March 8, 2019

Tech startup CEO helping to build a new university for Vietnam

March 8, 2019

Christopher Nguyen is President and CEO of Arimo, a Panasonic company in Silicon Valley, where he leads the development of AI platforms and solutions for the enterprise. He has served as engineering director of Google Apps and co-founded two other successful startups. As a professor, Christopher co-founded the Computer Engineering program at HKUST. He joins as a board member of the Trust for University Innovation in Vietnam, supporting the development of Fulbright University Vietnam.

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A full circle of fate

Christopher Nguyen still can vividly recall the first time he learned about the Fulbright University Vietnam project through his long-time friend, Tommy Vallely. The fateful meeting took place four years ago in Christopher Nguyen’ office in Mountain View, California. 

Tommy flew to California to ask Chris about his experience founding and running the Computer Science program at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST). At the time, Tommy and other key founders were working on establishing Fulbright University Vietnam – Tommy’s next project after being the Director of the Harvard Vietnam Program and the founder of the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program (FETP) in Ho Chi Minh City. 

The ongoing discussions awakened in Chris the passion he used to have as an educator – the passion which seemed to slip after he left HKUST to become a successful tech start-up man in the Silicon Valley. 

Though Christopher is a busy CEO, he still sets aside his time to lay the foundation for Fulbright University Vietnam, “one of the most important projects in my career ahead,” as Christopher put it. 

“When I started out after I finished my Ph.D. at Stanford, I knew at that time that all I wanted to do was become a professor. So, I joined HKUST as one of the founding faculty members in 1993. 

Vietnam, then, was still a very closed country. Looking back at the success of HKUST, I want to dedicate part of my career to help build an institution like this in Vietnam,” he shared. 

To Christopher Nguyen, his personal experience helps reinforce his faith in the values of education. It lights up his passion even more to “pay it forward” by mentoring the next generations and being one of the founders of a new, innovative university in Vietnam. 

“In my career, I have been helped greatly by a number of mentors throughout my life whether in academia or industry. So, I always wanted to give back that benefit that I have received and the way to do that is to pay it forward with this generation,” he added.

A challenging start-up journey

Christopher left Vietnam and moved to America when he was 13 years old with his family. To him and all the Vietnamese refugees at that time, the only way to rise above poverty was education. 

Graduated with a Bachelor degree from University of California, Berkeley, and a Ph.D from Stanford, Christopher’ educational path was linear and smooth. One would expect that this young HKUST professor would spend the rest of his life nurturing the thirst of knowledge of the young generations. On the contrary, Christopher decided to follow his passion of creating new innovative ideas and ventured off to a new path, the start-up journey. 

After founding and successfully running two software companies in Asia, Christopher Nguyen came back to Silicon Valley to join Google as an engineering director. At Google, Christopher, along with his colleagues, helped develop various popular applications, including Gmail. 

His adventure, however, did not stop there. In the hope to take advantage of the next big wave in the Big Data Era, Chris founded and became the CEO of Arimo. 

Like so many other tech companies across Silicon Valley and beyond, Arimo provides for analyzing enormous amounts of digital information. But it aims to do so with a new degree of speed and ease. Tapping into software that juggles information using the memory subsystems of many distributed computers as opposed to old fashioned hard disks, Arimo hopes to provide businesses with the kind of immediate data analysis available inside the likes of Google and Facebook.

Ranked by FastCompany as one of the most innovative companies in data science, Arimo’s Behavioral AI harness the behaviors of machines, devices, customers, and other entities to provide the most accurate predictions utilizing Deep Learning. 

With Arimo Behavioral AI, leading companies are creating competitive advantage through new predictive insights, and delivering new services to their customers.

The Fulbright dream: Help young Vietnamese students learn AI

Every time Christopher Nguyen has his business trips to Vietnam, apart from spending time at Arimo Vietnam’s headquarter in District 7, Ho Chi Minh City, he makes sure to visit Fulbright’s campus to talk and discuss with the leadership team and faculty team. 

Students of Co-Design Year

A rough outline of Vietnam’s best Computer Science program is slowly taking form. 

Christopher hopes that this Computer Science program at Fulbright will achieve tremendous success like the one at HKUST did. 

Established in 1991, HKUST is ranked by QS as Asia’s best university for three consecutive years from 2011 to 2013. In 2018, HKUST is ranked 40thamong the best universities in the world by Times Higher Education. 

However, from the point of view of a person working in the world’s innovation hub, a data scientist, and a tech CEO, Christopher Nguyen believes that, in this era of AI and Big Data, Fulbright can forge and succeed in its own path instead of following other institutions’ footprints.

“I think that one of the key things about Fulbright University Vietnam is that there is a strong liberal arts emphasis at the very beginning.

I remember HKUST with its second five-year program, the then vice-chancellor of the university said that now that we have completed on building the hard sciences, we want to build on the soft, on the beautiful aspects of life. 

I think that it is really good that Fulbright starts out with that emphasis,” he clarified.

To answer the question why tech people, who specialize in AI and data science, need liberal arts education, speaking from his own experience, Christopher Nguyen explained: “There is certainly the academic aspect of building models, of building machine learning models. 

But I think understanding the business case is really important to a good data scientist career.”

According to the CEO of Arimo, instead of building in a large research program across the board which would require a lot of funding and a very large faculty, the key to success for Fulbright’s Computer Science program is to focus.

“I think with machine learning AI with a broad computer science education base is a great place to start,” he added. 

After many years working with Vietnamese students through the Vietnam Education Foundation (VEF), an organization that focuses on international educational exchange by supporting Vietnamese STEM students to study in America, Christopher Nguyen believes that the young generation in Vietnam has great potential in AI and tech industry. 

“A lot of young people are quite aware of computing capabilities and hackers. They can apply their skills and their ambitions towards this particular technology.

I think that Vietnam has an opportunity and really the challenge to leapfrog and bypass that and invest its human resources in the machine learning era directly,” he shared. However, Christopher Nguyen thinks computing ability is not enough to excel in this career in technology. 

“The single most important thing is probably just to be curious. The ability to continue to learn, not just as a young person but also as one progresses through one’s career, particularly at the age when technology is changing so rapidly I think is a key to present and future success,” Christopher Nguyen stressed. 

Viet Lam – Thach Thao

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