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open innovation

The Case for Open Innovation in Agriculture

October 27, 2016

Joseph Byrum is senior R&D and strategic marketing executive in Life Sciences – Global Product Development, Innovation, and Delivery at Syngenta. This is the first in a three-part series from Byrum about the importance of open innovation in agriculture. 

open innovation
Joseph Byrum

Open innovation is reshaping the agricultural landscape. More than in other industries, agriculture has found the need to play technological catch-up. Advances in highly technical systems that use drones, sensors, and data analytics have created a demand for expertise not traditionally associated with ag. Consequently, most of the agricultural companies that are not currently taking advantage of open innovation will be doing so by the decade’s end. The rest may not be around much longer.

The reason for this is simple. Advanced technologies provide a competitive advantage. At Syngenta, for example, we found that the data analytics tools we developed for soybean seed development doubled the rate of annual yield improvement, leading to more yield per acre and faster access to new varieties. It created efficiencies in our field trials that allowed us to achieve better results with fewer resources, which all helps to give our products an edge in a highly competitive marketplace. We discussed what we did in-depth in a recent MIT Sloan Management Review article.

There is a need not just to stay up with technology in agriculture, but also to push the boundaries and stay ahead of the competition. Innovation at this level requires a serious investment in talent and expertise. Finding the right mix of technology-minded people is particularly challenging in agriculture where, for generations, the focus has been on improving low-tech equipment, comparatively.

Fortunately, open innovation provides a solution. Open innovation, also known as crowdsourcing, is a way of driving new thinking by posting business problems online to engage a broad community to develop an effective solution, in some cases, offering a monetary reward to the individual or team that successfully meets the problem requirements. It is an alternative to the traditional method of hiring staff to deal with problems in-house.

Open innovation recognizes that the world has fundamentally changed and that the best talent is no longer found only in North America. According to OECD statistics, the greatest growth in the number of graduates in science and technology fields is taking place in China and India, not the United States. 

Opening doors to the best and brightest, regardless of where they live, is a way to access this talent that would not be possible with traditional hiring methods.

For instance, we created the Syngenta Crop Challenge last year and had around 500 participants from across the globe take a look at the problem we posed. There can be great value in having a large number of people attempt to find a solution because casting a wide net often produces surprisingly good results. Everyone who looks at the issue does so from a unique perspective, increasing the odds that lateral thinking will deliver a truly novel solution.

The finalists proved up to the challenge, and we were happy to provide monetary awards to the winner and top entries that proved incredibly useful in advancing our project.

Compare that to the prospect of marching 500 applicants through a human resources department to work on a single project. Worse yet, imagine repeating the process each time the project takes a new turn, or when starting an entirely new project. Certainly, it is possible to hire a handful of experts, but expecting them to come up with the right answer every time is a bit unreasonable. And they still need to be paid, whether they produce or not.

Of course, not every problem benefits from a “broad” pool of talent. Sometimes a problem is so complex that it is better to take a team-based approach requiring a level of expertise that favors a “deep” pool of talent. Here, too, there are open innovation platforms that specialize in curating expert participants better suited to a team-based environment.

Every company in agriculture will need to take advantage of these options to boost capabilities. Syngenta’s business is built on cutting-edge science, with advanced laboratories and some of the leading minds in genetics and biology on staff. Yet even that is not enough to tap the full power of precision agriculture. When you are building a data analytics tool, you need a software engineer. To come up with the algorithm, you need access to a mathematician, and so on.

The outside teams we had working on our own data analytics projects produced tremendous value even though many of the team members had never before stepped foot on a farm. Broadening agriculture’s pool of talent is exactly what our industry needs to succeed in the decades to come, and it could not have happened without open innovation.

That is why the future is bright for these innovative approaches to problem solving. The advantages of applying the right types of talent to the challenges at hand, when needed, are hard to overlook. It is faster because market conditions demand it. It is more cost effective. Already, open innovation is kicking off the next frontier in R&D productivity and efficiency in agriculture.

What do you think? Get in touch [email protected] or tweet to Joseph here!

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