Exclusive Interview for ST: Mr. Custovic pushes Limits with his Inventions

edhem custovicEdhem (Eddie) Čustović, was born in Tuzla, now lives in Melbourne, Australia, where he works at the renowned La Trobe University as a industry project coordinator and is the director of the La Trobe University Innovation & Entrepreneurship Foundry (LIEF).

He has often been featured in local and global media as a result of his innovations, leadership and philanthropic work. However, his path to Australia was all but easy. He left BiH more than 20 years ago and travelled through Switzerland and Germany to arrive at his new found home.

I studied electronic engineering majoring in radio frequency design (RF) at La Trobe University, Australia. RF is sometimes referred to as the dark/black art because it is extremely difficult to master but I really enjoyed the challenge. I graduated with first class honors as a result of my hard work. During my studies I had the opportunity to work with several companies including the work with General Motors (GM) where I was involved in a feasibility study of Intelligent Speed Adaptation technology.  I undertook a masters degree in Entrepreneurship & Innovation at Swinburne University, Australia because I felt the need to bridge the gap between my technical knowledge and the business world. This degree paved the way for where I am today and I found it to be the perfect fit for my personality. It helped me discover who I was and who I wanted to be. During my masters studies I did a lot of technology consulting work with various companies and clients. This was essential in my career and taught me how to deal, discuss and negotiate with senior staff and executive management. In 2007 I was approached from a professor to come back to La Trobe University and be part of a large team that was going to research and develop a state of the art digital radar. As a result of my outstanding results in undergraduate studies I received the Australia Postgraduate Award (APA) which is awarded to doctoral/PhD candidates with exceptional research potential by the Australian Federal Government. I was fortunate enough that my PhD studies allowed me to work with industry, government and international research institutes.

Looking back at my childhood and early career, I realize that my parents had sacrificed their entire careers to ensure that my brother and I had a brighter future. When things get hard I always remind myself that there are millions of people who would love to be in my position, with an opportunity to succeed in a country that allows you to do so. I am grateful for everything I have but also know that I worked hard to be where I am. I use my time wisely but dedicate a lot of my spare time in helping others.

Among many successful projects and innovations, one of them attracted a lot of media attention – Countakick, a wearable device designed for pregnant women in the third trimester of pregnancy. Can you tell us more about this project?

Countakick is a project that has received a lot of media attention. I would hate to take all the credit because many of my wonderful students played an essential role in the development of this device. Prior to embarking on our research we found out that Australia, a country that has one of the best health care systems, ranked in the top 25 countries for the number of stillbirths per capita. That was our motivating factor to launch a project that will allow parents and doctors to monitor movement of the baby during pregnancy. The most common symptom of stillbirth is the reduced number of movements or kicks by the baby. The simplest way to determine the number of kicks is regularly counting them. Seven of my students from a range of disciplines led by me as a coordinator came together and joined forces at La Trobe University to conceptualize and develop a prototype “CountaKick” with a vision of reducing this tragic statistic.

This is first wearable device of its kind in the world in a form of a belt that that monitors the movement of the baby during the last few months of pregnancy through the use of microphones, advanced signal processing, machine learning and a relatively simple to use mobile application. The applications helps with the tracking and display of data for the mother but more importantly this information can also be sent to her doctor for further monitoring, in particular with pregnancies that are considered high risk. It provides vital data that can be utilized for timely intervention if anomalies are detected.  We have a prototype device and are currently working with the Royal Women’s Hospital in Melbourne, Australia and the Stillbirth Foundation to bring this device to those who need it most. Most recently we have also been involved with PricewaterhouseCoopers (pwc), a multinational professional services network headquartered in London, United Kingdom. It is the second largest professional services firm in the world. I made a personal decision to that our first official and public results on this research will be presented at the International Conference on Medical and Biological Engineering – CMBEBiH. This conference will be hosted in Sarajevo from March 16-18 2017 and is organized by a friend and collaborator Dr. Almir Badnjević from Verlab, Sarajevo.

What is the TIGER 3-Radar?

TIGER-3 is actually an acronym for Tasman International Geospace Environmental Radar. TIGER is a part of an international network of similar high frequency radars called SuperDARN operated by more than a dozen nations to provide simultaneous coverage of both southern and northern polar regions. The radar costs  1.7 million dollars and was  developed by engineers and physicists at La Trobe University and is located near the city of Adelaide in South Australia. It provides us with a complete overview of the field of view that extends some 5,000 kilometers from the mainland. The radar is used to examine impact of the sun on the Earth and study space weather, which has a major impact on navigation and control systems in shipping and aviation, as well as GPS systems. It is worth mentioning that the TIGER radar was the result of dozens of collaborators over a 5 year period. I gained my PhD through this project. In 2014, this project was recognized as the most innovative research & development project in Australia by our governing body, Engineers Australia. What was most impressive is that our project is the first fully digital radar of this kind in the entire world.

