Distinguished Alumni Awards

Jon E. Khachaturian

Jon E. Khachaturian

For entrepreneurship and innovation in heavy lifting technology, leadership to the engineering profession and commitment to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Founder, President and CEO, Versabar, Inc.

  • BS, 1978, Civil Engineering, University of Illinois

When Hurricane Katrina ripped through the gulf coast in 2005, it not only flooded large parts of New Orleans, but it had a major impact on the offshore oil industry. Jon Khachaturian had an idea for a system capable of lifting up to 4,000 tons from the seafloor. Within 18 months he had transformed the sketch he made on the back of an envelope into a multimillion-dollar piece of equipment called the Bottom Feeder that helped salvage many topsides, which were ripped off their jackets by the wind and waves of the hurricane and sank to the bottom of the gulf. The Bottom Feeder was capable of reaching depths of 400 feet and consisted of two sets of 110-foot tall trusses mounted on two barges, each 250 ft. x 72 ft. This was one of Khachaturian’s many ideas.

Jon is the son of Narbey Khachaturian, an American immigrant and former Professor and Associate Head of Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Illinois. Jon followed in his father’s footsteps by attending the U of I, and three years following
graduation, in 1981, invented the reusable spreader bar, a patented system for lifting heavy and unwieldy loads safely and cost effectively. That same year he founded Versabar, Inc., where he continues as its President and CEO. Versabar has grown into a family of six companies with more than 1,000 employees engaged in heavy lifting engineering, field operations, and construction both on and offshore. Khachaturian holds over 50 patents and was named one of Engineering Record’s Top 25 Newsmakers
of 2007 for his Bottom Feeder idea.

One of the reasons he was able to lead the efforts to clean up the Gulf of Mexico following Katrina was the fact that oil companies know and trust him due to his long history of innovative ideas. Khachaturian’s technical innovations have won numerous engineering honors, including four Spotlight on Technology awards from the Society of Petroleum Engineers, the NOVA award from the Construction Innovation Forum, “Woefel’s Best Engineering Award” from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the 2009 GEOCA “Special Achievement in Mechanical Engineering” award from the American
Society of Mechanical Engineers; the John N. Crisp Award for “Engineering Excellence” from the University of New Orleans; and the 2011 “Silver Patent” award from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. In 2010, he was elected to the National
Academy of Engineering.

Khachaturian hasn’t forgotten his roots and returns to his home in Philo often. He has been a long-time supporter of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, where he serves as an adjunct professor. One of his gifts is responsible for the largest classroom at the Yeh Student Center, “Khachaturian Hall,” named for his parents. He also helped establish the Narbey Khachaturian Faculty Scholar Fund and was the keynote speaker at the College of Engineering commencement in December 2012.