Embracing a vertical business model to support an ambitious expansion, Field Trip Psychedelics is collaborating with a Jamaican university to investigate psilocybin producing mushrooms for new therapies offered by the company’s mental health centers and other treatment providers.
The Field Trip drug development division Field Trip Discovery announced last year that it was partnering with the University of West Indies (UWI), Mona campus, in Jamaica to build a research and cultivation facility to study novel plant-based molecules with therapeutic value. The research center, called Field Trip Blue, has since created a genetic library and is developing new methods to extract, formulate, and analyse the more than 180 species of psilocybin producing mushrooms.
Field Trip, which is based in Toronto and initially called Field Trip Ventures, says UWI is making leading mycology, biology and chemistry researchers available to support these investigations. The project is owned by the company’s Jamaican subsidiary, Field Trip Natural Products.
The UWI research team is led by Rupika Delgoda, Professor of Biochemical Pharmacology & Pharmacognosy and Director of the UWI Natural Products Institute. “We, the scientists at the University of the West Indies at Mona are excited for the partnership with Field Trip Ventures,” said Delgoda in a statement. “It’s a unique relationship that offers a collaborative partnership with a private company, of a nature that has not been found too frequently in our Faculty of Science and Technology.”
Delgoda says studies have shown that when paired with psychotherapy, psilocybin can be an effective treatment for depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions. She says the new facility will allow researchers to produce well-characterized extracts and develop novel therapies where existing pharmacological options are failing.
Field Trip co-founder Ronan Levy says the Covid-19 pandemic has increased the need for effective therapies that can address the fear, anxiety, and anger that many people are struggling to address. “The result is that the demand for mental health support has already increased significantly,” says Levy. “But we are only starting to see the tip of the iceberg.”
Despite the challenges presented by the pandemic, Levy says the partnership with UWI is moving forward. Scientists are working in a temporary location on the UWI campus while the Field Trip research and cultivation facility is being built on land leased by the university. “We have compiled an impressive genetic library, have completed our first harvests and are working on domesticating a number of previously undomesticated psilocybin producing mushrooms,” says Levy.
New compounds and therapies developed by scientists at the UWI facility will be used at Field Trip health centers across North America developed through the company’s Field Trip Health subsidiary. Levy, who is executive director of Field Trip Health, says the clinics will initially offer ketamine-assisted therapy. The centers will eventually provide psychotherapy paired with psilocybin and other psychedelic substances as they became legal for therapeutic use, says Levy.
Field Trip is presently providing ketamine-assisted psychotherapy to patients at its first health center in Toronto which opened in March. Levy says the company had planned to open a second health center in New York City this month. Pandemic-related construction delays postponed the opening which Levy says will hopefully happen in July. According to Levy, Field Trip plans to open a third health center in Los Angeles in July and hopes to have 5-7 clinics throughout North America before the end of the year.
Field Trip, which calls itself a mental wellness company focused on psychedelics and psychedelic-enhanced psychotherapy, says its clinics will initially only treat people with a clinical mental health diagnosis. But Levy says the company plans to eventually expand its services to people seeking emotional support and psychospiritual exploration. He says the protocols used in the Field Trip health centers are developed by the company’s chief clinical officer, its medical director, and lead psychologist with input from other professionals in the field.
In April, Field Trip announced the launch of a virtual therapy service which offers psychedelic breathing and integration therapy to open deeper emotions. The service also provides COVID Coping Therapy which follows a conventional therapy format to help patients manage stress. These services are now being offered in Ontario where Levy says there has been strong interest from patients who report good experiences. He says therapies will likely be available in New York and California when Field Trip clinics in those states open. Both services offer virtual sessions with licensed therapists and are available free to medical workers on the front lines of the pandemic.
Lessons From The Cannabis Industry
Despite the challenges presented by an uncertain economy, Field Trip is expanding its business with money in the bank. The company announced February 6 that it closed an oversubscribed Series A round of financing which raised $8.5 million. Funding was led by Field Trip founders and the Singhal Health Foundation. Other notable backers include Subversive Capital, Silver Spike Capital, the venture capital firm Bolt, and investors Harris Fricker and Ben Greenfield.
