As Ideon Technologies goes underground, its profile has never been higher
The Richmond company’s x-ray technology has the potential to save the world some much-needed energy.
The way Gary Agnew sees things, there's no clean energy without mining. Minerals like aluminum, cobalt, copper, nickel and lithium — they’re “critical to enabling Elon Musk and the electric vehicle revolution to happen,” he recently told me over Zoom. It’s not just about Tesla and EVs though, he said.
In fact, to create all the necessary cleantech energy solutions required to fuel a global energy transition, such as batteries, solar, wind and geothermal power, the World Bank estimates that the mining of key minerals must increase by a staggering 500 percent over the next three decades.
For Agnew and other proponents of the mining industry—and, to be sure, people like me who enjoy using an iPhone and have plans to someday own a Tesla—the challenge is in how we access these natural resources responsibly. It’s clear mining must happen. But as the CEO of BHP, the Australian-headquartered mining giant, recently stated, “there is a tough choice about how it happens and who does it.”
Agnew’s company, Richmond-based Ideon Technologies, is out to make the choice an easier one by harnessing technology called cosmic-ray muon tomography to increase the sustainable production of mineral resources.
The Ideon story begins with a little-known geophysicist by the name of Brian Powell. He was working in Saskatchewan for energy firm Cameco and read about the experimental use of cosmic-ray muons (sub-atomic particles) to produce an image of objects and geological structures. He wondered if this type of imaging could be used to see under the Athabasca Basin, so he pitched Triumf, Canada’s national particle accelerator centre, on researching the idea. The UBC-based organization, which is funded by 21 of Canada’s leading science institutes, took it on.
Within Triumf, Powell researched and developed muon tomography techniques over the next few years, and according to Doug Schouten, an early Ideon employee, they proved to be very effective for what Powell referred to as subsurface mineral exploration. “The unique straight-line imaging technique delivers unparalleled location accuracy with higher spatial resolution (<10m) than other geophysical survey tools,” Schouten wrote in 2021. “Much like medical tomography, which images the interior of the body clearly using x-rays, muon tomography images what lies beneath our feet—up to 1 km deep.” In other words, Powell helped to pioneer a technology that could enable us to see underground anomalies. Its potential was immense, which is what attracted Agnew to the firm in 2020.
Agnew, a seasoned technology executive with previous roles at Finger Food Advanced Technology Group and Finning International, was looking for a startup he could leverage his experience and expertise in. A friend of his in the mining industry connected him to Michelle Wallcraft, an executive-in-residence at startup accelerator entrepreneur@UBC. Wallcraft sent Agnew the pitch deck for CRM Geotomography Technologies with a note that said, “Take a look at this, see if you want to go have a coffee.”
Agnew met with the company's then-CEO and co-founders, and as he recalls, one conversation turned into a consulting engagement that quickly grew in size before he ultimately ended up as CEO. “You know, the company definitely represented what I was looking for, and I guess I represented some of what the company was looking for,” he said. “And so we got together last March  formally.”
Then the world shut down. But that didn’t stop the startup from stepping up. The company re-branded to Ideon Technologies Inc. and, in July of 2021, announced a $1.3 million seed round. It was a milestone 20th investment for UBC’s Seed Fund, which was one among many investors. Fund president Todd Farrell shared why he believed the investment was so important. “Ideon will quite literally revolutionize resource exploration,” he said at the time. “The world has to get smarter, faster, and more responsible in our approach to extraction. It’s great to be able to help translate years of academic research and trials in this area into a company that has the potential to lead the entire market.”
But for Ideon to be successful, it had to execute on its promises and potential. For Ideon’s prospective customers, this meant significantly reducing the size of the detector the company developed, the device used to see underground. Customers said they wanted the muon tomography detector (as large as 2m by 1m by 1m in size) to fit into a standard borehole (9-centimetre diameter). So the priority for Agnew’s team last year was to get his detectors, which were the size of a kitchen table, to fit into a narrow hole—and they did it.
Between 2018 (before Agnew) and after his arrival, the Ideon team has reduced its device’s physical form by a remarkable 50 times. As a result, last year they were able to deploy their new detector and discovery platform for the first time.
Ideon’s progress attracted new strategic partners. In November of last year, they received $3.7 million from the Digital Technology Supercluster (DTS). The funds came as part of a project aimed at accelerating the global transition to low-impact mining. Collaborators on the initiative include Dias Geophysical, Fireweed Zinc, Simon Fraser University, Mitacs, Microsoft and BHP. According to the DTS, the project's resulting innovation is meant to “positively impact the underlying economics of a very traditional industry, paving the way for low-impact mining—or, for some minerals, being able to mine without a mine.” It’s ambitious, but no more so than Agnew was when I spoke to him months before these collaborators were known.
“We're saving typically… a 10x reduction in the number of boreholes the client will have to invest in a project,” he shared with me last August, when discussing his company’s tech. This was a certain upgrade to what he had referred to as a 40,000-year-old industry stuck in traditional techniques. “We think that's good for the customer’s economics; certainly good from a risk perspective,” Agnew reflected. “But also very good from an environmental perspective.”
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