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March 17, 2004 | Ask Caroline Kovac, general manager of IBM's newly launched Healthcare and Life Sciences business unit, how she's doing, and she says, "I'm pedaling as fast as I can."

A cynic might ask if IBM is really pedaling fast — or just plain peddling. These two markets, though related, seem to be characterized by vastly different computational needs and different sets of buyers. Yes and no, Kovac responds.

"When we started our life sciences initiative almost four years ago, we were very much focused on the new science — the science of biology, the genome project — and frankly, back then, what was driving our interest in early 2000 was pretty much high-performance computing, scientific and technical computing, and those kinds of discovery and research environments," she says.

But a lot has happened since then, Kovac notes.

"If I go to a pharmaceutical company today — and this isn't the way it worked 20 years ago — they'll say, 'We're a healthcare company.' You know, if I go to a medical device manufacturer, they just want to describe themselves as a healthcare company. And there are companies who we wouldn't question [as being] in healthcare, such as hospitals, but they're changing because of the technologies that are coming."

Maybe IBM's idea isn't so crazy. It is, after all, an infrastructure and services leader, not an "applications" provider. And IT is rapidly becoming a kind of connective tissue throughout the discovery-to-patient value chain. Workers from the lab to the clinic often require access to the same information. Who better than IBM to jump into the game?

What's jolting, however, is the sudden shift in emphasis. Kovac has spent the better part of the past four years building IBM's life sciences initiative (duly recognized as one of Bio·IT World's Champions in our inaugural issue two years ago). The organization grew very successfully to about 1,000 staff worldwide. Then in January this year, some 2,000 people from a variety of IBM healthcare initiatives were added and the division name changed.

"You could say we're re-launching our healthcare initiative and this is a new organization that puts healthcare and life sciences together. But this is not about agglomerating dissimilar things and then having silos," Kovac says. "There is a great deal of synergy."

Perhaps. But it is also about market forces. Biotech and biopharma are stuck in low gear, while spending on informatics is just plain stuck. Contrast that with the larger healthcare market, which — though famously slow to adopt IT — is under loud siege to modernize.

"There has unquestionably been a lot of change that I'm not sure anybody could have reasonably anticipated at this time in 2000," Kovac says. "The pharmaceutical industry, with increasingly tight dollars, has looked for places where they could get line-of-sight return on investment. In general, those have come in development, not in discovery."

Kovac insists IBM isn't walking away from R&D. She says basic science advances will be "game-changing for companies that do it right," but her enthusiasm definitely ratchets up a notch when discussing healthcare. "Healthcare is ripe for transformation by new ways to manage information," she says.

A good example is medical imaging, she says. "Modalities of imaging are increasingly digital. The cost of storage is coming down, and the power of computing is going up. There are incredibly powerful digital solutions, and we have networking and grid technologies to move images around in ways we couldn't before. When you put all those pieces together, imaging is ready to pop. We see four or five areas that are like that around healthcare."

It is unclear whether IT for R&D will become a neglected stepchild in IBM's marriage of healthcare to life sciences. But the company's vision of IT as the great integrator between those disciplines is an intriguing idea worth testing.

Put the pedal to the metal.* 

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