Plant Biology, Engineering and Food? How do these relate to your work?

In the last 2 years I have created a close working relationship with biologists in order to address some of the biggest challenges facing humanity. Plant a seed, give it plentiful amounts of water and sunlight, and watch it grow. That’s all it needs, isn’t it? Not quite. Many plants, particularly high-yield food crops like rice and wheat also need phosphate-rich soil to flourish. Phosphate is one of the key elements necessary for the growth of plants, animals and in lake ecosystems. Phosphate is naturally occurring, but soils today are becoming phosphate deficient and farmers have to purchase phosphate to get high crop yields in order feed a growing population. Sadly phosphate is finite. Industrial farming has played a part in sucking this critical element out of our soil, which means we are running out of the high quality, readily accessible sources of phosphate. And in a world with an increasing demand for food, the cost of phosphate is going up. As a consequence, the price of food is going up – worldwide. While increases in the price of food can be absorbed in developed countries, it impacts hard in developing countries and leads to increases in malnourishment.

A team of researchers which I am actively working with out of the AgriBio Research facility, one of the largest in the world, is aiming to solve this problem. We are attempting to identify the plant species that require less phosphate, and identifying the ones that use the phosphate available to them more efficiently. If we can identify a plant genotype or ecotype that is most phosphate efficient, we can select for that trait in crop varieties through breeding programs. So you might ask “What does engineering and computer science have to do with plants”? Breakthroughs in this research are not going to come through from traditional approaches. Engineers and computer scientists help develop state of the art experimental equipment, algorithms, machine learning techniques that can speed up the process of scientific discovery. That is exactly what I am trying to do!

We are working with industry partner in the Czech Republic, Photon System Instruments (PSI) who are a world leader in the research and development of plant sensing scientific equipment. Together we developed a prototype multispectral, three-dimensional high throughput phenotyping system (MS3D-HTTPS). This equipment and experimentation study will fill an important technological gap that exists between plant genomics and plant phenology, allowing the full potential and investment in plant genomics to be realized.

The field of plant phenology is developed from traditional plant physiology with high resolution and non-invasive imaging technology. Experiments in phenology record time series of data on the functional properties of plants, as well as from top to bottom and 3D models of plant growth and development. While large multimillion-dollar phenology plant centers are developed in Australia, Germany, China and the United States, there is an urgent need to develop smaller high transient systems for phenotyping the plants to ensure that the technology is available for individual projects and laboratory research based on the development of experiments for bigger phenology centers.

BH Futures Foundation and SYNERGY MOON will be working together to ensure that the youth of BiH are given world-class opportunities to develop their analytical, technical and professional skills. How do you plan to achieve this?

I had a wish to help Bosnia and Herzegovina and that is why my brother Resad Custovic and I established BH Futures Foundation, a non-for-profit organization, in 2015. The foundation offers academic opportunities and financial assistance to support disadvantaged talented students to achieve excellence and their career ambitions in engineering or related fields of study. Since its establishment BH Futures Foundation has awarded multiple scholarships at the IEEE BiH Student and Young Professional Congress held December of 2016 and  is providing access to global education platforms and mentors, as well as opportunities for collaboration with industry leaders in engineering. We are happy to announce that more scholarships will be awarded at the International Conference on Medical and Biological Engineering – CMBEBiH hosted this March in Sarajevo.

Recently we also announced a strategic partnership with Synergy Moon, a Google Lunar Xprize finalist. We are delighted to anonunce that we will work together to support gifted students from BiH in the fields of engineering and related studies by encouraging them to participate in global space-exploration programs that will break down ethnic barriers and bring beneficial change for humanity. This announcement comes on the back of the recent media coverage announcing that Synergy Moon, a collaboration of individuals representing over 15 countries in the pioneering of human space travel and interplanetary exploration as part of the Google Lunar X Prize competition, was one of the 5 finalist in the competition which commenced in 2007.

