A Chat on Life, Entrepreneurship, and the Future of the Psychedelic Space
Throughout my journey in the new psychedelic space, I’ve been on a steep learning curve. New companies are cropping up with startling speed, and public discussions around the potential of psychedelics which were abruptly ceased or driven underground decades ago are resuming on a massive scale. In the course of my research, I’ve consistently run into the name Paul Austin. Whether through his thorough psychedelic resource website Third Wave and the microdosing courses it offers, his work as the co-founder of Synthesis, or his consulting business, Austin’s presence is felt. What’s more, he consistently appears as a reasonable, professional entrepreneur in an industry seeking to find its feet in the world of legitimate, large-scale business after so long on the fringes.
While hardly the only innovator seeking to better align psychedelics with mainstream culture and society, Austin has the distinction of being among the first to act on this potential. I was intrigued and got in touch to ask him a bit more about his history with psychedelics, his various businesses, and where he sees the space going. Austin, through any project of his, is never shy about sharing his views, and I appreciated hearing him expand on some of the ideas I’ve encountered through his body of work.
A Psychedelic First-Mover
We started with a bit about his past. Paul Austin first took LSD a little over a decade ago, during the summer before his junior year of college. It wouldn’t be his last trip before the summer was out. “I just found it incredibly insightful,” he says. “It just helped me cultivate a much greater level of awareness about who I wanted to become.” These early experiences helped instill him an appreciation for the value of an unconditional path. “I’ve always been very independent.” Maintaining that independence led him to travel, and to live abroad. “I was in my early 20’s, as free as I was ever going to be to explore, to learn to live. It just felt like the greatest laboratory for growth and expansion possible.”
Heading first to Turkey, then to Europe, then as far across Asia as Chiang Mai, Thailand, Austin eventually found himself in Budapest. He had supported himself throughout his travels by teaching English remotely, online, eventually starting his own business. By 2015, he had enough income to cover his expenses and decided to launch Third Wave in September of that year, initially as a hobby. “I felt comfortable doing that because I had so much freedom, and my income was totally independent, based on the quality of education I provided to my clients.”
The Third Wave enabled Austin to be open about his psychedelic use. While psychedelic and microdosing communities already existed, it was not then in vogue, enjoying the attention and growing respectability it does today. He believes this gave him a first-mover advantage, to “be able to cultivate the conversation around microdosing and amplify it in a significant way.” Seeing what was happening with Cannabis at the time, and aware of the important role psychedelics had played in his own life, Austin sensed tremendous potential and decided to follow his entrepreneurial instinct.
An Integrated Whole
Throughout Third Wave and his personal consulting business, Austin makes reference to psychedelics as part of an integrated whole. I asked him what that whole looked like to him, and how it came to be. He cited the writer Ken Wilber’s work on Spiral Dynamics as an inspiration, seeing plant medicine and psychedelics as an opportunity to “embody these models as leaders.” He described his overall lifestyle as focused and entrepreneurial. “It’s very focused on the Third Wave. I live in Miami at the moment, but I travel about a week out of every month.”
Moving on, he talked about psychedelic use as part of a broader range of lifestyle practices, including, meditation, breath-work and ice-baths, mixed movement arts, and reading lists skewed towards literature and philosophy. “The whole point for me is that the time period we’re going through is mirroring what we went through as a Western culture 500 years ago during the renaissance period. I think the greatest opportunity for psychedelics and plant medicine as it relates to masculinity is to help more and more men evolve into these sort of renaissance men, and move beyond just productivity for productivity’s sake.”
The Third Wave: Microdosing Courses
Getting a better sense of his background and interests, I went on to ask Austin about his businesses. Microdosing courses, speaking, and coaching were the ones that had caught my eye during my time browsing Third Wave as a resource and seemed like a good place to start. “The content of our courses, both microdosing and high dose use but specifically microdosing, is looking at psychedelic use as just one piece of a larger puzzle. It’s oftentimes the most important piece.”
Austin describes his view, now increasingly shared and being acted on by the medical, psychiatric, and wellness communities, that when psychedelics are used responsibly they can act as “a catalyst for change and growth. With that catalyst in place and because of psychedelics’ impact on neuroplasticity and adaptability. It becomes much easier to become aware of the origins of our behaviors, repressed emotions, and trauma.” He would go on to explain that “with high doses, we become more aware, and with microdosing, it becomes easier to integrate and adapt to alter self-sabotaging practices within our own lives.”
