GVPOD - Greater Vancouver's Business Podcast

In this episode we are joined by Gary Agnew, CEO and Co-Founder of Ideon Technologies. 

Ideon's leading edge technology allows mining companies to identify density and magnetic anomalies with greater resolution and clarity down to 1 km beneath the Earth’s surface, much like x-rays and MRIs give us visibility inside the human body, in a process called muon tomography.

In doing so they are helping get rid of the uncertainty of mining projects and drastically lowering their environmental impacts.

What is GVPOD - Greater Vancouver's Business Podcast?

GVPOD is the podcast of the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade. President and CEO Bridgitte Anderson talks to leaders in the business community about the challenges and opportunities they experience, as well as issues impacting our region.

Bridgitte Anderson (00:02):
Welcome back to another episode of GVPOD, Greater Vancouver's Business podcast, where we explore the challenges and opportunities facing our region. I'm Bridgitte Anderson, president and CEO of the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade. Every October, we celebrate small business month. Small businesses are the backbone of our economy, employing 1.1 million British Colombians. That is why our pillar partner, RBC has sponsored our podcast annual small business series. Today I'm joined by Gary Agnew, CEO and co-founder of Ideon Technologies, a world pioneer in the application of cosmic Ray Muon Tomography, which for the uninitiated like myself, means technology that provides x-ray like visibility up to one kilometer beneath the earth's surface. Welcome Gary.
Gary Agnew (00:54):
Thanks Bridgette. Lovely to be on the show.
Bridgitte Anderson (00:56):
Alright, so let's start with some background on Ideon Technology. So tell us a little bit about the company and how it came to be, and then we're gonna get into what the technology does.
Gary Agnew (01:07):
Sure, yeah. The origin story of the company is actually a Canadian geophysicist called Brian Powell. Back in the early two thousands read about me on tomography online in, in the context of Vulcanology. And fortunately for us Brian his curiosity caused him to reach out to Triumph and Triumph based at UBC is Canada's National Particle Physical Laboratory and he posed a question - could this technique be used for mineral exploration? And thankfully somebody at Triumph said, we're not sure, but we'd love to find out. That really started desktop exercise - a prototype detector and over a decade of commercial field trials with the mining industry. So
Bridgitte Anderson (01:53):
It a sounds like a Star Trek episode that we're having here,
Gary Agnew (01:57):
Yes, yes, A little bit. It sounds quite farfetched, the technology that's not lost on as adion, but I can assure you it is very real and it is delivering results today. And so yeah, happy to get into more of that during the conversation.
Bridgitte Anderson (02:11):
Okay. So it's, it's called Cosmic Ray Muon tomography. Maybe talk a little bit about how it works and why it's so significant for the mining industry.
Gary Agnew (02:20):
Yeah, so the technique is essentially using a subatomic particle called a muon that arrives at the earth's surface as a result of super supernova explosions in space and those supernova explosions happen and create cosmic rays. The cosmic rays interact with matter on the upper atmosphere and create a slew of subatomic particles, the muons, the most energetic and the penetrative of those particles, and they race to earth in straight lines at the speed of light. Where we get involved is those neons penetrate the earth, they lose energy and decay in proportion to the density they're traveling through. And so what we've developed the ability to do is measure muon intensity and directionality underground, and from that we're able to produce 2-D radiographic images just like an x-ray. And when we have multiple of our sensors in the area, we produce a 3-D reconstruction of density, just like a CAT scan in the medical imaging analogy.
Bridgitte Anderson (03:17):
Wow. How long did this technology take to develop?
Gary Agnew (03:21):
Well, actually, the technical technology's been around since the fifties and was actually used in the seventies to discover hidden chambers in the great pyramids. And so the technique's been around from a long time, but the issue has been the size of the sensors, and really that's one of the big innovations we have brought to the table at Iion is we have miniaturized the form factor of the sensors to be able to fit in an industry standard drill hole, making it very applicable for the mining industry.
Bridgitte Anderson (03:49):
You know, when I think of the mining industry or when lots of people think about the mining industry, and decades ago, I would say is a fair comment was that, you know, it there were some practices that weren't great for the environment. I know that things have changed radically in the industry, which is wonderful, but I think this technology would be key for that, but also to remove some of the uncertainty in mining where you're literally poking holes trying to find what you're trying to find.
Gary Agnew (04:14):
