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Laser Sharp

Her ties to the lab--and family--have made CEO Colette Cozean a natural to promote her Irvine company's breakthrough for painless dentistry.

June 15, 1997|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even Wall Street types don't hold back when Colette Cozean asks her stock question: "What is the first thing you think of when you think of dentists?"

"Pain!" they cry in unison.

The universality of the one-word response helps explain the explosion of attention that has come to Cozean in the weeks since the FDA approved her Irvine company's innovation: a dental laser designed to treat tooth decay painlessly.

Talk about hitting people where it hurts.

"I think that's one of the things that has made this such big news for people because they can identify," says Cozean, 39, herself a former white-knuckler in the dentist's chair.

The mission of her company--Premier Laser Systems Inc.--is no less than the overthrow of the traditional high-speed dental drill. Not only does the laser make a soft, barely perceptible sound--not unlike popcorn popping, Cozean says--but it virtually eliminates the need for an anesthetic.

Within days of the Food and Drug Administration's May 7 announcement, the company's stock price more than doubled and, for the first time since going public in 1995, Premier hit the top 10 in trading volume, far surpassing even giant Microsoft five days in a row.

Cozean was in New York meeting with a Wall Street analyst when the FDA issued its approval--a top agency official in Washington proclaiming the "use of lasers in dentistry is medicine for the 21st century."

Within minutes of the midmorning announcement, the Manhattan office of Premier's investor relations firm was inundated with requests for interviews with Cozean. Over the next 10 hours, Cozean did nearly 20 back-to-back interviews with TV, radio and print reporters.

In Irvine, all 20 of Premier's phone lines were backed up throughout the day as hundreds of dentists around the country called to ask about or outright place an order for the $39,000 laser system.

That evening, the dental laser made all three network news broadcasts; the next morning it was in newspaper headlines across the country.

Cozean recalls phoning in from New York that first day for messages on her home answering machine. One of her favorites was from one of her son's young friends, who said, "Mrs. Cozean, did you know you're famous? I hope that even though you're famous you'll still take me out to go play miniature golf again."

*

As CEO of Premier, Cozean is one of the few women in America to head a technology company. And she's one of the few CEOs who knows her way around a research laboratory as well as a boardroom.

Cozean holds a PhD in biomedical engineering and a master's in electrical engineering--degrees she earned while also attending medical school.

Her colleagues describe her as possessing an "outstanding intellect" and "indefatigable energy."

Securities analyst Scott Baily says Cozean's experience in the technical and medical areas, combined with her "impressive business acumen," make her unlike any CEO he's ever come across.

As Baily told The Times the day of the FDA announcement: "The reason the company is at the forefront today is because of that woman."

Cozean has gotten used to being at the forefront of the laser industry; being in the limelight is another matter.

"I'm a person who seeks neither the Wall Street nor the media attention. That's probably been one of the hardest things in the last couple of weeks, dealing with that," she says.

Although her job requires her attention seven days a week--she routinely works 80 hours a week--family life is also a part of each day.

She and her husband, Kim--they were high school sweethearts--make their home in Lake Forest with children Jesse, 10, and Chelsea, 8. Despite her hectic work schedule, Cozean manages to make it to most of her daughter's school concerts and plays and her son's sporting events and teach his weekly Bible-study class.

"It becomes a juggling act," she says. "You just have to continually look at where's your priority. One thing I don't spend a lot of time on is guilt in one area or another."

Cozean and her husband trade off cooking dinner. "We really think having family time over meals is important," she says, "so we have breakfast together; we have dinner, almost always, together."

After dinner she spends her time with her children "going through homework and whatever they need until I get them to bed at 9. Then I usually read my mail until I finish, and I go to bed about 10-ish. But I'm oftentimes up between 2 and 4 a.m. That's my quiet, creative time. That's when I write, when most of our inventions have come from--all the stuff that I've patented. All those are 2-to-4 a.m.-ers."

When the kids talked to their mom the night of the FDA announcement, they were thrilled, Cozean says. Both are used to going to work with her on weekends to help out--running errands, photocopying, stuffing mailers--"so they know the company pretty well," Cozean says.

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