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Leen Kawas Co-Founds New Investment Firm with the Help of Early Athira Investors

Dr. Leen Kawas was the first woman in Washington state to lead a biotech company to its public debut in 20 years. As the co-founder of Athira Pharma, her employees looked to her to stay on top of groundbreaking discoveries in her field. Now, she’s starting up a new investment firm, Propel Bio Partners LP, along with asset manager Richard Kayne.

Based in both Los Angeles and Seattle, the company is a global equity investment firm poised to make some big steps forward in the discoveries in the life sciences. As an early Athira investor, Kayne is a prominent professional in LA and an ongoing supporter of Dr. Kawas’ vision. Learn more about the company’s funding, board, and larger mission.

Additional Support from Early Investors

Kayne is just one of several returning investors to the table. Kawas has earned the continued support of multiple original stakeholders.

The target for the pooled investment fund is $150 million, according to the company’s filing with the Security and Exchange Commission. The firm’s team includes the former business development manager at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Dasom (Christine) Yoo.

Investing in Life Science Companies

The company will be investing in life science companies in different stages of development. Dr. Kawas wants to support founders and management teams and ensure they have the resources needed to disrupt the market with new therapies and technologies. She looks to experts like Ronald Lee Krall, the former chief medical officer at GlaxoSmithKline and current director at the NIH Foundation, to help make important decisions.

She’s certainly managed to inspire people in her field. Said Krall, “My involvement in Propel is a testament to my confidence in Leen. I believe she has the skills and ability to help promising entrepreneurs commercialize groundbreaking new therapies and technologies and look forward to working with her and the rest of the team in our shared pursuit of advancing human health.”

Kawas began to pursue biomedical research after losing her grandmother to cancer. When she first got started in her field, she had to rely on other people to further her mission. People like Richard Kayne had to make a calculated decision to risk their hard-earned money on the bold plans she had for the healthcare industry.

Today, she wants to be that person to up-and-comers in her sector. In a press release on the day that Propel was officially announced, she said that she looked forward to working with passionate entrepreneurs who were ready to challenge how medical professionals treat some of the most debilitating diseases.

Kawas’ Career and Rise in the Biotech Industry

Since the beginning of Kawas’ career, she’s managed to give her colleagues multiple reasons to believe in her talents and abilities. Many of the experts in her field were pleased with her tenure as CEO and firmly believed, without her at the helm of the company, the business wouldn’t have the chance to reach its true potential. (While her supporters stand with her, they also aren’t planning to stand in the way of Athira’s progress.) She’s the one that pushed for more at every step of the way. From funding to biotech innovation, she has long set her sights on the bigger picture.

Said Kayne, “Leen is a visionary entrepreneur with a unique blend of drive, intelligence and demonstrated 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.”

As a former principal at Cantor Fitzgerald and the founder of Kayne Anderson Venture Partners, Kayne is proud to be working with her again on a new firm. He said that with Leen Kawas as the leader of Propel, he believes the company is in a unique position to spot emerging opportunities and assist them at the most critical time of their development.

Offering an Ecosystem of Help

Propel’s target has been announced at $150 million, but the exact capital at its disposal has not yet been announced. What is clear, though, based on the talent that the company has managed to accrue, is that it can offer more than just financial assistance to the life science companies under its umbrella. Propel Bio will be providing everything from medical to operational advice, as well as service providers who have proven their ability to scale with growing businesses without compromising the efficacy of their work.

This is a truly priceless benefit for burgeoning life science businesses, ones that could easily lose their way if leaders weren’t able to open up a dialogue with people who understood their mission. Athira, formerly M3 Biotechnology, was attempting to disrupt one of the most devastating diseases in the world — Alzheimer’s — and its founder truly appreciates just how much work it takes to break into the scene.

Said Leen Kawas, “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.” Her latest firm will cover all the stages of corporate growth with an emphasis on efficiency and quality. The advisory board will both evaluate opportunities and consult with their companies for whatever they need.

It’s clear that the experts she’s managed to gather together will be up to the task. For instance, Carol Criner, another early investor and an expert in operations and strategy, will serve as one of eight members on the medical and investment advisory board at Propel. She said that she’s also planning to invest in Kawas’ abilities and that throughout the journey of their professional relationship, she’s only grown more confident in the entrepreneur’s talents. Criner is best known for being the VP of Strategic Accounts at HCL Technologies, a company with operations in more than 50 countries. She brings more than 20 years of experience in the technology sector as both an entrepreneur and executive.

Additional advisory board members include:

  • Ronald Farkas: Former FDA clinical team leader in the Neurology Division, he has extensive experience with both new drug applications and research.

  • Mike Gibbs: Former Astrazeneca executive, Gibbs headed the Neuroscience, Infection & GI Emerging Brands. He’s also an expert in drug commercialization and marketing.

  • Suzanne Hendrix: As the CEO of Pentara Corp., a boutique vendor in statistics and data management for Central Nervous System disorders, Hendrix is a recognized design expert in biopharma.

  • Erik D. Larsen: A prominent pharma and biotech executive, Laursen brings more than 20 years’ experience in drug development and operations.

  • Richard Sudek: Angel investor and tech entrepreneur, will be helping Propel flesh out its Artificial Intelligence division.

  • Sylvia S. McBrinn: Former Global VP of Marketing at Pfizer, McBrinn brings more than 30 years of executive experience and leadership in biopharma.

The Life of Leen Kawas

Leen Kawas has had to take on many roles in her life. As a mother and entrepreneur, she’s learned how to be ready for even the most unexpected twists to her daily routine. She is passionate about her work, but more than that, she’s passionate about helping other people express their talents and creativity. Dr. Kawas is a supporter of other women who want to break down barriers, much as she did in her role as co-founder of Athira. She believes that without women in power positions, it would be difficult for any company to reach its true potential.

She’s also an ardent believer that having a family does not have to get in the way of your career. Her children not only motivate her to do a little better than the day before, they’ve also been instrumental in helping her schedule her time more efficiently and handle pressure at work without losing her cool. Dr. Kawas has found that she’s only grown as a leader after becoming a mother, and she plans to bring all the lessons she’s learned at home to her latest professional venture.


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