Making the unseen seen
Interview with Yair Frastai, CEO and co-founder of VerAI Discoveries
The digital transformation of the mining industry has been progressing well for the last decade or so, and artificial intelligence (AI) has been an important tool to advance that transformation of the industry. Recently, mining companies are using AI to optimize processes, enhance decision-making, derive value from data, and improve safety. However, the transition to an AI-enabled mineral exploration is a different story or experience for every company or even mine.
Since we feature mining in the digital age in this issue of the Canadian Mining Journal, I caught up with Yair Frastai (YF), CEO and co-founder of VerAI Discoveries, during PDAC 2023 in early March, to talk about the company, the technology, and the future of AI in mining as he sees it.
VerAI Discoveries, an innovative, AI-based mineral asset generator, recently completed a $12M Series A funding round led by T. Rowe Price Associates, with Orion Resource Partners, Chrysalix Venture Capital, and Blumberg Capital. Working across the vast under-explored areas of covered terrain, VerAI’s targeting capabilities significantly improves the probability of finding vital metal deposits by increasing the discovery success rates by two orders of magnitude while being more than 20 times less expensive and 20 times faster than human-centric techniques.
CMJ: To start the conversation, can you please tell us what is VerAI Discoveries?
YF: VerAI Discoveries is an innovative, AI-based mineral asset generator that helps the mineral exploration industry improve the probability of discovering critical minerals deposits. VerAI implements an AI-driven approach, which incorporates machine learning searching capabilities in magnetic, gravimetric, electromagnetic, and seismic data, to detect previously concealed mineral deposits at a rate two orders of magnitude more effectively than human-centric techniques. Consequently, VerAI accelerates the ability to leverage these vital mineral deposits to help lead the green energy transition into a more sustainable future.
CMJ: In other words, VerAI is “making the unseen seen?”
YF: Exactly, there are no longer “easy” discoveries when it comes to mining, as most of the underexplored parts of known mining jurisdictions are under covered terrain, and current exploration methods will no longer be fit for purpose. The green energy transition needs enormous quantities of metals, but the mining industry is failing to discover new resources. EVs, renewable energy and electricity storage technologies rely heavily on critical minerals, such as copper, cobalt, nickel, and lithium. Most of the currently existing mines that were discovered in the last century are in outcropped areas. The remaining ore deposits in stable and regulated mining countries are concealed under vast covered terrain, making them very challenging to discover. Additionally, most of those mining jurisdictions (Canada, Australia, Arizona, Nevada, Peru, Chile, and others) are 70% to 90% covered, and consequently, under-explored because current exploration methods are not suitable for the challenge. There is a US$100 billion opportunity to disrupt the industry’s inefficient and archaic exploration strategies, and VerAI is doing so by discovering those concealed economic mineral deposits with 100 times more accuracy, 20 times faster, and 20 times cheaper than current industry benchmarks. In other words, we are unlocking a multibillion-dollar opportunity by discovering under-cover deposits.
Today, only 1 in 1,000 exploration projects become a mine.
CMJ: Can you tell us how VerAI started, the history of the company, the team, and your vision for the company?
YF: Amitai Axelrod, COO and co-founder, and I formed VerAI in 2020 to tackle the biggest challenge of mineral exploration: finding concealed mineral deposits under covered terrain. The green energy transition needs enormous quantities of metals, but the low-hanging fruits are already gone, and the mining industry is falling short of discovering new resources to supply the current and future massive demand. As I mentioned, vast areas of the mining countries are completely covered, the conventional exploration model is not effective, not economically viable, and not scalable. Today’s success rate of exploration projects is extremely poor, with less than 1 in 1,000 projects becoming a mine, while in covered terrain the performance is even lower. VerAI is not providing a service or selling its technology; instead, we are generating significant value by using our technology to build a portfolio of mineral assets and develop them with partners. We have a very capital-efficient and scalable business model with a broad and diversified portfolio of multiple commodities in various jurisdictions.
VerAI founders and the core team members are rooted in the Israeli defense intelligence and hi-tech domains. During the last decade, as senior executives in mineral exploration companies in Chile and the U.S., we have been implementing our knowledge and expertise to significantly improve the success rate of mineral discoveries. Our team members led research and the implementation of innovative projects collaborating with research centers such as MIT in Boston, CESIRO and CET in Perth, Imperial College in London, and MDRU at UBC, as well as global field operations of multidisciplinary teams that specialized in innovative solutions to solve complex exploration problems.
VerAI’s strong discovery team is built on the synergy between three essential pillars – data science, geoscience, and commercial expertise – all supported by a tier-one experienced advisory team, board of directors from the fields of academic research and the mining industry, and strong strategic investors, including T. Rowe Price Associates and Orion Resource Partners.
CMJ: How does VerAI’s AI platform work to detect deposits; can you talk to us about the technology and what makes it different from other AI exploration companies?
YF: Many are still trying to rely on ununified big-data approach that is heavily biased by experts’ interpretations and extrapolations. This approach focusses its effort in generating information that can suggest the “conditions” for the existence of a mineral system, such as favourable lithology, structures, and alteration, but unfortunately, those “proxies” are not enough to indicate the existence of a new economic mineral system. VerAI deploys a novel proprietary AI technology to search directly for those concealed economic mineral deposits, skipping the underperforming proxies analysis. We generate an exclusive catalog of patterns from existing economic orebodies to identify in the data the location of new viable mineral deposits with a high level of probability. Our AI-based discovery platform successfully targets concealed deposits of various commodities, including copper, cobalt, nickel, molybdenum, zinc and gold. We believe that the next significant economic discoveries will be in the underexplored covered terrain, which is where we are focusing our technology and innovation efforts.
