Talk may be cheap, but it can help bring a suddenly teeming start-up community closer to bigger miners and their “solution” needs, a panel discussion involving mining heavyweights BHP and Rio Tinto in Perth, Western Australia, has heard.
If a mining technology start-up had something truly innovative, a strong ESG proposition, or could improve or solve a current industry problem, and was scalable, then the industry would these days be listening, BHP head of innovation Grant Caffery told an audience of predominantly mining and energy start-ups at CORE Innovation Hub’s Perth headquarters.
“It all starts with a conversation,” Caffery said.
“We have a huge challenge; the world has a huge challenge and BHP is here to help solve that challenge and we can’t do it by ourselves.
“So come along and talk to us and then we’ll solve the challenge together.”
Caffery was one of four speakers on a panel moderated by CORE’s co-founder Tamryn Barker that preceded CORE’s awards ceremony announcing its 2023 Hot 30 list of innovators.
Co-panelist and industry representative, Rachelle Doyle, Rio Tinto’s research and development manager, said more “system thinking” was needed.
“An area that we’re still seeing a lot is the need to create more system thinking around the start-up community,” she said.
“They’ve got great ideas, but they don’t understand where it’s going to fit in the long term and what will make it truly successful.
“That’s an area where collaboration is the key to success.”
Doyle said there was still some way to go for mining companies to become more receptive to accepting outside innovation, but inroads were being made.
“It’s about us being really clear and articulating, not in a prescriptive way, but articulating what the true challenges are that allow this innovation to come to the table,” she said.
“And then having a lot of very early dialogue around different scenarios and use cases that allows those working with us to understand all the different pathways to success, but also where there might be things they need to think about much earlier than historically get thought about so we can try and avoid some of the valley-of-death experiences that come with scale up.
“It’s about being more articulate and then really constant open and honest dialogue, which only can come when you’ve got a really solid relationship that’s actually built on a partnership rather than a commercial service model.
“We’ve got a long way to go. It takes a long time to change and build the right innovation cultures in the companies.”
Caffery said he’d seen a massive increase in the number of mining technology start-ups in the past five years.
“There’s just so many more [mining technology] start-ups, both in the digital space and also in the hard-tech space as well. And that’s a fantastic outcome for us,” he said.
“Seeing all of the start-ups out there we actually have to move a lot faster to keep up with them.
“Some people will still think that we move slow, but we’re actually moving a lot faster than what we were.
“Things like we have special terms for innovation projects for our purchase orders so that we don’t spend six months talking over IP clauses, etc.
“We’re actually changing the way we do things.”
Scott Vile from IP firm Wrays told the audience a key to a successful start-up was matching a problem to an industry solution, and workshopping a solution together.
“I think that’s one of the best ways to get the innovation out there and up and running rather than the inventor do it in isolation and think they’ve got a solution that the mines want,” he said.
Lauren McGregor, from Resource Capital Funds, agreed.
She cited one of RCF’s investments, Australian tailings management equipment company, Phibion, that worked with Lynas Rare Earths at its Mt Weld mine in Western Australia. She said Phibion’s technology helped Lynas avoid building a second tailings dam, resulting in major cost and environmental benefits.
“I would just encourage people to collaborate, use networks such as CORE to try and find your way to that end user who’s really going to take notice and be willing to move forward with you as a partner,” she said.
“We’re open to the technology that is going to make change to anywhere across the mining spectrum, and a company that’s looking to grow.
“Don’t be afraid to come and have a chat.”
Vile echoed McGregor’s sentiment.
“The first consultation is free,” he quipped.
“Talk generally doesn’t cost much.”