Athira Pharma CEO Shares How She Broke Barriers during First Making Waves: Entrepreneur Conversations

Making Waves Rising Tide - Mar '21
March 16, 2021 By Jackie Connor

Leen Kawas, Washington state’s first woman CEO to take a company public in 20 years, talks lessons learned in building her company and how failure can provide learning opportunities.

Launching a company is no easy task, much less for a woman in the biotech field. Leen Kawas, founder and CEO of Athira Pharma, Inc., has what it takes, and shared how she did it as the first guest in Making Waves: Entrepreneurial Conversations.

Sponsored by UPS, UC Irvine (UCI) Beall Applied Innovation recently launched a new quarterly series, Making Waves: Entrepreneurial Conversations, which features successful entrepreneurs from the local community and around the world who share their stories at the Cove @ UCI, Applied Innovation’s physical location, to inspire the next great idea.

During the inaugural event, Kawas shared her experiences via a virtual fireside conversation with Richard Sudek, executive director at Applied Innovation and UCI chief innovation officer. Kawas spoke about being a woman entrepreneur and scientist in the biotech industry, going through the actual process of taking her company public in 2020 as well as finding strength in rejection.

From a young age, Kawas had a personal connection with Alzheimer’s after her grandmother passed away from the neurodegenerative disease. This fueled her dream of finding treatments and a few decades later, Kawas is doing exactly that through her Seattle-based company Athira Pharma, a biopharmaceutical company that develops small molecules to restore neuronal health to create better treatments and stop neurodegeneration.

As Seattle’s first woman CEO to take a company public in 20 years, Kawas encouraged women entrepreneurs in the life sciences to feel confident about standing out.

“If you’re in life science, there’s not a lot of women entrepreneurs,” said Kawas. “People will remember you – you’re going to be dressed differently, you look differently. You even think, probably, differently … what you’re doing is not common, so you should be proud and use that to your advantage.”

During the event, Kawas encouraged young entrepreneurs to use the rejection as an opportunity to listen to why investors are saying “no” because Kawas refers to their rejection as free advice and, if it’s the right advice, it can help an aspiring entrepreneur optimize their business development.

“Sometimes it’s not the right advice because people didn’t spend the time thoroughly researching your company, but at least you get an appreciation of how people think about things,” said Kawas. “It helps you with your pitch to focus on things that are important for people and other things that might not be.”

Watch the full event.

Main Illustration: Julie Kennedy, UCI Beall Applied Innovation

In celebration of Women’s History Month, UCI Beall Applied Innovation is featuring innovative women who continue to pave new roads for their research and startup companies. In the video below, we highlight some thoughts and advice from Leen Kawas, founder and CEO of Athira Pharma:

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