One aspect of psychedelic and plant-based medicine that often gets overlooked by for-profit interests is the fact that many of these compounds are rooted in indigenous communities. For instance, the peyote ceremonies that help so many with PTSD and depression are based on traditional treatments that have been practiced in rare parts of the world for centuries. But, when commercial interests get involved, that heritage often gets overlooked.
Journey Colab is working to correct that oversight, developing FDA-approved psychedelic therapies that also “honor the plants and their cultural and spiritual heritage.” Per the company: “We are science-driven, but we also recognize and honor communities and knowledge that have come before us.”
Journey Colab’s Chief Impact Officer, Sutton King, is tasked with helping these communities and recently spoke with Psychedelic Invest about the company’s plans and the debt that plant-based medicine owes to indigenous communities.
Psychedelic Invest: How is Journey Colab different than other companies in psychedelic medicine?
Sutton King: We’re very new to the space, and we’re launching with an initial investment from Sam Altman of Y Combinator. What we’re doing is taking a portfolio of plant-inspired compounds through the FDA approval process starting with synthetic Mescalin.
But what’s unique about Journey is that we are focused on a steward ownership model. We’re allocating a third of our company’s equity to our diverse employees, to the therapists who will be delivering these medicines as well as the indigenous communities where the medicine comes from.
For myself, I’m Afro indigenous by affiliation and I’m from the United Tribes of Wisconsin. But my background really does not come from the psychedelic space, which I’m learning is very common as we walk into this renaissance.
PI: I’ve noticed that too. A lot of people are coming to this industry from different, unique backgrounds.
SK: It’s amazing because that’s how we break down silos, right? That’s how we re-imagine capitalism and really create the mental health resources that we need to thrive.
I am really an indigenous health advocate. I’m the executive director and founder of the Urban Indigenous Collective, which is a 501c3 grassroots organization here in New York City, and the co-founder of ShockTalk, an application that connects native users to native and indigenous therapists. So, really, most of my work has been focused on advocating for culturally appropriate methodologies in technology, healthcare and business, and introducing “decolonial” approaches to working with patients. It’s been really exciting to bring this background to this team.
PI: What’s different about the Journey approach?
SK: We’re not really trying to reimagine capitalism, but we’re creating a governance structure that’s different from how many companies operate. There’s a lot of virtue signaling in this space around all this talk about reciprocity and diversity & inclusion, but when you look at the team or you look at who has ownership, it often doesn’t really reflect that talk. There’s no teeth to it.
We’ve been working diligently to create a governance structure and a trust to allocate this equity so that we can focus on supporting conservation and access. We want to make sure that it’s not just the elite who can afford these luxurious resorts, but that our most vulnerable communities have access to these medicines as well.
It’s really exciting and we’re getting a lot of attention from the psychedelic and plant medicine community for doing so. We not only want to be the gold standard for the steward ownership model in the biotech space, but we also want to share with others how we’re doing it so that they can do it as well. We don’t want to be the gatekeepers to this knowledge.
PI: That seems to fly in the face of these ultra-expensive retreats that only the wealthy can access.
SK: That was my first question when the Journey folks first approached me and asked me to come on board. How will this work?
As someone who has worked on the grassroots level to push for mental health resources and access, my thought was that if we’re going to commercialize psychedelics and plant medicine we also need to address the barriers to access that exist right now for indigenous peoples. We’ve got to think about indigenous peoples being the only group who has a legal right to this type of care, so we have to prioritize them.
It just cannot be business as usual. This multidisciplinary approach is so important so that we can truly break down the silos that, I think, got us to this place with mental health in the first place. For too long we’ve kind of compartmentalized the human body through the Western, scientific approach to the body. When we start to really recognize the indigenous ways of knowing and well-being we start realizing that it’s all related. In the holistic approach, it’s mind, body, spirit, and soul all working together. This is what my people and indigenous people have been preaching for time immemorial.
PI: And indigenous communities have traditionally been underserved in terms of mental health care?
SK: That’s right, and that’s one reason we’ve been very diligent about how we’re structuring this company. Our success is dependent on not only transforming mental health care but also on supporting indigenous peoples who haven’t had what they’ve needed for mental health care for decades.
But we’ve seen a bit of an awakening in 2020, in terms of COVID shining a light on the mental health disparities that these communities were already dealing with. So I not only see this as an opportunity to transform mental health, but also an opportunity to really create true social impact in indigenous communities. When we talk about X percentage of equity in Journey being allocated to an indigenous community pool, that could translate into real dollars for communities, and we haven’t seen that type of money in indigenous philanthropy ever.
PI: What’s Journey’s timeline for the months and years ahead?
SK: Right now, we’re engaging with investors to support our steward ownership model and build our indigenous community pool. We’re also getting ready for our Series A, which has been really exciting because we’ve had a lot of inbound interest from investors who are mission-driven just like we are, and are aligned to our values. There are some folks who might say that a model like ours might scare away investors, but if we’re really going to create something with integrity, it’s important that those dollars also come from those with integrity as well. It’s been great to see that interest.
Then, in March, we’re planning to start out preclinical studies for Mescalin and get the FDA approval process started so we can begin our clinical phase one trials. I should add that we’re also working to take a portfolio of compounds through the FDA process that will be reciprocal with Mescalin.
We’re partnering with the Riverstyx Foundation and Dr. Bronner’s on their Indigenous Medicine Conservation Fund, which supports conservation, indigenous rights, land access, and water rights. We’re also beginning to think about our relationships with residential treatment centers and the delivery infrastructure that we’ll need to get this medicine to patients.