In November 2010, the Institute for Operations Research and Management Sciences (INFORMS) will award its inaugural Undergraduate Operations Research Prize to John Silberholz ’10. For Silberholz, who earned his B.S. degrees in computer science and math summa cum laude, the award is a culmination of the research and professional development relationships he has built with the Robert H. Smith School of Business through his undergraduate career.
When Silberholz displayed a talent for mathematics at an early age, his father – himself a Smith School alumnus from 1989 – contacted his former professor Bruce Golden, the France-Merrick Chair of Management Science at Smith. Golden mentored Silberholz and treated him much as he would a doctoral student. “I would present him a problem and expect him to come back to me in a week with a whole new perspective on it,” said Golden, who is well known for his involvement with undergraduates, often taking them aside after class and guiding them as they consider academic and professional opportunities.
Silberholz and Golden developed a close mentor-mentee relationship that was driven by their passion for analytical problem solving. Golden (who usually sleeps from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m., schedule permitting) and Silberholz would often stay up late discussing their research over the phone.
Silberholz says he was hooked on research ever since he was introduced to optimization problems as part of his senior project in high school. “I’m really drawn to the practicality of a problem. I want what I solve to be meaningful.”
The Smith School offered many opportunities for Silberholz to work on such practical questions with his peers at school and with academics across the globe. As a member of Gemstone, the University of Maryland’s multidisciplinary undergraduate honors research program, Silberholz and his fellow classmates worked with Golden to develop a model of hospital patient care. Their research is the first simulation study to demonstrate how the combination of residents and attending doctors improve care, especially for high severity patients.
Pat Cleveland, associate dean of undergraduate programs, also provided funding for Silberholz to conduct research with leaders in his field and to present his work across the globe, including Hamburg, Germany, and Salerno, Italy.
In his senior year, Silberholz frequently visited Smith’s Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship for advice on starting up his own company, Enertaq Inc., with Max Epstein ’09 (BSOS), who is currently enrolled in Maryland’s Masters of Public Policy program. “Currently, energy companies pay power plants to ramp their generation up or down depending upon what the demand is,” says Silberholz. “It’s a $2 billion market that we can cash in on by providing an alternative demand-side solution to the same problem.”
Rather than changing the amount of power that is generated, Enertaq products make timing adjustments to existing building management systems to meet consumption needs. While unnoticeable to users, it makes a big impact on the bottom line. “What we’re really doing is applying an IT solution to this complex optimization problem by minimizing waste while matching supply and demand.”
Silberholz and Epstein raised seed funding by entering business plan competitions such as the Smith School’s monthly Pitch Dingman competition, in which students compete for startup funding. After polishing their approach, they went on to win awards from the MIT Clean Energy Competition and the Wal-Mart Better Living Business Plan Competition. Together, they won $21,500 in prize money and have since hired a full-time development executive and two part-time staff.
Enertaq’s frequency regulation service is a first of its kind offering for commercial facilities. Silberholz went on to explain that “what’s great about what we’re doing is that our product is extremely important for improving reliability from renewable energy sources. Technologies like wind and solar generate intermittent energy and it becomes much more important to balance supply and demand for these irregular sources.”
When asked where he sees himself five years from now, Silberholz says he wants to have changed the way commercial facilities manage their energy. “Today, demand response corporations pay commercial facilities to power down on hot summer afternoons, when the electricity grid has peak demand. The service we're offering is much more valuable for customers, energy companies, and the environment.” In the more distant future, Silberholz hopes to earn his PhD in operations research.
“John’s very bright and he works hard,” says Golden. “But he also had a great opportunity at a young age to explore complex optimization problems. There are many undergrads who are good at math and are encouraged to pursue better known fields such as accounting, engineering, or finance. They may not discover operations research until their third or final year as undergrads. John's experience exemplifies a trajectory that other talented and hardworking undergrads can emulate by taking advantage of the opportunities available here at the Smith School."
Working with Golden, Silberholz most recently published his work on network optimization in the Journal of Heuristics in 2010, for which INFORMS is awarding its inaugural prize. INFORMS will fly Silberholz to its annual conference in Austin, Texas, to present his award and give him the chance to present his research.
Stephen Huie, MBA Candidate 2012, Smith Media Group