Mohammed Adnan builds and tells

Rice alumnus and entrepreneur was influenced by Matteo Pasquali to change his approach to research.

Mohammed Adnan

“Do you have a superpower? Mine is making complicated things simpler to understand, especially for the general public,” said Mohammed Adnan, a serial entrepreneur in the United Arab Emirates who completed his Ph.D. in chemical and biomolecular engineering (CHBE) at Rice University in 2016.

“One thing I had to grapple with in startup environments was the perception that engineers lacked business acumen and could never deliver narrative-driven sales pitches. For the same reason, people I encountered always seemed surprised that I could pitch a product like a pro. It’s the startup environment that sharpened my business and communication skills. It’s time for other engineers like me – who aspire to be tech entrepreneurs – to step into the limelight and show we are great communicators.”

Adnan admits he has always enjoyed the social side of engineering: talking with technical experts and customers about problems and solutions.

But it was a communications course for Rice engineers that turned his gift for gab into a professional skill.

“Jan Hewitt’s course changed my life,” said Adnan. “She led us through an engineering communication course and had a unique method of teaching. It was eye-opening, challenging, and most importantly a lot of fun. Presentations were never just another item on her syllabus.”

“But Jan’s course taught me how to put forward ideas and effectively communicate with strangers. That was right before Rice’s first campus-wide elevator pitch competition, which I won. And Jan’s compliment is something that would remain etched in my memory forever. She said, ‘You seem to be in the right place at the right time, but it is also obvious that you are enjoying what you do and it shows [in your pitch].’

It was no surprise that Adnan took what he learned at Rice about engineering and product pitching and applied it to the rest of his endeavors. He is now invited to give speeches at universities and international conferences. A few weeks ago, he breezed through a round of fundraising meetings. And he heavily credits his Rice communication experiences for transforming him into a startup leader.

His passion for engineering solutions can be attributed to Matteo Pasquali, Adnan’s advisor and Rice’s A.J. Hartsook Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. Pasquali encouraged his graduate students to find and work on projects that added value to someone’s life. His influence changed the way Adnan approached his research.

“Matteo would say to me, ‘You have the funding; you do what you want to do but do it well.’ He allowed me to explore different projects; I’ve always wanted to build something new, even if it is valuable through incremental contributions to existing technology.

“Matteo’s style fits my own interests. He encouraged me to build something of value, and I felt spending my time on projects that could improve even a small part of the world was a better use of my time, which eventually allowed me to publish papers in quality research journals. Now I advise graduate students whatever they are spending their time on in their PhD, ensure it is valuable and can change someone’s life.”

After Adnan’s presentation of his research won Rice’s first campus-wide pitch competition, a Rice MBA student approached.

“I didn’t even know what the words startup or entrepreneur meant, but this MBA
student had heard my pitch and showed me his prototype for his startup and asked if I would help him pitch his product. That was the first time I realized I could start my own company,” said Adnan.

Wrapping up his Ph.D., Adnan moved back to the UAE and checked in with the oil company that awarded the scholarship for his graduate work. One of his long-term mentors remarked that every chemical engineer wanted to join the oil industry but it was entering a downturn at the time. He advised Adnan to lean on his technical expertise instead.

“Dr. Saleh Alhashemi, like me, obtained his Ph.D. in the chemical engineering field. But he also diverged from his academic pursuits to lead several successful startups. During a mentoring session, Dr. Saleh suggested I join a startup.

“He said, ‘The pay isn’t great, but you should be grateful for that. You won’t focus on the problem if you are focused on the pay, think of it as an investment for your future. And don’t worry about not having an MBA. You’ll earn the equivalent of an MBA in experience.’ So I helped launch an EdTech startup and then moved on to work at an incubator.”

His mentor was right about the value of earning an MBA through experience. Adnan said that there are lessons to be learned with every experience, no matter how menial. In 2017, when Alhashemi asked why he worked overtime photocopying research papers despite having an administrative assistant to do the job, Adnan replied with a smile that when he became the CEO, he would know exactly how long it takes. A year later, his self-fulfilling prophecy materialized.

As the founder and CEO of a 2018 Space Edtech startup, he managed teams to roll out a curriculum based on what he did best – breaking down complex scientific concepts into vibrant and digestible chunks. The startup gained momentum until investors cut their funding in a pandemic-driven economic slump. Adnan took his idea (how to educate students about space) digital, leading to the birth of a new startup, Frontier Learning Solutions.

“Now I tell everyone they can turn a bad experience into a good one. I started an EdTech company just before COVID. I am much richer after that experience even if my company didn’t take off due to the pandemic. I was asked to be the CEO of my present company because of that experience. So look at your situation again and determine if you can bear through it, transform it into your own good experience.”

Currently, Adnan is the CEO of two different startups, SystemTrio and Faras. SystemTrio is expected to launch in September; Faras debuted in April. Both startups tap into artificial intelligence (AI) to guide their products — SystemTrio supports agricultural drones while Faras focuses on after-purchase services for vehicles.

With Faras, Adnan is dreaming big. The company aims to be the Amazon-like service but for car services — connecting motorists with vendors and providing
everything from parts and maintenance to roadside service and insurance, delivered on a single platform.

“In the Middle East, our industries are super fragmented but we can link them using AI. Faras is merging these fragments together into one basic go-to app. Think beyond the days of traveling and dealing with a breakdown or emergency repair. We can predict when your car is going to break down and locate you quickly so you can avoid the hassle,” said Adnan.

His current mentor, Jassim Alseddiqi, is the CEO of Shuaa Capital, a multibillion dollar asset management and banking firm recently listed as a SPAC on NASDAQ market. As someone who also transformed ‘500 Startups’ in California, Adnan seeks to follow Alseddiqi’s example, to transform the landscape of vehicle services and drones.

Building and turning these complicated solutions into simple analogies and stories that the general public can understand and use, Adnan’s not-so-secret superpower is once again throttling at full force.

This story is part of a series of profiles for the ACTIVATE Engineering Communication program.

By Samavia Rizwan and Carlyn Chatfield