Hackathon Aims to Unearth Natural Resources Tech in Houston

Houston—An Australian group trying to spur innovation in the natural resources sector is headed to Houston to host a hackathon in partnership with BHP Petroleum.

Unearthed, which is based in Perth, Australia, has hosted similar hackathons all over the world and will be bringing its “Digital Tribes” series to Texas for the first time in October.

“The resources sector—mining, oil and gas, energy—these industries need to be disrupted,” Mikey Kailis, Unearthed’s growth manager, told me in a phone interview from his home in Perth. “There is a whole wave of technology that can make an impact on industry.”

The exact challenges for the Houston hackathon, which will be held at Station Houston, have not yet been released. In a hackathon held earlier this month in Perth, teams were asked to work on hardware innovations related to mine compliance and a network for distributed safety devices. Kailis says these hackathons are also broadcast online for people who can’t be there in person.

Unearthed was founded four years ago—it was then called the Resources Innovation through Innovation Technology, or RIIT—by American entrepreneurs Zane Prickett and Justin Strharsky. Prickett, in particular, has experience in the oil and gas industry, having held a variety of roles at Schlumberger in both Asia and Australia.

Natural resources play a large role in Australia’s economy. The mining sector, in particular, employs more than 200,000 people, according to government figures from November. The industry accounts for about 50 percent of the country’s exports, valued at about AUD$157 billion, in 2016, according to Australia’s Department of Industry, Innovation, and Science.

In recent years, record commodity prices sent investment in the mining sector soaring, Kailis says, which particularly benefited the state of Western Australia, which is where Unearthed is based.

But now those prices—such as for oil—have cooled off, and some say it’s a good time to find technologies that can make these industries more efficient. Kailis says Unearthed’s goal is to connect entrepreneurs with people in large natural resources companies who are open to new ideas.

“If you’re trying to place a new piece of technology to a resource company, no matter how good your tech is, you’re going to face hurdles and resistance,” Kailis says. “Natural resource startups can’t typically [get in] to pitch the CTO of a big mining company.”

One of Unearthed’s success stories is Newton Labs, which won a hackathon in 2014, Kailis says. The company developed an “Internet of Things” system with sensors and accelerometers that detected when oversized rocks were loaded onto a truck at a mining pit. Current camera technologies did not always accurately determine the size of those rocks, which then caused bottlenecks, and expensive downtime, at the crusher.

In addition to the hackathons, Unearthed also runs a six-month startup accelerator program. The latest class launched earlier this month. Each company receives an investment of AUD$70,000 in exchange for an 8 to 10 percent equity stake. Unearthed’s operations are supported by sponsorships—either of individual hackathons or the accelerator—from large multinational companies in the natural resources sector.

In addition to supporting young technologies, Kailis says Unearthed’s Digital Tribes program is a way for companies like BHP Petroleum to tap into tech-savvy talent. “Typically, the mining industry is not sexy, is not a cool industry to work in,” he adds.

Unearthed is trying to create an innovation network that connects companies from around the world in mining, energy, and other natural resources.

“Unearthed can make this an ecosystem, a community,” he says. “There’s no reason why a startup from Houston and a startup from Cape Town shouldn’t work together.”

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