Carey Turnbull Wears Many Hats as a Donor and Investor
Carey Turnbull will soon turn 71. Unlike most folks that age, he’s not slowing down. On the contrary, Turnbull works more than full time, he says, leading two psychedelic science companies, B. More and Ceruvia Lifesciences, and a nonprofit, Freedom to Operate, all of which he founded after leaving the corporate world. He has become one of the most influential people in psychedelics.
He did not come to the field as a novice. On stage at the recent Horizons conference in New York City, Turnbull acknowledged the lasting impact of his youthful encounter with LSD more than fifty years ago as “one of the most astonishing experiences of my life.”
As a philanthropist, Turnbull has donated about $20 million, by his own account, to support research into psychedelics. That makes him one of the biggest donors, if not the biggest, to universities and scientists studying psychedelics.
Turnbull has also played a large role in helping to shape the research agenda for psychedelics. He is president of the Heffter Research Institute and a board member of the Usona Institute, both of which invest in research into psychedelic therapies. Freedom to Operate challenges what it believes to be improper and overly broad patent claims around psychedelics.
His startups are growing fast and they are poised to raise more capital. B.More, which for now is a nonprofit, plans to offer shares to investors to finance its clinical research into the use of psilocybin to treat alcohol use disorder. Ceruvia Lifesciences, a for-profit, is exploring the use of psychedelic medicines as a treatment for severe headaches and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
In the corporate world, where Turnbull spent 25 years, the buzzword for this approach is synergy – the idea that aligning these ventures will create more value than keeping them apart. B. More grew out of pioneering research that Turnbull funded at New York University, while Ceruvia is building on the clinical studies that he supported at Yale. Had Freedom to Operate succeeded in overturning psilocybin-related patents filed by Compass Pathways, one beneficiary could have been Usona, which, like Compass, is seeking to treat depression with psilocybin-assisted therapy.
As a result of all this, Turnbull and his wife Claudia, who have been married for more than 40 years, have become psychedelics’ premiere power couple. Claudia has a special interest in how so-called healthy normal people can benefit from psychedelics. She guided religious professionals in a clinical trial funded by the Turnbulls at the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research.
“What happens when you can offer someone an experience of awe?” she asks. “How does that change your life?”
Their friends are confident that they will use their power wisely. “I have the utmost respect for them, and believe in their integrity to the fullest degree.” says Cody Swift, a philanthropist who has worked closely with the Turnbulls and sits on the B.More board.
Others aren’t as certain. Turnbull has repeatedly clashed with Compass Pathways over its patents. He’s also a defendant in a lawsuit alleging that he conspired to steal intellectual property from a co-founder of MindMed, one of the largest public companies developing psychedelic-assisted therapies. Even his friends say he is strong-willed.
“Carey can be stubborn,” says a scientist who admires him and has worked with him for years. Some critics, who ask not to be identified, grumble that he has helped raise money for academic research and is now using the findings to enrich his companies.
In a fledgling sector at a moment of contraction where companies and organizations are scrambling for funding, vesting so much influence in one person carries risk. Turnbull can shape what research is done, who does it and where, which patents are challenged and which nonprofits will be favored with his gifts.
His impact could be felt for decades. The work of B.More and Ceruvia could alleviate the suffering of thousands, if not millions, of people. Already, clinical trials funded by Turnbull at prestigious medical schools, including Johns Hopkins, NYU and Yale, have moved psychedelic medicines closer to mainstream acceptance.
“This is a careful science being done at top universities,” Turnbull says. “They have an imprimatur that will impress the outside world.”
A Child of the Sixties
Turnbull did not attend a top university. He earned a liberal arts degree at Goddard College, a small, experimental school in Vermont, whose alumni include Trey Anastasio, the lead guitarist of the rock band Phish, and the actor William Macy. Later, Turnbull served as a Goddard trustee.
“I’m a child of the sixties,” he says, and yes, he smoked, he inhaled and he ingested mind-altering drugs. “Where I went to college, LSD was washing down the walls of the dorm.”
The Turnbulls, who met at Goddard, shared an interest in the workings of the mind. They studied Transcendental Meditation, an ancient practice that was revived and popularized by the Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
This was not a passing phase. The couple taught meditation and eventually moved to Fairfield, Iowa, where followers of the Maharishi had built a university and an intentional community. Claudia went on to earn a masters degree in consciousness studies from Goddard and Carey often traveled in south Asia.
“Not unlike Ram Dass and the Beatles, I went off to India,” he says. “I had an intention to be a monk for a while.”
Instead, Turnbull became a reluctant capitalist. After Claudia gave birth to their son, a friend wangled an entry-level job for him on Wall Street. He found not only that he liked business, but that he was good at it. He helped start Amerex, an energy-market brokerage firm, and North American Power, a retailer of electricity and natural gas. As his career wound down, he had no particular plan for how to spend the rest of his life. “I began to have a dark night of the soul,” he says.
His interest in psychedelics was rekindled when he came across the landmark 2006 study on psilocybin and mystical experiences led by Roland Griffiths at Hopkins. That led him to Stephen Ross, a NYU psychiatrist who was starting a clinical trial to see whether psilocybin-assisted therapy could ease anxiety and depression in patients with life-threatening cancer.
Turnbull made a small donation to support the work. “I was surprised to see my couple of thousand bucks was significant,” he says. He gave another $50,000, after which Ross introduced him to people at Heffter and he was off and running. That NYU study of cancer patients inspired Michael Pollan’s 2015 New Yorker article, The Trip Treatment, and was featured in How to Change Your Mind, his book and Netflix TV series.
