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The Anatomy of Synthesis’ Collapse

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The Anatomy of Synthesis’ Collapse

In 2010, a Dutch philosophy undergraduate called Martijn Schirp almost won the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, in which 7,400 players competed for a $10 million prize.

In one hand, he won two million dollars and became the leading player in the tournament. He was bursting with pride as his father watched from the audience.

But then his father left to go to bed, and Martijn lost everything in two hands and was out.

Martijn Schirp’s poker profile image. Source: WSOP.

That night, the young philosopher wandered the streets of Vegas, feeling a deep sense of the meaninglessness of the universe.

That was the start of a spiritual journey that culminated in him founding the Synthesis Institute, the first psychedelic retreat company in Europe and a leading player in the United States’ first legal psilocybin program.

This month, Synthesis became the first big bankruptcy of the psychedelic renaissance, and experts say it could even bring down Oregon’s struggling psilocybin program.

I’m not writing this piece as an outsider laughing at the misfortune and suffering of others. I worked for Synthesis, or at least, I gave a talk for them on the history of psychedelics which became part of their practitioner training course. I know and am friends with several people who worked at or for Synthesis, including Martijn, who I met in 2018. He’ll be in a tough place now, and I wish him well. 

The point of this article is to think what lessons can be learned from the situation and taken away by the psychedelic ecosystem, from the perspective of harm reduction. 

Synthesis has had some high-profile problems in the last year, especially its $4 million retreat site in Oregon which turned out to be unusable for psilocybin retreats. But, through interviews with many people who worked at or for Synthesis, it’s clear there were deep-rooted problems from the start.

Martijn often talked in podcasts about the importance of “confronting the shadow.” But many employees say Synthesis had a big shadow side.

“There was a radical difference between what was showed externally and what went on inside,” says one veteran employee. Another employee says, “Anything that is happening today has deep roots. Right at the start there was already shadow and, I call it, a cancerous disease.”

A slide from a Synthesis Institute Instagram post on the shadow. Source: Instagram

We left Martijn walking through the streets of Vegas in 2010, feeling deeply nihilist. He later wrote, “I spent so much time contemplating the meaninglessness of existence that I sometimes felt like a ghost. I was stressed out, depressed and felt lonely.”

He suffered a mini-breakdown, and was saved by a book – Pema Chodron’s The Places that Scare You (a book which, by the by, also hugely helped me during a post-ayahuasca spiritual emergency).

After reading that book, Martijn immediately booked himself into a month-long retreat in a Nepalese monastery. 

He wrote: “Soon after, I did an ayahuasca retreat. Then a week-long meditation retreat in Denmark. And another one. Then a month-long Vipassana retreat in Myanmar, where I gave my first Wim Hof Method class. Then a yoga retreat in the Philippines where I held my first mushroom ceremony. Then an iboga one. Then a five day intense sesshin, followed by a ten day spiritual entrepreneur retreat, both in Costa Rica. And quite recently I completed a five day tantra trauma de-armouring retreat. I could sprinkle a few weekend Vajrayana retreats, vision quests (some psychedelic enhanced), and fasting experiments on top, just in order to conclude that it’s been one hell of a ride.”

That same year, he co-founded High Existence, an online education site that explored psychedelics, philosophy and spirituality, and which had millions of readers (it’s still going). He became its CEO in 2015. High Existence started to offer psychedelic retreats in South America. 

In 2018, Martijn invited people to “the ultimate High Existence retreat,” called Apotheosis. “What if we would combine the most effective transformational tools and insights, stack them synergistically, select the most appropriate attendees in alignment with our vision, and fly over some of the best teachers we can find to hold space, to one of the most beautiful spots in the world? Yeah, that sounds actually pretty cool. Let’s do it!”

He also became interested in the possibility of psilocybin retreats in Holland, where he lived. The pioneers here, as far as I’m aware, are the UK Psychedelic Society, which sold “experience weekends” in Holland for around £300. Here is the co-founder of the “experience weekends,” Stefana Bosse, talking about it with Ciara Sherlock back in 2018, a million years before the hyper-capitalism of today’s shroom boom. 