Levy says Field Trip has not raised additional capital, but interest among potential investors continues to be strong. The company, which was founded in April 2019, has 20 employees. According to Levy, Field Trip’s initial financing is earmarked to fund construction of the Jamaican research facility. In addition to investigating psilocybin producing mushrooms, the center will also examine ketamine and other molecules that enhance the psychotherapy process, says Levy.
Four of the five co-founders of Field Trip are applying insights gained as entrepreneurs in the medical cannabis industry. Levy, together with Field Trip co-founders Joseph del Moral, Hannan Fleiman, and Dr. Ryan Yermus, founded two Canada-based sister companies, Canadian Cannabis Clinics (CCC) and CanvasRX. CCC operates cannabis-specialized medical clinics and CanvasRX is a platform that provides patients with information about licensed producers and strains of cannabis.
According to Levy, CanvasRX and CCC served more than 100,000 Canadians through the country’s medical cannabis system. When CanvasRX was sold to Aurora Cannabis Inc in 2016, Levy served for two years as Senior Vice President, Business and Corporate Affairs for Aurora. Together with del Moral and Fleiman, Levy then launched the Toronto-based Grassfed Ventures investment fund and incubator which generated Field Trip.
In an October 2019 interview with Jay Martin, CEO of Cambridge House, Levy said that as he and his business partners sold off their cannabis companies and wound down their work with Aurora, they saw that the pipeline for new medications to treat mental health conditions was drying up and decided to transition to psychedelic-assisted therapies.
Levy explained to Martin that the success of the cannabis companies he co-founded was based largely on positive relationships with the medical community which supported the therapeutic use of cannabis. Levy says Field Trip intends to take the same approach and replicate it for psychedelics. According to Levy, Field Trip is seeking to develop operating procedures and protocols for large scale mushroom cultivation that meets analytical testing requirements so it can avoid the scaling challenges that emerged in the cannabis industry.
A significant difference between the cannabis and psychedelic model, is that unlike the dispensary approach where cannabis is purchased to use at home, Field Trip is building its business based on the belief that psychedelics need to be administered in a controlled setting by licensed medical professionals and not self-titrated.
Jamaica Offers Promising Environment for Research
Jamaica is emerging as an optimal location to study psychedelic substances, specifically psilocybin. Psilocybin producing mushrooms have never been illegal to sell, possess, transport, or cultivate in Jamaica. Levy says that with the backing of UWI and the Jamaican government, the Field Trip research center is the first legal facility in the world dedicated to researching and cultivating psilocybin-producing mushrooms for novel strains, formulations and molecules.
“Psilocybin mushrooms are an amazing gift from Mother Nature, with secondary metabolites of poignant biological activity,” says Professor Delgoda in her statement. “This venture aims to gain insight into the expressions of a range of such metabolites, known and also perhaps novel, found within hundreds of species, in order to garner knowledge on growth conditions that are optimal. Along such a journey, we also hope to establish analytical methods for their detections that can pave the way for setting standards for safety and efficacy.”
The legal status of psilocybin producing mushrooms in Jamaica allows for broader clinical research and regulatory approvals to work with organic psilocybin as opposed to synthesized psilocybin. Levy says this legal environment offers a more rapid path for researchers to potentially seek licensing in Canada or FDA approval in the U.S.
“Although psilocybin, as a molecule, has been well-studied, there is great opportunity to create impact by developing a better understanding of the fungi that produce psilocybin and other tryptamines,” Field Trip President Mujeeb Jafferi, who is also a company co-founder, told the Green Market Report. “This is why we are so pleased to be partnering with UWI, a leading global academic institution, in building this facility in Jamaica.”
Levy believes that most of the psilocybin research to date has focused on synthetic psilocybin because it’s easier for scientists to see a cause and effect. He says the UWI research will focus on how psilocybin, and its precursor molecule psilocin, affects humans. Levy notes that there is a growing awareness of other molecules present in psilocybin producing mushrooms and their relationship to therapeutic outcomes. This phenomenon is known as the entourage effect. Field Trip and other research groups are examining how these complex interactions take place.
