Recently, DuPont Pioneer unveiled its Bay Area Innovation Center tying together its startup, field R&D and integrated operations across California. So the THRIVE team spoke with two innovation leaders at DuPont Pioneer, Barbara Mazur, Vice President of Technology Acquisition Strategy and Gusui Wu, Technology and Innovation Lead, Bay Area Innovation Center- to discuss the company’s AgTech innovation strategy.
THRIVE: Given population projections and resource constraints, biotechnology has played a big part in agriculture R&D. Can you provide some examples of this at DuPont Pioneer?
BM: One of the major challenges facing agriculture is protecting plants from insects and pests, and we have seen that today’s GMO Bt traits do not lend themselves to durable resistance, so there is a continued need for new modes of insect control. Recently, we invested in Provivi (a THRIVE Top 50 company), which is using pheromone application not only to the technology’s historic target specialty crops, but also to row crops. We are also collaborating with the Israeli company Evogene to test microbial seed applied technologies through accelerated microbiome analysis, formulation and fermentation to improve corn productivity globally.
We also need to focus on generating public acceptance of gene editing (like CRISPR- Cas) as different from genetically modified engineering. This will require education and marketing that stresses that target plants don’t have genes of foreign origin and we are looking to do this by helping both support and create companies that develop a host of consumer-friendly, transparent crops. Ultimately, growing consumer awareness for this technology will be beneficial from an environmental perspective. The analogy I use is that today’s grapes are sprayed many times throughout their lifetime to combat pest and disease, resulting in huge amounts of pesticides released into the soil and ground water, whereas gene editing helps us to bypass pesticide application spray altogether. In this example and many others, we have to understand the fundamental trade-offs of new technology.
THRIVE: Tell us about DuPont Pioneer’s approach to external innovation. What kinds of external technologies does the company look for and are these technologies tested and integrated?
BM: At its core, what DuPont Pioneer brings to the market is fuelled by an openness to innovation, strong research and development and collaboration with partners and farmers around the world. To date, we have a very successful digital agriculture business which provides farmers with as much information as possible in a given place and time. Currently we are looking into satellite and drone imagery to build out our offering for growers.
A big part of what we do is review what exists in the market and what technologies are emerging which would enhance our core businesses- including trait discovery, plant breeding, enabling technologies, biologicals and digital solutions. From a practical point of view, DuPont Pioneer engages in an annual white paper process which looks at potential investments, alliance partners, technologies, and competitors which are strategic to us. Beyond that, we work together with our collaborators, including our startup partners, on designing joint proof of principles and generating enough solid data, through field trials and germ plasms, to prove that solutions perform to standards.
GS: DuPont Pioneer has invested a lot of time into understanding its own critical gaps and the areas of research and technology development today which might fill those gaps. This starts with reviews of the company’s functional groups and continues with further work by an external technology advisory board comprised of senior leaders in research, legal and business, all of whom review what external opportunities might make the most sense for the company.
DuPont is a market shaper of the agriculture industry, and this requires that we are at the front of AgTech development and investment. I recently relocated to California to lead DuPont Pioneer’s Bay Area Innovation Center, a strategic move to be closely connected with seed companies, growth companies and future acquisitions. I’d imagine that in the long run, the company’s portfolio would reflect technologies impacting core existing businesses, potential industry disruption, and those technologies that fit within the vision of the company’s overall strategy to transform from a product-oriented business to a solution-oriented business.
THRIVE: DuPont Pioneer recently joined the THRIVE Venture & Innovation Platform, how do you envision this partnership developing?
GS: What we saw was that THRIVE had a portfolio of different companies that is not focused on row crop technology companies, which makes it different from its peers. THRIVE as a platform enables us to participate in the innovation ecosystem in order to make investments beyond CVC and discover other models that will help us advance technology. Ultimately, this will enable us to broaden portfolio priorities beyond core business alignments to those technologies that are at the cutting edge.