🫠 Psychonaut POV

[5-min read] Q&A with Gabe Charalambides, Rocket Scientist & Founder

Welcome to Tricycle Day. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to read our newsletter. Any Cyclist will tell ya there are much easier ways to blast off into the cosmos. 🚀

Gabe Charalambides knows how to solve complex problems. The guy’s an actual rocket scientist. But it still took all his smarts and willpower to pull off his proudest accomplishment—launching the first legal psilocybin retreats in the US.

We asked Gabe about pivoting from aerospace engineering to entrepreneurship, his clever workaround to state-level restrictions, and lessons learned from starting a psychedelic business.

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Gabe Charalambides Psychonaut POV
Why did you decide to create a psilocybin retreat center?

I was an aerospace engineer for most of my life. My career started in tech, where I worked as a drone software developer and dabbled in product management. However, that trajectory took an unexpected turn thanks to my lifelong battle with OCD and generalized anxiety. The first thing I found that gave me any relief was Buddhism. As a fairly secular, science-y person, Buddhist philosophy completely changed my perspective on life and introduced me to a new way of being. Not only did it alleviate my anxiety; it opened my mind to a whole new set of questions.

When I got into Buddhism, my experiences with psychedelics took on a different meaning, too. It felt as though I were getting a glimpse into the end state of my meditation practice. It was like mindfulness to the hundredth power. Psychedelics allowed me to feel like the most free, full version of myself and cultivated a love for life. I could see the potential for psychological healing. My fascination only grew as I dug into the research. I would spend Saturdays dissecting Johns Hopkins papers for fun. I'd never felt that way about aerospace.

Later, I jumped on an opportunity to volunteer at a psychedelic retreat center in the Netherlands, called Synthesis. When I read that they’d partnered with Imperial College to run scientific studies, I knew it was my kind of place. While working as a trip sitter there for about a month, I observed their operations and started to envision creating a similar space in the US. My vision suddenly became feasible with the passing of Measure 109 in Oregon, which just so happened to coincide with my graduation from Stanford's MBA program. The timing was perfect. That’s when I set out to create my own retreat center focused on providing legal, safe, and scientifically-informed psychedelic experiences.

It’s been a journey. My co-founder and I began in 2022 by scouting for potential retreat properties in Oregon. We navigated evolving legislation, zoning codes, and regulations to try to avoid the pitfalls faced by Synthesis and others. Unfortunately, our vision of a retreat center surrounded by nature seemed impossible. According to the regulations, psilocybin sessions could only be conducted in commercially zoned properties.

To make matters worse, ideological differences started to bubble up between me and my co-founder. He shifted pretty aggressively toward more esoteric, “woo-woo” beliefs. I didn’t want to impose those ideas on our guests, so we no longer agreed on the future direction of Odyssey. We decided to dissolve our partnership. The split was challenging. Not only did I lose one of my closest friends, but I now had to move forward on my own.

Undeterred, I came up with a solution to the challenges around the zoning laws. We innovated a model where the retreat's ceremonial aspects would take place in a licensed service center, separate from the lodging and communal activities of the retreat. This approach required logistical planning and strategic partnerships to ensure a seamless experience for participants. But it worked.

In September 2023, we successfully held the nation’s first legal psilocybin retreat. That model has proven to be effective, and it’s still how we operate today.

Do retreats fall under Oregon Psilocybin Services' regulation then? What other compliance nuances do you have to consider?

Currently, the state program doesn’t allow for a fully integrated retreat where all activities, including the facilitated psilocybin sessions, happen on the same property. The practical challenge lies in the zoning restrictions and the need for conditional use permits. However, there's nothing inherently preventing such a model in principle, and changes may be on the horizon. For now, our dual-site model at Odyssey is the best workaround that fully complies with Oregon's Measure 109. There’s a clear delineation of roles—our licensed service center partners facilitate the psilocybin sessions, and we handle the overall retreat experience.

Another tricky aspect of Oregon’s regulations has to do with the ways we talk about our services. Under Measure 109, we can’t promise or claim any medical benefits. Our group retreats and one-on-one offerings are designed to cater to a wide spectrum of participants, from those seeking wellness and personal growth to those dealing with more severe mental health challenges. We always emphasize that our services are neither treatments nor cures, but that we're here to support our guests through their experiences. Informed consent is critical. We make sure our clients understand the scope of what we offer.

Why create a retreat company as opposed to a standard psilocybin service center?

When we started planning Odyssey, the concept of a “standard psilocybin service center” didn’t exist yet. I had had formative experiences volunteering at Synthesis, and the retreat center model was what I knew. Besides, the idea of conducting sessions in commercial buildings in the city seemed far less appealing than the immersive, natural environment of a retreat. So, even once the regulatory challenges and momentum of the industry started pulling everyone toward individual facilitated sessions, I stuck with my vision.

As Odyssey evolved, it became clear that our retreat experiences offered a distinct alternative to the service centers that were emerging. Our model addresses a gap in the market for those seeking a more integrative, community-focused experience. Odyssey also differentiates itself through a commitment to a science-based framework. We emulate the exact protocols and non-directive facilitation style found in clinical trials. For people like me, who prefer evidence-based practices, it’s the ideal approach. Moreover, we can maintain a high facilitator-to-guest ratio and structure our sessions to prioritize the safety and comfort of our guests.

One final advantage of the retreat model and its communal nature is that we can plan retreats tailored to specific groups of participants. For instance, we're currently organizing a dedicated retreat for health care professionals struggling with burnout, another for individuals grappling with their mortality, and one more for participants experiencing prolonged grief.

What advice would you offer to a reader who’s feeling inspired to step into the state-regulated psychedelic ecosystem, whether that’s in Oregon or the next state to follow?

Stay nimble, and don’t overcommit. Start with a measured approach, and give yourself the flexibility to adjust as the regulatory and market landscapes evolve. The rules and opportunities within this space will keep changing, so agility will be your greatest asset.

Also, try to test your idea before you go all in. The psychedelic industry is still so young and uncertain. So, before making any big bets, establish a proof of concept. What can you do on a smaller scale to test your hypotheses about the market, regulatory conditions, and customer demand? Once you have some evidence you’re on the right track, then it’s time to double down.

Want more from Gabe?

Learn more about the professionally guided psilocybin retreats and private sessions at Odyssey.

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DISCLAIMER: This newsletter is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice. The use, possession, and distribution of psychedelic drugs are illegal in most countries and may result in criminal prosecution.

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