Ex-Athira Pharma CEO Leen Kawas Starts $150M Fund With Key Investors From Former Company

Todd Bishop, GeekWire
Todd Bishop is GeekWire's co-founder and editor, a longtime technology journalist who covers subjects including cloud tech, e-commerce, virtual reality, devices, apps and tech giants such as Amazon.com, Apple, Microsoft and Google. Follow him @toddbishop, email todd@geekwire.com, or call (206) 294-6255.
Ex-Athira Pharma CEO Leen Kawas Starts $150M Fund With Key Investors From Former Company

Leen Kawas, the Seattle biotech exec who resigned as CEO of Athira Pharma after an investigation found she had altered doctoral research images that helped to form the initial basis for the company, re-emerged Friday as co-founder and managing general partner of a new investment firm called Propel Bio Partners LP.

Co-founded with Richard Kayne, a prominent Los Angeles-based asset manager who was an early Athira investor, Propel Bio Partners also has support from several other Athira investors. Among them: John Fluke Jr., who remains on Athira’s board as the publicly traded company pursues therapies for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

Propel Bio is seeking to raise a pooled investment fund of $150 million, according to a filing Friday morning with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The investment firm’s team includes senior associate Dasom (Christine) Yoo, former Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center business development manager.

Propel says it plans to invest in life sciences companies at various stages of development, seeking “to help founders and management teams fulfill the urgent mission to advance human health with disruptive therapies and technologies.”

The firm’s advisory board includes Ronald Lee Krall, former GlaxoSmithKline chief medical officer and current NIH Foundation director, and other industry veterans.

“My involvement in Propel is a testament to my confidence in Leen,” Krall said in a statement. “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, a Jordanian immigrant, was inspired to pursue biomedical research after her grandmother died of cancer.

“I am looking forward to providing promising and passionate entrepreneurs the same opportunity that Ric Kayne and others gave to me when I started Athira,” Kawas said in a press release announcing Propel’s formation.

Kawas co-founded Athira (originally M3 Biotechnology) in 2011. Named Startup CEO of the Year at the 2019 GeekWire Awards, she took Athira public in 2020, as the first woman to lead a company to an IPO in Washington state in more than two decades.

Shares of Athira fell by more than 50% in June 2021 after Kawas was initially placed on leave from Athira as questions emerged about her research at Washington State University. Athira stock continues to trade at half its prior peak.

In findings released in October 2021, a special committee of Athira’s board determined that Kawas altered images in her 2011 dissertation and at least four scientific research papers. However, the company said the papers containing altered images were not cited in its patent filing for its lead development candidate, ATH-1017.

Athira Pharma CEO Leen Kawas accepts the award for Startup CEO of the Year at the 2019 GeekWire Awards. Athira Pharma CEO Leen Kawas accepts the award for Startup CEO of the Year at the 2019 GeekWire Awards.GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota

“I regret that mistakes I made as a graduate student many years ago caused any distraction to Athira today,” Kawas wrote in an internal memo at the time, obtained by GeekWire. “At the time, I was navigating an unfamiliar environment and did not fully comprehend the significance of my decision to enhance the images I used in my research. I want to make clear that the enhancement to images was not a change to or manipulation of the underlying data.”

The company investigators concluded that Kawas had “altered” — not enhanced — the data-containing images.

Papers with altered image were cited in an earlier patent licensed by the company from WSU. The university initiated an investigation into Kawas’ research in June 2021 but has yet to announce any findings.

Editorial “expressions of concern” have been registered about the data in four studies co-authored by Kawas, published in the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics between 2011 and 2014. Editors of the journal have said they are waiting for WSU to complete its review.

GeekWire contacted WSU for comment Friday morning. A spokesperson responded, “Washington State University does not comment on pending research misconduct actions and has no further information to provide at this time.”

The WSU spokesperson added, “The university expects its researchers to adhere to the highest ethical standards in their conduct of research activities. WSU takes allegations of research misconduct very seriously. The process is being conducted in accordance with the university’s Executive Policy 33, which governs how the institution responds to allegations of research misconduct.”

Through a spokesperson, Athira declined to comment in response to GeekWire’s inquiry about Propel Bio.

A representative of Propel Bio said Kawas wasn’t conducting interviews in conjunction with the announcement.

In statements coinciding with the Propel Bio launch, several of those advising the firm or investing in the new fund made it clear that their involvement was an endorsement of Kawas as an entrepreneur, leader and scientist.

Fluke, the Athira board member, was effusive in response to GeekWire’s inquiry about his decision to invest.

“I am investing in Propel for the same reason I invested in Athira: I have the extensive tangible evidence that Leen will lead Propel to identify and fund the most promising medical technology enterprises that will, in turn, deliver astounding improvements in human healthcare — and deliver consistently superior returns to investors,” Fluke said via email.

The involvement of early Athira investors in Propel points to an undercurrent of dissatisfaction about the outcome of Kawas’ tenure as Athira CEO among her supporters, countered by a desire to see Athira reach its potential.

