Synthesis Digital LLC, the Ashland, OR-based company which operated a Psychedelic Practitioner Training program and attempted to open an Oregan psilocybin treatment center, has broken its silence on the shocking recent bankruptcy of its sister company Netherlands-based Synthesis Institute B.V.
Founder Martijn Schirp released a statement on March 10 acknowledging that both companies were forced to terminate all employees and contractors on March 2 plunging the practitioner training program into deep uncertainty. Schirp sent the letter to all current Synthesis Institute B.V. and former Synthesis Digital employees, contractors and Psychedelic Practitioner Training faculty.
Schirp was both apologetic and self-pitying, saying the last few weeks were “the most difficult of my career” and that he was “devastated” by the impact of the financial collapse on the organizations’ staff and students.
According to Schirp, the speed of these developments, and his legal inability to comment, had “created a lot of confusion for team members and clients” and allegedly “harmed reputations, increased potential liabilities, and jeopardized ongoing conversations for proactive solutions.” With a Dutch court-appointed “curator” now in place to handle legal matters, Schirp says that he was now at liberty to confirm that “Synthesis Institute B.V. was declared bankrupt on March 6, 2023.”
Reporting by Jules Evans filled in some of the background on Synthesis’ much celebrated but reportedly never executed “steward ownership” model and Schirp’s background as a professional poker player. Evans also notes that Synthesis co-founder Myles Katz and CEO Rachel Aidan were closely consulted by the Oregon Health Authority when it created a facilitator training model and regulatory structure for “service centers” where trained facilitators could offer psilocybin. Schirp’s statement stressed that Oregon-based Synthesis Digital, home of “the beloved Psychedelic Practitioner Training” has not filed for bankruptcy.
Schirp confirmed that Retreat Guru, a small, Canadian software-as-a-service company that processes payments for retreats, has stepped up to support the operation of Synthesis Digital’s Psychedelic Practitioner Training as “a first step towards acquisition of the training.” Although Schirp said the goal was to let the current (first) cohort of students finish their training, he did not offer details about how the students could get the classes or tuition refunds.
He told Synthesis Digital staff that if they haven’t heard from Retreat Guru “there is no opportunity for you to be re-engaged at this time.” Schirp added, “For those who are owed back wages and compensation, I am not aware of the plans on how to address this.”
Retreat Guru Reaches Out
Cameron Wenaus, CEO and co-founder of Retreat Guru, also wrote a letter to Synthesis students and staff on March 10 characterizing the week as “groundless” and “chaotic”.
Wenaus’ letter linked to a statement released the same day which announced that Retreat Guru was the new operator of the Synthesis Psychedelic Practitioner Training and planned to acquire the training program, but not Synthesis Digital LLC.
The statement noted that in addition to the 220 students currently in the program, Retreat Guru is in “contractual conversations” with about half the staff and contractors who were terminated. “Learning Facilitators have been sent their new contracts. Signed copies are already being received,” wrote Wenaus to students and staff.
Wenaus added that they had “reached out to two well-known trauma experts” to help the community, and that other training centers are reaching out to take on an unspecified number of Synthesis students who need practicum placements.
He confirmed that Synthesis BV was bankrupt, not Synthesis Digital, and said that confusion over which entity was insolvent was “due to lack of communication from the former leadership.”
Wenaus asserted that the training program will resume after a brief pause, and Retreat Guru was talking with “three reputable organizations about partnering…It has felt like the mycelium network itself…We look forward to these generative conversations with everyone invested in the training’s future.”
He expected students would be “processing” the events and doing “grounding work” and promised to keep in touch with the learning facilitators “who trusted us earlier this week when we asked you to give us time to show how this program can continue.”
Synthesis facilitators report that they have been paid for their past work with the training program and that there is a willingness among the staff to regroup and continue training students. Members of some of the Synthesis student pods appear interested in resuming their instruction, while others are opting to leave.
Synthesis student Cori Sue Morris told Lucid News, “I can confirm that facilitators are being paid and that students can return to class. Many don’t want to. I would say my pod is 50-50. I am not returning.”
As Retreat Guru appears to be salvaging the training program, Synthesis Digital is still taking applications from students. A reporter for Willamette Week applied to the course on March 10, citing no experience with psychedelics or providing therapy. He was accepted on March 12 and was asked for his first payment. Oregon Public Broadcasting reported that according to Retreat Guru, “The open registrations seen on the Synthesis website is a legacy sales stream and is not being processed.”
Oregon Regulators Step In
In his letter to students and staff of the Synthesis Psychedelic Training Program, Wenaus acknowledged that Retreat Guru was fielding questions about certification from the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission (HECC). He wrote that “Our discussions with OHA and HECC have been very positive thus far as we anticipated.” All schools in Oregon, including the new psilocybin training centers, must register with the HECC.
Endi Hartigan, Communications Director for HECC, told Lucid News they were in touch with Synthesis, and that Synthesis must notify HECC if it is closing permanently. As of Monday March 13, she said they were still “collecting information.”