Martijn spent hours speaking to Stefana and to another Dutch psychedelic facilitator – Daan Keiman – picking their brains for his own vision. In 2018 he launched the Synthesis Institute with Paul Austin, an American psychedelic explorer and writer also living in Amsterdam. Myles Katz, an American who’d worked in biofuels, joined as another founder. They raised $500K from a Swiss investor. The founders brought in Daan Keiman and Natasja Pelgrom as lead facilitators, with James Clifton joining as another lead facilitator soon after.

Synthesis was the first company officially offering high-end psychedelic retreats in Europe, a model since replicated by countless other luxury retreats. It was similar to the Psychedelic Society model, but four times the price – for €1500 customers could spend three nights at a fancy location called The Lighthouse, complete with a sauna, a vegetarian chef, and an abundance of herbal tea. Here’s Paul and Martijn talking in an early promo video:

Despite going overground, the company was still operating in a gray area. Psychedelic mushrooms are not legal in Holland, but psychedelic truffles are. It is not legal to offer psychedelic therapy either, so the retreat offered something between psychedelics for personal development and spiritual growth – though at a price far higher than any psychedelic church (the cost of a retreat rose from €1500 to €6000 in the last five years). 

One facilitator recalls, “The idea was to cater to the very wealthy, because they have enough means to support themselves afterwards. That money could be used to invest in the infrastructure we were building to help others.”

A medical professional who briefly worked for the company reflects: “High-end wellness retreats for affluent folk was a great idea, but psychedelics ask questions that need more than enthusiastic, good-looking amateurs and delicious vegan food. It was an entrepreneurial enterprise that wasn’t equipped to take the developmental step to more serious work.”

People were screened and excluded for mental health issues – if they were on SSRIs, if they had ever been suicidal, if they had a family history of psychosis. Facilitators are proud of what they offered, but screening was sometimes imperfect. 

One facilitator recalls: “There were multiple retreats where mistakes were made in health screening, where people weren’t sent informed consent forms, or not offered the opportunity to ask about risks. People would show up and turn out to have all sorts of issues outside the scope of our practice. Journalists were also sent to us without it being appropriately discussed. The quality of the retreats was despite the management, not because of them. We repeatedly had to bring up concerns.”

There were, apparently, management issues from the start. One senior employee who was there from the beginning says: “From the get-go, we had a lot of challenges with the very young, male, competitive nature of the founders. It was like roosters pecking at each other. There were a lot of inflated egos under the title of ‘I have a mission of doing good’ but at the same time, keeping the pie for themselves.”

Arguments between the founders led to Paul Austin leaving after two years to focus on Third Wave, a psychedelic news and education company that’s still going. A dispute over his share of the company rumbled on for a while, although Paul is still on friendly terms with Martijn. 

Right from the start, as well, the employees of Synthesis felt there was a gap between what the owners said and what they did. Senior employees were enticed with the possibility of receiving shares early on, but it was never quite the right time. The retreat team didn’t feel properly appreciated or remunerated, and were sometimes startled by the “rapid growth” mindset of the founders.

One facilitator says, “They were literally talking about wanting to create the ‘McDonald’s of psychedelic experience’ – bigger and bigger, more and more retreats. It was a colonial and capitalistic mentality, but with the sauce of ‘we are being conscious.’” There was a failure to understand that you are dependent on people with years of experience to be able to facilitate one-on-one or lead a group through a transformational process.

Enter Rachel Aidan

Rachel Aidan. Source: Synthesis Institute.

Shortly after the company launched, in November 2018, an American couple came to a retreat – Rachel and Ethan Holmes. Rachel had a traumatic personal history. She grew up in a family of religious fundamentalists and suffered years of physical and sexual abuse. Two of her brothers died before she was five, and the third killed himself in 2017. Rachel received an MA in trauma-informed counseling and started writing and speaking on how to deal with trauma. After her brother killed himself, she searched for psychedelic healing, Googled “psychedelic retreat” and came across Synthesis. She got on a plane with her husband the next month and they took part in one of Synthesis’ first ceremonies.

Clearly it was a good trip. “I fell in love with the whole team. I saw these beautiful hearts of gold,” she later recalled. 

