The audience listens to startup spark talks from Quaise and Ginkgo Bioworks.

On December 11th, Newlab convened a group of nearly 50 mining companies, cutting-edge startups, academic researchers, and industry experts for the inaugural Prospect Mining Summit. The Summit was a milestone event for the Prospect Mining Studio, a partnership between the Vimson Group and Newlab which aims to apply frontier technology to advance the natural resource and mineral mining industry. 

The Summit represented the culmination of the initial research and discovery phase of the Prospect Mining Studio program. Startups arrived eager to learn from industry experts and explore opportunities to apply a diverse range of technologies, including robotics, AI and computer vision, renewable energy, advanced networking technologies and synthetic biology to use-cases and challenges in natural resource and mining industries. The Prospect team was able to observe new approaches to understanding mining challenges, while identifying unique technical capabilities that could be applied to these problems. 

Satish Rao, Newlab’s CPO, explains the Prospect Mining Studio’s unique approach to innovation in the natural resource and mining industries.

The day started with introductions from Satish Rao, Newlab’s Chief Product Officer, Scott Cohen, Co-Founder of Newlab and Vivek Salgaocar, Director of the Vimson Group. They each touched on their vision for the Prospect Mining Studio to be a catalytic platform for applying advanced technologies to natural resource mining and sparking new cross-sector collaborations between the industry and a diverse set of entrepreneurs, scientists, engineers and investors. Attendees also celebrated the momentum the program has built since its launch, including receiving over 70 applications from teams in five continents, many of whom were in the room at the Summit. Cohen highlighted the unique environment the Studio is providing for industry experts and innovators, saying, “Newlab is building a learning system within the Prospect Mining Studio. When you can create a space for people to take chances and have courage, phenomenal things can happen.” 

The custom research tool developed for Prospect Mining by Graph Commons, a Newlab member company working at the intersection of data science and visualization, was a focal point for the next session. Prospect Mining used this research tool to track thousands of startups, corporations, research institutions and investors with potential impact on the mining industry, clustering organizations based on both technology and use case to create a comprehensive map of a complex innovation ecosystem that could be applied to the mining industry. Burak Arikan, the founder of Graph Commons, highlighted connections, clusters of activity and new opportunity areas that were revealed within this map. Arikan also illustrated the diversity and potential impact of the participants in the room through a map designed specially for the Summit. 

These introductions to the Prospect Mining Studio and research methods grounded participants in the background knowledge of the industry and Studio program needed to take part in an afternoon of active workshop activities. 

Startups and mining experts work together to tackle industry challenges during a workshop session.

The workshop, led by Roby Stancel of VCI, leveraged design thinking principles to identify and expand upon common challenges within six focus areas. These challenges became the basis for specific solutions defined by participants over the course of the workshop. The identified areas were: 

  • Super Powers, Super Safe – A Closer Look at Worker Safety 
  • Understanding the Ore – Intelligent Tools for Exploration
  • Optimal Mining – Leveraging Data Throughout the Mining Value Chain
  • Continuous Processes – Eliminating Extraction Bottlenecks
  • Water and Tailings – Redesigning the Water Cycle for Minimal Environmental Impact
  • Energy Efficiency – Decarbonizing the Mining Process

Stancel situated each of these themes within the overall mining value chain, providing important context for the startups in the room, many of whom had minimal prior exposure to the industry. 

A workshop team presents their solution to the audience.

Inspirational spark talks came from two startups who provided specific examples of applied entrepreneurship within the focus areas. The first presentation came from Quaise, a startup that uses millimeter wave drilling technology to access new sources of geothermal energy. The second company, Ginkgo Bioworks, described an extensive list of current applications for synthetic biology, as well as the potential for applying their methodology for quickly discovering, testing and scaling new biological tools to the mining and resource industries. 

The results of the workshop were concepts  from each group that were directional and impactful but also felt achievable. Presented concepts included: 

  • Novel concepts in synthetic biology that allow mining waste to be repurposed as valuable material
  • New tools to sort ore as it is extracted from the rock face
  • Multimodal water sourcing and circular energy solutions which create aquaponic systems while filtering mine waste 
  • Data streams that leverage machine learning to provide insights throughout the mining value chain and help ensure worker safety by scanning for environmental hazards

These compelling ideas demonstrate the potential of applying startup capabilities and an entrepreneurial mindset to an industry that is not known for taking risks or investing in emerging technologies. Over the course of the Summit, startup participants received an in-depth look at the breadth of challenges that exist within the industry and became increasingly excited about the potential of working with mining customers on specific projects and applications. For the mining experts and mining companies who were present, they were exposed to the ideation process used in design thinking, the art of the possible with frontier technologies and an entrepreneurial approach for solving problems. Stakeholders from both groups had the opportunity to work in a truly collaborative environment and engage in a peer-to-peer manner. To quote one participant, “you probably had the biggest mining company and the smallest mining company in the world both in that room, and we were able to see that we are facing exactly the same challenges.” 

As Vivek Salgaocar stated in his opening remarks, “The mining industry has lasted longer than any of us, and will last longer than any of us.” The Prospect Mining Summit was an opportunity to see how this long-lasting, vital industry can become safer, more sustainable, and more resource efficient through innovation.

In the coming weeks the Prospect Mining team and advisors will use the themes and concepts identified during the Summit as a prompt for designing projects and selecting startups who are ready to build these ideas out into pilot-ready solutions. By working closely with program advisors and industry experts these startups will be able to apply entrepreneurship to mining challenges and build solutions which are ready to perform within the unique conditions of a mining site, driving real value and sustainability to the industry. 

Burak Arikan of Graph Commons meets with startup participants.