Peter Thiel-backed psychedelic start-up's shares pop in Wall Street debut


Shares of the Peter Thiel-backed psychedelic start-up Atai Life Sciences jumped Friday on its first day of trading on Wall Street.

The newly listed Nasdaq stock opened up 40% before pulling back some.

The German biotech’s initial public offering was priced Thursday night at $15 per share, the high end of the expected range. The company, which aims to make psychedelic drugs to treat mental health disorders, raised $225 million at a valuation of $2.3 billion.

Atai is the third psychedelic biotech to go public in the U.S., following in the footsteps of MindMed, which went public on the Nasdaq in April, and Founders Fund-backed Compass Pathways, which listed in September. As of Thursday’s close, Compass Pathways was up 26% since its debut, and MindMed, which just announced its CEO’s resignation, was down about 19% since its IPO.

Each biotech is developing therapies using the psychedelic mushroom compound psilocybin, LSD, and MDMA derivatives to treat addiction and mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and traumatic brain injury. Three years after its founding, Atai Life Sciences has 10 therapeutic programs in its pipeline, each at various stages of clinical trials.

Atai founder and Chairman Christian Angermayer said on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on Friday, “The world we’re building is a bad place for our brain, so mental health issues will go up. But I do think we have some real shots in our portfolio to end the mental health crisis.”

Investor interest in psychedelic treatments has grown alongside burgeoning interest in these therapies from the medical community.

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Johns Hopkins University, Yale University, the University of California, Berkeley, and the Icahn School of Medicine are among the centers studying psychedelics and psychology. Recent studies establishing MDMA’s promise in treating post-traumatic stress disorder and the efficacy of psilocybin, a hallucinogenic chemical found in psychedelic mushrooms, in treating drug-resistant depression have only heightened interest in the space.

Angermayer was an early investor in Compass Pathways, and his own company Atai serves as a holding company for various psychedelic start-ups pursuing alternative treatments for mental illness. He told CNBC on Friday that new-age biotechs are building on centuries of practice in shamanistic cultures and religions.

There are currently federal restrictions for psychedelic mushrooms, MDMA — commonly known as molly or ecstasy — and LSD around the world. However, Oregon last year became the first U.S. state to legalize psychedelics for therapeutic use. Residents in Washington, D.C., also recently voted in support of decriminalizing the use of psychedelics for medicinal purposes.

Atai Life Sciences at the Nasdaq for its IPO, June 18, 2021.

Source: Nasdaq

Angermayer is betting that federal approval of these drugs for therapeutic use could make a huge difference for those suffering from mental illness. “They are very, very powerful medications, but they have to be taken under supervision. … You will be tripping while you are sitting with your therapist.”

Atai Life Sciences is backed by the billionaire investor Thiel, as well as Mike Novogratz’s Galaxy Investments and Angermayer’s own Apeiron Investment Group, among others.

According to venture capital tracker CB Insights, VC deals in psychedelics have risen substantially in the last three years: 2018 and 2019 saw less than $100 million of venture capital invested in psychedelic start-ups, but 2020 saw $346 million. By April 2021, VCs had already invested $329 million in the industry.

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It’s no wonder that Atai’s was more than 12 times oversubscribed, according to one market source who asked to remain anonymous due to the nature of the discussion. “A good portion was taken up by existing investors,” the person said, adding that Thiel is the largest existing investor and that he’s “doubled down” in the IPO.

Investment fund Palo Santo said it had taken a notable stake in Atai’s IPO. “There is an urgent need to address our broken mental healthcare system,” Daniel Goldberg, co-founder of Palo Santo, said in a statement. “We believe psychedelics will expand treatment options and transform the outdated system.”

Atai submitted an S-1 filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission in April that showed it raised an aggregate of $362.3 million from private investors at that point.

The company, which describes itself as a drug development platform, was set up to acquire, incubate and develop psychedelics and other drugs that can be used to treat depression, anxiety, addiction and other mental health conditions.

Atai, which has roughly 50 staff members in offices across Berlin, New York and San Diego, is currently partnered with 14 companies focusing on drug development and other technologies.

In exchange for a majority stake in the drugs and technologies they’re developing, Atai helps the scientists raise money, work with regulators and conduct clinical trials. None of Atai’s drugs have been formally approved by regulators to date.

Thiel made an $11.9 million investment in Atai through his venture firm, Thiel Capital, in November.

“Atai’s great virtue is to take mental illness as seriously as we should have been taking all illness all along,” Thiel, who co-founded Palantir and PayPal, said in a statement shared with CNBC at the time. “The company’s most valuable asset is its sense of urgency.”

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