Leith Leonard

February 02, 2011

By Justin Tang

LOS ANGELES -- Keith Leonard's ('95) path to becoming a bio-tech entrepreneur has taken some unconventional, long-distance turns.

After doing time as a commercial real estate project management engineer during the 1990s (a "dead end industry at the time" he now admits), he responded to a headhunter's call and took an interview with a then little-known company called Amgen and became an engineer for the now-booming bio-tech giant. He would later set off on his own to plant a flag in the biotechnology arena.

The company Leonard co-founded (in 2005) is Kythera Biopharmaceuticals, where he currently serves as chief executive officer. Kythera develops prescription products for the aesthetic market, their products based upon intellectual property developed at Harbor-UCLA, a biomedical research facility. Leonard spends much of his time in Kythera's Calabasas, California corporate headquarters, though he does make it back to campus on occasion to visit the company's research lab, housed in UCLA's California Nano Systems Institute. Furthering the UCLA connection, the company was in part financed by the UCLA Venture fund and Leonard has had multiple Anderson students as interns at Kythera.

Leonard's tenure at Amgen coincided with that company's rise in biotechnology space and he eventually rose to senior vice president and general manager of Amgen's European business.  Seeing a need to rebrand himself as more than "just an engineer" Leonard enrolled in Anderson's Executive MBA Program with the goal of gaining broader business and international experience. At Anderson, he says he grew to appreciate and understand the complexities of marketing a brand. Even more so, Leonard valued the in-class interactions between professors and students. "The professors understood that their audience was extremely experienced and leveraged their knowledge to supplement the class," said Leonard.

While still an EMBA student, Leonard accepted Amgen's request to help set up the company's manufacturing operations in Europe. As a result, from May to August of 1995, Leonard flew to Switzerland and back to Los Angeles every other weekend. "Those months all blurred together; I just remember trying to recover from constant jetlag." said Leonard. But the loss sleep proved worthwhile. Leonard reshaped his image from strictly a technical engineer to a manager and leader. He acquired business knowledge through both academic and practical sources at Anderson and Amgen. And later, he furthered his firsthand knowledge of international business as he returned to Europe to lead all of Amgen's European business.

Then he was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug.

"With Amgen, I had a great exposure to the biotech industry, so I set off to build a company that was very innovative, very scientific, and very scrappy." Since its creation, Kythera has focused on a product called ATX-101, which is an injectable adipolytic agent that reduces fat in focal areas for both males and females. While it has not reached the market yet, it has entered the last phase of regulatory testing.

Since leading Kythera, Leonard has encountered the challenges of founding a startup company. The first challenge is the inherent risk of starting a biotechnical company -- most drugs fail during clinical testing. "Not only do you have to be good, you have to be very very lucky," said Leonard. The second challenge stems from the 2008 global recession, which has amplified the problem of raising money for a long-term project in a world that has become increasingly short-sighted.

But even in tougher times, he recognized and valued the skill required to lead a small team. "Beyond the logistical aspects of running a business, I believe the most important thing is to set the right environment, establish the right goals, and build the right team. It is this responsibility that requires the most time and care," said Leonard.

Since the company's founding, Leonard and Kythera have since secured more funding and continue to move closer to releasing ATX-101 to the market. Leonard believes a critical component in starting a company is attitude. "You must have unflagging optimism and enthusiasm. More importantly, you have to interpret uncertainty as adventure and turn it into enthusiasm," said Leonard.

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