Syngenta Thoughtseeders™

Interview with Joseph Byrum, Global Head of Soybean Seeds and Traits Research and Development, Syngenta, about their Thoughtseeders portal
By Vern Burkhardt
"Companies that have a deeply embedded 'not invented here' culture are less likely to be successful at innovation."

Vern Burkhardt (VB): Would you tell us about Syngenta and its R&D operations?

photo of Joe ByrumJoseph (Joe) Byrum: Syngenta's head- quarters is in Basel, Switzerland. It has operations globally with over 26,000 employees in over 90 countries. Our primary focus is on genetics, environment, crop yield, chemistry, and control of weeds, diseases, and insects.

We have nearly 5,000 employees in 5 R&D centers, located in Switzerland, England, China, Goa and the U.S., as well as numerous field stations, and invest $1 billion annually in research and development.

The field stations rigorously test the chemical compounds developed at the R&D centers for efficacy, environmental behavior, agronomic benefit, and economic impact.

VB: Your focus is agriculture as well as lawn and garden?

Joe Byrum: Syngenta is a diverse agricultural company. You can view the company in two different dimensions.

In one dimension we're focused on genetics, biotechnology, and crop chemistry. Wheat is the world's largest crop and, with consumption in emerging markets increasing as a result of changing diets, there is a pressing need for the average yield per hectare to increase. We're helping farmers increase yields by developing new varieties of wheat, and providing them with crop protection and seed trea™ent programs. Barley is another cereal grain we are involved with. Other crops are corn, rice, soybeans, sugar cane, oilseeds, sugar beets, and vegetables.

Then we have what we call lawn and garden, which is focused on turf and flowers.

VB: Syngenta's purpose is "bringing plant potential to life." Would you talk about this?

Joe Byrum: We use our knowledge and skills in plant breeding, crop protection, and seed care to help people produce healthy and premium crops.

VB: It is projected there will be about 9 billion people on Earth by 2050. What is Syngenta doing to help address the challenge of feeding this growing population?

Joe Byrum: The challenge doesn't await 2050. Today nearly 1 billion people are hungry when they go to bed, and even more are malnourished.

We feel Syngenta has a responsibility to be a large part of the solution for feeding the world. Our main focus is on maximizing crop yield per acre, and this means developing varieties of plants which provide the highest possible yield while taking into consideration the need for food to be tasty, healthy, and nutritious – growing more using less water and land.

To produce enough food for the world by 2050 farmers will need to increase food production by at least 70 percent. Adding to this challenge is the projected scarcity of water, energy, and agricultural land, and the impact of changing climates.

We look for integrated crop solutions in the areas of weed, disease, insect, and nematode control, as well as environmental stress tolerance, breakthrough yield, and crop output quality. What is needed is a sustainable production system for agriculture.

VB: Are nematodes a significant problem worldwide?

Joe Byrum: They can reduce yields by up to 75 percent, particularly in soybeans in North America, South America, and Asia. They also impact corn and even sugar beets, but soybean is the crop with the major issues.

VB: Do you see light at the end of the tunnel with respect to this problem?

Joe Byrum: Absolutely. I don't think any of us would be in this business if we didn't see opportunities to solve these major problems.

VB: Syngenta's website says, "Open Innovation has always been an important part of our R&D strategy." What has been your approach to Open Innovation at Syngenta?

Joe Byrum: It's quite broad. External collaboration is one of the key ways we deliver crop-focused solutions to our customers. Our future success will depend on our ability to maximize new technologies, and discover and develop innovative value-added products for agriculture.

Open Innovation means different things to different people. What it means to me is being open to any form of problem solving or offer of technology across the divisions within Syngenta as well as outside the company.

Not all smart individuals or companies currently work for, or collaborate with, Syngenta. You don't know what you don't know, so it's a matter of being open to different insights from adjacent areas.

VB: It takes a considerable amount of insight to recognize this in a large organization. Have you been personally involved in helping Syngenta develop its approach to open innovation?

Joe Byrum: Yes, I've spent an enormous amount of time doing so.

VB: How did Syngenta become a leader in Open Innovation when so many other companies are still wrestling with the idea of opening beyond their boundaries?

Joe Byrum: Dick Clark, the former CEO of Merck, said, "Culture eats strategy for lunch." The thing most people miss regarding this topic is there is huge cultural component.

A lot of companies say they want to collaborate, but there's a big difference between owning and collaborating. I've noticed that many people who think they're collaborating are actually controlling.

Companies that have a deeply embedded 'not invented here' culture are less likely to be successful at innovation. The good news about Syngenta is that at its core it has a fairly collaborative culture compared to a lot of other companies. There's always room for improvement no matter what you're doing in life, but Syngenta's culture does support collaborative behavior.

