Meet Ahmed Alfadhel (PhD ’16, MS ’12) – incoming President of the Saudi Arabian Alumni Chapter by Melissa Pappas (MS '17)
An inventor at heart who left his home country to study nanotechnology, not aware that Saudi’s own invention incubator was just beginning to emerge into the landscape. Now, his current position sits at the intersection of industry and research, and he credits KAUST for where he is today.
Ahmed Alfadhel was born and raised in Saudi Arabia where his passion for how things work began. That passion grew and steered him to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering with a focus on microsystems and nanofabrication at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in New York. In 2006, he left Saudi Arabia and started a degree that he imagined would lead him to a job at IBM or Intel, working with computer chips design and manufacturing. However, as with many prospective plans, it was limited by the opportunities that existed in the present.
A Passion for Inventing
“I was passionate about inventing things as a kid. I’d create things with the resources I had around me,” says Alfadhel. “I wanted to continue this passion after graduating from high school, and, because I was good at math and physics, I found engineering to be a great fit.”
While studying for his undergraduate degree, Alfadhel learned of an opportunity that would enable him to continue learning.
“I heard about KAUST in my second year at university in 2008, not through Saudi channels, but through professors that came to universities in the US to talk about KAUST and the vision for its future,” recalls Alfadhel.
“I had many reasons why KAUST was the best option for me after undergrad,” says Alfadhel. “I would be closer to my family, I could conduct high quality research in nanotechnology, and it satisfied my strong desire to give back to Saudi Arabia.”
After applying for, and being awarded, the Discovery Scholarship, Alfadhel completed his undergraduate degree early to get to KAUST as soon as he could.
Expanding Opportunities – Thanks to KAUST
“I worked really hard to get to KAUST once I decided that it was an opportunity I needed to seize,” says Alfadhel. “It was amazing to finally get there and see that the university was still blooming, and I followed suit. On my first day of classes, I eagerly started a conversation with one of the professors in the microsystems and nanofabrication domain, and got my foot in the door of research and design.”
Alfadhel’s PhD project introduced him to yet another path he had not imagined.
“In my PhD at KAUST, I developed an artificial skin which is a technology for tactile sensing,” says Alfadhel. “I was inspired by nature when I designed microstructures based on nanomaterials that could sense the slightest vibrations or external forces. The skin mimicked the biology of the microscopic cilia in insects that detect vibrations in air or water, and I received a lot of media attention once we published our research.”
Alfadhel’s journey inventing new technologies was supported by KAUST’s Entrepreneurship Center , and his artificial skin technology opened many doors into the startup culture. Being a finalist in the Falling Walls Competition in Berlin, speaking at conferences, and publishing in high-impact journals were just his first steps as an entrepreneur.
My Entrepreneurial Journey
“The tremendous support for my invention, not just from KAUST but from international institutions, guided me down an entrepreneurial path,” says Alfadhel. “Early in my PhD, I imagined myself staying in academia, however, I became fascinated by the entrepreneurial opportunities and the intersection between applied research and business. I then tried to take my artificial skin technology to the market through a startup, and hopped on an exciting journey that unfortunately didn’t continue.”
Taking a step away from entrepreneurship, Alfadhel returned to RIT for a postdoctoral fellowship in 2016, directly after graduating from KAUST with his PhD. However, his passion for the interaction between research and industry placed him in an ideal role two years later as a Chief Technologist at Research Products Development Company (RPDC), a PIF-owned technology commercialization engine in Saudi Arabia.
“I now work on the intersection of research and industry,” says Alfadhel. “Every day is different; I get to interact with research institutions to help them commercialize their inventions, create business plans to bring technologies to the market, establish high-tech companies, and support the local ecosystem. I would not have been successful in this role without my research background that allows me to understand the technology, as well as my startup background that allows me to understand the challenges and opportunities for high tech startups. KAUST’s training and support was truly essential in getting me to where I am today.”
Alfadhel’s role gives him a clear view of the emerging technologies where Saudi Arabia will succeed as a pioneer in the field of sensing, nanotechnologies, and the fourth industrial revolution.
“The tech industry is moving in a direction where traditional manufacturing and practices will be replaced by automation and smart technology, and I see that Saudi is playing its part as a pioneer in AI and Big Data,” says Alfadhel. “At RPDC we are in the process of advancing and commercializing broad range technologies such as equipping underwater robots with better sensing capabilities for O&G pipelines inspection, as well as a project for nanomaterial-based antimicrobial coatings. Our industry remains fairly diverse in its applications.”
Gratitude to KAUST
Looking back and looking forward, Alfadhel credits KAUST’s support as part of his success and willingness to take risks in his current career.
“KAUST opened my eyes to a vast number of ever-evolving problems in the world that technology might be able to solve,” says Alfadhel. “KAUST also gave me the necessary tools through a complete cycle of entrepreneurial support. One day soon I hope to use those tools along with the expertise from my current career in the field of technology commercialization to bring one of my own inventions to the world and solve some of the existing problems.”
Alfadhel continues to support and give back to KAUST as a regular speaker, panel presenter, adviser and board member on the Saudi Arabian Alumni Chapter. In October 2021, he steps into the role as President of the Saudi Arabian Alumni Chapter (working alongside incoming Vice-President Babar Khan, PhD ‘18).
“I am honored for the recent appointment as the President of the Saudi Arabia Alumni Chapter,” says Alfadhel. “This past year I have been serving as a board member and actively worked with my colleagues in organizing programs and networking events for the alumni despite the pandemic. Now, with this new appointment, it is my personal responsibility to create value in the chapter, engage with the alumni, and make an impact. Bringing the community of KAUST alumni closer to each other will create many opportunities from exchanging ideas, sharing knowledge, collaboration and providing support, and I am looking forward to facilitating these interactions.”
Note from Alumni Affairs: Dr Ahmed Alfadhel takes over the Chapter Presidency from Hussain Shibli, MS ’13 . We thank Hussain for his endless support to KAUST as Chapter President, and look forward to continuing to work with him through his volunteer leadership.
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