The Door’s Always Open for InnovationWhen one works for a company that has been successfully innovating for more than 150 years to improve the lives of people worldwide, it’s easy to take pride in our internal research capabilities. But one of the things I most admire about Bayer and other successful innovators is the ability to search for ideas outside of the confines of a single laboratory, building, division, or continent. The term most often used to describe this inclusive business philosophy is called open innovation.
Open innovation means a lot of things to a lot of different people. For me, it is about harnessing the creativity and ideas from multiple and sometimes unexpected sources, which complement our existing knowledge base to solve problems, develop new products, or sometimes accelerate innovation. In our world, this can translate into ways to help farmers improve their operation productively and sustainably.
As scientists, we’re trained to think and act according to a fairly rigid set of rules and ways of doing things, which typically involves developing and testing hypotheses within our areas of expertise. This commitment to scientific rigor and process has enabled us to make enormous technological advances, but it can also lead to a narrower world view or perhaps even blind us from seeing new possibilities. When we are dogged with a persistent problem or challenge, sometimes the best thing to do is to take a step back and consider new ways of thinking that will allow us to make those giant leaps forward.
I am privileged to lead a major R&D organization and work beside folks with brilliant and creative minds. As an organization, however, we know that we don’t have all the answers and understand the need to be open to collaborate with thinkers from diverse and different backgrounds if we are to help solve some of the major challenges that our world is facing. It’s a sign of strength, not weakness, to build on the ideas of others, so we needn’t worry that everything we do is perfect. As the late singer/song-writer Leonard Cohen penned, “There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.”
It’s no wonder that our experimenting with different open innovation platforms is leading to results that are truly exciting. However, as we approached this process, the first step was to ask ourselves: “How could we best harness the collective innovation power within Bayer?”
The creation of an open web-based internal crowdsourcing platform was recognized as one way to spotlight the tricky problems that needed new inspiration to be solved. In hindsight, this was a no-brainer – within an organization that is focused on human, animal and plant health resides a rich tapestry of expertise (not to mention more than 120,000 brains to tap into). So it’s not surprising that many got behind this effort and are helping us find new ways to address some of the problems we have struggled with for years. And it doesn’t always have to be a technical problem; we can innovate in all areas of our daily work. While this approach may be simple in concept, it isn’t always easy to implement. Large organizations often struggle to connect people across disciplines, cultures and geographies. Opening our web infrastructure to new ideas was one way to help overcome this. Of course, it doesn’t always involve epic distances. I recently learned that one particular challenge was solved by someone in a neighboring lab!
is the Global Head of Research and Development for Crop Science, a Division of Bayer.
We’re currently expanding the open innovation concept by experimenting with "gamification." In this format, scientists adopt an avatar (I enjoyed channeling my inner Sheldon Cooper, star of The Big Bang Theory, for a week!) and engage in open-ended conversations on challenging subjects. The virtual anonymity allows scientists to playfully share creative and sometimes out-of-the-box new ideas without concern that they might embarrass themselves in front of their peers or their boss.
We also are not afraid to look outside of Crop Science for inspiration. In fact, we "borrowed with pride" a concept from our colleagues in the Pharma division called Grants4Targets and Grants4Traits, in which we seek new starting points for chemical or biotech solutions to address growers’ unmet needs. We’re also providing additional funds to researchers who come up with creative suggestions to help take their ideas to the next stage of development. Our response to this initiative has been nothing short of amazing, with ideas pouring in from dozens of academic institutions all over the world.
Open innovation is a powerful way of amplifying the collective strengths of our human reasoning. Like a newly planted seed, idea generation begins with its innate potential and is nurtured by other inputs to grow into something that is bigger and better than before. We live in a world in which industry and academic scientists are eager to collaborate and share knowledge that can help solve the enormous challenges facing humanity. At Bayer, our door is open to new ideas – so please come on in!