Training Program Aims to Boost Startups in Low-GDP Countries

IEEE Innovation Nation helps budding entrepreneurs refine their initial idea and develop a working prototype

5 min read
People standing by a sign
Budding entrepreneurs who participated at the IEEE Innovation Nation program held in Sri Lanka.
Photo: IEEE Innovation Nation Sri Lanka

THE INSTITUTE Many startup founders I’ve interviewed over the years acknowledged that although they had the technical know-how to make a product, they didn’t necessarily have the skills to run a company.

Engineers and technologists often have a difficult time in that regard because they don’t understand what it takes to build a business from scratch, according to my 2019 interview with IEEE Fellow Chenyang Xu, a venture advisor. He said there are a host of things that engineers founding a company need to understand, such as business-model development and finding and securing investors. They also need to be able to communicate well with others.

Getting soft-skills training can be difficult, especially for those in low-income countries. Most of the established university programs for entrepreneurs are in developed countries, and online courses can be expensive.

Several IEEE volunteers who are also budding entrepreneurs decided to do something about the situation. They created Innovation Nation, an IEEE program that provides young entrepreneurs in low-income countries with training and mentorship. Following a pre-accelerator model for early-stage startups, the program helps participants through the entire process, from the initial idea and developing a prototype to launching a company. The program is also supported by IEEE Entrepreneurship program.

Innovation Nation was introduced in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2017, then Sri Lanka in 2018, and in Jamaica and Malaysia last year. 

A man in a jacket.  IEEE Senior Member Eddie Custovic, the founder of IEEE Innovation Nation.Photo: IEEE Innovation Nation Sri Lanka

THE PROCESS

Judges who have experience with startups select participants based on the technical strength of their application. If selected, participants are required to take 13 workshops on topics such as researching the market, leading a successful startup, and creating a pitch presentation for investors. Mentoring sessions from experts are included.

After successfully completing the training—which takes about four months—participants receive an IEEE Innovation Nation Fellow designation and a digital badge they can add to their social media profile. They also get a transcript and certification that shows they have completed the training.

Next, they have to pass a practice pitch session in front of the judges. Those who do so get to compete in a qualifying pitch round and then a final pitch round to prospective investors. The winners receive cash prizes, a small stipend, and IEEE membership. They also get assistance from local accelerators and incubators.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, all the activities were done in person, but they’re now held virtually.

More than 560 individuals have registered since the program was launched, and more than 50 workshops and mentoring sessions have been held. Fifty teams have made it through the final rounds. The winning startups have run the gamut, including companies focused on agriculture, construction, ecology, health, manufacturing, robotics, and travel.

GRASS-ROOTS EFFORT

The program was modeled after a session held during the 2016 IEEE Student and Young Professional Congress, which took place in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. IEEE Senior Member Eddie Custovic, an IEEE volunteer whohelped form the IEEE Bosnia and Herzegovina Section’s Young Professionals affinity group, came up with the idea. Custovic, an entrepreneur and philanthropist who was born in the country but now lives in Australia, is founder and director of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship FoundryatLa Trobe Universityin Melbourne. The foundry is an interdisciplinary research, development, and commercialization laboratory.

IEEE student members and young professionals who participated in the 2016 innovation session went through an intensive education program on how to launch a business from an idea. Topics included how to conceive a design, how to build a prototype, and ways to validate and evaluate the concept. Participants received mentoring as well, then they presented their innovations to a panel of local and international experts and angel investors. 

In Custovic’s blog post about the event for The Institute, he wrote, “Many Bosnians and Herzegovinians have demonstrated their ability to innovate and commercialize scientific and engineering research, but they have done so outside their homeland. That entrepreneurial and innovative culture has not yet thrived in the homeland. In an economy that is plagued by political instability and the inability to provide employment opportunities for youth, I want to encourage them to innovate in order to prosper.”

Custovic wrote that the program provided IEEE with an opportunity to “create an ecosystem in such countries to support the career development of young people and their ideas, play an integral part in increasing youth employment, and bolster economic development. IEEE can engage the next generation of our membership by applying our collective knowledge and leading by example. The Bosnia and Herzegovina event could be used as a model.”

He and other members successfully made their case about launching such a program to the IEEE Board of Directors in January 2017. The Board endorsed the creation of a “global entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem” and agreed to set up the program in three to five developing countries.

Later that year, Innovation Nation was launched in Bosnia and Herzegovina, followed by Sri Lanka, Jamaica, and Malaysia.

IT TAKES A VILLAGE

IEEE Member Subodha Charles ran a successful pilot program in Sri Lanka in 2018 with guidance from Custovic and help from the IEEE Sri Lanka Section volunteers. 

He is a senior lecturer at the University of Moratuwa in Sri Lanka. 

Charles is also an entrepreneur, having cofounded Alta Vision Solar, an energy company in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He and his college classmates launched the startup in 2012 while Charles was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in engineering—specializing in electronics—and telecommunications. He says they could have used the training Innovation Nation provides, because they had no idea how to conduct market research or how to market their business, nor did they know anything about intellectual property or business law.

Custovic, Charles, and other IEEE volunteers and staff members oversee Innovation Nation. They help develop the curriculum, act as mentors, and seek out investors. 

One criterion for where to expand the program is a strong IEEE volunteer base, Charles says. The in-person events need people to handle logistics such as developing the program, selecting venues, and arranging for travel. Even in a virtual environment, there’s still a lot of work to do. Also, he adds, it’s easier to get local speakers, sponsors, and investors if IEEE is well known within the community and among industry leaders.

SPREADING THE WORD

Charles is trying to get the word out that IEEE wants to help young people start companies and wants to expand the Innovation program to more countries.  

“IEEE is known to be more of an academic organization,” Charles says. “It’s known for its conferences and journals. But we want to spread the news that we are in the entrepreneurial space. We are doing impactful projects to help people all around the world.

“We also want to get high‐quality applicants for the program, because we would like to see people eventually go on and develop successful businesses based on what they learn” at IEEE Innovation Nation.

Charles says the program would not have been possible if not for the IEEE volunteer and staff leadership team, composed of Custovic, Haris Selmanovic, Mithushan Jalangan, Haris Arnautovic, Dilini Ekanayake, Lavanya Sayam, and David Goldstein.

Funding for the program is needed. The IEEE New Initiatives committee provides funding for the first three years of each Innovation Nation project; after that, the project needs to sustain itself. If you would like to become a sponsor, visit the website’s sponsor page.

IEEE membership offers a wide range of benefits and opportunities for those who share a common interest in technology. If you are not already a member, consider joining IEEE and becoming part of a worldwide network of more than 400,000 students and professionals.

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":[]}