Western Australia start-up RockAI was recently named as one of Curtin University’s 2023 Accelerate cohort, gaining access to a A$100,000 equity-free funding pool supported by the state’s lottery agency. We spoke with RockAI founder, Daniel Goldstein.
A geotechnical and mining engineer and geologist who worked in field and mine-based roles over the past decade or so before going back to university to complete a PhD on “rock mass characterisation using measure-while-drilling (MWD) data and machine learning”, Goldstein has recently earned Curtin and Australian Geomechanics Society awards for his research and work on an algorithm for analysing MWD data and providing real-time geotechnical readings.
InvestMETS: Why did you start RockAI?
Daniel Goldstein: As a geologist and mining engineer, I was frustrated. There is significant uncertainty in subsurface data that is used to make operational safety and production decisions, which leads to less sustainable practices. Geotechnical engineering differs greatly from other engineering disciplines, in which materials of known strength and consistency are used. Ground conditions are not consistent, so prior to mining or tunnelling, one must characterise the subsurface and adapt the excavation plan but doing so with exploration drilling is expensive and leaves data gaps. I also witnessed massive amounts of subsurface data being collected and employed for a single purpose, such as MWD data from production blast rigs being used to locate connections between different material types.
This data is frequently stored in a database and accumulates “digital dust” that is rarely used again once resource or geotechnical characterisation as part of a feasibility or implementation study is done.
I researched the academic literature to see if the problem had been solved but not implemented in industry. MWD has a substantial amount of work on classifying various rock types, such as shale versus banded iron formation (BIF). However, not all BIF is the same, since some can be fractured or intact, necessitating intra-lithological classification using numerical predictions.
After identifying a gap in the literature, I enrolled as a PhD candidate at Curtin University’s Western Australian School of Mines.
I was also interested in expanding my knowledge of business principles, but I had a full plate with family, career, and school. I became affiliated with the Curtin Entrepreneurs Hub after winning the 2022 Curtinnovation student award and a scholarship to Curtin Ignition.
RockAI was created to help me learn about business by doing rather than studying. In other words, to go through the problem/market/solution fit process and determine whether the challenge I faced in industry, which also existed in the literature gap, would transfer into a potential business.
InvestMETS: Was it just you who started the company?
Daniel Goldstein: Just myself.
InvestMETS: What have been the three main challenges for you as a start-up, and how have you tackled them?
Daniel Goldstein: Procurement is extremely challenging for a small, innovative company. Bigger organisations are structured to do business with other larger companies, so having an industry partner with existing contacts may be more beneficial in gaining traction in the short term.
Setting aside time to perform market research with potential clients. Again, this is not unique to the mining industry, but everyone appears to be doing considerably more in their responsibilities than in the past due to a lack of technical and professional employees. Thankfully, virtual meetings are increasingly a common means of communication, making it easier to carve out 15 minutes from someone’s busy schedule.
Being overly focused on solutions. From a PhD perspective, you must be solution-focused in order to advance knowledge where no one has gone before. But, that answer may not be the best fit for the market, thus it’s proven beneficial to abandon the initial solution while learning about a potential customer’s problem. Only then can a solution be developed, which may move things in a new path.
InvestMETS: How has being part of the Curtin Accelerate program helped your business?
Daniel Goldstein: Accelerate has assisted me in expanding my business knowledge and capabilities without pursuing a formal degree such as an MBA. Furthermore, Curtin’s Entrepreneurs Centre has provided great access to mentors who have contributed critical insights.
InvestMETS: Why did you choose to apply for Accelerate?
Daniel Goldstein: After attending a couple of start-up bootcamp-style events, I felt like I had a good grasp on the theoretical side of start-ups. Accelerate, on the other hand, truly speeds up one’s comprehension via action. The targeted support for action supplied by those who have developed successful enterprises is far superior to simply content-based approaches.
InvestMETS: Have you learned anything from other program participants?
Daniel Goldstein: Although everyone in the program is at different phases of their journey and has taken different paths, everyone is extremely clear about their ‘why’, or personal motivations for continuing to make the world a better place through their start-ups. With this in mind, I wish to expand orebody understanding to promote improved decision making and dramatically improve mining operations’ sustainability. I am aware of the environmental consequences of mining, but I am also aware of how we rely on natural resources to expand our civilisations. I want digital technologies to position the resources business so that it can offer everyone with the materials they need to live a high-quality life while without harming the environment.
InvestMETS: How much equity-free funding did you receive as part of the program, and what will the funds be used for?
Daniel Goldstein: Curtin offers programme participants a $5,000 equity-free grant. So far, I’ve largely utilised it to investigate market segmentation and primary market research to better understand potential clients’ challenges and suitable solutions. I’ll take advantage of the incentive of an offer from Curtin and Innovation Central Perth to provide a paid internship to an undergraduate student to boost their skills and development.
InvestMETS: What does RockAI’s competition look like?
Daniel Goldstein: The mining industry’s predisposition to resist innovation is the largest rival, not another organisation. With the advancement of digital solutions and technology advancement, this inertia (or current lack thereof) is changing. As part of that cultural shift, a few other start-ups are attempting to collect more information about subsurface conditions using hardware such as sensors.
In my opinion, the mining industry is already drowning in data but starved for knowledge. Before attempting to obtain additional data, we should do the most with what we already have on hand (and have spent a lot of money to capture).
InvestMETS: What are you seeing as the key market trends in the mining tech arena at the moment?
Daniel Goldstein: Automation is at the forefront, whether it’s automating operational equipment like trucks and drills or automating workflows to free up technical and operational employees to focus on jobs that require critical and analytical thinking. Automation also doesn’t necessarily involve AI. While there is an increased tendency to use AI, these methods, including machine learning, aren’t silver bullet, one-size-fit-all solutions and need to be set up properly.
Incorporating environmental, social and governance objectives into mining operational goals is propelling the development of electrified equipment and alternative fuel sources, such as hydrogen, to minimise scope 1 emissions.
Precision mining necessitates a high-resolution understanding of an orebody to mine better grades with less waste, resulting in dilution at a processing facility. Several service providers are integrating and combining separate services that perform orebody knowledge activities. This tendency is also leading mining operators to consider whether larger equipment is more efficient than a smaller but more flexible fleet.