Christian Angermayer (43) is a polymath, billionaire, entrepreneur and investor - but most importantly the driving force behind the renaissance of psychedelic drugs. Psychedelic Finance got one of the first interviews after the successful IPO of psychedelic market leader atai Life Sciences, which Christian has started in 2018.
Your first experience taking psychedelics was in the Caribbean, in a jurisdiction where psilocybin is legal, with a group of friends. What inspired you to try them at that point in your life and what was the impact?
Many come to psychedelics looking for something – healing, catharsis, release of some sort. But I was not on the search for anything. In fact, I had always been opposed to “drugs” on principle: I have been so far extremely happy and fulfilled in my life and was of the opinion that I only had something to lose. But you might say fate intervened: one year before my first trip, I sat next to a famous neuroscientist at dinner, and he told me about the power and the low risk profile of psychedelics. Soon, I noticed more and more friends mentioning them. Later, on holiday in the Caribbean, my best friends had some homegrown shrooms. By that stage I had heard so much and knew the downside is minimal to zero, I thought “why not?” And it was hands down the single most meaningful event of my entire life.
How quickly after that first experience did you begin working on your first venture in psychedelics? At that point in time, how did you see the opportunity?
It was clear to me directly after the first trip that these substances should be medically available again – as some of them had indeed been in the 20th century. But it was also clear to me that these powerful substances need to be administered in a responsible way: my first trip – like many more to come – was very much shaped by the quality of my trip-guide, and I understood right away that psychedelics should be used under medical supervision in a controlled setting. After my initial trip, it took me two years to really get my head around what and how to begin to build a business model. I finally seed funded Compass Pathways in 2017 and shortly after founded atai Life Sciences.
Tell us about the early days of atai Life Sciences. What was your vision for the company and who did you get involved right away?
I think I do certain “founder things” really well, like having the idea, developing the vision, fundraising etc. But I am not a good operator. Hence, I teamed up with Florian Brand and Lars Wilde from the start, who are great operators, and who had worked with me before. And obviously any biotech company needs a genius scientist, which is how our CSO Srinivas Rao came into the picture.
Our vision was simple: build the leading mental health company in the world, with a strong focus on psychedelics. To have everything under one roof, I put my Compass Pathways stake into atai. And I am very proud to say that we – when I include Compass, of which atai still owns approximately 19% - really own almost all relevant intellectual property around those psychedelic substances which we believe make the most sense in a medical setting.
You were the first backer of Compass Pathways. What did you find exciting about the mission they were working on and how did you go about helping them?
George and Katya are two great human beings, who had the same vision as I did; we all have a very personal connection to psychedelics; and they have the necessary skills to be successful in the medical world. It is a great pleasure and honor to have teamed up with them and to continue to work together closely.
What did the COMPASS IPO do for the general awareness of psychedelic derived medicines in the venture capital community?
When we started in 2017, most other investors literally thought we were crazy. Till the pre-IPO round, almost all funding for Compass came from atai and my friends. The IPO changed this completely. Practically overnight, psychedelics became a respectable investment.
Psychedelics have gathered a lot of attention lately, from advocates, scientists, founders and entrepreneurs. What do you personally think it will take for more people to recognize psychedelics as medicine and to have wider medical accessibility?
The next step for the entire sector is for atai and Compass to execute on their planned clinical trials. Given that all our compounds either have strong historic evidence - some have been medically used somewhere in the world in the last century - or strong anecdotal evidence from recreational or ceremonial use, I am personally very excited for the potential of our programs.
When you talk to people about psychedelics, what are some of the common misconceptions that you hear? How knowledgeable do you think most people in the venture capital and public markets community are about the opportunity currently?
Actually, I think many still have a lot to learn. Investors – institutional and retail alike – flipped almost overnight from complete ignorance to irrational exuberance. I see many companies financed at the moment because of the “shroom boom”, but I often can’t see a valid business model, or a science secured by patents which could lead to approved drugs. Time will separate the wheat from the chaff.
In the short term, what validations or milestones do you think will be transformational for psychedelics and their medical acceptance?
In late 2021, Compass Pathways plans to release its phase 2b data, which I believe could be a great boost for Compass, atai and the entire sector.
In the long term, how do you see psychedelics being a part of our world?
I deeply believe it is the right thing to put the medical use case first. There are 1 billion people out there suffering from mental health disorders – and most likely way more, as these issues remain so stigmatized and not everybody who needs help is coming forward today. The only way to reach these people, and to have their treatment paid by healthcare providers, is to get these powerful substances approved by the FDA and to replace old or anecdotal evidence with rigorous clinical trials. At the same time, I personally believe these substances should be decriminalized. Neither Compass nor atai is in the business of decriminalization – unlike many cannabis companies, for example – but I personally believe that nobody should go to jail because they are growing mushrooms at home. However, I am not for commercial use outside the medical world. As the saying goes “with great power comes great responsibility”; these substances are very powerful, and for thousands of years have mostly been used in a ritualized, shamanic setting. And the shamans of today are the psychotherapists and doctors. We are bringing psychedelics back into their rightful setting.
Can you tell us what is next for atai Life Sciences and what you see the next critical points of validation being?
As said above, one major catalyst this year will surely be the readout of Compass’ phase 2b data. In late 2021, atai is expecting phase 2a data for its schizophrenia drug candidate, which is also a major inflection point. But that’s not all. Over the next 18 months, there are 18 anticipated milestones coming up for atai, from start of new trials to read outs. Don’t forget, we have the largest pipeline featuring psychedelic compounds in the mental health world, with 10 development programs, plus 6 enabling technologies including digital therapeutics. And atai intends to continue to pursue business development activities, so I am confident we will seek to add more mental health drug programs – psychedelics and non-psychedelic ones – to our pipeline.
Can you share what makes atai such an exciting opportunity to you?
Atai and Compass have been the first one in this millennia to rediscover psychedelics in the commercial drug development world. Because we were early movers and well-funded, we have been able to bring on what I think is the best management and drug development team and to assemble and compile patents, IP and data around those psychedelics we consider the most viable for medical use. As of March 31, 2021, and after giving effect to IPO proceeds, as reported in atai’s prospectus filed with the SEC, atai has more than 400 million USD cash on its balance sheet, enabling atai to fund planned operations through 2023.
Atai is not your only focus in terms of companies building the future of mental health. Could you tell us a bit about Bionomics and your involvement there?
There is not one root cause for mental health issues, hence there will never be a single silver bullet. Psychedelics are the most powerful group of drugs we have to fight the mental health pandemic, but there are also other valuable ideas – from drug development to digital therapeutics. Bionomics is a very good example: Their lead drug BNC210 is very promising against PTSD and General Anxiety Disorder. And I also see great potential in their Alzheimer’s drug, which they are co-developing with Merck.
Outside of psychedelics, you are on the leading edge of numerous different opportunities, in biotech, healthcare and more. Can you share what excites you most about your different ventures?
I believe humanity is at the very beginning of its journey, and I can’t wait for all the wonders we will discover. The world we know will change dramatically over the next 20-30 years, and I actually believe humans will make the next evolutionary step, this time not catalysed by Darwin’s law, but by human progress itself. I want to enjoy this wild ride as long as possible, which is why many of my biotech investments focus on longevity. And most important I want to actively create the future I want to live in.