How does a start-up forge an alliance with a billion-dollar giant? For CEO Audrey MacLean, the ability appears to come naturally. Four years after cofounding Network Equipment Technologies (NET) in 1983, MacLean (in 1987 a 13-year veteran of the data-communications industry) picked up the phone and dialed the president of IBM's communications-products division to discuss a partnership regarding her company's new generation of wide-area network (WAN) products. "We were small but not unknown. Thirty of their most important enterprise customers were already using our products," she recalls.

Last summer MacLean did it again, this time with another start-up, three-year-old Adaptive Corp. (a subsidiary of NET), located in Redwood City, Calif.; another giant, $1.7-billion National Semiconductor, of Santa Clara, Calif.; and another technology, asynchronous transfer mode (ATM), a communications technology that solves many of the problems facing local-area network (LAN) users. MacLean jokingly refers to today's LANs as "limited area networks," likening them to clogged arteries headed for massive coronary failure. She says ATM technology reduces that congestion, allowing users to build high-performance LANs that are easier to design, manage, and expand. However, it is still too early to tell whether ATM will become the global communications standard National and Adaptive are banking on.

-- Alessandra Bianchi