“We have been informed that there is a transfer of management of the training program to Retreat Guru. Synthesis LLC continues with ownership.” said Hartigan. “We are collecting information to confirm this. A change in management does not necessarily require a new school application.”
In regards to possible refunds, Hartigan referred to the rubric on the state’s higher education site. Different refunds structures under HECC rules could apply to Synthesis students who paid $9,000 to $12,200 for their training course, which was variously said to last six or 18 months.
The HECC rules state that, “If a school notifies the HECC 30 days before closure, as is required in OAR 715-045-0067, the school is required to file a plan with the Higher Education Coordinating Commission designed to protect the contractual rights of its students and graduates, including the right to complete the course of instruction in which they were enrolled, and the school’s procedures for disbursement of refunds or options to continue their education (OAR 715-045-0067 (1)).” It is not clear if Synthesis followed this procedure.
The HECC regulations further stipulate that “The school must offer currently enrolled students a teach out option of no additional cost to the students, and if the student does not pursue this option, the school must issue a pro rata refund.” This “teach out” option may direct Synthesis students to other psilocybin training programs, such as Inner Trek in Portland, providing them with pre-screened candidates.
The HECC rules add that “If a school does not provide a teach out option at a comparable program at no additional cost to students, the school must provide a full refund to currently enrolled students.” This could prove difficult for Synthesis, given its cash crunch.
The HECC regulations also note that all private career schools in Oregon that are licensed by the HECC pay into the tuition protection fund. The regulations stipulate that rules dictate how much can be withdrawn for any particular school. “After the HECC has been notified of the school’s plan for ensuring students can continue their education or receive a pro rata refund, the HECC is then required to notify students of a Tuition Protection payment plan within 60 days of closure. The TPF is used as a last resort,” reads the regulations.
Synthesis Retreat Center
So far Synthesis has refused to say what will become of its 124-acre property in Jackson County Oregon, formerly known as Buckhorn Springs, for which Katz’s company Mythic Properties paid $3.6 million.
Intended for use as a service center under Measure 109, Jackson County only allows Psilocybin Service Centers in General Commercial Zoning areas. Buckhorn Springs is in a Resource Zone, however, so opening a possibly lucrative retreat/service center for clients to receive psilocybin seems unlikely.
Synthesis Digital trainee facilitators have been learning remotely, in online “pods”, although they can pay extra to visit Synthesis retreats in other countries. So far, Buckhorn Springs has not been used as a gathering place for facilitators or students.
Synthesis Faced Hard Challenges
Sam Chapman, executive director of the Healing Advocacy Fund which helped provide financial support for Synthesis students, noted that the zoning issues compounded an already challenging regulatory environment for Synthesis.
“Starting a psilocybin service center or training program is incredibly hard, challenging work under any circumstance. Synthesis was a leader in the field, but unfortunately faced a handful of additional local challenges that would have been insurmountable for anyone in their shoes,” says Chapman.
“This is a huge loss for the Oregon psychedelic community, particularly for the students training to be facilitators, and for people in Southern Oregon who need access to psilocybin therapy.”
Despite the challenges, Chapman says he remains optimistic. “With that said, we can report that there are several additional training programs that are on track for graduating students over the next few months, as well as service centers that plan to open their doors later this year.”
A Cautionary Story
While some commentators believe the collapse of Synthesis was due to poor management practices, some are already worried about the viability of the emerging psilocybin industry as created by Oregon Measure 109.
Julie Keanaaina, Owner and Therapist at Psychological Services Connections and the Psilocybin Service Center, just pulled the plug on the latter, saying it is not sustainable.
The Hillsboro, Oregon-based Psychological Services Connection will continue providing mental health therapy, and Keanaaina said a new cooperative will be formed.
Keanaaina said that because they used the term “Psilocybin Services” in their business names and accounts, they were canceled by payment processors Stripe and PayPal, and “barred from a few other businesses who didn’t even want to chance an affiliation.”
She said that even if such businesses were not involved in trafficking a scheduled substance, they felt they would be implicated. “Our plan had always been to move the actual trafficking (i.e. service center accounts and cash flow) to a psilocybin-friendly local bank, but we were under the impression the grassroots efforts and marketing prior would be a non-issue. Clearly, we were wrong. “
According to Keanaaina, her business is dissolving their co-op and retooling it as a C-Corp and with the intent of only hiring W2 facilitators in order to protect everyone involved. “Folks keep trying to compare psilocybin services directly to cannabis, but it’s fundamentally different in the fact that we’re not just dispensing a product, we would be monitoring the consumption as a service. Facilitators and consumers should be cautious of any group not ensuring their legal protection.”
Keanaaina told Lucid News that the unraveling of Synthesis is a cautionary story about proper business practices and preserving the older Netherlands-based sister company. “Synthesis is the big news right now and very sad,” said Keanaaina. “It’s unfortunate they didn’t divide the businesses well enough to preserve the original. I am shocked and saddened to see it dissolve their original group as well.”