You are currently viewing MAPS PBC Closes $100m Series A, Rebrands to Lykos Therapeutics

MAPS PBC Closes $100m Series A, Rebrands to Lykos Therapeutics

  • Post category:Analysis / News

MAPS Public Benefit Corporation (PBC) has announced a $100m Series A alongside a name change to Lykos Therapeutics.

MAPS PBC was founded in 2014 as a separate but wholly-owned subsidiary of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a nonprofit established in 1986 by Rick Doblin. MAPS PBC was to be the non-profit’s pharmaceutical arm, tasked with bringing MDMA-assisted therapy through to FDA approval and commercialisation.

As we reported in December 2023, MAPS PBC has filed a New Drug Application (NDA) with the FDA for MDMA-assisted therapy1 for PTSD. An approval decision could come as early as this Summer, with a potential launch in late 2024 or shortly thereafter.

As MAPS PBC grows into its potential role as a purveyor of an FDA-approved drug product, replete with many of the trimmings of the pharmaceutical industry (data exclusivity, pricing negotiations, drug product margins, etc.), its alignment with its titular nonprofit has become increasingly awkward. Many have wondered how long a nonprofit organisation that funds psychedelic research but also calls for drug policy reforms and engages in activities like harm reduction can share a name with a closely monitored and regulated pharmaceutical company.

As MAPS PBC approaches its tenth birthday, it appears to be entering something akin to puberty. It seeks to simultaneously find its own voice and direction while respecting its lineage and embodying key tenets of the MAPS mission. It must strike a balance between public benefit and commercial viability.

Today’s announcement perhaps reflects something of an eggshell-treading transition: Lykos has dropped “MAPS” from its name, but perhaps retains a nod to its founder and its nonconformist roots; it’s also sought a relatively conventional form of financing for the first time, a Series A equity round, but highlights the fact that the lead investor, Helena, along with many other participants, are “mission-aligned”.

Here, we take a closer look at MAPS PBC’s Series A, rebrand, and what this might tell us about an organisation that so desperately wants to do things differently in an industry that’s often a case study for inertia.

What’s in a Name?

MAPS PBC’s new name, Lykos, quite simply means ‘wolf’ in Greek.

In its press release, Lykos says it chose the name “to represent the qualities—bravery, courage, loyalty and intelligence—that resonate with our company.”

A letter from the CEO, Amy Emerson, also explains that the new visual identity “represents the overlap of innovative science combined with focus on the whole person.”

Lykos Therapeutics Banner

But might it also be a nod to MAPS’ founder, Rick Doblin?

At the age of 21, Doblin came across an advertisement from the Humane Society explaining that it had a pack of wolf cubs that needed homing. He asked for the most dominant in the litter and raised it from just eight weeks old.

Raising Phaedrus2 the wolf cub was “one of the most transformative experiences of my life”, Doblin said in an interview with Sarah Rose Siskind. “I’ve learned so many lessons from him”.

“I am worried about this idea of becoming too tame”, he said. “Am I losing my edge?”

Doblin also tells the story of how, after his rehoming, Phaedrus challenged his dominance when he visited him. “It was so sad and I was crying, and I was like: This is an end of an era”, he told Siskind.

Rick Doblin and Phaedrus the Wolf Cub

In an apparent nod to Doblin—so as not to deny thy father—might the choice of the name ‘Lykos’ reflect more than meets the eye?

A Mission-Aligned Cap Table

The headline is that Lykos has raised a $100m Series A, with participation from a suite of new investors and the conversion of an unspecified amount of previously issued convertible notes.

According to Lykos’ press release, the funds will be used to “support regulatory and pre-launch activities”.

The round is led by Helena, “a global problem-solving organization and investor”. Speaking to Psychedelic Alpha, Managing Partner Protik Basu said, “we are honored to be able to support what we hope will be the first FDA-approved psychedelic-assisted therapy, and to lay the foundation for Lykos to be the commercialization partner of choice for the psychedelic ecoystem.”

Other participants included the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation, Eir Therapeutics, Vine Ventures, True Ventures, Elizabeth Koch’s Unlikely Collaborators Foundation, The Joe and Sandy Samberg Foundation, Bail Capital, KittyHawk Ventures and Satori Neuro.

