June 2018

Flexible frontiers for the future of mining

  • By Justin Strharsky, Founding Director, Unearthed

How energy and resources sector organisations can expand and contract their borders to benefit from external talent, skills and opportunities

Many energy and resources sector businesses are finding it challenging to set their borders to meet staff resourcing needs in the face of significant technological transformation.

Traditional ‘hard’ organisational borders rely on sourcing and hiring smart tech talent or upskilling existing employees internally. The alternative is softer, permeable borders that can take advantage of external talent, skills and opportunities.

The concept of companies with porous borders that can expand and contract depending on organisational needs is not a new one.

According to Shaughnessy and Vitalari, these are called ‘elastic enterprises’ (2012). An elastic enterprise is one where growth and profitability rely on a range of external factors and automated business relationships that help scale business at low cost relative to the returns made possible by elasticity.

At Unearthed, we believe in the power of entrepreneurship to transform individuals and communities, to create economic opportunities and to address global challenges.

For our industry collaborators, this means access to a global network of innovators, with whom they can engage according to their needs. They can benefit from the globally distributed nature of talent and apportion risk differently.

One approach is to hold an online competition such as those run by Unearthed. Why hire 20 data scientists when you can access 200 individuals with the best digital talent from 20 countries to solve your specific industry challenge over a week, aligning interest for both companies and participants for the length of the competition, with the possibility of ongoing engagement?

What is important for our community of students, entrepreneurs and innovators is accessing verifiable challenges and real opportunities, which in turn improve the efficiency and competitiveness of the energy and resources sector.

According to a McKinsey & Company February 2017 report, entitled ‘Beyond the Supercycle: How Technology is Reshaping Resources’, technological advances will change supply and demand dynamics in the resource sector, raising productivity, increasing energy efficiency and unlocking value of between $900 billion and $1.6 trillion to the global economy by 2035.

Since our first hackathon, over 4000 individuals have engaged with Unearthed, forming a talented and ever-expanding network of innovators across Australia, South Africa, the US, Canada and South America.

With the support of our resources technology community, we have run 26 hackathons in 14 cities, six online competitions, two accelerator programs and four demo days; addressed over 100 industry challenges generating terabytes of data; witnessed the development of over 400 prototype solutions and distributed over $250 000 in cash and $150 000 in credits and prizes.

So, over the last five years, how have we seen energy and resources sector organisations stretch their borders? Let’s look at a few companies who have benefited from leveraging external talent, skills and opportunities.

Hydro Saver

Over four weeks from 22 January-19 February 2018, Newcrest and Unearthed ran Hydro Saver, the first trial online challenge of The Newcrest Crowd, a crowdsourcing industry platform powered by Unearthed.

Hydro Saver was the pilot in a forthcoming series of online challenges to be hosted on the Newcrest platform. Analytically ambitious participants were invited to develop an algorithm that predicted mine tailings underflow density, thereby helping to recover water for reuse within one of Newcrest’s processing plants, ultimately providing cost, environmental and social benefits.

Participation in the Hydro Saver online challenge was truly global, with entrants from countries such as Canada, India, the US, Argentina, China and South Africa. 150 highly-skilled individuals formed teams who submitted over 750 predictive models.

‘The Hydro Saver online challenge was a resounding success,’ said Newcrest Chief Information and Digital Officer Gavin Wood. ‘We had 25 teams from over ten countries competing to devise a method capable of predicting tailing underflow density three hours ahead of time,’ he said. ‘Newcrest is very proud to be leading the world in leveraging crowd sourcing through this innovative platform, solving highly complex business problems for the mining industry.’

Unearthed is excited by this program of challenges that allows the best innovators worldwide to identify, develop and implement new solutions for real-world, multimillion-dollar applications. Hydro Saver is the first of an ongoing series of challenges that will open real opportunities in one of the world’s largest industries.

Digital Tribes Houston

From 16-23 February 2018 at Station Houston, Unearthed hosted the second of two Digital Tribes hackathon events. Digital Tribes Houston was an initiative from Unearthed and BHP to attract more digital talent to the industry and pre-empt the wave of digital disruption that is poised to hit.

Technological advances will come about by what we see as an addition to the resources sector – crowdsourced digital talent. And the Digital Tribes Houston hackathon event brought together a local and international community of innovators to be a catalyst for this transformation. The week-long hackathon event offered $5000 in prize money, with an additional $2000 awarded on the final night of judging, as well as a three-month paid work experience in technology at BHP Petroleum in Houston.

‘It’s not just the diversity of skills in total that are here, but even on the teams, some of the best ones are the ones that have a mixture of backgrounds, due to the tension of different backgrounds working together. Ultimately, it’s a step up in the creativity of the solution,’ said David Purvis, Vice President, Engineering, BHP Petroleum.

