Ravindra Ahuja had big aspirations when he joined the faculty of the University of Florida’s College of Engineering in 1998, and reality has been far greater than he ever imagined.
Ahuja has parlayed his specialty — developing software that vastly improves efficiency in moving shipments and passengers — to create Optym, a company that has grown rapidly and is now planning a major expansion.
Over the next five years, the company will triple the number of employees here is moving from the Gainesville Technology Entrepreneurship Center to three adjacent office buildings off Tower Road.
Optym is so successful that Gainesville business leaders had to compete for the company’s headquarters with Dallas, which tried to lure it away from North Central Florida.
The company is an attractive economic catch.
“We’re the Google of transportation,” Ahuja said. “There is a fixed amount of infrastructure, and adding to it is expensive. It would cost over $1 million to build train tracks from Miami to Gainesville and over $3 million to buy a new locomotive.
“We find ways to use the same tracks and infrastructure to do more shipping, which saves millions of dollars.”
Optym’s software can explore millions of options for routing trains, trucks and planes and identify the most efficient option.
“The rail industry has been around for a couple hundred of years, but just now it is awakening to the efficiencies possible through computer modeling,” Ahuja said.
Optym, which was until recently called Innovative Scheduling, plans to add 100 employees to the 55 it currently has in Gainesville. A global company, Optym also has 40 workers in Armenia and 20 in India.
Its customer base is also global. The company recently formed a strategic partnership with Ansaldo STS, an Italian-based multinational corporation that builds signaling and train control systems for freight, passenger and mass transit railroads, to embed Optym’s technology within Ansaldo’s train control systems.
Optym’s customers include CSX Transportation, BNSF Railway, Canadian Pacific Railway, ABF Freight System, BHP Billiton and Southwest Airlines.
Optym has purchased a three-building office park at 7600 NW Fifth Place, and it is now building out the space and adding equipment — a total investment of $4.8 million.
The company will occupy 20,000 square feet of the available space for now and keep an additional 9,000 square feet available for expansion.
It plans to relocate to the new facility before the end of this year, opening up the nearly 10,000 square feet that the company now occupies at GTEC.
Dallas was tempting because it is the major headquarters for many airline companies (a growing part of Optym’s customer base), and it has a good climate, Ahuja said. The city’s universities also produce many top IT graduates.
Ahuja credits Susan Davenport and Staci-Ann Bertrand of the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce and Council for Economic Outreach with helping him decide him to stay.
“They helped me realize that it was better to be a big fish in a small pond, one of the top five software companies in Gainesville, than a small fish in a big pond,” he said.
The CEO staff also helped Optym apply for Qualified Target Industry tax credits of up to $700,000 for the planned job creation. Alachua County commissioners approved the county’s 20 percent portion — $140,000. The state will cover the other 80 percent.
Another motivation for staying came from Mike Warren, president of AMJ Inc., the company that sold the new buildings to Optym.
“Mike got his PhD from MIT, and I taught there. Both Mike and I taught at UF,” Ahuja said. “We connected very well, and he is great to do business with.”
Beyond economics, Gainesville has become home for Ahuja and his employees, he explained.
Most of Optym’s employees are from other countries, with more than 15 nationalities represented in the Gainesville work force. Forty percent of local workers are graduates from UF’s Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering and the UF Department of Computer and Information Science and Engineering.
Most of the employees in the other 60 percent are international students who completed their graduate work at American universities or are graduates of overseas schools.
Four of Ahuja’s UF doctoral students joined the company in 2004. Three of them —Krishna Jha, Wei Huang and Arvind Kumar — remain with Optym.
Attracting industrial and systems engineering graduates is relatively easy based on Ahuja’s prominence in the field. Bringing computer science students to the area, he said, is the challenge.
“They want to be a part of the gold rush in Silicon Valley; they think they’re missing something if they come here — although when you consider cost of living, our salaries give them a higher quality of life,” he said.
Ahuja goes to great lengths to support his employees, who enjoy weekly all-employee luncheons and quarterly social events that include their families. Families are also invited to the company’s annual weekend retreat, which last year was held at The Ritz-Carlton on Amelia Island.
“Most of them came from elsewhere, and our company is their only family in the U.S.,” he said.
Optym’s commitment to treating employees like family stems from Ahuja’s upbringing in India.
“There’s a saying in Vedas, our ancient scriptures, that the entire world is one family,” he said. “I truly believe that.”
Ravindra Ahuja, Krishna Jha and Wei Huang are part of Optym’s leadership team.
Chris Eversole Photo