“Braver and Bolder.” Behind a Big Gift to Support the Burgeoning Field of Psychedelic Research

Daniel Patrick Martin/shutterstock

Daniel Patrick Martin/shutterstock

A group of donors has given $17 million to start the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins Medicine, making it the first such research center in the U.S. and the largest research center of its kind in the world. Researchers will use psychedelics to study the mind and identify therapies for diseases such as addiction, PTSD and Alzheimer’s.

The center’s operational expenses for the first five years will be covered by support from the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation—a surprising move for this foundation backstopped by hedge fund wealth—plus four young entrepreneurial donors: author and technology investor Tim Ferriss, WordPress co-founder Matt Mullenweg, investor Craig Nerenberg, and Blake Mycoskie, the founder of TOMS, a shoe and accessory brand.

The creation of the center finds an intriguing mix of donors stepping up to fund a promising research field that has received scant federal support. This isn’t to say that center is some quixotic shot in the dark—Johns Hopkins researchers have been exploring the medical benefits of psychedelics for close to 20 years. More recently, the field has seen a surge in funding for research thanks to cultural shifts and proponents like Ferriss, whom the New York Times called “the man who put his money behind psychedelic medicine.”

“We have to take braver and bolder steps if we want to help those suffering from chronic illness, addiction and mental health challenges,” says Alex Cohen, president, Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation. “By investing in the Johns Hopkins center, we are investing in the hope that researchers will keep proving the benefits of psychedelics—and people will have new ways to heal.”

“There is Much Work to Be Done”

Psychedelics are a class of pharmacological compounds that produce unique and profound changes of consciousness. The most common psychedelics are psilocybin, the chemical found in so-called magic mushrooms, LSD, DMT and mescaline.

Researchers began exploring the benefits and risks of psychedelics in the 1950s and 1960s. Research dried up in the early 1970s, thanks to the “cultural trauma” of the psychedelic ‘60s, said Roland R. Griffiths, Ph.D., a psychopharmacologist and professor at Johns Hopkins who will lead the new center. “The sensationalistic media coverage established a narrative that overestimated risks that was soaked up by the culture,” he said. “It takes a long time to dispel such a narrative.”

In the early 1990s, the Food and Drug Administration agreed to studies into the effects of psychedelics for the first time in decades. In 2000, Johns Hopkins became the first outfit to achieve regulatory approval in the U.S. to reinitiate research with psychedelics in healthy volunteers who had never used a psychedelic. Much of the group’s work has focused on the effects of psilocybin, which was classified as a Schedule I drug during the Nixon administration.

The group’s 2006 publication on the safety and effects of a single dose of psilocybin sparked a renewal of psychedelic research worldwide. Other notable educational institutions studying psychedelic medicines include New York University, the University of California, Los Angeles, the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Hopkins researchers have administered psilocybin to over 350 healthy volunteers over the past 19 years in some 700 sessions and published peer-reviewed studies in more than 60 journals. By late 2018, Hopkins researchers were reporting promising results using psilocybin for depression, nicotine addiction and cancer-related distress.

The new Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins will house a team of six faculty neuroscientists, experimental psychologists and clinicians with experience in psychedelic science, and five postdoctoral scientists. One of the center’s first priorities will be studying the effects of psychedelics in people with early Alzheimer’s disease. Further studies will determine psilocybin’s effectiveness in treating ailments like opioid addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder and anorexia. “There is much work to be done,” Griffiths said.

The Man Behind the Gift

Followers of higher ed philanthropy understand that gifts of this nature don’t occur in a vacuum. While Johns Hopkins researchers have been studying the effects of psychedelics for the past two decades, American culture has gradually shaken off what Griffiths called the “cultural trauma” of the 1960s.

Baby boomers are more receptive to psychedelic medicine than their parents. Author Michael Pollan wrote a New York Times bestseller, How To Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, in which he explored the medicinal benefits of psychedelics and went on “guided trips” after getting past the “the moral panic” associated with psychedelics.

And even more critically, the raging opioid crisis will probably make compounds like psilocybin more acceptable to the public in the future, said Sara Lappan, a visiting instructor in the counseling program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s department of human studies.