Through Heffter, Turnbull met Michael Bogenshutz, a Harvard-trained psychiatrist and addiction specialist who is now the director of the NYU Langone Center for Psychedelic Medicine. Bogenshutz had run a pilot study with 10 people to explore the treatment of alcohol use disorder with psilocybin and psychotherapy and now needed money for a larger, double-blind, randomized clinical trial. More than 140,000 people die from excessive alcohol use in the U.S. each year, according to the CDC.
The Turnbulls contributed most of the $3 million cost for the clinical trial and helped raise the rest, at a time when neither federal nor corporate funding for psychedelic science was available. “Their support was absolutely essential,” Bogenshutz says.
Last summer, Bogenschutz and colleagues, writing in JAMA Psychiatry, reported that two doses of psilocybin paired with therapy produced “robust and sustained decreases in drinking” among formerly heavy drinkers. “These experiences seem to have the effect of loosening up deeply ingrained patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviors,” Bogenschutz says. Unlike other treatments, psilocybin seems to work by addressing the root causes of addiction. “These drugs promote neuroplasticity,” says Bogenschutz.
A Need for More Capital
The Turnbulls were so excited by the findings that they started B. More. The company is named after Claudia Turnbull’s brother, Brett Moore, who died of a drug overdose 50 years ago. Bogenschutz is preparing to lead the next set of clinical trials, which begin next year at 15 sites, including NYU, Harvard, Yale and Johns Hopkins.
A similar story has unfolded at Yale Medical School where research into the use of psilocybin to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and headaches has been patented and licensed to Ceruvia, the for-profit startup founded by Turnbull in 2017. Five faculty members at the medical school have signed on as scientific advisors to Ceruvia.
Little of their work has been published, but the early findings have generated excitement. Chris Pittenger, director of the Yale OCD Research Clinic, says: : “We have seen some patients with really remarkable responses. As a psychiatrist….that really gets me excited.”
Interestingly, exposure to psilocybin has helped patients with OCD even when the psilocybin was not accompanied by structured psychotherapy. This could make the treatment easier and less expensive to roll out. “It has somehow recalibrated what’s meaningful and important to people,” Pittenger says. But, he adds that it’s much too soon to draw any sweeping conclusions from a few small studies.
Turnbull tells Lucid News that to move forward, Ceruvia and B. More will need to raise more capital. Ceruvia has hired a financial advisor to raise a new round of investment. B.More, which has collected about $25 million in donations, will give up its nonprofit status and sell shares as well.
“Our venture philanthropy has succeeded,” Turnbull explains, by demonstrating that B.More has the potential to become a successful business. Opening up the company to investors, he says, will make it easier to raise the large sums required to bring psilocybin to market. Charitable donations won’t suffice.
“It’s high time—no pun intended—to begin to attract investment capital,” Turnbull says.
He’s not alone in this view. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Science (MAPS), the best-established nonprofit in the sector, has created a fund that offers an opportunity to invest in its MAPS Public Benefit Corporation because it hasn’t been able to raise sufficient donor dollars to commercialize it’s MDMA-assisted therapy.
As financial pressures mount on psychedelic startups, the industry is unlikely to become kinder and gentler. Already, Turnbull and Ceruvia are defendants in a lawsuit brought by Scott Freeman, the former chief medical officer of MindMed, who accuses them of conspiring with MindMed’s former CEO, Stephen Hurst, to transfer valuable intellectual property from MindMed to Ceruvia on terms unfavorable to MindMed. Citing the lawsuit, Turnbull denies wrongdoing, saying the lawsuit brought by “a disgruntled former employee” is of no great consequence.
For his part, Turnbull has accused Compass Pathways, the industry’s most valuable company, of seeking to stifle competition by patenting its formulation of synthetic psilocybin. At a cost of about $1 million, Freedom to Operate hired lawyers, chemists and crystallographers to make the case that Compass’s form of psilocybin isn’t new.
While Compass’s patent was upheld, Turnbull says the patent challenge was worth it and that he is continuing to challenge other Compass patents. Freedom to Operate’s researchers published a peer-reviewed paper that, he says, will make it easier for rivals to ignore Compass’s patent. “I believe the patent is unenforceable,” he says.
Others disagree. Graham Pechenik, a patent attorney with Calyx Law, says the challenge left Compass in a stronger position. “Compass got exactly what it asked for,” he says.
The patent battle drew attention to Turnbull’s multiple roles. In a document filed with the Patent Trial and Appeal Board, Compass says that Usona, which is also seeking FDA approval for the use of psilocybin, should have been named an interested party to the dispute. Compass pointed out that Turnbull is a board member of Usona; that Bill Linton, who leads Usona, donated to Freedom to Operate; and that Freedom to Operate relied on help from Usona to challenge the patent.
One sign of the overlap is that Turnbull, Freedom to Operate, Ceruvia, B.More and even Heffter have all shared the same post office box at a UPS Store on East Putnam Avenue in Greenwich, CT.
Turnbull denies that self-interest drove the challenge to Compass. He simply wanted to prevent Compass from becoming the world’s exclusive supplier of psilocybin, he says: “It was out of concern for the human race, not Usona.” He lamented at the Horizons conference that the patent battles are taking much of the fun out of his work on psychedelics, and costing a lot of money. “Our bank account is getting smaller and smaller,” he says.
Nevertheless, the Turnbulls remain active philanthropists. Claudia is organizing a small group of donors who will commit at least $1 million each to endow a professorship in wellbeing and spirituality at Hopkins named after Roland Griffiths, whose research has laid the groundwork for so much that has followed. Griffiths recently disclosed that he has been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer that has largely been unresponsive to treatment. In a video address at this month’s Horizons conference, Griffiths encouraged researchers in the field to keep pressing forward. It was his work, of course, that reawakened Turnbull’s interest in psychedelics and all that followed.