Iranian-American NASA Engineer Firouz Naderi Stars at iBridge Conference, Talks About Mars

By Peyman Pejman

Hundreds of entrepreneurs, scientists, and hi-tech startup executives of Iranian descent – many of them Iranian-Americans – attended the third iBridge conference in Barcelona from December 8 to 10. The gathering, which brings together representatives from such major technology brands as Google, Snapchat, 500 Startups, Yandex, Intel and Plug and Play, is, according to the organizers, an opportunity to “unite tech leaders of Iranian descent, who have found immense success as innovators at some of the world’s most renowned tech companies.”

Following on from the two previous iBridge conferences in Berkeley, California in 2014 and in Berlin in 2015, this year’s event attracted more than 200 entrepreneurs and 50 corporate-suite executives, not to mention attendees from as many as 40 countries.

Among the speakers were Anousheh Ansari, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Prodea Systems and the first woman to travel to space as a private individual; Dr. Firouz Naderi, former director of Solar System Exploration at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL); and Farhad Mohit, founder & CEO of Flipagram.

Kayhan London spoke to Dr. Naderi about the gathering.

What is iBridge? What does it do? What is it trying to accomplish?

The word ‘bridge’ in the title is important. Our goal is to connect hi-tech entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley with hi-tech entrepreneurs of Iranian descent throughout the world: have a forum where they can network and get to know each other and, in various ways, advance their startups, their companies.

In this day and age, science and technology truly know no boundaries, and with the advent of the Internet everyone is so connected. But a face-to-face meeting provides opportunities for people to see who is doing what and what opportunities there are for collaboration. A number of VCs [venture capitalists] and startup companies and hi-tech people go there, like Anousheh Ansari and myself, who hopefully can tell stories to inspire participants [and make them realize] that no dream is too big. If we can go to Mars, land on Mars, and rove on Mars – even though that is a larger endeavor involving thousands — [what that means is that] if you set your mind to it, you can do anything.

There are a lot of people at the conference who give advice on how to form startups, how to design products, how to secure funds, how to assemble a team. So it is both inspirational and educational.

You inspire the audience because of your NASA background. What exactly did you do there?

NASA has several different branches. The one that I worked in, the jet propulsion laboratory (JPL), is charged with the robotic exploration of our solar system: basically, understanding how the solar system came to be, how the earth came to be, how we came to be on earth. Are there other potential areas in the solar system where biology exists in one form or another? Are there locations in the solar system that can potentially serve as a habitat for human beings?

My background is in engineering. That’s what my Ph.D. is in. Soon after coming to NASA, I became interested in managing and directing large projects for different destinations in the solar system.

I probably became more known to the Iranian community after I took over the Mars exploration program in 1999-2000. NASA had had two failures one after the other with spacecraft they had sent to Mars, so they came and asked me to take over the Mars program and re-plan it, which is what we did in the summer of 2000. Since then, we have been successfully exploring Mars with different spacecraft, trying to better understand the potential of Mars, and maybe one day to post a human being (there).

My last mission at JPL was as director of solar system exploration. We (now) have spacecraft on Saturn, Jupiter, and various asteroids, trying to learn more about our solar system and to provide context for us being here at this point in time.

Has your NASA work helped bridge the cultural or scientific gap between Iran and the United States?

Some of that has happened naturally, without any special effort on my part. When I became the Mars program manager, the Associated Press (news agency) put out a press release and other news organizations picked it up. That’s when the younger Iranian generation and Iranians in general became aware of me. It is humbling that I often come across young Iranians who have come to the U.S. for education and who can tell me when exactly when we landed on Mars. [They say] that they were watching with their parents, that they saw me on TV, and that their parents told them, “Look, you can be the next Firouz Naderi,” and that motivated some to go into technical fields and to continue their education.

In some sense, the whole experience has served as a positive role model for young people in Iran to say: ‘He was just like us, he was born here, went to high school here, and if it was possible for him, it should be possible for us.’ From time to time, I give interviews, so that bridging has happened naturally.

What makes you an effective communicator? Why do you think you’ve been good at reaching out to young people?

What I enjoy a lot is telling stories in a simple fashion. One of my interests is to take something that is inherently complicated and explain it to people so that a grandmother and her grandson would both understand it. Maybe the best compliment I ever got was when I was giving a public lecture and, at the end of the lecture, an elderly lady in her seventies or eighties came to me and said, “I came to your presentation with hesitation, because I thought it would be about space and exploration and things I don’t understand and that I would be bored. But my 10-year-old grandson insisted that I bring him. I wanted to tell you that I understood everything you said. Maybe the things that you guys do are not all that complicated.”

Everything we do can be explained in a simple form. How we do it and the way we do it may be complicated, but the basic principles are not. I think it’s important for anyone working in the scientific arena to be able to explain their work to average [members of the] public, who are beneficiaries, pay for the program, and can understand.

You are also involved in a number of Iran-related foundations and organizations either based in Iran or in the U.S. Tell us more about that.

I am on the advisory board of a foundation in Iran called Keep Children in School. We particularly look after kids who have academic potential but whose parents are financially challenged. For now, we help somewhere around 400 kids – boys and girls of different ages, mostly from south Tehran. They are in elementary or high school, and some have been with us between seven and nine years. Some have now made it to university. We have secured a license (in Iran), so we can legally transmit money from the United States to Iran. There is an organization there that administers the money for us and looks after the children.

I am also on the board of advisory of Mahak, which looks after children with cancer in Iran.

I was for a period of time on the board of directors of Encyclopaedia Iranica. I am also on the board of directors of PAIA, the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian-Americans, which looks after the interests of the Iranian-American community in the United States, making sure that their civil liberties and civil rights are protected. After the recent (presidential) elections in the United States, that issue has become more important.

Finally, I work in a mentoring capacity with about 20 Iranian-Americans I have met throughout America who are mostly graduate and post-graduate students. Some of them have gone on to start their own companies.
For those who don’t know you well, can you speak about your childhood and formative years?

I was born in Shiraz, went to high school in Tehran, then left Iran for the United States. I received my Ph.D. from UCLA. Because I had received financial support for the final years of my Ph.D., I had promised [myself that I would] go back and work in Iran for three years.

Those years coincided with the period from 1976 to 1979. By 1979, I had fulfilled that obligation. Because of what was happening in Iran at the time, and [the revolutionary government] telling the educated community that the country was not theirs anymore, I left.

I came back to the United States and started working at NASA in the fall of 1979. I have not been back to Iran since. In the past 52 years, I have been to Iran twice – once in the summer of ‘72 for three months, and once in ‘76 for three years.

I worked at NASA my entire career and stepped down from my post last March after 36 years. I am now devoting my time mostly to consulting companies including start-ups, coaching, and advising young Iranian-Americans. I am also involved in a number of philanthropic organizations.