Yeah, I mean that's a, that's the way we think about it, Bridgitte, is the game we're in is providing certainty to our mining clients and this is an industry that has been plagued by uncertainty. And so, you know, today, even in the last number of decades a billion dollar decisions are made with less than 1% of knowledge of the ore body. And what that creates is huge error bars in terms of the mining practices, because you're never really certain what you have in the subsurface. You have to allow for a lot of variability in your operational processes. That variability means often you're taking more waste from the earth than is necessary. It means you're creating more carbon GHGs than is necessary. So our technique really enables a precision mining technique, understand the subsurface with high degree of certainty in a way that allows the mining company to optimize the processes it use to extract those minerals from the earth.
Bridgitte Anderson (05:12):
You know, besides being a great local story for Greater Vancouver, I also love that it's on the cutting edge of green technology in the mining industry, which Canada is a leader in. So what has the pickup been you know, and for some of the global mining companies.
Gary Agnew (05:28):
Yeah, we're very proud to be dealing with four of the five largest mining companies in the world. BHP, Vanco Valet and Rio Tinto. And so yes, the, the capabilities of the technology is certainly attracting a lot of interest from the top end of the mining business. I've gotta be honest and say adoption in Canada is not the same level as what we see from other international markets. Australia's a great example where I'm really pulling hard on the capabilities we have. And so yes, there's we are doing work with global companies in Canada, but in terms of Canadian companies, there's certainly an opportunity to leverage this Canadian innovation much more fully to ensure that, you know, Canada's always been a global leader when it comes to mining, but the opportunities for Canada become Canada, a leader in ESG mining to really create a standard and, and, and leadership in terms of how mining can be done in a much more effective way, an optimized way for society.
Bridgitte Anderson (06:28):
Gary, what are some of those barriers to adoption in Canada?
Gary Agnew (06:32):
Yeah, certainly I'm a new Canadian and so made Canada home over the last 10 years or so. Certainly one of the things I see there is a great degree of risk aversion in Canadian companies. And my previous career was working for a Canadian company at Finning. And so I certainly have seen a tendency to be less ambitious, less risk tolerant of taking on and embracing new technologies to really transform businesses. So that's something we continue to work with provincial and federal governments to see if we can help shift that ball forward in terms of adoption.
Bridgitte Anderson (07:14):
Well, since we're talking about challenges, we'll dig in a little deeper on some of these and then we'll move to the opportunities but I know in mining there are challenges, you know, regulatory challenges, environmental challenges, but also labour shortage challenges. So what kind of challenges is Ideon facing?
Gary Agnew (07:33):
Yeah, certainly. We need the best talent on the planet in a number of disciplines in order to deliver a fully integrated solution to our customer. And so talent is our number one challenge. Now, fortunately, we've made a lot of amazing progress. I'm very, very proud of the team that we've assembled over the last number of years based right here in BC. But talent's obviously a challenge. Global supply chain is a challenge. Certainly it was pretty challenging there during the post COVID period. But that, you know, while things have improved, it's certainly not a stable environment. So sourcing the very specialist parts from around the world, bringing them here to BC and then distributing our solution to customers all around the world, there's certainly no end of challenges in that part of our business.
Bridgitte Anderson (08:24):
Yeah, it's certainly taking a little while for that supply chain to get back to anything that kind of looks like normal. This is small business month, and so we're doing this series on small business. Talk about your journey maybe growing ID on and the investment interest and how you hope to move it from a small business and really scale that.
Gary Agnew (08:48):
Yeah. And it's kind of, I mean, timing's everything in these things, Bridgitte, and certainly, you know, if I rewind to when I first joined the company three and a almost four years ago, and the lack of investment or appetite from investors for mining was very marked. And yet the contrast today is every investor Silicon Valley and otherwise, you know focused on mining. And so this is really quite symbolic in terms of the shift that we are going through as a society in recognizing the importance of this industry. You know, the way I say it is there is no green energy transition without mining. Mm-Hmm.
Bridgitte Anderson (09:25):
Gary Agnew (09:26):
The metals we need to move to renewable energy technologies like EVs and, and wind and solar and so forth require a huge increase in the critical metals to be able to unlock that transition. And so this mining industry that I agree with you has had a very checkered history with lots of things in today's context. Not particularly ESG focused, but we've got an industry that is working hard every day to transform. And that's what's exciting for the team at Ideon is we get to work with some of these leading mining companies and play a role in their transform transformation. You in many ways, mining's theone of the oldest industries on earth. And so we're pretty excited about helping one of the oldest industries on earth transform to be a critical industry for our future.
