Dr. Leen Kawas Shares Insights on Carving Her Own Path in the Traditionally Male Biotechnology Industry
The rapidly evolving biotechnology industry requires strong, resourceful leaders who can manage business operations while navigating unexpected events. They frequently juggle emerging trends, clinical trials, and fundraising, among other priorities.
Biotech industry fundraising takes place in an especially competitive arena. Leen Kawas, Ph.D. is Propel Bio Partners’ Managing General Partner . Her biotech-focused venture capital firm works with emerging and early-stage entrepreneurs. Los Angeles-based Propel Bio Partners often seeks out promising women- and minority-owned businesses.
Dr. Leen Kawas’ biotechnology background also includes a previous Chief Executive Officer role at Athira Pharma, Inc. During her seven-year tenure, this recognized bioscientist successfully managed several drug development cycles. She also spearheaded Athira’s September 2020 Initial Public Offering.
In December 2022, Dr. Leen Kawas headlined the Pretty Powerful Podcast’s Episode 38. Speaking with host Angela Gennari, Dr. Kawas shared insights on the challenges of being a woman leader in a traditionally male-dominated industry.
Dr. Leen Kawas’ Evolution as a Biotechnology Trailblazer
Dr. Leen Kawas’ bioscience career was shaped by two equally strong influences. During her childhood in Amman, Jordan, she lost two beloved family members. First, her grandmother passed away from cancer. When Leen’s father broke the news, she vowed to grow up and develop a drug to fight the disease. During the same period, Leen’s mother passed away at a young age from a medical condition.
Young Leen Kawas was understandably affected by the loss of these two strong women. At the same time, however, these events began to focus Leen’s career choice. “ I like to think. I like numbers, finance, and accounting, and I like chemistry,” she noted. She decided to channel these skills into a pharmaceutical industry career. In 2008, Leen Kawas obtained a Pharmacy degree from the University of Jordan.
Shortly thereafter, Leen Kawas realized that working as a pharmacist didn’t provide her with personal and professional satisfaction. She decided that earning a master’s and Ph.D. in the United States was a better choice. She originally mapped out an academic track before discovering the excitement of entrepreneurship.
Embarking on a Multifaceted Entrepreneurial Path
“I thought academia was the thing, that I could have a big impact, but then, I got exposed to entrepreneurship. I think that’s why the U.S. is special; because we promote innovation, and we promote talent. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done, especially around equity and diversity.
“It was the best decision I made. I was sitting in my Ph.D. advisor’s office when he said ‘Do you want to cofound Athira with me and stay?’ I had a job lined up ─ a secure job. I said ‘Yeah, I guess I’ll try it.’
“I love that I had the opportunity to move here to the U.S. and be in a position [that enables me to] have an impact on human health. In my new position at Propel Bio Partners, [we have] diversity in management and diversity in innovation. I’m lucky. It’s not only luck ─ it’s also working hard,” Dr. Leen Kawas concluded.
Dr. Leen Kawas’ Innovative “Patient-Centric” Methodology
Since Dr. Leen Kawas’ entry into the biotech industry , she has practiced a “patient-centric” philosophy that puts patients ─ and not biopharma companies’ goals ─ first. She applied this approach while guiding her Athira drug development team.
“We built a team that did not think about barriers. We only thought about solutions and how we can do things better, differently, with a mindset that we are serving the key stakeholders, which are the patients.
“Track the success and satisfaction of your customers (in life sciences, the patients). That’s going to drive value. You are developing therapies. You are changing people’s lives. Once you achieve that, the financial value is going to follow,” Dr. Leen Kawas emphasized.
Why Obtaining Clinical Trial Participants’ Commitment is Key
To promote better clinical trial participation, Dr. Leen Kawas wanted to identify the factors that were important to the participants (or the patients). She understood that without patient participation, no trials could go forward. In turn, this would result in a halt to drug development.
“If you design clinical trials that have the patient’s voice in them, patient retention will increase (which is a problem in our industry).” In addition, Dr. Kawas focused on meeting patients’ needs during their clinical trial days. To illustrate, she arranged for onsite meals for participating Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers.
How Lack of Clinical Trial Management Diversity Can Impact Participation
Dr. Leen Kawas’ Athira drug development work often involved targeted clinical trials. She acknowledged the challenge of recruiting patients who would agree to participate in specific trials. Dr. Kawas felt that potential patient recruits were often dismayed to learn that most clinical trial managers are white men.
This lack of diversity in the clinical trial management ranks discouraged many prospects from coming forward to participate in a certain trial. Dr. Kawas felt that hiring more women and minority trial managers would increase clinical trial participation.
