From startup to scaleup — with Kevin Rebenius
When Orexplore secured its patent for the company's X-ray technology in 2010, Kevin Rebenius joined as CEO and co-founder. His mission was to take the concept of on-site in-depth mineral analysis from the research stage to an actual product and introduce it to the global mining market.
Was it always your plan to lead a tech company?
I’m not from an academic family, so my path hasn’t been straight. In fact, it took quite a while before I realised I wanted to study. But I've always been interested in technology and I’ve always had the feeling that I was meant to make a difference, somehow. That, combined with being hopelessly stubborn (I never give up), led me to engineering studies at the University in Västerås, 100 km northwest of Stockholm. Once there, I discovered that I enjoyed studying, which made me work even harder. This is how I managed to get in to the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm to do a Masters in mechanical engineering.
Were there any milestones that you remember from your time as a student?
During my time at KTH, I was really fortunate to get a scholarship and have the opportunity to spend a year at the engineering school at Dartmouth College, one of the Ivy League universities in the US. I worked twice as hard that year, studying both technology and marketing. I was also part of Dartmouth’s Formula SAE racing team, where we built our own racing car and competed against other schools. I became the driver because I was the only one familiar with driving a stick shift. During my time at Dartmouth I learned that technology is so much more than the theory you learn in school. The practical side of engineering is often largely neglected, at least it was at that time in Sweden. But theory and practice (including best practice) go hand in hand. Most things have already been figured out by someone else, so take advantage of that. If you build things, you need to test them, learn from those tests, redesign, and start the cycle all over. These insights have been very useful to me—developing technology is hard work.
After graduating, you embarked on a career in consulting. Any lessons?
When I started working as a technology consultant after graduation, I soon discovered that I wanted to be a manager because I wanted to be able to make a difference. I applied for several management positions but every application was turned down. It wasn’t until a superior of mine told me I should try sales as he sensed I had a talent for it. I didn’t believe him, but it turned out to be the turning point in my career, and eventually I was given the opportunity to take on a consulting company in decay. I turned the business around in three years. We went from five to 50 consultants, and were profitable. My achievement was not only about strong leadership, it was also about realising that the key to a consulting firm’s success is building long and lasting relationships with clients and providing solutions to their problems. My work there led to the position of sales director at Datarespons, which allowed me to expand my sales leadership skills even more. We were serving all sorts of product companies and this sparked in me a longing to work at the heart of such a company, not as an outsider, which ultimately inspired me to co-found Orexplore. During my years in the consultancy industry, I was often surprised at how few consulting firms had a clear sales focus. One of the most important lessons I learned is that consultants must also be entrepreneurs and not only manage their assignments, but constantly develop both relationships and the business by sniffing out client needs that lead to more business.
What characterizes your style of leadership?
Empower and trust people to do their jobs — they know it best. Apart from removing obstacles, my advice to other leaders is to give employees the tools, responsibility, and mandate to realise their full potential. Sometimes things will go wrong, and it’s OK to make mistakes as long as there’s a will to make things right. We all make mistakes. Lead by example. You cannot expect others to do what you aren’t prepared to do or to sacrifice. Empowerment and trust allows people to grow and flourish. In return, you get amazing commitment and outstanding results. During my years in consulting, I learnt that the key to success, apart from hiring the right people, was to complete existing projects, be responsive, and really listen to employees regarding how they wanted to advance their skills then match that with available assignments or expand existing customer engagements to accommodate that personal growth. I also learnt that you should never leave a looming fire to smoulder. Act immediately — small unattended problems tend to escalate into big ones. In a company like Orexplore, which is being built and developed from scratch, everyone has to know and understand the goals and most important of all, head or even run in the same direction, even if the path isn’t always straight. We have to realise it’s a team effort and that it’s the responsibility of each member to help each other to help Orexplore reach its ambitious goals. Together we can achieve amazing results, which we have shown time and time again.
You have developed a unique technology. What have been the biggest challenges?
If I learned the importance of selling during my years as a consultant, the years at Orexplore have taught me the value of having the right investors. Not all tech companies survive their start-up phase. Many investors were interested in us, but we were well aware that we had years of research and hard work ahead before we had the perfect technology. We kindly turned down those who couldn’t share our long-term vision. With our current owner and investor since 2013 (Swick Mining Services, an Australian company), we got a partner with a long-term commitment, which allows us to focus on advancing our technology despite drawbacks and failures along the way. We are now penetrating the market, and we do so with fully operational production facilities and with strong and unique technological capabilities.
"Crazy and naïve some might say, which is not an unfair comment, but I think attitude is everything — think it can be done!"
Did you have any prior knowledge of or experience in the mining industry?
None of us had any experience in the mining industry. Some have said it was quite courageous taking on such a challenge, neither knowing the industry nor if it was possible to realise the research for a product that has to meet harsh industry demands. Crazy and naïve some might say, which is not an unfair comment, but I think attitude is everything—think it can be done! Actually, it can be an advantage to come from outside an industry and not be constrained by preconceptions or bound by its prevailing tacit “truths”.
Today, you’re on the threshold of a global breakthrough with your X-ray technology. What do you think is required to get the mining industry to take a technological leap with you?
It’s a challenge to introduce new technology into any industry. But the mining industry is conservative, where basically the same methods have been used for hundreds of years. If we are to be a technological partner for the mining industry, first and foremost we must make ourselves understood. We have geologists who understand our technology. The amount of information we can extract from a drill core sample gives geologists entirely new possibilities to discover minerals and elements. But we know that our data can also add value—both economic and environmental—in other parts of the mineral value chain. That’s why we work closely with our clients. We gather as many stakeholders as possible in workshops then have candid discussions about how we can make most use of the drill core data sets. Since neither we nor the client knows the true benefits and values at the outset, it’s important to realise that this is a co-creation process where we learn by working closely together. Using Orexplore's technology, we strive to find out how a mine can reach its maximum potential and extract as much value from its data as possible.
How have you prepared Orexplore for a breakthrough?
I believe we have the self-confidence required. Our corporate culture has been strengthened by the fact that we have managed, time and time again, to do what no one else has done before. We have a world-class production line ready to produce the GeoCore X10. We have attracted and retained talent, including some of the best physicists, programmers, and production specialists in Sweden. And we have a strong owner who believes in us and who has a long-term plan. We are also a much more sales-driven organization, with clearer goals and a clearer picture of how to get there. So yes, we are 100% prepared, but also well aware of the challenges ahead.
Name: Kevin Rebenius
Lives: Stockholm, Sweden
Title: CEO and co-founder Orexplore. Career summary: Master of Science, Mechanical Engineering and Mechatronics, KTH. Master of Business Administration, SU. Business Unit Manager at Tritech Technology, Business Area Manager at EIS by Semcon, Sales Director at Datarespons.