Syngenta Spurs Innovation by Supporting Ag Startups

By nurturing ag startups, Syngenta Ventures is helping to foster improved agronomic practices in the coming decade.
A bountiful wheat harvest is underway at a farm in Crookston, Minnesota.
Back in 2012, Travis Bayer and Eric Davidson weren’t focused on crops. Bayer was teaching biochemistry at the University of Oxford. Davidson was a research associate for the Center of Synthetic Biology at the Imperial College in London. But that spring, the U.K.’s Environment Agency issued a dire warning. More than half of Britain was in drought—the country’s most severe water shortage since 1976. “It was a big problem, an important problem, and we thought that as biochemists, we could bring a unique perspective,” Davidson says.

The next year, he and Bayer launched Sound Agriculture, a startup with a mission: to create a suite of products that mitigate drought stress, decrease fertilizer needs and increase crop yields. “We think of what we do as drug discovery for plants,” says Davidson. “We look for ways we can signal to plants to be ready for stress or to tolerate stress to be more productive.”

Syngenta Ventures

Environmental pressures like drought confront growers across the globe, and they can exacerbate the many other demands growers face. The challenges are intertwined, coming from every direction, including profitability requirements, food-supply-chain demands and nutrient shortages.

“For better or worse, growers are going to have to evolve how they deal with those pressures,” says Derek Norman, who heads up Syngenta Ventures, one of the world’s first venture capital groups dedicated to agriculture. Since he joined Syngenta Ventures in 2009 as one of its founding members, Norman and his team have committed to identifying entrepreneurs, like Davidson and Bayer, who are developing new tools growers can use to battle these pressures.

By nurturing #ag startups, @SyngentaUS Ventures is helping to foster improved practices in the coming decade.

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When members of the research and development (R&D) group at Syngenta first identified Sound Agriculture as a promising new startup, both they and the Syngenta Ventures team immediately recognized the potential for a strategic partnership.

“Between fertilizers and chemistry, growers haven’t had a lot of options for products that enhance yield and make their crops more resilient to abiotic stresses,” Norman says. “Sound Agriculture was taking a novel approach to discovering new products that could be tools for growers. We invested in them last year and have been very pleased with their progress.”

Investing for the Long Run

Today, Sound Agriculture is one of more than 15 companies in Syngenta Ventures’ portfolio. There’s no one-size-fits-all formula for the ideal Syngenta Ventures investment. It’s more about casting a broad net and finding companies that share its vision for making growers’ farms more sustainable and more profitable.

“We spend time getting to know the people. We try to understand the technologies,” Norman says. “We look at the business model, the market size. We try to be sure the company has strong competitive advantages. It’s an iterative process, during which time we really try to get to know the leadership teams of these companies.”

“A lot of the companies we evaluate are developing novel technologies. If we can speak their language, we can build relationships.”

Derek Norman
Syngenta Ventures views these investments as long-term partnerships, he adds. “We become personally committed to the success of our portfolio companies.”

That means Syngenta Ventures team members participate in board meetings, help steer strategy and business development, share Syngenta resources, and help the companies expand their professional networks, which is useful for recruiting talent. Take AgriMetis, a Syngenta Ventures’ portfolio company that develops natural products to protect crops from weeds, diseases and insects, as an example. “The Syngenta R&D group helped AgriMetis develop its testing capabilities,” Norman says.

“Over the years, we’ve developed strong relationships with others at Syngenta, beyond just the Syngenta Ventures team,” Davidson says. “They’ve been instrumental in helping us think through our business model to identify the types of things we do that are unique. Early on, their ability to evaluate new technologies through global field trials really stood out to us. Just the scale and quality they offer is unlike anything we could achieve on our own.”

Second, technical expertise is essential. “A lot of the companies we evaluate are developing novel technologies,” Norman says. “If we can speak their language, we can build relationships.”

Finally, Norman says that a good venture capital team must be savvy enough to make commitments and decisions that play over a long time period, often more than five years. Making good decisions today requires understanding future challenges. “In the last 10 years, the whole ag-technology sector has changed and blossomed before our eyes,” he says.

Satellite imagery and drones, for example, felt like the stuff of sci-fi novels when Syngenta Ventures was founded, but now they’re common sights in ag offices and fields across the world. One portfolio company, Phytech, draws on spatial imaging, hyperlocal climate information and agronomic modeling to help farmers improve their profitability.

“All of these tech trends are creating these opportunities,” Norman says. “Given how we see technologies and grower challenges evolving, our team needs to be able to identify the key themes and investment opportunities now that will be important to growers in the future.”

When Syngenta Ventures’ portfolio companies are successful, so is Syngenta. “When we help create successful companies, we have a real impact on agriculture,” Norman says. “Our core mission is to help create new tools to make growers more profitable. For us, it’s all about the collaboration to maximize that success.”