ATP Oil & Gas (Nasdaq: ATPG ) recently offered to pay all of its employees' mortgages for a year if the company could hit certain ambitious goals. That's a pretty generous incentive program, but Barrick Gold (NYSE: ABX ) may have topped it with its "Unlock the Value" contest.
Unlike ATP, Barrick is reaching outside the organization to solve a production puzzle. At the company's Veladero mine in Argentina, silver is a significant by-product. An estimated 180 million ounces are contained in reserves. The problem is that using traditional methods, the company is achieving only a 7% recovery rate. Now that per-ounce silver prices are moving up into the high teens, Barrick is understandably frustrated at failing to capture more than a modicum of the metal.
Last September, the company opened its books to the entire world. Anyone registering on the program's website gets access to all of the Veladero-related data one could desire. Teams submitting research-worthy proposals will earn $25,000 in funding, and if any of these finalists produces a commercially viable solution for extracting more silver, Barrick will pay a performance bonus of $10 million.
This is a brilliant business move, but Barrick can't claim the innovation. That distinction goes to Rob McEwen, the former chairman and CEO of Goldcorp (NYSE: GG ) .
Back in 2000, McEwen, who now heads up US Gold (AMEX: UXG ) , launched the Goldcorp Challenge, which offered half a million dollars to Internet entrants who could offer promising drill targets at the company's Red Lake mine. The winners had access to data only -- they never visited the Canadian property. The wildly successful program made a rock star out of finalist Mark O'Dea, who now heads up Fronteer Development Group (AMEX: FRG ) . After the Goldcorp Challenge, BHP Billiton (NYSE: BHP ) applied the same virtual exploration model to its own portfolio.
It's terrific to see this open-source strategy spreading, albeit slowly, in the mining space. So bravo, Barrick, for putting your money where the minds are -- online.
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