by Chris McGivern & SF Team, 1 December 2019
Luka Mustafa came to the Shuttleworth Foundation programme in March 2015 to work on Koruza. His initial goal was to create 3D-printed, low-cost, wireless optical systems and provide last-mile Internet connectivity for individuals and communities in high-density urban areas. Today, less than four years later, the scope of his work has taken in IoT devices and radio wireless networking in conservation, 3D bioprinting and advanced incubators for cell growth.
While age is no barrier for the Shuttleworth Foundation, Luka was fresh out of college when he applied and his youth made us think twice. But his journey throughout his Fellowship and beyond has far exceeded our expectations, and his work has completely shifted thinking in many different fields - including our own. Needless to say, we made the right decision…
Luka Mustafa has been building things for a long, long time. His earliest memories are of disassembling and reassembling wooden toys in his grandfather’s workshop in Slovenia as a three-year old boy, and at school he was the youngest to join a hobby workshop class building model planes. You can almost imagine him writing off LEGO Technic as ‘too basic’ before he stopped believing in Santa Clause.
But his first taste of recognised success came as part of the technical crew for his high school musical theatre, when the students were given the opportunity to give the auditorium system a full technical redesign.
“We had a complete free hand,” reflects Luka. “It was a big success, an incredible learning experience and a massive boost. We won an award for Eastern Europe’s most advanced setup.
“It got to the point where the company let us install everything. We were building our own theatre and getting a real world thing going on instead of just messing around. We knew what we wanted and we knew it would work - they just let us get building.”
By the age of eighteen, Luka was taking on high skilled jobs in sound engineering - working odd jobs, concerts and tours - while building electronics in his spare time. The real change to his trajectory came when he got involved with the building of an open wireless network called WLAN Slovenia with a group of friends.
“We were deploying a nationwide, community-driven network for free Internet access,” says Luka. “It was just a hobby, but I became quite involved in the world of wireless networking. At one of the global events I met with (Shuttleworth Fellow) Paul Gardner-Stephen. I did some work with him on the Serval project, helping out with designing new technology solutions. At the same time, I got accepted to UCL in London to do engineering.
“So I was rapidly gaining a lot of knowledge while being very active in community networking for a few years. I was invited to speak and consult on how to empower people with open wireless network at an event in the Republic of Kyrgyzstan.
“It was very far away, post-revolution, and WiFi was not exactly legal for outdoor use. So I suggested - almost as a joke - that we might as well try and use lasers and avoid all the legal trouble.”
In typical Luka fashion, he decided to pick up that very subject for his Bachelor’s Degree, and within a year had built a functional prototype of a laser-based communications system. It went well, so he took a break from studying to work on it full-time, funded with the help of a combination of student awards foundational support, including an NL Net grant and a Shuttleworth Flash Grant from Paul Gardner-Stephen. He also found the time to design a 3D printer and one hundred units for a hobby electronics society in Slovenia.
Following that year, Luka moved back to college and did his Master’s on building a wireless optical network - a project that eventually became known as Koruza.
Luka applied to the Shuttleworth Fellowship programme in his final year of university. He was an excellent candidate. While the youngest person ever to join the Foundation community, his experience and achievements belied his age, and his Koruza project promised fresh thinking to the last-hundred metre access problem existing in both developed and developing worlds. Furthermore, he was already well-entrenched in the ideas and principles of open source.
“I grew up with open source through the wireless networking community,” says Luka. “I learned electronics through a hobby society and people posting stuff online. Open communities, open processes - it’s made me who I am today.”
Luka’s Fellowship began in March 2015. Initially, his work with Koruza would focus on creating a low-cost wireless optical system for connecting buildings up to 100m apart. It was a new way of using current technology, and we hoped it would shift the current connectivity landscape. Over the next three years, Luka delivered so much more.
One of the reasons the Shuttleworth Foundation invests in people and not projects is because it enables more innovative, exploratory work. Had Luka been awarded funding solely for Koruza, it would have been a success and everyone could go home happy.
But by investing in an individual working openly, creativity can flourish within the settings of a fellowship in unexpected ways.
“Koruza is a fully open source wireless optical networking product available on the market,” explains Luka. “Our current work on this isn’t so much selling the product as doing custom developments for different applications. And because this is open source, we can freely talk about how it is built, share it, and generate joint ideas and new concepts - and we help advance the whole field.
