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5 Questions for Carey Turnbull
Carey Turnbull went to college in the 1960s, so you might not be surprised to learn he experimented with psychedelics in his youth. “Going to my college and not taking LSD would have been like joining a frat at a top 10 football school, being invited to have a beer at a football game, and saying, ‘I don’t watch football,’” he says. After his experiences in college, he started a family and began working in financial services and for the next 40 years, he didn’t take psychedelics.
But then, in 2006, Turnbull came across an academic journal article from Johns Hopkins researcher Roland Griffiths, titled “Psilocybin can occasion mystical type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance.” Turnbull realized that described his experience, and he started following, then funding, psychedelic research. By the late 2010s, Turnbull founded two of his own psychedelic companies: Ceruvia Lifesciences, a psychedelic drug development company, and B.More, a company that studies the use of psilocybin, the psychedelic compound found in so-called magic mushrooms, to treat addiction. He also sits on the boards of directors at the Heffter Research Institute, a non-profit that designs and funds psychedelic studies, and The Usona Institute, which conducts clinical research on psilocybin.
In 2021, Turnbull founded Freedom to Operate, or FTO, a non-profit dedicated to challenging what they see as flawed psychedelic patent claims.
Once a patent is issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, any party can request what’s called a “post-grant review” presenting evidence that a given patent claim is not actually novel, and is therefore unpatentable. (Such requests must be made within 90 days after a patent is granted.) On December 15, Freedom to Operate filed their post-grant review on a patent filed by COMPASS on what the company claims are proprietary, lab-made formulations of psilocybin. A week later, on December 22, FTO filed a second post-grant review of a second COMPASS patent. The Microdose covered FTO’s post-grant reviews and the science behind it; recently, we spoke with Turnbull about the future of psychedelics and intellectual property claims.
How did you get involved with challenging psychedelic patents?
For six or seven years I had been involved in several ventures in early development, either as a founder, investor, or chief executive. So I already had a patent attorney, and one day he told me, ‘Somebody just filed a patent on psilocybin.’ It was COMPASS, and they’d done a press release, too. And I said, ‘Really? That sounds odd.’ But since it takes months to see what the patent is, I’m just drumming my fingers, waiting. Everyone’s known how to make psilocybin since Albert Hofmann, who discovered LSD — he also worked out how to create the psilocybin molecule on a chemistry bench. And so the idea of patenting it just didn’t sit right with me.
Once I saw the patent info, I sent it off to a chemist to find out more about this procedure they’re using: where did it come from? And he said, this is pretty much Xeroxed out of Albert Hofmann’s book. So I thought it was worth filing some observations to the patent prosecutor in Great Britain in case they missed the fact that Albert Hofmann had actually already done this. The European Patent Office then came up with identical observations to what we filed. So COMPASS then amended and narrowed their patent from several dozen claims to just one.
That process personally cost me fifty or a hundred thousand dollars, and I told my patent lawyer to keep a separate bill for me for writing up these claims. At this point, I realized I just need to start paying people to dig into this. First, I found some chemists, and they said, ‘Well, you’ve got to hire a physical chemist.’ I said, ‘I didn’t know there were different kinds of chemists, but OK.’ After talking with a lot of physical chemists, the chemists told me, ‘You need a crystallographer.’ Then, I’m talking to crystallographers, and one says to me, ‘No human being has ever seen a molecule — so the real way to ‘see’ one would be to use a cyclotron.’ [Editor’s note: A cyclotron is an enormous particle accelerator that allows scientists to smash atoms together. For many years, cyclotrons were used primarily for physics experiments, but they can also be used for medical imaging.] Those cost billions of dollars to make; there’s one in Switzerland, one in Berkeley, one outside Chicago. So we started talking to a fellow on the Nobel Prize Chemistry Committee, and he got very excited about the project. So that’s how this incredible group of people ended up getting our data published in a crystallography journal. [Editor’s note: The researchers Turnbull worked with published a paper detailing their findings in the journal Acta Crystallographica Section C.]
At what point in that process did you decide to start a non-profit and found FTO?
My patent attorney said, ‘So, you’ve filed a few things – and COMPASS has hired a patent litigator.’ And I said, ‘What the hell is a patent litigator?’ And the attorney said, ‘Well, they’ve hired one, and they want to know who’s the real party of interest behind the filings.’ My patent attorney had just put his own name down as filing, and now they wanted to know who was paying for all this. I formed FTO right after that — after they hired a patent litigator, which scared me, frankly. I started a corporation and got 501(c)(3) status.
There has never been a more exciting – or bewildering – time in the world of psychedelics. Don’t miss a beat.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office regulations say that any petitions for post-grant review must be filed within 90 days after a patent is granted. It sounds like the team you were working with had already started research before COMPASS’s most recent patents were granted, but 90 days is a tight window. How did FTO’s December post-grant reviews come together?
It was a real race. We had to scour the planet for samples of psilocybin that predated their patent. There had to be a forensic “chain of custody,” which shows where they were made, and where they’d been held. So you couldn’t just ask, you know, some hippies at a college — we had to go to university labs, and we got some from NIDA (the National Institute on Drug Abuse), and some from Sandoz [Editor’s note: when Albert Hofmann became the first person to produce synthetic psilocybin, he was an employee at the pharmaceutical company Sandoz.] But you’re really digging back to find this stuff.
We knew we wanted to do three things simultaneously: we’d like the research to be finished, then for the cyclotron verification of the research to be completed, then for it to be submitted to peer review to this wonky publication, and God knows if the peer reviewers would take a year to stare at it first. It was a real nail biter because the paper wasn’t sent out for peer review until late November. There was a lot of pressure and we had a timeline, and the timeline kept getting pushed back. We were thinking, if they don’t get the paper back to us, what are we going to do? Because we needed to file our petition by a certain date, and we wanted to file it with a peer-reviewed paper.
In the end, we filed our post-grant review literally the day before the timeline was up, and the crystallography paper didn’t come out until four or five days later. We referenced it in our second post-grant review, which we filed a few days later.
Now that you’ve filed those post-grant reviews, what happens next in this process?
COMPASS has 90 days to answer. They may do what they’ve done with some other filings: withdraw some of their claims. When we filed those observations to the European Patent Office, they reduced their filing down to just one claim. Whatever their response is, the USPTO gets to say whether the patent is thrown out or not.
What’s next for FTO?
We also are going to make the same filing on COMPASS’s claims at the Great Britain patent office, so we have more work to do. These things are punishingly expensive and we've spent over a million dollars on it, so I'm having my patent attorney come up with a budget for 2022. It will include filing the same observations at the European Patent Office, and all the other patent offices where they've filed their claim.
I would like to do a little bit more work on LSD and psilocybin. I don't want people to feel like they can run roughshod over everything in Shulgin’s cornucopia. [Editor’s note: Alexander Shulgin was a chemist known for his extensive work describing and synthesizing hundreds of psychedelic compounds.]
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.