Senior Mechanical Design Engineer of ZeroAvia Jonathan Nutzati joins one of our Builder Nation Podcast hosts Marcus Burton and shares his journey as a leader in the industry (While being the CEO of his own company), along with some helpful advice for future engineers starting this career.
To give you some context, Jonathan Nutzati is an Aerospace Engineer, Entrepreneur and Future-thinker. His passion lies in building the marvelous inventions of science fiction into our modern reality to solve mankind’s greatest problems.
He left his hometown of Hong Kong in 2006 to begin his journey in future-building by getting a Master’s in Aerospace Engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. In his early career he designed jet engines, wind turbines, carbon fiber aircraft and worked on the first generation of consumer drone technology.
In 2014, Jonathan moved to Silicon Valley to design electric motors for Tesla. While in Palo Alto working on the drive units for models S, X and 3, Jonathan also trained for and achieved his FAA airplane pilot’s license while living off the grid in a solar-powered RV.
In 2016 the opportunity to combine his passion for aerospace with his fascination with solar came when Jonathan founded Mothership Aeronautics. The vision of Mothership is long-term aerial persistence through a combination of lighter-than-air lifting and lightweight photovoltaic cells.
Jonathan is currently focused on the development of Mothership’s high-endurance autonomous solar airship, and using it to collect critical data on long-linear infrastructure.
Jonathan will be one of the early colonists on Mars in 2030, but while still on Earth, enjoys flying planes, diving, whitewater rafting, and engineering projects in his garage. He is currently prototyping his second hydroponic vegetable growing machine.
During this episode, we will dive deeper into his professional background experience from being on a team, to leading one; he will share some tips and tricks for successful management and finally, his thoughts on the upcoming industry trends.
Please introduce yourself, share a little bit about where you're coming from, what you're working on today.
I'm an aerospace engineer. I'm really interested in things related to energy and propulsion. I love designing vehicles, architecture and solving problems. I would like to be sort of a Sherlock Holmes of engineering. Like oh why is this machine making this noise? Well, let's figure it out. Let's pull up the drawings. Let's watch it operating. Let's collect some data and I'll write you a nice PowerPoint.
I love that, I love that big Sherlock Holmes guy. It'd be great if you could share where you started. What got you interested in aerospace engineering and what you're working on today?
I wanted to be an astronaut originally. I was always interested in space. I wear glasses. I have terrible vision. So I was told that I was not going to make it as an Air Force pilot, and that's the main path to being an astronaut.
So I went and I studied aerospace engineering at Embry-Riddle. I got myself a solid scholarship.“I'll go learn aerospace engineering and learn how to fly airplanes and that will set me on the path and let's see how it goes”. So I did that. At first I was like “You know what? I'm going to be a test pilot” and going through the classes, learning how to fly I was like, “well, you know, flying is really hard. Test piloting seems cool, but the odds of death are really high.Maybe, let's stick to the engineering side of it.” So I looked at the engineering plan and, getting into more advanced engineering classes at Embry-Riddle, learning about jets and rockets, I was like “This is my passion”.
I realized I really liked those fast spinning machines, so I specialized on that point: Propulsion. And in those days, well, I focused on propulsion as the gas turbine engine guy. I was manufacturing gas turbine engine parts. I thought it was really fun.
I did the internship, and loved this stuff. So, I designed some more gas turbines in my senior design classes and, just when I was ready to graduate, Tesla came along. They came to our school and they were like, “Hey, we're recruiting. We're recruiting people for Tesla. You want to come and work in California?” And I looked at it. I was like, “Yeah, that seems really cool.” “What kind of jobs do you like? We need a propulsion guy.” And I was one. So I went there, and, at that moment everything clicked and I switched.
I was like, “I'm probably never going back to gas turbines'' and just about that time, I learned how to manage electrical engineering at Tesla. And I learned about electric motors.
I'm curious, you know, making that transition to Tesla and going electric, what were the key differences? How did your role change?
The bigger differences were that the output of the shift was not turning a compressor. There was nobody calculating blade angles and air pressures. It was sort of torque. I learned a lot about how to take something from the drawing board to making thousands of it in a factory. How to solve problems and actually implement the solution at a factory level. How do you manage and assemble a system of parts in a corporate design entity environment? I That's so important for hardware. The second you're not focused, you're wasting money and hardware is expensive. You gotta keep your engineering very tight. You need to be going in that direction and nowhere else. Otherwise you're bleeding money and your startup will fail.