She went for a coffee with the founders in the days after the retreat. “I approached the founders and said, “I love what you’re doing and would love to join you.” A month later, she and her husband were hired into senior roles at Synthesis – Ethan became financial controller, and Rachel became COO and then CEO. Martijn Schirp, who stepped down as CEO and became “chief visionary officer,” wrote at the time, “It became clear that through the ever-expanding vision, and the size we are growing, we would benefit from someone with more experience as a CEO to carry the torch.”

Another founder says: “It was a post ceremony afterglow decision, more or less. We were a young team, with a little bit of investment capital (about $500K) and we needed someone who was enthusiastic about the mission, did not need a big salary to start, and had enough credentials to help take Synthesis to the next level.”

Rachel describes herself as a serial entrepreneur in the beauty and wellness markets, and on her LinkedIn page she says she is the founder of a company called BR Holdings and of “several award-winning, nationally recognized beauty, wellness and medical aesthetic service brands in the USA.”

What brands? From what I’ve found online, she is the owner of the Aidan James Hair Salon in Nashua, New Hampshire, which to be fair has great reviews. 

Rachel Aidan’s hair salon profile. Source: Model Mayhem.

She also worked as a business coach, and at an NGO operating in East Africa. I haven’t found details of the other beauty, wellness or medical aesthetic service brands she founded as she doesn’t mention their names on her LinkedIn page or in online interviews, so it’s hard to assess how well they performed. It’s not clear how thoroughly the founders researched her business experience – one founder I spoke to was not aware she owned a hair salon. 

The gift that many colleagues say Rachel has in abundance is the capacity to tell a good story and to sell an enchanting vision, including her own story of trauma and recovery, which she would include in investor pitches. She had studied “trauma-informed leadership” and this seemed to be the style of all three leaders – they weaved their own personal story of trauma and post-traumatic growth into investor pitches, business meetings and media interviews. Martijn, in his first podcast interview in 2017, talks about being bullied at school and his breakdown in Vegas. Myles Katz, in a conference presentation in 2020, starts his presentation talking about losing his mother, depending on alcohol, and how he was saved by psychedelics. Even at the Synthesis Christmas drinks, employees say the founders spoke for 40 minutes about their trauma, detailing the abuses they’d experienced. 

Steward Ownership?

The “trauma-informed leadership” pitch clearly resonated with some investors. In 2020, Rachel, Myles and Martijn successfully raised $2.75 million from investors led by Novamind. Then they raised another $7.25 million in seed A funding in 2021, from “non-traditional VC partners.” (as a private company, investor identities were kept confidential, and senior employees say they were never told.)

For the second round of funding, a lot was made of the radical new model of “steward ownership” which the company was committing to. Here’s Aidan being interviewed by Entrepreneur magazine in 2022:

“She created an investor deck that explained the concept of steward ownership, why it was desirable, and how it would impact investors’ dollars. She outlined the stewardship board makeup, one that consisted of shareholders, employees, contractors, people in the supply chain, and indigenous community members. She created a deck that explained how investors would get a return (by eventually being bought out), but also appealed to what Aidan calls ‘their spiritual ego’ — in other words, offering investors a chance to support a bigger mission. She stressed that steward-owned companies act in the interests of a broader range of stakeholders, including employees, consumers, and society.”

If you listen to talks or podcasts where the founders talk about the steward ownership model, interviewers are totally wowed by this extraordinary vision for a conscious, teal-based, holocentric, reciprocal model of post-capitalism. It has to work, one interviewer suggests, not just for Synthesis…but for the world!

But it never happened. One senior manager says: “They did not ever distribute shares to employees, as far as I saw. I remember watching Rachel Aidan talking about it on stage at Horizons 2022, but it never happened while I was there. People were promised shares and told ‘we can’t pay you a high salary but you’ll get shares,’ and they never did.”

A facilitator says: “Rachel never told us who these ‘stakeholders’ were. I and others often asked about the stewardship model, but never got concrete actions in response. It was dangled in front of us but it was never clear what it meant. There was social justice wash, greenwash, spiritual wash…. There was a lot of talk from the three leaders about the quadruple bottom line, not just profits but planet, purpose and people. But if you ignore their words and focus on their actions, it’s nonsense.”

