When Homayoon Kazerooni arrived from Iran to America in the late 1970s, he had just a few hundred bucks in his pocket. He also had big dreams.

They weren’t the usual American dreams of being rich and famous, though. He dreamed of becoming a scientist or an engineer, like the people he read about in outdated Time magazines back home who helped Neil Armstrong take his first small steps in the Sea of Tranquility.

Four decades later, those dreams would be fulfilled. An invention he helped build that allowed someone else to take steps just as groundbreaking as Armstrong’s — and ended up in the pages of Time, as one of the publication’s 50 Best Inventions of 2010.

Called the eLEGS, the device was a medical exoskeleton that restores the ability to walk to paraplegics, MS patients, and stroke victims.

For those people, an exoskeleton that offers untethered bipedal locomotion really is as amazing as the Moon landing, probably even more so. Honestly, the Moon is pretty boring in comparison.

Bionics that pull off some Biblical-style miracles? That’s what science is all about, and it’s the realization of Kazerooni’s personal American fairy tale. It’s about a boy orphaned at a young age who heard tales of wonderful machines and super heroic scientists in a strange, foreign land—tales that would lead him to America to see it for himself just months before a revolution would upend his homeland. Eventually, he would transform the equivalent of $1,100 into a doctorate at MIT and a 27-year-tenure at Berkeley in the mechanical engineering department. Finally, he would use his skills and drive to bring forth the age of exoskeletons, a technology that will soon wrap itself around every aspect of our lives.

Well, that’s the story if you’re one for hyperbole. If you’re Kaz, as his friends and students know him, you’re just doing your job.

“I’m an engineer,” he says. “My job is creating technology to make life easier and to create a better quality of life.”

Mass Exo-dus

Kaz’s exoskeletons certainly fit his utopian description of tech that creates a better life. But Neil Armstrong’s few Moon steps evolved into a round of golf and we’re still looking for the next giant leap — to Mars.

With exoskeletons, you don’t need them to jump to be considered a miracle. They just need to be functional, durable, affordable, comfortable, and flexible.

The quest for that has launched a brand new engineering race to see who will deliver the first mainstream exoskeleton.

If a major conglomerate does it, that particular robotic wearable could go into mass production earlier and probably reach more people faster. Lockheed Martin and Parker Hannifin have products for industrial and healthcare use—the FORTIS and the Indego, respectively.

The FORTIS, the first exoskeleton for industrial use, was developed for heavy toolholding at Naval shipyards and other hazardous industrial applications. It reduces muscle fatigue by two-thirds and costs around $23,000. The Tool Arm alone sells for $7,149, with the customized gimbals sold separately.

Parker’s 26-lb.  Indego allows people with spinal injuries upward mobility. The battery lasts four hours and settings can be changed via smartphone. The sleek FDA-approved machine is cleared for clinical and personal use and costs $80,000.

If it’s a startup, manufacturing the definitive exoskeleton could make it the next big Fortune 500 Company.  For Kazerooni, it’s a race against himself.

The eLEGS, now called the Ekso, were created at the Berkeley Robotics & Human Engineering Laboratory, which he directs, and Berkeley Bionics, which he co-founded. They also rebranded as Ekso Bionics. Prior to the name change, Kazerooni left the business for more autonomy and freedom to express his singular vision.

“Engineering is like artwork,” explains Kaz, a painter on the side. “When you go through art school, they teach you perspective, color, and light. But you can’t become a Michelangelo unless you do it yourself.”

So he went back to Berkeley from Richmond, California, where Ekso is based. No longer a leader of an up-and-coming company with a licensing agreement with Lockheed, Kaz went back to teach. And to develop a new, better exoskeleton that wouldn’t infringe on patents he already made.

He would have to start over.

That’s never been a problem for him. Kaz had done it in Madison, at the University of Wisconsin, and then a year later at MIT, and again on the West Coast.

It’s especially easy when you have a university lab unofficially named after you, the Kaz Lab. In college he had to clean the lab for extra money. Now he has fresh batches of grad students delivered to him annually, all of them intent on changing the world.

“I want to teach and give them something so they can be better for all of us,” the professor says.

He also wanted this new bionic to be even better than the last one he helped create, and that one is very, very good. Just with a price that makes it unfeasible for most.

This next model would be stripped down, economical in every way, and won’t sacrifice performance. This isn’t some luxury item, it’s for people who really have to think about everywhere they go, if it’s accessible, how long could they manage, and so on.

“We have to take care of those around us, weaker than us,” Kaz says.

And he stands up for them by helping them stand themselves. It’s because of his inventions they can now hope for a better life.

“Hope is a huge power in all of us, and you can’t feel it unless you lose it,” he says. “Every person has experienced a moment in their life where they have had no hope. I had been in that position where I wanted to stay in bed. When you have no hope, you can’t function.”

So that’s the mission: Restoring hope in as many people as possible, in a world that gets more cynical every day.

Kazerooni is happy to be just one of the many minds involved in this project, because it’s the science that matters. Who cares about making a name for yourself when people’s livelihoods are at stake?

What introspection he does afford himself gives him an unassailable fatherly quality: “I came here with very little, and I got opportunities. With opportunity comes responsibility.”