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Athira Pharma CEO to Wall Street: there needs to be more support for diversification in people, founders

Dr. Leen Kawas, Athira Pharma CEO, joins Yahoo Finance’s The First Trade with Alexis Christoforous and Brian Sozzi to discuss Athira's debut on the Nasdaq, diversity at the company, and much more.

Video Transcript

BRIAN SOZZI: Drug development company Athira Pharma is making its debut on the NASDAQ today. And Leen Kawas, Athira Pharma CEO joins us now for an exclusive interview.

Leen, congrats on the IPO, a big day for you. Maybe you can start with giving us an update on where your two drugs stand in develop-- in the development pipeline. You have one promising drug for Alzheimer's and one for Parkinson's.

LEEN KAWAS: Thank you, Brian, and thank you for having us today on your program. So Athira Pharma is developing a platform of small molecules that focuses on recovery of neuronal health and function, which applies for both central indications, like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, and peripheral indications. We have our most advanced product that is starting its first potential pivotal trial in Alzheimer's disease. And we're also going to start next year a phase II Parkinson's disease dementia trial for the same product. We have additional assets in our pipeline for peripheral neuropathy and neuropsychiatric indications that are at the preclinical stage.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: How will this IPO and the money you raise here help you in your process to bring these treatments of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's to the market?

LEEN KAWAS: Yeah, I think this-- today is a critical day for us, because it's important for us to have the resources that will enable us to advance our technology to ultimately help people, because we bring forward a differentiated approach of how we tackle these huge unmet medical needs. So with these additional resources, we will be able to advance our product through late-stage clinical development toward approval. And we know there's a huge need in Alzheimer's and dementia, in general.

BRIAN SOZZI: When you say advance through trials, how do you-- take us through the process. How does your staffing size look? And what do you plan to do, just in terms of staffing up and building out new facilities if you need them?

LEEN KAWAS: Yeah. So we are a small growing team. We're around 20 people. But we're going to grow very quickly as an outcome of this additional resources to really support the late-stage clinical development commercialization scale, you know, manufacturing towards commercialization, the scale that we need there.

So we're going to ramp up very quickly. And we do have-- we closed a crossover round earlier this year that enabled us to acquire additional facilities and start the hiring process. So we anticipate to at least double by the end of the-- this year or early next year.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Well, this is certainly a milestone for-- for your company, but also, you are the first woman to take a company public in Washington state in about two decades. What does today mean for you personally? And what message do you hope it sends to Wall Street?

LEEN KAWAS: First of all, that was staggering for me when I heard this stat, because for me, we're all people. But I hope that this-- you know, for investors there needs to be diversification and the way that they support people, and companies, and founders. And that was a surprise for a lot of our investors that supported me and supported the team, which I hope that increases the awareness that we need to empower diversity in our industry and-- and as we move companies forward to the next stages of growth.

BRIAN SOZZI: Leen, you-- you have a really good opportunity to early on implement diversity inside of your organization. You're about 20 people now, you said. You're looking to double moving forward. What type of protocols have you put in place?

LEEN KAWAS: You know, we follow the typical protocols, but we're absolutely intentional in creating a diverse-- diverse culture within the company. Because what I found-- we're already-- even with 20 people, if you look at the team, we're pretty diverse. But what I found if you bring people with different backgrounds, you actually get to a point that you have a very innovative approach of tackling anything.

Even in our development, we've been very innovative in the way that we approach our clinical trials in an effort to accelerate development and look at the diseases and everything in a very different way, which is very exciting. And I do believe that the base of our diverse team helped significantly with this innovation that we have at Athira.

BRIAN SOZZI: I know you're not working specifically on a COVID-19 vaccine. But of course, you're a doctor, and I'm sure you're watching the situation across the country on the race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. Do you think it's realistic we get one before year-end?

LEEN KAWAS: I mean, I'm hopeful. There are some interesting programs out there. There is a good chance, more than 50%, that we're going to get something, you know, by year-end, because this is a huge need. We need something so the world can get to some sort of a normal. I don't know if this is the new normal, but go back to a normal, I guess, lifestyle.

BRIAN SOZZI: Well said, and good luck on the path forward. Looking forward to staying in touch with you. Leen Kawas, Athira Pharma CEO. Have a good weekend.

LEEN KAWAS: Thank you.