Following this round, Lykos has an eight-member Board that includes six MAPS appointees (four of whom are independent directors), the CEO (Amy Emerson), and Helena’s Protik Basu.

In its press release, the MAPS (the nonprofit) noted that it “retains notable oversight of select activities through ten-to-one voting power and appointing six of the eight members of the Lykos Board of Directors”.

“Why Would I Donate When I Can Invest?”

The Series A was first disclosed in June 2023 at MAPS’ Psychedelic Science 2023 conference in Denver, Colorado. (Given that this is the only time the round has been discussed substantially and publicly, we lean on it heavily in our reporting below.)

A last-minute scheduling change3 saw the agenda pushed back by 25 minutes. Rick Doblin took to the stage in an all-white suit and began by advising the Business Track audience that there were “pot smoking vans” stationed outside the convention centre that they could avail themselves of.

Rick Doblin at PS23

“We’ve become a bit of a victim of our own success”, he then said, explaining that the influx of for-profit psychedelics companies had made it much more difficult to attract philanthropy. Indeed, I spoke to several psychedelic philanthropists-cum-investors at the conference who expressed some variation of “Why would I donate when I can invest?”

“We really need to bring these things out with public benefit, but we also have to balance that with those who have given us the resources.” - Rick Doblin

“And so,” Doblin continued, “we are moving into a new era of working with investors, and we’re gonna be working with Helena which is an impact investor.” Thus far, MAPS PBC had been funded around three-quarters by philanthropy. “But that’s going to be changing”, said Doblin.

“I really feel that, as we move into this balance between public benefit and return to shareholders, […] we want to really keep in mind that we’re in a crisis state of humanity”, Doblin said. “We really need to bring these things out with public benefit, but we also have to balance that with those who have given us the resources.”

(Doblin discussed this balance in an Opinion piece for Psychedelic Alpha as part of our 2022 Year in Review: The Balance at MAPS Between Public Benefit and Private Profit.)

A Regenerative Vine

Indeed, before taking a straight equity investment MAPS PBC had explored less conventional financing arrangements after it appeared to have reached the limits of its philanthropy base.

In December 2021 it announced a $70m Regenerative Financing Vine, led by psychedelic VC Vine Ventures4. The vehicle resembled project financing, whereby investors would receive a time-limited share of future MDMA revenues in North America, but gain no governance rights or equity in the underlying company. (See our coverage for more details.)

Speaking with Lucid News about the vehicle at the time, Doblin was asked whether he anticipated ever selling equity in MAPS PBC. “Only as a last resort”, he replied, noting that they had just received an offer to invest $150 million for 20% of the company.

Doblin felt that a pre-money valuation of $600m was unfair, given that Compass Pathways was trading with a market cap of over $1 billion at the time. He suggested that investors were discounting the company due to it being a public benefit corporation.

Enter Helena

Back to Psychedelic Science. “I very much trust working with Helena”, Doblin said5 as he looked over toward its Managing Partner Protik Basu and founder Henry Elkus, who were standing to the side of the stage ready to join MAPS PBC (now Lykos) CEO Amy Emerson for an apparently impromptu fireside chat.

“I’m just honoured and proud to say that I really trust, and I’m very excited about working, going forward with both Protik and Henry and the rest of the Helena team”, Doblin said before excusing himself6.

Helena and Amy Emerson at Psychedelic Science 2023

Amy, Henry and Protik then took to the stage, with Emerson kicking off a fireside-type discussion with the Helena executives.

But why had Helena, which has invested in grid-scale energy storage and carbon-negative diamonds, become so interested in psychedelics?

“The shit works”7, Elkus responded when asked what drew him into the space8. “The data on this is so incredibly compelling, it kind of doesn’t even require using stage time to talk about it.”

In what followed, Elkus echoed Doblin’s assessment of today’s “crisis state of humanity” and talked of a present “real risk moment for human civilisation”, adding that “you cannot solve any problem without, as a prerequisite, human coordination […], human empathy”.

