Inside Synthesis Institute’s Implosion
This article originally appeared on Psychedelic Alpha. Founded by Josh Hardman, Psychedelic Alpha is an independent website, newsletter and community that is devoted to empowering a diverse constellation of individuals and organizations with the knowledge, network and nuance to make an impact within the field of psychedelic medicine and beyond.
Synthesis Institute has imploded, with bankruptcy leaving over two-hundred current students in limbo.
The organization, which includes its Dutch retreats business and psychedelic facilitator training programs, had planned to develop a 124-acre property in Oregon. But, before its lofty Oregon plans had taken off, the company quietly reached the end of its runway.
Synthesis was seen by many as the ‘gold standard’ of future psilocybin service providers and facilitator training outfits. But, in what follows, those close to the matter paint a very different picture of the organization.
At the time of this apparent bankruptcy not one student had completed the company’s Oregon facilitator training program. What’s more, there isn’t a single licensed service center in the state at which a prospective psilocybin facilitator might practice their skills. Aside from disrupting the lives of those involved in Synthesis’ transatlantic operations, this bankruptcy and associated fall-out will send ripples through the budding state-licensed psilocybin community, questioning the potential of Oregon’s unprecedented market.
In what follows, we review the series of events that led to this point, before looking at where things stand today in terms of the training program. We reviewed a variety of documents and spoke to a number of people close to the matter to produce this rapid reporting of the events discussed herein. This is a developing story.
Documents seen by Psychedelic Alpha generally pertain to Synthesis Holdings B.V., which is the sole shareholder of Synthesis Institute B.V., as well as Synthesis Health B.V. We refer to these entities collectively as Synthesis or Synthesis Institute herein.
Genesis and Expansion
Synthesis was founded in 2018 in the Netherlands, where it became known as a high-quality psychedelic retreat and training operator. Collaborations with respected institutions like Imperial College London, and a foregrounding of psychedelic research and best practices, led to Synthesis being viewed as one of the more reputable, evidence-based offerings amidst a growing range of retreat options in the Netherlands.
Having built its brand and track record in the northwestern European country, Synthesis set its sights on transatlantic expansion as psychedelic policy reforms progressed in the U.S.
The passage of Measure 109 in November 2020 presented the first opportunity to establish a legal psilocybin retreat stateside, enticing international psychedelic retreat operators to explore potential ‘service centers’ in the Beaver state.
Betting on Buckhorn
Synthesis was perhaps the most ambitious of these trailblazing organisations. In June 2021, just half way through the Oregon Psilocybin Services rules development period (i.e., before any rules governing the prospective psilocybin services market had been finalised) the company made a big bet.
An Oregon limited liability company, ‘Oregon Retreat Centers LLC’, was formed by Synthesis co-founder Myles Katz (who formerly went by the surname Lutheran) in mid-May, along with Mythic Properties LLC. In late June, Katz’s company purchased Buckhorn Springs, a 124-acre property in Ashland, Jackson County, for $3.6 million.
Buckhorn Springs is an unincorporated community, with the site’s titular springs renowned for cold, carbonated water. In its past lives the site has, among other things, hosted a hotel, hunting retreats and served as a picnic stop for passing tourists. It achieved inclusion on the federal government’s National Register of Historic Places in 1989, and since 1998 has been used as a retreat center.
With structures that include over a dozen cottages, three residences and eight private rooms, Buckhorn Springs is a substantial property. According to a Zillow listing, it has “sustained a thriving business with many returning groups for 32 years.”
Synthesis was placing a big bet with this purchase.
A Narrow Escape
As Summer 2022 came around, a major threat to Synthesis’ Oregon plans emerged.
Oregon’s Psilocybin Services Act allows for local jurisdictions to opt-out of allowing psilocybin services within their borders. We began tracking the many counties and cities that put potential psilocybin service opt-outs to voters ahead of the November 2022 elections.
Crucially for Synthesis, Jackson county—the home of Buckhorn Springs—decided to put the question of whether to opt-out of psilocybin services to voters, representing an existential threat to the viability of Synthesis’ Buckhorn Springs service center.
Unsurprisingly, members of the Synthesis team and their allies sprung into action to avert disaster, forming Vote No On 15-203 to oppose the ban on psilocybin services in Jackson County.
Data from Oregon’s ORESTAR system show that the political action committee (PAC) was formed in late August 2022 and received around $200,000 in contributions. The largest of these contributions came from New Approach PAC, which was a significant funder and organizer of the original Measure 109 effort.
