Synthesis raises $2.75M to help integrate psychedelics into the healthcare system

Steven Loeb · July 7, 2020 · Short URL:

The company operates a retreat in Amsterdam where medical professionals administer psychedelics

In the last 10 to 15 years, there has been a growing interest among researchers into the potential benefits of psychedelics to treat conditions such as depression and PTSD. These drugs have shown positive effects for patients, taking people who were considered treatment resistant and at times even relieving their problem in just a few sessions, it also brought a lot of media attention as well.

The problem is that those positive outcomes got a lot of media attention, leading regular people also began experimenting with these drugs on their own, without any safety, supervision or protocols. 

"The problem we saw is that, despite all the excitement and chatter and buzz around psychedelics, there was still nowhere that we saw that people could go to have experiences that were similar to what they were reading about in the clinical research. When I say that I mostly mean medically safe, very supportive, using the best practices that were adopted from the research in the 60s, such as how to prepare, how to support people, how to integrate your experience," Myles Katz, co-founder and director of business development at Synthesis, told me. The company provides its clients access to professional, medically-supervised psychedelic experiences.

"People were overwhelmingly going to places that were either illegal or semi-legal or in foreign countries where there really is a lack of standards around safety and medical. These were largely either people experimenting with psychedelics on their own illegally or people going to places in South America, or even all over the US, where there's underground ayahuasca ceremonies, where people are drinking a psychedelic brew from South America in a ritualistic type of setting."

What Synthesis does it helps solve this problem by operating a retreat in Amsterdam for people to come and experiment with psychedelics in a safe and professional setting. On Tuesday, the company announced it raised a $2.75 million round of funding led by Novamind Ventures. In addition, it was also revealed that Yaron Conforti, Chief Executive Officer of Novamind Ventures, has joined the Board of Directors at Synthesis.

This is the company's first funding, though Katz told me that the company is already looking to said its Series A round before the first quarter of 2021.

How Synthesis works

Synthesis allows people who were already going to be experimenting with psychedelic drugs a place to do so safely and in the care of a medical professional. As such, before people come to the retreat, it performs what it calls "comprehensive medical screenings" for all applicants in order to identify any personal health risks. Participants also speak privately one-to-one with a Synthesis team member, where they can describe their intentions, questions, hopes and potential concerns.

Prior to attending the retreat, participants receive information on what to expect, as well as an invitation to their first group preparation call, where they get the opportunity to meet and connect with facilitators and fellow participants. When the participants arrive, they have access to the Synthesis Retreat Team, which consists of experienced professionals who are trained in the best practices used in clinical trials.

The target audience for Synthesis are "people who live in the modern world," mid-to-late stage career professionals "who are reading about these outcomes in psychedelics and becoming very curious, but were not ready to break the law, travel across the world or travel, or travel to a developing countries to try to have to do experiences," said Katz. 

"There’s fully legal access to psilocybin, which is the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, and the same active ingredient that's being used in most of the clinical research around psychedelics, in the Netherlands, where they have a framework that supports the sale of truffles, which for all intents and purposes, have the same effect on you as mushrooms. We use that legal opportunity to set up a world class modern center which we believe is a model for what the psychedelic retreat, or wellness model of the future looks like, and this includes the medical screening," he explained.

"It includes really being in this immersive experience, inside of a multi-day retreat model, where you're getting all the care, all the support, all the physical things you need for this experience before and after and during."

The company uses a group model because that allows participants to have a shared experience, thereby "building a very safe, communal, supportive container to go through these transformations and then support each other once they leave the retreat center as well."

"If you do get deep into what a lot of people believe the psychedelic clinics of the future will look like, it's probably a lot closer to what we're working on in the Netherlands than it is like any clinical trial that's going on today. And that's really because we've come to learn, over the decades, that all these elements combined around a very transformational, safe, psychedelic, experience produce the most transformational outcome and improved well-being," said Katz.

The benefits of psychedelics versus anti-depressants

Synthesis' mission is, in part, to use psychedelics differently than the medical community or clinical world does, in which "they would look at it and say, ‘You have this condition so we can treat that with this psychedelic and give you this outcome of improvement,'" said Katz.

"We want to look at it almost at an inverse way, almost like who can do this safely and who can benefit from this? And then we build ways to support them. So, not only if you're sick, for example, and I feel like a lot of our clients, and even my own personal journey with psychedelics would fall into this."

While clinical researchers often specifically target people with diseases like depression and PTSD, to see how the drugs affect them, Synthesis purposely did not target people with those conditions, simply because the company didn't feel like it would have been able to give those people the help they needed.

"We started with zero tech capital and it was a small group of us, so we really started with who we believed we could support safely. So, from the very beginning, we excluded the people who were diagnosed with things like depression or PTSD, not because we don't believe that they can be helped but because we, as an organization, were not at a place to safely support those people," said Katz.

In addition to using psychedelics in a different way than they are in clinical the trials, the company also wants to move people away from using drugs like antidepressants to relieve their psychological issues; over 10 percent of people in the United States over the age of 10 take antidepressants and, according to Katz, they only work for about a third of people, while another third see no benefit and the final third actually have a negative outcome. 

"Overwhelmingly, when people do say antidepressants are working well, they'll essentially stop people from dipping too low into a depression but, at the same time, they'll blunt people from feeling too well either, from being too high, too excited, too happy. And they overwhelmingly come with a lot of side effects," he explained.

These drugs are chemically altering the brain by regulating serotonin levels as a way to regulate depression; psychedelics, on the other hand, while also changing brain chemistry, are more rooted in using that experience as a way to help people discover the root causes of their behavioral issues. 

