5 Questions for Jeeshan Chowdhury
With the psychedelics market currently valued at $190 million and expected to exceed $2.4 billion by 2026, there’s a lot of new power and money at stake. Companies are filing patent applications, establishing control over proprietary formulations of psychedelic drugs and hoping to bring in big profits as countries around the world are starting to lay the groundwork for the legalization of psychedelics for therapeutic purposes. But well before western scientists and businesspeople grew interested in these plants, Indigenous communities have long used them as medicines and in ceremonies — and they’re not the ones poised to see profits.
Some companies are looking for ways to tip that power dynamic and ensure Native and Indigenous peoples are included in the so-called psychedelic renaissance. Journey Colab, a psychedelics biotech company, recently raised $12 million to develop and test a synthetic version of mescaline to treat people with alcohol use disorder. The company has also been outspoken about its values: it took a public stance on intellectual property and the psychedelics patent rush, and has openly shared details about its reciprocity trust, which sets aside a portion of the company’s equity to support Indigenous peoples and the conservation of Indigenous plant medicines. The Microdose spoke with Journey Colab founder and CEO Jeeshan Chowdhury about the company’s approach to Indigenous reciprocity.
Where did the idea to start a reciprocity trust come from?
It started by having different people in the room — a diverse group of people. There are people from the queer community, people from the Indigenous community, communities of color. And when you get those types of people in the room making decisions, this is not a random outcome. While there is often agreement that we should be reciprocal with respect to the land, there's often very little action, or the action is superficial. We see a lot of pledges to donate future profits. There's always a space and need for charitable actions, but real structural change comes through ownership. That's why we have to give investors, founders, and employees equity. And for us, it was not a radical thing to say that the land, the people, and the cultures where this medicine comes from are an equal stakeholder — not only in the success of the business, but in the value that's being created.
I would be negligent as a founder if I did not consult with and work with the communities that had successfully integrated these very powerful tools into their cultures and into their societies. At the same time, the approaches throughout history have been extractive; there's been nothing offered back to those communities. What we're doing is not charity; it’s good business. We are including more stakeholders and making them owners. Those communities need to benefit from the value that they bring.
There has never been a more exciting – or bewildering – time in the world of psychedelics. Don’t miss a beat.
What does the idea of reciprocity mean to you, and how do you think about cultivating a true reciprocity with Indigenous communities?
It's very easy to say, “We’ll just put an indigenous person or a person of color on our advisory board.” But that’s a superficial window dressing. It is a challenge to work between these two worlds where on the one hand, we have Western science, medicine, venture capital, and on the other, we have traditional communities. You have to invest in communication, education, and literacy across these groups — the learning goes both ways. I had investors ask me why I would hire an Indigenous woman as one of my first hires on the team; I had to explain that we’re working with medicines that these communities have worked with for thousands of years, and that their knowledge is product knowledge; it’s technology. We have to see it that way and value it that way. And until you make both sides of the table meet and start to understand one another, we won't get anywhere. There's no way to rush it across either side.
What has that looked like in practice for you so far?
For us, that started with conversations with 300 people — all constituents in the psychedelic space, from elders who have generations of knowledge to young people who are operating in clinics now, and everything in between. It's about being humble and learning that these issues are not new and that Indigenous communities have been working on them for some time. I remember my first conversation with an Indigenous community representative and they asked, ‘Well, how is the Nagoya Protocol going to come into play?’ And I said, ‘We need to learn about that.’ [Editor’s note: The Nagoya Protocol is an agreement developed through the United Nations that lays out terms for equitable distribution of benefits from commercialization of genetic resources — which, Journey Colab has stated, applies to drug development.]
One idea that came out of these conversations was the framework for your reciprocity trust. How does the trust work?
At a high level, we put 10 percent of the founding equity into an irrevocable trust. The irrevocable piece means we can’t take those shares back, and the purpose of the trust is in our charter: it includes supporting the conservation of traditional psychedelics like peyote, supporting Indigenous communities in accessing mental health care, and supporting the therapists and clinicians who will be providing that mental health care.
The other important thing is that we do not control that equity. Sutton King, an Afro-Indigenous health advocate, is the first trustee. She will be working to add additional trustees, and they will decide how that will be used.
You mentioned that it can be a challenge to bring together Western ways of thinking with values from Indigenous communities. Did that come up at all while Journey Colab established this trust?
We did find resistance to the idea of creating a trust. Actually, one of the things we did first was to put the equity of the company into that irrevocable trust before fundraising, because in early conversations with investors, there was doubt about it. We wanted to wait to raise money until we put that founding equity within the trust, so it could never be taken back even if investors wanted us to. Not all investors did, but if the question came up, we could say, ‘Sorry’ — well, not sorry, but say proudly — ‘The equity is in trust, we cannot take it back and do not want to take it back, and no decision can change that.’
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.