How would you gather the best ideas from around the world on using drones to detect diseases in crops, fighting multi-drug resistant mold, and growing crops with less fertilizer? Visiting university campuses, startup companies, and conferences would be one approach.
But Phil Taylor, Director of Open Innovation and Outreach at Bayer Crop Science, opted to leverage a digital platform.
Bayer has businesses across pharmaceuticals, consumer health, and crop sciences. Taylor said the company has about 7,000 R&D employees, but only about 50 of them, including Taylor, are focused on external sources of innovation.
“My peers are all what we call strategic business partners. So they work closely with the various R&D functions — whether that’s plant breeding, biotechnology, small molecule research, biologics — to identify gaps, identify opportunities, and then find solutions externally to bring those in and support that,” Taylor said. “They have to be the ultimate insider and the ultimate outsider at the same time so they can understand what the opportunities are and what the solutions might be.”
Taylor’s team, the innovation sourcing team, has a mission to identify and build relationships around technologies that the company can bring in to enhance its pipeline. Those can come from academics and universities, startups, accelerators, collaborations, and more, but Taylor and his team don’t cross into venture capital — he said that is handled by a different group within Bayer, called Leaps by Bayer.
As part of its work identifying promising science globally, Bayer Crop Science partnered with the Chicago startup Halo Science to use its platform for running challenges.
Restructuring an Academic Grant Program
Halo Science aims to help scientists who are part of universities and startups connect with the corporate world, and vice versa. Taylor and Kevin Leland, CEO and Founder of Halo, initially met in 2019, the same year that Halo was founded.
At the time, Taylor needed help restructuring Bayer’s Grants4Ag program. Bayer had recently acquired Monsanto, and Taylor aimed to scale the program. But the company did not have the tools to scale the program internally, and going forward, Taylor needed a different solution.
“[Grants4Ag] just wasn’t going to scale. There was… an internal website, [and] duct tape and baling wire when it came to marketing and getting the message out,” he said. “And then actually running the program was all Excel sheets and flat files and emails everywhere. You can imagine the chaos.”
Bayer turned to Halo to help run the program.
“What first attracted me to Halo was essentially that they could run the process that I needed running. They had the tool to do what I needed — host a challenge, receive applications, and allow us to do some screening,” Taylor said.
The Grants4Ag program seeks a cohort of scientists trying to solve problems valuable to Bayer, which provides each cohort member with funding and mentorship.
Someone with one good idea is actually your most likely person to come up with a second. So if we work with these folks who’ve got great ideas, maybe it doesn’t work, but maybe the next one does, or even the one after.
The company funds over 20 projects each year. In 2020, it funded 24 projects; in 2021, it funded 21. Taylor said the average cohort member receives about $10,000 in funding from Bayer.
But he said researchers also get the benefit of seeing what happens inside a large company like Bayer.
“The actual funding is only one piece of the puzzle. … We treat the group as a cohort; we connect with them. Every researcher who’s part of it gets a Bayer scientist as a mentor who they can talk to and engage with on the project, but also who can help them get some insight into who we are as a company, what we’re doing,” Taylor said.
Most of the engagements started through Halo have been academic, Taylor said.
“The overwhelming majority of our engagement with Halo has been more on the academic side… and so we haven’t had that many startups come through,” he explained.
And though Bayer has funded 45 projects in the past few years, not all of them have led to larger-scale collaboration.
“Everyone gets something out of this experience, even if it doesn’t lead to a larger partnership or a larger collaboration at the end,” Taylor said. “Someone with one good idea is actually your most likely person to come up with a second. So if we work with these folks who’ve got great ideas, maybe it doesn’t work, but maybe the next one does, or even the one after.”
Taylor said that he has run about a dozen different challenges on the Halo platform over the past three years.
Taking an Incremental Approach
Taylor said that his team at Bayer takes small steps toward solutions, rather than putting a large amount of resources into one project all at once.
By starting small, you actually position yourself to be able to take a little bit more risk.
“I think the tendency to want to go big, quickly, [and] there are times when that’s appropriate. But I believe that when we’re thinking about a new business model, a new area of science, and new technology, there’s an opportunity there to take a stepwise approach and grow a relationship… that might lead to something bigger,” Taylor said.
For Taylor and his team, small steps make the most sense because of what they’re trying to achieve. But, he said, most organizations can find value in starting small in many cases.
“By starting small, you actually position yourself to be able to take a little bit more risk. You can try things that you wouldn’t [be] comfortable spending 10x, 20x the money on,” he said. “You can actually make better decisions about those larger partnerships.”
Bayer is currently working with its 2022 Grants4Ag cohort, which has scientists working on two key topics: plant transformation and sustainability traits.
Taylor has already begun thinking about what he and his team will focus on with its 2023 cohort.
“For 2023, we’re working on a similar package of focused opportunities… to support our next-gen crop protection products,” he said.