When it comes to female entrepreneurship, Dr. Leen Kawas has demonstrated her resolve and her prowess in her field time and time again. Among her achievements are recent developments in the treatment of both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, with therapeutic candidates already progressing through clinical trials. These successes in pharmacology became a cornerstone for Athira Pharma, which paved the way for taking the company public and propelling its success as a business entity.
More recently, Dr. Kawas left Athira and, in keeping with her entrepreneurial spirit, founded a new investment firm, Propel Bio Partners LP. The company has since sought to raise a round of $150 million from key investors. The firm aims to provide more than just financial support and includes a team of experts, leaders, and inventors who can provide medical and commercial advice in support of corporate development. The timing for Propel’s inception is well-marked with need in the industry. Investments in biopharmaceutical and life sciences have topped $15 billion in the past year.
While her departure left Athira reeling for leadership, her colleagues and peers throughout the industry continue to demonstrate their support for Leen Kawas’ work and efforts. Propel’s investment round includes support from several Athira investors. Kawas kicked off her venture with Propel Bio Partners with co-founder Richard Kayne, who was also an early investor in Athira. In fact, a number of the firm’s advisory board members include representatives from across the life sciences industry, all of whom have made it clear they believe in Leem Kawas as much as they believe in the future of Propel. One such proponent is NIH Foundation director Ronald Lee Krall: “My involvement in Propel is a testament to my confidence in Leen,” Krall said in a statement. Carol Criner, strategy and operations expert as well as Athira investor, will also sit on Propel’s board, sharing that she has “only grown more confident of Leen” via their dealings for Propel.
As financial support rolls in for Kawas’ latest endeavor, moral support is also profound in the biotech community. Kawas’ departure from Athira has been met with a mix of emotions and bewilderment at the way it was handled from the start. In one demonstration of support, Athira’s vice president of clinical development, Xue Hua, recently criticized the company and left her role in February 2022 as a show of dissatisfaction in how Kawas’ situation was managed. She shared in a blog post, “I left Athira in February 2022, as I strongly disagree with the Board’s decision to dismiss Leen Kawas as the CEO, the rationale Athira provided to the public to purportedly justify her dismissal, and the lack of transition that resulted in growing leadership gaps.”
Kawas’ contributions were critical to the company’s success from the start, with her translational research for her PhD in Molecular Pharmacology forming the foundation of the company itself. Inventing Athria’s lead candidate, ATH-1017 for mild to moderate Alzheimer’s Disease is designed to promote the growth and survival of nerve cells. This patented technology, now in clinical trials measuring changes in cognition and daily activity, paved the way for Athira to become the now-$127-million-dollar company it is today.
Hua acknowledged Dr. Leen Kawas’ own role in the controversy, noting that she had “acknowledged and fixed her mistake with the support of her advisor and colleagues to the best extent possible, with proper disclosure to the university, Athira board, and other key stakeholders more than five years ago.” Having done all she could to rectify a mistake that occurred over ten years ago, Kawas was still led through a series of investigations that culminated in her decision to resign from the company.
Kawas has also received support within the sphere of academia., her advisor and Athira co-founder Joseph Harding has publicly shared his support. In a letter posted to LinkedIn, Harding shared that Kawas has been “the most talented student he ever worked with”. Hua also noted in her blog that despite the issue of embellishment in Kawas’ paper, “the scientific validity of Dihexa has been confirmed in multiple experiments performed at Athira since Kawas’ PhD research ten years ago.”
Hua’s own departure from Athira came in an act of solidarity with Kawas. Hua strongly disagreed with the method and manner in which Kawas was let go from her position as CEO. Her complete blog post on the topic outlines not only the scientific basis for standing by Kawas’ but also the number of milestones that the company achieved under Kawas’ leadership. These include the invention of ATH-1017 as well as closing a number of funding rounds, completing an initial public offering, and launching clinical trials in spite of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, Dr. Leen Kawas became the first female CEO to take a biotech company public in Washington State for 20 years at the time and one of only 22 female executives to take a company public through IPO.
Kawas continues to demonstrate her passion for bioscience and making the world a better, healthier place for everyone with her latest endeavor. Propel Bio Partners LP is poised to invest in other life sciences companies that are pursuing disruptive technologies. As an entrepreneur who brought a company from nothing to a product and then global renown in just six short years, Kawas understands the impact that timely, appropriate funding can have on startups in the biotech space. Her passion for improvement in the medical field is personal. Kawas was deeply affected by the loss of her grandmother to cancer and the loss of her mother to neurodegenerative disease. She became determined to blaze a trail of her own to advance human health while lifting up others around her. As managing general partner at Propel, she will have a continued opportunity to do just that.