While publicly Katz explained that the property is sustainable, and that they would not be “ditching the space” even in the case of a Jackson County opt-out, the company threw money behind the campaign. According to a document seen by Psychedelic Alpha, Synthesis made a $200,000 contribution to the campaign, though this is not reflected in the transactions available via ORESTAR.
Ultimately, the campaign succeeded: Jackson County voters rejected the opt-out ordinance by a margin of around two-and-a-half per cent.
The victory at the ballot box kept the possibility for a Buckhorn Springs psilocybin service center alive, Synthesis internal memos explained.
But, another facet to Jackson County’s regulation stands in the way of a psilocybin service center being established on the sprawling property: the county’s Land Development Ordinance (LDO).
A representative of Jackson County told Psychedelic Alpha that, “the Board of Commissioners would not make specific land use decisions on a case-by-case, or a site-specific location basis.” Rather, decisions are made in accordance with the LDO, which only allows Psilocybin Service Centers in General Commercial Zoning areas.
Unfortunately for Synthesis, the Buckhorn Springs location is in a resource zone, not a commercial zone. Therefore, the County representative told us, “a Psilocybin Service Center would not be allowed”.
Given this rule, hopes of opening a psilocybin service center on the property, and Synthesis’ multi-million dollar investment, appeared to be dashed.
Any Other Business
By mid 2022 just shy of ten psilocybin facilitator training programs were approved in Oregon, with Synthesis among the first wave of providers.
By all indications, the company’s training program was showing strong sales, while its Netherlands retreats business was running near-capacity last fall (though, the retreats business has struggled to achieve financial sustainability, based on financial accounts reviewed by Psychedelic Alpha).
Despite the backdrop of increasing uncertainty and doubt regarding the viability of receiving a service center license for the Buckhorn Springs property, other business units appeared to be ticking along relatively well.
But, this picture quickly reversed in Q4, with a wave of fulfilled training program refund requests and a significant drop in retreat sales blasting a hole in the company’s financial forecast; especially when coupled with the $200,000 the company stumped up to campaign against Jackson County’s opt-out ordinance.
By February, the company’s liabilities totaled around $850,000, documents reveal. The majority of this sum was owed to contractors that represented the bulk of the company’s operations. The company could not afford the payroll accruing for employees in both the U.S. and the Netherlands, former CEO Rachel Aidan explained to shareholders.
Beyond these liabilities, documents show that the company would not be able to meet customer commitments. The most obvious of these is the cancellation of four of its Netherlands retreats that were slated for March, with all future retreats put on pause.
In mid February, the company had about 230 students across four cohorts of its Psychedelic Practitioner Training program that it could not afford to complete the delivery for. The majority of these students started their thirteen-month program in November 2022, meaning they are not even half-way through the course.
A minority of students are on payment plans, meaning some funds were still trickling in month-to-month. But, that amount of money wouldn’t cover the resources needed to deliver the complete training.
What’s more, enrollment for the second cohort of the Oregon training program was down significantly on the company’s projections, having sold less than 20% of the number of places they had hoped to.
In a final blow, Return to Nature LLC, the lender for the Buckhorn Springs property, served Synthesis a Letter of Default and began pursuing remedies as allowed for in the promissory note.
Synthesis in Crisis
The company attempted to make significant cutbacks in the face of these financial headwinds.
Synthesis’ senior leadership team didn’t shield themselves from the cuts. Documents detail how the three founders of the company did not take pay for a number of months and the two “most expensive” members of the senior leadership team were given 90 days notice. In January, the company’s CFO resigned amid the circumstances.
Citing strong labor laws in the Netherlands, documents report that the company was unable to “make cuts fast enough” to its Dutch workforce “to make a difference in the cash flow”.
In response to the situation a board member financed a third-party analysis of the company.
Psychedelic Alpha understands that the analysis was carried out by a former CFO and president of a shale oil and gas company who has led a variety of defense-related endeavors. This includes leading a SPAC for an ammunition company, and operating a facility that provides security services including polygraph exams.
In their analysis, the third-party commended the state of the company’s financial recordkeeping, but noted that the company’s status as a multinational operation adds significant complexities.
Ultimately, the third-party advised Synthesis to give serious consideration to spinning off the Netherlands retreat business unit and refocusing the company as a U.S. based operation.