Another facilitator says: “I actually had therapy about it. It was like a loverboy relationship – you’re made promises, you’re their sweetheart, then you’re gaslit.”

Perhaps the founders were trying to move towards this stewardship model, but I interviewed several senior people in the company and none received shares. Myles, Rachel and Martijn all did not respond to my request for an interview. 

The Clinical Therapy Program That Wasn’t

In addition to alienating their employees by not doing what they said they’d do, management made some expensive wrong bets. One was the clinical therapy program they launched with Dr. Rosalind Watts of Imperial College.

Synthesis made a lot of its connections to Imperial College’s psychedelic research team – Robin Carhart-Harris was on their advisory board and was often used in their promotional and investor material (he was not paid much for this). Dr Tim Read was also on their advisory board and briefly worked as a supervisor before quickly leaving, and Dr. Rosalind Watts – clinical lead for Imperial’s psilocybin for depression trial – was also appointed to their advisory board, with great fanfare.

In 2020, Synthesis hired Watts to lead a new psychedelic therapy program. Up to that point, Synthesis had surfed the wave of psychedelic research coming out of places like Imperial, and made much of psychedelics’ therapeutic potential in investor pitches, but they had screened out anyone with serious depression. Now, they were going to offer psychedelic group therapy for people with depression.

This very quickly turned into a sort of shamanic battle with COMPASS Pathways, the biggest psychedelic therapy company. COMPASS is going down the traditional route of drug development by trialing psilocybin therapy for individuals with depression in order to get FDA approval. COMPASS has also applied for patents for its model of psilocybin therapy, so could conceivably gain a monopoly on psilocybin-assisted therapy for treatment-resistant depression in the U.S.

In 2021, the lead researcher for COMPASS’ trials – Dr James Rucker from King’s College London – co-wrote a journal article accusing Synthesis of “quackery.” He quoted a promotional paragraph from Synthesis’ website: “The increasingly strong evidence-base for its benefits has helped transform psilocybin from a banned substance to an FDA-approved medicine: trials which are set to render it available as a prescription-based panacea for treatment-resistant depression are underway.”

Rucker wrote, “Psilocybin is not an ‘FDA-approved medicine.’ No clinical trial can be ‘set to render’ anything. Indeed, to presume this (and that it is a ‘panacea’) is the sort of quackery that clinical trials were set up to counter, and which we argue is liable to undermine legitimate attempts to investigate the safety and effectiveness of psilocybin.”

In response to this attack, Synthesis gathered a group of retreat operators, nonprofits and psychedelic philanthropists to resist the evil empire of COMPASS. But then, after torturous consultations with the Dutch Ministry of Health, they discovered they couldn’t legally run a clinical psychedelic therapy program in Holland. The program was shelved at an estimated cost of $500,000 to $1 million.

One facilitator said, “They spent all that money on the program, and at the end one founder said, ‘Well, we learned a lot.’”

At the least, Synthesis did continue to support Watts as she developed her ACER integration program, and she doesn’t seem to hold a grudge towards the founders for failing to check if they could legally provide what they hired her to do.

The Oregon Fiasco

In November 2020, Oregon became the first state in the US to legalize psilocybin (the psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms). Measure 109 directed the Oregon Health Authority to create a regulatory structure in which approved “service centers” staffed by trained facilitators could offer psilocybin to whoever wanted to take it if they met certain safety criteria. The Measure was passed in large part thanks to the efforts of a campaigner called Tom Eckert, who then joined the Oregon Health Authority to oversee its enactment.

Synthesis positioned itself as one of the leading players in the Oregon market. Myles Katz moved to Oregon to oversee the process. He and Rachel Aidan were closely consulted by the Oregon Health Authority, and its facilitation training model would become the template copied by some other firms. It also made the biggest investment in a new service center, spending an estimated total of $5 million on a 124-acre site called Buckhorn Springs, in Jackson County. (I hear that one of their funders stipulated their investment had to be spent on property, hence the big splurge.) Illustrations make it look like Hogwarts – a modern school for wizards!