In MAPS PBC and psychedelics (drug development) more broadly, then, Elkus sees a “dual benefit”.

MDMA-assisted therapy, for example, represents something that “in the here and now works”, but also something that “in the medium- and long-term”, if we “introduce these concepts to civilisation”, could “kind of end the model of accumulation without empathy or without distribution”. “That’s what I think psychedelics can allow for the rest of the 21st century”, Elkus said.

“And so to have an opportunity to work on both of those at the same time, especially without them cannibalising each other, is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” he said, “and we’re just glad to be here.”

Helena was founded by Elkus, who dropped out of Yale in his second year to dedicate himself full-time to the project.  His father, Bill Elkus, founded Clearstone Venture Partners in 1997, which invested in PayPal among other tech startups.

In a 2017 Huffington Post interview, Elkus described Helena as “a new type of organization that was structurally designed for 21st century problems, and I wanted to do my part and create one.”

At the Psychedelic Science 2023 fireside discussion, Helena Managing Partner Basu explained that the organisation has both a not-for-profit arm (“a kind of policy arm”) as well as a for-profit investment fund.

Repairing the Social Fabric

Echoing Elkus’ focus on civilisational risk9, Basu explained that Helena’s non-profit arm has recently focused on the intersection of AI, biosecurity and bioterrorism. “The barriers to entry to do some pretty horrible things in the world are decreasing quite rapidly for a lot of reasons, and the ceiling of harm is increasing quite significantly”, he added. “There’s some really catastrophic risk.”

Basu says that the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) Health Emergencies Programme Executive Director, Dr. Michael Ryan, told him that loneliness and isolation will drive people to do terrible things in the coming years. Psychedelics, Basu alluded, are “a key way to repair the social fabric.”

It’s not immediately clear, however, how a closely monitored, tightly prescribed and logistically challenging medical intervention such as MDMA-assisted therapy will bring about such a profound shift in our “social fabric”.

“At what point does a medical product flip into something that’s for public health and for societal benefit?” - Protik Basu

But Basu is getting at a much deeper tension within the psychedelics community—and MAPS—in his discussion of this point. To what extent should organisations like MAPS PBC, now Lykos, interpret their mission as one of healing for all or mass spirituality—actioned through things like drug policy reform and harm reduction work—as its parent nonprofit does?

“At what point does a medical product flip into something that’s for public health and for societal benefit?”, Basu continued. Recalling a conversation he had with fellow members of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Advisory Board, he pondered out loud whether the work of Roland Griffiths, for example, might “cross the street to societal benefit and public health?”

Keeping it Together

While this tension—or, question—is undoubtedly intensifying as psychedelics re-emerge into the mainstream in both medicalised and popular ways, it’s not necessarily new.

When Doblin first met the woman who would later become his wife, Lynne, they were in a class on leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. Each week, students were expected to share their biggest failures with their peers.

Doblin’s biggest failure, he recalls, was the nonprofit he established in 1984, before MAPS: the Earth Metabolic Design Laboratories (EMDL). He couldn’t “keep it together”, he said, due to internal disagreements over how vocal the organisation should be about psychedelic research versus drug policy reform.

Following the fractured failure of EMDL, Doblin sought to bring these missions—advocacy and drug development—under one roof in MAPS10. Meanwhile, other psychedelic nonprofits, like Heffter Research Institute and Usona Institute, have remained firmly on the research side.

Given that this tension appears to be playing out once more, MAPS PBC’s distancing—at least optically—from its nonprofit parent seemed inevitable.

But Lykos’ lead investors, Helena, do seem remarkably mission-aligned with MAPS, as the company claims. From their appraisal of societal risk and its roots in a lack of ‘connection’ through to an apparent shared belief in the potential societal (i.e., not only medical) benefits of “sacred” psychedelics, there appears to be plenty of shared will to ‘do things differently’.

“Money is like water… it flows to the path of least resistance”

There’s also a sense of realism, or pragmatism, too.

Like Doblin, Basu sees a need for balance between the “power” of private capital and access to a scalable healthcare system but also the risk of incentive misalignment that increasingly large volumes of capital can bring.

