As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan to Rebuild in The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Kiril Mugerman. A well-travelled entrepreneur who grew up in four countries and is fluent in five languages including English, French, Hebrew, Russian and Spanish, Kiril Mugerman settled in Montreal, Quebec in 2001 where he received a bachelor’s degree with Honors (Earth and Planetary Sciences — Geology) from McGill University. Kiril Mugerman brings both technical and financial expertise to his position as President & CEO of Geomega Resources Inc., which is developing a disruptive technology in the rare earth elements sector. Mugerman founded Kintavar Exploration to conduct exploration activities for non-rare earth assets that were previously owned by Geomega. In January 2018, under his leadership, Kintavar made the first stratiform copper discovery in Quebec in the region of Mont Laurier and has successfully raised over $10M to advance the exploration and development of these copper assets. Currently, he leads both public companies and is advancing Geomega to build the first rare earths refining and recycling plant outside of Asia. Earlier in his career, he was a mining analyst at Industrial Alliance Securities Inc. in the industrial minerals sector focusing in the rare earth elements, graphite and potash sectors.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My pleasure Charlie. By background, I’m a geologist, who studied at McGill in Quebec, Canada and then worked in mineral exploration all over the world before coming back home and getting involved with public markets as a mining analyst and as an entrepreneur. My focus became industrial minerals which became a bit of a craze as green energy and innovative high-tech applications began taking a leading role in our day-to-day lives. Industrial minerals include lithium and graphite for batteries, vanadium for fuel cells and, of course, rare earths for all our renewable energy and electric vehicle needs.
In 2014, I joined Geomega (GMA.V), a company that was developing interesting clean technologies for rare earths and was later appointed President and CEO in 2015. Since then we have developed an innovative solution for rare earths recycling and are committed to lowering the environmental footprint of processes to extract and separate REE, reagent regeneration and minimizing the amount of effluents and solid waste that are generated.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take away’ you learned from that?
When you start, you have so many ideas and you want to act on everything. Some tests go positive and right away you think that you are already at the next step. In the beginning of my career, my mistake was underestimating the time it takes to properly develop a technology to commercial scale. I’ve learned, and am still learning, how to take the necessary time to do things.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
When I was given the opportunity to run Geomega, my purpose was to bring rare earths production back to North America. How we get to that final goal is always evolving as markets evolve, but the actual final goal has not changed.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Yes, I recommend people try their best to think outside the box. Don’t do what everyone else is doing. Try to be different in your approach which gives you a first mover advantage and, if you are successful, others will follow you.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
We have 4 kids at home ranging from pre-daycare, daycare and elementary school. Keeping all of them active (physically and academically) is very important but is also a challenge due to their age range. Weather was not favorable the first month of the pandemic so everyone stayed at home. Not having a routine, or basically forming a new routine for the children, was the biggest challenge.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Our primary challenge is keeping our schedule organized and completed for all our activities as there are many moving parts with suppliers, contractors, potential partners and investors — all having to adjust and change their activities — and, of course, ensuring that our team is safe and employed. We have managed to adapt to these challenges and have kept all our employees working.
We retrofitted our plant to manufacture hand sanitizer and got all the required government permits to do so. This allowed us to continue to operate and keep our team employed.
The hand sanitizer production is from our pilot plant and allows Geomega to produce up to 675 liters per week. The corporation is focusing on distributing its hand sanitizer product to local retirement homes, hospitals, pharmacies and distributers in the province of Québec. The corporation will be donating 20% of its hand-sanitizer production to local long-term care homes and other charities who are helping the most vulnerable in our society during this pandemic.
We are fortunate that COVID-19 had little impact on our day-to-day operations. I am proud of our team that shows flexibility, motivation and creativity, especially during a difficult situation like we see globally today. Our modifications to our pilot plant do not impede the progress of building our much larger demonstration plant to be located in St. Bruno, Quebec.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Many people get bad information that is out there just to scare people; information that only highlights the negatives with speculations that have no foundation. Everyone needs to stay together, talk and discuss through the difficult times, stay active physically and mentally and, that way, we can all pull through this together.
Obviously, we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
In our sector, rare earth elements and critical metals, global supply chains will be forever changed. The Covid pandemic highlights the dependence of our Western society on China and other countries. China’s recycling of critical materials from electronic scrap has come at a high cost to the environment. It is important that North America secure an ample supply of REE outside of China to support clean technologies in energy, energy storage and sustainable mobility but use sustainable recycling practices in doing so.
Previously everyone only talked about critical metals independence from China for defense purposes. We clearly saw with Covid that the rare earth and critical element sector affects all our lives. Medical equipment, manufacturing, agriculture and many other sectors require rare earth magnets and not only missiles and jet planes. The post-Covid economy needs to see more growth outside of China and growth that can lead to cleaner and more sustainable industries.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I think that the advent of this pandemic will affect the way people live, day-to-day, in a number of ways. Social exchanges are evolving. However, I think some of the changes will be relatively short-lived because, as a society, we like to tuck unpleasant memories behind us. However, for the foreseeable time-being, people will likely be washing their hands and using hand sanitizer more regularly now. They will be thinking twice about hugging and kissing friends and acquaintances. They will be postponing networking events that include dozens of people.
On the business front, I do think some things will permanently change. When arranging work meetings, business leaders will ask whether it’s necessary to meet person when they would not have said that before. There will be a commercial real estate footprint reduction for some businesses that realize that telework is truly viable and that they can dramatically reduce the number of employees that need to be at a company’s office.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
Our business is needed now more than ever before. The post-Covid economy demands a focus on recycling companies and the protection of natural resources. Society is trying to become more environmentally conscious. Covid was just another wake- up call. Our company will help bring a new industry to North America which until now only was present in Asia. This is important for diversity of supply and to create that technical knowledge that we lost to Asia over the last 50 years.
In the rare earth elements (REE) sector, China is always a step ahead, with dominance since the turn of the century and wielding an even stronger grip in 2020. China played the price bubble to their advantage to source new raw materials while they preserved their domestic supply. Since, China’s knowledge and expertise in the entire downstream sector got more advanced as Europe, Canada, United States and Australia put hundreds of millions of dollars to ‘reinvent’ what China had already perfected.
Today, for the first time, we are seeing the United States government take a page from China’s book by proposing legislation that subsidizes locally produced REE and REE containing products. It’s a battle between the world’s two largest economies and it’s all about who has the bigger guns, or the one who is willing to spend the money to win the fight. The United States tried to win with academia-driven research five years ago, but that didn’t do much to stimulate the sector. This time it looks different as the government cannot afford to stop half way. The United States is also able to turn to Canada which can help with its own natural resources and, most importantly, the clean and low-cost energy from hydropower which is vital for energy hungry REE transformation and recycling projects.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I encourage others to look for domestic solutions. North America needs to be independent and protective of its resources. We must not respond to the COVID-19 crisis by putting North American’s health at greater risk and worsening the climate crisis. We should focus on helping people in all affected industries, but avoid subsidies that end up increasing polluting activities or infrastructure investments that lock in greenhouse gas emissions such as leasing property at low prices for fossil fuel extraction or exempting oil and gas pipelines from environmental reviews.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Think outside the box.” Everything we do at Geomega is focused on standing out and being different. We need to think differently if we want to innovate and evolve. That has guided our progress over the last 5 years at Geomega.
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