VB: What do you mean by "collaborative?"

Joe Byrum: Are we open to ideas from other people? Perhaps I should re-phrase your question to are we genuinely open to other ideas? It's the difference between hearing and listening. At Syngenta, people are open to listening.

Part of building a collaborative culture is to start collaborating internally across divisions and geographies. We promote problem-solving internally, and the big eye-opener for us is that some of the employees who bring forward solutions are people we would never ask or even think to ask. They may be in a certain role today but have the expertise we're looking for because of previous experience. We often forget people are in their second and third careers. It teaches us how well we actually know our colleagues!

This gives you insight into why you should be open and at least consider the possibility that people outside your company and your industry have valuable expertise.

VB: Some companies find that their R&D employees resist ideas not developed internally. Do you have any tips on how to overcome this tendency when a major Open Innovation initiative is introduced?

Joe Byrum: Most people are rational and respond to the metrics by which they are evaluated. People react to the way they're incentivized, including even the best scientists.

If you want people to be open to accepting and implementing external technologies you have to develop the right incentives. The reward structures, and formal and informal recognition of accomplishments must include an expectation that employees will be open to ideas emanating from outside the company.

VB: Earlier you mentioned the importance of culture. Do you have any tips on how to develop a culture that is open to outside ideas?

Joe Byrum: One word rings with me. Persistence.

There's a great quote about this. It's not the strong or the swift that survive; it's the one who endures to the end. If you want to change culture you have to be persistent.

Organizational change and cultural change have been well studied. To make even marginal changes takes 3 to 5 years. The mistake most people make is in not recognizing this. They expect this type of change to happen quickly but it doesn't.

VB: Leaders have to be persistent and continue to communicate the need for change. Otherwise employees will assume, "this too will pass"?

Joe Byrum: Right. People are bombarded with a lot of initiatives every day. What people respond to is consistency in your messages over a long period of time.

The other way to view this is the best training in the world requires repetition and practice. This applies no matter what profession people are in.

Repetition is the mother of comprehension. Although it varies somewhat from industry to industry, salespeople are taught that on average it takes 9 to 15 contacts with a prospective client for that person to really understand what you're saying. It's not a matter of communicating once, twice, or three times. It requires communicating over and over again.

VB: Any tips on how to communicate a complex message in an organization, such as the need for Open Innovation?

Joe Byrum: It's going to vary from company to company. There are organizations where the culture indicates communicating such a message will work best from the bottom up. If an organization is structured like an oligarchy it's going to work best from the top down.

Unfortunately, another dimension is that it can take a crisis to make the transition from a closed to an open culture. An example would be when a company has products coming off patent protection and they risk losing a significant amount of their revenue base. In today's economy many companies are facing a time of crisis, and therefore this type of change is more likely to occur. An actual or perceived crisis can provide the impetus for a sense of urgency of the need for change.

There's no one clear answer for all companies, or for all components or divisions of any one company. It's got to be determined on a case-by-case basis.

VB: Sometimes companies are so successful they don't recognize there is a need for change until it's too late.

Joe Byrum: Absolutely. Many companies no longer exist because the environment around them changed and they didn't recognize it. Or in some cases the companies may have recognized the need to change and adapt to emerging new technologies or breakthrough innovations, but they clung to their old business model or technologies because they were afraid to change. Or perhaps they simply didn't know how to change in the face of the new technologies.

VB: We have recent examples such as Eastman Kodak Company.

Joe Byrum: Kodak, Bear Stearns, and Lehman Brothers. There are many other examples.

VB: You recently launched the Syngenta Thoughtseeders™ online portal. Would you tell us about this portal?

Joe Byrum: Generally there are barriers to getting access to the right people in a large company. If somebody outside the company has an idea or useful technology they simply don't know who the decision makers are, or how to obtain access to them.

Syngenta Thoughtseeders™ will serve as a central destination where academics, creative individuals, research institutes, innovative partners, and other innovative people and organizations may submit ideas for novel technologies. They may also offer solutions and lend their expertise to the global food security challenge.

Thoughtseeders is a way to enable external people to access the company. It has a clear, concise, and specific access portal. It is also a mechanism for professionally managing the contact points, which are part of Syngenta's evaluation process when somebody submits a technology or an idea.

The person submitting the idea or technology will get a response. It will be evaluated, and they'll receive a response from Syngenta advising whether or not we accept it. Quite often people simply appreciate having their submission acknowledged, and being informed it has been evaluated and that a clear decision has been made.

