Could psychedelics and technology solve our mental health crisis?
Could psychedelics and technology solve our mental health crisis?
Words Nick von Christierson
In collaboration with Simon Lovick
November 11th 2021 / 8 min read
Psychedelics have always occupied an awkward position in our society: both at the forefront of our culture and simultaneously thrust into the periphery.
Research into psychedelics dates back to the mid-20th century, when trials into substances like LSD, Ketamine, and MDMA sought to understand their therapeutic benefits for a number of psychological conditions. Yet for every step forward, there were two steps backwards, as governments campaigned to outlaw these drugs. “Just Say No” rang out the popular slogan for the War on Drugs campaign that created a taboo around these substances and those who used them.
We are at a critical turning point. We’re facing up to one of the biggest health crises for decades, and not just the pandemic that’s dominated headlines for the past 18 months but the ballooning mental health crisis that’s taking a grip on society. It’s believed that between 1 in 4 and 1 in 6 adults live with a mental illness. The COVID pandemic has only exacerbated this: the number of adults reporting symptoms of severe depression in the UK in June 2020 was double that of the previous year, while in the US, adults reporting symptoms of depression or anxiety increased from 11% to 41%.
There’s an urgent need for new solutions that go beyond traditional mental health care. The gap widens everyday between the demand for mental health treatment and the reach of existing treatments and clinics. We should be looking towards innovative approaches, combining alternative treatments and technology that can provide long-lasting, holistic care to those undergoing pain or suffering.
Psychedelics, combined with the next trailblazing technology startups, could be a key part of the solution.
Psychedelics: A glossary
Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy (PAT)
Professionally supervised use of psychoactive substances, including ketamine, MDMA, psilocybin, LSD, ibogaine, DMT, and ayahuasca, as part of elaborated psychotherapy programs
Practice of using sub-threshold doses (microdoses), most often of psilocybin or LSD, to improve creativity, boost physical energy level, emotional balance, increase performance on problem-solving tasks, and to treat anxiety, depression and addiction
psychoactive substances that induce alterations in perception, mood, consciousness, cognition, or behaviour, typically used for healing, knowledge, creativity, and spiritual connection. It’s usage by the decriminalisation movement reflects a shift in how we understand the benefits of these plants and substances
the FDA designation given to grant priority review to drugs that initially indicated substantial treatment advantages over existing options
The Psychedelic Renaissance
Albert Hoffmann, the scientist credited with first synthesising lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), described the psychedelic drug as “medicine for the soul”.
Since my mid twenties, I’ve had my own personal journey with altered states of consciousness. It was around eight years ago that I started to study and work with plant medicines and their various traditions. Using and exploring the ceremonies and traditions really impacted my own lifestyle and overall well being. It triggered my awareness around this untapped healing power, and the benefits it could have for so many.
There’s been a societal shift in the understanding and acceptance of psychedelics as a tool for not only healing from illness but also in sustaining wellbeing. This psychedelic renaissance is making waves both in medicine and in wider culture.
Psychedelic-assisted therapies (PATs) are booming across the US. In 2016, the FDA granted ‘breakthrough therapy’ designation to Esketamine nasal spray as a treatment for depression, with over 2000 Ketamine clinics across the US now; the same designation was granted in 2017 to MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, which is now well on its way for approval by the FDA by 2023.
Beyond science, interest in psychedelics for lifestyle reasons has gained momentum. The Decriminalize Nature movement has spread across the US, campaigning for decriminalization and expanded access to entheogenic (psychoactive) plants such as psilocybin (the psychoactive substance in magic mushrooms), peyote, ayahuasca, and mescaline. The practice of microdosing, too, has entered the mainstream.
We’ve seen exciting growth in the startup space around psychedelics. In 2020, MindMed became the first psychedelics pharmaceutical company to go public, now with a market valuation of $1.14 billion. Field Trip is a startup combining both drug development and clinics in the psychedelics space, and to date has raised $20 million. There’s also been a strong emergence of startups applying technology to support and enhance the psychedelic experience, like VR meditation startup Tripp which raised $11 million in a Series A funding round earlier this year.
