Australia has enjoyed a remarkable economic run over the past two decades. It has been almost 25 years since the country last experienced a recession. This has been due in no small part to the growth enjoyed by China over that same period and it’s almost insatiable demand for Australia’s mineral resources, such as iron ore (aka the ‘mining boom’). It is estimated that the resources industry currently accounts for 9% of Australia’s GDP and 48% of its exports. However, in the first decade of this century, productivity in the mining sector decreased by almost a third at a time when disruptive startups in other industries have rapidly innovated to move the needle in the opposite direction.
The scale and capital-intensive nature of modern mining operations would seem to preclude involvement from startup companies. Much of the hype surrounding the current wave of entrepreneurship has focused attention on more glamorous industries, such as social media, finance and travel. Whilst mining has benefited from the adoption of new technologies and operational techniques, it is generally agreed that it could move faster in this regard. The industry’s approach to innovation has typically involved large investments, in the hope that dividends are realised 10 or more years later. One group is trying to change that approach, with a view to demonstrating that significant results can be achieved within 12-18 months of an initial investment.
Late last year local mining body Resource Innovation through Information Technology (RIIT) announced the launch of the Unearthed technology accelerator. Based in Perth, Unearthed is backed by some of Australia’s largest mining companies, including BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto. Unearthed is specifically targeting entrepreneurs with ideas for mining-focused startups. Its aim is to bring together some of the region’s top software developers, designers and data scientists in a series of hackathons where participants tackle current real world problems faced by mining companies. The accelerator is intended to help form new startup companies and then connect them to industry mentors and customers. Participants can subsequently find themselves invited to join the accelerator and qualify for seed investment, office space and legal advice.
There are four such events scheduled for cities around Australia in 2015. The first of these was held in Perth in late March. The gathering attracted more than 80 participants, who worked in teams to produce 15 prototype solutions in a single weekend! The team that won – ‘JBay’ – were successful with their innovative approach to using signal processing and analysis to identify promising exploration opportunities in mineral sands.
Unearthed Perth Hackathon March 2015:
The next Unearthed event is scheduled to take place in Brisbane from 15th-17th May, followed later in the year by events in Sydney (September) and Melbourne (November). Over the course of these events, Unearthed expects to expose > 20 existing mining industry problems to 300 innovators. If the 2015 program is successful, it is hoped that in 2016 the accelerator will be able to support up to 10 startups at a time. Each company that is invited to join the accelerator can hope to receive $70,000 in seed funding, in exchange for a 10 percent equity stake.