Integrated, Customized, and Aligned Psychedelic Experiences
Broadly speaking, Austin says his courses offer contextualized lessons on healing, optimizing, and entering creative or flow states through microdosing. He stresses that the content of the course is calibrated to fit individual needs and aims, as opposed to more generalized microdosing advice available online. Psychedelic use as an integrated part of personal growth, he says, is the ultimate goal. “So you can live, grow, evolve, with more energy and vitality and nourishment.”
While growing the course and offering one-on-one counseling, the Third Wave is also beginning to do live six-week courses, incorporating two weeks of preparation and a breathwork ceremony, among other aspects. Eventually, Austin hopes to begin certifying microdosing coaches. “Psychiatrists, therapists, medical doctors, even just coaches and guides, anyone who’s looking to integrate microdosing as a part of their tool-kit, we’d basically like to provide continuing education credits for them.”
Synthesis: A Netherlands Psychedelic Retreat
From microdosing, we moved on to Synthesis, a psilocybin retreat in the Netherlands that Austin helped found. As we’re beginning to cover psychedelic retreats in more detail, I was curious about his motivations, his role as a co-founder, and the sort of work being done there now. “Synthesis came about in 2017. I had the opportunity to speak at a few high-level tech and business conferences, with my soon to be co-founder of Synthesis, Martijn (Schirp).” In this creative atmosphere, the two began a discussion, and concluded that there was “really not a legal, medically supervised, very professional psilocybin experience in the Netherlands at this point.” They decided to begin Synthesis together.
“I was very involved in 2018 in terms of getting the first few cohorts in and raising investment, and really creating a solid brand and building a team” Austin tells me. “At the beginning of 2019, as a cofounder it was either move to Amsterdam and do that full time, or I step back and become an advisor.” He made his decision to step back, and tells me that his current involvement in operations is negligible, though many of the staff he hired are still on board.
He was able to offer me some insight in terms of the protocols established to guide guests through full dose psilocybin trips. “It’s intake forms, one on one conversations, making sure there’s time set aside for preparation, making sure the experience itself is beautiful, and setting aside time for integration including more one on one calls.” Given his current level of involvement, Austin said this was all the information he could give me on Synthesis at the moment. I’m looking forward to getting in touch with the Netherlands facility and finding out more.
The First Two Waves
We kept things moving. Stepping back to his primary ventures, I asked Austin about the core concept of the Third Wave. The website takes its name from what it describes as the current wave of psychedelic use. The first two are, to quote Austin, “Indigenous use, which basically is the wisdom we’ve cultivated from eons of relational time with these plant medicines” and “the second wave is much more modern, in terms of what took place in the ’50s and ’60s.”
Austin referred to this period as “the counterculture and the chaos” adding, “I think the Third Wave is in response to that, to say we don’t want this level of chaos, we don’t want to drop out” (a reference, I assume, to the once-infamous slogan of Timothy Leary). “In fact, the Third Wave is about the integration of psychedelic use, oftentimes through the lens of microdosing because that’s the most approachable way to begin working with psychedelic substances.”
Looking back, he describes this as a healing journey. Austin voices his belief that the Third Wave, as a responsible integration of the previous two, is about combining the rituals and history of plant medicine with the precision of modern science, in which psychedelic research was fruitful and clinically effective before descending into “chaos.”
The Shape of Entrepreneurship in Psychedelics
This felt like a great jumping-off point for me to get Austin’s opinions on the shape this current wave was taking. What I was looking for were his views as an early mover and shaker in the psychedelic space on just how he’d seen it grow. “I think in the past year, in particular, the way the space has grown has been entrepreneurship. I started going to conferences in 2016, went to several in psychedelics, but gradually transitioned to more business and tech. The biggest transition is that for many years the psychedelic space was researchers, academics, activists, maybe a few typical hippies from the ’60s and ’70s.” He paused here. “A lot of people who are very different than I am, you could say.”
He reiterates his view that entrepreneurship has been the biggest change in recent years. “Unlike activists who tend to be pretty far left and come from more of a postmodernist background, I find entrepreneurs to be more integrated, to be willing to put more skin in the game, to take more risks, and seeing the importance of community, of honoring tradition, and of not over commodifying these sacred substances. With this, there’s also clear intention on how we’re going to create the infrastructure within modern culture so that these substances can be responsibly integrated.”
