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The Drift: Sudbury innovation centre plays matchmaker for globe’s miners, tech producers

NORCAT’s new Open Innovation Platform seeks to help mining companies find industry solutions
NORCAT launched its Open Innovation Platform in September 2021.

The NORCAT Underground Centre is making good on its ambition to become a global one-stop shop for all that is the future of mining.

On Sept. 15, the Sudbury-based innovation centre launched the NORCAT Open Innovation Portal – a multi-pronged approach to helping mining companies find solutions to some of the industry’s most compelling problems.

Historically, when mining companies had a problem to solve, they turned to their own research and development (R&D) teams to come up with a solution, said Don Duval, NORCAT’s CEO.

But over the last several decades, that approach has changed.

“Mining companies still have problems to solve, but now they’re reliant on a vibrant supply-service-tech ecosystem to build solutions to solve their problems,” Duval said.

“The mining industry has now become more a buyer of technology and innovation to solve their challenges.”

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Yet even the world’s biggest industry players can have a tough time knowing where to start: how do they track down existing or emerging technologies that might work in their operations? How do they connect with the innovators, or engage with them in prototyping and real-world testing?

Enter the NORCAT Open Innovation Platform, a sort of matchmaking service designed to bring together mining companies and tech innovators.

This happens in three ways, Duval said.

The first is what he terms “curated market intelligence.”

A company can approach NORCAT about emerging technologies in a specific segment of the industry – underground communications, fast-charging infrastructure, or teleremote autonomous vehicle operating systems, for example – and staff at the centre will do all the background research, providing an analysis of what’s available.

“Because of our network and lens of the tech companies that we see globally, we can actually develop customized reports to educate those mining companies on the emerging trends and emerging tech companies in whatever space they seek to better understand.”

The platform’s second service offering will be a series of buy and sell days.

A mining company will state its interest in learning more about, say, teleremote autonomous vehicles. NORCAT will then invite companies working in that sphere to the Underground Centre where they can install and demonstrate their technology in the NORCAT underground mine and pitch it to the mining company.

Think of Dragons’ Den, but for mining.

“They’re not looking for capital in terms of investment,” Duval said. “They’re looking for capital in the form of a purchase order.”

Through the platform’s final offering, NORCAT can help companies find a custom solution to a company-specific problem, by issuing a challenge to the greater tech/innovation community.

NORCAT will work with the mining company to draft an abstract of the problem and then publicly invite innovators to address the challenge.

NORCAT will then draft a shortlist of the ideas with the most potential and choose the top contenders for further development.

Those companies will be enrolled in NORCAT’s accelerator program to help them build a proof of concept.

Funding will be shared by the mining company seeking the solution and the tech company proposing it, while NORCAT will provide mentorship, market research, and access to the Underground Centre, including its underground mine.

“The companies that apply can be big or small, domestic or international – it doesn't matter,” Duval said.

“But NORCAT’s role will be to identify, vet, validate, and support them to get ready to develop the proof of concept and, ultimately, after 12 to 16 weeks, that company will have a meaningful opportunity to then transpose that proof of concept into a meaningful purchase order.”

Vale is among the companies NORCAT has worked with over the last three years on development of the Open Innovation Platform. Some of the nickel miner’s immediate challenges include those related to smelter acid management, underground operator alertness, and the inrush of material in underground mines.

Anthony Downs, the manager of innovation, scanning and curation for Vale’s Base Metal Operations, said the NORCAT platform not only helps Vale address its challenges, but also “offers support to the mining industry more broadly.”

“NORCAT’s network across multiple sectors and geographies coupled with their unique operating test mine and innovation and product development service offerings, makes them a welcomed partner,” Downs said upon the platform’s release.

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Reaction to the Open Innovation Platform has been swift and positive, Duval said.

Launching during the 2021 iteration of the MINExpo tradeshow in Las Vegas, NV, gave NORCAT the exposure it needed to reach both the mining companies and the tech innovators that might just have the next big solution for the industry.

Duval remains confident that there are unique solutions already out there that just need a little nudge in the right direction. And NORCAT, with its Underground Centre and vast global network of regional innovation centres, can help them get there.

“I’m a firm believer that the vast majority of interesting tech innovations that can build solutions for the global mining industry already exist – they’re already occurring in other industries."

The Drift features profiles on the people, companies and institutions making important contributions to Greater Sudbury’s mining sector. From exploration, operation and remediation to research and innovation, this series covers the breadth of mining-related expertise that was born out of one of the world’s richest mining camps and is now exported around the world.