Collaboration and a New Model for Innovation in Agriculture

By Adrian Percy, Chief Technology Officer at UPL

Adrian Percy headshot
I have always believed that the answers to these challenges can only be achieved through collaboration and cooperation between our industry, growers, consumers and policy makers.
– Adrian Percy, UPL

It wasn’t so long ago that advancements in artificial intelligence and robotics were characterised not only as an existential threat to business practices, but even to mankind. Just six years ago even Elon Musk quipped that AI risked ‘summoning the demon’ and the following year the late Professor Stephen Hawking warned the Wall Street Journal that AI ‘could spell the end of the human race.’ Fast forward to 2020, and from search engines to beverage companies and mobile payments to healthcare – machine learning, gene editing and super-computing are central to delivering the World Economic Forum’s vision of a ‘fourth industrial revolution’ which is dependent on the fusion of ‘the physical, digital and biological worlds’.

The opportunities afforded by such technological development are now core to any modern business sector and agriculture is no exception. So, what is changing in agriculture with the arrival of new and exciting technologies, and what does it mean for the future of farmers and the industry at large?

The pace of change is where the shift has been felt most keenly. For an industry based on the predictable rhythms of harvests, seasons and rotation cycles, the need to move faster to keep pace with technology changes and shifting consumer expectations may not have come naturally, but it has certainly forced the established model of research and development into a radical and exciting state of flux.

When I started my career, research and development operations within the companies I worked for were mostly inward-looking, closely guarded and product focused with results protected with exacting secrecy. Back then, the only other option to in-house inventions was relying on exclusive licensing agreements or outright acquisition of new technologies to drive innovation. But today, the model for innovation has radically changed for the better across a breadth of different fields, from pharmaceuticals to fintech and now ag. Outside ideas are being brought inside the tent, and leaders in the ag and food arena are beginning to adapt to embrace it.

Across the world, we are facing unpredictable climate conditions, reductions in water availability and soil degradation, all while trying to maintain the delicate balance of growing enough food for an expanding global population with also reducing our environmental impact. I have always believed that the answers to these challenges can only be achieved through collaboration and cooperation between our industry, growers, consumers and policy makers. But achieving this will require a brand new, open and inclusive model of innovation.

Agricultural and food production systems need to change, and our approach to innovation must change with them. Technology will undoubtedly play a vital role in food and sustainability initiatives to ensure food security for all, and will drive the availability and deployment of new products, systems, services and platforms. As the leading total crop solutions company for small growers worldwide, for 50 years UPL has focused on securing the world’s long-term food supply through an integrated portfolio of agricultural inputs, products and solutions. To secure this for the next 50 years, we need a new approach. This is where UPL is committed to changing the game. UPL’s approach can be best summed up in one word: OpenAg.

OpenAg brings together all the different players in the food system in a collaborative, transparent and inclusive effort to pursue the most effective long-term solutions to developing the global food system. As part of this approach, we are launching the OpenAg Center: an accelerator programme led by UPL and working in collaboration with outside companies, entrepreneurs and scientists to welcome in and cultivate the best new ideas and technologies from across the world.

The OpenAg Center will be at the heart of UPL’s new Research & Development hub in North Carolina and will create a platform that embraces the tremendous advancements in new scientific approaches, breakthrough technologies and crossovers from other sectors, that occur outside our walls. We will leverage the power of our internal R&D team to help external innovators accelerate their go-to-market strategy through our characterization, formulation, field trialling and regulatory platforms.

We call the first step in this process ‘characterisation’, which means we ask the fundamental ‘how’ and ‘what’ questions to determine the innovation credentials of each new technology that comes through our door and address key data points like efficacy, potential toxicity and bio-degradation. UPL will work with partners not only to provide infrastructure and dedicated resources for each technology, but to cut down on wasted time by helping with the extensive registration and regulatory processes that can crush many start-up technologies before they even get off the ground. The OpenAg Center is designed to create a ‘right first time’ approach, providing the most direct route from great idea to real product, through a true service offering and collaboration model.

UPL is dedicated to creating the world’s first, genuinely open, agricultural network. The launch of our OpenAg Center underlines how the latest efforts in North America are bringing us one step closer to making this a reality. Our agile, collaborative and cost-effective R&D platform will help create the building blocks of a more sustainable future for food and agriculture – one that fosters a new wave of innovation that will benefit the entire industry, from the smallest to the largest grower worldwide.

Adrian Percy will speak in a standalone presentation on ‘Embracing Collaboration to Drive Technology Development & Innovation‘ at the World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit on March 18, 2020.