Buckhorn Springs map. Source: Psychedelic Alpha.

The first sign that things were going awry in Oregon was in early 2022 when Shayla Love reported in Vice that Tom Eckert – the head of the Oregon psilocybin program advisory board – and Rachel Aidan, the CEO of the biggest corporate player in the Oregon psilocybin program – had become romantically involved.

When it was suggested this could present a conflict of interest, Eckert resigned from the Oregon Health Authority advisory board and subsequently set up Inner Trek, which offers facilitator training and is therefore a direct competitor to his partner’s company (the two got engaged, while Rachel’s ex-husband Ethan continued to work with her as the financial controller of Synthesis). 

What happened was not in any way illegal, and there’s no accounting for love, but the relationship made Synthesis and the Oregon program look bad. The first ever legal psilocybin program in the US needs to look squeaky clean.

In 2020, Synthesis launched its online psychedelic facilitator training program. It seemed to be popular, and offered a dazzling roster of speakers from the world of psychedelics. One senior manager says: “What the leadership team did very well was bring in talented people, selling them on the vision while underpaying them.” People would do talks or interviews and be paid a one-off fee, then the talk would be bundled into the training, which was sold for $10,000.

Synthesis brought in an external team to build and manage the course, run by business coach Juliana Farrell in the U.S. I worked with Juliana’s team when I gave a talk for Synthesis, and it was a positive professional experience. But it must have been expensive to pay Juliana and her team, possibly at a day-rate. One senior manager says: “They brought in external consultants who profited from the upside but had no downside risk.” (Although, like many of the company’s contractors, Juliana’s team is probably owed pay as well.) 

The program changed from a nine-month course, to a year-long course, to an 18-month course, and these changes weren’t always communicated well to students, some of whom got disgruntled.

And what exactly were they being sold? This was largely an online course, made up of online videos with learning in small “pods,” and then the opportunity to take part in a psilocybin ceremony at the end of the course.

There is deep skepticism about the course among facilitators at Synthesis in Holland.

One facilitator says: “We repeatedly communicated to the leadership that this shouldn’t be marketed as a training program. It’s misleading. We’re not training people – the leadership knows it, the course facilitators know it. It’s an educational program. We gave them multiple warnings to that effect.”

Another facilitator says: “Can you learn online how to be a brain surgeon? For what can be transmitted online I thought it was fantastic. But for any profession you need hands-on experience.”

While other psychedelic training companies, like Fluence, offer courses for medical professionals, Synthesis students were not required to have any background in healing or care. It was a “life coach model,” in the words of one facilitator.

And Synthesis’ retreat screening protocols were sometimes relaxed for course participants, to improve sign-up rates. One retreat facilitator says: “The leadership team told the screening team you need to do whatever you can as they’ve already paid.”

What’s the final certificate really worth? A facilitator says: “The certificate says ‘after this program you’re the equivalent of a retreat assistant’. That means you can sit in on ceremonies and do no harm. You can’t lead ceremonies, you can’t do screening, you can’t do one-on-one facilitation – not in Synthesis in Holland anyway.”

See Also

It might be different in Oregon. The Oregon Health Authority used the Synthesis course as the template for its psychedelic therapy program. Graduates would just need to take another theoretical exam, and then they could be employed by a psilocybin service center. And the Oregon bill presented itself as a response to the “public health crisis” of mental illness. So someone without any experience in a healing profession who has done a year-long online course and then taken part in a truffle ceremony could be in a position to offer psychedelic therapy to the mentally ill, if they were accepted to work in one of Oregon’s psilocybin service centers (not that any such centers yet exist).

Synthesis took a huge bet on the Oregon psilocybin market and planned to open its own luxury “service center” in the countryside. The idea was to have a first-mover advantage. But first movers can flame out in such an unstable regulatory environment, and that’s what happened to Synthesis.

