Ronan Levy: “Laughter is holier than piety and freedom sweeter than fame”

At Field Trip, our mission is to bring the world to life through psychedelics and psychedelic assisted psychotherapy. Put simply, we are trying to mainstream and scale: (1) the clinical application of psychedelics and psychedelic therapies for mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and PTSD; and (2) broader therapeutic and integrative use of psychedelics […]

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At Field Trip, our mission is to bring the world to life through psychedelics and psychedelic assisted psychotherapy. Put simply, we are trying to mainstream and scale: (1) the clinical application of psychedelics and psychedelic therapies for mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and PTSD; and (2) broader therapeutic and integrative use of psychedelics to help all people (not just those with mental health challenges) enhance their quality of life, have greater empathy, be more creative and feel more connected to others and to the planet.

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Ronan Levy who is a Co-founder and the Executive Chairman of Field Trip Psychedelics Inc., the company that is redefining mental health and well-being through its groundbreaking work with psychedelics and psychedelic-enhanced psychotherapy.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you please tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I started my career as a corporate lawyer working at Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP, one of Canada’s most prestigious law firms. But I quickly realized that I was, as one partner at the firm described me, “too creative to be a lawyer”. So eventually I transitioned into becoming an entrepreneur. Along the way, I’ve helped start a gold business, a debt advisory law firm and, most recently before Field Trip, two companies in the cannabis industry, CanvasRx and Canadian Cannabis Clinics. It was through this last experience that my eyes were opened to the potential of “stigmatized medicines”, as I saw first hand the profoundly positive impact that cannabis had on the 100,000+ Canadians we helped access the legal medical cannabis system in Canada. All along I had been very proactive with my mental health and well-being, with an active meditation practice and working closely with therapists and coaches. So when, in early 2018, we learned about the work that was happening with psychedelics, it was an easy leap for me to make to get excited about the industry. And thus, Field Trip was born.

Can you please share with us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

One of my favourite quotes is by the author Tom Robbins who said: “Humanity has advanced, when it has advanced, not because it has been sober, responsible and cautious, but because it has been playful, rebellious and immature.”

And there was no time in my career that this came more into play than during my last role as a lawyer before becoming an entrepreneur. In that role, I was General Counsel to an online dating company that did not hesitate to use very cheeky advertising and media campaigns to generate awareness.

At one point we ran an advertising campaign with a sound-alike of a very well-known celebrity (whom we knew would never agree to do an ad for us) because just the fact that this celebrity would appear to be associated with us would be newsworthy and generate significant media attention.

We also knew that, when that celebrity found out about the ads, he would probably just send us a threatening letter before ever considering suing us. So we moved forward with the campaign, generating millions of dollars in free publicity and as soon as we got the threatening letter from his lawyers, we stopped the campaign and nothing bad ever happened to us.

The experience with that company taught me two very important lessons in life. First, fortune favours the bold. Some of the greatest opportunities in life and business live at the edge of your comfort zone. Go there. Stretch your consciousness. That way lies grace and maybe even glory. There were so many instances in that last role that challenged me to go farther intellectually, emotionally and professionally than I had before and it has had a profound impact on my life. Second, in life, you eventually must choose between what is right, what is legal and what is possible. That puts you metaphysically on the run. Many of the most successful people I know are metaphysical outlaws.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

When it comes to living a good life, or starting a successful business, I’ve got no advice. But here are the five most important things I know:

  1. You should never hesitate to trade your cow for a handful of magic beans.
  2. Salvation is for the feeble. Embrace life — all of life — the miserable as well as the superb.
  3. There is no such thing as a weird person, some people just require more understanding.
  4. Laughter is holier than piety and freedom sweeter than fame.
  5. As humans, we fear being forgotten more than even death. It’s more important to be memorable than to be good.

Ok thank you for that. Let’s now move to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

At Field Trip, our mission is to bring the world to life through psychedelics and psychedelic assisted psychotherapy. Put simply, we are trying to mainstream and scale: (1) the clinical application of psychedelics and psychedelic therapies for mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and PTSD; and (2) broader therapeutic and integrative use of psychedelics to help all people (not just those with mental health challenges) enhance their quality of life, have greater empathy, be more creative and feel more connected to others and to the planet.

How do you think this will change the world?

It’s been said that if you want to change the world, change yourself. And there is no more potent tool to help people change themselves — and, by extension, the world — than psychedelics.

Consider this. 1 in 4 people globally — that’s roughly 2 billion people — will experience a mental health challenge at some point in their lives. 1 in 25 people will experience a severe mental health challenge. Depression and anxiety related disorders are expected to be the leading cause of the global burden of disease by 2025, costing the global economy over 16 trillion dollars by 2030. And the COVID-19 pandemic is only going to make things worse.

Psychedelics, especially when supported with psychotherapy, are showing some of the greatest potential to treat mental health conditions of any psychiatric medicines investigated.

MDMA-assisted psychotherapy in an FDA-approved Phase 2 clinical trial resulted in the effective cure of PTSD for 70% of people with chronic, severe PTSD.

Psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy has been shown to deliver anti-depressant effects for up to 5 years.

In psychedelics, we are talking about a fundamental paradigm shift in how we think about and treat mental health diagnoses, targeting the root cause of mental health conditions, not just treatment of the symptoms.

When you consider just the sheer mass of humanity whose depression and anxiety can be helped through psychedelics, you can start to appreciate how mainstreaming psychedelics is up there with SpaceX and Blue Origin in terms of the impact it can create.

