The Orexplore Story
Two minds and one bold idea
It was in the middle of the 1990s when the founders of Orexplore met for the first time, at a company that developed lead protection for X-ray environments. This was the workplace of geotechnical engineer Anders Ullberg, and professor of radiology, Ragnar Kullenberg, was a regular customer through his job as a physicist at Trollhättan county hospital. Ullberg, with a background in the Swedish ore and wood industry, had already in the 1980s seen the need to develop new, more efficient and more sustainable methods for scanning minerals in rock, and moisture in wood. In addition to constructing protection against radiation, Kullenberg was researching the use of X-rays to measure bone minerals in the human body. When Ullberg heard about this work, his ideas for X-raying rock and wood pulp were given a new lease of life. In late summer 1994, he finally invited Kullenberg for a brainstorming session, accompanied by some classic Swedish fermented herring. During the meal, it became apparent that Kullenberg had had the same idea. He had published several articles on the subject as well as developed a number products, but not taken out any patents. It was not long before they had connected, through a shared passion for entrepreneurship and a belief that they could succeed in something no one had managed before – developing the X-ray so it could be used for more than just measuring the human body.
New capacity paves the way
During the 2000s, the duo worked on, and commercialised, several of their ideas. Their company Mantex developed a unique X-ray method to measure moisture in wood pulp – a technique that made a big impression on the wood industry. But scanning rock with X-rays remained at the planning stage – that technology was still too advanced for the computers available at the time. Ullberg's method for measuring minerals was based on X-raying the entire drill core taken from the rock. With the traditional method of grinding rock, only a few grams could be examined. If one could scan the drill core instead, geologists would be able to understand how the minerals related to each other. Additionally, a structural geologist would, for the first time, be able to examine the rock from the inside, which would increase the chances of finding more ore bodies.
In 2010, computers had finally caught up with Orexplore's bold idea. A patent was also on its way, and with their experiences from other companies, Ullberg and Kullenberg realised that they needed a managing director to run the company. Through Erik Odén, managing director at Mantex, they found Kevin Rebenius. Rebenius had extensive experience of running complicated projects in the tech industry, and also shared Ullberg’s and Kullenberg's passion for entrepreneurship. But above all, Rebenius believed in their idea. "When Anders and Ragnar contacted me, the patent was underway. There wasn’t much more to go by at that time. But I have always had a drive to do the impossible, and was immediately taken by their vision of Orexplore. If we succeeded in realising this vision, we would change the mining industry forever. And if gold could be found using the same technology, well, then we would have come across the holy grail. Finding gold is the hardest; as much as 50 percent of all exploration expenditure is for gold.”
The great talent hunt
With Rebenius on board as co-owner and managing director, the chase was on again. In order to get the patent, both money and fresh competence was required. After having clarified the commercial uses of the patent, Rebenius managed to secure a desirable membership in Swedish tech hub Sting. Having Sting behind them opened doors to a new global network, and Rebenius could put some serious effort into attracting financiers for Orexplore's ideas. Through Sting, Orexplore also became known as one of the most exciting tech companies in Sweden. This helped when Rebenius started to build the team that would bring together tech and mining, and take Orexplore into the future. The first to accept the challenge was Mikael Bergqvist, doctor in physics with a background in developing complex systems at other Swedish tech companies. As R&D manager, Bergqvist's task was to lead the technical team in realising Kullenberg's and Ullberg’s ideas. A while later, they were joined by senior geologist Stefan Sädbom, who, with his 30 years of mining experience, could bring a geologist's perspective and knowledge to the team.
An infeasible master plan
Once the trio were under the same roof in Kista, often called Sweden's Silicon Valley, the big plan began to be drawn. To change the industry method of measuring minerals, completely new hardware was required. And to detect all minerals, completely new software was developed. Products and programming that would take time to develop. The idea to build an X-ray machine that could detect gold required a very powerful instrument, a spectrometer. As it turned out, a spectrometer of that calibre had not yet been invented. And in order to detect any gold at all, you would need not only one, but one hundred spectrometers. Therefore, the team had to put the gold idea aside. However, instead of waiting for someone else to come up with a suitable spectrometer, they started working on their own. "It was a useful lesson that subsequently has defined how we approach problems, and how we solve them. We were also reminded that what we were doing with Orexplore was totally unique. Since that day, we have wanted, and been forced, to develop our own technology and software," Bergqvist explains.
Self-confidence makes for a strong culture
With a single spectrometer, it would only be possible for Orexplore to scan the drill cores for basic minerals. But in order to develop a first prototype, they needed funding. Rebenius worked hard to find the right investor. There were many in the running, but most were looking at more short-term investments. To succeed, Rebenius knew he had to find someone who was patient and thought long-term. Eventually, Rebenius secured funding through the government-owned fund Inlandsinnovationen. "Many were surprised that Orexplore was chosen. On paper, we probably didn’t meet all the criteria, but it was yet more proof that we were on to something big. The investment also meant that we could start developing a first prototype immediately," says Rebenius.
Now backed by Sting and Inlandsinnovationen, and with a revolutionary technology, Orexplore quickly became known as one of Stockholm's most sought-after workplaces in the field. Added to this was the distinct and strong corporate culture that Rebenius, Bergqvist and Sädbom had built, using driving forces such as passion, curiosity and entrepreneurship. Rebenius and Bergqvist could start building their dream team, and attracted major talents within the disciplines required to launch the first prototype.
