Dr. Leen Kawas Shares Insights on Her Remarkable Biotechnology Career Journey | BioPharma Dive

Leen Kawas
5 min readMay 7, 2024

Crafting a professional career doesn’t always go according to design. Despite carefully laid plans, twists and turns arise and unexpected opportunities unfold. That’s certainly the case with Leen Kawas, Ph. D., Propel Bio Partners’ Managing General Partner. After beginning her career as a pharmacist, Dr. Kawas earned a Ph. D. and has helmed two successful biotechnology companies.

On April 2, 2024, Dr. Leen Kawas appeared on the Recruitomics Consulting Podcast. During a freewheeling discussion with the two engaging hosts, Dr. Kawas shared her criteria for building effective company teams. Dr. Kawas also emphasized the need for more diversity in clinical trial participant selection. Finally, she spoke at length on the need for patient involvement in the drug development cycle.

Recruiting the Right Team for Propel’s Growth

When a company is well positioned for growth, having the right team in place helps facilitate a smoother upward trajectory. As Propel Bio Partners’ Managing General Partner, Dr. Leen Kawas is currently evaluating candidates to play a role in the business’ continued expansion.

Dr. Leen Kawas Discusses Key Candidate Criteria

Dr. Leen Kawas sets the stage for her candidate search. “I think for me, when I look to build a team, especially having hands-on experience and now as I’m working with multiple companies, I look for the mindset.” She emphasizes that regardless of an individual’s career stage, they should always embrace the idea of growth.

At the same time, Dr. Leen Kawas favors candidates with a ‘beginner’s mindset.’ “They approach each problem individually, and [they] don’t use the mindset that led to the problem to solve the problem. I appreciate people who are innovative, and they look to learn from everyone,” Dr. Kawas remarked.

A Fresh Perspective and a “Sense of Fun”

Perhaps surprisingly, Dr. Leen Kawas is receptive to hiring newer biotech professionals. “People just starting their career bring a unique, fresh perspective. That’s as valuable as someone who’s doing the same thing or working in the industry for 20 years,” she said.

Finally, Dr. Kawas is keenly aware that a congenial workplace fosters better team collaboration. “We look for people we’ll enjoy working with…it’s not just the idea, it’s the ability to execute on the idea…people with a vision and a sense of fun,” she emphasized.

Toward More Effective Clinical Trials

Highly structured clinical trials are integral to each drug development cycle. Here, a cohort of patients follows specific drug usage instructions. The clinical trial managers collect and compile the patient data. This sets the stage for the Food and Drug Administration (or FDA) to decide whether the drug is effective and safe for patient use.

Clinical trial effectiveness depends (in part) on each trial’s structure and inclusion of patients who meet well-defined criteria. The clinical trial’s management team must ensure that every aspect of the trial complies with accepted protocols.

Increased Diversity in Clinical Trial Management

Dr. Leen Kawas firmly believes that diversity should play a key role in clinical trial management team selection. “If we want our clinical trials to be more successful as companies, to be more successful, to recruit the right patient population, we need diversity in our management team — not only in the people who are on the ground,” Dr. Kawas declared.

Specifically, Dr. Leen Kawas is convinced that a higher number of female and minority trial managers is needed. In turn, this should enhance patient participation from those demographic groups.

More Diversity in Clinical Trial Patient Selection

Dr. Leen Kawas also calls for increased diversity in clinical trial patient selection. “We are human, we are diverse,” she says. In Dr. Kawas’ view, this diversity will provide a better indicator of how a specific drug will impact a significant portion of society.

If the drug delivers positive outcomes for patients, the drug developer has accomplished two foundational goals. “We all want to do better: to achieve our mission by having a significant impact on humanity and ultimately have significant returns on our investment as well,” Dr. Leen Kawas concluded.

More Patient Involvement in Drug Development

Dr. Leen Kawas has always fiercely advocated for increased patient involvement in the drug development cycle. She believes patients should play an integral role in each phase of drug discovery and development. Today, patients are only invited to participate when the development cycle is close to completion.

Dr. Kawas’ commitment to patient involvement began around seven to eight years ago. During that period, she and her colleagues conducted patient feedback sessions in efforts to determine why certain drugs fail. “We wanted to include the patients’ voice[s] in our clinicals and design to improve the outcome,” Dr. Kawas explained.

Dr. Leen Kawas’10-Year Goals

As Dr. Leen Kawas continues to drive Propel Bio Partners forward, she offers a glimpse into her goals for the next decade. “I want to invest in companies that are building technologies that can help human health. I would love it to be accessible globally.” She also wants to provide internships for students or recent graduates from diverse backgrounds.

Finally, Dr. Leen Kawas strongly believes in “giving back to future entrepreneurs. I had a lot of people that helped me.” For Dr. Kawas, paying it forward is a fitting way to acknowledge the business and technology leaders who helped her build a highly successful biotechnology career.

About Dr. Leen Kawas

Growing up in her native Jordan, seven-year-old Leen Kawas decided she wanted to cure cancer. Her grandmother had just passed away from the disease, and Leen wanted to spare others the same experience. In college, Leen Kawas earned a pharmacy degree and briefly worked as a community pharmacist. However, she felt a research-focused career could help her make the maximum impact.

In 2008, Leen Kawas emigrated to the United States and earned her Ph. D. in Molecular Biology. In 2014, Dr. Leen Kawas leveraged her doctorate as she became Athira Pharma Inc.’s co-founder and Chief Executive Officer (or CEO). In this capacity, Dr. Kawas helped to advance multiple drug development programs. In September 2020, she led Athira’s initial public offering, raising over $400 million during the process.

After exiting Athira, Dr. Leen Kawas co-founded Los Angeles-based Propel Bio Partners in 2022. In collaboration with major Athira investor Richard Kane, she enables the firm to provide start-up and early-stage biotechnology companies with financial and technical support.

Originally published at https://www.biopharmadive.com.

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