“But what started with Koruza quickly turned into something else. Three and a half years after the start of the Fellowship, I’m running a company - Institute Irnas - with ten employees doing an incredible amount of cool projects in various fields.
“Through the Koruza process I have developed the idea of future proofed hardware, which is essentially bringing out the benefits of open source, through all different kinds of work.”
That work has increased in scope significantly, in three specific business streams. Alongside Koruza, Luka and his team is now developing products and systems for IoT devices and radio wireless networking, and 3D bioprinting.
“In the IoT field we are building everything from conservation monitoring devices to LORA IoT devices for Alasdair Davies. These are deployed everywhere from Antarctica to Peru. The technological components of that are being reused by lots of different projects and people, and we have a number of things going on in the IoT sphere of devices.
“On a technical level, we are, essentially, a hub that joins a lot of conservation projects together, developing unique solutions for everyone in partnership. We aren’t building a brand new solution for every partner, but instead building on top of previous solutions.
“We also work with Tarek Loubani, where we are optimising our design system for medical devices - open source ECGs and Pulse Oximeters - that adhere to his need to be mobile and build anywhere in the world.”
For the third stream of work - 3D bioprinting - Luka has expanded his team with biology expertise to understand the needs of biomedical research, and coupled it with the engineering credentials available at IRNAS. Together, this creates a globally unique position and capacity to create new solutions, and a broad range of clients are benefitting.
“We’re building some really cool solutions from that perspective,” explains Luka. “We are doing 3D hydrogel printing for growing cells - printing the blood vessels within an ear and adding cells to it to grow structures into a 3D shape.
“Lately, we are working with Isha Datar and New Harvest,” he adds. “For her project we are developing an advanced incubator to do the cell tissue growth.
“It has a lot of components and similarities to the 3D bioprinter, as well as the IoT side where this needs to be controlled and managed as an IoT device. We provide the incubator now so they can grow cells for their tissue development process.”
Today, Luka and his sharp, motivated team are operating at the very forefront of open hardware innovation. It hasn’t gone unnoticed in the wider world - Institute Irnas is now recognised as a place of learning in Slovenia and able to host PhD students and help them graduate.
While it’s clear that Luka’s Fellowship has proved incredibly successful, he happily admits it hasn’t all been plain sailing.
“We tried a number of things and failed a bunch of times during the course of the Fellowship,” he reflects. “One of the key learnings was not doing too many projects and at one point there was too much going on. There were lots of fails on my side that didn’t work out.
“We’ve also done a lot of projects which turned out to be more philanthropic without leading towards a sustainable life for us.
“But the great thing about the Fellowship is it is an excellent opportunity to fail with zero pain, however, with very significant learning,” he continues. “I was left free to explore whichever way I wanted to do it. That, as an experiment, is really incredible.
“The Foundation was willing to support us and it’s interesting what came out of that - something completely new and fresh compared to the original idea. There have been a few dead ends in the process, but all of them are extremely useful for learning new skills and good processes, so no one else has to go through this.
“We’ve now optimised quite a bit for other fellows who need hardware solutions, because we have gone through the process already - the learning has already been done.”
“Four years ago, I was at university and living in a rented room in London,” says Luka. “Now I’ve built a reasonably serious engineering company that now does a bunch of different things. I’ve had to learn everything from running the business and the different engineering aspects, through to marketing and building a capable team. I’ve learned everything in the Fellowship process.
“As a learning experience I would recommend this to anybody. I’ve gained everything and I’m really grateful to the Shuttleworth Foundation for believing in me and my ideas, and letting me do what I dreamed of.”
As we look back on the ten years since we began our fellowship model, it’s interesting that Luka’s story mirrors part of our own journey. Just as we have expanded from telecommunications into conservation monitoring, bioprinting and medical devices, so has he.
But importantly, he has played a huge role in enabling us to explore these areas with deeper insight and more evolved thinking. Our early experiments with funding open hardware delivered mixed results, whereas Luka has created a cornerstone from which new challenges can be met by fellows past, present and future.
In 2007, Andrew Rens began a Fellowship working on intellectual property that laid the building blocks for much of our work over the last decade. We think Luka has established a similar foundation for the future of open hardware.