‘One of the biggest benefits for me has been the way we’ve built relationships. I honestly can’t think of how I would have come in to contact with you guys in the absence of an event like this. We are hugely appreciative of what you’ve brought here,’ said Geraldine Slattery, Asset President Conventional, BHP Petroleum.

Nathan Reddy, winner of Digital Tribes Houston 2018.

Komatsu: Transform Mining

Another important community for industry to open up their borders and engage with is the resources technology entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Fourteen start-ups comprising over 50 innovators came together at co-working and tech hub River City Labs in Fortitude Valley, Queensland from 23-25 February 2018 to take part in a mining technology hackathon with a twist – Komatsu: Transform Mining.

On opening night, start-ups pitched their existing technologies to Komatsu, and then over the weekend, the entrepreneurs worked closely with Komatsu mentors and personnel from across the business, who offered deep insights into their current operations, technology gaps, implementation, integration, and future vision, with a view to finding the most accelerated path to direct collaboration. On closing night, participating start-ups pitched their engagement model prototype to the esteemed judging panel.

Komatsu General Manager Ryoichi Togashi said that innovation is created by a sense of crisis as a driving force. Through hackathons with outside members who are familiar with mining sites, customers and advanced technologies, Komatsu can access results that cannot be achieved by in-house development.

PETRA Data Science Managing Director and Founder Dr Penny Stewart and PETRA Data Scientist Arun Prakash Pillal (whom Penny hired following their introduction at Unearthed Brisbane 2017) took out first place for their ShovelVision AI prototypes in response to both the ore characterisation and Ground Engaging Tools (GET) challenges.

In addition to winning a $5000 innovation voucher and $3000 in AWS credits, PETRA Data Science has earned an all-expenses paid trip to a global Komatsu site to fast-track implementation of their algorithms.

‘This event has been a brilliant opportunity to apply our skills to multiple unstructured data challenges. We are very excited to have won and have already received 100 photographs of bucket teeth to test our algorithms on. We can’t wait to engage with Komatsu further on our site visit. It only takes us 6-8 weeks to develop an algorithm, so we think that this agility will prove attractive and valuable to Komatsu,’ said Stewart.

Unearthed Accelerator Brisbane Demo Day

On 1 December 2017, over 120 resources industry executives, METS professionals, government supporters, technology entrepreneurs and investors gathered at Advance Queensland’s The Precinct in Fortitude Valley, Brisbane for Unearthed Accelerator Brisbane Demo Day 2017.

Accelerator Demo Day was a celebration of the start-ups, supporters and mentors that made the 2017 program so memorable, and a chance for the dynamic start-ups to show how much they grew over six months and demonstrate their readiness for investment and success in the energy and resources sector.

Keynote speaker, Origin General Manager, Strategy & Execution Felicity Underhill explained how Origin became involved with Unearthed at the Brisbane hackathon in April 2017, and how they sponsored the Accelerator program as a result of that experience.

‘The Accelerator itself has had a number of benefits for us. It has been an awesome opportunity for our mentors to engage and energise as a development activity, it has helped us make connections internally, and it has provided us access to new ideas,’ said Underhill.

The Unearthed Accelerator 2017 was an incredible collaboration of a community Unearthed is trying to foster between industry, government and start-ups.

SiteSee Sales Director and Co-Founder Lachlan Crane said that prior to the program, SiteSee was focused on one industry vertical.

‘The Unearthed Accelerator program challenged us to take a step back and look at the core principles of our service, and then apply that to other industry verticals. So, since then we have delivered projects within the oil and gas sector overseas in Papua New Guinea, and as of today, with Demo Day, we are receiving a lot of inbound inquiries from international resources companies who are wanting to work with us, which is exciting,’ Crane said.

Canaria CEO and co-founder Alex Moss said that if you are trying to do something that is a little bit unusual or niche in the resources and mining sector, Unearthed is hands down the only Accelerator in the world that is suited to you.

Canaria CEO and co-founder Alex Moss pitching at Unearthed Accelerator Demo Day 2017.

These are a few examples of how resources sector businesses can flex their organisational frontiers to access digital talent in the face of significant technological transformation. The $1.6 trillion opportunity for increased productivity, sustainability and competitiveness is there for the taking – for both industry and innovators alike.

Details on Unearthed and its innovation platform that crowd sources solutions for the resources sector can be found at portal.unearthed.solutions.


McKinsey & Company. 2017. How technology is reshaping supply and demand for natural resources [online]. Available from: www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/sustainability-and-resource-productivity/our-insights/how-technology-is-reshaping-supply-and-demand-for-natural-resources.

Shaughnessy H and Vitalari N, 2012. The Elastic Enterprise: The New Manifesto for Business Revolution, 1st ed, 172 p (Telemachus Press, LLC).

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