Leen Kawas hadn’t been planning a career with a startup. But when a Washington State University professor asked her to help start a spinoff from WSU Alzheimer’s research, she gave it a try — and is now the CEO.
Leen Kawas was initially confused when her Ph.D. adviser at Washington State University suggested she help start a company focused on the research their team had been developing for the past several years.
Entrepreneurship, or any sort of startup work, wasn’t a career path when Kawas was growing up in Jordan. She always figured she would study at a university, then move into a stable job.
That’s what she was preparing to do while working as a postdoctoral researcher in 2013, when WSU professor Joe Harding came to her with the idea to commercialize the lab’s research on treatments for Alzheimer’s disease.
Title: President and CEO, M3 Biotechnology
Education: Doctor of Pharmacy from University of Jordan, Ph.D. in molecular pharmacology and toxicology from Washington State University
Hometown: Amman, Jordan
Moved to Seattle: 2013
Pronunciation: “Lean KAH-waas”
“What do you mean?” she remembers asking Harding. Help build a team, he encouraged. Find investors, develop a drug that could reverse the effects of the degenerative disease.
Intrigued, but still unsure, Kawas called the University of Pittsburgh, where she was scheduled to begin a new research job. Her boss-to-be wholeheartedly encouraged her to try out the startup, excited by the possibility of what it could be. Why not put in a year, see how it goes?
It turned out well. Kawas was quickly promoted to become CEO of the new company. M3 Biotechnology now has 10 employees and recently closed a $12 million funding round.
The company is preparing to start a clinical trial for patients with Alzheimer’s this fall and has applied to the Food and Drug Administration for a fast-track approval process.
“It was the best decision ever,” Kawas, 31, said from her small office next to the company’s lab within the University of Washington’s CoMotion space, where research from the university is commercialized.
Kawas had decided to study pharmacy after her mother died when Kawas was 18. Her mom had a neurodegenerative disease, and Kawas wanted to study pharmacy to help others in a similar situation.
“I had a drive since I was a kid,” she said. “I thought research was something I could actually translate to have an impact.”
Kawas could have ended up in another part of the U.S. entirely. Having earned her doctor of pharmacy from the University of Jordan in 2008, she planned to move to the East Coast, where her sisters lived and she had found opportunities to work as a pharmacist. But instead, a friend’s father — then the president of the university in Jordan — suggested she further her pharmacy studies at WSU, where he had earned a degree.
Eager to learn more, she traveled to Pullman to study molecular pharmacology and toxicology.
WSU professor Harding took note of Kawas on the second day of her first class with him. She was “head and shoulders” beyond many of the other students, he said. He persuaded her to join a risky, but exciting, project in his lab, a project that would soon spin into M3.
“She’s incredibly driven,” he said. “She is goal-oriented, and she never gives up.” Kawas would work 24 hours a day if there was nothing to stop her, Harding said.
Soon after M3 was formed, with Kawas part of the team, it became clear to Harding that Kawas was the one driving the company’s growth. He made her CEO.
Kawas is great with people, he said, and has natural leadership skills that make others want to follow her.
She also is tough, and has no time or patience for procrastination — with employees or investors. Harding remembers sitting at early team meetings while Kawas doled out tasks, making it clear exactly what she wanted done, and by when.
At investor meetings, she would conclude by asking directly: “So are you going to invest? And when can we expect it by?”
“That’s not me, that’s not my personality,” Harding said with admiration. But “she couldn’t be better. She’s forward, but not too forward.”
In her Seattle office last week, Kawas was in a more energetic mood than usual, she said, her face beaming. She was elated over M3’s milestone that week: The company had officially applied to the FDA to start a clinical trial with patients later this year.
In the lab next to Kawas’ office, four team members peered into vials and computers in the lab, already working on developing new iterations of the company’s drug. M3’s medicine is designed to treat Alzheimer’s patients by regrowing connections in the brain.
“What Alzheimer’s does is kills the neurons, and you have this shrinking,” said Kawas, demonstrating connections in the brain with her hands. “What we do is recreate the connection, and we re-enhance the brain matter.”
The company has seen promising results, Kawas said, in testing the drug on animals. M3 researchers found they can often see an immediate effect in the brain soon after the first dosage of the drug.
As M3 continues to expand, Kawas keeps her key goals in mind: People need a viable treatment for Alzheimer’s, and they need to be able to afford it.
“We want a therapy that will reach patients,” she said. “What we are working on is definitely a huge, unmet medical need. And everyone needs it. Everyone has been impacted by Alzheimer’s, directly or indirectly.”
Eventually, Kawas said, M3 will seek a larger pharmaceutical company to help with broad development and distribution of the drug. But she’s also determined to keep a large presence for M3 in Seattle.
She wants to contribute to the state that helped the startup first get on its feet, through early grants from the state’s Life Science Discovery Fund and the W Fund, which focuses on companies spinning out of state universities.
M3’s first year wasn’t easy. Kawas spent her days running from meeting to meeting, hungry to find scientists who would help develop the company and investors who would make it possible. She regularly worked from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Once, she remembers waking up in the middle of the night to answer a LinkedIn message from an undergraduate student, William Walker, as she was putting together her team. He has now worked at M3 for two years and is a key member of the group.
For many, the early hustle would have been exhausting. But Kawas found it invigorating. She loved scientific research, she said, but she was never fully satisfied spending all her time in the lab. The missing ingredient turned out to be building a business — an environment where she has found she thrives.
“I wasn’t fully satisfied with being a scientist because I needed something to translate the science,” she said. “And, honestly, business is the answer.” It’s goal-oriented, she said, versus science, which “is more horizontal, based on curiosity and knowledge.”
Kawas was taken aback at first by investors’ and mentors’ willingness to help out. She was often met with enthusiasm in those early conversations, one time emerging from a first meeting with a $2 million check from an investor.
She closed M3’s first funding round in three days.
Kawas was also surprised by the support for entrepreneurship in the U.S. and the admiration people have for startup founders. It’s so different from what she grew up with that she had trouble explaining her new job to her father, who lives in Jordan.
It took some time, but “now, he’s very proud,” she said.
Information in this article, originally published April 30, 2017, was corrected May 1. 2017. A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to the name of the Life Science Discovery Fund.