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Secrets, culture clashes and storytelling: What is holding mining innovation back?

  • 2 November 2023

In addition, investors themselves – whether venture capitalists or operators – need to be prepared for failures and take a more collaborative approach towards sharing IP to create an environment that encourages innovation.

The keynote panel discussion on Day 3 of IMARC 2023, titled, Connecting Technology and Investment: How this will Drive Innovation, heard from investors and product developers on the challenges they see facing the METS sector.

Charles Gillies, Director, RCF Jolimont Mining Innovation, said Australia’s METS sector is a world leader, yet it was struggling to tell its story to both its customers and to the wider community. Mr Gillies went on to explain that Australian ranks amongst the best in the world when it comes to innovation in engineering but lamented the fact that the broader public is largely unaware of the industry’s achievements and global leadership.

“We often talk about Australia’s automotive manufacturing heritage, but the METS sector is now a major employer and exporter. Yet, it’s not telling its story very well,” he said.

“This lack of storytelling results in poorer outcomes for operators as great innovations and valuable ideas end up not being implemented and ultimately forgotten.”

Rob Adamson, Executive Chairman at RFC Ambrian agreed, and reflected on why the METS sector hasn’t embraced storytelling in the same way as other sectors have.

“Scientists don’t want to be entrepreneurs and miners don’t want research programs on their sites, so therefore only 10% of really good science makes it into industry,” he said.

Psychological factors are also holding a lot of innovation back. The panel reflected on issues where long-term employees of mining companies rejected new technology that challenged or refuted their traditional ways of operating or highlighted either inefficient or less-accurate models or systems. The way forward, they said, was for the METS sector to improve their “soft” or inter-personal skills to breakdown these barriers and encourage collaboration, which in turn will lead to greater investment.

“If you fail because there is something fundamentally wrong with your technology, that's okay. If it fails because of something you can influence or change, that’s deeply disappointing. Too often people are unwilling to accept new innovation because it goes against their own routine and that’s really hard to change,” said Mr Adamson.

The panel also discussed the importance of getting the underlying business operations right to secure investment. 

Mr Gillies said, “The challenge we see with young firms is that coming up with a really good, innovative idea is incredibly hard. Creating a good business is equally as hard. We see companies focus on the former at the expense of getting the business right, and that makes it hard to invest in. Nothing ever goes smoothly, nothing ever goes to plan, so having an experienced management team is key to riding those challenges.”

The panelists agreed that the inclination of operators to lock everything up under Confidentiality Agreements was stifling innovations. Innovators need to understand the size of a potential market, where the pain points of an operator are, and how they can be solved in a practical manner.  

A recurring theme for IMARC 2023 has been collaboration and this panel also approached this topic and how it is stifling innovation within the sector. The panel agreed the industry often perceives these issues as unique to their own circumstance, whereas reality shows that the challenges are often felt across the entire sector.

Charles Gillies said, “We often see the operators putting their foot on IP by restricting access to everything. It is unable reasonable to assume that innovators are willing to invest the time and effort into projects without knowing the size of the problem or the level of competition within the sector.”

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