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Dr. Leen Kawas: Investing in a Brighter Future!

Dr. Leen Kawas is best known for co-founding and leading Athira Pharma/M3 Biotechnology corporate and technological development and her tireless work fighting neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s. After leaving Athira She co-founded equity investment firm Propel Bio Partners, targeting the growth and success of life science companies.

She is one of the few female founders to stand at the helm of a company during its IPO, and she’s an ardent supporter of all entrepreneurs who want to make a difference in the life science industry. For her efforts, she’s received numerous honors for her work, including the Life Science Entrepreneurial Achievement Award, Association of Washington Business Entrepreneur of the Year, and the Alzheimer’s Cure Coin Award.

Leen Kawas holds a doctorate in pharmacology from Washington State University, a Pharmacy degree from University of Jordan and she also completed the Executive Training Program at the University of Washington. Her skills in both business and medical sciences have been immeasurably beneficial to her firms, particularly as it pertains to the treatment of devastating conditions in the medical field.

What is Propel Bio Partners, LP all about?

Propel Bio Partners, LP is a global equity investment firm focused on helping entrepreneurial life science companies advance groundbreaking technologies and therapies that improve human health. In addition to a financial commitment, the Firm provides its portfolio companies access to its ecosystem of medical experts, operational advisors and best-in-class service providers

Tell us a little bit about your background and how you started your company?

I am the co-founder of Athira Pharma and co-inventor of its lead drug candidate ATH-1017. I also invented several of the innovative drug candidates in Athira’s pipeline.

I served as Athira’s chief executive officer and president, and as a member of its board of directors from January 2014-2021. In this role, I led the technological and financial growth of Athira, raising around $400M and taking the company through its public offering. According to Business Insider and GeekWire, I was one of only 22 female founders and CEOs to lead their company to an IPO, as of February 2021, and was the first woman to guide a company through an IPO in Washington State in over 20 years (at the time of Athira’s IPO in September 2020).

After I left Athira one of my largest and earliest investors at Athira reached out to me within a couple of hours and started discussing the idea of starting a fund together. Within a week I am down in LA and we are talking about our partnership.

What would you say are the top 3 skills needed to be a successful entrepreneur, and why?

  • Ability to make decisions with conviction.

  • Ability to operate with a mix of strategic, analytical, and innovative thinking.

  • I never give up and I build teams that never give up and have a growth mindset

What are your plans for the future, and how do you plan to grow this company?

We will look for the top innovative science and the most creative and talented entrepreneurs. Our vision is to create an engine to advance technologies and therapies that can help people live healthier, happier, and smarter. Bringing my and the teams extensive operational, strategic, and financial experience we hope to propel the mission of our companies.

How do you separate yourself from your competitors?

Propel Bio Partners is a unique investment firm that is led by entrepreneurs. We will bring smart money to our companies. What I have done with Athira is something unique in our industry. Really co-inventing an innovative therapy and build a pipeline around it, accelerating the drug development having a Phase 3 Alzheimer’s Phase 2 Parkinson’s and a Phase 1 Schizophrenia therapies in 6 years and in extreme capital efficient way is a unique model in our industry where we want to multiply into our investment.

We think with our experience we can pick innovative science and increase the probability for a winning outcome.

What were the top three mistakes you made starting your business, and what did you learn from them?

Feeling that I needed to hire for what people expect to see as part of my management teams. In my current and future ventures, I will hire for talent and talent only, regardless of the person’s background.

Raising money too fast and rushing decisions around board structure and company governance. I gained significant wisdom from my first venture and will be able to implement it in Propel Bio Partners and companies we invest in.

Tell us a little bit about your marketing process, what has been the most successful form of marketing for you?

I have not made any marketing in the traditional sense, but as an entrepreneur, you always market your ideas. Being genuine and true to who you are as a person had a big impact on people. Discussing the risks and the value of your business is critical, you can’t control everything, and you need to show your team, investors, customers that you are aware of these risks, and you make a real effort to minimize risks.

What have been your biggest challenges and how did you overcome them?

Being a young woman trying to solve one of the most challenging diseases we are facing today, Alzheimer. I often was not taken seriously or confused by the coat girl, or cart girl. But that never stopped me. I didn’t care what people thought I focused on what I can do and on my vision.

What was your first business idea and what did you do with it?

Developing therapies for neurological indications, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s. I co-invented Fosgonimeton (ATH-1017) and the pipeline of drugs at Athira. Raised $400M and took the company public within six years.

If you started your business again, what things would you do differently?

I would worry less about what people think, and continue to focus on innovation and including the feedback from experience. I always think the best decisions are when you gather input from people and then adding to it an innovative touch. I would also trust my instincts.

What’s a productivity tip you swear by?

Intermittent fasting gives me focus. Bonus you don’t have to spend time prepping or eating!

If you only had $1000 dollars to start a new business, knowing everything you know now, how would you spend it?

On coffee meetings and networking.

What helps you stay driven and motivated to keep going in your business?

The potential impact of our industry and the amazing people and entrepreneurs I get to work with day to day.

What valuable advice would you give new entrepreneurs starting out?

Believe in your ideas, make decisions quickly and adapt as you learn more. Listen to your instincts entrepreneurs typically have good instincts.

What is your definition of success?

Having meaningful and positive impact of the work on peoples’ lives.

How do you personally overcome fear?

Focus on the destination and the mission and knowing it will be hard.

How can readers get in touch with you?

LinkedIn is the best way!


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