Psychedelic therapy: a brief history
‘Psychedelic’, meaning ‘mind manifesting’, is coined by scientist Humphrey Osmond during studies into LSD as a therapy for alcoholism and other mental conditions
American banker Gordon Wasson, after taking part in a sacred mushroom healing ceremony led by healer Marina Sabina in Oaxaca, Mexico, records his experience in an essay entitled “Seeking the Magic Mushroom”
Research into treatment broadens, with around 40,000 people receiving a form of LSD therapy for neurosis, schizophrenia, psychopathy, and even autism
President Nixon signs the Controlled Substances Act, which outlaws a number of psychoactive substances including LSD. This plays a key role in the War on Drugs over the next few decades and hinders progress in medical research
American scientist Alexander Shulgin develops a new synthesis method for MDMA and introduces it as a treatment for PTSD
The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is formed in response to the outlawing of MDMA by the DEA. Its aim is to raise awareness and understanding around psychedelics and marijuana
Advances in technology allow scientists to examine the psychopharmacological effects of psychedelics on animals through PET or MRI scanning
Treatments involving Ketamine (for depression) and MDMA (for PTSD) are granted special ‘breakthrough therapy’ designations by the FDA
Mind Medicine, the psychedelics pharma company, launches its IPO on the NEO Exchange, becoming the first company of its kind to go public
Psychedelic drug-developer ATAI Life Sciences raises $225 million, at a $2.6 billion, in a funding round led by Thiel Ventures
How can psychedelics solve the mental health crisis?
The shortcomings of clinical treatment to address mental illness presents a huge market opportunity for psychedelics. 24% of US adults with a mental health condition reported an unmet need for treatment. Nearly 11% of these adults are uninsured. Even when treatment is administered, it’s not necessarily effective: antidepressants only work for 20-to-30% of patients, while those who take them have a 33% higher risk of dying prematurely.
To look at the bigger picture: the global mental health market is valued at $88 billion, with the global antidepressant market valued at $15 billion alone. For this reason, I believe that mental wellbeing is the biggest investment opportunity for the coming decade.
Until now, attention has focused on drug development. But as I’ve learned, from the industry and personal experience, there is no “magic pill”. Sustained healing doesn’t occur over one treatment, but through longer term care across different modalities. Psychedelics can help us, as a society, move away from treatment models of care and towards longer term care and wellbeing, and realise that what happens before and after the treatment is just as important as the treatment itself.
Ecosystem growth is our number one priority. As an industry, we’re stronger together, and to drive forward acceptance and implementation of psychedelic assisted therapies, we need to trigger a wave of innovation and collective growth across a number of areas.
Woven Science, which I co-founded with Giles Hayward, aims to bring investment and innovation to the collective psychedelics community. Our decentralised platform provides access to financial resources, shared services, strategic, operational, as well as legal and regulatory support. We’ve built reciprocity into the model, dedicating 10% of our equity to El Puente—a foundation making grants and investments focusing on capacity building through indigenous owned and directed projects.
We’ve identified four key pillars for development and investment, each of which addresses challenges for a certain stage of the patient journey:
What role can tech founders play in driving change?
There’s a huge opportunity to build ventures that support screening, diagnosis, treatment, care management, and community initiatives around psychedelics. Like the telehealth revolution in recent years, we believe technology holds the key to unlocking PAT for a huge segment of the market, enhancing understanding and access around treatments.
That’s why we’re partnering with Founders Factory to launch the world’s first venture studio and accelerator focused exclusively on mental wellness solutions that enhance the value of psychedelic treatments. This combines our birds-eye view of the psychedelics industry, and Founders Factory’s experience and success in building and growing startups. We’re starting off by focusing on three main areas: supporting clinics and clinicians, democratising access to treatment, and supporting science .
In a nascent industry like psychedelics, a strong ecosystem is everything. The more ventures we’re able to invest in and get off the ground, the more this will feed the industry through interest and further investment.
There’s still a long way to go. The psychedelic ecosystem is burgeoning, but still needs attention and investment to help get it to the stage where it can create real change in people’s lives. But our hope is, at this critical juncture in terms of how we think about health and wellbeing, we can drive forward and implement a new, reliable, and accessible option for healthcare.
About Nick & Woven Science
Nick is CEO and Co-Founder of Woven Science
Woven Science is a Delaware incorporated holding company that builds, backs, and incubates companies poised to drive profitable and scalable mental health outcomes across the entire treatment arc
The Woven Science team and its advisors are professionals from the wellness, finance, biotech, neuroscience, and psychedelic arenas
Nick is originally from South Africa, has a BA from Georgetown University and MSc from Cass Business School
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