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. … Next Page »