Dr. Bob Reiter, Head of R&D for Bayer’s Crop Science Division, shares his thoughts on agtech investment and R&D trends, and where his organization is looking for external innovation.
Bayer Crop Science has gone through some significant changes since WAIS San Francisco 2018, namely the acquisition of Monsanto. What should this year’s delegates know about the “new” Bayer Crop Science?
You’re right, we’ve certainly grown over the past year; we now have more than 7,000 scientists doing ag R&D all over the world. Both Legacy Monsanto and Bayer were leaders in the ag innovation space and invested a great deal respectively – but together, as one company, we will spend $2.5 billion on ag research this year – the largest R&D budget the ag industry has ever seen. That amazes me.
But I noticed at the conference that we’re not the only ones who have grown! I understand that there were more than 1300 World Agri-Tech delegates this year – a 35% increase over last year – which is outstanding growth. It was also impressive to see the incredible diversity of people and organizations present, and even the non-industry players getting involved. On top of that, AgFunder’s recent investment report showed a 43% YOY increase in agrifood tech startup funding – $16.9 billion in 2018. So clearly investment is alive and well in the ag startup space, and Bayer is eager to harness some of that external innovation as we strive to develop the best tools and technology to serve our grower customers.
What is the Bayer Crop Science R&D focused on?
We want to use science to improve people’s lives – and of course, we can do that by helping farmers grow safe, nutritious and abundant food, from the largest industry growers to the smallholders who produce 80% of the world’s food, but are just barely growing enough for their families. The population experts project that there will be an additional 80 million people on this planet per year for the next three decades, and if we want all of them to be well-fed, widespread subsistence farming won’t be good enough. We must help all farmers be more productive, more sustainable, and more successful.
So we’ve brought together our expertise across disciplines – seeds and traits, crop protection in both chemistry and biologics, and digital technologies and services through The Climate Corporation – which uniquely positions Bayer’s Crop Science division to bring new products to market faster than ever before. For example, instead of having to wait for another company to commercialize a new herbicide before we can start developing a trait that works with it, now we can develop those products in parallel.
If you already have 7,000 scientists, do you really need outside help?
Absolutely. While Bayer invests heavily in our own research and development, there are outstanding innovations beyond our doors, so we can’t afford a “not invented here” mentality.
What’s been nice to see is the two legacy companies had a somewhat different but complementary approach in terms of how we tapped into that innovation. On the Bayer side, for example, they had set up crowdsourcing platforms like Grants4Targets, and open innovation centers around the world – like our CoLaborator space in West Sacramento – which allow us to tap into novel ideas while also providing resources and strategic guidance to young companies. On the venture capital side, Monsanto Growth Ventures is now Bayer Growth Ventures, where we’re making early stage investments in ag startups. For bigger investments, there’s Leaps by Bayer, which is investing in ideas so big that if they work, we believe they could fundamentally change the world. Joyn Bio, a 50/50 JV between Bayer and Gingko Bioworks, is the first Leaps investment within crop science. Joyn is working to find a nitrogen-fixing microbe that would significantly reduce the amount of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer needed for crops like corn, wheat and rice – which would have enormous benefits for farmers and the environment, so ultimately, everyone. Finally, collaborations are at our core, and we continuously look to complement our research with anything that helps us bring new solutions to farmers.
Any collaboration examples that you’d like to share?
We are working with many partners on exciting research using tools like data analytics and AI, gene editing, drones, and many others. But one example I’d really like to highlight comes from our Vegetable Seeds R&D organization, which recently worked with Church Brothers Farms (as Legacy Monsanto) to develop a broccoli plant that addresses the widespread shortage of farm labor – perhaps the biggest challenge facing farmers almost everywhere right now. Church Brothers wanted to develop an automated broccoli harvester, but first they needed a plant that would work with the machine…it needed to have a large head and cleaner stalk, while growing uniformly and maturing at the same time from plant to plant. Our vegetable breeding team was able to deliver by breeding a new High-Rise broccoli hybrid. I think these kinds of collaborations between breeders, growers, and robotics/automation engineers will be key to not only addressing current challenges, but also to enabling new technologies like vertical farming that help meet consumer demand trends. At the end of the day, any new farm production methods will require the right seed genetics to enable them. And that’s why Bayer’s leading global germplasm library and breeding expertise is such a key asset.
Finally, what were your key takeaways from World Agri-Tech in San Francisco 2019?
A few key themes stood out for me and are worth reiterating:
- Any new ag product or service must deliver added value for the farmer, either directly or indirectly. Period.
- Data insights will continue to transform agriculture and lay the groundwork for every other technology advance…but we still have issues to work through. We must help farmers get more comfortable with data sharing and demonstrate that data from millions of acres will help them make better decisions than only their own data.
- We must continue to collectively advocate around the world for food and ag regulation that is science-based and adapts to the fast pace of change.
- As much as bigger companies like Bayer need the fresh ideas and entrepreneurial spirit coming out of startups, startups need bigger partners to overcome the “access to farmer” barrier.
If you’d like to learn more about partnership opportunities at Bayer, visit innovate.Bayer.com. Together with farmers and partners across the globe, we will keep searching for smarter ways to grow our food, better ways to protect it and new ways to make it more nourishing, while putting less pressure on the environment.
In this short interview at World Agri-Tech, Bob discusses what’s hot in agtech, what’s coming up for investment and opportunities/challenges for agtech start-ups to make an impact.