Title: Chief business officer
Ivana Magovčević-Liebisch, Ph.D., J.D., has followed quite an unconventional career path. After earning a Ph.D. in genetics from Harvard University, she went straight into a law firm working as a biotechnology specialist—and into Suffolk University's law school to pursue a degree at the same time.
Since she moved into the biopharma industry, her work has spanned legal matters, drug commercialization and finally business development, first at Teva and now at Ipsen. To her, taking risks outside of her comfort zone is a key to success. And she advises other women to do the same.
“It’s very important for women to be taught from a very young age that taking risks is okay, that you cannot wait in your office and hope that somebody will see you and recognize you,” she said. “You need to be comfortable asking for it, you need to go for those stretch jobs. Don’t wait until you feel you’re fully comfortable, because your male colleagues do not.”
Growing up in what’s now Serbia, Magovčević-Liebisch was challenged by the culture to do better than her parents: Her father was a lawyer turned businessman and her mother had a degree in chemical engineering.
She was fascinated with genetics, and Barbara McClintock, who won the Nobel Prize for discovering jumping genes, was an early inspiration. So, after Magovčević-Liebisch moved to the U.S. to attend Wheaton College, a professor even designed an independent study course in genetics just for her.
“I must say Wheaton was an incredibly supportive environment for me and really opened my eyes to all the opportunities,” she said.
The turning point for her career came in 2001, when she sat down with Genzyme co-founder Henry Blair for lunch. Soon after, she joined his phage display biotech Dyax to help sort out some IP problems.
At first, that is. She moved from VP of intellectual property to general counsel to chief business officer and ultimately to chief operating officer, managing the rollout of Kalbitor for the rare disorder hereditary angioedema (HAE).
“The beauty of being in a small company and working with somebody like Henry Blair, who was an incredible entrepreneur and mentor, was that I got a lot of opportunities to do a lot of things,” she said.
Magovčević-Liebisch can still remember the day when HAE patients came to Dyax’s office and hugged the employees for getting the drug approved. “It’s incredible when you see the human suffering out there and what you can do with the products that have been developed in rare diseases,” she recalled. “It’s extremely rewarding.”
Leveraging her Ph.D. background in a way that could translate science into something helpful for patients was what prompted Magovčević-Liebisch to pursue a career outside of academia, and it was also what attracted her to the current chief business officer job at Ipsen, which she's held since March 2018.
Magovčević-Liebisch had plenty of M&A experience before, though. After wearing different hats at Dyax, she grew curious about how a big pharma company works, and she was tapped by then-Teva CEO Jeremy Levin to help navigate the Israeli generics ship in a different direction: Toward building an innovative pipeline on top of its MS blockbuster Copaxone. She spearheaded a new office in the Cambridge, Massachusetts, biotech hub, trying to build Teva’s name and brand as the partner of choice.
During her four years managing M&A on the specialty pharma side, Magovčević-Liebisch led 15 transactions, including the acquisition of Labrys Biologics in 2014, which gave Teva what would later become FDA-approved CGRP migraine drug Ajovy.
However, Teva's Actavis buyout soured Magovčević-Liebisch on her role there. No longer feeling aligned with the company's overall vision, she shut down the Cambridge operation and jumped ship just as Teva hit an iceberg: the generics slowdown.
“I always say BD is a team sport,” she said. “Any BD transaction is 90% internal alignment and 10% with the other side.”
Now, she leads a BD team of about 30 people at Ipsen, including those working to identify external innovation, a transaction team that helps bring a deal to the finish line, and an alliance management team.
“Things really start happening when the signature is dry on the agreement,” she said. “To make sure a collaboration is successful, you really have to build it on trust and strong alignment and strong relationships.”
As a C-level executive at a multinational pharma company, Magovčević-Liebisch has sure outdone her parents. Every successful woman needs a support system, though, and it's just as important to a woman's career as risk-taking, she argues.
“This idea that women can do it all—raise children, have families and be high-level executives—it’s not possible,” she said. “So make sure that you have a support system that allows you to go for this kind of job, and sit down as a family and have an honest discussion and not feel guilty about it.”