The mental health fallout from the pandemic is self-evident. Be it from prolonged periods of isolation, bereavement or financial instability, the toll that this epoch-changing moment will take on our psychological wellbeing is and will continue to be devastating. 

Enter MindMed, a Toronto-based pharma, tech and digital therapeutics company that grew exponentially in 2020, achieving unicorn status in December. Co-founded by JR Rahn, a former Uber executive, MindMed uses substances such as psilocybin and LSD in psychedelic-assisted therapy to help cure mental illness and addiction. 

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Mr Rahn tells fDi that the sub-sector of life sciences’ emergence is laden with history. “We’re working on these substances because, in many ways, they’ve been ignored by the larger pharmaceutical and biotech industry due to a political past and headlines from the 1960s,” he says, adding that Albert Hofmann’s discovery of LSD occurred while he was working at Sandoz Laboratories, which is now part of Swiss pharma giant Novartis. 

“This is no longer a fringe industry and we’ve come back full circle into the pharmaceutical realm where LSD was discovered.”

New paradigm

Biotech companies in the mental health space — and now the accompanying attention from investors — are the “bastard child of the healthcare system” in the US, he says.

In the US, 60% of state counties, Mr Rahn says, do not have a psychiatrist, meaning that 80% of antidepressant prescriptions are authorised by a GP, as opposed to a specialist. According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 40% of adults in the US struggled with mental health and substance abuse during the pandemic. “So, clearly we need a new paradigm.” 

Fellow unicorn, UK-based Compass Pathways, which delivers psilocybin-assisted therapy, listed on the Nasdaq last year. MindMed and Atai Life Sciences — the latter of which is backed by PayPal’s Peter Thiel and also rumoured to have a billion-dollar valuation — are expected to list on the New York-based exchange this year too. 

Data not politics

If 2020 was the year of the “psychedelic unicorn”, Mr Rahn predicts that 2021 will be the “graduation year”, as medicines are developed and subsequently approved. Naturally, in the US, there is a political dimension to the “acceptance” of psychedelics, not unlike the cannabis industry.

“We couldn’t be further away from cannabis,” he says, insisting that MindMed is interested in FDA approval above all else and concerns itself with neither state-by-state approvals nor the political movements attached to the legalisation of these substances. 

The precare and aftercare procedures will also be a big component of the therapy offered. MindMed is working on digital therapeutics alongside clinical trials, which are essentially interventions based on AI and data to prevent and treat a disease or relapse. 

“If we can predict when somebody is going to relapse from a drug addiction or when they have a increased potential incidence of anxiety, those are very, very powerful tools for a care provider and a doctor,” he says.

Mission versus growth

Mr Rahn’s journey to MindMed was one led by his own struggle with mental health and addiction during his days in Silicon Valley and at Uber in Singapore, when the tech behemoth was a fledgling disruptor expanding into new markets.

But the company’s rapid rise concealed a host of negative externalities, he says. “The growth metrics were always the DNA we lived by. Growth at all costs. Break things.”

Now, in an age of impact capitalism and mission-related companies, encircled by the effects of climate change and Covid-19, Mr Rahn affirms that “growth at all costs doesn’t need to be a thing in 2021”.

This article first appeared in the February/March print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.