“There are other molecules in psilocybin producing mushrooms and we are exploring the molecular receptors,” says Levy. “Our focus will be the clinical outcomes that will determine what kind of work will impact new therapies. We want to explore all the molecular interplay.”
Levy says emerging academic research confirms the entourage effect. He points to an article published in the January edition of Chemistry that confirms the existence of Monoamine Oxidases and B-Carboline in psilocybin producing mushrooms. He says both of these substances modulate the receptor binding of psilocybin in the brain.
Whether this leads to different clinical outcomes is still to be determined, says Levy. But he believes that these data confirm chemically and biologically that consuming psilocybin-producing fungi generates a different effect than ingesting a synthetic form of psilocybin.
Field Trip says it is building relationships with organizations investigating psychedelic-assisted therapies and hopes to support clinical trials led by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), the Usona Institute, and Compass Pathways. According to Levy, Field Trip has been in conversations with MAPS about becoming an expanded access site for MDMA-assisted psychotherapy in the U.S., but not in Canada.
Levy says the only formal agreement in place presently is with MAPS to conduct a clinical trial looking at MDMA for anorexia next year, as well as smaller initiatives with MAPS Canada to support their administrative and planning activities. He says Field Trip has built its business strategy on trying to be as collaborative as possible with nonprofits, academics and other for-profit companies.
In his interview with Martin, Levy said that Field Trip would be sharing its research with partners and publishing its studies for public review. Levy added, however, that as a for profit business, the company also had to focus on shareholder returns. “We are a very conscientious operator, we are not profits above all and we believe in open science to some degree,” says Levy. “But we also have shareholders to worry about. So we will disclose what we think advances that dialog, but ensures that our intellectual property is sufficiently protected.”
Partnerships are emerging as an important strategy for companies and other organizations seeking to develop psychedelic therapies. Field Trip says it sought a partnership with UWI because its scientists were well positioned to support new discoveries and the university has a reputation in academic communities as a forward-thinking research and education center.
Professor Michael Taylor, Dean of the UWI Faculty of Science and Technology, said in a statement released by Field Trip that the partnership with the company is expanding the capacity and scientific skill set of university students and faculty. Taylor says the agreement also advances the university’s intention to support innovation and economic development in Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean.
“With the presence of Field Trip on campus, we look forward to the emanation of new research projects with graduate student and Faculty involvement with mutually beneficial outcomes,” says Professor Degoda in her statement. She adds that the project will engage faculty in the fields of natural product chemistry, pharmacology, biochemistry, psychology and other disciplines. “We hope that the joint journey will be positive for both partners, as well as for the vast numbers of consumers that stand to benefit from reliable, standardized, safe and efficacious end-products that it will yield.”
Creating an Ethical Framework to Assess Decisions
While Field Trip sees blue sky opportunities for research investigating new psychedelic-assisted therapies, the company is also considering ethical questions that are becoming increasingly central to the industry. Balancing shareholder returns, intellectual property questions, and the publication of research results are all considerations that other companies and organizations in the psychedelic space are addressing. These conversations will likely accelerate in light of recent movements towards decriminalization of psilocybin in Colorado and California.
Intellectual property claims have been controversial for Compass Pathways which has been challenged for allegedly failing to acknowledge prior research. Levy says he does not see Field Trip seeking patents that may engage the company in intellectual property (IP) disputes. He says researchers have plenty of room to explore the mycology of psilocybin producing mushrooms
“I don’t see overlapping positions on IP issues,” says Levy. “In the future it is theoretically possible, but presently our view is that through research and discovery, IP will be developed without issues. So far it’s a very collaborative and supportive industry and there is more than enough opportunity right now to be successful without stepping on each other’s toes.”
