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.
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.
Custovic [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.”
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