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Optimization - with a click

Professor of Computer Science Pascal van Hentenryck is putting "Comet," an algorithm he developed at Brown, to commercial use at Dynadec.

Dynadec consists of three rooms, hidden in the enormous unlabeled maze of One Richmond Square, an office building on Providence's East Side. Two men sit at computers in opposite corners of the stark white room, busily clicking as the day slips away. A tour takes all of a minute and a half.

The company is the product of a successful collaboration between Brown and van Hentenryck and specializes in "stochastic optimization," or "optimization under uncertainty," van Hentenryck said. Comet is the underlying platform behind improving efficiency in various fields, ranging from hurricane response systems to workforce organization and steel manufacturing. "Everything which moves, we optimize," van Hentenryck said.

Van Hentenryck and Rob Williams, Dynadec's vice-president, have spent the last year building the company. They have been hiring staff, looking for private equity funding — which they have found at companies such as IBM, Cisco and Intel — and engaging with clients, Williams said. As Williams' phone buzzed, van Hentenryck joked, "after a year together, we know who is calling."

Brown was "very helpful" in making the process "extremely smooth and easy," van Hentenryck said.

Van Hentenryck and Williams have an easy camaraderie — the two spoke intently, interrupting each other periodically.

"A technology that started at Brown is now being used in multi-billion dollar companies," said Williams. "That really speaks to what (van Hentenryck) has done."

Van Hentenryck opened up his laptop to show Comet at work, and colored squares filled the screen. Comet's next-generation technology has reduced the time necessary to schedule workforces in hospitals from 10 minutes to 30 seconds, and has cut costs of mobilizing repair technicians by about 65 percent, he said.

"That's huge," Williams said.

Creating science and using it to help people is "the most satisfying thing that can happen to a researcher,"  van Hentenryck said. "It can make a big difference in the life of people."

Dynadec is currently working with Los Alamos National Laboratory to maximize efficiency in emergency response to hurricanes. While Los Alamos provides possible scenarios and effects on infrastructure, Comet can help determine where to place resources such as water and medical supplies in order to respond as quickly as possible, said van Hentenryck.

"Think about Haiti, Chile ..." Williams said. "Our technology is getting there."

Van Hentenryck teaches CSCI0310: "Introduction to Computer Systems" and a graduate-level course in optimization.

He laughed, recalling his experience at Dancing with the Profs as "horrific." He practiced "Billie Jean" 86 times, he said. Perhaps Comet could optimize dance moves as well.


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