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Dreaming big and solid preparation lead to role in Mars mission

Release Date: December 2, 2013
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Javad Mokhbery (right) answers a question posed by Mark Brucki of LTU’s Office of University Advancement during a presentation for the Blue Devil Entrepreneurial Venture Series on Nov. 19.

Growing up in Tehran, Iran, LTU alumnus Javad Mokhbery, BSME’79, was inspired by the NASA space program and sets his sights on becoming an engineer and one day meeting the NASA astronauts who set foot on the moon.

Most people would have concluded that his boyhood ambition was an impossible dream, but Mohkbery instinctively knew at a young age that the key to success was extensive preparation. “You have to dig the well before you get thirsty” is a saying he continues to live by.

Following that mantra throughout his life led him to create a company in Irvine, CA, that designed and manufactured two sensors that help guide the robotic arm of Curiosity, the NASA rover vehicle currently collecting samples on Mars.

Mokhbery provided insights into building a successful career when he spoke to students, faculty, and staff as the keynote speaker for the Blue Devil Entrepreneurial Venture lecture on Nov. 19.

Getting to the United States was his first challenge. He started out by learning English, striking up conversations with American tourists, and bringing some of them back to his house to meet his family.

Eventually he set the stage for getting his parents’ permission to leave Iran to study, first in England and then the United States. He applied to several colleges in the United States, and Detroit became his destination when the Detroit Institute of Technology was the first to accept him. He also studied at Oakland Community College before transferring to Lawrence Tech to complete a degree in mechanical engineering.

His approach was to take full advantage of a golden opportunity. When his peers warned him it was too hard to get a good grade from Professor Richard Lundstrom, Mokhbery saw a worthy challenge to be conquered and even took three courses with Lundstrom in a single semester.

As a result, Lundstrom became a mentor and provided the recommendation Mokhbery needed to land his first job.

“Working with Professor Lundstrom calibrated my expectations to a high level for standards, discipline, determination, and a positive attitude when accepting challenges,” he said.

When he arrived in California to take a new job in the sensor industry in 1981, he quickly registered the name of the company that he intended to start, Future Technology, which was later shortened to FUTEK.  It was another example of his personal philosophy of doing as much preparation work in advance for achieving the goal he had set for himself.

Shortly after the Challenger disaster in 1986, Mokhbery was tapped to help design a sensor for the Discovery mission that could be immersed in the sub-zero temperatures of liquid oxygen in an external tank. Then he worked on a sensor to be immersed in liquid nitrogen.

The expertise he developed in cryogenic sensors led him to devote all his time to his new company, which he started his company in a bedroom in his house with the help of his wife, Zohreh. His brother, Mohammed, an LTU alumnus who died earlier this year, helped build the company that develops and manufactures load cells, torque sensors, pressure sensors, multi-axial sensors, and related software for low-temperature and vacuum environments, which are used in the aerospace and medical industries. 

It is a long way from where he started in Tehran, but he told his audience at LTU that the same approach applied at every step along the way. “The formula is that you have to believe in what you are doing. If you trust in yourself and believe in yourself, people will take you seriously,” he said.

According to Mokhbery, an important differentiator for an engineer who wants to start his own business is not IQ but rather EQ, emotional intelligence – the ability to connect with people. A successful business owner must be able to listen to the voice of the customer and work well with employees in order to identify and then develop a product that will be in demand.

Instead of trying to undercut competitors in an existing market, Mokhbery set out to develop new products through innovation in order to create a niche where there was little or no competition. For FUTEK, one such product is a cryogenic sensor that functions flawlessly in extremely cold conditions – such as in space.

Expertise in this field led to a contract with Rockwell and then seven years later with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories. FUTEK designed two unique sensors to operate in the low temperatures on Mars, which range from 23°F to as low as -124°F: a multi-axial load and torsion sensor responsible for monitoring the Rover’s drilling arm and its robotic maneuvers as it retrieves sediments for analysis, and a secondary load cell that supervises the precision and force used to drill directly into the surface of Mars.

One of the FUTEK sensors on the Mars rover has more than 120 miniature soldered joints that all have to be tested, and 1,700 photos were taken to document every connection. FUTEK employees are certified by NASA.

Since failure is not an option when conducting operations on a planet millions of miles away, NASA’s quality assurance requirements are very high, something that Mokhbery sees as another challenge he has been preparing for since his days at Lawrence Tech.

“I am a great believer in luck, and I find that the harder I work, the more I have of it,” he said, quoting Thomas Jefferson.

The Blue Devil Entrepreneurial Venture Series is open to all current and future Lawrence Tech students, as well as alumni, faculty, and friends of the University. The lectures are free of charge and reservations are not required. For more information on past and upcoming lectures, please visit www.ltu.edu/venture.