Investors Are Debating Who Should Own the Future of Psychedelics

Since podcast host and author Tim Ferriss, an influential player in the psychedelics space, tweeted his concerns about psychedelic patents earlier this month, there has been public debate among leading voices in the field about the perils and merits of patenting psychedelic compounds and psychedelic-assisted therapies. In the past week, Ferriss and psychedelics investor Christian Angermayer published open letters that dug into the nuts and bolts of whether psychedelics should—or even must—be patented. It’s a seemingly arcane debate with something very clear at stake: The future of psychedelic therapies that show real promise in the treatment of conditions from depression to addiction.

Ferriss has been a vocal supporter of psychedelic therapy research on his platforms, and has invested millions of his own money while organizing financial commitments to the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research and Imperial College London. Angermayer helped fund mental health company Compass Pathways and co-founded ATAI Life Sciences, and initially responded to Ferriss’ concerns by tweeting, “Tim I am [a] HUGE fan of your work, but on this topic you are incredibly misguided,” along with a statement.

This prompted Ferriss to respond with a blog post in which he posed several questions to Angermayer about psychedelic IP, making clear that he hopes Compass and ATAI will “succeed in helping many millions of people.” One question was: “Would you be willing to allow scientists who have signed deals with Compass or ATAI to share their agreements publicly (i.e., waive confidentiality clauses)? I believe that would quell some of the concerns among psychedelic advocates. If not, why not?”

Another was, “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…would be good for the ecosystem, for innovation, or for ensuring affordable pricing?”

Anyone interested in psychedelics should pay close attention to these questions. Who gets patents and for what will shape what psychedelic medicine looks like in the future— who distributes it, how much it costs, and, therefore, who has access to it.

It’s an interesting turning point for the psychedelic community. After decades of fighting for its legitimacy, the field is flooded with new companies that want to take part. And while every promising pharmaceutical drug contends with intellectual property, profit, ownership, and patent law, the conflict between the ethos that often accompanies psychedelic experiences (as well as a deep-rooted belief in its ability to help people) and the imperatives of capitalism has produced lengthy deliberations of whether psychedelic medicine can and should operate differently.

This brings us to Angermayer’s response to Ferriss’ blog post, which was posted on LinkedIn yesterday and is wide-ranging and worth reading in full for thoughts on the purpose behind patents and for-profit companies, the complications of bringing psychedelic therapy to market, and his views on why psychedelic therapy IP can co-exist with indigenous or shamanistic psychedelic use. (For example, he wrote that while one common counterargument against psychedelic patents is that shamans have been using them for thousands of years, “this argument from my point of view regularly comes from a place of entitlement and privilege.”) Angermayer also points out that this patent debate “does not feature prominently within other areas of medical research.”

Who gets patents and for what will shape what psychedelic medicine looks like in the future— who distributes it, how much it costs, and, therefore, who has access to it.

Though Angermayer addresses the adjacent concern that companies will “come knocking on somebody’s door to confiscate homegrown plants” (they won’t), all of the back and forth boils down to this: Is an aggressive patent strategy necessary to bring psychedelics to market, considering that it’s the way biotech has always done things? Will or won’t such a strategy create meaningful limits on how other companies, scientists, or the general population interact with psychedelic medicine?

Angermayer wrote, in many different ways, about why he thinks patents are the way forward, and how they won’t directly lead to limitations for others. He described how “different companies and players may develop their own versions of the off-patent and/or naturally occurring compounds and their own therapeutic regimens and patent or not patent their innovations as they choose. That’s the nature of free enterprise, free market and free choice.”

In response to Ferriss’ question about monopolies, Angermayer wrote, “If a monopoly/duopoly emerged, it suggests that all the other would-be competitors had failed with their own creative and entrepreneurial endeavours. Then it would be a sign of quality and constitutional reward. In that case, you should not blame them, but blame the rest, who then clearly would have not done a good job.”

But in an March 8 email shared with Motherboard by a source who wanted to remain anonymous, Angermayer expressed a different sentiment. The email was sent to a group of investors and a select few others in the psychedelic space, and outlined updates on companies Angermayer is involved in.

In bullet points regarding Compass Pathways, Angermayer wrote: “I also expect a starting differentiation between solid players in the psychedelics space—to be honest I really just see ATAI and Compass—and copycats. Most of these copycats miss one important thing: patents. Many psychedelic companies out there will never be able to bring a product to market, as they will hit the patents of Compass and Atai.”

Screen Shot 2021-03-09 at 11.21.25 AM.png

Screenshot from Christian Angermayer’s March 8 email sent to investors and others in the psychedelic field.

Here, Angermayer explicitly wrote that other companies will “never” be able to bring their products to market because of Compass’ patent strategy. Yet in his public response to Ferriss’ question about increasing prices, he wrote that the best way to avoid such increases was competition.

In response to questions about this statement, Angermayer told Motherboard that he does not see a discrepancy between what he wrote on LinkedIn and in the email. “I do not see the contradiction,” he said. “I welcome legitimate competition, which is competition that develops their own versions of the off-patent and/or naturally occurring compounds and their own therapeutic regimens. Or does any other novel stuff.”

He also added that, “What I do observe, and this is why I indeed mainly just see ATAI and Compass and very few other legit players at the moment, is many copycats with dubious business plans and no IP strategy. So the word ‘copycats’ I use in my email from early March directly points to companies not doing their own ways. And if you look at funds raised, the market is actually already casting its (early) vote. And of course if others are not able to find their own novel ways but would merely violate existing patents, my portfolio companies would have to protect their rights.”

