New VP for Research and Innovation to Build on Strong Foundation

Mohamed Abousalem

Mohamed Abousalem

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.”

Armenian Delegation Visits with SJSU and Tech Leaders

Mary Papazian, San JoseŽ State University President, greets Hakob Arshakyan, Armenia minister of high-technological industries, as she meets with local and Armenian tech leaders on campus May 29, 2019. (Photo: Jim Gensheimer)

Mary Papazian, San Jose State University President, greets Hakob Arshakyan, Armenia minister of high-technological industries, as she meets with local and Armenian tech leaders on campus May 29, 2019. (Photo: Jim Gensheimer)

San Jose State University leaders hosted officials from Armenia May 29 in efforts to further explore potential opportunities for partnerships in a place that was named by The Economist in December 2018 as its “country of the year.” The designation celebrates the country that has made the most progress in the past 12 months, and this year Armenia was recognized falling a peaceful revolution last spring that led to new leadership that is committed to “democracy and renewal.”

“It was great hosting a delegation from Armenia today,” said President Mary Papazian, who is herself the daughter of Armenian immigrants. “Their keen interest in entrepreneurship and industry intersects with SJSU’s strengths so we are actively seeking joint opportunities.”

College of Professional and Global Education Ruth Huard said the delegation comprised university educators, members of the Armenian ministry and leaders from private companies in high tech.

“At our university, we realize that in order to develop and grow—if SJSU wants to have a significant footprint in innovation and technology, we need all those three distinct groups to work together,” she said. “Armenia is poised and in an advantageous position where those three sectors – government, educational institutions, and private companies – are aligning.”

SJSU administrators and Silicon Valley technology leaders met with a delegation from Armenia that included government and university officials, and Armenian tech leaders on campus May 29, 2019. (Photo: Jim Gensheimer)

SJSU administrators and Silicon Valley technology leaders met with a delegation from Armenia that included government and university officials, and Armenian tech leaders on campus May 29, 2019. (Photo: Jim Gensheimer)

Following a revolution last year that ousted a long-time president from power, the new leadership in Armenia is looking for ways to move the economy forward, to develop their talent and allow the country to flourish. The visit on May 29 brought members of the new government including Hakob Arshakyan, minister of high-technological industries; Armen Baibourtian, consul general of Armenia in Los Angeles; Artur Grigoryan, assistant to the minister; Varazdat Pahlavuni, counselor for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who all expressed support for working with SJSU and Silicon Valley entities.

SJSU officials visited Armenia in spring 2018 for initial talks about potential partnership opportunities and Huard said some progress has already been made. Since then, university leaders from Armenia have visited SJSU to learn more about the STEM curriculum offered to students here.

“We had a cohort from one of their data sciences graduate programs visit our program and attend a couple classes,” Huard said. “They realized that we have relationships with industry partners who come and engage with our students and pose real-word problems to them. They are working on revising their curriculum to match ours.”

While Armenian universities have a strong background in teaching STEM fields and an intellectual capacity, they are hoping to learn from SJSU and Silicon Valley how to teach innovation and entrepreneurship.

“Our applied and experiential learning approach is what makes us the workforce engine for Silicon Valley,” Huard said. “These partnerships are mutually beneficial.”

SJSU administrators met with a delegation from Armenia that included government and university officials, and Armenian tech leaders on campus May 29, 2019. (Photo: Jim Gensheimer)

SJSU administrators met with a delegation from Armenia that included government and university officials, and Armenian tech leaders on campus May 29, 2019. (Photo: Jim Gensheimer)

During a working lunch, the government officials and CEOs from Armenia met with local technology leaders, SJSU deans, SJSU’s Vice President for Information Technology/Chief Information Officer Bob Lim and incoming Vice President for Research and Innovation Mohamed Abousalem.

“Having lunch with Minister Arshakyan was an incredible opportunity,” Lim said. “Technology industry executives from IBM, Logitech, and Plug and Play and more came to campus to meet with Armenia’s dignitaries and CEOs to build international connections. These kinds of partnerships create a new ecosystem for SJSU, investors, and technology industries in support of our students.”  

CSU Shares Profile of SJSU’s Fritz Yambrach, Professor and Inventor

San Jose State University’s Professor Fritz Yambrach brings the same innovative and practical approach to his work, whether rebuilding the packaging program in the College of Health and Human Sciences’ Department of Nutrition, Food Science, and Packaging, creating internships for students with industry partners or developing a new way for people to carry water in developing countries.

When he was hired in 2006, the packaging program had five students enrolled and four courses. He has since developed 10 courses that include packaging for medical devices, pharmaceuticals and food processing, and built the program to an enrollment of 70 students.

Fritz Yambrach, a professor in Nutrition, Food Science, and Packaging helped to develop a way to package water to transport to disaster areas or areas where water is not readily available. (Photo: James Tensuan, '15 Journalism)

Fritz Yambrach, a professor in Nutrition, Food Science, and Packaging helped to develop a way to package water to transport to disaster areas or areas where water is not readily available. (Photo: James Tensuan, ’15 Journalism)

“I created course content I believed was useful to a working professional in the field,” Yambrach says. “Packaging is simply problem solving. I’ll give [students] relationships between items and then see how they put it together and make creative extensions.”

Yambrach is the latest San Jose State University faculty member to be featured in the CSU Spotlight with a new profile and video about his teaching philosophy and his research. He is the inventor of a water vest that is being tested in Haiti, Burundi and Ethiopia as an ergonomic, hygienic alternative to carrying water in buckets over long distances.

Fritz, who received the 2017 DuPont Diamond Packaging Innovation Award, said those who have tested the vest since 2006 found an unexpected benefit: “Young girls in Ethiopia were typically tasked with collecting water and it often meant they couldn’t go to school,” he explained. “The vest is allowing more girls to attend school since it makes transporting water much easier.”

Read more about Yambrach’s teaching and research in the CSU Profile, an SJSU Academic Spotlight story and an SJSU Washington Square profile.