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Dr Joaquim dos Santos Gromicho has been appointed Professor of Business Analytics at Amsterdam Business School (ABS), making him the the University of Amsterdam’s (UvA) most recent acquisition. The Portuguese-born professor has already spent many enjoyable years combining his corporate sector work at ORTEC with a university career. He talks with great enthusiasm about his emigration to the Netherlands, his passion for science and the potential of big-data analytics.

After completing a master’s degree at the University of Lisbon, Gromicho was asked to show the city to 2 faculty members from Erasmus who were giving guest lectures at the university. It quickly transpired that the lecturers were visiting the university with a hidden agenda. ‘They were looking for talent. At that time, the Netherlands didn’t offer attractive opportunities for good students to do a PhD. That’s why they asked me if I’d be willing to do a PhD under the supervision of Alexander Rinnooy Kan.’

Two new loves
So it came to pass that Gromicho was at Erasmus University in Rotterdam from 1991 to 1995, working on his PhD thesis. And during this time he gained more than just a PhD. ‘I also ran into a pretty Dutch blonde, who is now my wife.’ And to make it even easier to opt for the Netherlands, Gromicho also got an offer from ORTEC, the world’s largest supplier of mathematical optimisation software. ‘They asked me to drop by sometime. I had some enjoyable meetings and discovered that the business world is not as hectic as I’d thought. At the end of the day, I was suddenly staring at a contract.’

In Gromicho’s own words, he has now been ‘married’ to ORTEC for almost 25 years. He once started there as a software architect and currently, as Scientific and Education Officer, he is responsible for maintaining relationships with institutions of higher learning. ‘Precisely because we maintain such good contacts with education in the Netherlands, we enjoy the privilege of having the best students wanting to work for and with us. And the workplace atmosphere here is similar to that of a university. We basically do almost the same thing as well, namely scientific research. It’s just that at ORTEC, the emphasis is not on publications but on commerce. We sell innovation.’

Longing for science

Even so, after five years at ORTEC, Gromich began to get itchy feet. ‘I missed the academic world, the research towards publications and a more flexible allocation of my time and attention. As chance would have it, I was contacted by a former colleague in Hong Kong at that very time. He was determined to get my help in finishing a paper.’ Gromicho packed his bags, took 6 weeks’ leave and left for Hong Kong. ‘When I came back, my boss, who at that moment was a professor at VU University, told me that in the Netherlands it’s no problem at all to combine an academic career with a career in business. That’s very different from Portugal. A whole world opened up for me. I got a part-time position at VU in 2010, where I was appointed as Endowed Professor of Applied Optimisation in Operations Research.

When Marc Salomon, chair of ABS, made Gromicho an offer he ‘couldn’t refuse’, he moved to UvA. ‘Marc [Salomon] called because he wanted me to help him design a programme for the Amsterdam Business School. An incredible challenge! What’s more, he had already persuaded Dick den Hertog to come over to UvA too. Dick had been a professor at Tilburg University for a long time and was an authority in my field of expertise, as well as one of my personal heroes. When I heard he had also joined, I was immediately sold.’ Gromicho now spends four days a week at ORTEC and one day at ABS as Professor of Business Analytics. His teaching focuses on the field of big-data analytics, with an emphasis on optimal decision-making.

The power of analytics

Gromicho’s passion for his area of expertise is palpable. ‘From a very young age, I wanted to save the world. To achieve this, we will have to radically change our behaviour, and the analysis of big data can play a major role here.’ ORTEC and UvA share Gromicho’s personal conviction, making his work more meaningful to him. ‘At ORTEC, we believe that mathematics can contribute to long-term sustainable growth. And this fits right in with Analytics for a Better World, a research lab set up by Dick den Hertog. The lab looks for business, social and societal applications of data analysis that, as the name suggests, can improve the world.’

In what way? As an example, Gromicho cites the reduction in our ecological footprint. ‘Many oil magnates are in the process of reinventing their business model. Data analysis can help speed up the transition from fossil to sustainable energy. If they want to switch to, let’s say, setting up wind farms, they will suddenly need a great deal of new knowledge. Take, for instance, the question of how wind turbines affect each other and the production of energy. These kinds of issues can be worked out through analytics.’

Gromicho goes on to say that with the advances in computing power and data, we can  make an even greater impact. ‘With the food we waste, we could feed every hungry mouth. People in positions of power control those movements so that food often fails to arrive in the right place. We can use analytics to find more efficient ways of finally getting scarce resources to where they are needed most. Zero Hunger Lab at Tilburg University, for example, used available data to develop a model that enabled the World Food Programme to improve food provision in Middle Eastern countries and, at the same time, save large sums of money. That’s how analytics can empower the powerless.’