Season 1 Episode 16: Daniel Fletcher-Manuel, Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, on Understanding Lithium to Support the Energy Transition

This week, Daniel Fletcher-Manuel, Director of Prices and Data at Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, joins the Hypercube podcast to discuss the company’s role as a price reporting agency, the challenges of gathering and analysing data from opaque commodity markets like lithium, and the important role it plays in the energy transition.  

Daniel gives an insight into how, in a hyped market like lithium, Benchmark uses diverse data sources and analytical techniques to verify production capacity claims and gather market intelligence for reliable reporting. He discusses the pitfalls of using information that strays too far from fact into opinion and speculation and the impact this has on reporting accuracy. 

We also step back and look at the bigger picture of why accurate price reporting on commodities like lithium is so essential as part of the energy transition. He explores the wider consequences of exaggerating volatility for policymakers and decision-makers, particularly around energy storage.

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S1E16 Daniel Fletcher-Manuel

In this episode, we covered:

  • Why accurate lithium pricing data is essential for the energy transition
  • How geospacial capabilities can be used to verify market information
  • The problem of conflating plurality and liquidity in PRAs
  • The human challenge of data collection for price reporting
  • Allocating capital to the assets needed to drive the energy transition

The weekly Hypercube podcast sits down with leaders in the energy and utilities sectors to explore how data analytics can help businesses make smarter decisions and accelerate business growth.

CHAPTER MARKERS

[0:42] Daniel starts by giving an overview of his background and the current focus at Benchmark Mineral Intelligence. 

[2:26] Daniel emphasises the importance of lithium prices in the context of decarbonisation and electric vehicle production.

[5:16] Adam asks Daniel to explain in more detail about the role of a commodity price reporting and market intelligence agency, particularly around utilising data. 

[7:45] Daniel highlights the importance of pricing analysts having relationships across the supply chain. 

[9:13] Daniel outlines the techniques that Benchmark employs to verify market information, including using geospatial capabilities.

[12:53] Daniel walks through the structured and unstructured data challenges that he faces when compiling market analysis. 

[17:02] Daniel demonstrates why accurate pricing data for lithium is crucial for decision-making around the energy transition. 

[20:03] Daniel compares the methodology of price reporting for new markets like lithium and graphite with that of mature commodities and explains the need for a different approach. 

[22:43] Daniel discusses the challenge of capital investment in assets needed for the energy transition. 

[26:14] Daniel shares where listeners can access information, including policy and pricing newsletters from Benchmark.

TRANSCRIPT

Hypercube Podcast Transcript

Title: Daniel Fletcher-Manuel, Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, Understanding Lithium to Support the Energy Transition

Host: Adam Sroka
Guest: Daniel Fletcher-Manuel 

Intro: Welcome to the Hypercube podcast, where we explore how companies in the energy and utility sector leverage data analytics to make smarter decisions and accelerate business growth. I’m Adam Sroka, founder of Hypercube, a strategic consultancy that supports asset owner-operators, traders, route-to-market providers, and energy services companies to unlock the power of data.

If you’re interested in hearing real-world examples of how data and AI are advancing the energy sector, this is the show for you. 

Adam Sroka: Welcome back to the Hypercube podcast. Today I’m honoured to be joined by Daniel Fletcher-Manuel, who is Director of Prices and Data at Benchmark Mineral Intelligence. Daniel, great to speak to you. For the uninitiated, would you like to explain who you are, what you do, what benchmarks are up to? 

Daniel Fletcher-Manuel: Yeah. I mean, that’s several big questions, but absolutely. So thank you very much for having me. Um, I’ve listened to a few episodes for podcasts, so it’s a privilege to be here. Thank you.

As you said, my name is Daniel Fletcher Manuel and I’m the Director of Prices and Data at Benchmark Mineral Intelligence. And so Benchmark, I guess, is the best place to start, where fundamentally, uh, we’re A one stop shop to answer pretty much any question that the market might have our supply chain might have about the lithium ion battery supply chain and the wider surrounding energy transition industry and my role within that.

Leading the pricing and data team, our team is to develop reports and develop content, which drives decision making, supports contract negotiation within that supply chain. And my background is pretty much entirely commodity price reporting. So being in the sort of, Commodity price supporting space for just over 11 years, covering a whole array of markets that are starting out in mining and potash, and then moving on into petrochemicals, hydrocarbon markets, back into sort of agriculture and agrochemical.

