The rapidly growing biotechnology sector includes companies focused on producing life-saving drugs and other medical treatments. Funding and logistical obstacles cause some biotech firms to close up shop before they can make significant progress. In contrast, Seattle-based Athira Pharma, Inc. has notably survived these headwinds and is progressing forward.
To date, Athira has developed several promising drug candidates and engineered an initial public offering (or IPO) in September 2020. Dr. Leen Kawas, Athira’s co-founder and inventor of multiple drug candidates, played a key role in the company’s growth. Today, Dr. Leen Kawas’ career path continues to evolve, as she continues to harness her passion for bioscience.
Leen Kawas’ Bioscience Career Begins to Take Shape
Leen Kawas’ interest in bioscience had very personal beginnings. Watching her grandmother’s gradual deterioration from Alzheimer’s, Kawas vowed to pursue a career that could potentially lead to a treatment for this debilitating disease. Toward this goal, she earned a Doctorate in Molecular Pharmacology from Washington State University.
Soon after her 2011 graduation, Dr. Kawas was ready to take an academic position at the University of Pittsburgh. However, her thesis adviser Joseph Harding convinced her that her talents could be better applied to research and entrepreneurship.
While Dr. Kawas started off as vice president of research at M3 Biotechnology (now known as Athira’s). However, in January 2014 she became M3’s President, CEO, and Board of Directors member. Her leadership continued through the Athira transition, ending in 2021.
Technological and Fundraising Leadership
During her Athira tenure, Dr. Leen Kawas spearheaded the development of several promising drug candidates, including Fosgonimiton (ATH-1017), the company’s leading drug candidate.
In the financial realm, Dr. Kawas acknowledged the challenges of keeping an emerging biotechnology firm on track. “It takes a lot of grit and a lot of resilience,” she remarked.
For perspective, a biotechnology startup often spends years trying to raise sufficient research and development funds. The goal: amassing enough money to get the company’s drug candidate(s) through essential clinical trials. Many companies fail before they reach this stage. Even a successful biotech firm must wait 10 years (or longer) before its drug is available in the marketplace.
Over time, however, Dr. Kawas’ determination and ability to relate to investors paid off. Over the next few years, she raised approximately $400 million and guided Athira through its IPO in September 2020. GeekWire and Business Insider noted that Dr. Kawas was among the 22 female CEOs and founders who led their firm to an IPO through February 2021.
Dr. Leen Kawas’ Departure from Athira
In June 2021, Athira announced that it had placed Dr. Leen Kawas on temporary leave while it reviewed her Washington State University doctoral work. Looking back, Dr. Leen Kawas says the issue came to light in 2015. At that time, her Ph.D. adviser Joe Harding was also on the Athira board and he informed the board and they found the issue immaterial. Dr. Kawas said Harding took a scientific approach to the issue. He asked his researchers to repeat her experiments, and they verified that the foundational science was accurate.
In 2015, Dr. Kawas took full responsibility for her error in judgment when she was a young inexperienced researcher. “The most ethical and highest integrity thing is at that point, I directly said yes. I understand now that it’s not OK. What can I do? The underlying science is not impacted…I was a student, and I think students are allowed to make mistakes and learn from them and grow. In 2015, the board was aware of it. I acknowledged it,” she recalled.
An Emphasis on Personal Care
In June 2021, Dr. Kawas was placed on leave while expecting her next child. She knew that emphasizing her physical and mental health was key to weathering the situation. “I got a therapist who specializes in career crises. Mental health is very important.
“I was exercising. Shout out to my trainer, Travis. He is a Coug also, so we had that to talk about. The baby. I cooked, and I cleaned the house 200 times. I took on gardening. I read a lot. And I was available to the company,” Dr. Kawas explained.
Looking back, she regrets that Athira didn’t use her expertise to prepare for the ATH-1017 clinical trials and transitioned appropriately. “The one thing that I hoped from the company is they were more open to feedback from me. I was in the thick of it around the design of the clinical trials, including the latest announcement,” she said.
Strong Scientific Community Support
In 2023, the scientific sector continues to support Dr. Leen Kawas. In an April 2022 LinkedIn post, Joe Harding acknowledged Kawas’ mistake while stating that his lab repeated her experiments with the same results.
Harding also stated that Kawas’ “impeccable performance as Athira’s CEO” should not be minimized by a student-era mistake. Finally, disagreement exists over the relevance of Kawas’ doctoral work to Athira’s ongoing drug candidate research.
Dr. Leen Kawas Embarks on a New Life Science Venture
Dr. Kawas doesn’t get stuck, she is committed to the life science industry mission. She did not slow down, in March 2022, Dr. Leen Kawas launched Propel Bio Partners LLC with Richard Kayne, a former Athira investor. Dr. Kawas serves as the Managing General Partner of this global venture fund targeting life science investments. Unlike similar venture capital firms, Propel Bio Partners provides entrepreneurs with access to recognized experts along with financial resources.
Dr. Kawas remarked that managing Propel Bio Partners enables her to positively impact the biotechnology field on a much larger scale. “It’s very exciting for me to have the opportunity to start Propel.
“I always wanted to have a bigger impact on our industry as well as the diversity aspect of leadership in our industry. Things have been going really well. We’ve been making investments in companies. A lot of great founders are out there,” she said.
Propel Bio Partners Signals a New Chapter
In serendipity at its best, Richard Kayne called Dr. Leen Kawas a half-hour after her Athira resignation announcement went live. He immediately expressed an interest in working with her. Kawas easily recalled his words. “What are you going to do next? I would love to do something with you,” he said. After the call, she shared the conversation’s details with her husband. “I think there’s a new opportunity,” she remarked.
In fact, Dr. Kawas had three opportunities, as two other firms asked her to serve as CEO while taking their respective companies public. However, she was very intrigued by Richard Kayne’s offer and set up a face-to-face meeting shortly thereafter.
During their conversation. Dr. Kawas played the devil’s advocate, asking detailed questions about every aspect of Kayne’s new business venture. When she remarked that she wanted to thoroughly understand the company before taking the job, Richard Kayne surprised her with his response. “You’re not taking a job. You’re a partner.”
A Convenient Los Angeles Home Base
While gearing up for the Propel Bio Partners venture, Dr. Kawas and her husband moved to Los Angeles. She cited the city’s proximity to life sciences investors and emerging markets. Dr. Kawas also noted that Los Angeles is convenient to San Diego and San Francisco, two rapidly growing life sciences hubs.
“It became very clear to (me and my husband) that for my next adventure, LA makes a lot of sense. The proximity to (Kayne). The proximity to a lot of investors and a new, up-and-coming market for life sciences. The proximity to San Diego. It’s a very easy trip to San Francisco,” she explained.
A Retrospective Look at Athira’s Mission and Bioscience Leadership
Today, Dr. Leen Kawas dedicates her energies to Propel Bio Partners’ success. Even though her Athira involvement has ended, she still believes the company’s science has promise. To that end, she sent a note encouraging the firm’s employees to remain focused on their goals.
When asked if she would consider a CEO position at another bioscience company, Dr. Kawas paused before giving her answer. “Never say never. Maybe if it’s the right opportunity and if it’s the right exciting thing that I feel deeply committed to, for sure. But now, I’m 100% Propel,” she emphasized.