Mining tech entrepreneur Shelby Yee on the productive potential of startups and miners working togetherShelby Yee has launched her career with one foot in the mining world and one in the tech startup realm, and it is that experience that has shaped her belief that the two sectors have a lot to offer the other. Yee, who graduated in 2016 with a bachelors of applied science in geological engineering from Queen’s University, is co-founder and CEO of RockMass Technologies Inc., a Toronto-based company that offers a data-collection solution to help mining companies better understand rock mechanics. Specifically, the company’s Axis Mapper tool calculates dip and dip direction and can combine that information with other data – such as rock mass rating (RMR) and Q inputs, stereonets and colour images – and integrate everything with a company’s existing database. RockMass engaged with Nexa Resources, a major zinc producer, and field tested its prototype in one of Nexa’s working mines. The company worked with Nexa’s engineers and operators to advance the Axis Mapper solution by improving its ease of use and integrating workflow functionalities used by Nexa’s geotechnical teams.
CIM Magazine spoke with Yee about how startups can work with traditional mining companies to move technology forward. CIM: Tell us about your background and how you came to be part of the mining industry? Yee: At Queen’s University, I studied geological engineering. I focused a lot of my studies in rock mechanics and geo-tech, which are very design and modelling focused. I had also been a field methods teaching assistant, so had done a lot of the field mapping, which is similar to that in the mining industry, and I saw all the difficulties and the room there is for error with the approach. So, essentially I mirrored many mining geotechnical activities and started to engage in the mining industry by sharing our similar experiences. When we started RockMass, the best way for me to dive into (the industry) was just to drive to Sudbury and to Timmins, and sit with mining companies, their engineering teams. I’d ask them everything about their day, what they were doing, where their inconveniences were. Then I’d show them some core ideas or concepts of what we were initially working on, which was much different than what it is today. And really just step by step, we validated where the solution fit best, and where we draw the most value with these engineering teams. CIM: How does “startup culture” fit into the mining industry? Yee: The startup world is such a contrast to how many mining operations work. The advantages of a startup are you can build and test things very quickly – you are open to taking more risk, with (perhaps) a development path. You’re able to realize completely new things. If you’re a startup, you're looking at something a little bit differently than it’s been looked at for the last 10 or even 100 years because you’re trying to find that strong competitive advantage and something users are excited to adopt. I think it’s really critical that startups become more embedded in the mining industry for it to see big changes moving forward. CIM: You mentioned benefits like building and testing things quickly, but what other benefits can be reaped by embedding startups in mining companies? Yee: Mining companies can meet the biggest need of a startup, which is when “we’ve proven out everything in a simulated environment, we proved it in a lab, we proved it on a road cut, or at a test mine such as NORCAT, we need to validate that everything is going to work in an operating mine.” That’s really the first step. And I think mines are open to that. The benefit for Nexa is that they are getting to see things firsthand, so Nexa has a lot of influence in guiding our product because we’re getting a lot of feedback from them. We validate that with other mining companies, but they really have a guiding hand. It’s easier to build something from the ground up the way you want, rather than change the existing system. This is a huge advantage and organizational benefit for both the company and its users. CIM: What are the challenges when established mining companies get involved with startups? Yee: I think the biggest challenge is that when you work with a technology that’s benefiting the operations, the best person to work with is the end user, the operator. But when you’re on site, and you talk to that engineer or operator, they have no time. The really key piece we have with Nexa Resources that has helped the project stay on track and be successful is that we have a project manager at Nexa. His role is dedicated to technology implementation. He manages the product and works with us and with the engineers so it’s not an added workload on the operators. CIM: Can you offer some tips or best practices for mining companies working with startups? Yee: Some companies will say “Come test in our mine, the mine is yours. When you’re here, we'll spend time with you, but after that, we'll see you in a year. Let us know how it goes.” But that year is so critical. In working very closely together with Nexa, for example, we were able to realize many more peripheral benefits, so our solution now offers a much greater value to their operation thanks to the continuous testing. Another consideration is, throughout that project, the end users are very familiar with the product, so it decreases the risk because we’re designing to what they need continuously. It’s a step-by-step, or stage-gate approach. And the total training time when they do use it is significantly less, because they already know how it works, and how it should be used. Also, a lot of people like to do trials. And they'll put a lot of investment into a trial all at once. I think there is value in breaking it down into a few steps as you go. The key thing is that you want to be able to validate the core value proposition as early as possible, and spend a smaller amount of money in doing that. If the mining company can take a step back and say, “Okay, we’re going to work with startup companies earlier. We’re going to fund a little bit to validate the key value that it has for our organization. Then we’ll put in a little bit more money for it to become more of a product,” and so on. CIM: What recommendations do you have for miners looking to partner with startups? Yee: Just what to look for. If I’m a mining executive, and I don't know anything about startups, how do I know that a company is ready to work with a mining company? Usually they have a commercialization partner. So that may be a NORCAT or a MaRS or CEMI. Usually, there is some type of proof that the technology works in a lab environment. So that might be through published research, it could be through lab tests. But there’s some core scientific approach to seeing that this technology is valid. And I would say, there’s some proof of a prototype. And along with technology validation, there is also a bit of a business validation, an understanding of initial positioning. I think that’s the point when you can say, “Okay, we should look at engaging with this startup.” As a mining company, you want the startup to be successful, so that you can continue to benefit from the solution. The partnership must benefit the mining company and help the startup grow to really see that alignment in risk-reward. Finally, be willing to share the joint successes with the greater mining industry to ensure the startup’s continuous growth to bring new technologies into our industry.