Productivity Apex’s Modeling & Simulation
For five seasons on CBS, NUMB3RS told the story of Charlie Eppes, a mathematical genius who assisted his FBI Special Agent brother Don Eppes in his most baffling cases. Charlie (David Krumholtz) solved the crimes by developing complex mathematical simulations to calculate probabilities which revealed the how, why and many times, the who of the crime. The program was of course fictitious, but the methodology it described was not. In fact, it is part of the business model of Productivity Apex, founded and led by Mansooreh Mollaghasemi, Ph.D.
These kinds of mathematical algorithms and models are the keys to unraveling the most complicated logistical and efficiency challenges that businesses and governments face; problems that can save billions of dollars in energy, equipment and personnel time. Its many faceted applications include how freight is moved from ship, to train, to truck, to final destination, how passengers and luggage pass through Orlando International Airport, how visitors move through a theme park or even the process of preparing a missile and its payload to be ready for a narrow launch window.
It is a type of “modeling and simulation” that doesn’t get the attention of military or medical training simulations or the wildly popular products of EA Sports. However, it is one that is drawing the best and brightest from UCF’s academic environment into Central Florida’s business market. Additionally, it is the kind of business that even caught the attention of William Holstein, author of The Next American Economy, who devoted a chapter to Dr. Mollaghasemi’s story.
From Tehran To Orlando
Mollaghasemi was sent, along with her brothers, to the U.S. to escape the turbulence of Tehran in the late 1970s. Her father (an Olympic Medalist in wrestling) saw her academic potential and anticipated what the rule of the new regime would mean to her educational and future opportunities. When she enrolled in the University of Louisville in Kentucky she could hardly speak English. But that didn’t prevent her from excelling in math and science, eventually earning degrees in chemical engineering and a Ph.D. in industrial engineering, with a dissertation on “multi-criteria optimization of simulation models.”
It was her academic prowess that attracted the attention of UCF, where she eventually became a tenured professor. Over time, however, she wanted a new challenge and was convinced that the best laboratory for developing graduate students was beyond the somewhat sterile environment of the university and in real world application that business provided, so Productivity Apex was launched.
“I wanted to solve the big problems that organizations are facing; to move from the research or theoretical arena, to the implementation of what I was teaching in my classes.” Adding, “I don’t see myself as being extraordinarily brilliant, but I am extremely resourceful and very efficient with my time. Also, I’m a people person;
I seem to have a knack for teaching and developing people and for surrounding myself with the best of the best. We have developed an environment where people want to contribute. I tell my team, ‘If you are here, it is because you are smarter than me, otherwise I don’t need you.’”
Holstein notes in his account, “UCF gave her the flexibility to launch a company while retaining her job as a professor (some universities fire professors who try to create companies) and provided crucial support in an incubator setting.” In 2003 she moved her offices to UCF’s business incubator. According to Tom O’Neal, UCF’s associate vice president of research and commercialization, “Mansooreh was good at simulation, but wasn’t as experienced at running a company. She knew how to answer questions like, ‘What is a variance or standard deviation,’ but we had to translate the technology into a business opportunity.”
It was a transition she made and a translation that has limitless potential.
The Sky’s the Limit
“Our modeling and simulation is very different than say, the military’s training tools. Anyone who wants to improve their business’ efficiency is a potential customer. One of our first customers was NASA,” Mollaghasemi said.
“In 2001 NASA needed to finish the Space Station. They had to get over 25 launches done in order to complete their goal, which means they had to be very efficient in their ground operations here. All the steps to prepare the spacecraft and the payload have to come together for a very narrow launch window. So we captured all of the processes that the Shuttle moves through. We then took all this data, modeled it on a computer and explained to them where the inefficiencies existed and how they could improve it. That is aerospace.
“Switching to aviation, we did modeling for the traffic flow within the terminals at Orlando International Airport. We don’t care if it is the Shuttle moving through a launch preparation cycle or passengers and luggage moving through an airport terminal. We did the same thing with Disney’s Magical Express. They needed to match passengers with luggage and their hotels within a prescribed time. We modeled their guest flow and their baggage flow to see where inefficiencies existed. We can use this same analytical process with aerospace, aviation, manufacturing, hospitality or transportation – really any type of business.”
Mollaghasemi never refers to Productivity Apex as “her company” and she shudders at the idea of taking the credit for what the team at Productivity Apex accomplishes. She believes a collaborative, team approach is the most productive way to solve the big problems the company takes on. It is a strategy that has led to them being recognized as a Florida Company to Watch and a winner of the Orlando EDC’s Schwartz Tech Awards.
Reflecting on the bridge she has made between her academic and business career, she recalls going to her department head at UCF to share the good news about her first published academic paper. He asked her to sit down, and to her utter amazement, said, “Good job, keep it up, but if someone isn’t willing to pay for the information in your paper, it isn’t worth a damn.” She adds, “If it doesn’t solve someone’s problem, what good is it?”