Ever wanted to rent brainpower on demand?
New start-up Biarri reckons it has found a way to give even small businesses access to some of the most powerful mathematical modelling tools available, to solve complex problems simply and at a price more people can afford.
Each year the mathematical discipline of operations research saves large companies millions of dollars by helping them optimise complex problems. It was originally used by Allies during the Second World War to determine the best means of organising North Atlantic convoys to avoid attacks by German U-boats.
The heavy mathematical processing required for modern operations research means that today it has typically been used by large companies such as airlines, miners and transport companies, and has been out of reach of smaller business.
A simple example in the transport industry is calculating the best sequences of deliveries for a van that is carrying 50 different items; as the number of possible sequences starts to rival the number of stars in the galaxy. It is commonly used to optimise supply chains, predict customer behaviour, or conduct rapid analysis of complex sets of data. And it requires a lot of computing power.
Biarri co-founder Joe Forbes says his company has found a way of making operations research affordable for a much wider range of business. Rather than purchasing dozens of servers to run the mathematical algorithms, it purchases computing power from Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) to do the hard work.
Now it is developing a web-based service, dubbed Workbench, which will enable customers to access its tools via the internet, effectively moving the entire process of operations research into the cloud.
Forbes says that Biarri has conducted more than a dozen custom projects for clients since it was founded in January, building up a repository of different modelling engines that are suited to solving specific operations research problems.
The Workbench service, which is expected to go live before the end of September, will include models for a wide range of tasks including production planning, staff scheduling, and yield or portfolio optimisation.
We are trying to make it accessible and to democratise mathematics by making it easy to get your hands on
Biarri co-founder Joe Forbes
"We are trying to make it accessible and to democratise mathematics by making it easy to get your hands on, with a GUI and a database that everyone understands," Forbes says.
Forbes says that while the online service will most likely meet no more than 90 per cent of the exact requirements of many customers, he believes the reduced price will see them happy to accept this trade-off.
For those that want a fully-customised outcome, Biarri is continuing to deliver tailored projects, and the software can also be customised and installed within the systems of clients who want permanent access to operations research capabilities. For the rest, Forbes believes the Workbench will be affordable for smaller business, such as delivery companies with fleets of around 10 vehicles.
"It's to do with the economics of cloud computing — if we'd started Biarria two years ago we'd have hundreds of thousands of dollars on equipment to host things," Forbes says. "That enables us to take all this clever stuff that has been around a long time and make it cheap and accessible. And our challenge is to make it usable and fast."
There is nothing new about operations research. What is new about Biarri's service is that it will be affordable for a much wider range of companies,
The company is already making a living conducting bespoke operations research projects for clients on a consulting basis. Each time it does it learns something new that it can feed into its cloud-based solution. And there is demand out there. Biarri has doubled in size to six full-time employs since January, with another 10 casual workers.
The next big challenge will be convincing smaller businesses of the value of operations research, and getting them to use the web service. But given the company is already profitable, Forbes says he isn't even including online revenue in his business model.
"That's the blue sky part of the business, but we can survive without it," Forbes says.
It's a nice position to be in.
bootstrappr opinion: BOOM