Rather than the pharmaceutical industry being just a group of huge companies driven by profits, the reality is “a large number of innovators and entrepreneurs whose focus is on changing society by enriching lives by restoring health,” according to Leen Kawas, the young CEO of a start-up biotech company.
And Kawas, the 29-year-old CEO of M3 Biotechnology Inc., in an article in Spokane Coeur D’ Alene Woman magazine, applauds the leadership in both business and science in the Seattle area as more interested in helping those biotech entrepreneurs succeed than in merely finding profitable investments.
“That is what I have found with the leaders from business and science who have made a commitment to M3,” said Kawas, a Jordanian-born scientist who, a year ago, found herself suddenly thrust into the role of CEO of a young company, at that point still completing animal trials, with a potentially game-changing drug.
The product developed by M3, which is now preparing for clinical trials, would reverse the course of neurodegenerative diseases, thus the lives of millions of people suffering from Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, MS and ALS.
As Kawas puts it, the goal of her company is to produce a pill that would, in essence turn neurodegeneration to neuroregeneration, meaning turning cell death into cell restoration.
Kawas told writer Cheryl-Anne Milsap, for a November profile in the Spokane-based magazine, she thinks that as a young biotech CEO she is part of a group that is “becoming more the norm than the unusual,” particularly in the biotech industry.
“If you look around, it is increasingly those under 30 who are where the action is: the science labs, the innovation centers, the tech clusters,” she said. “They are able to seize emerging opportunities that those further along in their careers don’t want to risk.”
But Kawas, who was a practicing pharmacist in Jordan before coming to the U.S. to get her PhD in cancer research and wound up immersing herself in the lab where the drug called MM-201 was undergoing animal testing, is unusual enough that she is getting attention media, biotech industry and investor groups.
What Kawas has accomplished since joining the company include grants from the Life Science Discovery Fund and others and attracting a team of science and business experts from around the country to help with the company’s growth and drug development process.
A couple of months ago M3 was the first company in the West to be singled out for recognition by the prestigious Science Coalition as part of the organization’s celebration of its 20th –anniversary.
In a recent television interview on KCPQ-13 Fox television in Seattle, Kawas said she is convinced that the growing focus on regenerative medicine will help the impetus to bring to market her company’s drug that would reverse neurodegenerative diseases.
“Regenerative medicine is a targeted new branch of medical science and the focus on cellular regeneration makes the pill we are developing that would reverse the cellular death which characterizes these terrible diseases a timely part of regenerative medicine,” Kawas said.
Asked about her upbringing by the Spokane magazine interviewer and about the impact of her growing-up years in Jordan, Kawas said: “Looking back at the way we were raised, I recall that my parents emphasized we were humans, not culturally ‘this’ or nationalistically ‘that,’” she said.
”My parents challenged us intellectually and made it clear to us there were no limits.” She said. “I like to say they made it clear that the sky is not the limit, and making mistakes or failing merely makes you stronger. The important thing is trying. My mother was my role model. She died young but had already accomplished a lot in business while successfully raising her family of a son and three daughters. All four of us have promising careers.”
FULL INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT (November 17, 2014 with Cheryl-Anne Millsap)
As the 28-year-old CEO of M3, she is changing the future of pharmaceutical medicine. Originally from Jordan, her work as a Washington State University doctoral student and as the co-inventor of eight promising new drugs, has propelled her into the limelight and put her on the forefront of pharmaceutical innovation.
You were born in Jordan and came to the United States to further your education. How did your heritage and your family shape your path to your current life?
Looking back at the way we were raised, I recall that my parents emphasized we were humans, not culturally “this” or nationalistically “that.” My parents challenged us intellectually and made it clear to us there were no limits. I like to say they made it clear that the sky is not the limit, and making mistakes or failing merely makes you stronger. The important thing is trying. My mother was my role model. She died young but had already accomplished a lot in business while successfully raising her family of a son and three daughters. The four of us have promising careers.
You began your work as a pharmacist. What led you to go further into biotechnology?
Pharmacy was a very rewarding and respected profession, but I wanted more challenge. My dad always asked, “What are you going to do when you grow up?” and I would always say, “I want to cure cancer!” So, even as a kid I knew I wanted to make a difference. Following my childhood dream, I went back to school and earned my PhD in molecular cancer pharmacology. I thought I wanted to teach and do research in an academic environment, but then I fell in love with M3, and the change we could bring about the world. Plus the challenges of entrepreneurism bring their own appeal. It’s like climbing a mountain without a clear path, or a rope if you fall.
After working in cancer research you moved into the study of neurodegenerative diseases. Tell us more.
At M3 we are working on both—cancer is another possible pipeline for other molecules we are working on. But due to the huge unmet medical need and the exciting results we received, we decided to focus our efforts on neurodegeneration turning it to neuroregeneration, meaning turning cell death into cell restoration. Part of being an entrepreneur is being flexible and seeing and seizing the opportunity. We have a great opportunity with the potential to help millions around the world if our drug proves effective in humans.
You’re still under 30. How did you become the CEO of M3 Biotechnology, a biotech startup which has developed a drug with a potential to treat Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s?
If you look around, it is increasingly those under 30 who are where the action is: the science labs, the innovation centers, the tech clusters. They are able to seize emerging opportunities that those further along in their careers don’t want to risk. Failure is a word for young entrepreneurs. It is a fear to be avoided for those already underway with their careers.
I became the CEO since I am one of the inventors, but I also showed initiative to go after funding. I am lucky to be supported and surrounded by amazing mentors both scientifically and in business. Joseph Harding, a co-founder and co-inventor, believed in me and supported me and saw that I have business acumen. He is an amazing mentor.
Another significant figure is my friend Mike Flynn, who sensed my business potential and helped me start this journey, introducing me to people who became my supporters and friends. Lance Stewart, Carol Criner and John Fluke are great business and strategic advisors.
You recently participated in a life sciences venture capital summit in New York. How did this experience change the way you see yourself and your work?
That was a really interesting experience with very few females present. I learned a lot about the business space and how it is still mostly male dominated. It was challenging but fun.
How has working in the biotech industry changed your opinion of pharmaceutical science?
I think that many have the impression of the pharmaceutical industry as a group of huge companies driven by profits. The reality now, to me, is a large number of innovators and entrepreneurs whose pharmaceutical focus is on changing society by enriching lives by restoring health. That is what I have found with the leaders from business and science who have made a commitment to M3.
You’ve achieved a lot to be so young. Where do you want to go?
One of my goals is creating a new model for business leadership. As women, we tend to doubt ourselves and we are afraid of being rejected. I came here when I was young and broke. I only had one month’s rent. Being open to new experiences takes you to places beyond what you can imagine.
What would you say to young women considering work in the sciences?
Everyone should follow their passion and not be deterred by outside influences. Science seems hard from the outside, but it’s fun and exciting. And remember my parents’ lesson: “The sky is not the limit.”