Effective communication is the essence of open innovation

November 01, 2018

Industrial agriculture is a highly complex operation. We've practiced agriculture for some 12,000 years, and in that time have continued finding innovative ways to feed a growing population.

Dow AgroSciences is very open about the complexity of their R&D pipeline. They told Grainews in 2016 that, on average, 10 years elapse between idea generation and market launch. The associated costs are significant; the company told Western Farmpress that the average cost to bring a new active ingredient to market between 2010 and 2014 was $286 million. More recently, Vahid Aidun, Licensing Leader at Dow AgroSciences, said in a joint webinar with Wellspring that they evaluate 140,000 compounds before selecting one they can commercialize.

To make innovation succeed at that scale, communication is paramount. Everyone involved needs to understand their role in the process, how to leverage the contributions of others, and how to pool resources and efforts among teams.

Clearly communicating a 'technology target'

So where does it all begin? For Aidun, the answer is specific technology targets, or "hit lists." These are the innovation priorities set by leadership within the organization. They're crucial because they provide focal points for R&D and technology scouts. Aidun stressed the importance of clearly communicating these targets across the organization.

It can be challenging to make these communications effective. Dow AgroSciences has formal technology scouts, tasked with evaluating innovation opportunities. But it also has 8,000 employees – not to mention the 50,000 total Dow Chemical employees – who act as deputized technology scouts just by being privy to technology targets.

Communicating your targets really pays off. At Dow, there was once an R&D employee, aware of a specific target, who called attention to a small startup that some of his former co-workers had joined. Dow Agro followed up on that lead, and ended up forging a technology partnership with Radiant Genomics.

The more that sourcing and licensing teams activate antennae across the organization, the stronger the pipeline will become.

Call and response

It’s also important to respond efficiently to inbound opportunities. Dow Agro follows up on every lead, regardless of its promise. For example, one employee found a patent belonging to a lone soybean farmer over 70 years of age – someone who was unlikely to be the source of a breakthrough technology. Nonetheless, the scouting team followed their process, and Dow Agro ended up licensing the technology.

Promptness matters as well: Dow Agro commits to responding to all opportunities in two weeks or less. Over time, this builds a reputation of responsiveness, which in turn drives a better pipeline of inbound opportunities, For Aidun, a track record of timely follow-up has created value, both at Dow and in previous roles. For instance, a new type of yeast for ethanol production would never have come their way without the benefit of positive word-of-mouth.

To ensure timely responses, it’s critical to kill projects early and often. Aidun emphasizes that their tech scouts are empowered to shut down efforts that are unlikely to pan out. This helps preserve goodwill with the business leaders, who will feel their time has been respected. And it will preserve sufficient bandwidth on the scouting teams to continue triaging all inbound leads.

If you make people feel heard, they will share their ideas with you instead of your competitors.

Finding internal efficiencies

A company like Dow Agro relies heavily on open innovation. But they also have systematic communication processes and protocols that make it possible to evaluate large volumes of inbound leads without wasting too much time.

The company uses Wellspring's software to centrally document the status of every lead, whether it originated internally or came from outside. These living records act as a single source of truth. Any back-and-forth communication with a lead is documented in the system, preserving institutional knowledge and avoiding duplicative work.

Without strong transparency and communication, the pattern of redundant work can spiral out of control. For example, the Dow Agro team once evaluated a technology to reduce the amount of lignin in corn plants. They decided to reject the technology and move on. But the same lead came back at least three times, through different colleagues ranging from R&D to Sales and even the CEO. Thanks to strong documentation of their previous communications with that lead, the scouting team was able to quickly reference their pre-existing decision and move on.

For success, each stage of the cycle needs strong communication – from initial targets, to follow-up on leads, to internal awareness raising. The efficiencies gained, and additional opportunities uncovered, more than compensate for the effort required in the first place.

We encourage you to watch the webinar and hear for yourself how Dow AgroSciences optimizes their tech scouting program.





Let's Talk