the drug, developing billing codes for the therapy and training clinicians to administer it.
“All of those things are a heavy lift,” she said. “How do we make sure that there’s access?”
That same question has vexed Altman, Journey Colab’s chairman and former president of start-up accelerator Y Combinator, where his job was to notice “undervalued technology.” That’s how he first came to studies of MDMA to treat PTSD.
“I remember looking at it thinking, like, ‘That can’t be real, it’s too good,’” he recalled in an interview.
Altman is better-known these days leading a revolution in artificial intelligence, helming the firm that mesmerized and unnerved much of the public with the release of a chatbot that could, at a prompt, churn out humanlike text. But he still sees unrealized potential in psychedelics and eagerly backed Journey’s mission.
“I don’t think anyone has yet figured out” what the business of psychedelic medicine will look like — “how this is going to make economic sense, and how we’re going to guarantee that this will be a good and safe experience for people.” He added, “My hope is that Journey, with this new approach, will figure out something that actually works.”
He is entrusting the details of this to Chowdhury, a Rhodes scholar and physician-turned-entrepreneur, who came to psychedelics through his own mental health struggles and credits it with saving his life. Chowdhury freely acknowledges that he doesn’t yet have a business model, but envisions Journey becoming a specialty service, providing psychedelic care to patients at rehab clinics the way wound-care specialists are contracted by hospitals.
To begin with, he said, Journey is working to partner with firms conducting clinical trials on MDMA and psilocybin to run them at a rehab center near Vail, Colo.
The center, operated by All Points North, markets itself as a luxury destination for rehab, offering high-end services like hyperbaric oxygen therapy and catering to professional athletes. It also has a contract to care for veterans, according to Chief Executive Noah Nordheimer, who said that the clientele ranges from “middle income up.”
Journey Colab has emphasized making psychedelic therapy accessible to marginalized communities — it has reserved 10 percent of its founding equity in a trust to benefit U.S. Indigenous groups — but is first focused on delivering the care with all of the supports available in a facility like All Points North.
Chowdhury explains the strategy by drawing on a Silicon Valley-made analogy. Journey is “building the Tesla Roadster to try and get to the Model 3,” he said, referencing Tesla’s high-end and mass-market electric vehicles, respectively. “We’re starting in an environment where we have the support to be able to do this,” he said, and will “apply that as a model to other centers.”