How does a company operating outside the major technology talent centers gain access to the most innovative data scientists that money can buy? Assuming you can’t recruit the right data analysts to join your team full time, how do you tap into contractors with the knowledge and creativity you need outside your technical core? This was the predicament Syngenta AG, a Basel, Switzerland-based agrochemical and seed company formed by the merger of the agribusiness units of Novartis and AstraZeneca, faced in 2008.
For centuries, plant breeding has been a labor-intensive process that depended largely on trial and error. To find the most successful variety of corn, for example, a breeder might pollinate hundreds or even thousands of plants by hand to see what happened. Syngenta had been involved in a large-scale version of trial-and-error research and development, conducting field tests on hundreds of thousands of plants each year in more than 150 locations around the world. But given that the results of experiments are often shaped by quirks and idiosyncrasies, it was sometimes difficult to draw meaningful conclusions.
Syngenta’s idea was to use data analytics to study a wide range of plant and seed varieties so it could identify the most desirable plants early and make optimal use of resources (everything from capital to labor to land to time). Rather than investing time and resources on more and more testing, its aim was to make decisions about plant portfolios using hard data and science. The vision, write authors Joseph Byrum and Alpheus Bingham, “was to create a suite of software tools that would replace intuition in plant breeding with data-backed science.”
The authors describe how open innovation can help companies tackle complex business problems that they can’t solve on their own. They also discuss lessons Syngenta learned as the company turned to several online crowdsourcing platforms to find talent that could help it increase its R&D efficiency. The effort paid off: Within eight years, Syngenta tripled the average annual improvement rate of its soybean portfolio. In April 2015, an independent panel of academic and business experts in operations research validated the company’s efforts and their applicability beyond agriculture, awarding Syngenta the 2015 Franz Edelman Award for Achievement in Operations Research and the Management Sciences.