The group of prominent men and women who are among Athira Pharma’s most respected investors are also among founding CEO Leen Kawas’ staunchest supporters. Thus they are still trying to understand how what she did in altering an image in her doctoral dissertation was a serious enough offense to merit being forced to leave the biotech company she helped found.
Each of the investors, who are friends of mine, were concerned when she was put on leave in June when they felt less severe steps could have been taken and would have been by most other firms, steps like having her take early family leave since she was about eight weeks away from the arrival of her second child, while the board attempted to sort out relevant facts.
Kawas, a Jordanian whom I described from the time I first met her eight years ago as the model of an immigrant entrepreneur, agreed with the board last week that she would resign from the leadership of the company, originally named M3, that she had helped birth in the lab a decade ago and had guided as CEO since 2013 through research, fundraising and eventual IPO a year ago.
Because my wife has Parkinsons and Kawas told me when we first met that Parkinson’s was the target of their drug aimed at reversing neurodegeneration, or the death of brain cells, I told her she was my company and I would help her.
That was the fall of 2012 and over the next year, I introduced her to prospective investors in this state and California, calling anyone I knew who could afford the $50,000 initial investment and pressed them to listen to her compelling slide presentation. We raised about $1.5 million. Before that process began, she permitted me to be her initial investor, important so that if prospective investors asked “are you in?” I could say “of course.”
Along the way, I was with her when she got her green card and she called me in January 2020 to tell me she was about to become a U.S. citizen, prompting my column that month that began:
“Despite Leen Kawas' string of successes in her role as CEO of Athira Pharma and her quest to change the world with the company's drug aimed at reversing neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, this may be her most exciting day, the day she became an American citizen.”Leen Kawas
After my year of introductions, I told her “you now know real scientists and people with real money rather than just a retired newspaper publisher, so I’m going to go do some other things because you are in good hands.”
In addition, by then she told me that the company's first target would need to be Alzheimers because it was easier to raise money for Alzheimer's than Parkinson's. Though she explained to me that "when we have done Alzheimer's, we'll turn to Parkinson's and we'll be 60 percent along the way."
And so she was in good hands since both the scientists and “big money people” helped ensure successful fundraising efforts, including money from the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Fund, over the next half dozen years leading up to the company’s Initial Public Offering a year ago that raised $204 million.
Along the way Kawas, now 37, attracted a lot of personal attention, including Geekwire’s CEO of the year award in 2019 and the fact that in guiding Athira to its IPO she became the first woman CEO in 20 years in this state to take a company public.
If becoming a citizen was her most exciting day, last week, when she told the board she was agreeing to leave, must have been the saddest day.
“Creating this company and watching it grow toward a success I know it will achieve will be like watching my two babies grow,” said Kawas when she told me she was expecting her second child, who was born in early August.
Early on, Kawas was the beneficiary of believers who came to her aid as investors, mentors, and supporters because they were convinced she had the ability to bring to market a drug that would alter the course of diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and thus change the future for millions of people.
As I have reached out to those investor friends, all early investors, some of whom I will quote below, I found to a person they remain believers in her, whatever her next step.
But her supporters, those who are friends of mine, have decided together not to raise a fuss with the company lest any negative expressions from such prominent people toward the Athira board have an adverse effect on the company or its progress.
Robert W. “Spike” Anderson, whose Anderson Damon Worldwide was a Costco global partner from the birth of the membership warehouse retailer and an investor in the biotech startup’s earliest days, expressed disappointment that Kawas is no longer running the company.
“I am not concerned about a mistake Leen may have made as a doctoral student. which did not have any impact on Athira today,” said Anderson, who has continued to be a startup entrepreneur. “She has successfully run the company almost since its founding and her tireless work and intellect are largely responsible for developing Athira’s lead therapeutic candidate, which has tremendous promise. I was a fan of Leen at the beginning and remain a fan.”
Michael Nassirian, an Iranian immigrant whose father sent him away from his troubled country to get his degree at the University of Texas and who went on to become a top executive at Microsoft before retiring in 2016, made this point to me: “as a middle easterner, I’m the only one who can share her pain because I know the cultural impact, and effect on families, of being accused of doing what she was accused of with her doctoral program.”
Nassirian, whose father headed the Iranian oil company and died with Alzheimer’s, heard Kawa's presentation before the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce in 2014 and told her he was in as an investor.
Carol Criner, one of the first people I introduced Kawas to and who quickly became her first female investor and has remained a business advisor, said she was “impressed and inspired by Leen’s vision for what is now Athira Pharma. Her story is incredible and I obviously hoped she would remain as CEO.”
Criner, a technology executive who currently serves as Vice President of Strategic Accounts for HCL Technologies, a $10 billion global technology company, added: “There’s a reason the windshield is larger than the rearview mirror. Leen will accomplish her future goals.”
Jim Warjone, chairman emeritus of Port Blakely, the major timber and real estate company that he guided as chairman and CEO, described Kawas as "a truly inspirational and extremely competent leader and the technology she created will dramatically impact a dreadful disease."
I thought it was important to include a quote relating to the importance of the future of Athira’s key drug nearing the completion of clinical trials.
“The Athira drug is a miracle drug,” said Dr. Patricia Galloway, who chairs Cle Elum-based Pegasus-Global Holdings, an international management consulting firm whose husband, Jim, has been a beneficiary of the clinical trials for ATH-1017.
“Not only is it promising but my husband is rebounding,” she said. “He can now do things he couldn’t do six months ago and the cognitive and memory issues are dramatically improving, each and every day.”
"I am so grateful for this breakthrough discovery and for what it has to offer to not only my husband but for all who suffer from the potential deadliest disease that has been virtually untreatable until now,” Galloway added. “Thank you, Leen, for your vision and the gift that you have given to the world and bringing back my husband.”