Mining hackathon accelerates innovation in San Juan, Argentina

Few, if any, tech accelerators have a presence in San Juan, Argentina. The province, located in northwest Argentina, is known more for mining than machine learning. But to say there is no tech community in San Juan would be far from true, something Bill Wall, Barrick’s Director of Digital for South America, discovered last September.

“It was my understanding that the local community in San Juan didn’t really have any tech companies or technology expertise,” says Wall, who joined Barrick in May 2017. “And I think that’s wrong; that it was kind of a blind spot that we had because we didn’t know where to look, and people that are interested in technology didn’t know how to talk to Barrick.”

Barrick is looking to close that gap and, in the process, strengthen digital capacity in San Juan while creating an innovation ecosystem in the province. This will not only benefit the company, which operates the Veladero mine in San Juan together with Shandong Gold Group, but it will also benefit the province for decades to come.

he first step in this process was a Barrick-sponsored hackathon that took place last September in Buenos Aires. It was there, ironically, in a city that’s located about 1,000 miles east of San Juan, that Wall was first exposed to the province’s burgeoning technology talent.

A hackathon is an event in which large numbers of people come together and leverage their technology skills to develop ideas and solutions to operational challenges. Participants—developers, software engineers, data scientists, and other tech-savvy people—typically split into teams and spend several days developing competing solutions to specific challenges. At the Buenos Aires hackathon, Barrick posed challenges that touched on key priorities for Veladero in areas like processing, maintenance, and community engagement. More than 100 people participated in the event, nearly a third from San Juan. One of those San Juaninos was Santiago Azcona.

“The hackathon was a great thing for us,” Azcona says. “It gave us a chance to solve real problems at Veladero, which is here in San Juan, which is where we live.”

Azcona, an accountant and data analyst, was part of a five-person team at the hackathon that dubbed itself Federal Group. The team, which included three San Juaninos, the Spanish term for someone born in the province, designed a solution that uses 3D-visualisation technology and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to improve gold recovery rates in the mine processing area at Veladero. “They had a great idea,” Wall says. “Something that no one had really thought of, which is why they won first prize at the hackathon.”

One of the judges at the event was Ciro Echesortu, Regional Director of Acceleration Programs for NXTP Labs in Argentina. NXTP is a tech incubation and investment company with operations across Latin America. In early December, NXTP hosted a week-long accelerator program in Buenos Aires for the top four teams from the hackathon. The program included marketing workshops, training in investor pitches, and mentoring opportunities with start-ups in NXTP’s portfolio as well as established businesses like Globant, a software development company with operations around the world.

“The challenge after the hackathon ended,” Echesortu says, “was how do you get a hackathon team that came together for a weekend to consolidate its prototype into a viable project that not only helps Barrick with its innovation efforts, but can also evolve into a sustainable and high-impact business.”

Barrick’s partnership with NXTP forms part of the answer, and it’s also a key part of the Company’s effort to help build an innovation ecosystem in San Juan that nurtures and expands technology and entrepreneurial knowhow in the province. “Together with NXTP, we have co-created a distinctive program that underscores our commitment to building strong and lasting partnerships,” says Tyler Godoff, Manager of Innovation Partnerships at Barrick. “At Barrick’s core, is the belief that partnerships should be defined by trust, transparency and excellence. Our engagement with NXTP Labs exemplifies this belief.”

While the four teams received invaluable training during the weeklong accelerator program, they were also competing for a chance to attend NXTP’s more intensive, four-month accelerator program. Modeled on the iconic Y Combinator program in Silicon Valley, the four-month program provides in-depth training in marketing, sales, finance, accounting, and product development. Only one team could enter the program and that team was Federal Group.

“Federal Group developed an innovative solution that, if successfully developed, is scalable and could generate significant cost savings for companies that adopt it,” Echesortu says. The team members complement each other well, he adds, bringing a mix of technology and business backgrounds. Furthermore, some members already have experience running a business that services the mining industry, which will shorten the learning curve. And finally, Echesortu says, NXTP was impressed with the team’s drive and ambition. “They are 100% committed to their project,” he says. “And they want to go global and use San Juan as their base of operations.”

In addition to their work with Federal Group, Azcona, along with team members Alejandro Madcur and Joaquin Sousa, operate a company that uses UAV technology to provide survey data to the mining and construction sectors. They started the business, called DAMS, in 2014 but retained their day jobs while working nights and weekends to grow the business. Azcona worked at an accounting firm and Madcur and Sousa, both civil engineers, worked for construction companies.

Buoyed by their recent success and the experience at the NXTP accelerator program, the trio recently left their day jobs to devote all their efforts to growing DAMS and Federal Group. They continue to work closely with Federal Group team members Omar Mrad, a software developer and Michaela Amatti, a geologist. In fact, they plan to merge DAMS and Federal Group and add more people.

“The week-long program was great for us because we got to meet people from other companies with similar backgrounds and learn how they managed to succeed,” Azcona says.

While Federal Group readies for the four-month accelerator program, which begins in May, the team continues to work closely with Wall. They visited Barrick’s iROC (integrated remote operating center) In Albardon, San Juan, which serves as an innovation hub for Barrick in Argentina. They’ve also refined their prototype and developed new ideas, including a second solution for monitoring gold recoveries at Veladero that could hold as much promise as their initial prototype.

“They’ve thrown some interesting technology and ideas at us,” Wall says. “I just had them in here last week, and they’re going to come back in a couple of weeks and pitch a revised concept to the head of processing and the head of operations at Veladero.”

This year, Barrick is sponsoring a hackathon in Las Vegas in partnership with Cisco, Unearthed Solutions, and Switch, an information technology services provider whose Las Vegas data center is one of the largest in the world. The event takes place March 9-11. Barrick is partnering with Silicon Foundry, a corporate innovation services provider, to help market the event and to provide the winners with the resources to scale their solution.

The company took a similar approach in Argentina and hopes the partnership with Silicon Foundry marks the start of a new innovation hub in southern Nevada. Barrick is also working to integrate its own front-line operators into the company’s innovation process. For the Las Vegas event, the company’s innovation team encouraged and incentivised employees to submit challenges by holding a company-wide challenge contest. A panel of Barrick leaders selected a submission that will be used at the hackathon. The winners, a team of three from Elko, Nevada, received an all-expense paid trip to attend the hackathon and will serve as mentors at the event. The contest generated more than 130 entries, and entries were received from every Barrick mine.

“We were thrilled to receive so many entries,” says Nicolas Westgate, Innovation Analyst at Barrick and one of the contest organisers. “Our people understand our problems best and know what’s on their wish list. Their ideas were great and, while we could only pick one for the Las Vegas hackathon, those ideas will be catalogued, shared and discussed around the company.”