Meet Leen Kawas, Founder of Propel Bio Partners

August 8, 2022
4 mins read
Leen Kawas
Leen Kawas

Leen Kawas has established herself not just as one of the leading women in pharmaceutical biotech but as one of the industry’s most notable leaders, regardless of gender.

Dr. Leen Kawas earned a Pharmacy degree in 2008 from the University of Jordan, one of her home country’s most respected academic institutions.

She then came to Washington State, where she pursued a Doctorate in Molecular Pharmacology (Ph.D.) at the University of Washington.

She earned her Ph.D. in 2011 and completed the Foster School of Business’s Executive Training Program in 2015.

One of Dr. Kawas’ most notable accomplishments to date is being the co-founder of Athira Pharma. She co-invented the therapeutic pipeline for Athira, including its lead drug, which is currently known as ATH-1017.

This drug is now in Phase III of clinical development for Alzheimer’s. Athira Pharma started very small, but Kawas was able to raise $400 million for the company and take it public. 

Following her time as CEO of Athira Pharma, Dr. Kawas 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 therapies and technologies.  

In addition to her work with these companies, Dr. Kawas has and currently sits on multiple boards of organizations in her sector.

She’s been a board member of the Alzheimer Association’s Washington Chapter, Life Science Washington Board, and the Alzheimer Drug Discovery Foundation’s Scientific Review Board.

She’s also been a co-chair for the Alzheimer’s Association’s Annual Business Consortium.

Dr. Kawas lives in Washington with her family and continues to invest in other female leaders who show promise in biotech.

What inspired you to build Propel Bio Partners?

I have a different background story for each of my two companies. For Athira, I built the company intending to develop therapies that can significantly impact human health.

One of the main goals I aspire to achieve is accessible treatments. I wanted a name that highlighted this, and I enjoyed the potential positive impact of reaching everyone.

Athir is an Arabic word that means the voice that travels a distance and calls everyone.

Leen Kawas

I was brainstorming with my husband, and he asked what you are trying to bring across. He suggested Athir after I described him, a team member offered to add the A at the end, and everyone at Athira just loved it.

For Propel Bio Partners, the name Propel came from Richard Kayne, my co-founder. He again asked me: what is the mission of our new investment firm?

I told him we want to provide support beyond capital to accelerate the progress of our companies and move them forward.

He returned with Propel Bio Partners, it was the only proposed name, and I loved it immediately. It captured what we want to do, and we want to propel the mission and vision of our companies. 

How have your priorities changed from when you first started?

I think I learned very quickly that in the entrepreneurial journey, change is the only constant, and we must adapt and focus on problem-solving and value creation.

Entrepreneurs know that their priorities are different day to day, month to month, year to year, and stage to stage. Preferences are also specific to products, companies, and teams.

Is there anything you would have done differently when starting?

I think the decisions we make define our journey. I decided I would never say, “I wish I did things differently,” Instead, “What can I learn from the decisions and path I decided to take, how can I grow personally and professionally, and how can I use it to advance my business.”

How did you decide where to establish your company?

For Propel Bio Partners, we decided to establish it in Los Angeles. I think South California is a dynamic and growing market for life science opportunities, and I am excited to explore and build a deep network there.

What is unique about your business?

Propel Bio is a global investment firm focused on the life science industry. Propel Bio provides an entire ecosystem of experts to support entrepreneurs in achieving their vision.

We primarily focus on early-stage and small-cap public and private companies with similar valuation metrics where we believe growth has the most significant potential.

We evaluate the company’s financial condition, management team, corporate and product development strategy, governance, shareholder constituency, and potential catalysts for change in identifying those companies best suited to be part of our portfolio.  

Our team’s extensive experience, operationally, financially, and scientifically brings a unique value to our companies.

Our previous experiences include implementing several strategies to de-risk and accelerate the development path of clinical products in a capital-efficient way.

Supporting companies to follow similar techniques can potentially help increase the chances of success.

What advice would you give to someone trying to become an entrepreneur?

Be adaptive and resilient. It is not an easy journey, but very rewarding if you are passionate about your work.

Be focused on the vision but very adaptive to the details. Trust your gut but accept feedback from experience and make it your own.

How did you first select your employees?

I focus on the growth mindset; hiring is more important for an attitude and cultural fit. I put more emphasis on the growth and problem-solving mindset than just experience.

I am always amazed by individuals that don’t have extensive experience but are committed to the mission and willing to put the extra effort into doing the research and exploring more efficient and innovative solutions to the business.

How do you define success?

It is successfully helping others achieve their potential and working to help people live healthier and better lives.

That is why I feel fortunate that I am in an industry where we can significantly impact human health.

Our work will help people now and for many years to come. Eradicating diseases impacts individuals, families, societies, and the world.

On a personal level, I define success as having love, respect, trust, commitment, and collaboration as our family’s core values and being able to recognize and acknowledge your partner’s (my husband’s) effort.

I also feel that people who can communicate their needs effectively and, at the same time, respond to other requests or feedback tend to be successful.

What have you enjoyed most about starting your own company?

We are working with extraordinary talent, building a culture with a growth mindset and a mission where we are focused on helping people live healthier, happier, and more thoughtful lives.

What are the qualities of a good entrepreneur?

Most critical for me is having a “growth mindset.”

TL;DR by Leen Kawas

#innovation, #investement, #lifesciences, #clinicaltrial, and #enterprenuership


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