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NOT 'some white dude' - The New Face of Biotech in Washington

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As M3 Biotechnology Inc. launches clinical trials on its therapy for Alzheimer's that is expected to halt the progression of, or even reverse, the disease, it's a satisfying development for those who have been believers in the role of the company and its CEO at the leading edge of the new field of regenerative medicine.

So when Melinda Gates lamented, before a large audience of women in computing, that the technology industry was dominated by a "sea of white dudes," one group who heard the message could be forgiven if its members, mostly men but including a couple of talented women, shared a knowing smile.  

Leen KawasLeen KawasThey knew that, despite the general accuracy of Melinda Gates comments, the CEO who has become the face of biotech in this state and even beyond is a 32-year-old woman from Jordan named Leen Kawas.  

And although several members of the group were key women investors guided in part by the fact Kawas is a woman, the male supporters seemed far more focused on their belief in her ability to get the drug to commercialization then concerned about gender.

Thus Kawas was the beneficiary of believers who came to her aid as investors, mentors, and supporters because they were convinced that she had the ability to bring to market a drug that would alter the course of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's and perhaps reverse them.

The manner in which Kawas, in just under four years as president and CEO of M3 Biotechnology Inc., took the young company from the lab toward commercialization and has ascended to virtually the top of the visibility pyramid in her industry is storybook material. But it's a satisfying example to many who are convinced that no doors remain closed to those who refuse to accept rejection.

When I first met Kawas in late summer of 2013, she had yet to know anyone in Seattle and was merely the chief scientist for M3, a company still immersed in the labs at Washington State University, where its drug was undergoing animal trials to test its seeming ability to spur cellular regrowth. That fact naturally led to neurological testing since if a drug could regrow cells, its future could be assured and, before long, Kawas had her name on several of the patents for the drug.

And soon she was tapped to be CEO by the two WSU profs who then owned the majority of the company because it was still in their labs. So the second time we visited was soon after that when she was seeking help in meeting people who might invest in a promising young company and its young CEO.  

When she returned to Seattle, she shared that the other 63 were all males and her reaction in discussing that fact in an almost dismissive manner was an early indication of how committed she was to overcome the pushback and discrimination and comfortably stand up to it and seek to change it.

As we began a process over the next several months of meeting those who could either invest or introduce us to investors, I told her, partly to see how she would handle the pressure, that I would get the first meeting for her to make her presentation but it would be in her hands for people to agree to a second meeting with us.

Early on we had a meeting in Orange County, CA, with Richard Sudek, perhaps the most important angel-investment leader in Southern California at the time as chair of the largest angel investment group in the country, the five-county Tech Coast Angels. I was hopeful he would be impressed enough to offer Kawas some advice on raising money.

When she finished her presentation, he said, to my pleasant surprise: "I would be happy to be a business advisor for you."

It was in the fall of 2014 that she had her media debut with an impressive interview with Q13 anchor Marne Hughes in which those watching at the studio said she looked like she had grown up on camera.


What followed were major features in local business publications as well as major visibility in the annual report of Association of Washington Business and Life Science Washington as well as participation in an array of panels on the industry as well as membership on Gov. Jay Inslee's committee on life sciences.
 
By then she had outgrown the need for introductions, except for an occasional desire by a major investor to get a friend into the mix.
 
And some of the funds she corralled told their own story of her growing reputation, as she got two grants from the state's Life Science Discovery Fund totaling $750,000, an impressive $1.7 million from the Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Fund and a half million dollars from the Dolby Family Fund.
 
So now almost exactly four years on, M3 has raised more than $17 million from investors who represent a most impressive array of seasoned leaders, both men, and women, from a mix of the world of life science and enthused investors and some who simply have a commitment to changing the world of degenerative disease. And the company has begun initial human trials from which the future will be shaped.
 
And meanwhile, biotech giants are lurking in the wings to reach out to seek major stakes in the young company at the first sign of success.
 
As an aside, M3 is the first company to emerge from either of the state's research universities to reach clinical trials, a fact viewed by WSU as a major biotech coup.
 
So what stirred the interest of investors?

As Biotech icon Bruce Montgomery replied when I asked him why he had become a supporter of Kawas' and a key investor in M3 and a board member, he replied: "It frankly didn't occur to me to dwell on whether she was female or non-caucasian. I understood the science of what she was hoping to achieve and felt she had the ability to achieve it."

It was a sentiment echoed by investor and M3 board, chair John Fluke, no stranger to investing in startup entrepreneurs.
 
Jim Warjone, now retired from his roles as chairman and CEO of Port Blakely Companies, told me some months after deciding to invest, following one of what I refer to as an array of examples of fate helping guide Kawas on her road to success, "She's the smartest person I have ever met."
 
The touch of fate with Warjone came when Kawas was about to present to a group of which I was a member at Suncadia in August of 2015 and I went out to get some coffee, encountering Warjone, whom I hadn't seen in several years, in the lobby of the resort.
 
"What are you doing here?" he asked and when I told him, he asked if he could sit in, which he did, so he was among the half-dozen who heard her presentation, and was one of the two who decided to invest.
 
Michael Nassirian, longtime Microsoft top executive, who watched his father, a business executive in Persia, wither mentally and die of Alzheimer's, told me his goal was to do something "to change the magnitude of that disease. And when I heard Leen present and went to the M3 site and studied their successful step, I believed she and her company could provide a solution to Alzheimer's."
 
As to the women investors, who make no apologies for their financial support of Kawas because she is a female as well as talented CEO, I have found each to be amazing talents attracted to invest in the CEO and becoming her friend.
 
I asked Amber Caska, who has guided family funds for Paul Allen's Vulcan and Alphabet chair Eric Schmidt and is now president and chief operating officer of women-entrepreneur focused Portfolia in the Bay Area, why she had invested in M3.
 
"When I met her at a JPM Morgan Bio Conference dinner, I did further diligence and figured that not only was she extremely intelligent and driven, M3 was a compelling investment opportunity and backed by a very reputable science team and board. I knew that M3 was onto something incredible and I wanted to support her along the way."
 
Carol Criner, who has served as CEO and turnaround executive at an array of companies in various industries, was the second person I introduced Kawas to. When I asked her about her decision to invest, she said:
 
"I was more personally invested in supporting her as a young, female CEO.  I became a business advisor to Leen, both because of your encouragement, and that I was fueled by wanting to see Leen succeed.," Criner said.
 
"Now that she is a celebrity CEO, it's hard to imagine this all began a few short years ago," said Criner. "I witnessed her face the headwinds of giant egos and sexism with resilience. She never gave-up. Her success largely silenced a lot of vocal-doubters. I love it.  She's amazing and strong."
 
 In discussing her much smaller sector of the burgeoning tech industry in the Puget Sound area, I once overheard her compelling reply to a young entrepreneur quizzing her on why it was necessary to distinguish high tech from biotech sectors, as long as tech jobs were coming to the area in large numbers.
 
"Technology is the field that will help us build new devices to be held in the hand. Biotech will help us build a new hand," she replied. "Which would you prefer to be part of helping develop as an industry?"
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