Mike Flynn Sr., former publisher of the Puget Sound Business Journal in Seattle, summed up the sentiment in his Flynn’s Harp newsletter in October, explaining that he and other supporters of Kawas “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.”

Kayne, the Propel co-founder and general partner, is a former Cantor Fitzgerald principal who founded Kayne Anderson Venture Partners. He said in the announcement that he’s proud to be partnering with Kawas in the new firm.

“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,” Kayne said.

He added, “Under Leen’s leadership, I believe Propel is uniquely positioned to identify excellent opportunities to assist entrepreneurs along the path to success.”

Strategy and operations expert Carol Criner, an early Athira investor who was introduced to Kawas by Flynn, is one of eight members of the Propel Bio medical and investment advisory board. Criner said she also plans to invest. Throughout the entire journey, Criner said, “I’ve only grown more confident in Leen.”

In addition to Krall and Criner, other members of the Propel Bio advisory board are:

This post first appeared on GeekWire. Reporter Charlotte Schubert contributed to this report.

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LA Venture: Emilio Diez Barroso On Why Everyone Isn’t Cut Out To Be A Founder

Minnie Ingersoll
Minnie Ingersoll is a partner at TenOneTen and host of the LA Venture podcast. Prior to TenOneTen, Minnie was the COO and co-founder of $100M+ Shift.com, an online marketplace for used cars. Minnie started her career as an early product manager at Google. Minnie studied Computer Science at Stanford and has an MBA from HBS. She recently moved back to L.A. after 20+ years in the Bay Area and is excited to be a part of the growing tech ecosystem of Southern California. In her space time, Minnie surfs baby waves and raises baby people.
LA Venture: Emilio Diez Barroso On Why Everyone Isn’t Cut Out To Be A Founder
Photo: provided by LAV

On this episode of the LA Venture podcast, Bold Capital Partner Emilio Diez Barroso talks about his entrepreneurial journey, what led him to become an investor and shares the qualities he looks for when investing in companies.

Bold Capital is a Series A fund that primarily focuses its investments in deep tech and biotech companies. But, like other funds, they make excuses to invest in other companies every now and then.

“We're always interested in things that have the potential to truly transform how things are done and uplift humanity,” he said.

In his experience with investing in early stage startups, Diez Barroso said “humility and vulnerability are assets and qualities in the journey, and you don’t feel like you have to have it all together with your investors.”

Which is why he looks for people who have “this capacity to take full responsibility for how they show up and they have a vision and they have the willingness to go and execute it.”

In addition to his work at Bold Capital, Diez Barroso also runs two family offices which provide him with a surplus of knowledge in the investment space.

“I wear two very different hats,” he said, “and I invest very differently when I'm investing for myself, when I'm investing for my family, and when I'm investing for LP’s.”

But before becoming an investor, Diez Barroso got his entrepreneurial start when he arrived in Los Angeles. He admits that he failed plenty of times because unlike in Mexico, where Diez Barroso grew up, he didn’t have the same access to the contacts or resources of his family business.

“I would say yes to every opportunity that came my way,” he said, “I had started or partnered with someone and co-founded and most of them I had no idea what I was doing, so most of them really failed and a few got lucky enough to succeed.”

After learning how these startups worked and investing his own capital into several companies, he soon realized he was a much better investor than an operator.

“I think we're not all cut out for the journey,” he said, “and I don't think we should all be cut out for that journey. I think that it takes a very different character to start something from scratch.”

Throughout his own journey, Diez Barroso acknowledged that he struggled with his own identity and need to feel like the smartest person in the room. Once he better understood his own motivations, Diez Barroso was able to see that he was chasing the next reward, the next carrot.

“It's fun to close the deal and it's fun to grow the business,” Diez Barroso said. “But what I hadn't been in contact with is how much of my fuel was derived from trying to outrun the idea of not feeling good enough.”

Of course, he’s not alone. “I see a lot of entrepreneurs, activists all across fields and I can tell the difference when they're running from this fuel that is sort of very quick burning because there is an anxiety that oftentimes makes us narrow minded,” Diez Barroso said. “We are so attached to what we think should happen that we leave very little space for the possibilities.”

dot.LA Reporter Decerry Donato contributed to this post.

Click the link above to hear the full episode, and subscribe to LA Venture on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

This podcast is produced by L.A. Venture. The views and opinions expressed in the show are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect those of dot.LA or its newsroom.

Xos Receives Multi-Million Dollar Order for Armored EVs

David Shultz

David Shultz reports on clean technology and electric vehicles, among other industries, for dot.LA. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Outside, Nautilus and many other publications.

Xos Receives Multi-Million Dollar Order for Armored EVs
The United States transportation sector is rapidly adopting electric vehicle technologies at every level. From aircrafts, to tractor trailers, to sedans and bicycles, no means of locomotion is off limits…even armored trucks.
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