How Eddie Custovic Is Building His Legacy

Among his startups is one that aims to prevent food shortages

5 min read
Eddie Custovic portrait in jacket and plaid shirt
Courtesy Eddie Custovic

Edhem “Eddie” Custovic says he always wanted to leave behind a legacy. He’s now doing so, in a number of ways.

The IEEE senior member established an innovation lab for budding entrepreneurs at La Trobe University, in Melbourne, Australia, where he is an engineering professor. He also set up a foundation to provide youngsters in his home country of Bosnia and Herzegovina with educational opportunities, mentorship, and scholarships. And if that isn’t enough, he is working to combat impending food shortages by developing imaging technology to determine how to grow plants in inhabitable environments.


For his “leadership in the empowerment and development of technology professionals globally,” Custovic is the recipient of this year’s IEEE Theodore W. Hissey Outstanding Young Professional Award. The award is sponsored by IEEE Young Professionals and the IEEE Photonics and Power & Energy societies.

Receiving the award is “by far the greatest achievement” in his career, he says. “It encompasses all the work that I’ve put in over the years in empowering young people to achieve more. It’s particularly special to me because it bears the name of Theodore Hissey, someone who I find inspirational and have had the pleasure of working with on numerous occasions at IEEE.”

Hissey, an IEEE Life Fellow and IEEE director emeritus, has supported the IEEE Young Professionals community over the years.

BORN ENTREPRENEUR

Custovic says he has always been entrepreneurial.

“It goes back to being a refugee in Switzerland, where my brother and I had to learn how to earn money,” Custovic says. He and his family fled Bosnia in 1991 because of ethnic violence there. They later moved to Australia.

He says those experiences gave him the mentality that “you have to earn and work for [things] yourself.”

Custovic’s first big entrepreneurial venture began in 2010, while he was a doctoral student at La Trobe. While conducting research for his thesis, he noticed that there was little collaboration between disciplines at the university. It inspired him in 2016 to found the La Trobe Innovation and Entrepreneurship Foundry, which promotes multidisciplinary research among the school’s faculty members and students, plus engineers in industry.

“We’ve had a lot of success through the lab,” Custovic says. “Not only have participants developed various innovative technologies, but they have also gained interdisciplinary thinking.”

One project that came out of the foundry is CountaKick, a tool that detects fetal movements during the third trimester of pregnancy to help determine whether the fetus is healthy. The project brought engineers together with computer scientists and health care professionals.

The foundry team developed a wearable belt that is embedded with 16 microphones to detect fetal movement. It uses machine learning to differentiate the sounds of fetal movement from background noises and other sounds from the mother’s body. CountaKick was bought by another company, which is now working to commercialize it.

Another one of Custovic’s entrepreneurial ventures—the Bosnia and Herzegovina Futures Foundation, in Tuzla, Bosnia—hits closer to home.

Eddie Custovic with students from the La Trobe Innovation & Entrepreneurship FoundryCustovic [bottom right] with students from the La Trobe Innovation & Entrepreneurship Foundry.Courtesy Eddie Custovic

“As a kid growing up in Australia, I felt a sense of pride for the place where I was born,” he says. “I grew up in a healthy environment and had the opportunity to pursue the career I wanted. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the people who didn’t have that same opportunity.”

He started the foundation in 2015 with his brother, Resad, who is a civil engineer and also an entrepreneur. They wanted to create an organization that would be their “life legacy” and would help Bosnia and Herzegovina prosper by empowering youth through access to education and mentorship, as well as helping them develop technologies.

Almost 2 million Bosnians and Herzegovinians were displaced by the 1990s Bosnian War and now live in 30 countries worldwide, Custovic says. Inspired by IEEE’s global membership, the two brothers created a network for them to collaborate on technology projects and mentor youths.

The foundation provides students with scholarships and mentorship as well as internships in a number of countries. It also holds conferences on emerging technology, interdisciplinary research being done around the world, and how to inspire girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.

“My mentor Barry Shoop, who was the 2016 IEEE president, said that being a leader is about paving the way for others to succeed,” Custovic says. “I’ve really taken that to heart.”

ENOUGH TO EAT

Custovic is working to make sure there’s enough food to feed the growing human population. According to a study conducted by humanitarian organization Oxfam, Earth will run out of food by 2050.

Custovic is developing imaging technology that uses artificial intelligence to conduct plant phenotyping—or assessing a plant’s expressed characteristics. By linking the automated assessments to each plant’s genetic data, researchers can study the genetic changes that result in desirable traits such as drought-resistance or high crop yields.

The research group at La Trobe is composed of engineers, geneticists, and plant biologists. It’s also collaborating with several medicinal agriculture companies such as Photon Systems Instruments of Drasov, Czech Republic. It’s leading the development of plant phenotyping technology worldwide.

“Being an engineer and being a leader is about paving the way for others to succeed.”

“We have no more land available for agriculture,” Custovic says, “so we now have to look at how we create efficiencies in growing food.”

The team is also using the phenotype and genotype data to determine how to grow plants without the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Fertilizers contain phosphorus, which pollutes groundwater and harms aquatic life.

“Most people are not aware of the impact of phosphorus on the environment,” Custovic says. “We are trying to engineer new plants that will be less dependent on phosphorus and therefore grow effectively without it.”

The imaging technology will determine how to effectively grow plants—both for human consumption and medicinal use, he says, in environments where they wouldn’t normally grow as well as areas that have been severely impacted by climate change.

“It’s an honor to work alongside so many talented engineers and scientists in developing technologies,” he says, “and apply their capabilities that have the goal of saving, extending, and improving human lives.”

A GLOBAL NETWORK

Custovic joined IEEE as a doctoral student at La Trobe and says the organization has played an enormous role in his life.

In 2010 he founded the student branch at La Trobe. He says his volunteerism in IEEE “really took off from there.” In 2014 he became secretary of the IEEE Victorian (Australia) Section and eventually served as its chair. The experience helped him gain leadership skills he wouldn’t have been able to acquire otherwise, he says.

Custovic was a member of the IEEE Young Professionals committee from 2015 to 2017.

He also served on the IEEE Publication Services and Products Board’s strategic planning committee—first as the Young Professionals representative and then as a member-at-large—for six years. In addition, he was a member of the product development team, which explored potential offerings for members.

He was the inaugural chair of the Board of Directors’ Industry Engagement Committee and oversaw the creation of the industry advisory board alongside other IEEE volunteers.

“It's exciting to interact with people who are working on solving different problems around the world,” he says, “and not only learning about emerging technology but also creating a global network.”

The Conversation (0)

Get unlimited IEEE Spectrum access

Become an IEEE member and get exclusive access to more stories and resources, including our vast article archive and full PDF downloads
Get access to unlimited IEEE Spectrum content
Network with other technology professionals
Establish a professional profile
Create a group to share and collaborate on projects
Discover IEEE events and activities
Join and participate in discussions

The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
Vertical
A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay
Blue

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.

{"imageShortcodeIds":[]}