Few Women in Life Sciences Executive or Management Roles
The 21 st -century biotechnology industry is severely lacking in its diversity of leadership. In January 2020, BiopharmaDive published a brief summarizing the results of a BIO trade group survey of 107 biotech firms.
For perspective, women comprise approximately half of surveyed businesses’ workforces. However, women fill only about 30 percent of executive roles and 18 percent of Board of Directors’ seats. Approximately four-fifths of surveyed companies’ CEOs were men with almost 90 percent of them being white men.
Most of the surveyed biotech companies were smaller, and almost half of them were privately held. These smaller firms were more likely to have a higher number of executive women and people of color than larger firms. With that said, however, all surveyed companies had imbalanced representation in the executive suite.
Dr. Leen Kawas Discusses the Factors Behind this Troubling Trend
While being interviewed for a Forbes article , Dr. Leen Kawas provided a well-reasoned explanation for the dearth of women in life sciences leadership roles. “Although there’s a lot of research showing when you have a woman on the helm (or part of the executive team), returns are higher, cultures are more inclusive, and innovation has a different, unique flavor.
“Women don’t get promoted as much as men. If it’s a man who’s promoting another person, they relate to the experience of the males, not the woman. It’s easier for them to make that promotion,” Dr. Leen Kawas remarked.
To help change this dynamic, Dr. Leen Kawas strongly recommended that women in early-stage bioscience careers find mentors and advocates. “Find mentors, but most importantly, find advocates. Find those who will advocate for you to grow professionally and personally.
“We don’t have as many women in leadership positions, but find someone that will advocate for you and say, Christine, Angela, or Leen is going to be the most valuable person we have to put in this leadership position,” Dr. Leen Kawas emphasized.
Traditional Gender Bias in Biotechnology Investments
Biotechnology companies largely depend on investor dollars to fund the business’ operations and research activities. However, women-led companies have had considerable difficulty in attracting the needed funds. Dr. Leen Kawas noted that, while serving as Athira Pharma’s Chief Executive Officer (or CEO), she personally encountered investors’ gender bias.
Dr. Kawas recalled one meeting in which a potential investor boasted about a competitor’s male CEO. The man possessed similar qualifications and achievements to Dr. Kawas. Comparing the two leaders, the investor said he would not invest with Athira solely because Dr. Kawas was a woman.
Fortunately, Dr. Kawas’ two advocates pushed back, with one applauding her notable CEO achievements. Ultimately, however, the investor decided not to fund Athira’s drug development work.
As a side note, Dr. Leen Kawas noted that women-led biotech companies typically ask investors for less money than the business actually needs. In contrast, she said male biotech leaders ask for more than is needed, often receiving a final amount in line with their required capital.
Dr. Leen Kawas: The Catalyst for Women-Owned Investments
On the positive side, Dr. Leen Kawas related an investor’s positive experience with her company. Based on his desirable return on investment, he now invests in other women-owned firms. Several of these businesses are doing very well. Dr. Kawas puts it in perspective. “I gave opportunities to other women.”
Coming Full Circle in the Biotech Investments Arena
Today, Dr. Leen Kawas clearly revels in her Propel Bio Partners’ Managing General Partner role. She readily acknowledged that a relatively small number of women lead venture capital firms, with life science-focused firms seeing even fewer female leaders. Dr. Kawas is passionate about changing that dynamic.
“I’m not just investing in women or minorities ─ I’m investing in diversity because this will bring the best innovation and the best returns. There are studies that show that in women-led companies, or companies that have women executives, there are higher returns to the shareholders,” Dr. Leen Kawas emphasized.
Dr. Leen Kawas Gains Inspiration from 3 Key Figures
As Dr. Leen Kawas reflected on her notable biotech industry journey, she readily discussed three people who continue to inspire her. First, Dr. Kawas recalled her high-achieving mother, who encouraged her to set her sights on challenging goals. Dr. Kawas still considers her mother an exemplary role model.
Dr. Leen Kawas also mentioned her husband, whom she called her “biggest cheerleader.” Finally, she happily highlighted her young daughter, who displays the fearless spirit that young Leen Kawas first showed during her childhood. “I want my daughter to be comfortable and confident in her choices, and do it,” Dr. Kawas said.
With plenty of encouragement from her dynamic mother, this young lady is well-positioned to carve out her own distinctive career path. Dr. Kawas expressed her unwavering support for her daughter’s future success. “I have a daughter, and she is my biggest inspiration. I want her to be the first person to do something ─ not the first woman,” Dr. Leen Kawas concluded.