Perspectives From Latinx Entrepreneurs
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Perspectives From Latinx Entrepreneurs

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Javier Muñoz, Cofounder, Mineral Forecast

Mineral Forecast cofounder Javier Muñoz (Harvard Kennedy School) uses artificial intelligence to explore mining targets in his home country of Chile — the world’s largest copper producer. The malleable metal is an essential element in the green economy (because EVs depend on it for thermal conductivity, the BBC estimates its use will increase by 50 percent in the next 20 years). And yet, productivity in mineral exploration has been steadily decreasing over the past 30 years. That’s where Mineral Forecast comes in, making mining exploration easier, faster, and more cost-effective.

Earlier this month, we caught up with Muñoz to chat about the challenges he’s facing with his venture, what he’s celebrating this Latinx Heritage Month, and how we can imagine a more sustainable future together.

Tell us about your venture and what inspired it?

We help mining exploration teams be more accurate in their drilling using AI. Only 3 percent of drillings are actually successful — meaning they find copper, gold, silver, iron, etc. Using a SaaS platform with their data, we can help them achieve 10 percent. To achieve a greener economy, we need more renewables, more EVs, more electric grids, etc: And all of these require far more critical metals. We need more lithium for batteries and copper for cables that spread electricity. According to the IEA’s estimate, in order to significantly reduce CO2 emission over the next 20 years, we’re going to need access to four times as many minerals. So we urgently need to discover more of these metals to fulfill the coming demand surge. We need to democratize these tools to increase discovery rates of minerals.

Fifteen years ago my cofounder Arturo Rochefort was exploring a mine in Chile. He needed to decide where to drill — right or left? He realized the decision in that moment was completely based on the opinions of geologists, who are really smart, but they’re human. They have plenty of biases. So he thought, Why not use data and machine algorithms to make better decisions at that stage? That was the inception of Mineral Forecast.

What are the challenges facing mineral exploration?

Nobody wants to have a mine in their backyard. So, if someone knocks on your door and says, “Hey, I want to do some drill holes here to see if there’s gold under your floor,” it’s kind of scary. It’s hard to get permits, and it takes a long time. The mining industry has serious environmental and social impacts, and is sometimes seen as a bad guy. But we really need a better and more robust mining industry to achieve a greener economy. These technologies help miners drill less holes to find the metals.

How do you hope Mineral Forecast will change the future?

These tools — machine learning and AI in the exploration industry — are such a powerful game changer that they need to be democratized and put in the hands of all miners and explorers. We aim to be the off-the-shelf solution for explorers, helping geologists learn to use the tools, because it requires a lot of education, too. This will help to accelerate having a greener economy sooner, combating climate change.

How can the i-lab help?

It has already helped a lot. Here’s an example: We had the thesis that we could deliver our service through software, — a SaaS business model. Different mentors in the i-Lab pushed us to test that theory. In the last year, we invested some money in our platform. It was an MVP we could test with some of our customers. Well, we did those tests in January 2022, and after iterating a bit, we closed three SaaS contracts in two months. In the end, we proved that the SaaS business model was good for our customers. Improving the UX, the UI, and the SaaS MVP requires a lot of development, so now we’re raising funds and bringing on more people to help us build and grow the company and the culture. Who do we bring on? Which kinds of expertise do we need? How do we raise money to make a company grow faster? For these questions, the i-Lab helps a ton.

Tell me about your heritage and what you celebrate about it.

I’m from Chile. I’m Latino, and very proud of it. Living in Cambridge the last two years, it was powerful to see how different cultures represent their heritage. In the i-Lab, we are a minority, but here in my country, we are not. It’s really powerful to be in an environment when you’re the minority and not the majority. It helps you build better, more dynamic companies, and makes you even more proud, but also humbled.

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Mario Pochat, Founder & CEO, VANAS/FAME

Mario Pochat (Harvard Business School and Harvard Extension School) fell in love with arts and animation growing up in Mexico City in the ’80s. At 17, he took a job as a demo artist at a Mexican subsidiary of a large, Canadian-owned company. As part of his training, he was sent to Montreal and to trade shows across the United States. After years working in animation studios in Mexico City, he enrolled in a Canadian institution to study Classical Animation, where he would eventually become the head of the Animation department. In 2009, he went to work building his own school: Vancouver Animation School (VANAS), the first cloud school in Canada.

