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How Agribusinesses Can Ensure Success with Open Innovation

November 14, 2016

Last month, a survey by BCG and AgFunder revealed that most agribusinesses do not feel prepared to invest in agtech innovation and are funneling a large volume of investment dollars into internal R&D instead of engaging with the burgeoning agtech startup scene.

open innovation
Joseph Byrum

Open innovation is a way to access external know-how and expertise as well as foster innovation. Syngenta has been practicing it for nearly 10 years, but it can be a challenging process to get right, according to Joseph Byrum, senior R&D and strategic marketing executive in Life Sciences – Global Product Development, Innovation, and Delivery at Syngenta.

In the second of a three-part series about the importance of open innovation in agriculture, Byrum offers his expert tips in ensuring a successful open innovation program.

Crowdsourcing is one of those things that sounds much easier in theory than it proves to be in practice. Nearly a decade ago, Syngenta turned to open innovation to boost its soybean R&D capabilities and, as a result, we have learned both the pitfalls and the rewards of building internal capabilities by engaging experts who participate in online problem-solving communities.

Open innovation is a way of driving new thinking by posting business problems online to engage a broad community to develop an effective solution. It is easy to see why some in agriculture might dismiss open innovation, or crowdsourcing, as a viable option. Ours is an industry built on tradition, rather than the fast-pace of a Silicon Valley startup where the culture of innovation is quick to embrace newer methods of solving business problems. Open innovation can indeed achieve results more quickly, cheaply and efficiently—but only if done right.

The importance of patience

One of the first and most common problems managers face when experimenting with the technique is that open innovation is trickier than it seems. Like so many business fads, “crowdsourcing” is sometimes praised as the one-size-fits-all solution for every need, while the reality is more nuanced.

A manager who posts an online challenge, walks away and expects the solution to be waiting in the email inbox a few days or weeks later is going to be disenchanted with the process. Our use of open innovation suggests that hands-on effort is needed to guide a challenge to a successful conclusion.

We began about a decade ago with the idea of creating tools to improve our breeders’ decision-making processes. Breeders normally rely on their instincts and experience when making decisions about, for example, how to set up a field trial to determine which plant variety has the best chance of becoming a successful commercial product. We wanted to replace that instinct with hard data and statistics, but doing so required delving deep into mathematical questions that had never before raised in agriculture.

Our R&D team sought to fill gaps in our skillset by reaching out to engineers and scientists with the required expertise. We did so by posting challenges on open innovation platforms, which invited users to use their skills to come up with a solution. Winners would receive a monetary prize.

Each time a problem was solved, we advanced to the next stage of the breeding analytics project. For the most part, challenge participants lacked familiarity with plant biology or agriculture. So when we posed a challenge, participants looked at the issue from their own unique perspective—which was not necessarily the one we intended. Our framing of the problem may have been ambiguous on some points. Naturally, the things familiar to an agronomist are foreign to a statistician. It took numerous one-on-one discussions to carefully walk each participant back onto the same page, but this time was well spent.

Had the question been left unmanaged, many, if not all of the results would have been useless. However, by dealing with any misunderstandings up-front, we ended up with the insightful answers we were looking for, which contributed greatly to the overall success of our breeding analytics project. Syngenta breeders are now making decisions informed by the best available science, essentially doubling the effectiveness of our soybean breeding field trials.

The importance of this breakthrough was recognized by the panel of judges that honored our R&D team with the Franz Edelman Award for Achievement in Operations Research and the Management Sciences, a prize that usually goes to the likes of UPS, General Motors, IBM or Motorola. It had never before been given to anyone in agriculture. More detail on what we did is available in a recent MIT Sloan Management Review article.

Keep pushing forward

Of course, the most important advice to get open innovation right is to keep pushing forward. The analytics project we started a decade ago has inspired us to take an entirely new direction by integrating open innovation into our business.

We created the Syngenta Thoughtseeders program as a destination for academics, creative individuals, and research institutes to submit ideas for novel technologies that will help address the global food security challenge. The Thoughtseeders portal is a transparent platform for people to interact with and follow the progress of any idea they submit to us. This is nothing like the old-fashioned suggestion box where notes are dropped, never to be seen again. The idea behind the program is that it is critical to draw fresh ideas from the outside world.

Thoughtseeders submissions are evaluated by experts across Syngenta operations who have a commitment to answering everyone, even if it is only to politely say “no.” They will at least get a clear answer one way or the other. If someone submits an idea and is ignored, that person is lost forever. The scorned submitter will never come back a second time, but that follow-up idea just might be a winner.

We do not yet know what will come out of Thoughtseeders, but we are hopeful that an influx of new thinking will help drive the company’s future success. The potential for open innovation to drive our industry is only limited by the patience of managers to guide the process in the right direction.

Are you engaging in open innovation initiatives? We want to hear from you! Email [email protected]. Also, we are speaking at the Rothamsted Open Innovation Forum in the UK in January; click here for more information.

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