We are feeding our machines with the right data for the problem: geophysics, which are signals coming from the depth of the subsurface (metres to kilometres), agnostic to the cover material and not biased by surface information. The geophysics data that we are using is a continuous, raw data, which means it is not biased by experts’ extrapolations, inversions, or interpretations of punctual data.
CMJ: Geophysics has been used by the exploration industry for a long time. How are you using geophysics differently?
YF: Geophysicists are used to interpret and extrapolate geophysics data, looking for anomalies in the data (like doctors were using their eyes to interpret MRI data before AI /ML technologies were introduced as part of the diagnostic process). These methods are constrained by humans’ capabilities, and many other industries including healthcare have already discovered the advantages of AI/ML over the human pattern recognition. VerAI is deploying AI/ML to search for those concealed mineral deposits in the raw data itself, which is the core strength of our technology. By applying AI/ML to geophysics data, we can discover concealed economic mineral deposits with 100 times more accuracy, 20 times faster, and 20 times less expensive than current traditional, human-centric techniques of the industry benchmarks.
CMJ: What are VerAI’s major discoveries and partnerships so far?
YF: We are generating significant value by partnering with exploration companies on our mineral asset portfolios, leveraging our internal AI/ML-based targeting capabilities together with external exploration and development expertise. We have discovered several attractive mineral property portfolios in different jurisdictions that are currently going forward with partners, while others are available for partnership with experienced exploration companies.
Two of our portfolios, targeting copper, gold, and silver, are already developing with partners in Chile and Peru. We also completed the generation of two portfolios targeting nickel and cobalt in Ontario, an extensive portfolio targeting copper deposits in northern Chile to the east of Antofagasta, the area of the largest copper deposits worldwide, as well as an exciting portfolio targeting copper in Arizona, only 18 km south of Sierrita (an operating mine by Freeport McMoran), that is under advanced evaluation by several major players.
These portfolios include high-probability targets of various minerals. VerAI is open for partnering on these existing portfolios, as well as for future strategic alliances with exploration companies who struggle in discovering under cover.
VerAI is a disruptive AI-based mineral asset generator that changes how the world discovers mineral deposits.
CMJ: How do you choose your partners?
YF: We diversify our portfolios by carefully selecting the commodity, jurisdiction, and exploration partner as part of our business strategy to maximize value and reduce risk. Each portfolio includes a series of high-probability and prospect-scale targets ready to drill, focusing on the blue ocean of the covered terrain in well-established mining countries.
We are looking for partners with strong technical capabilities, expertise in the specific jurisdiction or commodity and can develop drill-ready targets into high-value projects. Also, partners that are running out of ore or want to enter a new jurisdiction quickly could benefit from our ability to quickly generate drill-ready targets instead of lengthy and expensive area-reduction processes. And most importantly, partners that have an area of interest under cover and believe that our AI technology can work where the industry is challenged by vast covered terrain and lack of surface data are welcome to collaborate with us.
CMJ: Are you planning to continue these partnerships through the mining process itself?
YF: Our business model is to be a scalable project generator rather than a sole explorer/miner. This is a capital-light approach and one where we can focus on our technology competitive advantage to rapidly identifying prospective properties and partnering with experienced exploration companies to take them to development. Our partnership model involves earn-ins from our partner and an eventual equity exposure and/or royalty stream for VerAI. We believe that by scaling and generating multiple, diversified asset portfolios, we are generating significant asset value that does not require us to enter risky, expensive, and lengthy field exploration processes.
CMJ: VerAI very recently announced it completed a US$12 million Series A funding round. Can you talk to us briefly about that, and what does it represent to you?
YF: The recent Series A funding round included funds and accounts advised by T. Rowe Price Associates, with Orion Resource Partners, Chrysalix Venture Capital, and Blumberg Capital.
This group of strong financial and strategic investors understands the need in discovering new critical minerals, and sees VerAI’s team, technology, and success rate as a unique opportunity to solve this global problem while creating significant value. Our investors bring extensive experience in generation and deployment of transformational technology and innovation, specifically in mining and their direct contribution to the global clean energy transition, as well as in successfully applying AI solutions to different verticals and industries.
This funding comes at a time of increasing global demand for many critical metals that are important to global electrification, including copper, cobalt, lithium, and nickel. Operable across the vast under-explored areas of covered terrain, our targeting capabilities will certainly help evolve the deposit identification success rates, while allowing us rapid scale.
CMJ: Finally, how does the future of VerAI look like to you? And how do you intend to grow the business?
YF: Historically, covered terrain is challenging human prospecting exploration techniques, meaning a massive range of opportunities is being missed. While at the same time the global energy transition requires enormous quantities of metals to sustain the development of both current and future technologies. Traditional exploration and discovery methods rely on human interpretation and are not capable of meeting these demands. Our AI-driven approach enables our partners to discover at a much higher rate of success, creates significant value in a much shorter period and brings critical minerals into the market. VerAI will continue its fast scaling by creating diverse mineral asset portfolios, targeting multiple commodities in different jurisdictions, and partnering with strong industry players to extract significant value our of our successful discoveries.