But the potential positive impacts of psychedelics are not limited to only people who are sick. Studies have shown psychedelics can help people be happier, more creative, more empathetic; They can also give people a sense of union and connection, and greater care for the planet and everybody on the planet. These are characteristics and qualities that can never be in too much supply.

I also think psychedelics are going to be the platform that changes how we think about mental health and well-being generally, shifting it to be something we approach proactively — much like physical fitness and going to the gym, which we do to prevent disease AND feel better — than something we do reactively (eg seeking mental health treatment only in periods of great stress, distress of anxiety). This will also have a profoundly positive impact on our world.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

Certainly. Even though studies have shown that the harm profile associated with classic psychedelics like psilocybin and LSD (which are inherently non-addictive and nearly impossible to overdose on) are lower than cannabis, most other illicit drugs, and many prescription medications, as with any drugs, there are potential risks.

For instance, even though it’s generally accepted now that there is no such thing as a “bad trip” per se — meaning that all trips can be productive and therapeutic if done with proper support, even if they are challenging — without proper support a “hard trip” can turn into a “bad trip” and create its own instance of PTSD. Generally, this is rare, but it is possible. Similarly, during and after a psychedelic experience, there is a great deal of vulnerability as well as a period of neural plasticity that makes people more receptive to the influence of cognitive behavioural therapy. Just as much as that vulnerability and period of neural plasticity can be used constructively, it can also be taken advantage of for less altruistic purposes.

Generally, these risks are low. Bad trips tend to be infrequent and generally most people on this planet are moral actors. But these risks can’t be ignored.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

My co-founders and I were instrumental to the rollout of the medical and adult-use cannabis industry globally. We launched what is still the largest network of cannabis-specialized medical clinics in Canada, and likely in the world, and we sold that business to Aurora Cannabis Inc. (NYSE: ACB), which we then helped grow into one of the largest producers of cannabis globally. That experience opened our eyes to the profound potential of stigmatized medicines, and helped us develop a deep understanding of what is needed to build out the infrastructure for new therapeutic modalities.

After leaving Aurora in early 2018, my business partner, Joseph del Moral had a meeting with an entrepreneur who was trying to develop novel formulations of psilocybin. When Joseph told me about that meeting, I had the same electric feel that I had had back when I learned about what was happening with medical cannabis back in 2013 (which led to the creation of Canadian Cannabis Clinics). My intuition told me that this was going to be something potentially huge and potentially very meaningful and impactful.

So we started actively looking into psychedelics. That was right around the time that Michael Pollan had published How to Change Your Mind, MAPS was granted breakthrough therapy designation by the FDA and Peter Thiel had completed his investment in Compass Pathways.

It was clear something was afoot, and so we set out to see how we could start actively working in this nascent industry.

We spent close to a year researching, speaking to people like Michael Pollan, Rick Doblin at MAPS, Cosmo Fielding-Mellen at The Beckley Foundation and ideating on business models that we could pursue with psychedelics. Eventually, we became convinced that legal access to classic psychedelics would happen much sooner than most would expect, and landed on the core components of what is now Field Trip: (i) Field Trip Health, which is building out the clinical infrastructure that will be needed to scale the delivery of psychedelic therapies; now operating in Toronto, New York, LA and soon Chicago; and (ii) Field Trip Discovery, which is pursuing advanced research on psilocybin producing mushrooms, and developing next generation psychedelic molecules for FDA approval. (We also now have a third division, Field Trip Digital, which recently launched Trip, the first app to support consciousness expanding activities through practices like meditation, breathwork and legal psychedelic molecules.)

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

The momentum behind the psychedelic renaissance right now is so powerful, it’s nearly unstoppable. It’s a result of the confluence of a number of converging trends and events: (i) greater interest and awareness in mental health; (ii) the fantastic research that John Hopkins, NYU, Imperial College and The Beckley Foundation are doing that shows the incredible therapeutic potential of psychedelics: (iii) the renaissance of cannabis, which has caused people to revisit plant-based medicines and questions prevailing stigmas; and (iv) the FDA granting breakthrough therapy designations to 3 psychedelic clinical trials, amongst others.

The net effect of these convergent trends is widespread adoption is a virtual certainly unless we, paraphrasing Rick Doblin*, somehow fuck it up like occurred in the 1960s. So everyone in the industry is being very cautious, advancing things thoughtfully and prudently.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. The entrepreneurial journey is a roller coaster, and is very accurately described by this graph. Pour your energy in on the upswings, and rest on the downswings. Because they are coming. At Field Trip, we go through this cycle 3 times per day, maybe more.

2. Where you start is almost certainly not where you will finish. We refine and revise our business strategy almost daily. First we weren’t going to use ketamine, then we were, then we weren’t. That’s ok. You’ll eventually see the path.

3. Separate what is right from what is merely legal, and find advisors who understand that. When we started CanvasRx, our first lawyer told us our entire business model was illegal. Our second lawyer, Alan Young (one of Canada’s most accomplished constitutional scholars) told us the same thing. But that the law we were violating was almost certainly unconstitutional and that we should go ahead, run our business and call him if we ever had trouble. That was good advice.

4. Gandhi was right when he wrote: “first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win”. Expect that. Embrace it. People said we couldn’t do what we did in cannabis. And we did. Then people said we couldn’t do that with psychedelics. And we are.

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

Question authority. And say what you mean in a manner that bespeaks the determination with which you believe it.

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

If you want to change the world, change yourself. If you want to change yourself, try psychedelics. And if you want to try psychedelics, invest in companies like Field Trip which are making that possible.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Personal Twitter/IG: @RonanDLevy

Work Twitter/IG: @FieldTripHealth

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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