As the benefits of psychedelic therapy are more widely recognised, so is the importance of set and setting in mental health treatment. Now emerging technologies from AI-powered soundscapes to immersive, digital experiences are seeking to improve them. While the psychedelic field awaits regulation and destigmatisation, do new technologies promote access and help develop the psychedelic therapy field, or are they merely exacerbating inequity amidst a patent war?
It’s an exciting time for psychedelics: Pioneering studies have sparked renewed interest in the therapeutic potential of psychedelic substances, such as those led by psychedelic researcher Robin Carhart-Harris which suggested that we might one day be able to replace antidepressants with psilocybin, particularly benefiting those who are resistant to current treatment.
But while patience for regulation and public funding is low, private psychedelic practitioners and researchers have been taking matters into their own hands: Last year, biotechnology company AWAKN acquired exclusive rights to MDMA research, not long after opening the UK’s first ketamine-assisted psychotherapy clinic in Bristol.
Recent news announced that Europe will see its first commercial facility for psychedelic drug trials open in London, with Tom McDonald, CEO at start-up Clerkenwell Health, saying that he hopes to place the UK at the forefront of clinical trials for groundbreaking mental health treatment post-Brexit.
Companies like Field Trip also recognised this opportunity early on: “The path that got us into psychedelics and starting Field Trip was that we had been very active in the Canadian medical cannabis industry,” Ronan Levy, co-founder of the health and wellbeing company tells me.
After learning about research indicating that psychedelic substances could revolutionise mental health, and hearing about investors such as Peter Thiel’s interest in psilocybin, they decided to sell the company and pivot towards psychedelic therapy instead.
“People were saying that a single psilocybin assisted therapy experience is the equivalent of 10 years of therapy in an afternoon. Having done about 10 years of therapy at that point, I thought that if there’s any degree of truth to this, this could be world changing.”
“The other thing that we became aware of was that at least in Canada, there were a number of online stores openly selling psilocybin mushrooms; not on the dark web, it was just right there. At that moment, I realised that the world-Zeitgeist had already changed, and that psychedelics were becoming part of our culture. From a business perspective, we wanted to try to get ahead of that curve before the rest of the world woke up to that possibility.”
And with that, Field Trip was born.
As people are seeking to capitalise on this emerging field and scrambling for patents in an industry estimated to have a value of $10.75 billion by 2027 in the US alone, it’s no surprise that tech companies want a slice of the pie too. This is despite the fact that researchers themselves admit that current studies of for example psilocybin treatment for mental health still suffer too many limitations to prove their clinical utility.
Field Trip itself offers a free app called Trip, which serves as a psychedelic guide for users of a variety of plant medicines, be that ayahuasca, mushrooms or LSD, but also those using meditation and breathwork as therapeutic modalities.
Besides this, they also work with Wavepaths: a tech start-up working with musicians such as Jon Hopkins to create music for their AI-powered musical instrument, which they say adapts to the needs of the patient and therapist, as research suggests that music can support people during their trip, and even help them achieve a ‘mystical experience’. Wavepaths thereby blends neuroscience and music to help psychedelic practitioners to improve the set and setting of a patient and enhance their therapy.
They’re by no means alone: So-called digital therapeutics are becoming increasingly popular. Tech start-ups such as Entheo Digital, which create immersive, digital experiences for psychedelic therapy, and MindCure’s iSTRYM technology built to “optimise the healing journey for both patients and clinicians”, attract increasingly more attention from investors. According to Psychedelic Stock Watch, psychedelic drug development, mental health treatment clinics, and digital therapeutics should all be on the radar for those interested in profit-making opportunities in the psychedelics industry.
Unsurprisingly, where there is profit, there is a hunger to monopolise on the ways AI and other technologies support psychedelic treatment. MagicMed Industries Inc, which partners with companies to develop psychedelic medicine and goods, filed patent applications for nine drug categories, which would cover 125 million individual molecules designed using AI. Last year, MindMed also acquired HealthMode, an AI-powered digital therapeutics firm.
They then partnered with BioXcel Therapeutics for an International Patent Application for a system to identify so-called “agitation episodes”, used for early detections and preventions of clinical symptoms and conditions. MindMed’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Daniel R. Karlin hailed this as an opportunity to merge machine learning, digital medicine and pharmaceutical compounds.