And, you know, similarly in many different roles, I’ve worked in sales and price reporting and long term forecasting and strategy and market development and product. And so really it’s in the last year and a half that I’ve been at Benchmark that I’ve been able to bring all of those skills together, all of those experiences together.

Yeah, it’s a really interesting market. 

Adam Sroka: Let’s get a little bit more about what Benchmark does. So commodity pricing and, and market intelligence, just expand on that. Why would I, as a battery developer care about, I don’t know, it sounds like a stupid question, but, or an energy trader or whatever, why would I care about the price of lithium or, or what’s going on?

Daniel Fletcher-Manuel: Yeah, it’s kind of a great launch pad, isn’t it? Our industry is really young. I mean, lithium ion batteries are not the newest technology, but if we think about it. The scale up of lithium ion batteries, especially for energy storage for electric vehicles, which is the dominant demand market. These are not the most developed consuming use cases.

You know, we’ve been using LCOs in mobile phones for five years now, but in terms of the EV industry, the push for renewable power and therefore energy storage on site, those are new markets. So when we talk about lithium prices, it really is only the people in that supply chain. That ought to really care about it.

It’s the people that are producing or buying or converting lithium that need to care. Fundamentally, Benchmark’s origin story and the whole lithium ion battery EV energy storage transition story starts with decarbonization, starts with the Paris agreement and strives to achieve net zero. And a really important part of that is looking at transportation and how we decarbonize one of the most basic ways in which all of us live.

And so, you know, electric vehicles, whether that’s pure play or hybrid plugin is a really important part of that, of that conversation. And lithium ion batteries are critical in order to do that. I mean, right now that’s the dominant chemistry. Benchmark’s view is that that will probably be the dominant chemistry, at least for the next couple of decades.

So lithium pricing massively matters to all of the people who are mining lithium, converting lithium, manufacturing lithium. Uh, cathode material, manufacturing cells, and indeed those who are producing, manufacturing electric vehicles and consumers like you and I, who may or may not buy electric vehicles, lots, you know, the stat that’s normally thrown around is that about 60 percent of the cost of an electric vehicle is the battery and a significant proportion of that cost is the lithium, nickel, manganese, cobalt content within that battery.

So when we talk about net zero, when we talk about decarbonization and we see decarbonizing transportation as being a critical part of that story, lithium ion batteries are the principal conversation and therefore pricing is really critical. It’s whether pricing determines whether or not miners can stay afloat to support the energy transition.

Pricing determines whether or not EVs can be priced at an appropriate pricing point to support mass consumer adoption. So it’s critical. 

Adam Sroka: Okay, so that’s a good overview. Really interesting because you can see the level of investment that’s going into not only EVs but the grid scale stuff as well.

You can see there’s a big peak in demand and it’s a thing I guess more and more people will start to care about. Whenever I talk to market intelligence people, I always think like, what is it you’re actually doing though? Because for the, again, for the uninitiated, I kind of know the answer, but for the uninitiated, you’re not just commenting on the price or whatever.

You’re not just looking at tickers, like a stock thing and going, Oh, this went up and that went down. There’s a lot to it, right? Isn’t there? Like there’s structured data, but there’s a lot of unstructured data. You’ve got some geospatial people as well in your team. 

Daniel Fletcher-Manuel: Yeah, let’s riff on that a little bit. So Benchmark, our headline really is to answer any of the questions at the lithium ion battery supply chain, current or aspirant.

And that we do that through many different ways. So one of them, and we touched on that, is pricing. So price reporting, Benchmark is fundamentally a price reporting agency. And that’s the area that I’m most exposed to. That’s my experience. That’s my background. And in addition to that, we have a forecasting arm.

So they look at, uh, supply, demand, production, cost, price fundamentals, and then forecast that out to 2040, 2050. We also have a consulting arm that answers in a very bespoke way, very sensitive questions that some policymakers and some industry participants will have. We have a sustainability arm that does probably the most fascinating work I’ve ever seen, and they look at everything that I just talked about, but strictly they’re an ESG and sustainability lens.

