MineHub Technologies’ aim to build digital highways connecting mining and metals markets, suppliers and buyers, and inevitably toll-gates, too, is no small ambition for a Canadian microcap. “The network effects are really working against you,” CEO Arnoud Star Busmann concedes, before adding, until they’re not.
Busmann spent more than nine years at Dutch bank ING and led a team focused on building blockchain-based platform ventures to digitalise commodity trading and financing. He says while the underlying technology can be applied in any commodity trading arena, “for good or bad reasons, or by accident, we chose mining and metals as a go-to-market sector”.
“We saw in mining and metals a way to get to critical mass in the market through our relationship with BHP, with Sumitomo and others, which is essential if you want to change these markets,” Busmann told InvestMETS.com.
The early proof-of-concept work with mining major BHP and Japanese industrial conglomerate Sumitomo Corporation has morphed into MineHub commercial agreements with both companies. The latter has described MineHub as the “most mature blockchain-based post-trade platform in metals and mining”.
Most recently, after a US$2.5 million scrip deal to buy another SaaS platform developer, Waybridge Technologies, MineHub has signed up Chilean copper giant Codelco.
“Critical mass essentially relates to having the majority of the volumes of the industry,” Busmann said.
“We’re engaged in various levels of activity with more than 50% of the global copper mining production volumes.
“Similarly, we are very close and working with about two-thirds of smelter capacity in China and Japan.
“There’s nobody in the copper market that comes close to what we’re doing in terms of the post-trade dataset.”
The catch-22 for MineHub and others trying to become a byword for secure, digital commodity trading is that platform users who don’t want to be first to engage with anything new, and to have to reset decades of rusted-on processes and systems, derive maximum efficiency and other dividends only when everyone else in their network is on board.
Someone has to go first.
On the MineHub side of the equation, and particularly when it comes to high-stakes, multi-party commodity trade, being a small and innocuous-looking intermediary is the requisite antithesis of a hegemon as long as you’ve got backing to see you through a protracted build phase. The Toronto-listed company’s shares are tightly held by select institutions, management and other insiders, with a circa-40% retail component.
It’s fair to say any forward momentum for MineHub over the past year hasn’t been reflected in its share price.
“It’s sometimes soul destroying,” Busmann says. “It can really ruin my weekends looking at it [share price] because you put out good news and the share price goes down.”
A lack of liquidity for small-cap companies in a broader tech sector that’s off the boil has meant “it might only take somebody selling 5000 shares to ruin my weekend”.
The company is currently raising a further $1.5 million of equity funding and has promised greater transparency on revenues and breakeven cashflow timing in the second half of this year.
“I think as people start looking at the numbers we publish in our quarterly updates, they’ll see a good positive trend … every quarter,” Busmann says.
“We are starting to generate an accelerating revenue as a company, which comes with the acceleration of our network and the ability to start charging for those services. And that’s by design and by nature; it’s an exponential curve because of the network effects.
“Digitisation has changed every single industry. Mining and metal supply chains are still working as if there was no digitisation. You get a bit of email and Excel, but that’s about it. Everybody knows that transformation is going to happen because the benefits are too big.
“But network effects are working against it, because to change the way supply chains work … at least two parties need to start changing the way they work. So you’re not selling to one company, you’re selling to a company and their customers and their suppliers.
“You’re selling to an industry.
“Everyone says, it’s just too hard.
“Once you start reversing those network effects it becomes almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy. The risk [for would-be users] goes from, why should I do this, to, why are we not doing this?
“The key players will always hedge their bets. There will always be an alternative. There should be.
“But the data used in these supply chains is huge. Contracts, pricing, logistics, specifications, all kinds of stuff. There are many ways you can use that dataset for specific purposes, but somebody has to capture all the data, which traditionally has not all been captured in the one [place].
“If you are that [place] you have the ability to provide a high-value service to your customers, in terms of the visibility and completeness of the data. A network expands the value of the dataset.
“I don’t see any other company than us doing that.
“Once you’re there it gets quite sticky because it’s a network and it’s not easy to change network every year. But the network effects create a lot of value for customers, too, because it does add to their ability to retain customers.
“The way I look at it, we are building digital highways between markets, suppliers [and] buyers.
“If you want to go from Amsterdam to Paris, there’s a number of ways you can get there. Some of them are much better than others. Some of them take much longer than others. Some of them are more expensive than others.
“Our job is to make sure we’ve got the best highway where you’ve got seamless provision of services, great customer service for the companies that put their cargo on that highway, and we compete on that basis.”
Busmann sees emblems such as The Copper Mark – being promoted by miners, traders and end-users to symbolise “responsible production of copper” – as another tailwind for platforms such as MineHube and Waybridge.
“There’s a whole new level of pain emerging on the ESG side and the governance side, particularly around trade regulations,” he says.
“If you don’t have the data to provide evidence of … the primary emissions content of a shipment, or the provenance of materials, you’re basically going to be shut out of markets.
“You’re going to be shut out of battery minerals markets such as the US.
“In the EU you’ve got the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) coming into effect. Fifty thousand companies need to disclose the provenance of key materials and purchases.
“So I think the threshold of pain changes because of that ESG dataset that needs to accumulated and that’s harder to get because it really requires you to reach deep into your supply chains to access that information. Then you have to pray that the data is correct right.
“So to be able to automate that data collection and verification is a risk mitigant against fines which can be substantial, or make sure you keep your market.”