Agriculture is a more technical business than many people realize. Consider modern farm equipment: A John Deere tractor today contains more lines of code than a Boeing 747 jetliner, according to Syngenta’s Rick DeRose.
Big agriculture companies like Syngenta (NYSE: SYT) are now coming to a realization of their own: Not all of the new agtech innovations can come from their own labs or startups that have long fed the pipelines of big ag companies. The industry is expanding its technology scouting beyond M&A deals. Some companies are turning to early-stage research—some of it outside of the agriculture sector—in their search for agtech innovation.
“I think we’re getting more comfortable with the idea that we don’t know what we don’t know,” DeRose said.
DeRose, whose title is global expert in technology acquisition at Syngenta, was one of the keynote speakers at Nagoya University’s annual technology roundtable held last Friday in Research Triangle Park, NC. (Nagoya, a Japanese university, operates a technology transfer office near RTP.) He described Syngenta’s new approach to finding external technologies as “open innovation.” The power of turning to sources outside the company to find new ideas and new technologies, a crowdsourcing of sorts, can help identify promising technologies, leading to cost savings and faster results while also freeing up some of Syngenta’s own internal resources, he explained. This approach allows Switzerland-based Syngenta, which operates its global biotechnology headquarters in RTP, to pursue more than one way to solve a problem.
As an example, DeRose pointed to an annual competition that recognizes the best uses of analytics in the business and non-profit worlds. The 2015 finals of the Franz Edelman Award for Achievement in Operations Research and the Management of Sciences included entries from IBM (NYSE: IBM), Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT), and the U.S. Army. Syngenta beat all of them. The Syngenta submission, “Good Growth through Advanced Analytics,” applied analytics technology to soybean breeding. The company says this new approach improves on current breeding methods, helping Syngenta make better breeding decisions while also reducing the time and money needed to develop crops with higher yields.
Syngenta’s win marked the first time an agtech application won the Franz Edelman Award since the competition started in 1972. The ideas that led to this Syngenta’s technology did not come from within the company, but rather from collaborations with people outside of the ag industry, DeRose said. Syngenta has gone even further in its efforts to crowdsource innovation. Last year, the company began a collaboration with the Open Data Institute, a non-profit focused on creating value from open source data.
Syngenta data from 3,600 farms in 41 countries are now on the institute’s website where people may search, study, and share the information. DeRose conceded that this approach brings some risk, as Syngenta has no control over who accesses the information and what they do with it. But he added that their analyses may bring new ideas and potential partnerships to Syngenta. DeRose said Syngenta is the first ag company that is open-data certified by the institute.
Meanwhile, German company Bayer (ETR: BAYN), which maintains headquarters for its crop science and seeds business in RTP, has built up parts of its agriculture business through acquisitions. Its trait research group, for example, formed from the 2009 acquisition of RTP-based agtech startup Athenix for $365 million. according to Alan Kriz, strategic alliance manager for Bayer CropScience.
But not all of Bayer’s innovation comes from snapping up early stage companies. The company is increasingly finding new ideas through a mix of early-stage investments and research partnerships. Agtech investments give Bayer an early look at some technologies that could eventually make their way to the company, Kriz said. Bayer, like Syngenta, is an investor in AgTech Accelerator, a program launched earlier this year in RTP that aims to turn promising agricultural technologies from universities into new agtech companies. The accelerator, which recently added Greenfield, IN-based Elanco as an investor to boost its financial haul to $20 million, plans to make up to four investments a year.
Bayer also makes smaller financial commitments that take a slightly different approach to open innovation. The company’s Grants4Targets program awards grants that support research on molecular targets with potential applications in crop protection. Bayer actually started this program in pharmaceuticals before expanding it to agriculture, Kriz said. Early stage discovery work may qualify for grants of up to about $10,000. More advanced projects may apply for grants ranging from $10,000 to just over $50,000 to support research toward finding a potential crop protection target. Grant recipients may be able to use some of Bayer’s resources in their work. Applicants keep ownership of intellectual property associated with the research, but promising work supported by the grant funding could lead to deeper collaboration, Kriz explained.
Bayer has since expanded the concept with a Grants4Traits program focusing on crop chemistry and a library of the company’s compounds. Through a partnership, an innovator may gain access to Bayer’s library, which it can screen as part of its work developing new crop traits. The next deadline for applications to both Bayer grant programs is March 31.
“Go out there and innovate, and bring some ideas to us,” Kriz said.