Field of soy bean crops
Feeding the World

A Huge Success for Open Innovation,
Syngenta and IdeaConnection

How Syngenta, a pioneer in biotechnology, has used
open innovation and advanced mathematical tools
to transform an industry.


Feeding a world population that has grown to over 7 billion people is an increasingly difficult task. The question of how to feed more and more people while using less land to do so is a problem that scientists around the world have been investigating.

To solve this problem, the agriculture industry has been under increasing pressure to innovate, especially considering a changing and more competitive business climate – however, in many respects the industry as a whole is still using a lot of old thinking.


Syngenta, a leading agriculture company, is, and has been pushing the needle forward on this problem through the use of Open Innovation – in an industry not generally known for disruptive business model innovation.

"My mantra for business survival in the biotechnology sphere is 'Unlearn. Transform. Reinvent'. Embracing change and continuous learning are critical. Not taking risks is risky business." - Joseph Byrum, Syngenta

Syngenta knew that simply throwing more of their $1 billion research budget at this challenge wouldn’t do it – their competitors are already outspending them. Instead of competing with more research dollars, they decided to compete by making better decisions.

The problem was that Syngenta is a seed company, not a decision modelling company.


Open innovation has been used by Unilever, LEGO and many other companies. Procter and Gamble is the poster child for open innovation success with Connect + Develop. By leveraging the expertise of external partners, the global corporation successfully reversed a decline in its growth within four years.

Syngenta's own successful open innovation programme has delivered a long list of breakthroughs using the concept.

Joseph Byrum, the Soy Head of Product Development from Syngenta, and his team decided to enlist the help of their open innovation partner, IdeaConnection, a Canadian company focussed on solving difficult technical problems like these. IdeaConnection put together experts from adjacent fields, including big Pharma, to work on the problem.

The output of this multi-phased, multi-year project was a set of tools that use innovative big data techniques, advanced mathematics and new technologies to develop soybeans with a higher yield. It did this by guiding breeders on various critical steps such parent and progeny selection and planting strategies.

The results were truly remarkable.

"People typically talk about the art of plant breeding," says Joseph Byrum, Syngenta head of soybeen seeds product development. "We're interested in the science."

The new mathematical tools dramatically improved decision making and planning, with a review showing a cost avoidance for soybean R&D of more than $287 million from 2012-2016. Using the systems developed through open innovation, Syngenta also improved the probability of successfully delivering a portfolio value exceeding $1.5 billion due to the positive impact on soybean yield.

After winning all of first, second and third places 2 years in a row in a competition run by Soy Capital Ag Services, an independent organization, Syngenta is now initiating a multi-year effort to customize and launch similar tools across all major crops.

“Before we began using these tools, we realized that an average annual increase in yield across our soybean varieties was about 0.8 bushels per acre,” said Byrum. “That average is now closer to 2.5 bushels per acre. This new approach is truly transformational for our industry.”

The open innovation project culminated in Syngenta topping competing organizations such as the US army and IBM to win the 2015 Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS) Franz Edelman Award. Running into its forty-fourth year, the award is the world’s most prestigious recognition of excellence in applying advanced analytics.

What is just as remarkable is the innovative way that this innovation actually happened: The work for the award was done 100% through the efforts of Open Innovation using crowdsourced experts placed into virtual teams by IdeaConnection.