The Dose Makes the Difference

When Justin Zhu, founder and former CEO of the $2 billion tech startup Iterable was fired for taking a microdose of LSD, the topic of microdosing was once again thrust into the Silicon Valley spotlight. Zhu and researcher Amanda Feilding of the Beckley Foundation know firsthand that LSD can help with more than just performance enhancement.

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Eddie Morra seems to have made it after all: With the help of NZT-48 - a small crystal-clear pill - unexpected thoughts and abilities open up to him, which pave his way to the very top. From a penniless existence as a writer to a day trader on the New York Stock Exchange. “I was blind, but now I can see," is how Mora, played by Bradley Cooper in the action film "Limitless," describes the tablet's mode of action. A statement that Justin Zhu can - at least to some extent - relate to.

The 31-year-old founder of the communications and marketing platform Iterable achieved what many dream of all their lives: In his early twenties, together with Andrew Boni, he built  a successful tech startup in Silicon Valley, was responsible for around 470 employees as CEO and in the process of leading the company - which was valued at $2 billion - to its long-awaited IPO.

Having reached the peak, the completely unexpected happened for the outside world in May 2021: Zhu was removed from office by the board, citing a violation of the company's own policies. The reason: taking a microdose of LSD in 2019 before a business meeting. "But the real reason," says Zhu, "is quite different." He makes that reason known later. The news quickly made the rounds in America's major tech and business media.

Microdosing -  the act of taking low, sub-hallucinogenic doses of psychedelics to induce a specific experience. Trips or hallucinations are not the goal. Rather, the low doses are intended to produce side effects that have a positive impact on productivity or state of mind. In most cases, the intake varies between 10 and 20 micrograms. This can be both occasional and repeated, such as several times a week. Another term for substances in this low dosage is "neuro-enhancer". LSD, short for lysergic acid diethylamide, is a highly potent, chemically produced hallucinogen that is one of the most popular substances for this practice. In 2019, the U.S. National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 7.2 percent of 2.4 million respondents aged 18 to 25 had used a hallucinogen such as LSD at least once in the past year. An international online study by the journal Psychopharmacology also showed 39% of respondents used psychedelics to treat mental health problems. 79 % of these reported positive effects on their mental well-being.

Amanda Feilding has been dedicated to the science, education and de-stigmatization of LSD for half a century.

Especially in Silicon Valley, LSD has gained new momentum since the beginning of the last decade. This is thanks to proponents such as James Fadiman, but also icons such as Steve Jobs, who spoke openly about their LSD experiences. Not surprising considering Silicon Valley is the biotope of "hustle" culture, 100-hour workweeks, and contested terrain for the world's most important and innovative companies.

Zhu also wanted to regain [himself] with the help of LSD in 2019. "I was exhausted. As a founder, you get rejections every day: from investors, employees and customers. The year before, 2018, was a pretty tough one. We collected rejection after rejection from pretty much every investor in all of Silicon Valley," Zhu recalls. "This took a toll on my mental health, and it took all my energy to keep going. And I knew after that low, I needed something to help me regain my strength with my physical and mental health."

To learn more about how microdosing works, especially with LSD, we meet Amanda Feilding. She founded the Beckley Foundation, which conducts psychedelic research and drug policy reform, 23 years ago in the small British city of Oxford. Feilding herself has been considered a leader in the field for about 50 years and was a leading force behind the current Psychedelic Renaissance. She was a close friend of Albert Hofmann, the discoverer of LSD, who was also a founding member of the Beckley Foundation Scientific Advisory Board. “Used properly and in a controlled manner, LSD in small doses can have the effect of making thought processes and experiences seem richer. Parts of the brain are activated that normally are dormant," says Feilding.

Feilding's Beckley Foundation is constantly working on new studies exploring the effectiveness of LSD (and other compounds). And this is necessary because very little recent research exists to support the potential benefits of LSD. But Feilding stands by the positive effects measured so far. In a clinical study she completed with Maastricht University in 2019, LSD was shown to have potential in improving mood, cognition and pain management. The hallucinogen business is thriving. Recently, ATAI Life Sciences, a Berlin-based research platform that conducts research into psychedelic and non-psychedelic substances for the treatment of mental illness, went public with a market capitalization of $2.6 billion. What's missing are investments in research and nonprofits, says Feilding. "I think it's good that new companies are creating broader awareness and possibly acceptance of these substances. But the money for scientific research and studies should be the most important thing."

Justin Zhu
...immigrated from Shanghai to Toronto at the age of eight. He studied Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University. In 2013 he founded the platform Iterable with Andrew Boni and was CEO until April 2021. Since March 2021 he has been part of the organization „Stand with Asian Americans“ (SWAA).

For Justin Zhu, the experience with LSD was a unique one. But it was enough for him. "It was definitely a unique experience. I made a conscious decision to take only one dose. It was like being pointed in a new direction. I am still benefiting from the effects. Especially emotionally, a lot has happened to me. Afterwards, for example, I was able to say to my mother for the first time that I loved her." Last but not least, this may also have given Zhu the courage to make public the pressures and grievances that affected his role in the company. Because for the computer science graduate, the microdosing incident was only a partial reason for his exit. "I experienced racism and bullying as an elementary school student after moving from Shanghai to Toronto. Now, similar things happened to me as the CEO of my own company," Zhu explains. "In my leadership style, I have been guided by the peaceful teachings of Confucius or Daoism. I stayed true to  my values and the company’s values. To investors, I didn’t fit their mold for a public company CEO.”

One of the early investors that  Zhu met, who was himself of Asian-American descent, even advised him to make room for a white CEO once Iterable grew larger. The period following the initial outbreak of coronavirus was an eventful one for Zhu, who was disappointed by the racist incidents against people of Asian descent and anti-China policies in the US. Just 10 months earlier, a Bloomberg Businessweek reporter accompanied Zhu on his journey, marked by harassment and dissonance with investors. "I knew that it carried real risks that I would be retaliated against. But I believed it was important to do." Zhu's new calling is called "Stand with Asian Americans," an anti-racist coalition of Asian American entrepreneurs, investors, business leaders and activists, including Eric Yuan, CEO and co-founder of Zoom and YouTube co-founder Steve Chen. In contrast to Eddie Morra in "Limitless", the collective takes precedence over any personal striving of achievement for Zhu today.

Text: Chloé Lau
Fotos: Rebecca Chen, Robert Funke

Dieser Artikel erschien in unserer Ausgabe 6–21 zum Thema „NEXT“.

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