"What the world of psychedelic healthcare is looking at, and why it's so groundbreaking, is that it's overwhelmingly not seen that the chemical itself is doing the healing and there's some balance in your brain of chemicals. It's actually the subjective experience that someone has while they're undergoing a psychedelic journey that leads to an insight or a breakthrough emotionally that then allows them to further treat their depression or addiction or whatever this is," said Katz.

For example, someone might come to Synthesis and use the experience to understand how their childhood is affecting their current state of being. If they were only shown affection when they did something good, like get good grades or succeed at sports, they may have developed a pattern from childhood of thinking that performing really well was going to get them love and affection and what they need.

"They can see this journey of how that played out through their life and how they followed this corporate career that maybe gave them money and status and recognition but didn't actually fulfill some really primal needs of acceptance or self care and self love. So, it's these types of perspectives and insights that will come throughout a psychedelic journey that will give someone recognition that they now need to make these changes in their life because they now see where that emptiness is coming from or where that depression is coming from. I think that that's fundamentally that is what's unique about these experiences," said Katz. 

"It's actually an experience, a subjective experience, that can provide a lot of insight into the depths of your subconscious that are otherwise quite hard to access, not impossible but, for most people, quite difficult to access, given all the other things that we have to do and worry about in life. Then it’s what you do with that insight and how you take that insight and turn it into action in your life that can lead to truly long term changes in well being."

Approximately 1,000 people have booked retreats at Synthesis in the last two years, and the company uses four metrics to show improvement: increases in well being, decrease in depressive symptoms, reduction in anxiety and increase in connectedness. A study that the company did with Imperial College London found that, within a four week time frame, participants showed an increase in well being that increased 10 percent above the baseline, a decrease in depression of 42 percent below the baseline; a decrease in anxiety of 14 percent; and an increase in connectedness of around 120 percent.

"It's interesting to note that this is a feeling of connectedness is to the self, to others and even to nature. There's a lot of pioneering research that believes a lot of psychological illnesses, including PTSD and depression, are forms of people feeling disconnected," Katz told me.

"With PTSD, you might be disconnected from a certain traumatic event that you experienced, or if you have depression you might be disconnected from your past, or if you have anxiety you might be disconnected from your future. It’s not as well researched but it is an interesting indicator of something that psychedelics can help bring to people that help them feel more connected and present in the world."

Facilitating a new psychedelic ecosystem

While Synthesis has, until now, resisted using its program to treat those with depression and PTSD, the company will use the new funding to build out capacity for those participants, and plans to have programs for people that have depression later this year. 

"We're developing special protocols with psychiatrists and psychologists and there'll be a lot of extra support than what people see in the primary retreats we've been running for the first 24 months of the business," said Katz.

"We are developing protocols and ways to treat people who are on antidepressants and who are clinically depressed because the need is so great and because, as we've developed our business in the first couple years, we've gotten enough support from the different levels of professional and legal that we needed in the Netherlands to keep expanding upon the initial model that we developed. The next stage is very much to just show what can be done in a more clinical type of environment and show a greater potential for change."

In addition, the company plans to use the funding to take the insights and things it has learned over the last two years and turn them into tools and services that can help other people in the psychedelic ecosystem do their work better and get better outcomes.

That will manifest itself in two ways; the first will be on the consumer education level, where there are a lot of people who are using psychedelics on their own and not getting a lot of very professional support or structure around these experiences. 

"We're going to be launching an educational product for them that is really focused around how to maximize the outcome of your experience by preparing appropriately, understanding what you're going through, and then, afterwards, taking the insights that you gained or your experience and integrating them fully," Katz said.

"this is a product that will not only be useful for people coming to Synthesis, but also people go on to other retreat centers all around the world, people using psychedelics in the underground, which is not necessarily something we condone, but we do believe that this type of education can be a huge piece of harm reduction, when it's quite obvious that people are not waiting for legalization, that they're already going after these experiences because of what they're reading."

The second product educational product will be for practitioners, meaning psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists, as well as "people who may not have traditionally clinical credentials, but are also in wellness and healing," such as people who work in breathwork, yoga, meditation or Reiki. It will be a 12 month program that will include "everything that someone might need to know about psychedelics from the scientific to the traditional to the best practice of how to use them," said Katz.

The other thing that will be unique about this program is that it will include a section in which the practitioners themselves will go through a number of psychedelic journeys in order to experience it for themselves, and therefore be able to better help their patients. 

"That's really unique because what you see is this whole world coming online and becoming engaged in psychedelics and a lot of people in the medical world are becoming interested purely based on the outcomes that they see in the research in the press," Katz said.

"This program we’ll develop will be the only one we're aware of where people can legally go through the full education academic side of it, but also the experience themselves. And that's something that we believe is very important to be able to do the work in the future is to understand what it's like to go through the attorneys and transformation center I've done the work yourself. And so, this program will give an opportunity to do that."

Ultimately, the company's goal is to create a model for people to integrate psychedelics into healthcare and well being "that is not as rigid and limiting as the current medical model is."

"I really believe that the biggest impact that we can have is to create a working model that showcases that, and that includes working up to the highest level of medical safety standards and best practices and having the highest level of support, even though there's absolutely no accreditation body in psychedelics right now at all," said Katz.

"In a very simplified way, what we're working on in the Netherlands, and the protocols we'll develop and the data that we’ll produce and the training programs that we develop, these will be, we believe,y quite important to help a larger community of practitioners and jurisdictions and patients as well get the most out of these experiences." 

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