“I know there’s a big online conversation between Rick Doblin, Christian Angermeyer and Tim Ferriss on the question of patents. I think Rick Doblin found the perfect compromise: If you’ve developed something that’s truly new and innovative, you should be able to reap the rewards from your innovation, but not trying to claim IP [intellectual property] protection over something that’s not new and innovative,” Levy tells me.
“In Field Trip, we’re focused on developing patents, but for technologies that are new and different and innovative and create value. If it doesn’t, then we don’t seek IP around it. To still ensure access, there’s about three paths happening right now: There’s decriminalisation, legalisation, and then there’s regulatory approval as a medicine. Truthfully, I’m of the view that all three should be pursued.”
Levy shares Rick Doblin’s view that efforts to create new medicines should be pursued in conjunction with drug policy reform. When it comes to emerging psychedelic therapies, treatment should be enabled in a medical context which is overseen and supervised by a healthcare professional.
“What’s really nice about a medicalised system is that there should be insurance reimbursement. I know the UK has the National Health Service, in Canada, the Canada Health Act and nationalised health care, and the US is the only remaining bastion of totally private health care. But enabling that system to provide these therapies is wonderful, because it will make it the most accessible for people who genuinely need it.”
“However, I don’t want others who might not be prescribed psychedelics to treat disease to be excluded from that model. I genuinely believe that access to psychedelic therapies can really enhance humanity, make us more grounded, make us more self aware, make us more conscious and empathetic and creative.”
Some argue that technologies might be one way to scale up psychedelic therapy treatment, produce new research, and ultimately provide access for more people – especially as integrated technologies are developing models that can potentially drive forward a space that is still jumping through bureaucratic and political hoops. As AWAKN CEO Anthony Tennyson told Filter back in 2020, while treatments (which privately cost up to several thousands of pounds) should be available to all, psychedelic tools are forced to operate privately while waiting to “win over the NHS”, echoing the words of MDMA, ketamine and psilocybin therapist Dr. Ben Sessa:
“I’m not waiting around another 10 years for the NHS to pull its finger out and decide whether or not it’s going to fund these safe, cost effective and vital treatments.”
Besides awaiting funding and public support, proper integration and preparatory work for psychedelic treatment is costly. Some argue that digital therapeutics might help alleviate some of the costs by helping monitor and assess patients, and support them through longer integration processes. One example is technology and mental wellness platform NUE Life Health Inc., which raised $23 million to scale its platform for at-home ketamine therapy with music and data capturing which promises to measure improvements over time.
While many seem to welcome new innovations in the psychedelic space, there remains cause for concern. For as long as innovation and research are privately funded, private companies are able to gatekeep knowledge and tools that could benefit the health and wellbeing of the public good, rather than corporate profit agendas.
One only has to look at companies like COMPASS trying to patent administering psilocybin in a room with muted colours and a high-resolution sound system, in other words, trying to monopolise on a therapeutic method that has not only been practised by people for years underground, but would only make it harder for the majority of therapists to offer treatment, thereby decreasing access. Speaking of accessibility, digital psychedelic therapy programmes aren’t cheap: A monthly subscription for one of the aforementioned Nue Life’s programs are priced at a whopping $1,250 ($208 per ketamine treatment) and a four-month subscription costs $2,750 ($153 per ketamine treatment).
In the meantime, bodies trying to act as watchdogs have started to crop up, including Freedom to Operate: a non-profit challenging what they deem flawed psychedelic patent claims, founded by Carey Turnbull in 2021 who’s been following and funding psychedelic research for over a decade. Wavepaths also operates on the moral imperative that any profit made through their services should be circulated back into communities, particularly those of musicians.
Artists who contribute to Wavepath’s technology currently get paid royalties, and receive digital tokens which increase in value as the company grows. Furthermore, their website grants free access to their online community of practitioners and psychedelic guides, community for listeners, some of which include paid plans as well, and shares research and other resources available to all. This showcases at least one of the ways in which new tech start-ups are able to set more equitable precedents for operating in the psychedelic tech space.
At best, digital platforms and apps could destigmatise the idea of psychedelic practices and teaching, push them further into the mainstream, and thereby help psychedelic research gain more public support. However, if we fail to recognise the tension between the communal ethics of psychedelics and tech companies’ motivation to commercialise psychedelics for their own profit – regardless of how well-meaning their practice might be – we run the risk of letting for-profit organisations dictate what research and progress is pushed forward in the psychedelic field, and ultimately, who gets to benefit from their rewards.