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A Model for Success

Sridhar Tayur makes the most out of a career in mathematics—from advertising to video games to kidney transplants.

Million-dollar business deals, video games, and life-saving jet planes. What sounds like a weekend blockbuster is actually a small portion of mathematician Sridhar Tayur’s résumé.

As Tayur certainly demonstrated in his lecture on January 25—a career in math doesn’t have to be boring.

In his lecture titled “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Certain Mathematical Models in Practice,” Tayur discussed how he has successfully used mathematical models—a means for describing how a system works through mathematical concepts—to solve problems in business, advertising, and healthcare.

Though he spent many years in academia perpetuating math for math’s sake, he has spent the past 20 years doing applied mathematics in industry, where utilizing his skills is not only enjoyable but also lucrative.

His spirit of creativity and entrepreneurship led him to the business of inventories, where one trillion U.S. dollars are tied up.

“I was never a very studious guy of inventory when I was a PhD student, but I listened to this, and I said this, ‘One trillion dollars of inventory? If I can remove 1% of unnecessary inventory and get paid 1% for every one of that inventory I removed, wouldn’t I be in the top 0.1% of the world? Yes.”

So Tayur did just that, using a mathematical model to help companies free millions of their dollars unnecessarily tied up in inventory.

The same process applies to more than just business. Tayur turned next to advertising.

“Super Bowl ads for 30 seconds go for $2 million.” However, advertisers are realizing that their target audiences are not watching TV as much any more. “What are they doing?” asked Tayur, “18- to 30-year-old males are playing video games.”

So a friend asked him to work for her new company, Massive Inc., creating a model for placing ads into video games through the Internet. This company was sold to Microsoft for $400 million.

Tayur’s career has obviously been lucrative, but his interests extend beyond profit.

“I decided to grow a conscience, and for once actually do something not to make money, but to help people. Some of you are doing a double take. What happened to you? How did this happen? I call it basically a mid-life crisis.”

“It is unfortunate,” Tayur joked, “but there comes a time when even a shallow guy like me starts thinking. And then you say, ‘Maybe I can be of some use to somebody other than myself.’”

For Tayur, this meant reexamining the way people receive kidney transplants in the U.S., where every 90 minutes, someone dies waiting for a transplant. Because waiting lists in certain states are shorter than others, a patient’s wait for a kidney largely depends on his or her location. Tayur wanted to fix that.

He learned that Steve Jobs, because of his access to a private jet, was able to put his name on multiple waiting lists around the country with the promise that if a kidney became available, he’d arrive in time to receive it.

Tayur decided, “I’m going to make what Steve Jobs had available for everyone. I’m going to democratize Steve Jobs.”

From this decision, Tayur’s company OrganJet was created to fly patients in private jets to states with available kidneys.

Said one woman to Tayur, “You must be from God.” “No madam, I’m from Pittsburgh.” “Let’s not take this too seriously,” said Tayur lightly, “but for them it is serious because they were going to die, and now they’re not.”

Tayur’s final message was simple: math is about the joy of creating.

“Why do I do what I do?” asked Tayur. “I do it because I find it fun.”