Leen Kawas, Alzheimer’s CEO who resigned in data manipulation scandal, returns to launch investment firm with billionaire
Leen Kawas, the startup founder and CEO who united investors behind a darkhorse approach to treating Alzheimer’s before resigning last year in a data manipulation scandal, is back.
Kawas and billionaire private equity investor Richard Kayne announced on Friday the launch of Propel Bio, a new investment firm focused on “companies at various stages across the life science space.”
The pair offered few other details about the new firm, and a spokesperson said that neither would speak on the record or comment beyond the release “to comply with SEC regulations.” An SEC filing Friday indicated the company planned to raise $150 million, but did not list any funds raised to date.
Until last October, Kawas had been CEO of Athira Pharma. She founded the company while a postdoc at Washington State University, promising to spin out work the lab was doing on a method to activate the growth of synapses in the brain and potentially slow or reverse neurodegeneration. After toiling in obscurity for years, investors gave the company an $85 million Series B in 2020, intrigued by early human data and searching for alternatives after the failure of more popular approaches to Alzheimer’s.
Kayne, who founded the asset management firm Kayne Anderson, invested in that Series B. He also invested in a $15.2 million Series A in 2017. Forbes lists his net worth at $1.6 billion.
Last June, however, Athira abruptly announced that Kawas was being placed on temporary leave “pending a review of actions stemming from doctoral research Dr. Kawas conducted while at Washington State University.” In the days prior, allegations had appeared on pubpeer, a message board for scientists to discuss peer-reviewed papers, that Kawas had manipulated images in early publications.
In October, Athira announced it concluded Kawas manipulated images in her doctoral thesis and four other papers foundational to the establishment of the company. Kawas resigned, while new CEO Mark Litton argued the company remained on solid footing, pointing to differences between the founder’s early work and Athira’s current strategy.
Kawas has yet to comment publicly on the allegations.
She will serve as a general managing partner at Propel, with Kayne as a general partner. The only other employee listed is senior associate Dasom (Christine) Yoo, who previously served as a business development manager at Fred Hutch. They also announced a board of eight longtime biotech executives.