The background story here is crucial to understanding why special scrutiny is being placed on this conversation—specifically regarding Compass Pathways’ actions and intent. Compass received ire for its transition from a non-profit to for-profit company; in a 2018 article for Quartz, Olivia Goldhill interviewed psychedelics experts who believed that Compass was setting itself up to be a gatekeeper to the psilocybin compound.

Compass’ already-granted patent—for its formulation of synthetic psilocybin—was contentious; it was challenged multiple times by Carey Turnbull, a board member of Usona Institute and the nonprofit Heffter Research Institute. Compass has also had controversial investors, like venture capitalist Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal.

Compass’ current international patent applications have attracted attention for including rudimentary elements of psychedelic-assisted therapy, like eye shades, holding hands, or listening to music. Its international applications also include claims for a wide variety of conditions outside of just depression, like neurocognitive disorders, chronic pain, reducing inflammation, anxiety disorders, like OCD, headache disorders, and eating disorders.

As patent lawyer Graham Pechenik previously told Motherboard, claims in patent applications are rarely granted as is, but Compass filing so many broad claims has raised eyebrows at what the goal is. Is it to raise revenue to conduct research and bring psychedelics to the public, or to gain ownership over large swaths of the field and prevent others from entering it? While Angermayer’s public response to Ferriss suggests that any “legitimate” competition won’t be stifled as a direct result of a company like Compass’ patent strategy, his private email to his investors could easily be read otherwise.

Patent lawyer David Casimir previously told Motherboard that filing broad patent applications is a common tactic—even including claims that companies know aren’t patentable. But it can lead to bad patents, Casimir said. “If the patent office doesn’t do a good job, then they’ll say, ‘Okay, you can have this broad claim.’”

A broadly granted patent could potentially give a company to have ownership over how a drug is prescribed and used legally. When and if psilocybin is approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it could be accompanied by a Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy, or REMS. A REMS outlines therapeutic processes or require doctors prescribing them to have undergone a particular training. If a granted patent echoes elements of the REMS, then anyone wanting to use this therapy would have to license whatever is in the patent from the patent holder.

And patents can have an effect even if a company with a granted patent doesn’t seek to stop anyone else from using their invention: It can drive investors to pick certain companies over others, and keep competition at bay by the directing of funds into the hands of the organization who holds the most IP.

Lars Wilde, one of the three co-founders of Compass, told VICE in 2020 that Compass’ patents were not intended to prevent other people from making psilocybin. “The question has been raised many times, whether we would stop researchers from doing research and [the answer is] absolutely not,” Wilde told VICE.

Angermayer’s email suggests, though, that one of the results of its patents would be to hinder others from bringing a psychedelic product to market. In his response to a request for comment, Angermayer said that’s not necessarily the case. “Just to emphasize, there will be more companies than ATAI and Compass, already just because I financed some more, which we will announce soon,” he said. “So there are other good companies out there indeed, but most of them in stealth doing exactly what healthy competition is all about: exploring their own ways and niches.”

On Monday night, Rick Doblin, the founder and executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), tweeted a lengthy response to Angermayer acknowledging that “easier access to capital is a key advantage of for-profit psychedelic drug development over non-profit drug development reliant on philanthropy,” but disagreeing with the notion that patents are “essential” to moving the field forward. He originally responded to Ferriss’ tweet saying that MAPS was engaging with patent attorneys to strengthen its anti-patent strategy for MDMA.

Doblin described how the FDA can offer “exclusivity” for the drug development of substances that are not patentable, which is different from patents because it doesn’t block others from marketing the same drug at the same time, on their own dollar. His statement said he thought that new inventions, like molecules similar to known psychedelics, were appropriate to seek patents for—but he pushed back against the notion that there were viable patents to be found in psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy.

“There is prior art regarding psychedelic assisted psychotherapy from the 1950s and 1960s and onwards, so for-profit companies will not be able to patent the core methods of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy,” he wrote. “Attempts to patent therapeutic methods invented by others are doomed to fail, reputationally terrible, and capitalism gone rouge.”

In Angermayer’s LinkedIn post, he addressed the common concern about the intersection of psychedelics and capitalism. “Some others use the patent discussion to express their discomfort with capitalism itself,” he wrote. “I personally believe that capitalism—though it has its flaws—is by far the best economic system tried to date and that many, especially young people who flirt with socialism at the moment forget the destruction, pain and death socialism has brought for hundreds of millions of people over the years.”

Doblin’s response concluded that, “To the extent that ATAI and Compass seek to profit from blocking others through patents on processes or therapeutic methods that they didn’t invent, they will fail and will squander their potential to be a force for healing and profit.”

In Ferriss’ blog post, he wrote that he wasn’t anti-profit—he’s an investor himself. Similarly, most if not all psychedelic researchers intimately understand that it takes a lot of money to do quality research, conduct clinical trials, and bring a drug to the masses, let alone train therapists to administer that drug properly.

This continuing dialogue around patents seems to be more so about what IP is ultimately for: Is it meant to fund work work, or to prevent others from doing the same and making a profit at the expense of access? Public conversations like these, as well as the granting and consequences of patents in the future, will help to hone in on the answer.

“Compass and other for-profit companies have the potential to do a ton of good in the world,” Ferriss wrote in his blog post. “I also think that the nature and incentives of capitalism can breed strategies that are very bad for innovation, and we need individuals, groups, and third-party organizations to watch for them and mitigate them..In the end, the people who would most suffer as a result of the possible problems I’ve outlined are the millions of people who most need psychedelic medicine.”

Follow Shayla Love on Twitter.

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