The other benefit of having a portal of this nature is that it is very open. Syngenta Thoughtseeders™ is neither selective nor dependent on any specific person's contact network. It's an access point whether you're in the field of agriculture, in an adjacent industry, an individual, or a small or large company. You have an entry point to get Syngenta to evaluate your technology or idea.

VB: I gather the portal is a total system, not just an access point?

Joe Byrum: Absolutely. Thoughtseeders is an access point into Syngenta, but what's behind the system is a network of people who thoughtfully evaluate each idea and determine whether it's a fit for the Syngenta portfolio.

People get a response, in some fashion, from us.

VB: While looking at the portal I noticed that people can submit more than one idea, and they can later go into the portal to see the status of their idea or ideas. Does it include an idea management system so submissions don't get lost or bogged down in the evaluation process?

Joe Byrum: Definitely. It's a fairly comprehensive, detailed idea and technology management system.

What I like about the Thoughtseeders portal, and what I hope others will like about it, is that it's a visible system where people are not left wondering where their proposal stands. They can log in and have daily updates if they so choose. In this way it is open and transparent. And very visible.

VB: It must have taken a long time to develop.

Joe Byrum: Yes, we spent a considerable amount of time developing it. We wanted to deploy something that was impactful, professional, and not only met our needs but also those of users. We wanted to stimulate collaborations with people outside the company in order to generate new, integrated solutions in agriculture.

VB: This is a global initiative?

Joe Byrum: It's a global initiative. Our goal is to use it as a platform to support Syngenta's development of new and sustainable solutions for growers across all geographies that are facing crop productivity and environmental challenges.

We're impartial about where good ideas may come from. We've seen really good ideas and solutions from every continent.

VB: Are people from some geographic areas more attuned to offering proposals and ideas, or is it quite universal?

Joe Byrum: We've found there are innovative people on all continents who can and do offer Syngenta great ideas.

Since we launched the Thoughtseeders portal we've taken a systematic approach to rolling it out across all continents. Our objective is to fully communicate the existence of the portal and how innovative people worldwide can access Syngenta through it. It will take some time to realize this goal but we will persist until it is accomplished.

VB: Is the Thoughtseeders portal the only way Syngenta will accept proposals for collaboration and partnership from now on?

Joe Byrum: We have a fairly strong push to move in that direction, as it will benefit everybody.

It gives people who are offering us their ideas and technologies for consideration a visible way to track their submissions. It also gives us a real time database, which is accessible by anybody in the company. Syngenta employees can readily know who the submitters are, and what, where, and when something has been submitted.

VB: Given that you have over 5,000 scientists in your R&D workforce what do you hope to gain with the Syngenta Thoughtseeders™?

thoughtseeders logoJoe Byrum: We want to deploy into the market absolutely the best solutions for the farmers and gardeners who are our customers. Regardless of where the technology comes from we want the best solutions.

We have outstanding scientists working at Syngenta, and we're proud of the invaluable work they do. The portal is a recognition that all the smart people in our industry don't work for Syngenta. It gives us access to even more smart people than the 5,000 scientists we directly employ, so it's hard to imagine how there could be a downside to this approach to Open Innovation.

VB: What types of ideas and proposals do you hope to receive through the Syngenta Thoughtseeders portal?

Joe Byrum: This varies depending on the business units and functional areas in Syngenta. We're hoping for creative ideas from people who have a different set of paradigms than those of us who work at Syngenta, and who therefore see things from a different perspective.

We're looking for those big "aha's" that are clear, concise, can be executed, and for whatever reason weren't apparent to us. They will be the unexpected solutions that clearly add significant value to the business. I'm hoping to receive things we would never have thought of because of our paradigms and existing research focus.

When you look at a great idea you might think, 'Well, it's obvious' or 'I would have thought of it in due course'. Although the new idea may seem obvious, if you're honest with yourself you have to ask if it really is all that obvious. If it is obvious, why didn't it occur to you a long time ago?

VB: I understand that first and foremost you want solutions in those areas that bring value to the grower. Would you talk a bit about this?

Joe Byrum: We are looking for genetic, chemistry or adjacent technology solutions for weed, disease, insect, and nematode control as well as abiotic stress tolerance – drought, heat, or nitrogen resistance, breakthrough yield, and output quality. These are the most important things to us.

The adjacent technology aspect is equally important. We're looking for adjacent or new ways to make the grower more productive. This may be new or improved services, or a new technology allowing growers to farm more acres or farm more intensively.

The other important thing we're looking for is anything we don't know, anything that allows a farmer to be more productive.

We have to remember the challenge of our growing world population, which means the world's farmers need to nearly double crop production in the next 40 years. This is a huge challenge.

