Co-founders Dr. Chris Witowski and Dr. Jackie von Salm of Psilera are on a mission to transform the application of psychedelics in mental healthcare. Psychedelics have been used for centuries in the healthcare practices of many cultures; however, the resulting hallucinations, as well as other harmful side effects, have prevented their mainstream adoption. Now, Psilera is using them as the building blocks for non-hallucinogenic, rapid-acting, and single-dose therapies. In other words, they’re helping patients “get there without the trip,” with hopes of someday achieving a huge and dramatic reduction in global suicides due to mental illness.
Together, these business partners are blazing a trail as they redefine mental health treatment in an area of research that has stagnated for roughly 50 years—and they have no shortage of motivation to reach their goal.
“My brother struggles from treatment-resistant depression, my grandmother has had end-of-life anxiety due to stage-four cancer diagnosis, and my other grandmother passed away from Alzheimer’s disease,” said Witowski.
“We both have lots of familial history in mental health addiction and neurodegeneration, and it’s actually really hard to meet anyone who doesn’t have someone close to them with conditions in those areas,” added von Salm.
Despite their passion, Witowski and von Salm realize the path of entrepreneurship maintains its fair share of challenges. When difficulties arise, Witowski leans into his scientific background for strength. As a scientist for over 15 years, he is familiar with the experience of failing fast and moving on. “Many, many failures can happen before there’s a success … every day is a grind,” he explained. “I think that’s made me more resilient as a person and as a business leader.”
Entrepreneurship has also been an enlightening experience for von Salm whose confidence waned after years of being underestimated as a woman in the male-dominated field of chemistry. Balancing motherhood while pursuing her Ph.D. and co-founding another company prepared her well for the leadership role she now holds at Psilera. “I had to recognize that there is a moment when I do know more than other people in the room about the topic I’m talking about and that it’s okay for me to own that.”
The University of South Florida (USF) graduates knew bridging the gap between industry and academia would be vital for successful growth in the startup’s early stages. They have continued their relationship with the university as clients of the Tampa Bay Technology Incubator and as research partners in The Corridor’s Matching Grants Research Program. Since founding the company in 2019, Witowski and von Salm have leveraged their USF community, a strong team of scientists, and a scrappy budget to raise more than $2.5 million, and secure patent approval for transdermal patch formulations of two psychedelics.
In January 2023, Psilera was one of two psychedelics companies invited to the prestigious JPMorgan Health Care Conference in San Francisco. It was a huge opportunity for a small company out of Tampa, a city not widely recognized for its pharmaceuticals and biotech industry. Undoubtedly, as Psilera’s momentum continues, she and Witowski will help change this perception.
Company: Psilera Inc.
Number of Employees: 7
Are you hiring: Open to hearing from interested candidates at info@Psilera.com
No. 1 driver of success: Innovation
Hobbies: Witowski – Watching soccer, networking, spending time with friends; von Salm – Spending time with family
First Job: Witowski – Construction (13); von Salm – Aeropostale (16)
For more 2023 Innovators to Watch, read our full roundup »