And you mentioned moving in one direction. What would you say are those teams doing differently? Is the collaboration tighter across the board for folks who are, you know, moving in that direction and staying laser focused?
Well, if a company is looking for product market fit, this is going to be a CEO's job. This is not necessarily on the engineering team. It's like “We need to decide where we're going to put our efforts and entrepreneurship as an experiment and in an experiment you need to apply the scientific method. You have a hypothesis. You have to test the hypothesis”. But a lot of people feel like they're not doing things then they are definitely guilty. You know?
I'm an engineer. I'm holding a hammer and everything is a nail. I want to do engineer things. I want to design your parts. I want to print new parts. I want to build new parts. But that is not the first step. Should never be the first step. “You need to have your hypothesis and that is your product. This invention, this process, is going to solve this problem for these people and they'll pay this money”. Once you've got that figured out, once that is solid in your mind as the CEO of this company, then you're alright.
How are we going to execute this with hardware? How do we spend as little as possible to prove that our technology solves this in this way and gets us this money? So it's kind of like keeping it rained in. Don't hire all the engineers until you need to scale. You know have a core team. And being in that core team is tough because you need to have people that know how to do everything, or an even more important skill: Know how to know what you don't know, know how to find people that know how to do it and ask them the right questions so that you can do it.
I think that's a great segue into how you took your experience at Tesla and went out and started your own company. Mothership Aeronautics, right? Would you mind sharing how you started your own business?
I was fascinated by the idea of having an airship that could be self-sustaining and that could generate its own power in flight. The first step was to create a prototype of a solar powered airship which I was able to obtain from boost VC a $25,000 investment. And we produced the prototype in around two months and I demonstrated it here in Sunnyvale.
What challenges did you face?
There are a lot of challenges. it's aerospace, it's aviation. There are rules about what can fly. When I first started the company, there was no part 107. For those of you that don't know, part 107 is a section of FAA regulation that allows the use of commercial drones. Before that, they were simply not allowed for commercial use. You could not fly a drone for money.
So mothership aeronautics started like two months before 107 kicked in and after starting, I went to Intergrown and I found a bustling community: A lot of excitement and happy people. That was like building a whole new world in drones. I jumped right in and I was like “ Alright”, “Well we gotta design mothership aeronautics first product as a drone. It's gotta be under £55 and it's gotta fly like this under 400 feet”.
Well, I think the next step to talk about here is your transition into ZeroAvia and how you leverage that knowledge there? And what are you working on currently?
I found ZeroAvia through a job posting that basically was listed as a job that was a hybrid between what I've been doing at Tesla and what I've been doing at Mothership Aeronautics. It's like hydrogen fuel cell powered electric propulsion systems for airplanes. And when I heard that, I immediately thought “yes”. “What the company is doing makes sense and I want to do that.”
Do you have some advice that you might have for folks in college or looking for that next role?
I'd say get an internship as soon as possible. College doesn't prepare you for what companies look like, what jobs are like. You know? I realized that after working at a company.
Like for example, a test engineer. Essentially they're project managers, they're scientists, they work on instrumentation, they look at a lot of data. There's a lot of jobs that don't fit into it. I feel like a college degree prepares you for a pinnacle job. And I'd say like, my college degree specifically prepared me to be a mechanical design engineer for gas turbine engines. You need to know what the options are. If you specialize early, you have a better shot of getting what you want.
I like that. And maybe you could speak about company structures, and the different growth opportunities with startups and how important that is.
So depending on your startup size, the scope of your role may change. I look at for example Tesla, like there were times at Tesla when I was working more than the traditional work week. Numbers of hours that may shock people. But there was nobody that was telling me what I needed to do. It was sort of like for somebody who is really passionate. They give you opportunities.
VS you go to a traditional company and it's kind of like the army. You know, you're given a project, you're given a role, you stay in that. If you do a good job, you're expected to do a good job. You will get rewarded, and maybe in five years you get a promotion.
So you know, a lot of traditional, especially aerospace companies are kind of like that, and they're very siloed. But you know at Tesla, it's kind of like when there's a problem they need somebody or a few people on it. When that happens, you have the ball, and when you have the ball, you run. And it's like all the doors start opening for you. People start to help you. You get resources. And you don't wanna go home, you wanna solve it. You wanna kill it. And it's fun because this is what you wanted to do, and you're getting to do it, and you're getting to do it fast.
You're learning along the way.
Thank you for that analogy. Awesome. Well, thank you John for taking the time and hopping on for this podcast interview. I know everyone who's listening really benefited from your journey.
It was a pleasure to be here. Thank you, Marcus. This was awesome.
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