Amazing work. You have a journalistic arm. We have an event arm. So this is what I’m trying to say is we’re a complex shop. We do lots of different things and we have one common goal, which is we need to be able to answer anything, but we do it through many different ways. If people are not used to price supporting agencies, it’s probably worth noting that as you said, we’re not looking at the price and commenting on it.

We are. Assessing what the actual price is. So one of the things, and really the bread and butter of the price reporting agency, is to have really smart analysts all over the world who will talk to the whole supply chain. They’re going to talk to lithium miners, an example of lithium, lithium miners. They’ll talk to converters.

So those who are taking. spodumene from Australia and converting into lithium hydroxide, lithium carbonate in Asia. They will then talk to cathode manufacturers. These are people who are buying lithium carbonate as well as other precursor material. And they will use that to manufacture cathode materials and go into cells.

So cell manufacturers cathode material or energy storage solutions. Our pricing analysts have to have relationships and networks at every single point in that supply chain, because they’re constantly asking, what are the prices of lithium today? What are you trading at? What volumes are moving under this particular price point?

That price that you’ve given me, is it a trade? Is it fat? Is there a contract and invoice somewhere that shows that number? Or is it a bid? Is it an offer? Is it something that you’ve heard in the market? So fundamentally their job is to be conduits of market knowledge, go and find out what is the reality of lithium pricing in the market today.

And then we look at all of those conversations, every single one of those inputs, and we will decide on what the price of lithium in that week was based on all of the evidence that we’ve seen in the market, and we do that. We’re using lithium as an example, but we do that for lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese, rare earths, anything that’s relevant to the lithium ion battery and increasingly expanding out into the wider energy transition.

So it’s definitely not just. Price commentary. It’s really price origination. We’re looking at the numbers in the market and then we’re publishing, because this is, these are very opaque markets, the individual miners, the individual cell manufacturers, they’re not going to publish their invoices. So it’s incumbent on companies like benchmark to go out there and investigate and really scrutinise.

What the prices that we’re hearing are to provide clarity to policymakers, investors, people within that supply chain who are, you know, one or two degrees removed from these particular price points. That’s fundamentally what we do as a price reporting agency. 

Adam Sroka: But how are you organised as a team? So are you organised across like industry verticals, across geographies, or by like the data source skillset?

Cause I can imagine that’s really a complicated problem to solve. 

Daniel Fletcher-Manuel: Yeah. It’s more the latter point. So it’d be a data source. So if I just stick to my remit, so the sort of four types of role that reports into me. We’ve got a pricing analyst, and I’ve already gone into great detail in what they do. You then have price implementation specialists.

I won’t spend too long talking about it, but fundamentally their job is to take the pricing data, take it to the industry and help educate them on price risk solutions. So how can they use that data in their contracts? Then we have data assessment analysts, the data analysts who feed into capacity assessments.

And this is really where the geospatial comes into it. So we talked about geospatial before. When we look at capacity, it’s because of the fact that we, as an industry, Uh, facing an unprecedented demand. No other industry has been asked by policymakers and consumers to scale up at this pace and at this rate.

So from zero to hero in a decade. What that means is you get loads of announcements, gigafactories being developed, cathode production plants being developed all over the world. And some of those jurisdictions and some of those companies are incredibly opaque, and some of them are really, really nice and transparent.

Transcribed But when you look at the headline numbers, it’s that combination of opaque announcements and transparent announcements. So we invested very heavily about a year ago into developing our geospatial capabilities in order to verify every single asset that had been announced either as existing or in the pipeline to be developed.

So they do incredible work to secure the coordinates and then investigate every single asset. And we’re talking hundreds and hundreds of assets, hundreds of gigafactories, hundreds of anode and cathode plants. Uh, they not only need to assess, is this a real thing? Let’s use satellite imagery and analysis techniques to see if this is a gigafactory.

But then is this gigafactory in operation? Is this gigafactory actually utilised? All of its lines. And we can use really interesting tools to do that. We can look at things like how utilised is the staff car park on an average basis? How utilised are the air conditioning units on the top of the plants to see whether or not they actually need to have the two thirds of the air conditioning units.

Being utilised, that tells us something about how much of the plant is being utilised that gives us a sense, therefore, of production that would come out of that plan. So we use geospatial really in a bit of a way. No one else in the supply chain does this, but fundamentally we have to. And the reason we have to is because for the last three or four years, while lithium and a lithium ion battery has become such a hot topic, not just in sort of general commodity press, which I would be used to, But most of your listeners would have read stories in the general newspapers and the average broadsheet will cover what’s happening in the lithium market, what’s happening in EVs.

