Leen Kawas

Co-Founder of Athira Pharma

Dr. Kawas is a Co-Founder of Athira Pharma and the inventor of its lead drug candidate ATH-1017. She also invented several of the innovative drug candidates in Athira’s pipeline.

Dr. Kawas 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, she led the technological and financial growth of Athira, raising around $400M and taking the company through it public offering. Dr. Kawas was the first woman to take a technology and biotech company public in Washington state and, as of February 2021, was one of only 22 female founders and CEOs to lead their company to an IPO.

Leen won many awards and recognitions for her leadership and accomplishments at Athira, including: Endpoints 20(+1) under 40 (2021), Life Science Entrepreneurial Achievement Award (2020), French-American Foundation Leader (2019), Alzheimer’s Cure Coin Award (2019), Biospace 7 Millennial Influencers in the Biotech Industry (2019), GeekWire Startup CEO of the Year (2019), 40 under 40 in Life Science Leader (2017), PharmaVOICE 100 honoree (2017), Association of Washington Business Entrepreneur of the Year award (2016), EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women (2016), Puget Sound Business Journal 40 under 40 award (2016), EY Entrepreneur of the Year finalist (2016), and GeekWire Young Entrepreneur of the Year Finalist (2016). She was named one of Seattle’s Most Influential People by Seattle Magazine (2015) and one of the Women to Watch in Life Sciences by the Washington Biotechnology and Biomedical Association (2015). As a company, Athira was also named as a finalist for Health Innovation of the Year (2019) and one of Seattle’s 10 hottest startups (2016), both by GeekWire, under Dr. Kawas’ leadership.

Dr. Kawas serves on multiple boards, including the Life Science Washington Board, the Scientific Review Board for the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation, and Alzheimer’s Association‘s Washington Chapter Board. She also served as the co-chair of the International Alzheimer’s Association Business Consortium and was on the Washington Governor’s Life Science Advisory Board. She is also part of the Springboard Network.
Dr. Kawas is a passionate supporter of scientist entrepreneurs, in particular women. She enjoys traveling, learning about new cultures and cooking! Dr. Kawas and her husband live in Washington with their two children.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

There is no typical day for me.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Once I think of a new Idea, my approach is to first discuss it with my team, Advisors and people who are experts in the field to pressure test the idea. Then if there is merit, I empower people to bring the idea to life. I am generally flexible when it comes to the details of how to achieve the vision. I think the key to success is to be forceful with the vision but flexible on the details.

What’s one trend that excites you?

The use of technology in life sciences and drug development, not only the hardware piece but applications that can facilitate access to patients, data collection and analysis. This is a great advancement, and there are significant investments being made to support our industry in becoming more efficient.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

Listening – I have a great capacity to listen and capture information which helps me formulate diverse and unique strategies.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Don’t worry about what others think of what you can or cannot achieve; slow down and surround yourself with people who are smart and talented and who care about you.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

Well, if nobody agrees with me then maybe I should reconsider my position. One thing I feel I believe in more than others is that “Nothing is impossible.” I am often challenged on new innovations and my “out of box” ideas to achieve certain results in drug development and clinical trials – I like to push the envelope and challenge the conventional way of doing things. While there is usually some level of pushback, I’ve found that these unconventional ideas often prove to be productive and sometimes lead to breakthroughs. Being told something is impossible only inspires me to find a new approach that proves that theory wrong.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Accept that your ideas will be challenged. I always try to find someone who would challenge my thinking and ideas which ultimately transforms them to much better and robust ideas.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Focus on talent. Sometimes talent is supported with years of experience but not always. As I build a team, I am looking at the long-term growth potential of each individual, not only what they are capable of today but also what I believe they will be capable of in the future. One of the questions I continuously ask is “what areas of your job do you enjoy most and want to grow in. This really helps with building a strong commitment to the mission and network within the business.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

As entrepreneurs we always face challenges and failures. I think what is important is to capture the learnings and keep moving forward. We all face adversity; adversity doesn’t define us but how we handle it does.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

An application that can be used to track prescriptions and can be used as an accountability tool to increase compliance with medications. This can be tailored based on what indication or medication the person is on.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

A trip to the Mountains with no connectivity, which helped to disconnect. It is important to have these breaks to force your brain to take a break and appreciate nature and the beauty of the world we live in.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

The calendar application – it is connected to my email and video conferencing tool. It helps me organize my personal and professional life, define my to do list and easily share an invite with call in or video conference.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel Brown, I recommend it not only for the thrillers but for the learnings that are important to having a strong team and challenging what seems to be impossible.

What is your favorite quote?

“It is totally unproductive to think the world has been unfair to you. Every tough stretch is an opportunity.” – Charlie Munger

Key Learnings:

  • Nothing is impossible you just need to have the right idea, strategy and talent to get it done
  • For a business to be successful, diverse talent is critical
  • A challenged version of you is an enhanced and more effective version of you