What the Future Holds for Psychedelics
It was, more or less, the answer I expected. I confess I’m eager to see if this rough sketch of integrated psychedelic entrepreneurship as a community-oriented force that Austin has drafted holds true in the future. From there, our conversation moved on to the entrepreneurs themselves. I asked him what he thought of the slew of new actors and psychedelic startups emerging in the medical, therapeutic, and recreational sectors, and if he thought psychedelics were on the right track. He was unambiguous in his response.
“From my perspective, there’s way too much money going into drug development, clinical trials, and FDA research. I think this is partly just a reflection of where we’re at right now with this process. I think a lot of that is necessary. We need to ensure that these substances are properly medicalized and available to as many people as possible. From where I’m sitting, I much prefer a model of decriminalization and self-regulation compared to an over-medicalized model. I fear that would have the danger of being co-opted by pharmaceutical companies. I wouldn’t want the emphasis on how much we can get people to take psychedelics as opposed to the actual healing process.”
Psychedelics’ Greatest Gift
It was here, from this vein, that I got my best sense of his personal philosophy. I felt I was hearing what Paul Austin really feels psychedelics are all about. “The whole point, from my perspective, of making psychedelics more accessible and available is to teach people how to become their own healer. To help people understand that therapists and doctors and psychiatrists and everyone who is there to support them are simply acting as a mirror for them to better understand themselves.”
“Psychedelics, as non-specific amplifiers, amplify both the shadow and the light to help us see the greatest parts of ourselves and the darkest parts of ourselves. Ultimately, coming to that, we realize that we have full personal responsibility for everything that has happened to us and where we’re heading in life.” He goes on to add that he believes the sense of agency is the gift of psychedelics, and that “we want to make sure that gift is respected.”
“Are psychedelics on the right track? Yes, we do need the clinical research. Should they keep following this same track for the next ten years? No. As tens of millions flow into clinical research, that will expand the conversation for decriminalization and ceremony, taking the focus less to be on the molecule and more on cultivating a relationship with these substances in the long term.”
Paul Austin on Peak Performance
Wrapping things up, I sought out Austin’s take on a question that’s been nagging me. My journey into psychedelics has been a deep dive. During its course, I’ve frequently come across the term “Peak Performance”, in the Third Wave, in other microdosing and psychedelic wellness resources, and in the adjacent and sometimes overlapping space of nootropics. I wanted to know what peak performance meant to Paul Austin, and what he felt this journey was about, specifically so that you, our readers, could exercise your own agency, and define it for yourselves as your journeys continue.
“I think, first and foremost, this journey is about telling a story, telling our own story, creating stories. Weaving new narratives throughout culture that are healthy and sustainable, and that incorporate the importance of plant medicine. In terms of what peak performance looks like to me, it’s full alignment. It’s full integration, alignment between our personal and professional pursuits and values, alignment between what we say we believe and what we actually do, the integrity of our actions. I think peak performance is less about productivity and doing things and more about having the space to choose how we want to live, how we want to spend time and energy, and recognizing there is an element of urgency in what we’re doing, that we in western and global cultures are facing an existential crisis.”
“We need these medicines now more than ever. The quicker we can build this infrastructure and educate the general populous and make sure these are accessible and available to as many people as possible, the quicker we can help people to adapt and to evolve. Because these substances are so phenomenal at enabling and allowing change and reducing the friction and resistance we often have to change, I think peak performance is about that process. It’s not becoming burned out, it’s not trying to be super crazy productive. It’s not being the fastest person or the biggest person. I think peak performance is alignment, in all elements of who we are.”
Austin’s Parting Thoughts
I don’t know if everything Paul Austin has said about the psychedelic space will come to pass. I’d like to believe he’s right, and the current wave of entrepreneurship will respect the history and sanctity of these substances, without exploiting or fetishizing the cultures who’ve incorporated them into their beliefs for millennia. Equally pleasing to me is his take on medical research, that it’s a means to an end, rather than the end itself. What I do know is that we’re still only at the beginning of this chapter in the history of psychedelics. Whether or not they act meaningfully as a tool for personal growth, as mass-produced medicine, or to help provide a solution to an existential crisis facing our culture, only time will tell.