Corn field

Syngenta Crop Challenge: Accelerating Agricultural Innovation

How Syngenta is Using Data Analytics to Accelerate Innovation in Plant Science

By 2050 the planet will need to feed two billion more people, a challenge that will have to be achieved without triggering a climate catastrophe. According to current projections, food production must increase by around 60%, which would involve clearing away millions of hectares of forests and other ecosystems. Agriculture accelerates biodiversity loss, which means that expanding agricultural land is not a sustainable or desirable solution. The fast-growing demand for having more mouths to feed has to be met without exploiting additional land resources.

A wealth of experience and expertise is already being applied to this annual global challenge, but arguably the answers aren't coming quick enough. Recognizing the need to go beyond agriculture's usual echo chamber for ideas, inspiration and innovation, Syngenta created the annual Syngenta Challenge in Analytics.

Since 2015, one of the world's leading agriculture companies has hosted this global open innovation competition to help identify practical long-term data-driven solutions.

“I grew up on a farm, and I think farming is a very noble profession,” says Gregory Doonan, Head of Advanced Analytics at Syngenta.

“I think we're in a transformative phase within agriculture, and that's around data analytics.”

“When we think about populations, sustainability and doing more with less, we're not going to get there by doing things the way we've always done them. I think we're in a transformative phase within agriculture, and that's around data analytics.”

Big data is already solving problems across a range of industries, and likewise, it has a wide array of benefits for agriculture. Leveraging large volumes of data coming from fields could be the key to preventing hunger in the coming decades. For example, by employing data-driven strategies to breed better seeds that require fewer resources and are adaptable to more diverse environments.

Building an Ecosystem for Innovation

Syngenta's prize-based competition is open to participants aged 18 and over and is particularly keen to hear from mathematicians, modelling experts and data scientists.

“We recognize the need to look at other disciplines and industries to raise awareness of the challenges and exciting opportunities within agriculture,” continues Greg.

“When you think about data science, data analytics and operations research, people working in those areas haven't necessarily looked at agriculture.”

Typically, mathematicians and data experts work in logistics, insurance or other data-heavy industries. Part of the crop challenge’s goal is to turn these people onto the idea that the agriculture industry needs them, and how it is rich with opportunities.

“We can provide them with real-world data to solve real-world problems. In fact, the one feedback I hear the most from previous challenge participants is they enjoy working on something that matters, and that will have an impact.”

Each year IdeaConnection by Planbox runs the challenge on its open innovation platform. The innovation broker works with Syngenta to develop the challenge and market it to its extensive global network of experts.

“IdeaConnection by Planbox has a well-established and vast network of solvers we can reach out to.”

“This is a huge help,” adds Greg. “IdeaConnection by Planbox has a well-established and vast network of solvers we can reach out to. Each year we do this, I feel it's widening the network and our contacts, and so it's strengthening not only Syngenta's network but IdeaConnection's as well.”

Since its founding, the crop challenge has created an ecosystem of thousands of mathematicians and data experts who each year help develop groundbreaking solutions to a pressing worldwide problem.

Prize-Winning Ideas

Syngenta decided to make an impact with its crop challenge in analytics when it won the Franz Edelman Award for Achievement in Operations Research and the Management Sciences, the first agricultural company to be chosen as winners.

With the prize money, the science-based agtech company worked with INFORMS (the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences) to establish the annual competition, which is run on IdeaConnection by Planbox’s platform. This global search to apply analytics in novel ways to improve farm productivity embodies Syngenta's ongoing commitment to reduce agriculture's carbon footprint and accelerate innovation to address the increasing challenges farmers face.

During the last five years, the competition has awarded prizes for an array of innovative ideas. Last year's challenge received a record number of participants and was won by a team from Iowa State University. They developed an algorithm that acts as a recommender system to predict the performance of crossing any two inbred corn hybrid lines. Think Netflix, but for crops.

The current process of identifying the best-performing hybrids is inefficient and can take many years due to the number of potential parent combinations. A data analytics solution can speed up matters and allow breeders to focus on the most promising parent combinations.

2021 Syngenta Crop Challenge

The 2021 Syngenta Crop Challenge in Analytics was recently launched and is inviting participants to help improve the year-round commercial corn breeding process by creating an optimal scheduling model for planting corn seeds. The objectives are to ensure a consistent harvest quantity and prevent storage capacity from being overstretched. For more information and to take part, visit the 2021 Syngenta Crop Challenge webpage.

Participants are motivated by the opportunity to get their work reviewed and potentially awarded by a panel of distinguished judges. Cash prizes are given to the top three submissions. As with previous years, Greg hopes the challenge will attract brilliant minds across numerous disciplines.

“When you're close to a problem, you may not think of all the options.”

“When you're close to a problem, you may not think of all the options. People come with fresh perspectives of looking at the problem for the first time and bring different approaches. Some we had thought of but not all. Consequently, we've had some genuine aha moments.”