Six months after a big private equity raise, Vancouver start-up Ideon Technologies is moving into what management thinks could be an exponential growth phase. “Every facet of the business is growing at the moment,” CEO Gary Agnew says.
“Scale is the watchword for this phase of our journey.
“We’re … scaling manufacturing, scaling our software team, scaling geophysics, scaling deployment, scaling business development.
“We have been hustling as a five-person team, as a 10-person team, a 20-person team; we’re quickly going to be a 50-person team, and a 100-person team after that.
“Scaling the business is priority number one right now.”
Ideon and its muon tomography sensing and software offering have been closely linked with earth scanning for mineral-hosting structures down to about 1km below surface. It is seen as a valuable addition to 21st century exploration toolkits. However, speaking on a recent Harvard Business School podcast, company co-founder Agnew said a significant opportunity for Ideon and its customers was aligning the non-invasive detection technology with new, “surgical” mining approaches that helped expand critical metal output with minimal environmental impact.
“We have the opportunity to help the industry turn the dial on supply volume at a lower ESG impact,” Agnew said.
“That’s where we’re orientated.”
A long-term collaboration with French uranium producer Orano in Canada has highlighted the potential of Ideon’s technology, which integrates muon detectors, imaging systems, inversion technologies and artificial intelligence to produce high-resolution 3D density maps of sub-surface targets.
“Their uranium in Canada is formed in high-density small pods that are very, very difficult to hit with drilling. With our technique we are able to provide a 3D image in exactly the location, size and delineation of those pods.
“The client, Orano Canada, has developed a minimally invasive extraction technique where, instead of an openpit mine, they are actually drilling down and extracting the mineral from the surface … without removing all the earth that’s typically involved in a traditional mining technique.
“Medical imaging was the enabler for keyhole surgery on the human body [which] completely transformed the patient experience.
“Our technology helped [Orano] transform the mining method … and be able to dramatically change the GHG impact and broader environmental impact in that area. These new techniques make mining potentially a much better neighbour with much less impact on the surface of the earth and the communities that surround [mines].
“We are fortunate to be working with some of the leading mining companies in the world.
“The opportunity with those companies is once they get their hands on our technology, understand how it works and what it can do for them, what we find is they have a suite of other projects or sites that they’re engaged in.
“Our technological capabilities are lined up very nicely with the market opportunity and what the world needed in terms of additional metals.”
Nearly 20 years ago former Cameco geophysicist Brian Powell read about experimental use of cosmic-ray muons to radiograph objects and geological structures and went to Canada’s national particle physics laboratory, TRIUMF, to see if there was a chance it could be applied in mineral exploration. A positive answer took several years to emerge and in the meantime a new company, CRM Geotomography Technologies, was set up to commercialise survey imaging technology.
Initially bulky, muon detectors were ultimately miniaturised (50 times smaller than their original form) and inversion methods to combine muon tomography and other data were developed.
In 2020 CRM became Ideon and it kicked off with about US$1 million of seed funding.
Ideon last year raised $16 million in a series A funding round led by Silicon Valley venture capital firm, Playground Global. Playground said Ideon’s “game-changing” subsurface imaging technology was “making low-impact mining a reality”.
It was suggested on the Harvard podcast that Ideon had turned science fiction into something not only real but highly commercially appealing.
“We use the energy from supernova explosions in space to image down to a kilometre beneath the Earth’s surface,” Agnew said.
“We’re using subatomic particles called muons, and muons are very much like an electron, but much heavier. The neat thing about muons is they travel to Earth in straight lines of almost the speed of light.
“As those muons penetrate the earth they are slowed down and ultimately decay based on the density of the mass that they are traveling through.
“That’s really an important crux to our technology.
“We have developed the ability to measure muon intensity and directionality in the earth. And from that we’re able to then produce 2D radiographic images just like an X-ray and 3D representations of density, very analogous to CAT scans in medical imaging.
“And we use that technology to help the global mining industry discover and characterise minerals in the Earth’s crust.
“What we provide is 95% certainty that when we image a density anomaly, it’s really there, or when we confirm there are no density anomalies in that 3D space, that the customer can move on without making further investments in an area that has nothing to yield.
“It is quite a timely commercialisation of this technology, given the global shift to renewable energy, and the requirement for a 500% increase in a range of critical minerals that will enable the energy transition.
“What I’m energised by and really focused on is the shift that this industry is in the middle of making.
“The leaders of this industry recognise they have to play a different role in the future. They have to be a cleaner and more societally orientated. There’s an opportunity for mining to become a critical industry that is about enabling the transition to renewable energy.
“From a difficult past in many regards, the industry has got a hugely exciting future.
“It’s a multi-trillion-dollar industry. It’s got a level of complexity that requires great talent in the sciences, in technologies, in geology, in order to effectively be able to understand, how do we extract the minerals with a minimal impact on the earth and our environment, but extract those minerals in a way that is a sustainable approach to enable this, the planet and the human race, to move forward.
“There is no bigger place at this moment in time for us than the mining business to help that huge industry pivot to being a critical industry.”