Australian mining king changes everything
Orexplore also found its place in global mining, and in 2012, Rebenius was invited by Business Sweden in Australia to present Orexplore to the largest mining companies at a convention in Perth. "From my very first chats with Anders and Ragnar, I realised that Orexplore’s market was global. And being invited to Australia, one of the largest markets for mineral extraction, was a huge opportunity for us," says Rebenius.
But the Australian adventure could have had a better start. At the first run-through, Rebenius' and Orexplore's idea was instantly thrown aside. The mining company he met with did not think there was anything new about measuring drill cores with X-rays; that technology had long been on the market. End of discussion. Rebenius was never given the opportunity to tell them that the whole core could be X-rayed with this new technology, not just part of the surface, something that had already been achieved. Nor was he given the chance to tell them that geologists would be able to reveal the relationship between the minerals, and also the structure of the rock. But looking back, the failure turned out to be a success. The next day, he was given a new chance in front of a less conservative audience, and could explain what was unique about Orexplore, without interruptions.
During the lunch that followed, he was at the same table as Kent Swick. Swick, who had developed one of the world's largest drilling companies, did not need to be convinced. Immediately, he saw the possibilities on offer by Orexplore. He asked Rebenius for a meeting the following day, and they spent the rest of the meal getting to know each other. “I immediately realised that the Orexplore technology would increase the value of the drill cores, as it becomes harder and harder to find minerals, every drill meter is expensive and the minerals are further down in the rock. With Orexplore's technology, you would get maximum information about the mineral using a brand new, efficient and sustainable method,” says Swick.
New master plan launched
Rebenius’ and Swick's meeting was a hit and a year later, at the end of 2013, Swick Mining had bought Inlandsinnovationen’s shares of Orexplore and put an ambitious investment plan in place. With new courage, money, network and knowledge, Orexplore raised the bar once more. Together with Kurt Rapp from Electrolux, one of Sweden's most experienced people in setting up efficient production, Orexplore constructed a production line based on the same principles that Toyota was using. Such high standard production was really only used by global industrial companies. "To accomplish what Orexplore wanted, they needed precision and top quality at every stage. They had also decided to develop an X-ray machine that would work on site, and scan a metre of drill core in just 15 minutes, an accomplishment that far exceeded the first prototypes," says Rapp.
Award-winning Swedish industrial design
In order to cash in on Sweden’s industrial heritage and to further consolidate its top position in an industry where technology was often hidden away in welded boxes, Orexplore invited industrial designer Tue Beijer to design the new GeoCore X10 measuring tool. Ovations for the design were quick to follow, and in 2017, Orexplore received the Red Dot Design Award. In 2018, the first GeoCore X10 was delivered to the company’s first Australian office, in Perth.
Revolution in a centuries-old industry
With the GeoCore X10 and the simultaneously developed software Orexplore Insight in place, Orexplore could finally blossom. It was now possible to scan drill cores at high speed, and geologists could be fed 3D models of the X-rayed drill cores via computer screens, no matter where they were in the world. The time was also right to launch several test projects on site, and this was done with, amongst others, Boliden, Lovisagruvan and Swick Mining. To facilitate a wider usage of the new method, mining companies could send cores for X-raying to the Orexplore offices in Stockholm and Perth, for the results to be presented via Orexplore Insight.
"We still have some way to go before Orexplore's technology is completely verified and accepted by the mining industry. It's all about carrying out enough tests, so it's only a matter of time. In Lovisagruvan, where I work as a geologist, I run the traditionally processed results against those of the GeoCore X10. Orexplore Insight gives me access to a huge amount of information about the mine. And I get it within 15 minutes. Compare this to the traditional method, with which a small part of the drill core is sent for analysis to a certified lab. Several weeks can go by before you get the results," says Sädbom, chairman of the board of Orexplore and geologist at Lovisagruvan mine.
Sustainable needs for a conventional industry
The years it took Orexplore to develop its technology have resulted in an increased urgency to implement the methods. One example is the Paris Agreement, which places heavy demands on increased sustainability within the mining industry. There is a need to generate less residual waste, less blasted rock. Personal safety in mining must also be enhanced, something that gets neglected around the world, where there isn’t adequate information about where in the rock it is safe to mine. "Along the way, we have realised that we must not only revolutionise how to find minerals in rock. Or how to find gold for that matter. Today, we also strive to create a sustainable mining industry for the future. In addition, producers of technology and new battery types are desperate for new types of minerals. With our effective measurement methods, one could return to archived drill cores to see if desired minerals are hiding in previous sites, in abandoned mines or in waste rock. Then one would not have to project as many new mines, and instead reuse old ones," Bergqvist adds.
At last a way to the holy grail
In 2019, Orexplore is ready for a new milestone. Seven years after the plans to build a gold-finding tool were laid aside, Orexplore has launched its first tests to scan for gold. And like so many times before, it’s about doing what no one has done before. And about timing. "We can have the technology ready this or next year. It was the possibility of finding gold that got us started in 2010. We have already proved that we can achieve things that no one else has, so we’ll just do it again," Rebenius concludes.