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Former Athira CEO Leen Kawas Reemerges at Startup Propel Bio Partners

Following her ouster as CEO of Athira Pharma, Leen Kawas has found a new home, co-founding Los Angeles-based Propel Bio Partners, an equity investment firm focused on helping other life sciences companies advance their own therapies and technologies.

In its announcement this morning, Propel said it will target and support life sciences companies” that are “focused on changing standard of care and improving quality of life.” Propel noted that it intends to support companies at various stages of growth, presumably from startup to late-stage. The company said its goal is to bolster the founders and management teams of the companies it supports as they attempt to further the “urgent mission to advance human health with disruptive therapies and technologies.”

Propel did not specify in its announcement how much capital was at its disposal to invest in life sciences companies. The company did say that in addition to a financial commitment, Propel Bio will also offer portfolio companies access to its “ecosystem of medical experts, operational advisors and best-in-class service providers.”

Kawas, who co-founded Athira Pharma, will serve as a managing general partner at Propel. At the new investment firm, she will work alongside Richard Kayne, a veteran investor who is the founder and co-chairman of Kayne Anderson Capital Advisors and was a financial investor in Athira.

Kawas founded Athira in 2017, which was known as M3 Biotechnology at the time, before rebranding in 2019. The company’s goal was to develop meaningful therapeutics for neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s. Last year, Kawas departed her role as CEO of Athira after an investigation was conducted into allegations of data manipulation charges surrounding her doctoral research.

The investigating committee concluded that Kawas altered images in her 2011 doctoral dissertation. They also found that images were altered and in at least four research papers that she co-authored while a graduate student at Washington State University.

Despite that cloud over her research, Kawas had found new life on the investment side of the business. She said her hope is that Propel Bio will offer entrepreneurs the same kind of opportunity that Kayne and others provided her when Athira was launched.

“Propel brings real experience in supporting founders and management teams. The companies we support can access our team's deep expertise to help them navigate the challenges of bringing life-saving technologies to market. We look forward to making a lasting impact and helping individuals live better and healthier lives,” Kawas said in a statement.

Kayne expressed his own excitement in working with Kawas. He called the former Athira CEO a “visionary entrepreneur” with a strong drive and business acumen.

“In six short years, she built a company from the ground up, taking it through the early stages of drug development, through its public offering and into the final stages of developing its potentially game-changing therapy. Under Leen's leadership, I believe Propel is uniquely positioned to identify excellent opportunities to assist entrepreneurs along the path to success,” Kayne said of Kawas.

At Propel, Kayne and Kawas are joined by Dasom (Christine) Yoo, who joins the company following her tenure at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center where she served as business development manager.



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