So because of the hype and the noise, and therefore the number of announcements that we see of companies that may or may not actually be doing what they say they’re doing, or say they’re going to do. We’ve developed this resource to give us 100 percent confidence in every asset that we publish as being on stream.

Or a really good argument for the assets that we say are not on stream or are not in production. We have really good evidence for why we’re saying that, you know, we’re saying they’re not on stream because they haven’t even put the foundations down. That’s a really, that’s a really good answer to anyone who queries us.

But geospatial is a really critical part of that verification process. 

Adam Sroka: So other than the geospatial data, like from satellite imagery, you’ve got. A mixed bag of unstructured and structured data. Like what kind of challenges are you having? Or do you have that fairly locked down? Like, yeah, what kind of data challenges do you and your team face?

Daniel Fletcher-Manuel: The principal concern that the teams that I look after face fundamentally would be liquidity. And I like that you use the word unstructured data because in so many ways, that is what we’re talking about. We’re talking about people telling us opinions about the market and facts about the market. Okay, facts about the market are really the only thing that we care about.

We really want to know what the price that you have transacted at. I mean, we want evidence. We want to see if, you know, if we could be there in the boardroom, we would be. We want to know about the Incoterm. We want to know the specification. We want to know the grade, the purity profile. We want every bit of detail because everything that isn’t that degree of fact is opinion.

It’s speculation. Someone giving you a bid or an offer is an interesting talking point, but it’s, I mean, I could give you a bid or offer right now in this conversation. It doesn’t mean anything. I’ve got nothing to actually sell you. You’re not going to go and take out a loan with a couple of hundred million and buy something that I’m proposing to sell you.

So it’s, it’s opinion. Until it’s actually transacted. So the big thing that we struggle with that all PRAs struggle with, benchmark has a unique anxiety with this that I’ll get into is liquidity. We really need the number of trades in the market and the number of trades that we have visibility of to be quite high, and we need just a proportion of those trades, our visibility to be extremely high, and I’ve worked at a number of PRAs over the last 11 years.

And I think, you know, the number of inputs we get into a price assessment will always matter. And it will matter to every price assessor and every price supporting agency. But I would argue that at other PRAs that I’ve worked at, and certainly other PRAs in our space, there’s a really easy, and I would argue quite lazy, conflation of plurality with liquidity.

So liquidity for me is how many trades that we had reported in any given day or week, Whatever the assessment period is that allows us to look at just those numbers and define a low price, the high price and the midpoint. That’s kind of all I care about. But at other PRAs where plurality takes that role.

Plurality encompasses how many bids have we received from the market? How many offers have we seen in the market? The sentiment. So, you know, sometimes you’ll talk to. A market participant that hasn’t bought anything in six months, but they’ll have thoughts, you know, that they read the daily mail, they’ll have thoughts on what’s happening in the market.

All of those things go into the audit trail. All of those things go into that wider conversation and they form a body of plurality. But for benchmark, what we really need is just trade data, just transactional data that we can use. Because we yield deference to absolute trade. So for us, the issue is always going to be, especially in some of these more niche and opaque markets, because we’re not talking about the major petrochemical markets.

We’re not talking about the major base metal markets. Some of these markets are smaller. Some of these markets are simply intrinsically far less liquid. We have to maximise our chances of being in the right place at the right time to get access to that pricing data. So our big sort of data challenge, I would say it’s a human challenge.

How do we make sure we have enough intelligent bums on seats to be in the right place at the right time and with the right relationships to get that pricing data? So in a way, it’s not so much about the cleanliness or the hygiene of the data itself, of the intrinsic value of the numbers. It’s the origin of those numbers.

That’s the thing that currently, now that we’ve solved the geospatial thing, that’s the thing that keeps me and my bosses up. 

Adam Sroka: Yeah. Okay. Cause that’s interesting. Cause any one bit of information could be really telling, but you, you still need to get that representative sample, right? And if there’s just not enough happening, then you can’t make a confident, like a nice tight prediction on where things are.

