Playing cupid to help drive innovation

Rob van der Mei wears many hats. He’s professor of applied mathematics at VU university. He’s co-founder of spin-off company Stokhos Emergency Mathematics. Most predominantly, he’s transforming academic work into real-world solutions as industrial liaison officer at the Centrum Wiskunde & Informatica (CWI), the national research institute for mathematics and computer science in the Netherlands.

With his infectious enthusiasm, after spending time with him it’s easy to see how he plays cupid between CWI’s lab-bound researchers and companies keen to take the latest lofty technologies to the marketplace. “When I began here 15 years ago, academia was still very much an ivory tower. But this collaboration with industry is now very much part of CWI’s DNA,” says Van der Mei.

CWI: Computing for a better world

CWI has a remarkable history of bridging the gap between mathematics and computer science. The institute built the first Dutch computer in 1952, was the birthplace of the European internet in 1988 and originally developed the popular programming language Python in the 1990s. It has founded 26 spin-off companies and is currently on the forefront of writing software for quantum computers.

Rob van der Mei

Today, the institute has more than 175 researchers and brings together 50 tenured and tenure-track researchers, 30 postdocs and 65 PhD students from more than 25 different countries.

With its rich history and location at Amsterdam Science Park, CWI enjoys strong international links and a global reputation for innovative research, covering everything from modelling proteins to developing proactive planning methods for emergency services – the latter forming the basis for Van der Mei’s own research.

Van der Mei’s eureka moment

After Van der Mei gained his PhD in 1995 in queuing theory, he quickly adapted his newfound knowledge to the telecoms industry to develop internet mobile networks. Working for PTT, KPN and TNO in the Netherlands and AT&T Bell Labs in the US, he invented ways to deal with capacity problems and avoid digital traffic jams. “Queuing was hot, and I naturally grew with that,” he says.

“Those 10 years gave me industry experience – thinking from the perspective of solving problems and not just driven by pure scientific curiosity,” says Van der Mei. “But in the end, this experience also provided me with my big moment of realisation: that many of the principles in the telecom domain are also applicable beyond that. And CWI was the perfect place to work out these ideas.”

Using math to save lives

“My main research activities are in the area of Stochastic Operations Research, which aims to develop mathematical models and techniques for the analysis and optimisation of complex systems that operate under randomness and uncertainty. This is really my baby boy: it comes down to decision-making under uncertainty. How do you deal with an uncertain context while still making the right decisions?” explains Van der Mei, who has worked at CWI since 2004.

Recently, he and his team received a lot of press for improving ambulance response times by developing models that factor in weather, traffic jams and other variables to come up with locations that have the highest probability of an incident. Ambulances can then be dispatched to strategic spots – instead of just waiting at a permanent depot.

From freight logistics to elderly care

Van der Mei has also applied similar models to freight logistics, grid computing, sensor networks and ICT systems. On a given day he may be studying the changes in mobility brought on by Amsterdam’s Noord/Zuidlijn metro or developing a capacity model to study how changes in government policy can influence the quality of acute elderly care.

Amsterdam's Noord/Zuidlijn

“Here you have a very current problem: a greying population. And we’re working with caregivers and insurance companies to bring in the domain knowledge so together we can come up with the best solutions. Here, a lot of uncertainty comes from people not always making the most rational decisions – and so that should also be included in any model.”

As chief liaison with all the relevant stakeholders, Van der Mei uses his vast network to bring people together while also acting as intermediary and translator. “It’s really about listening to people – turning things around by not saying ‘Hey, look at this great thing I came up with’ but instead listening to what the problem is and adapting your knowledge to come up with a solution. It’s about having a real interest in real problems.”

Snowballing the Amsterdam Science Park brand

Meanwhile, Van der Mei is happily watching the work taking place around Amsterdam Science Park that continues to demolish the ivory tower. “When you have this incredible density of academic institutions, a startup culture and all these innovative companies, collaborations are bound to happen,” says Van der Mei.

Amsterdam Science Park Startup Amsterdam

Amsterdam Science Park

“And the world is noticing. Science Park is really becoming a brand internationally – you can see it with the level of the delegations that are coming here. International visitors go wow and ask: ‘How do you do it here?’ Amsterdam has a very strong reputation – and it’s snowballing.”

The road to continued innovation

But how can we ensure that this snowballing continues? “I think we’ll need a few full-time business consultants – people who extend networks and bring in projects. And this, of course, is what I do at CWI, and Science Park does on a larger scale. But a stronger in-between layer focused on acquisition and supervision would be of tremendous benefit,” says Van der Mei. “In this way, we can avoid any future bottlenecks.”

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