The observations and recommendations were delivered to senior members of the Synthesis team in late January, 2023, according to the memo seen by Psychedelic Alpha.
As It Stands
Despite the recommendations of the independent party, the leadership of Synthesis struggled to align on the best path forward for the organization, according to a letter to shareholders seen by Psychedelic Alpha.
This lack of alignment prohibited the company from making meaningful reductions to expenditures, the former CEO Aidan explained in a letter sent to shareholders on Valentine’s day, at a time she described as “a critical, time-sensitive moment”.
Ultimately, this led to a situation where the company had to contemplate two actions: filing bankruptcy for Synthesis Institute B.V., which includes the Dutch Retreats business, and selling the company’s Psychedelic Practitioner Training business to another organization. These actions would need to be taken by February 20th, the letter states.
Psychedelic Alpha understands that Aidan left her post as CEO at some point in February.
On the 19th of February, Co-Founder and ‘Chief Visionary Officer’ Martijn Schirp penned an update to shareholders. A potential lifeline had been thrown to Synthesis in the form of an “aforementioned VC fund” that might recapitalise the distressed company.
A plan of sorts is sketched out in broad strokes, including a “significant Reduction in Force”. In layperson’s terms, this means a permanent shrinking of headcount.
The company’s ask was around two million euros, but it appears they only received a soft commitment for €1.2m, which was deemed “substantial enough to reveal a path forward” and “that could provide Synthesis an opportunity to survive”, Schirp wrote.
The board decided it was worth postponing the bankruptcy filing, which had originally been planned for the very next day. “While slim, we agreed this chance is worth taking a few extra days for”, Schirp explained.
It appears that this funding never materialized.
Where Does This Leave Students?
Various students on Synthesis’ training program expressed concern as to whether they’ll be left footing the bill for their unfinished psilocybin facilitator training program, which has a sticker price of $12,997 per student.
While a number of current students contacted Psychedelic Alpha privately, others posted publicly about their concern.
Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission (HECC), which oversees state-wide postsecondary education, generally requires that private career schools have “appropriate comprehensive general liability insurance”. These insurance policies should protect against these types of circumstances. But operators in Oregon’s psilocybin market are struggling to obtain insurance due to the federal illegality of psilocybin.
For this reason, HECC adopted a rule change that instead allowed for psilocybin facilitator training programs to pay increased amounts into the state’s tuition protection fund, which intends to refund students for pre-paid tuition in the event that their career school suddenly closes. It’s not immediately clear whether, or how much, groups like Synthesis have paid into this fund.
Given the apparent impasse with regards to obtaining insurance coverage, the HECC rule-change was a pragmatic path forward. Indeed, it was publicly heralded as a success at the time by at least one psilocybin facilitator program founder. InnerTrek’s ‘co-creator’ Nathan Howard talked to Lucid News about the waiver in September 2022:
Howard notes that the question of insurance was sorted out with a waiver. “Credit to everyone for figuring out how to gently apply pressure to the HECC,” said Howard. “Go forth, HECC, and get these programs to where they are diligent and not focused on profiteering, we don’t want any Trump Universities here.”
A document seen by Psychedelic Alpha suggests that a nonprofit had offered to acquire Synthesis’ training program in exchange for a commitment to cover some of the employee and contractor liabilities, as well as incurring the cost to complete the program for the roughly 230 students currently enrolled.
That plan evidently fell apart, as an email to Synthesis Students sent on the 1st of March told students that, “[a]s of this morning we do not have sufficient clarity on how the impending changes will impact our ability to continue supporting this program”.
In further emails seen by Psychedelic Alpha, replies to the email—which came from ‘the Synthesis Institute Support Team’—were met with an automatic response that informed them that, due to the “current suspension” of the training program, “this inbox is not being monitored”. Senders were informed to reach out directly to Synthesis’ current CEO, Martijn Schirp (who did not respond to our request for comment).
Two days later, another entity entered the fray in an attempt to salvage the training program…
Enter Retreat Guru
On the 3rd of March, psychedelic practitioner training students received an email from Deryk and Cameron Wenaus, CTO and CEO of Retreat Guru. The pair opened the note by explaining that they were “delighted to announce that effective today, we have a strategic partnership between ourselves, Retreat Guru, and Synthesis Digital” that would allow the collective delivery of the training programs.
“[I]n times of hardship, we experience the power of our community coming together”, they opined.
