"Ultimately, helping the millions of patients who are suffering with mental health is really the end goal. We know that good science will lead to good outcomes. And right now, we're focusing on the science, and the outcomes will come," says Psilera co-founder/CEO Chris Witowski.
Chemists focused on mental health start psychedelic-powered biotech firm
Chris Witowski, Co-founder/CEO, 34
Jackie von Salm, Co-founder/Chief Scientific Officer, 33
Company: Psilera, Tampa
The Back Story
Jackie von Salm and Chris Witowski gave up six-figure salaries with stock options to launch Psilera, a Tampa-based biotechnology company specializing in developing psychedelic-inspired compounds and drug delivery systems for treating mental health disorders.
Both entrepreneurs were born and raised in the Tampa Bay area. Von Salm went to the University of South Florida on a full scholarship. From her undergraduate years through her Ph.D. in chemistry in 2016, she researched the use of natural products in drug development. Her projects explored potential treatments for malaria from fungal and bacterial sources and marine organisms — like corals, sea sponges and algae — for a wide range of diseases.
Witowski earned an undergraduate degree in chemistry at Florida State University before joining the Ph.D. program at USF, where the two met while working in the lab of professor Bill Baker, an internationally-renowned chemist who led expeditions to Antarctica looking for natural compounds by diving under the sea ice. When Witowski graduated in 2015, natural products were having a resurgence, particularly cannabis. He was employee No. 5 at AltMed (now part of a public company) focused on cannabis.
For both, the mission of drug discovery is personal — von Salm’s father was diagnosed with dementia and Witowski's brother struggles with depression. During von Salm's post-doctorate work, she switched her focus to neurological drug discovery for brain health. Witowski also introduced his grandmother, suffering from cancer, to psychedelics. “I would certainly say between that and cannabis, it has helped her live a more comfortable, happy, fulfilled life in the last couple of years.”
In 2017, von Salm reconnected with Witowski, who brought her on at AltMed. “It was a great opportunity to use our natural products background but then get more acclimated to the business world,” Witowski says.
When the pair began to explore striking out on their own two years later, von Salm reached out to her uncle, a longtime pharmaceutical executive, who connected them with an organization that works with young ventures. In one eight-hour uninterrupted day in August 2019, they hashed out a vision and mission for what would become Psilera. “That was definitely a catalyst that had us take the jump,” von Salm says. “Both of us had six-figure jobs, equity in the company and that sort of thing, and we said, ‘OK, we're going to take a whole year of no salaries and put all our money into our company. Let's do this.’ ”
By then the stigma around some psychedelic compounds, including psilocybin and psilocin, known as magic mushrooms, was fading. “We knew that we would be perfect for the field. We had learned a lot in (the field of) cannabis of what not to do, to be honest, and we really didn't want a lot of these compounds to just be thrown out to the world with a lot of anecdotal evidence, without any research behind them,” von Salm says.
The co-founders wanted to bring a new model to the market that was more accessible to patients. “A lot of current psychedelic models have you in a room blindfolded for six hours with a therapist. It costs thousands of dollars, insurance doesn't cover it, and you have a lot of people who have so much anxiety or PTSD that they don't want to be in a room with a stranger for six hours blindfolded,” von Salm says.
Psilera’s initial product under development is a micro-dose dimethyltryptamine patch for social anxiety disorder. “We are utilizing that mechanism of action but reducing some of the off-target effects, including hallucinations," Witowski says. The compound, they say, doesn't seem to form a tolerance in patients, and there's also not as high of an abuse potential with a patch. The data, both say, back up their claims. They are starting pre-clinical trials with the patch and aim to launch a first phase safety trial soon.
In addition, Psilera is creating compounds to target conditions like depression, anxiety and alcohol or nicotine addiction. The company recently announced that one of its developmental compounds was able to produce anti-depressant effects in mice without causing hallucinations — “a pretty big step and something that we've hypothesized all along,” Witowski says.
Psilera is able to do research on such sensitive substances because of its affiliation with USF, which has special clearance from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency to conduct research on DMT, psilocybin and psilocin (the active ingredients naturally found in ayahuasca tea and magic mushrooms). The team of seven full-time employees is bolstered by about a dozen advisers and board members who help navigate the regulatory environment.
Witowski and von Salm also “have a large portion” of their business focused on technology and optimizing the compounds, “and we can do this all virtually before we actually put them in animals and humans,” says Witowski. That’s due to advances in computational chemistry, which uses computer modeling and health data to simulate how the compounds work.
Taking a drug to market is a long journey. Psilera focuses on the early-stage science to achieve validation and then will leverage partnerships to take products to market, Witowski says. Psilera raised $2.5 million in venture capital in 2021.