In her six years as the president and CEO of Athira Pharma, Leen Kawas successfully led the company from the early stages of developing therapeutical candidates for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s through its public offering. She was consistently praised for her leadership, innovative strategies, and communication and networking skills. Yet despite her incredible achievements, Kawas was dismissed from her role as CEO in Oct. 2021 for an immaterial mistake she made years ago as a graduate student.
Recently, two of Dr. Kawas’ colleagues at Athira wrote letters voicing their support. Joseph Harding, Athira co-founder, and Xue Hua, former vice president of clinical development and research, spoke out about Kawas’ essential role in the company’s success and their disappointment with the decision to dismiss her.
About Leen Kawas
Leen Kawas immigrated to the United States after earning her bachelor’s degree in pharmacy from the University of Jordan. She completed her doctorate in molecular pharmacology at Washington State University and co-founded M3 Biotechnology, which later became Athira Pharma.
The company was founded to develop therapeutics for neurogenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, a passion of Dr. Kawas’ since losing her mother and grandmother to neurodegenerative disease and cancer early in life. In 2014, Kawas was named Athira Pharma’s president and CEO. She sat on the board of directors until 2021.
During her time at Athira, Dr. Kawas successfully led the company through different stages of drug development, its public offering, and the final stages of developing potentially life-changing therapies. She was named the Startup CEO of the Year at the 2019 GeekWire Awards and became the first female CEO in Washington state to take a technology and biotech company public for over 20 years at the time Athira went public.
Today, Dr. Kawas is the co-founder and general managing partner of Propel Bio Partners LP, a firm that will invest in life sciences companies with a mission to advance human health. Outside of work, Kawas is passionate about spending time with her family, environmental innovation, and empowering other female entrepreneurs.
Accomplishments at Athira
In 2011, Leen Kawas co-founded Athira Pharma to develop the drug Dihexa, designed to treat Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. She was the lead inventor and played a key role in developing Fosgonimeton (ATH-1017), a prodrug of Dihexa.
Kawas also spearheaded Athira’s technological and financial growth, taking the company through its public offering and raising about $400 million. In her first year alone, she had over 700 meetings and raised the company’s first $1 million.
Xue Ha, former vice president of clinical development and research at Athira, wrote, “[Kawas] made sure every dollar that an investor entrusted the company and the program with was put to good use. She has a unique blend of scientific insight and business acumen and built Athira as a science-driven company.”
Hua added that Kawas’ “hands-on leadership” and “direct and original contributions” were largely responsible for the many milestones Athira has achieved. Citing the CEO Genome Project, a Harvard study that identifies the attributes of high-performing CEOs, Hua wrote, “Leen excels at all four behaviors that define successful leaders, and according to the research this is quite rare.”
Co-founder Joseph Harding stated that Kawas treated all Athira employees as essential contributors to its mission, creating an open and cooperative culture. “It needs to be noted that she did all this as an immigrant, minority woman with her first venture,” he added. “To say that her performance has been nothing short of amazing is an understatement.”
Joseph Harding on Leen Kawas
In Oct. 2021, despite Kawas’ exceptional performance at Athira, she was dismissed for a mistake she made as a graduate student. Harding, who was also Kawas’ doctoral thesis advisor, expressed in a letter of support that he “vehemently disagrees” with the decision.
Harding and Kawas first met more than a decade ago when she was a student in his Cell Physiology course at Washington State University. Reflecting on his time as Kawas’ instructor, Harding wrote, “It was clear from the second class that she was a special talent.” He cited “her ability to integrate information, see right through the details to the core concepts and conclusions, and formulate testable hypotheses and incisive experimentation.” Harding describes Kawas as the most talented student he has ever worked with.
Relevance of the blot pictures to the scientific conclusions of Kawas’ work
Like Dr. Kawas, Harding acknowledges that it was a mistake to embellish images in her research papers, but he vouches for her integrity. When it was alleged that she had manipulated images, Harding notes, Kawas immediately admitted that she had embellished blot pictures in an effort to have the images more closely reflect the mean values of the actual data.
When Harding and other researchers reran the experiments, they replicated her results. “This was no surprise since [the data] had been reproduced one way or another many times in my laboratory or at Athira,” Harding explained. The embellished blot pictures were “completely immaterial to the conclusions of any of the papers.”