Sanjay Singhal, Founder of the Singhal Health Foundation which contributed to Field Trip’s funding round, notes in a statement released by the company that addressing the global mental health crisis requires collaboration between nonprofit, for-profit and academic organizations. Singhal says he was attracted to working with Field Trip because of the team’s track record and their commitment to ethical and thoughtful business practices.
Field Trip amended its Articles of Incorporation to reflect its commitment to Triple Bottom Line (TBL) operations which it describes as “people, planet and profit.” This approach, which has been adapted by other companies, requires organizations to assess and account for its social and environmental impact as well as the financial consequences of its decisions. “In terms of a decision making process, we have always operated as a company with a view of being highly ethical,” says Levy. “To maximize profits, but do what is right for the planet and all stakeholders.”
Levy acknowledges that within psychedelic communities some people are skeptical of for-profit businesses. “Maybe if there is too much greed, some of the mistakes of the past will be repeated,” says Levy. “We want to make sure that businesses in the industry are developing ethically and thoughtfully and make a commitment to the triple bottom line.”
The organizers of a new nonprofit project called North Star says the TBL approach is one way for companies to evaluate the ethical impact of their strategic decisions. Shirelle Noble, COO of the nonprofit Auryn Project which supports North Star, says TBL gives companies the ability to advocate for fiduciary duty beyond their commitment to shareholders. “It will be an interesting case study to see how Field Trip defines their TBL approach to serve multiple stakeholders as they expand their clinics and establish their international supply chain,” says Noble.
Noble notes that John Elkington, who coined the term Triple Bottom Line, wrote a thought-provoking 2018 article in the Harvard Business Review explaining why TBL needs a “recall.” In the piece, Elkington encourages business to track their broader economic impact, not just financial value added – and consider the evolution of capitalism.
According to Levy, TBL gives Field Trip the flexibility to make decisions that are not just focused on the financial bottom line. For example, he says the company is paying close attention to sustainable and energy efficient options when designing its clinics. According to Levy, most of the company’s present attention to TBL has been making sure Field Trip staff, patients and stakeholders have access to the resources they need during the pandemic. As Field Trip continues to grow, Levy says the company’s partnership with UWI will have a larger economic impact on the university and the Jamaican research community.
“Our work brings jobs, capital, new equipment and helps the university and the country start to develop domain expertise over plant-based psychedelics, and positions it as a leader in this emerging field,” says Levy. “We are also funding the purchase of new equipment for the university separate from our facility, and funding scholarships so students in Jamaica have greater academic opportunities.”
North Star recently released the North Star Ethics Pledge which Noble says can serve as a foundation for dialogue about integrity and considerations about diversity, equity, inclusion and reciprocity. While the pledge is intended for individuals, Noble says it can be used by organizations to codify values and guide their thinking as they develop business strategies. According to Noble, the principles presented in the pledge are participatory not prescriptive. She says they are a starting point for self-reflection intended for people working with psychedelics and nonprofit or for-profit entities.
“At this critical juncture in history, with the need for healing greater than ever, there is tremendous responsibility on organizations to take a measured, intentional approach to keep from harming individuals or the field at large, and to ensure these medicines can bring about the healing we so desperately need,” says Noble. She says the pledge can help people within organizations consider their actions and build ethics and integrity checks into their work.
“Most people would like to think that their work is doing something positive in the world,” says Noble. “The pledge is a foundational tool for people to examine whether that belief is in alignment with their actions.”
Noble says North Star would like to see organizations applying the pledge over time. The project is encouraging individuals to publicly share their personal pledge. The project has posted responses to the question “what does acting with integrity in the field of psychedelics mean to you?” on the Signatory Response section of its Ethics Pledge.
Levy says Field Trip is considering how the company can apply the North Star pledge for their decision making. According to Levy, the pledge has not changed how Field Trip thinks about business, because many of the concepts built into the pledge are already part of the ethos of the company and the people who are part of it.
“We are still reviewing the North Star Pledge, but I think the intention behind the North Star pledge is a good one — asking people to adhere to high ethical standards in business is always laudable and worthy of respect,” says Levy. “That’s true about all industries, not just psychedelics.”
Image: Professor Rupika Delgoda