By combining BH Futures Foundations’ ability to recognize raw engineering and science talent from BiH and simultaneously providing scholarship winners access to major space exploration programs, mentorships and global development projects through alliance with SYNERGY MOON, we can define exciting new opportunities for engineering transformation in BiH. Our foundation is connecting with like minded individuals and organizations around the world with a vision of creating new opportunities for the youth of Bosnia & Herzegovina. This opportunity is driven by the passion and dedication of Nebojsa Stanojevic and myself, both born and raised in Tuzla, Bosnia & Herzegovina, seeing this partnership as an opportunity to change the lives of young people in BiH.

You are a Bosnian, born in Tuzla. Do you consider coming back to live and work here in Bosnia?

Simple question but complicated answer. Although I left BiH when I was seven years old, I have not forgotten my homeland. You can say I am a big patriot, I love my country and I am proud of the achievements of our people around the world. I have to clarify that when I say our people I really mean all people in the former Yugoslavia, Bosnian, Serbs, Croats etc. We speak the same language and we are for most part identical in nature and culture.  Except for my parents and brother who are in Australia, the rest of my family is still in Tuzla and Sarajevo.

I work and live in Melbourne, Australia. However, I spend several months every year outside of Australia, such is the nature of my job. In the last 3 years I have been in Bosnia and Herzegovina almost a dozen times. In 2016, I helped launch an IEEE Congress for young engineers, computer scientists and information technologists. Together with our local partner, the Youth Employment Project which is supported by the Swiss Government, we are creating an ecosystem for these young people to network with global experts, learn about innovation and how they can channel their technical knowledge into the creation of start-up companies.

I am an active member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the largest professional organization in the world counting 420.000 members in over 160 countries, including the most successful professors from the top universities in the world, engineers and computer scientists. In this institute, I serve on a Publication Services and Products Board, I am the editor of the publication IMPACT, president of IEEE for the state of Victoria in Australia, and vice-president for IEEE Young Professionals on global level. This work allows me to travel all around the world and meet many successful people and also people from our Ex-Yu region who genuinely care about helping Bosnia and Herzegovina. I am a Founder of The La Trobe University Innovation & Entrepreneurship Foundry (LIEF) lab which is an inter-disciplinary research, development and commercialization laboratory based in the School of Engineering & Mathematical Sciences at La Trobe University. LIEF will also be fully operational in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2017.  I am already doing a great amount of work in BiH but I think that at this point I can add more value to BIH while I am outside of the country.  I want to connect successful Diaspora to help citizens of BiH. My goal is to provide an environment for students and young professionals to work and stay in BIH. I am investing financially as well as other resources, technical and non-technical knowledge for to create working conditions for them to stay in BiH. Without young people the future of BiH will be nonexistent.

So in summary, it is fair to say that I never actually left Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Your fans and followers are from Japan, Russia, India, Europe and especially the USA! How do people react when you say you are Bosnian?

Every day I try to be the best possible ambassador for Bosnia and Herzegovina. I am pleased to say that a vast majority of people who I encounter have at least heard of our country. This was not the case 10 years ago. BiH playing at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil certainly played a big part! I do spend a lot of time explaining to people where BiH is located, the rich history of the country and region, and the fact that many successful people were born there. I have been told by many scientists and engineers that I do a great job for tourism in BiH as I have enticed many of them to visit. Most recently my friend and colleague Prof. Greg Adamson from Australia visited BiH based on my recommendation. He gave several guest lectures and really enjoyed our culture.

Background story

From the early childhood he was always thirsty for knowledge and technology is something that fascinated him. He had everything but a stable education environment as a young kid. He was on the brink of finishing my first year of primary education in Tuzla when the war started. Eddie’s family fled to Switzerland with the start of the war. However, he stayed to finish the first grade of school in Tuzla with his grandparents. At that time he did not anticipate that the war was going to be such a long winded saga. When it was clear that the war was not going to cease, his grandfather smuggled him out of the country to Switzerland where he joined my family. It is not very common for a young individual to change numerous schools in the early stages of their education but in Switzerland he went from 6 schools in 24 months as a result of being a refugee. They were constantly moved around to accommodate new refugees. It was difficult to learn in an environment where you are constantly moving schools but after 3 years finally settled into a school where he felt comfortable there only to be told that we were emigrating to Australia! He spent almost 4 years in Switzerland as a refugee before moving to Australia, a place he now calls home. Upon their arrival to Australia, his parents, who are also high-educated, insisted that his brother and him to get a good education. He grew up in a suburb of Melbourne where the population is mostly working class and attended one of the worst schools in the entire city because his parents could not send him to a private school. However, that did not diminish his desire for science and knowledge and with the maximum results achieved, he was able to enroll into one of the leading Australian universities, La Trobe.


Interview by Zejna SY

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