Dr. Leen Kawas Describes The Microbiome of Babies and Its Multigenerational Applications

Leen Kawas
6 min readMay 4


David Thompson Apr 28, 2023 11:45 AM EDT


(Photo : Dr. Leen Kawas)

Dr. Leen Kawas delves into the microbiome of babies, and ways in which key discoveries can be implemented across multigenerational applications.

Today’s rapidly evolving biotechnology arena is sparking multiple promising ventures. On February 17, 2023, Leen Kawas, Ph.D. appeared on the Angel Invest Boston podcast, hosted by Sal Daher. Dr. Kawas delved into Propel Bio Partners’ mission and shared insights on “The Microbiome of Babies.” This intriguing subject is the focus of the company’s partnership with venture capital client Persephone Biosciences.

Dr. Leen Kawas began by discussing Propel Bio Partners’ mission. “Basically, Propel Bio Partners is a life science investment firm. We invest in both private companies and public companies where we see their significant upside and management teams and science that we believe in. We evaluate probability of success for upcoming catalysts or long-term success of the company and the programs that they’re running.

“It’s an interesting moment for life sciences, and we have a lot of opportunities out there. We’re excited about a few companies that are both in the public and the private company ecosystem.”

Propel Bio Partners Enables a Larger-Scale Focus

For clarification, Dr. Kawas explained that Propel Bio Partners is a new venture fund, established in March 2022. She previously served as CEO of Athira Pharma, Inc., which she took public in a successful Initial Public Offering (or IPO).

Despite her successful drug development work at Athira, Dr. Kawas wanted to positively impact the biotechnology landscape on a larger scale. Therefore, she co-founded Propel Bio Partners with former Athira investor Richard Kayne.

“Just to clarify, we are a new fund. I was a CEO of a public company, and I transitioned into the investment world with the idea that we want to help entrepreneurs be successful. We’ve invested in a few private companies, some of them that are already public, a few that will be announced soon,” Dr. Kawas remarked.

Persephone Biosciences

In spring 2023, Leen Kawas’ Propel Bio Partners is providing financial and technical support to San Diego-based Persephone Biosciences. This innovative startup is focused on the applications of gut microbiome health. Initially, the company has targeted infants’ microbiomes.

“The thing that attracted us about Persephone is their scientific approach, thoughtful development plan, and an opportunity to invest in a therapeutic platform, but at the same time, [a] consumer platform.

“I think Persephone exemplified the type of companies that we’re looking for. They have very strong scientific founders that are very pragmatic and focused on creating value for the patients and for the investors.

Persephone Biosciences’ Streamlined Consumer Platform

“I really enjoyed working with a team because, as I say, they have a consumer pipeline, or platform, as well as a therapeutic platform. Why I want to highlight this [is] because when you think about a consumer platform or a pathway in the life science industry, it’s a much faster pathway to market and revenue. Therapeutic, there’s a significant upside, but it’s higher risk.

“[Persephone] is like a company that brings the best in the two worlds: faster access to market and revenue with their consumer pipeline and therapeutic pipeline. What I also like about Persephone is they directly acknowledge the market conditions,” Dr. Kawas remarked.

Persephone Biosciences’ Probiotics Pipeline

Strong public interest in probiotics, and a more streamlined path to consumer market entry, has spurred Persephone Biosciences to devote significant resources to probiotics development. The company began by mapping the human gut microbiome via a series of clinical trials.

Infant Probiotics Are the Vanguard Program

Dr. Leen Kawas explained why Persephone Biosciences’ probiotics stand out in the marketplace. “They are laser-focused on creating ─ advancing ─ their lead program in the consumer space: infant probiotics.

“As we look at the probiotics market, [there are] no products in the marketplace, based on science and data, that address the true gap and changes and architecture of our microbiome. What I love about Persephone is before they even start going into designing their product, they’ve conducted clinical trials to understand the baseline of the human gut microbiome.”

Spotlight on the Baby Biome

Dr. Kawas emphasized that Persephone Bioscience’s initial baby biome focus has resonated with the infants’ mothers. The company’s co-founder and CEO Stephanie Culler is both a biotechnologist and a mother. This unique perspective drives her focus on infant probiotics that can optimize both the baby’s and mother’s health.