Furthermore, predictions about ATH-1017 based on Dr. Kawas’ research have been borne out in Athira trials. Alzheimer’s patients exhibited dramatically improved information flow in their brains after receiving ATH-1017 treatment for eight days. Harding writes, “These results not only speak to the therapeutic potential of ATH-1017 but directly validate the conclusion of Leen’s work in a real-world and meaningful setting.”
“[The] embellishments have been blown way out of proportion to their significance and in no way discount the scientific validity of her work and the subsequent development of ATH-1017 at Athira,” Harding wrote. “This was simply a foolish error of judgment by a young graduate student who mistakenly thought that her activity was appropriate. Leen is a scientist of impeccable integrity with unmatched intelligence, creativity, drive, and business judgment as evidenced by her exemplary role as CEO at Athira.”
Kawas’ essential role at Athira
While working with Dr. Kawas at Athira, Harding says, “we became aware that she is a truly singular talent. Her abilities to multi-task, to quickly become expert in new knowledge areas, to think both creatively and realistically, and most importantly to lead a skilled and diverse team to achieve potentially societal-altering goals is breathtaking.” He credits Kawas’ “superhuman efforts” for getting the company off the ground and says it was “her vision and drive alone” that led to the discovery of ATH-1017.
Harding further explains, “It was Leen’s leadership and attention to detail that shepherded the first investigational new drug application through the FDA without any comments, thus cementing a great relationship with the FDA.” Alongside Xue Hua, Kawas crafted unique and effective preclinical and clinical strategies, massively accelerating the drug development path.
He added that Kawas “almost singlehandedly captained” successful fundraising rounds for series A and B, enabling more advanced and potentially pivotal trials. He believes that investors invested in Kawas as much as they invested in ATH-1017 “because they knew that she would see its development through to a successful conclusion.”
Harding stated that Athira’s success was “completely attributable to Leen’s efforts.” He concluded, “I vehemently disagree with Athira’s decision to dismiss Leen over a misstep taken as a young graduate student almost a decade ago and something that had no bearing on her impeccable performance as Athira’s CEO…[Her] capabilities are simply not replaceable. Thus, the expertise and vision that Athira has lost with her dismissal, in my opinion, casts doubts on Athira’s future.”
Xue Hua on Leen Kawas
Xue Hua resigned from her role as Athira’s vice president of clinical development and research in Feb. 2022 because she “strongly disagree[s] with the Board’s decision” to dismiss Kawas.
In addition to praising Kawas’ leadership, Hua wrote, “Leen promoted high standards for scientific integrity and research ethics. She is a diligent and brilliant scientist with the mentality to openly acknowledge the unknowns and learn with the team.”
Like Harding, Hua firmly stated that “the image alteration did not impact the scientific validity of Dihexa or Fosgonimeton.” She added, “The company-conducted experiments established the potential therapeutic efficacy of Dihexa and directly replicated the findings in Kawas’ Ph.D. research relevant to Dihexa, completed well before 2021.”
In her letter of support, Hua reflected on her dismay that despite Kawas already addressing the allegations in 2015, she was dismissed when they resurfaced in 2021. She explained, “There was never any claim by anyone that there had been any new image embellishment between 2015 and 2021. Leen Kawas promptly admitted to the mistake in 2015 and again in 2021. The handling of the two identical allegations could not have been more different, however.” In Hua’s opinion, the company’s handling of Kawas’ dismissal “fell below what scientific ethics call for.”
In Hua’s opinion, the dismissal of Kawas led to growing leadership gaps at Athira. She wrote that Kawas’ departure left “big shoes to fill — that in my opinion have not been filled.”
Next Steps for Leen Kawas
As the co-founder and general managing partner of Propel Bio Partners LP, Kawas will invest in innovative life science companies on a mission to advance human health. The firm will also offer these companies access to operational advisors, quality service providers, and medical experts.
Dr. Kawas said, “I am very excited about my future with Propel Bio Partners and the opportunity it will give me to help other entrepreneurs advance technologies and therapies that can help people live happier, healthier, and better lives.”