A Retreat Guru representative confirmed to Psychedelic Alpha that the company is “in the process of acquiring the Psychedelic Practitioner Training Program from Synthesis Digital” (Synthesis Digital LLC is one of the LLCs Katz registered, this one in September 2020).
The company assumed operation of the program on March 4th, the representative told us, adding that current programs are on hold for one week while the organization, “prioritize formalizing our relationship with program facilitators and communication with current students.”
Retreat Guru Who?
Retreat Guru is a small software as a service (SaaS) company based in Nelson, British Columbia—a city in the Selkirk Mountains that’s home to around 10,000 people.
It was co-founded by Brothers Cameron and Deryk Wenaus in 2014, melding their personal interests and practices in meditation (the pair completed over two-hundred meditation and plant medicine retreats between 1993 and 2014, the company website claims) with their techie credentials.
“What started off as a web development company for Tibetan Lamas has blossomed into a global software and consumer marketplace called Retreat Guru,” the company’s About page explains. In fact, the company claims to be the world’s largest marketplace for retreats.
It’s difficult to find anything fishy when it comes to the company, which appears to be a local success story that has kept its employees and customers happy.
The company’s “small and dedicated team” consists of a couple dozen or so people with the types of roles you would expect for a SaaS tech company, such as engineers and developers. According to its glowing Glassdoor profile it’s well respected by employees, and customers gave it 4.8 stars on software review site Capterra.
The City of Nelson mentions the company a number of times in publicly-available documents, including minutes from the city’s Economic Development Partnership where it details the company’s involvement in local innovation-related projects.
Retreat Guru’s business model is two-fold. On the one hand, it serves as a marketing tool for retreat providers, who benefit from the customers who browse the platform’s marketplace of retreat options. On the other side of the business, the company provides operational support for retreat operators such as booking management systems and payment processing.
According to Crunchbase, the company has raised a modest $1.4m across five small rounds. Elsewhere, Deryk Wenaus claims that the platform was revenue positive in just 2 months.
The puzzling question is: why would this boutique SaaS company from Canada step in to take over a financially distressed U.S. state-licensed psilocybin facilitator training program?
The answer, according to members of the training cohort we spoke to, is that Retreat Guru’s very survival may depend on it.
“The Greatest Risk We Face is if Every Student Requests a Refund This Week”
Retreat Guru has been working with Synthesis Institute since 2018, providing payment processing among other services, Psychedelic Alpha understands.
As explained in aforementioned internal company documents, and corroborated by a number of students we spoke with, Synthesis has been deluged with refund requests from its enrolled students.
Multiple students who attended a Town Hall meeting with Retreat Guru told Psychedelic Alpha that the amount of money processed by Retreat Guru in relation to Synthesis transactions is in the order of $1.8 million, which was purportedly handed over to Synthesis (as is customary in the payment processing workflow). This includes payments from students on payment plans, as well as those who paid the full sum up-front. These individuals include college student Sophia Aimone, who told us that Retreat Guru, “received my tuition in the full amount” before she began the program.
However, given that transaction disputes appear to be Retreat Guru’s responsibility to reconcile, the Canadian company might now be on the hook for fulfilling refund requests.
According to Claire Johnson, a Portland-based student in Synthesis’ Oregon facilitator training cohort, Retreat Guru told attendees at a March 4th Town Hall it hosted that it has “no choice” but to do what it can to continue the program given these circumstances. Johnson told us that Retreat Guru may go under if they were required to issue all the refunds out of their accounts.
In emails seen by Psychedelic Alpha that were sent from Retreat Guru to trainees on the program, CEO Cameron Wenaus attempted to reassure the cohort. On Monday March 6th, he emphasized that the company’s immediate goal “is to formalize Retreat Guru’s relationship with each program facilitator.” This includes “establishing our contracts with them and making sure they receive any payment that was owed to them.”
Wenaus was remarkably transparent with the cohort, explaining that “the greatest risk we face is if every student requests a refund this week.” He pleaded with students: “I humbly request that you give our team this week to demonstrate how we will resume operations”, adding that, “while I wish it were under different circumstances, I am honored that Retreat Guru has the opportunity to contribute to this work through you.”
Psychedelic Alpha understands that the company has sought to rally students and former staff to ‘step up’ and help it restart the training program as soon as possible.
