Advancing Together With Barrick Gold

Mining At Barrick, innovation is everyone’s business

Michelle Ash, Barrick’s first Chief Innovation Officer, discusses her role and Barrick’s changing approach to innovation

If you look back at Barrick’s history, the Company has been exceptionally innovative. Our hedging strategy in the 1990s was ahead of its time and put Barrick in a very good position to grow the business. We were also one of the first companies to use autoclaves and, more recently, we pioneered the use of thiosulfate in gold processing. We also developed a novel copper flotation process that occurs in salt water rather than fresh water.

What we’re trying to do now with innovation at Barrick is make it mainstream. Most of our people—and this isn’t unique to Barrick—see innovation as a technical thing that other people do. It’s not. Innovation is something that all of us can engage in and all of us can do; it’s everybody’s business. Yes, there are some technical aspects to some innovations, but we can also innovate by improving our work processes, encouraging people to share ideas and by finding new ways to collaborate.

Our role is to create great innovation processes and tools that our people can use.

While it’s early days, some of the key innovation themes that we’re thinking about include: designing an autonomous extraction process, especially for underground operations and mines that operate at more than 4,500 meters above sea level; developing new and affordable ways to extract minerals from exceptionally low-grade ore bodies; continuing to improve the quality of our partnerships, not only with our host communities and governments, but with suppliers and other mining companies; developing intelligent systems that facilitate real-time data analysis, increased transparency, faster planning and greater agility at every stage of the mining process; raising the already high bar on our ability to pinpoint the size, location and characteristics of gold ore bodies.

We also want to create additional shareholder value by leveraging our intellectual property. To that end, we’ve established a standalone company called Barrick Technologies to monetize patented technology that underpins novel processes such as our air-metabisulfate copper flotation process or thiosulfate-based gold processing technology. This will generate new revenue streams and spur faster development of these emerging technologies.

My team’s role is to energize people, create action plans and help develop the themes that will drive Barrick’s innovation strategy. Above all, our role is to create great innovation processes and tools that our people can use. Certainly we can’t do it all alone, and we don’t want to. As we build our strategic roadmap, we’re identifying areas where we lack expertise and looking to source that capability externally. We know, for example, that we’re going to need some form of artificial intelligence and that that capability doesn’t currently exist within our business or really across the mining industry. So we’re looking to the technology sector, finding out what’s cutting edge and approaching potential partners to see if they’re a good cultural and technological fit. There are opportunities for us to build relationships with great companies, and we are moving quickly.

Our team recently attended an innovation conference in Silicon Valley, and when we introduced ourselves to other attendees—and they were all tech companies—they were absolutely blown away that a mining company was at an innovation conference in Silicon Valley. So this is a novel approach and there are a ton of learnings to be had and a lot of value to be realized.

To close, here is one additional innovation avenue that we’re pursuing. This week we're sponsoring our first hackathon, which is taking place in Toronto. We are partnering with Unearthed Solutions, an Australian company that works with the resource industry to help drive innovation. We will present two operational challenges that we face to teams of software developers, who will spend two full days creating competing solutions. These developers generally don’t have any mining experience and, while there will be Barrick mentors present, it is in some ways a perfect match, because the developers don’t have any preconceptions about the way things are supposed to be done.

We plan to sponsor five more hackathons this year around the world, including the U.S., the U.K. and China. It’s an exciting opportunity to expose entrepreneurs and innovators to the mining industry.