Javad Ashjaee, JAVAD GNSS

By now, most surveyors have seen the colorful lime green GNSS receivers made by JAVAD GNSS based on the Triumph microchip technology. The man behind this is Iranian-born Javad Ashjaee, a pioneer in the satellite positioning field who first developed receivers for Trimble and Topcon and later started his own companies. At his age and status, he could retire comfortably any time and enjoy the fruits of his success. We wanted to find out how he got to where he is today, what motivates him to continue developing new receiver technology, and what he sees coming in the future. So we sat down with him at the recent ESRI User Conference in San Diego, where he was a Platinum Sponsor.

Why now? This is a tough time to do something in the surveying world with the current economy. Why launch a new series of products?

What's you're favorite football team? (We reply, Chicago Bears.) They play in sun, they play in snow, they don't stop playing because today it's very cold. They play when it's even heavy snow. They don't say, "We quit today and come back when it's 75 degrees." It's our game. It's our business, and we play. Sometimes it's sunny. Sometimes it's raining. Sometimes it's snowing.

After you sold your company to Topcon, why did you come back?

I sold conditionally and partially. All the technology belonged to both of us. They were selling it to some markets, and I was selling it to all other markets. Also, as part of that, I was to be with Topcon for five years, and I was not to compete with them for two years after that. Then I could compete with them and start whatever business I wanted after that. They knew well that after two years, I would have something new because I have told them before, I will never get out of this market. So why does this question come up, "Why he is back"? I never left to be back.

You saw opportunities that no one else was fulfilling. Can you tell us what separates Triumph and your other products from whatever else is available?

There are two things in every industry. Look at the Intel chip. There is not much innovation with every new one, but it's a new technology. You make it faster, you make it lighter, you make it cheaper. This is Moore's Law, where every 18 months, it cuts the speed by half. First, we benefit from that, and we migrate our technology to that. Also, we have new innovations, 130 bright engineers working on new things. So it's a combination of new technology, denser integration, and new concepts.

Along with that, outside of our control, come new systems, like GLONASS launching new satellites and new signals. GPS is giving new signals. Galileo is coming up. Beidou is coming up. They want to launch India's new system. So we are just at the beginning of development of GNSS. There are some markets you would say are mature, like VHS or whatever. This market is at the beginning. New signals. New systems. It means job security. It means innovation. It's a very volatile and improving and moving and growing market. Why do I like this market? Because this is what is challenging, and it's moving fast. Whatever you see on the shelves today, it's obsolete in two years.

In reading some of the information about your GNSS receivers, one thing that stands out is that they seem to have a lot of features, a lot of options. What is your philosophy on that?

Having integrated all the systems, GPS, GLONASS, Galileo, let's say every system has three signals, and you have 13 or 14 of them visible. Instead of deciding which satellite is visible and look at data on which one you should track, you just go track all of them, and those that are visible you grab quickly, and the rest you find out are not visible later. That's why in a few seconds we find all the satellites, and a few seconds later, we get RTK measurements. This is a lot of channels; that's why we have 216 channels versus 72. Having so many channels, then integrating with communication is the essential part of RTK. We have Ethernet, WiFi, UHF, Bluetooth, GSM, all this integrated, plus enough processing power and memory, all in one chip. We have the technology to make this smaller and lighter.

Do you think surveyors and GIS people are ever going to come together and use the same knowledge base?

Absolutely yes, because the prices are going to drop for GPS and GIS: manufacturing costs. Maybe there will be $60 or $100 difference from the low grade to the high grade.

So you think price in this product becomes more affordable as accuracy continues to get better?

The driver is the volume, and GIS people come, and they meet, and the volume goes up. There is no reason the price of a full-grade survey instrument should be more than $3,000 today. But now it's $10,000 because of the volume. If you want to buy 10,000 units, I'll sell you a $3,000 unit.

As far as distribution in the United States and North America, are you signing up dealers?

We have about 80 dealers worldwide now.

How are you going to support your customers? Have you established a network for doing that?

There are technical questions, which come by internet or by calling. Usually by internet, 90 percent of the questions are answered within a few hours, either from the U.S. or Moscow. We rarely have hardware questions. If we do, we just replace it, and we get the unit to our engineers to find what happened.

You're spread around the world with your R&D in Moscow and your manufacturing in San Jose, California. How did you start out in Russia?

It was just something that happened by chance. In 1989, during the San Francisco earthquake, I was in England at a Royal Institute of Navigation conference. A delegation from Russia came there; they were just going around. The last day they told me they thought our technology was the best, and they invited me to do a joint venture with them. This was before the breakup of the Soviet Union, when Gorbachev was in power.

After several trips, nothing happened; I saw there were bureaucrats. This was in the beginning of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nobody knew what they would do, and maybe they wanted only financial support. So I told some of the engineers that this system doesn't work, and if, anytime they wanted, I would go and start separate from the government. They called me six months after the system collapsed and said they didn't have a salary for six months, and everybody's ready. So I went there and started when I was at Ashtech in Sunnyvale, California. That was 1991 or 1992. For some reason, the engineers here and the engineers there didn't work well together because of rivalry and competition. I started to do R&D mostly there and see how it goes. Fortunately, the Cold War ended. The two countries decided to live together in peace.

Tell us about your manufacturing facility in San Jose. Is it dedicated to your product?

This is a contract manufacturer they do for everybody. We are trying to set up our own manufacturing facility, hopefully by the end of this year. That way, we can control everything. We do the software ourselves now in Moscow.

How did you come to California?

Don't ask my age. Well, I'm 60. I came here in 1972 after getting my bachelors in Tehran. I got my graduate degrees, a doctorate.

I went back to my native country Iran to teach at a university and became a department head, until things happened. I had to escape; otherwise I would not be living today. My family and my daughter, for 484 days they were hostage and couldn't get out. I still have two sisters there. We escaped and came back here.  I went to work for Trimble as their third engineer. At that time, Trimble was not in GPS. I can say I kind of pioneered procedures for GPS at Trimble, then Ashtech, then Javad Positioning Systems, then Javad Navigation Systems, then JAVAD GNSS. I can probably go into the Guinness Book of Records for starting the most GPS companies.

You're a small, nimble company. If you have 130 engineers come up with something, can you turn it around much more quickly than almost anyone?

We are very lucky because we don't have investors. We are not a public company that has to watch what we do, how it affects our public image, and how much the value of things go up and down. So we can make long-term plans. Let's say for two years we don't make money, it's okay.

Where do you see your product line in five or ten years?

Just follow the computer notebook as an indication. The price is the same, but it becomes smaller and faster and nicer. The computer you had ten years ago you won't even look at it today. Do you remember how surveying with GPS was done 10 years ago? Sitting in one place for two hours. Now you sit for two minutes or for several seconds.

Where do you see your largest growth areas in the next few years?

At the high end.

What do you see as your home country? Do you think in your lifetime you'll be able to go back to Iran?

I went back. Now you can go back. But I don't want to live there now. My children were born here and grew up here. My daughter was born in Iowa City, of all places in the U.S. I went to the U.S. consulate in Iran when I was 19 or 20. They asked me if I liked big cities, and said no, I like small cities. They asked me if I like the Midwest. I thought Midwest was something in between, not big, not small. So I came to the Midwest, and I loved it. Have you been to Iowa City? If you go there, you'll fall in love with it.

You're known as a hard-charging businessman. What do you do for fun?

This is my fun. Work is my fun. Actually, I am a soccer fan. I played several other sports such as volleyball and tennis in college, mainly because I got free uniforms. And I have two grandchildren. 


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