It’s unclear how imminent this potential threat to Retreat Guru is, given that it is also unclear how much of the brunt Synthesis will bear. One student told us that they had been in touch with HECC, who informed them that Synthesis has begun the ‘school closing’ process. Under this process, Synthesis would likely have two options: to provide refunds on a prorated basis (via the Oregon Tuition Protection Fund we mentioned earlier), or to teach the remainder of the program.
Psychedelic Alpha also understands that students have begun filing complaints with other bodies, such as the Oregon Attorney General’s office and the Federal Trade Commission. Private chat groups have become the place where students have organized their response, which has been difficult given that students are split into small groups during the training program.
Some students told us that they were filing requests with HECC, as opposed to Retreat Guru, with Retreat Guru’s financial stresses in mind. Aimone, for example, told us that she took her complaint to the HECC “because it allowed me to file a complaint directly against Synthesis.” Her impression of the Retreat Guru team is that they “were as blindsided as the student body when it came to Synthesis closing their doors.”
It is also unclear what the implications for Retreat Guru, and its network of thousands of retreat centers that use the platform, might be if it’s unable to salvage the program and stave off refund demands. Johnson told us that the founders of Retreat Guru were clear in their meeting with students on Saturday that they, too, “are being harmed by Synthesis” and that they have also “not had substantial communication with [Synthesis’] leadership team”.
One thing’s certain: Retreat Guru has an immense task on its hands; one which it’s not exactly geared towards taking on. “Allow me to emphasize”, Johnson said, “Retreat Guru is not an educational program”.
The specifics of this potential partnership, including whether the apparent change in operator will necessitate a transfer of the Oregon Psilocybin Services license, remain unclear.
A Lack of Communication
Just as the hype around psychedelic therapies can lead to an inordinately large delta between expectancy effects and the experiences of non-responders, the high hopes and image of credibility exuded by Synthesis has left many students feeling especially burned.
“I enrolled in the Synthesis Institute because it felt like a very safe and sound first step to take into the field of psychedelic healing”, Aimone told us.
In a story echoed by other students, Cori Sue Morris—a Synthesis student and founder of Retreat, an education and telehealth platform for psychedelic newcomers—told us that she spent months researching potential Oregon psilocybin facilitator training providers before landing on Synthesis.
This disconnect between Synthesis’ purported ethical standards and their conduct during their apparent demise is a key cause of upset among people we spoke to.
“The thing about psychedelic facilitators is that these people are largely caring, empathetic, and trusting”, Morris explained. She described a “lack of ethics, transparency and communication from the Synthesis leadership”, who she says provided “literally little-to-no communication on what was happening”.
Morris, who has been involved in startups outside of the psychedelics space for half a dozen years, including WeWork during the failed IPO, told us that she has “never seen something so sudden and so poorly managed.” Morris told us that she was enrolled in the program not to become a facilitator herself, but to understand more about the process and how to be a better leader in the psychedelics field.
By the time former CEO Rachel Aidan admitted to the company’s bankruptcy in a Monday email, most everyone involved was already aware of the situation. “All information I was given prior was coming from secondary or tertiary sources”, Aimone explained to us, adding, “they have lost my, a former student’s, respect and trust”.
At the beginning of their course, students sign a Code of Ethics and Conduct. Aimone is now left wondering why Synthesis “was not holding themselves to the same level of ethical practice.”
In October 2022, ahead of the ‘Opt-Out’ vote that represented an existential threat to Synthesis’ plans for its Oregon Psilocybin Service Center, Katz exclaimed: “We’re patient and used to change and complexity. There’s not going to be a foreclosure or selloff.”
Nearly a decade ago, when Katz was involved in a sustainable bioenergy startup, he wrote an article titled How Avoiding Multi-Million Dollar Investments Saved Our Startup. While discussing the “long history” of biofuel projects in Africa being “over-hyped and under-delivering”, Katz (under his former surname Lutheran) explained that this was more often than not, “caused by multi-million dollar investments and the unrealistically high expectations that come along with them.”
In the end, it might have been a 2021 multi-million dollar investment—or, bet—that led to the implosion of Synthesis.
Morris, the Synthesis student and hopeful psychedelic entrepreneur, summed up the mood from those left in limbo: “People put their trust in Synthesis Institute to change their lives and their careers […] and Synthesis really just has ripped the rug out from under us for a lot of people.”
Main image: Buckhorn Springs, a 124-acre property in Ashland, OR purchased by Synthesis Institute.