Perhaps no single individual has been as responsible for the medical community’s renewed interest in psychedelic medicine than Tim Ferris. Born in 1977, Ferriss founded BrainQUICKEN, an Internet-based nutritional supplements business in 2001. He eventually sold the company, then known as BodyQUICK, to a London-based private equity firm in 2010 for an undisclosed sum. Ferriss is best known for his book The 4-Hour Workweek, which, as its title suggests, encourages readers to work less—a lot less.

Ferriss is also an advisor and angel investor to tech companies and nonprofits. Ferris has provided financial support for QuestBridge, which pairs gifted disadvantaged students with elite colleges, and has advised the Nutrition Science Initiative. 

Ferriss tabled most of his other projects to focus on advancing psychedelic medicine, he told the Times’ Benedict Carey. “It’s important to me for macro-reasons, but also deeply personal ones,” he said. “I grew up on Long Island, and I lost my best friend to a fentanyl overdose. I have treatment-resistant depression and bipolar disorder in my family. And addiction.”

“Bend the Arc of History”

Ferriss previously provided funding for a similar center at Imperial College in London and for individual research projects at UCSF, testing psilocybin as an aid to therapy for distress in long-term AIDS patients.

In 2015, Ferriss met Dr. Griffiths and became intrigued by his group’s research. Afterward, Ferriss launched a crowdfunding campaign—he called it a “seed investment”—for a small depression study at Hopkins. He walked away impressed. “They really delivered,” he said.

Ferris committed $2 million of his own money for the Hopkins center, approached his wealthy friends with an interest in mental health, and asked them if they’d chip in. The new venture, he told them, “truly has the chance to bend the arc of history, and I’ve spent nearly five years looking at and testing options in this space to find the right bet. Would you have any interest in discussing?”

Craig Nerenberg, who co-founded hedge fund Brenner West Capital Partners, signed up. Like Ferris, he gave from personal experience. “I have lost a family member to addiction and have felt the pain of loved ones who struggled through depression. It’s hard for me to imagine a contribution that I can make which—if the research data continues to bear out—will have a great impact of the next decade.”

Another donor, the 35-year-old Matt Mullenweg, founded Automattic Inc., the business behind WordPress, in 2006. In August, Automattic acquired Tumblr from Verizon. Mullenweg has supported numerous philanthropic organizations, including Archive.org, Free Software Foundation, the Innocence Project and charity: water. Mullenweg was also a major supporter of The Bay Lights project, both as the first donor and later helping to finish the project with a second $1.5 million donation.

Blake Mycoskie is 43 and a vocal advocate for “conscious capitalism” and philanthropy. “While giving feels really good,” Mycoskie said, “it is also an effective business strategy.” Mycoskie has earned plaudits for TOMS’ “One for One” campaign, in which the company gives a pair of shoes to a child for every pair it sells. In 2014, Mycoskie sold a 50 percent stake in the business to Bain Capital, which valued the company at an estimated $625 million. At the time, Mycoskie pledged to donate 50 percent of the profits from the sale to establish a fund that identifies and supports social entrepreneurship and other causes.

Another Important Gift from the Cohens

All of which brings me to the center’s remaining financial backer, one with very deep pockets and a keen interest in mental health issues—the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation.

While the Cohens had provided extensive financial support to museums, health and educational causes long before Steve’s hedge fund, SAC Capital, pleaded guilty to insider trading in 2013 and agreed to pay a $1.8 billion fine, that giving has increased since then—with Alex taking on a much more active and visible role.

In 2016, Alex embarked on a “Giving Tour,” in which she and her staff took a six-day bus trip from Chicago to Las Vegas to interact with parts of America most Acela corridor-based funders rarely see. “We want to bring attention to the middle of the country, the states that seem to have been forgotten,” she wrote in her blog. “Like many of the generous and fortunate people we know, the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation tends to focus our giving in our general vicinity. As a result, much of the money is spent on both coasts, but nowhere in the middle.”

Around the same time, the foundation announced the launch of the Cohen Veterans Network. Seeded with a huge $275 million gift, the network supports military veterans and their families by opening up free mental health clinics around the country. As my colleague Ade Adeniji noted, it was one of the largest gifts ever made by a private individual toward veterans and one of the larger gifts ever made for mental health. Cohen, whose son joined the Marine Corps, also pledged an additional $30 million through a sister organization called Cohen Veterans Bioscience for research programs.