“Money is like water, in my experience”, Basu told the audience at Psychedelic Science, “it flows to the path of least resistance.”

“Unless we keep equity and access at the core of the design from the beginning, it doesn’t naturally happen”, he added, explaining that these tenets must be “over-engineered” from the get-go. Here, Basu is presumably referring to company structure and governance. (For example, in MAPS’ press release today, it noted that “the Lykos Board of Directors has implemented a positive initiative linking a portion of employee performance incentives to the attainment of public benefit metrics.”)

In the aforementioned letter from the CEO (and on the company’s About Us webpage), Emerson articulates four tenets that will guide Lykos’ focus:

  1. We are focused on addressing unmet mental health needs.
  2. We will work to prioritize access.
  3. We intend to have ethical, inclusive and sustainable operations.
  4. We aim to have equitable and inclusive management of science, data, and intellectual property rights

Such nuanced and frank discussions about the mission and values of Lykos—and the role that different stripes and types of investors might play in augmenting or disrupting the realisation of them—might not be possible at later stages of the company’s maturity.

“At a certain point you get into a number of decimal points and zeros”, Basu said, where institutional capital and “straight commercial funds” make less nuanced and more abstract investment decisions.

“As we get closer to success, approval, we’re also all feeling fear”, Lykos’ Emerson said. “Because we’re going to put something […] ‘sacred’ into a broken medical system, and we can’t fix that system at the same time”.

Josh Hardman Headshot

Josh Hardman

Josh has been writing, talking and working on the business, science and policy of psychedelics since he launched Psychedelic Alpha in early 2020. You can connect with him on LinkedIn or via email.

Stay Informed in 2024 with Pα+

This free article is made possible by our paid subscribers, who gain access to our Pα+ exclusive content.

Subscribe to Pα+ to receive all of our Bulletins, deep dives and analysis, as well as access to the Pα+ Library and other subscriber-only content.

Your subscription goes directly toward supporting our coverage, not glossy graphic design or marketing budgets. Learn more and subscribe here, or get in touch to discuss team plans.

  1. Which the organisation refrains from abbreviating to “MDMA-AT” so as to not to risk undervaluing the importance of therapy.
  2. The eponymous ancient Athenian aristocrat member of Socrates’ clique was indicted during the Peloponnesian War as part of the profanation of the Elusinian Mysteries. Coincidentally, Helena—via its Helena Special Investments vehicle—backed a company called Phaidra.
  3. Immediately prior to this author’s opening talk, The State of the Psychedelic Sector.
  4. In October 2020, Vine Ventures’ founder Ryan Zurrer appeared on the Business Trip podcast. There, he discussed an ‘idea’ that he called ‘the snake’. Zurrer explained that it would allow an entity to make a donation to a nonprofit (like MAPS), and then write it off in the current tax year (as opposed to a venture investment which is often written off 7-8 years later). However, if the recipient organisation goes on to “create some business of value that has revenues and profits and things like that”, there is an automatic conversion where that donation “actually becomes an equity investment and converts at, say, the seed valuation of the company.” The tax write-off would then be amended. This is not how the Regenerative Financing Vine was structured, but hints at the desire among investors to support nonprofits but preserve a right to convert to equity should more conventional commercial ‘value’ materialise.
  5. Doblin and Basu had bonded over, among other things, a shared interest in liberation theology, he said.
  6. Doblin said that he had to dash to catch National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Director Joshua Gordon’s talk.
  7. “I think that ‘the shit works’ should have been the title of the original Nature Medicine MAPP1 Phase 3 trial”, Basu quipped.
  8. Looking at Elkus’ extensive reading diary, one might conclude that he had a deeper interest in psychedelics—or at least consciousness—as early as 2018 when he read Waking Up by Sam Harris. In the following years he enjoyed How to Change Your Mind, This Is Your Mind on Plants, The Doors of Perception, as well as the likes of Hunter S. Thompson.
  9. Which in turn echoes the lingo of ‘rationalist’ and ‘effective altruism’ communities.
  10. Doblin tells us that the name, Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, was inspired by both Stan Grof (who discusses the cartography of the psyche) and Ralph Metzner (who penned Maps of Consciousness).