VB: Does this mean there is a need to reduce the cost of production as well as increase yields?

Joe Byrum: Absolutely. Think about all the dimensions. More food produced per acre. Lower cost. Allow producers to have what I refer to as 'a higher quality of life'.

The goal is to find solutions which will allow producers to farm more acres more easily, and more cost effectively, and in an environmentally friendly and sustainable way.

VB: "…in an environmentally friendly and sustainable way." These are priorities for Syngenta?

Joe Byrum: Absolutely, as I think they are for anyone in our industry and for agriculture in general.

If you look at the impact of the first generation of biotechnology you'll find that it allowed farmers to farm more acres in less time and in an environmentally sustainable way, compared to previous practices.

Today's agricultural solutions can help farmers protect land, water, and biodiversity for future generations. Technology can increase the potential of plants to grow using less water and land.

VB: What types of proposals are you not interested in receiving through the portal?

Joe Byrum: We are not looking for technologies which we normally acquire through a purchase process – things like Chromatography systems and Mass Spectrometers.

We don't want contract and legal documents submitted through the portal. If an idea or technology is of interest we will then get into the question of legal documents.

Also, we are not seeking ideas or proposals for mergers or acquisitions of start-ups, or any other companies for that matter.

VB: How are submissions for collaboration and partnerships handled?

Joe Byrum: Once they are submitted through the portal a team evaluates them using a number of criteria. Is it a fit for Syngenta's portfolio? Is it technically feasible? Is it within the domain of our existing business? Does it have the potential to increase value to growers?

If the idea or technology is evaluated to be a fit and of interest, then it gradually makes it's way to the various decisionmakers at Syngenta to determine if it makes sense to absorb and incorporate it into our portfolio. We have a well-developed process to ensure that submissions do not get lost or simply blocked by someone during the evaluation process. This means all submissions will be adequately and professionally considered based on their merits and fit with Syngenta's business model.

VB: How large is the Syngenta Thoughtseeders Team and where is it located?

Joe Byrum: It's a global team. Rather than a "team" I consider it to be a network within Syngenta – a scientific network.

Depending on the technology, experts from across Syngenta's operations are involved in evaluating submissions. As submissions of interest move through the system more and more people are pulled in to vet them.

If it's a chemistry submission our chemistry researchers, who are located primarily in the UK, Switzerland, and India, will be involved. If it's biotechnology, it's primarily our China R&D Center. If crop genetics its mainly North America.

Eight to ten full-time people manage the portal process, and they are able to leverage a significant global network of research staff to help them.

VB: What assurance does a person or organization submitting an idea have that their idea will actually be reviewed, and that they will hear back from Syngenta?

Joe Byrum: It's our commitment to them. We're resolved as a company to fulfill this commitment. Of course, if we don't this initiative is going to fail.

We not only say it's our commitment; we're extraordinarily transparent. The status of the review process is visible to the submitter. At any time a submitter can log into the Thoughtseeders portal and find out where their submissions are in the system.

VB: Transparency is a key component of the system?

Joe Byrum: Absolutely. We want the system to have integrity so people outside the company will have confidence and use it.

VB: What metrics will you use to determine whether this portal initiative is a success?

Joe Byrum: It will vary depending on the business unit, but the most basic metric is how many new ideas are making it into Syngenta's research portfolio and how many are actually being implemented.

One of our goals is to provide potential new partners and collaborators with a pleasant experience when they submit their ideas and technologies through the portal so they will be encouraged to return. This suggests the need for measures to ensure we are achieving these aims, and taking corrective action when we are not.

The key indicator for me is what percentage of the external ideas we receive are being absorbed into our research portfolio. If technologies are absorbed into the research portfolio, it's a success. This doesn't guarantee commercialization of the ideas, but if they're being absorbed and advanced through our research and development work it will be a huge success.

VB: What do you mean by "absorbed'?

Joe Byrum: I mean what percentage of Syngenta's $1 billion in R&D spending is allocated toward ideas or technologies that were externally derived through the portal.

VB: Are there early signs that the goals you set for this initiative are being met?

Joe Byrum: The early signs of success of this initiative have exceeded my expectations. We believe the pace at which submissions are entered into Thoughtseeders will increase considerably as people gain more and more trust in the portal and in the integrity of the processes underlying the system.

VB: Does Syngenta's new portal set it apart from most other large companies when it comes to adopting Open Innovation?

Joe Byrum: Yes, it does. The key difference has been the planning and execution of Thoughtseeders.

Most companies of any size have a page on their website which says, "These are the technologies we're interested in. If you have something within this domain, contact us." What separate us are the openness, visibility and transparency of the system.