And he is, I guess as well, like your whole reputation is based on. Not being wildly out all the time and things like that. So yeah, that is a hard game to play. 

Daniel Fletcher-Manuel: Let me kind of put that into a real world context for you because this is, you know, one of the things that we’re really proud of. Every other consultancy in this space should be really proud of.

Our raison d’etre is to drive the energy transition. Our raison d’etre really is to power the energy transition. Achieving net zero. So we’ve got, you know, good cause to sleep well at night, but we know that one of the big roadblocks to releasing the capital required to invest in these assets, one of the big issues in delaying policies that need to come in to support this transition is extreme volatility.

So we see extreme commodity price volatility. In every market we have done for the last couple of years, whether it’s oil and gas in Europe, really driven by the Russia and Ukraine conflict, whether it’s in petrochemicals, which are driven really by COVID and bottlenecks in shipping and logistics.

Extreme pricing volatility has been the norm for the last few years, but in our industry, in the lithium ion supply chain, Volatility is uniquely high, and that’s really difficult for miners, for aspirant miners, who are looking to develop new assets, for financiers who are looking to invest capital into new assets and for policymakers who need to come up with a view on export tax, or how are they going to be able to support domestic industry?

That extreme volatility makes it really difficult. So the reason why benchmark is so dogmatic about trade data is because our anxiety is fundamentally exaggerating or overstating volatility. And we were lucky enough to do some analysis on our pricing data versus another PRA. And this other PRA does equally wait.

Sentiment and trade. And in the bull cycle, we saw there’s a sort of an upward reflection in 2023 for lithium between May and July. Their prices, this other P’S prices, which does consider sentiment was 17%, up to 17% more bullish than our prices. And then in the bare cycle, which surrounded that uptick, their prices were up to 8% more bearish than our prices.

And then in the subsequent six month period where. Prices were still on a downward trajectory, but much more stably down. There was not much, it wasn’t volatile. It was just steadily declining. The prices from the other PRA were incredibly close to the prices that we published. And what that shows is that if you listen to sentiment as much as you listen to trade, you will overstate the bull cycle.

You will overstate the bear cycle and you will exaggerate volatility. And that makes it harder for the industry. It makes it harder for real decision makers allocating capital, deciding on policy. To strike at the right time, just strike in a proportional way. So it’s actually critical if you want to, if the lithium ion battery and energy storage is part of the energy transition story, then we have to make sure that we’re publishing data, which isn’t just accurate based on our methodology, but it’s accurate based on the numbers appearing in people’s invoices.

That’s really what matters. 

Adam Sroka: That’s a really interesting thread because. You could always start wide like, well, why are they doing it that way? And everyone’s going to have their philosophical standpoint on the best way to do things. It might just be that they haven’t managed to get the level of trade data that you have or whatever, or the same firepower, or had the same access.

And 

Daniel Fletcher-Manuel: I’ve worked with some of the biggest PRAs out there, and so I’m not going to insult any of their processes. But the reality is. The lithium ion battery is a really new industry, like maybe we’re 10 years old, like really in a meaningful way, we’re a decade, but all of the other price reporting agencies, like the big shops that I’ve worked for in the past, they’re 60 to 90 years old.

So the principal methodologies have come from oil and gas and copper and like other industries that are far more liquid and where you can absolutely say, we can consider. Sentiment and bids and offers because the liquidity you have and what is actually being traded is so vast in those far more sophisticated, far more mature markets that that doesn’t move the needle.

Benchmarks is, we’re 10 years old this year and our methodology was created very specifically for this supply chain and that sounds a little bit like I’m talking shop and maybe I am to some degree, but I don’t mean to. The reason why that matters is because we didn’t need to make a methodology that supported our oil offering, our pulp offering, or our biodiesel offering.

We don’t really care about those markets. That’s not what we do as a business. We had to create a methodology specifically for graphite, a flake graphite, a synthetic graphite. And that had to consider the plurality within that market, the liquidity within that market. How sinocentric the supply chain was aspirants in the West, we had to come up with methodologies that were specifically catered to those particular, very niche, very new markets.

So in a way we’ve kind of been blessed. We were able to say, we can be very different by just focusing on trade because we didn’t have to come up with a methodology that catered to 60 other markets. We only have to care about it. You know, maybe 12 core raw material markets. That’s all we have to think about.