As Josh Hardman expertly explored in his Psychedelic Alpha newsletter this week, certain parts of Oregon voted last year to opt out of the psilocybin program. There is a big difference between the very liberal cities of Oregon and the more conservative countryside. Jackson County held a referendum on whether to opt out of the program. Synthesis spent $200,000 on lobbying and the people of Jackson County voted to stay in the psilocybin program. But it was ruled that psilocybin service centers could only operate in certain parts of the county – and that didn’t include Buckhorn Springs.

Their big bet had gone spectacularly bust. 

The Unwinding

Synthesis’ financial and governance problems got worse in 2021 and 2022. The dynamics between founders Myles Katz and Martijn Schirp and CEO Rachel Aidan became more and more dysfunctional. At one point, according to multiple accounts, Myles and Rachel tried to force Martijn out. One employee says, “The number one reason people gave for leaving the company was the toxic dynamics between the three company leaders.”

Their decision making was erratic. One facilitator in the Holland retreat team says, “We were laid off at the start of the pandemic, and then all brought back in 2022, and suddenly we moved from one retreat a month to four a month.” Another employee says, “Retreat facilitators were promised in writing that they would work in retreats for five days and then get two days completely off. That was scrapped in 2022 – facilitators would get one day off and then back into a retreat.”

The company’s screening policies were loosened to attract more retreat customers. One facilitator says, “In 2022 we got much heavier cases, which shook us. We weren’t consulted, we just noticed things changed.” Another facilitator confirms, “The screening protocol was relaxed. The amount of very challenging experiences went up.”

Retreat facilitators burnt out and suffered serious health problems.  “Staff care was terrible and therapists were cannon fodder,” says one former member of the advisory board. 

These incidents of burnout were not addressed or treated compassionately by the leadership. One facilitator says: “I once heard that there are three signs of an organization with shadow problems – employee burnout, rise in interpersonal conflict and management not dealing with it. All three were happening at Synthesis. We constantly asked the management for dialogue and mediation to deal with the interpersonal issues, but it was always ignored.” Natasja Pelgrom, a lead facilitator, left in 2021. 

Meanwhile, the company was running out of money. One senior manager says, “Rachel’s strategy was to raise big money, then spend big money, then raise even more.” Martijn was considering building a temple. “They were in way over their heads,” says one manager. A facilitator says, “With all the best intentions, they found themselves in a dance with big capital, and they didn’t know how to dance.”

According to Psychedelic Alpha, by the end of 2022 they had $850,000 in liabilities to contractors , while income from the retreats and the online course was lower than expected. 

Josh Hardman writes:

“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. 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.”

The leadership team couldn’t agree on a plan to cut costs. They were arguing up to the last – in one call, Rachel Aidan complained she was a “puppet CEO.” She abruptly resigned in February 2023. Martijn tried to find an investor to bail them out, and these discussions are ongoing. But the Dutch side of the company declared bankruptcy in March 2023, and Synthesis Digital – the online training company – has fired all employees and suspended operations. 

Students say these problems were not communicated well at all. One student tells me: “The real pain for me was the lack of transparency and communication. As soon as they saw it crumble, they shut the doors and left us with very big questions. Accept your mismanagement, show vulnerability, inform us, support all that feel left alone and offer solutions. Instead, they jumped ship. Big ethical missteps.”

To be clear, Rachel Aiden resigned, but Martijn didn’t, and it’s not clear if Myles did or didn’t (he’s deleted his Linkedin page). 

One Synthesis employee says: “It’s been like a bad trip. I can say that the dissolution of the business was one of the most unprofessionally-handled and emotionally manipulative things I’ve ever witnessed. It has caused a lot of pain for a lot of people, and was nearly textbook 101 of how NOT to do this kind of thing. I don’t sense any intentional maliciousness—just a serious level of incompetence. Turns out you have to build your business on something more solid than a bunch of psychedelic journeys together! Heart-centered businesses can really fuck things up.”

Employees – some of whom moved their families to Holland to work – have been left without jobs. Contractors have been left high and dry for huge contracts. Students are facing the loss of the tens of thousands of dollars – sometimes their life-savings – which they spent on the dream of becoming psychedelic healers. Most accreditation courses are insured against bankruptcy of the training providers, but the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission waived that for psychedelic training. Many students are demanding refunds, which is threatening the existence of Retreat Guru, the Canadian online wellness company that handles the payment processing for Synthesis’ course. Retreat Guru is working with investors to try and complete the course for students. 