People want to know their technology will be evaluated. They want truthful acknowledgement not only that it has been received but also that it is being adequately and thoughtfully evaluated. This is what Thoughtseeders is intended to do.

When creating the Thoughtseeders portal our goal was to create a transparent, interactive platform that would engage people, as opposed to a black hole into which submissions would disappear. We offer the feedback and acknowledgment without which you're always left wondering.

VB: "…Syngenta Thoughtseeders is looking to build upon experience and establish Syngenta as the partner of choice for innovative technology providers worldwide." Would you talk about some of the steps that have been taken to ensure Syngenta will be the partner of choice?

Joe Byrum: I want to emphasize the word 'partner'. Partner is about being collaborative. It's about our culture. Syngenta has a very collaborative culture compared to a lot of our peers.

It's about creating a portal that is extraordinarily transparent, and giving people complete access to what's going on. And it's about interactive dialogue where people receive an answer one way or the other. Even if told 'no' they're at least are given an answer, and we encourage people who submit ideas that are not accepted to come back with other new ideas.

We'll also be transparent about what we are looking for in order to fulfill our portfolio objectives. Another way of looking at it is we are open for sound business ideas.

We want to create a culture of trust and transparency.

VB: What steps is Syngenta taking to promote the Syngenta Thoughtseeders™ portal?

Joe Byrum: We have multiple approaches to increasing the portal's visibility.

We sponsor key scientific meetings across the world where we promote the web site.

We have a network of global scouts meeting and interacting with key scientific centers around the world.

We have standard web marketing.

We have dedicated marketing people calling major technology providers and technology transfer offices making sure they're aware of the portal. More importantly, they're available to help users figure out how to use and engage with us through the portal. The key is to systematically go through the lists of hundreds of technology providers around the globe, contact them directly, and make sure they are aware of the portal and how to use it.

VB: The Syngenta Thoughtseeders portal is a comprehensive outreach program aimed at locating and vetting new technologies and ideas.

Joe Byrum: Yes, it absolutely is. We believe that through this initiative we can attract fresh ideas and concepts, and novel technologies from anyone anywhere in world. This outreach is to people involved with the agricultural industry and also to those beyond our own industry. It is Syngenta's connection to the 'outside world'.

The portal reinforces the fact that Syngenta is open to receiving ideas in all areas of our business. We intend to continue our positive relationships with our existing collaborators, and to develop relationships with new partners.

VB: Syngenta Thoughtseeders™ is an interesting name. What is its etiology?

Joe Byrum: That's a really good question. It was not derived easily. An enormous amount of work went into developing the concept and approach.

We probably spent over a year and a half trying to develop something that was simple, concise, and communicated what we wanted from people in the way of submissions of ideas, concepts, and technologies. We also wanted it to resonate within our agricultural industry, and with adjacent industries.

VB: Did you and your staff develop it internally?

Joe Byrum: Yes, in collaboration with a number of external communications firms.

VB: Are there any other aspects of the Syngenta Thoughtseeders portal we haven't discussed?

Joe Byrum: I think we've done a comprehensive job of addressing it.

VB: We wish you all the best with the Thoughtseeders initiative. We would like to check back with you in six months to hear more about how this approach to Open Innovation is progressing.

Joe Byrum: I'll be pleased to give you an update on our progress.

The Syngenta Thoughtseeders™ online portal will no doubt increase the number of submissions it receives from private individuals and organizations offering new ideas, concepts and technologies for sale or license. This is a great example of the systematic and comprehensive implementation of one approach to Open Innovation.

We often hear that major new initiatives are difficult to implement in a large organization, and success is more likely if a new start-up, with the operational flexibility to move fast, is spun off. Syngenta's Thoughtseeders demonstrates that with capable advocates to drive change, a collaborative corporate culture, and a comprehensive implementation plan, a global Open Innovation initiative can be successfully implemented.

Joseph Bryum's Bio:
In his position at Syngenta, Joseph Byrum is Global Head of Soybean Seeds and Traits R&D. Specifically, he leads global soybean breeding, trait research, and product development which delivers improved genetics and trait technologies for soybean growers. Joseph has extensive global experience in plant genetics and biotechnology having been actively involved in soybean research for 20 years, spanning genetics, genomics, breeding, physiology, compositional analysis, grain origination and end-user applications. Since joining Syngenta in 2006 he has held a variety of roles in Syngenta's organizations. Most recently he led the Global Scouting and Acquisition team responsible global innovation initiatives.

Dr. Byrum obtained his MBA from the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. He holds Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees from Michigan State University. He earned his doctorate in plant breeding and genetics from the Iowa State University.

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