The Cohens’ giving, Adeniji wrote, had clearly turned a corner. “It's one thing to write a large check to a large hospital. It’s quite another—and much harder—to create a new national network of clinics from scratch. This is major-league giving.”

Here, the similarities between the Cohens’ veterans-related gifts and their support for the new Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research begin to crystalize. Both gifts find the couple providing critical funding to historically overlooked areas in the mental health field.

Commenting on their gift to Johns Hopkins, Alex, in an email to the Times’ Carey, wrote, “I strongly believe that we must dare to change the minds of those who think this drug is for recreational purposes only and acknowledge that it is a miracle for many who are desperate for relief from their symptoms or for the ability to cope with their illnesses. It may even save lives.”

Recent Precedents

Research into psychedelic medicine clearly represents—cue the inevitable Huxley reference—a “brave new world” for university fundraisers. The most obvious corollary is the growing field of cannabis research. Like psychedelics, Uncle Sam classifies cannabis as an illegal drug. Like psychedelics, image-conscious donors have been slow to fund research into the benefits of the drug. However, unlike psychedelics, cannabis isn’t merely legal in many states, it’s also big business. Quasi-legalization and mass commercialization certainly give donors reputational cover to support further research.

Case in point: Last year, UC San Diego received $4.7 million from the Ray and Tye Noorda Foundation to support “first-of-its-kind, multi-disciplinary research on autism spectrum disorders” at the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at UC San Diego School of Medicine.

Here, we see the importance of Johns Hopkins’ previous two decades of research in terms of providing donors with a degree of reputational cover. Commenting on the school’s 2006 findings on psilocybin, the New York Times’ Benedict Carey wrote that the “reputational weight” of the school and the fact that the university had no institutional bias toward alternative treatments was “at least as important” as the actual findings.

Moreover, the Hopkins research over the past decade has shown psilocybin to have low toxicity and abuse potential. The hope here is that over time, the DEA will strike psilocybin as a Schedule I drug and assign it a more appropriate classification. Ferris, meanwhile, said he was hoping to “affect the timeline” of federal regulatory approvals for psychedelic drugs, though he opposed over-the-counter uses.

All involved parties also understand the serious risks associated with psychedelics, which is why, researchers argue, they should be studied in a carefully controlled setting. “The field is chock-full of lessons, and we take them seriously,” said Matthew Johnson, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and the Hopkins center’s assistant director.

Given these factors, the Hopkins gift, at least so far, hasn’t generated the kind of pushback we’ve seen with other gifts earmarked for research into more experimental treatments. The most obvious example comes from the University of California, Irvine, where, in 2017, Susan and Henry Samueli gave the school a whopping $200 million earmarked for the study of integrative medicine. Dr. Steven Novella, a neurologist at Yale University, called the gift “a very bad thing.”

Appealing to the VC Mindset

While conventional wisdom suggests that younger donors who made their fortunes in the tech world are instinctively drawn to edgy and outside-the-box causes, at the end of the day, they are still good venture capitalists at heart. Higher ed donors prefer to make game-changing gifts that supplement an existing infrastructure at a highly regarded institution, rather than create one out of whole cloth.

The Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at UC San Diego was established all the way back in 2000. But consider two recent examples from the burgeoning field of climate science. In April, P. Roy Vagelos and Diana T. Vagelos gave $50 million to the University of Pennsylvania for a new center devoted to the emerging field of energy science. The gift came three years after the couple established the Vagelos Institute for Energy Science and Technology.

Meanwhile, in early September, Joan Brock, the wife of the late Dollar Tree co-founder Macon Brock, gave $3 million to Old Dominion University’s Institute for Coastal Adaptation and Resilience in Norfolk. The institute aims to develop practical solutions to challenges faced by coastal communities, and builds on over eight years of investment by the university.

Similarly, Ferriss and his fellow donors were clearly impressed by the fact that Johns Hopkins has been conducting research on psychedelic medicine for close to 20 years. And given the fact that the field is still in its nascent stages, the potential for the center to generate an impressive return on investment was too tantalizing for a VC-oriented donor like Ferris to ignore. As he told the Times’ Carey, “It became clear to me that you can do a lot in this field with very little money.”