Today, you’ll find his name in the credits of big blockbusters like Twilight, Tropic Thunder, and Blades of Glory — and you might catch him hanging around the i-Lab, where he’s hard at work accelerating his ventures. We spoke with Pochat about his Latinx heritage, the future of animation, and what he loves most about being part of the i-Lab.

What ventures are you working on at the i-lab this year?

I enrolled with i-lab last semester with my venture called FAME (film, animation, media, and entertainment). It’s all about teaching the art and technology behind movies and games. There are lots of excellent animation artists who go into more commercial [jobs] than [making] movies and games. In FAME, we teach all the arts and science behind what they do at studios like Pixar and Sony.

VANAS is my main company: It’s the first Canadian online school for animation. When we opened in 2009, people had no idea what “online” was. I was getting questions like “What’s a webcam?” After two years of R&D, we opened exclusively online. We had people from all over the world attending remotely. The goal was to create a studio school, something that would resemble the workplace environment. When we were working in studios and hiring employees who were just out of school, the knowledge gap was huge — we were like, “What are they teaching?” So that’s why we started VANAS. Instead of having a traditional hierarchy at the school, we use the same model the studios use; we have supervisors not teachers, and we treat the students like a crew.

In 2019, we found ourselves in a similar situation, where we were recruiting students for VANAS and the portfolios from high schoolers were not strong enough — not aimed at the industry — more painting, fine art, not as commercial as we needed. So we created FAME. Some high schools were asking us to give them some curriculum from VANAS, so we thought, Let’s develop something more than just a paper curriculum. Let’s release an MVP; a little platform. And we asked schools, “What do you need? What are the pain points?” We thought it would be quick, but it took nine months developing this MVP. But when we released the first FAME platform with high schools in 2018, we had a full-on interactive platform.

What do you hope to gain from your time at the i-lab?

The i-lab has so much to offer that it’s so difficult to grab just one thing and run with it. It’s like a dream: You have all these people who you know because of YouTube videos or websites like TechCrunch — and they’re there for you to book meetings with them. I can’t believe I can just click “schedule now” and talk to these experts who have so many unique experiences. For me, it’s like, how do I take and absorb all of it? How do I use this new info to expand my brain, my paradigm? If I get it right, I want to keep learning from all of it.

Tell us about your heritage and what you celebrate about it.

I’m very Mexican. I was born in Mexico City. Mexican culture is so amazing; it’s so full of life. Its people are so talented and so creative with very little tools. Up here [in North America] we have all this tech, money, and resources. Down there, they’re so limited. It’s simply astonishing how, with so little, they can build so much. With my ventures, I wonder how we can provide more opportunities for Mexican and Latin people as a whole? They need opportunities to shine because they have the talent. At every studio or movie I work on, there’s always someone Latin who I’m looking at thinking, This is great. I celebrate the creativity of my culture. It’s how we were born.

Facing challenges every single day fuels creativity and problem-solving. Latin people are always smiling, always warm — no matter what they’re facing. It’s amazing. They have a rich artistic culture of drawing, of painting… Now we’re transitioning that gift into the digital aspects of art.

How has representation in film and animation changed since you first started out?

It’s definitely the minority. When I got started in 1998, there was none — at least in Vancouver or major films. It was very rare to even hear someone speaking Spanish. If you did, it was so weird that it would actually make your head turn. Slowly over the past 20 years, [diversity] has been growing; you see a lot more people in the studios in the animation industry making the transition from Mexico or South American countries to North America. These industries are not as developed in my country, so often, people have to move to a different country to do this work. It’s a bold step, and we’re taking it.

In North America, you’re going to see a bigger number of Latin people in the industry. Right now, it’s maybe 1 or 2 percent, tops. But we’re going to see more countries participating: They want to have their own voice. If you go to animation festivals now, you’re going to see Mexico, you’re going to see Chile, and many other Latin countries. People have so much to say. The movies that come out of these places are so rich in content; they have meaningful messages. It’s not about superheroes. It’s about life and resilience and the things people go through.