"Have you ever been to one of those huge industrial bakeries, like at Nabisco?" asks Carol Kovac, IBM's VP of life sciences. "It's more like a factory. They churn out 2 million boxes a day. I love that stuff."
The cookie-factory fascination stems from an early-'90s job running IBM's supply-chain software business, where Kovac gained an understanding of what it takes to mass-produce what scientists dream up. "There are lots of challenges to bringing a product to market," she says.
Kovac's facility with business and science gives her credibility with customers. Says Michael Keehan, chairman and CEO of NuTec Sciences Inc. in Atlanta: "With Carol, I can spend 90% of my time talking business."
Cutting through the product-development bureaucracy can be especially tricky at IBM. "Sometimes large companies put in place best practices to make sure mistakes don't happen again," says David McQueeney, IBM's VP of emerging business. "Carol is very good at respecting that but taking it with a slight grain of salt."
Her alliances within IBM also help. Kovac has forged friendships with vice chairman John Thompson, a protector of emerging businesses; Irving Wladawsy-Berger, who heads Linux and grid-computing efforts; and Mark Dean, an IBM Fellow working on an experimental project to build a supercomputer to analyze the complex problem of protein-folding.
All told, Kovac-who was a chemist at Union Carbide in the '70s before earning a doctorate in chemistry in 1981 and joining IBM in '83-is proving adept at navigating the corporate hallways. And that counts for users. "At the end of the day," says IBM's McQueeney, "you're involving customers in experimentation." Kovac's business gives them something to sink their teeth into as well.
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Photo of Kovac by Brian Finke