Bridgitte Anderson (10:17):
Yeah. One of the oldest industries, but one that is evolving really rapidly. It was very exciting to hear of some of the changes that are happening. So looking to the future, I mean, how do you plan to scale and grow? Ideon what do you see the future hold say, over the next three to five years?
Gary Agnew (10:34):
Yeah, in terms of you know the where, where we're orientated is to our, our mission is to help accelerate the world's transition to low impact mining. I mean, that's really what we get up every day trying to do, and that's what we work with our customers to try and achieve. In terms of where that takes ID on you know our/my ambition or objective for the company is that we're the leading subsurface intelligence company on the planet, and we're helping mining and we're helping critical infrastructure, and we're helping carbon sequestration a whole range of different industries by providing them certainty of the subsurface that they never had before. And from that, that enables them to transform the way they approach their business and to move us to a renewable future.
Bridgitte Anderson (11:17):
Let's talk a little bit about your personal journey you know, your background, you mentioned that you were at for a long time, so you've got lots of experience and expertise in the industry, but you know, this is really you know, trying to grow a small business. So what are some of the key learnings that you've had that you could share with some entrepreneurs and other operators who are trying to grow their businesses?
Gary Agnew (11:43):
Yeah, there's been obviously quite a few challenges along the way. Certainly one was trying to raise funding in a covid environment. And, you know, it seems crazy to say now, but three or so years ago, the big question was can you raise funding on Zoom ? And of course, the answer is we proved that everything else, people have proved that that indeed is a thing. We were staring down the barrel of our seed funding round right? In the COVID months. And so raising funding on Zoom was an enormous challenge but it was one that we were thankfully able to navigate.
Bridgitte Anderson (12:20):
Yeah, you'd have, like, I would think that the big part of that process is building trust and so difficult to do that in a virtual environment.
Gary Agnew (12:30):
Yeah. Yeah. Very, very different. A lot of new skills and and ways of thinking had to be adapted. And equally a lot of investors, just the openness to willingness to engage through a 2-D environment rather than a 3-D environment and so you know, it was a challenge at the time lots of challenges seemed to me, one, you know, being a spinout from Triumph, you know, we got amazing scientific heritage as a business and lineage. Equally with that comes with some government lab thinking. And so one of the shifts we had to make was much more to a high performance culture, an execution orientation and a timeliness orientation that perhaps wasn't at the core of the thinking in a government lab environment. So yeah, lots of challenges over the time, and they don't, they don't stop.
I mean, one of the great inspirational quotes that I like and is actually in our manufacturing facility is from Nelson Mandela, and the quote is, it always seems impossible until it's done. And so the culture we're trying to build here at Ideon is, you know, don't be surprised when problems show up. We are in the problem solving business. That's why the major mining companies of the world are hiring us to solve complex problems. And so when problems show up, don't be disheartened time to double down. And when you think it's impossible, keep pushing because just the other side of that thought is a breakthrough. And so the culture and the, the mindset of how we tackle problems is as important as the technology itself, because the problem solving capability is, is really a muscle at Ideon that that really is competitive advantage in the long term.
Bridgitte Anderson (14:17):
How big is the team now?
Gary Agnew (14:19):
Yeah, we're 55 on our way to 60 people. We were five people not so very long ago. And so we've gone through a tremendous growth phase over the last couple of years. The majority of that team is based right here in BC. We've just made our first couple of hires in Australia really important market for us. So we're going from a, a small startup in Richmond to a much larger one with a lot of global ambition.
Bridgitte Anderson (14:49):
Well, what a great success story, our small business series and with some good fortune maybe next October when we're doing small business series, you'll be a much larger organization and wouldn't fit the category anymore. Small startup in Richmond to a much larger one with
Gary Agnew (15:02):
That would be great. We'd love that.
Bridgitte Anderson (15:04):
Gary, thanks so much for joining us on GVPOD and thank you again to the sponsor of our small business series RBC. Join us again next week as we continue this series.