Meanwhile, according to Mason Marks, a lawyer who advised the Oregon program, the collapse of Synthesis could even bring down the entire program. It has to fund itself, and was already facing a budget shortfall before the collapse of one of its biggest potential service centers.

Lessons From a Challenging Psychedelic Experience

What are the take-aways from this still-developing story?

First, let me repeat what I said at the beginning – it’s easy for a writer to criticize from the sidelines. I have never run a company, let alone a psychedelic company, and I’m sure it’s extremely hard and takes a lot of courage. Most start-ups fail. I have respect for the Synthesis founders’ bravery in trying, and wish them well for their futures. We have yet to hear their side of the story, for legal reasons, and no doubt this story misses some perspectives and complexities, which will emerge in time. 

Precisely because psychedelics are such an unstable regulatory market, perhaps one lesson is not to make big bets too soon. In poker terms, Synthesis bet big before the flop, and lost. Grow slowly, don’t get inflated. I bet some of the fastest-growing companies in this space don’t exist in five years (indeed in the last few days, Field Trip Health and Delic have both announced major corporate restructurings). 

Another takeaway is that psychedelic facilitation is hard and emotionally demanding. Several psychedelic companies are looking to scale up and become “the McDonald’s of psychedelic experiences,” and this is taking a serious psychological toll on facilitators, which translates to more risks for consumers.

One facilitator says, “People facilitating at several of the big psychedelic companies are getting burnout. They’re not only dealing with their own and their clients’ shadows, they’re having to shield them from the shadow of their organizations.”

Synthesis’ Dutch retreat team are proud of what they offered over the last five years, but they were never profitable. And perhaps psychedelic retreats are never going to be a big money maker because they aren’t scalable. So if founders or investors are looking for a get-rich-quick scheme, this is not it.

A better alternative to the medical model might be established psychedelic religions like Santo Daime (although of course that comes with a lot of dogma). Someone (preferably anonymous) needs to invent a sort of AA-style dogmatically-flexible, local-community-based therapeutic religion for psychedelics, with a strong code of ethics that includes strict anonymity and rules against profiteering, which local chapters can adopt and stick to.

The market for facilitator training does seem to be profitable, particularly if you mainly sell pre-recorded online videos as most psychedelic training companies do. But is that really proper training to become a psychedelic facilitator? It’s probably a good foundation, which can be added to with hands-on experience at harm reduction facilities like Zendo Project or with courses in Holotropic Breathwork. So it’s not a waste of students’ money, just a beginning. But I’m sure many of them will find being a psychedelic facilitator is extremely emotionally demanding, and we are going to need support services for burnt-out facilitators. 

There’s a big take-away about “conscious capitalism.” Businesses need to have proper business plans, executives and investors need to do proper due diligence, books need to be balanced, and leaders need to do what they say they’ll do. If you say they’ll have a progressive hiring policy favoring queer and BIPOC candidates, stick to that. If you say you’ll share ownership, do it.

To end on a positive note, Synthesis played a historic role in the shift of psychedelics from the underground to the overground. It supported researchers including myself to learn more about psychedelics. It supported Ros Watts in the development of her integration program. 

A lot of good people worked there and will go on to set up interesting new projects in psychedelics. 

Synthesis will have a place in the messy history of psychedelics in the 21st century. But that’s not much consolation to students or staff right now.

Thanks to Benjamin Ramm for breaking the story of Synthesis’ bankruptcy on Twitter, to Josh Hardman for his excellent reporting at Psychedelic Alpha and to Noah Heller of NGO Psilocybin Oregon, who I interviewed here on the many problems with Oregon’s psilocybin program and why it might not get off the ground. And thanks and good luck to the Synthesis staff, investors, advisors, customers and students who spoke to me. 

This article was produced and first published by The Challenging Psychedelic Experience Project, which researches adverse psychedelic experiences and what helps people deal with them.

Featured Image: Nicki Adams using adapted photos from the Synthesis Institute.

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