Agricultural Biotechnology is Ripe For Innovation

By Paul Mugge

CIMS is a nationally-based organization, with an international reach thanks to most of our corporate sponsors, fellows and researchers. With such a broad focus, we haven’t lost sight of what is important in our own backyard of Raleigh, N.C. – the city we call home. We’ve long observed the rise of the biotechnology and life sciences industries in the region, and have worked with a number of companies in these sectors. According to many surveys, North Carolina ranks third in the country in the number of biotech jobs. The N.C. Biotechnology Center—the first such center in the U.S.—has been both a corporate sponsor and a valued partner.

We’ve also noticed the fast rise of a sub-sector of the biotech industry: agricultural biotechnology. Ag biotech applies the tools of technology to biological processes involved in crop production and animal husbandry. Innovations in ag biotech have helped–or have the potential to help–farmers use less water to grow their crops, enhance the nutrients of the grains and produce they harvest, avoid chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and raise more disease-resistant livestock. These and other developments benefit humanity and are especially needed as we face the loss of arable land and potable water while at the same time needing to feed an ever-growing population.

North Carolina is arguably the global hub of ag biotech, combining the state’s two largest industries – agriculture and biotechnology. Case in point: Five of the dreamstimefree_Sunflowersix world leaders in ag biotech have operations in North Carolina: BASF Plant Science, Bayer CropScience, DuPont Pioneer, Monsanto and Syngenta. Novozymes, a former CIMS sponsor and leading global industrial and agricultural enzymes company, also has its North American headquarters in the state. All told, there are 80 ag biotech companies in North Carolina employing approximately 8,700 people. An impressive infrastructure, including an agriculture-specific initiative launched five years ago by the N.C. Biotechnology Center, creates opportunities, resources and synergies to help this companies.

I was honored recently when the Ag Biotech division of the NC Biotechnology Center asked me to deliver the keynote address at its annual Ag Biotech Entrepreneurial Showcase. Not surprisingly, the organizers asked me to speak about the need for companies in this space to be more innovative. So I naturally took the opportunity to promote the importance of systematizing innovation. Even an industry as well-positioned and mission-driven as ag biotech could benefit from applying the System that we developed at CIMS and that Dr. Steve Markham and I lay out in step-by-step fashion in our new book, Traversing the Valley of Death: A Handbook for Corporate Innovation Managers. The processes and practices we discuss have been developed over 20 years, and more than 50 organizations have tested many of the tools that make the system work.

The main benefit of the System is that it helps companies avoid the Valley of Death. Steve and I have seen potentially great, profitable products and services languish in the Valley. Working with hundreds of companies over more than three decades, collectively, we have come to see that no industry is immune from the disconnect between ideas and commercialization. Isolated innovation projects–and champions–rarely command attention in established organizations, particularly those driven by operational efficiency. Based on the insights we gained working with companies who courageously shared their biggest frustrations and challenges, we developed this proven system.

The system helps companies avoid the “Valley of Death” in several ways. One hallmark of the system is our mantra: An opportunity can only be confirmed when a business idea is backed by the company’s ability and matched to a compelling market need. All too often, companies have ideas but not the means to do anything with them, or identify a need but can’t come up with an idea that’s unique. We emphasize that all three must be in place before a technology or product idea is viable.

Another feature of the System is a social culture of innovation that encourages all employees to think like innovators and removes barriers that prevent “the lab rats” and the “suits”—to use a couple of clichés—from speaking the same language and sharing important information. The prevailing silo structure in most companies is kryptonite for getting products to market. As an ag biotech executive recently said to me, “Why would I want my researchers to understand the market?” We believe executives must break down the walls within their organizations.

In addition to discouraging silos within the company, the system encourages innovators to look outside as well. Andrew Hargadon, author of How Breakthroughs Happen: The Surprising Truth About How Companies Innovate, memorably compares the process of innovation with the activities of medieval bazaar, and asserts that innovation results from the recombination of existing ideas, people, and objects from across different worlds. We happen to agree.

Another important step in our System calls for product development teams to validate intended markets early in the process, before a technology or new product spends too much time in development. Making the business case early in the new product development cycle and basing it on comprehensive market and customer research not only ensures that the C-suite (or potential investors) has the will and the means to support a new product, but that there are customers ready to buy it. The business case must provide reliable estimates of product cost, performance, and reliability in the context of a real market that can be entered in a reasonable length of time.

Fortunately, the ag biotech industry—all industries that value innovation, in fact–is being buoyed by favorable tailwinds. One is the Internet of Things—the network of objects or “things” embedded with electronics, software, sensors and connectivity that provides valuable feedback to the manufacturer or operator. An example in the ag field is a high-tech tractor armed with sensors that collect a host of data to help farmers work their land more effectively and efficiently. Another favorable development is Big Data Analytics with an emphasis on text-based data. Cloud computers scan press releases, business journals, websites, social media sites and customer forums for key words at warp speed using natural language processing (NLP) software. Working with IBM, CIMS has taught numerous organizations how to harness the information text analytics yields to make important decisions such as whether to continue with a product or idea, enter a new market, go head-to-head with a competitor or join forces with a potential ally. Getting this kind of information without this platform would take weeks, months or even years—time that no company can spare.

No industry is riper for breakthrough innovation than agricultural biotechnology. Only the survival of our species and planet is at stake. Fortunately, those who work with biology in its many forms understand that systems rule. It should be a short leap for them to apply a business system such as the System for Industrial Innovation to their new product development processes. We can’t afford more casualties in the Valley of Death.

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