New Research Outlet Takes Unconventional Approach to Ag Challenges

Syngenta establishes a unique research and development outlet to help generate data-driven ag solutions.
Brandon Dohman with Syngenta addresses the more than 100 attendees at the Syngenta Digital Innovation Lab grand opening on May 16, 2017, in Champaign, Illinois.
Brandon Dohman with Syngenta addresses the more than 100 attendees at the Syngenta Digital Innovation Lab grand opening on May 16, 2017, in Champaign, Illinois.

Upon arriving at the Syngenta Digital Innovation Lab in Champaign, Illinois, visitors may mistake it for a college dorm room—albeit a tidy one. Aside from the multiple computers and electronic peripherals throughout, the decor is decidedly more kitsch than corporate—from the chihuahua-print pillow on the couch to the bacon poster on the wall.

For Syngenta, this unconventional setting is poised to help foster the next generation of ag innovators. It opened its doors in early 2017 at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) Research Park, which counts among its tenants more than 100 technology and data stalwarts like Yahoo, Sandia National Lab and CME Group.

“Creating a Syngenta presence here allows us to bring together the resources of a global agribusiness, the intellectual capital of a major research institution and the business mentality of a tech startup,“ says Bill Danker, Syngenta domain head of seeds research and breeding. “This setup provides a unique outlet for contributing creativity and outside-the-box thinking to our digital innovation engine.“

A Place to Call Home

When tasked with augmenting the company’s internal capabilities for delivering digital innovation solutions, Danker says he and his team envisioned an academic, technology-rich setting—with a built-in pipeline of rising data scientists. They found a home at UIUC.

“Ag inherently involves people. And working in this capacity allows me to contribute to something very meaningful: helping feed the world.“

Jena Bartodziej
The lab provides an environment for UIUC students in computer science, biology, physical sciences and other related disciplines to apply their specialized expertise to address some of agriculture’s most pressing challenges. Data analytics, cloud technology, mobile applications and smart-farm technology are among the platforms students leverage, as they explore and test disruptive ideas in pursuit of solutions to complex research and development and commercial issues.

Jena Bartodziej and John Capozzo are among the first student participants at the Syngenta Digital Innovation Lab. Both were raised in urban settings. Neither expected to contribute to the ag industry. But the premise of accelerating innovation to help feed the world has resonated soundly.

“In my academic career, I’ve followed a path that has been guided by my curiosity,“ says Capozzo, a fourth-year doctoral student in information science. “As a self-branded data scientist, I’ve followed my curiosity to the Syngenta Digital Innovation Lab, where I’m able to use my data-science expertise to work on organizing data, so that it can be used to help Syngenta researchers make decisions.“

For Bartodziej, a rising senior pursuing a degree in psychology, serving as a project management intern at the lab presents the opportunity to impact people—not just profits and technologies. “Ag inherently involves people,“ she says. “And working in this capacity allows me to contribute to something very meaningful: helping feed the world.“

Better Solutions

With the Digital Innovation Lab model, staff and interns focus on ideating and developing solutions to challenges submitted by the Syngenta business—not fulfilling requests for specific deliverables.

“The path from prototype to product is rarely straightforward,“ says Brandon Dohman, Syngenta innovation lead for the Digital Innovation Lab at UIUC Research Park. “This reality can be frustrating in a results-oriented business environment, but the Digital Innovation Lab model accepts—and even celebrates—the process.“

The establishment of the Syngenta Digital Innovation Lab at the UIUC Research Park builds upon a long-standing Syngenta relationship with the UIUC outpost of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). This collaboration has resulted in significant benefits for the Syngenta plant breeding program.

@SyngentaUS Digital Innovation Lab established to help generate data-driven #ag solutions.

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For example, the NCSA team helped deliver an improved predictive algorithm to compute genetic allele data sets with greater scope and speed. With the improved algorithm, seed data sets that once took an entire week to compute can now be analyzed in a remarkable 10 minutes—a significant win for the tedious and capital-intensive discipline of plant breeding. This groundbreaking work in data analytics has been validated by the improved commercial seed varieties Syngenta is bringing to market. Additional Syngenta Digital Innovation Labs are slated to open in late 2017.

Focus on Farmers

While the prevalence and acceptance of digital innovation in agriculture accelerate, Danker says it’s important to never lose sight of the farmers who ultimately benefit from it.

“The Syngenta approach to digital innovation is—and always will be—rooted in providing value to our customers: the farmers who produce crops and the resellers and channel partners who advise them,” he says. “Embracing data is also helping shape and quantify our contributions to the sustainability of global food production, which is helping farmers tell a compelling story and helping to ensure a sound future for agriculture.”