Photo credit: Matt Greenslade

Kathy McGroddy-Goetz may have been destined from birth to ascend to her current heights at IBM. As a child, she accompanied her father, former IBM head of research James McGroddy, to the office on Saturdays. He taught her how to drive in a back parking lot on IBM’s Yorktown Heights, New York, campus. Even today, her father’s presence looms large, in the form of a portrait she sees every time she ventures into the office cafeteria.

But if there were ever a sense that McGroddy-Goetz has benefited professionally from her IBM lineage — a notion that was absurd to begin with, given her technical savvy and advanced studies in applied physics, molecular biophysics, and pharmacology — it has long since been dismissed. “Since I’m a scientist rather than an engineer, I’m sure some people thought I got the job because of my name,” she shrugged.

Now that she has assumed a lead role in IBM Watson’s bold gambit to transform healthcare — as Watson Health’s VP of partnerships and solutions, she is in charge of efforts to partner with entities like Medtronic, Johnson & Johnson, CVS Health, and Apple — McGroddy-Goetz ranks as one of the burgeoning enterprise’s most important individuals.

Confronted with that notion, McGroddy-Goetz lets out a self-deprecating laugh. “I’m awed by great science. I always have been,” she said. “It used to be, like, ‘Oh, you’re not an engineer, there’s only so much you can do here.’ But that’s completely flipped. What’s the saying? ‘You stick around long enough, eventually you become fashionable.’”

McGroddy-Goetz first worked at IBM during her college summers. After receiving her Ph.D. from Cornell University in New York, she started her IBM career at the company’s Burlington, Vermont, semiconductor facility. Her job, on a basic level, was to help clients solve technical problems using IBM products. So while she might not have been an engineer by trade, McGroddy-Goetz was performing a not-entirely-dissimilar set of tasks. “I’ve always dealt with product-development people,” she noted.

Still, McGroddy-Goetz wasn’t sure what path within IBM to pursue. Given her personal passion for fitness — she has completed multiple marathons and triathlons, and coaches runners of all ages — McGroddy-Goetz long wondered how she might add healthcare to her professional purview. “Whenever I got a chance to do something tied to healthcare, I’d jump at it. I was dabbling, basically,” she recalled.

Thus when she was presented with the Watson Health opportunity, it took about four seconds for her to accept. As one of the entity’s first dedicated leaders, McGroddy-Goetz exerted no small amount of influence over its evolution. To that end, she envisioned that Watson Health would serve as an enabler and catalyst, rather than a mere partner. “The idea was that there would be a network effect. Companies wouldn’t just work with us; eventually they’d come to work with each other.”

It’s worth noting that this ain’t easy. Engineering a network of interconnected relationships isn’t something that can be pulled off without a cadre of willing co-conspirators. Add to this that operating in and around a hyper-regulated industry like healthcare was new to many IBMers and, well, McGroddy-Goetz and the rest of Team Watson had a lot on their proverbial plates.

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Yet here we are, a year after Watson Health’s formal debut, and the organization has experienced a growth spurt of a magnitude that not even its most pie-eyed optimists could have anticipated. Following the most recent of Watson Health’s purchases — Truven Health Analytics, which brought with it yet another treasure trove of data — headcount has surged to around 5,500 people. Contrast that with the situation a year or so ago, when McGroddy-Goetz routinely made big decisions in tandem with a few members of IBM’s legal and tech teams. “And then we woke up one morning with all these new processes,” she recalled with a laugh.

McGroddy-Goetz adds that her perspective has similarly evolved. “A year ago, I was probably appreciating what we’re doing more from the perspective of a technologist,” she continued. “But as I spent more time with our colleagues at Medtronic and with IBM people who have a family member with diabetes, that’s when I saw how impactful everything we do could be.”

McGroddy-Goetz points to an instance that crystallized this impact in her mind. “We met a child with diabetes who had a therapy dog that woke his parents in the middle of the night when he was going hypo[glycemic]. It was harrowing,” she recalled. “As our relationship with Medtronic developed, it was almost startling. ‘My God, the technology we’re working on could give [diabetic patients] three or four hours of advance notice.’ Three or four hours in a situation where every minute can be crucial — that’s a big jump.”

Up next for McGroddy-Goetz and Watson Health: More growth. While she declines to share specifics, McGroddy-Goetz notes that the organization has a geoexpansion strategy in place and that it is deeply engaged in conversations with healthcare players of all shapes and sizes. “We’ve seen what can happen when you put smart technologists together with all these data sources,” she said. “How do you put people and things and data together in a way that can have immediate impact? That’s the question we’re always going to be trying to answer.”