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17 January 2023 4 min read

Giving small business access to world class R&D

Mining and resource giants understand the value of R&D. Companies like BHP and Rio Tinto spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually to acquire knowledge and technology to give them an edge.

Investment in R&D enables mining companies to increase productivity, enhance efficiency, reduce costs and address ESG issues through innovation. Technological innovation can make the difference between what makes a mineral deposit economically viable or not (Sanchez and Hatlied, 2020).

Mineral exploration, mining and processing are expensive ventures, requiring high capital expenditure and risk. While big international companies can afford significant investment, smaller companies may find accessing quality R&D services difficult.

Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, has the largest mineral resources R&D capability in the world. They also provide access to a suite of programs, grants and other funding opportunities designed to help SMEs take advantage of their cutting-edge science and technology, to break down the barrier to innovation and support Australian businesses to thrive.

Helping mining and METS companies Innovate to Grow
Dr Monika Szabo, CSIRO’s SME Collaboration Manager

Dr Monika Szabo is a SME Collaboration Manager for CSIRO. Through a range of programs, like Innovate to Grow, she helps start-ups and SMEs understand whether publicly funded R&D can help grow their business.

The Innovate to Grow program is aimed at Australian companies with less than 200 employees, who want to progress their R&D opportunities, or are in the early decision-making stages about engaging in R&D.

"It's a free 10-week online learning program designed to help companies figure out if R&D is the right path for them," says Dr Szabo.

"SMEs learn about the importance of R&D, how they can go about engaging an R&D provider from either a university or CSIRO and have an opportunity to hear from sector-specific experts and expand their networks."

"Participants are guided through a number of deliverables which can help them define their innovation goals, develop a business case for R&D and even prepare a funding proposal."

API Management navigated funding pathway to potassium recovery project

API Management, who manage Australian Premium Iron Joint Venture, went through the Innovate to Grow program in 2021 and have since gone on to do a mineral processing SME Connect project on potassium recovery with CSIRO.

"The mining industry has big challenges, with lots of elements that need to come together, and the CSIRO are playing a key part in our research and development goals," says Dr Alan Ooi, Principal Scientist, Product Development, API Management.

The Innovate to Grow program was a way for API Management to refresh their knowledge of engaging with research organisations, explore available funding options and understand how to prepare for partnering with CSIRO or other universities.

"What we enjoyed most about Innovate to Grow was meeting new people and expanding our networks in the mining and METs sector," says Dr Ooi.

"We would whole-heartedly recommend the Innovate to Grow program to other mining and METs companies, especially to help them gain R&D direction for their business opportunities."

Helping mining and METS companies get a Kick Start for R&D
Dr Megan Sebben, CSIRO’s Kick-Start Program Manager

While Innovate to Grow helps companies identify an R&D opportunity and pathway, funding programs like CSIRO Kick-Start can help SMEs remove financial roadblocks to innovation.

Dr Megan Sebben is CSIRO’s Kick-Start Program Manager. She helps Australian start-ups and small businesses access dollar-matched funding to undertake R&D projects with CSIRO.

"Since the scheme started, we’ve been able to support more than 30 Kick-Start projects in mining and METS, working across the country," says Dr Sebben.

"That represents an investment of over $3 million in R&D for a range of companies working in minerals and resources."

The Kick-Start program provides eligible companies with vouchers of up to two $50 thousand to perform research, development or testing projects with CSIRO researchers, giving recipients access to CSIRO’s multidisciplinary capabilities and specialist facilities.

"I help to connect people to the best CSIRO research expertise, utilising our national CSIRO network of facilitators and contacts."

Homing in on lithium targets for Australian Metals

Field work at the Mt Peake lithium project ©  Australasian Metals

One of these successful connections was between CSIRO geoscientist, Dr Carsten Laukamp and Managing Director of Australasian Metals Limited, Dr Qingtao Zeng.

"Kick Start is a great enabler of research collaborations with industry, helping companies get over the threshold of having enough funding to conduct proper research projects that can make an impact," says Dr Laukamp.

"I worked on a two-staged collaboration with Australian Metals, aimed at accelerating their lithium exploration in the Northern Territory."

"The funding enabled us to evaluate the latest optical satellite technology for geological mapping and develop a two-staged machine-learning workflow that integrates surface and sub-surface compositional geoscience data (including satellite hyperspectral-derived mineral maps, radiometrics and aeromagnetics)."

"From this we were able to produce regolith landform and bedrock classification maps that could help narrow down the search space for Australasian Metals," says Dr Laukamp.

And it is that outcome that was most important for Australian Metals.

"The key challenge for our lithium exploration in the Northern Territory is how we can efficiently narrow down the prospective areas within our vast land package," says Dr Zeng.

"The CSIRO team has identified several hot areas for us to investigate."

"We have been enjoying working with CSIRO and hopefully some potential discovery can be made through this partnership."

And it continues to be a two-way information loop, with benefits to science and business.

"Our feedback to the scientists is helping to further fine-tune their interpretation model," says Dr Zeng.

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