“They’ve done the baby biome, and they’ve had significant interest from mothers. Again, this highlights how much interest there is in scientifically based infant probiotics. Here, Persephone understands the impact of C-section, vaginal birth, breastfeeding, and formula.

“They are creating infant probiotics that will help and empower mothers to make decisions that are the best for them and for the baby. This may include the breastfeeding or formula decision] A lot of people think it’s always a choice. Sometimes it’s not a choice ─ it’s a health condition.

“I really appreciate that. For me, I’m a working mother and I understand the stress on mothers. This is the product that I think represents a significant value. There’s market opportunity there…this is the first product in a pipeline,” Dr. Leen Kawas summarized.

The Probiotic’s Effect on the Gut Microbiome

Dr. Leen Kawas explained that Persephone Biosciences’ infant probiotic will enhance naturally present microorganisms. The goal will be to recreate a normal gut microbiome containing a healthy population of the right components.

“Not only the microorganisms, it’s also the cytokines. If you have this microorganism and it’s not expressing or doing what you wanted to do, it’s not going to help with anything. They actually enhance the microorganisms that are relevant to recover a normal gut microbiome to help with our autoimmune ─ a magnitude of things.

“It’s science-based. They’re going through a methodical development plan. [Persephone is] starting with understanding the architecture, the cytokines that are important in having a healthy gut microbiome for infants and adults, and even patients.”

A Healthier Microbiome for All Ages

Next, Dr. Leen Kawas spoke from her experience as a mother plus her perspective as a pharmacist. She acknowledged that parenthood triggers a mother’s and/or father’s neuron changes. As a result, the parent wants to ensure they’re providing the best nutrition and life experience for their babies.

Dr. Kawas said Persephone Biosciences’ work with babies’ gut microbiomes will help inform similar work with individuals of all ages. “That’s why I appreciate Persephone.

“I think it’s common knowledge right now that the gut microbiome is involved in several of the pathologies that we are experiencing at different ages, including Alzheimer’s, diabetes, [and] autoimmune diseases. Starting very early on, from the infant stages, building the normal architecture of the microbiome is very critical for us,” she emphasized.

Finally, Dr. Kawas noted that Persephone Biosciences currently has adult consumer probiotics in the pipeline. On the therapeutic side, the company is proceeding with clinical trials, with FDA approval as the goal.

Persephone Biosciences’ CEO: Driven by the Mission

Dr. Leen Kawas expressed appreciation for Stephanie Culler’s commitment to her company’s mission. “CEOs that are driven by the mission, not only for the return ─ it’s magical. They can create so much value.

“Driven by the mission and it’s 24/7. She texts me, any time, and I don’t mind it because I was in her place. Even if it’s Sunday at 7:00 a.m., I don’t mind it at all. It just gives me comfort that this is a founder that is committed to the mission and the products that they’re developing…I think she has this energy that attracts people around her. We feel lucky to be partnering with Persephone,” Dr. Leen Kawas remarked.

About Dr. Leen Kawas

Leen Kawas, Ph.D. is a recognized bioscientist and Propel Bio Partners’ Managing General Partner. This Los Angeles-based venture capital firm seeks newer biotechnology companies that will benefit from financial support and strong technical expertise.

Before her Propel Bio Partners leadership position, Dr. Leen Kawas excelled as Athira Pharma’s Chief Executive Officer. During her tenure, she successfully developed multiple drug candidates and drove Athira’s Initial Public Offering. Dr. Kawas’ recognized leadership garnered her several notable awards.

Dr. Kawas’ education prepared her well for a standout biotechnology career. In 2008, this Jordanian native earned a Pharmacy degree from the University of Jordan. In 2011, she earned her Doctorate in Molecular Pharmacology from the University of Washington.

To cap off her education, Dr. Leen Kawas completed the Foster School of Business Executive Training Program. Taken as a whole, her multifaceted education positioned her to become a driving force in the fast-growing biotechnology arena.

This story was originally published on: https://www.sciencetimes.com/articles/43494/20230428/dr-leen-kawas-describes-the-microbiome-of-babies-and-its-multigenerational-applications.htm



Leen Kawas

Ph.D. in molecular pharmacology and entrepreneur