So it’s really that that’s the difference. Don’t get me wrong. We do have a huge number of analysts working on all those price assessments and then networks are therefore really significant because, you know, we have two heads per market instead of one head per market, but the reality is we have a privilege in that.

All we do is this supply chain. So if we don’t know it, if we’re not right, then that’s on us. We really should be right. We’ve got no excuse. It’s the only thing we’re looking at. 

Adam Sroka: Okay. Last question before we go, what do you think are the biggest kind of challenges or opportunities for the energy sector in the next decade?

Daniel Fletcher-Manuel: There are obviously loads, but I think that the biggest challenge is the biggest opportunity, and that is allocating capital to the assets that we need to have in place to drive the energy transition. So naturally I’m going to speak in a, in a sort of biassed way. But the lithium ion battery supply chain, and, you know, let me just talk shop.

Yep. We need more lithium mines. We absolutely need more refining capacity. We need more PCAM and cathode and anode capacity. We absolutely need more gigafactory capacity, especially in Western markets. All of that is a given, but we also need more renewable power. We need more infrastructure. We need more charging infrastructure.

And. What we really need in order to do all of those things is unlock the capital that lots of major financial market participants, lots of major banks are allocating, they have ring fenced capital for either climate projects or energy transition projects, but there is a, an anxiety within that community, which is fair.

Like I’m, I’m not by any stretch going to imagine the stress that must be incumbent on those analysts and those directors making those decisions. Capital allocation decisions. I think banks and exchanges are probably some of the most conservative institutions in London or in Manhattan. But the reality is it’s going to take quite bold and quite visionary people in order to make these decisions.

So if we want the energy transition to happen at the pace that we need it to happen to be net zero for decarbonization by 2050, then we need to start investing In the new lithium assets, the new nickel, cobalt, manganese, cathode, P cam gigafactory, all of those points in the supply chain, there’s no point waiting until 2045 to invest in them.

We have to start investing properly into those assets now. And on the one hand that’s on the industry to go and build the business case for the financial markets to prove the commercial opportunity, the financial opportunity in those assets. But it’s also going to require a bit of a change in thinking from some of the financial market players, whether it’s the banks or the institutional investors, or whether it’s the exchanges.

Those are the things which have worked when we’ve been looking at oil and gas and petrochemicals and the other commodity sectors that power our economies. It’s not going to be the way that we can think about the energy transition market. It’s not going to be the way that we can think about the lithium ion battery market or the renewable power market.

So the opportunity is there is this huge world of new assets being developed of opportunity and investment of developing the skill set and the knowledge base to drive mining, processing, engineering industry. That’s incredible. And the risk of course, is that that requires boldness and innovation to really seize that opportunity.

But I’m pretty confident based on the conversations I have with the market and the conference events that I’ve been to and in Stockholm and other places that we have events, the industry and the financial markets and policymakers, they’re excited about this and the data is there. Benchmark has that data, the data is out there, they just need to be able to accept.

That perhaps the status quo that they’ve utilised thus far in, you know, how do we invest in other natural resource projects? How do we invest in other industrial projects that perhaps those measures, perhaps those assessments won’t line up with the energy transition. And that’s going to require some innovative thinking on their part.

That’s the big challenge. 

Adam Sroka: Well, look, it’s been an absolute pleasure, Daniel. Um, before I let you go, I was just asked, is there anything you’d like to plug or promote or anywhere we can send people to find out a little bit more about you or Benchmark? 

Daniel Fletcher-Manuel: I would encourage people, especially if you’re new to energy transition markets, lithium ion battery markets, to go to our website, benchmarkminerals.com. And we do free newsletters, policy newsletters, pricing newsletters. Market news up newsletters. So you can get a lot of free information and that might help you if you’re just dipping your toe in. And if you want to have a more in depth conversation, you can reach out at prices at benchmarkminerals.com. That will make its way to me. And we can have a conversation about the other work that benchmark does and how we can work with you. Thank you very much. Thank you for having me. And it’s been a really interesting conversation and great to showcase the work that benchmark has been doing. 

Adam Sroka: Absolute pleasure.

Daniel Fletcher-Manuel: Thank you very much.

Adam Sroka: Excellent. Thank you. 

Outro: And that’s it for this episode of the Hypercube podcast. Thanks for tuning in today.

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