Adrian Percy

“CoLaborating” for Agriculture

Adrian Percy spoke with Arama Kukutai, Co-founder of Finistere Ventures, about how open innovation is shaping the future of farming.

Adrian Percy: Participating in the 2018 World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit in San Francisco and the opening of our latest startup incubator, the Crop Science CoLaborator in West Sacramento, California, got me thinking about how research has evolved since I started my career in agriculture. One of the most striking changes is how the agricultural industry is embracing open innovation as a legitimate research strategy for exploring new opportunities. For a company like Bayer that has successfully managed its internal innovation engine for more than 150 years, some might ask why we need to look externally.

Arama Kukutai: Adrian, I think that was a question that many did in fact ask, since agriculture was one of the last major segments to approach external innovation. As agriculture saw how technology benefits could be transferred across industry platforms, the interest in external research began to skyrocket, and it’s been exciting to be a part of it. Finistere Ventures was a pioneer in actively investing in the agribusiness and food technology centers and now we manage one of the leading agtech venture funds. With the nature of innovation now moving at an unprecedented pace, the amount of venture capital investment has increased to match what the largest ag companies are spending internally.

Adrian Percy
Adrian Percy
Adrian Percy
is the Global Head of Research and Development for Crop Science, a Division of Bayer.

Adrian Percy: And that increased investment is needed, Arama. Farmers are faced with an escalating series of challenges: a growing population, declining per capita farmland, evolving pest pressures, shifting consumer preferences, increasing regulatory restrictions, and a changing climate – to name a few. These challenges demand more than incremental change if we are to overcome them and that has led to a radical reinvention of the way we approach ag research. Bayer has expanded its innovation ecosystem both internally and externally, because the application of knowledge obtained across all industries can only help us accelerate the development of breakthrough technologies.

Arama Kukutai: One of those breakthroughs, as you know, Adrian, involves digitalization. Many farmers lack digital tools, but this will change dramatically over the next decade, even in less developed countries. We’re exploring technologies with extremely high imaging resolution capabilities that can identify plant diseases over large swaths of land much more effectively—and less costly—than could an army of people scouting the fields. Imagine a drone that can inspect every leaf on every plant in a field on an hourly basis – this was unimaginable only a few years ago – and quite a departure for those farmers who could only get imaging data collected over a square mile. The potential improvement in the yield gap of some countries could be two- or three-fold – that’s not incremental.

Adrian Percy: Our open innovation strategy is finding opportunities in other areas, too. In the past few years, we’ve worked with Embrapa in Brazil to develop solutions for Asian soybean rust and we recently began work with the Citrus Research & Development Foundation to combat the devastating disease vectored by the Asian citrus psyllid. In addition to those specific targets, we are pursuing much broader opportunities in soil health. We’re optimistic that through Joyn Bio, our joint venture with Ginkgo Bioworks, for example, we will help unlock the incredible potential of the soil biome. One grower recently joked with me that we probably know more about the soil on the moon than in our own fields – and in some ways, he’s probably right!

Arama Kukutai: I think that is what makes ag innovation so exciting. We’ve hardly scratched the surface – pardon the pun – regarding the soil microbiome, but that is true for many other areas, too. Some of these, such as plant breeding innovation, artificial intelligence, and photobiology will bring transformative changes to crop production. For example, BioLumic, a recent Finistere investment, is developing UV light treatments to help young plants thrive. While these technologies may be perceived to be high-tech and expensive, the cost curve for each will make them available to all farmers sooner than one might expect. It’s no different than other platform technologies – cloud computing, high-throughput screening, DNA sequencing, and gene editing – all of which already have, or eventually will, become cheaper and more accessible.

Adrian Percy: While Bayer’s commitment to internal research is critical to our long-term success, we also know that our collective knowledge is more powerful than that of any single entity. The opening of the CoLaborator in West Sacramento will provide a home for biotech startups in the heart of Northern California’s ag innovation corridor. In addition to Joyn Bio, Biome Makers, a rising startup working on microbiomes, are the CoLaborator’s first tenants. Regardless of its source, our research goal remains the same – to provide sustainable solutions to farmers and more choices for consumers.

Arama Kukutai: I think Bayer has really distinguished itself as an industry leader when it comes to open innovation and collaborative research. With the many challenges facing agriculture, it’s exciting to be involved in this important and game-changing research and I look forward to our continued working relationship.

To learn more about Bayer’s approach to open innovation, visit innovate.bayer.com.

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