Mohamed Abousalem, SJSU’s new vice president for research and innovation, is in the business of building things.
“I see a lot of potential for SJSU’s research programs, and an opportunity for me personally to build an organization,” he said. “This is what I enjoy doing: building something with purpose in mind, then seeing it through to completion.”
Given the university’s prime location in the heart of Silicon Valley, opportunities abound in regard to research and innovation at SJSU. While Mohamed was pleasantly surprised to learn about the roughly $57 million per year in research revenues enjoyed by the university over the past few years (a significant number, he said, for a CSU campus), he sees potential for even more growth and impact.
“I looked at what SJSU was doing in research and innovation, and I could see some pockets of innovation and a solid research revenue base that collectively has laid a strong foundation,” he said. “The opportunity to build on that and lead the existing program’s transformation and growth is what attracted me to the job.”
With a strong track record in building programs—sometimes from scratch—Abousalem clearly possesses the right credentials for the job.
Emigrating from his native Egypt to Canada to pursue master’s and doctoral degrees in geomatics engineering (he had earlier completed his undergraduate studies in civil engineering at Alexandria University), Abousalem headed to Silicon Valley and began his career as a technical product engineer. Soon realizing he had a knack for both people and business management, he landed a position at Magellan, a leading portable GPS navigation consumer electronics company, and simultaneously earned an MBA at Santa Clara University. He remained at Magellan for 10 years, moving up the management ranks and eventually running the company’s engineering operation in the United States, France and Russia.
His “building” career really began to soar when he returned to Canada and, after a three-year stint as vice president of strategy and marketing for a GPS company focused on agricultural applications, accepted an opportunity to build a completely new innovation and entrepreneurship initiative sponsored by the Province of Alberta and the Canadian government.
“I was essentially told, ‘Here’s $40 million to get started. We want economic development and innovation throughout the country. Go make it happen!’” he explained. “So that’s what I did.”
Starting with one employee—himself—and the $40 million in seed funding, he eventually converted the investment into $325 million in economic value and wealth through programmatic support to 200 startup companies and 25 applied research projects. Perhaps even more impressive is the lasting impact, as the organization is still in operation and a staple throughout the Alberta innovation ecosystem.
Abousalem said his background and experience has taught him that research and innovation go hand in hand, with basic research leading to applied programs—innovation—in commercial, environmental or other settings. Successful innovation, he points out, can often translate into entrepreneurship, technology transfer and tangible products and technologies that can benefit larger society.
Just prior to accepting the VPRI position at SJSU, he spent three years at UC-Santa Cruz as its assistant vice chancellor for industry research alliances and technology commercialization. The multi-disciplinary approach he honed there, where the research program supported humanities, social sciences and the arts, as well as the STEM disciplines, is something he sees as an ideal fit in his new role at SJSU.
“I’m looking forward to capitalizing on the university’s research, scholarly and creative activity (RSCA) principles, which I believe are the beauty of San Jose State and a great representation of what is happening on this campus,” he said. While some campuses may miss out on the full breadth of research opportunities available, he said the humanities, arts and social sciences all develop new methods and real-life approaches to problems that are very much a part of the broader research spectrum.
“That collective interest in research here at SJSU and the lack of limitations or boundaries on how we define innovation is another feature of this university I find very appealing,” he said.
Another characteristic of SJSU that made the job opportunity attractive is the focus on student learning and student success.
“Having research as an experiential component to the student learning process is a wonderful thing,” he said. “Research is good in and of itself, of course, especially when it leads to end products and technologies that benefit society. But thinking beyond that, research can be used to expand the intellectual skills of students, how they learn and how they analyze. So we can actually grow their analytical thinking and abilities, and they become stronger members of the future workforce. This, of course, is tied to our mission and, to me, that’s very exciting.”
In terms of specific goals, Abousalem said the research side of his new portfolio will focus on improving efficiencies in order to make the enterprise stronger and more scalable. “If we can bring in $57 million a year in revenues as we’re doing now, what do we need in place in order to bring in $100 million?” he asked rhetorically. He noted that this will entail not merely the hiring of new staff, but also changes in processes, culture and training. Ultimately, he envisions more research grants or “actual work that benefits the corporations and the university.”
On the innovation side of the house, Abousalem sees campus collaborations as a way to bring innovation “to the next level.” He said he’ll be working directly with the provost and with college deans and hopes to “directly connect to the aspirations and abilities of the colleges and their programs so we can provide the best central support for their efforts.”
Some structural adjustments are already in place, such as the transfer of the Office of Research from Academic Affairs into the newly formed Research and Innovation Division, which will also include an Office of Innovation in the near future. Likewise, SJSU’s Research Foundation will report up to Abousalem’s office, and he will serve as president of its board of directors. Finally, he said the College of Graduate Studies will need to be a strong ally, so he and Interim Dean Marc d’Alarcao have been meeting regularly to make sure all their respective programs are well-coordinated and positioned for success.
One broad benefit with all of the changes, he said, is that research and innovation activities will all enjoy a higher level of visibility and representation, which he views as “important if we’re going to take it to the next strategic level.”
In his down time, Abousalem enjoys his morning jogs near his Willow Glen home and watching films and television programs with his wife—whom he met while they were college classmates. His daughter—the one who persuaded him to apply for the VPRI position—manages communications for a nearby charter school system, while his son is an engineer at Northrop Grumman.
“I’m right where I want to be, doing exactly what I should be doing,” he said. “We have a great opportunity at San Jose state to expand the intellectual capabilities of our students while giving them a strong base of research knowledge and experience that will prepare them for the workplace. I’m looking forward to the challenge.”