From Research & Development to Research-Innovate-Develop. (Episode 18)

Interview with Krysia Sommers, Head of Innovation Engagement at who was Bayer.

What can a large multi-national organization learn from its R&D scientists? That is the question I had in mind when I connected with Krysia Sommers, who was Bayer’s Head of Innovation Engagement during the organization’s four-year experiment to run a Corporate Innovation function from 2016 until June 2020.

Bayer – a Life Sciences company with a more than 150-year history, 100,000 employees and core competencies in the fields of Pharmaceuticals, Crop Science and Consumer Health – conducted a four-year experiment (from 2016 to 2020) to run an in-house Corporate Innovation department.

The Bayer organization boasts around 17,000 (seventeen thousand!) scientists working in R&D. The organization’s vision is “Health for all. Hunger for none,” an inspiring vision, especially when you learn that employees work across departments – and with partners outside the organization – to make it happen.

Krysia’s role is to help transform the organization’s innovation culture by engaging employees to learn and leverage innovation behaviors, trainings, programs, platforms and people. The first thing she tells us when I get a chance to interview her about innovation at Bayer is: “Bayer is in the midst of a transformation. Towards the end of the 19th century, the laboratory was our world; today the world is our laboratory.”

Now, that does not mean that innovation is no longer happening in the laboratory. On the contrary: With the ever-converging fields of science and technology, lab-work at Bayer is embarking on a transformative journey that includes leveraging digital solutions such as automation; robotics-based strategies; as well as virtual prediction systems which are increasing throughputs and accelerating the discovery and development of new drugs.

Bayer’s transformation also means that the organization today thrives on collaborating with the brightest minds within and beyond Bayer to create world-leading solutions in health and nutrition. These solutions may emerge from Bayer’s own labs, through its CoLaborators, its Open Innovation LifeHubs (located at strategic hotspots across the world) through in-licensing, partnering or via more disruptive joint venturing activities.

While the large number of scientists play a huge part in making Bayer an innovative company (with the organization being recently ranked as one of the 50 most innovative companies in the world by Boston Consulting Group) it is the interaction between employees in Research, Development and the rest of the organization where the innovation magic happens.

Krysia emphasizes that Bayer has a sharp focus on fostering collaboration between functions and departments. This is achieved through the company’s myriad of “intrapreneurship” programs, digital platforms and opportunities that invite cross-functional teams (from scientists to sales employees) to collectively leverage the benefits of knowledge-exchange and mutual inspiration.

One scientist, let’s call him Jack, was struggling to identify the stomata (spores) on a leaf. So Jack posted his challenge onto the company’s crowd-sourcing idea platform WeSolve. Bayer’s WeSolve platform has 40,000 registered employees who are keen to offer potential solutions to existing challenges. Just days after Jack posted his challenge, he received a note from an IT employee who offered the use of his high-tech camera. The next day, Jack was in possession of the camera and had also identified the stomata on his leaf.

Another group of scientists working for Bayer’s seeds business faced a challenge to separate hybrid wheat seeds from non-hybrid wheat seeds. The team decided to plug their challenge into one of Bayer’s LifeHubs – an ecosystem of seven external innovation hubs across the globe which strive to tap into the brightest minds within and beyond Bayer to create world-leading solutions in health and agriculture. The team opted for LifeHub Boston, where they spent three days working alongside entrepreneurs; academics and students from Harvard and MIT – a nano-technologist, a static engineer and an architect. In true prototyping modus, the static engineer (after just a few hours) asked for a plate, some flour and a balloon. After rubbing the balloon against his trousers and placing it over the plate of flour and mixed seeds, the non-hybrid seeds rose up and stuck to the static balloon. A very simple solution from an unexpected source that happened purely because people from different walks of life got their heads together to solve a problem.

Meanwhile, Bayer’s objective to foster heightened entrepreneurialism has far-reaching impact also beyond the lab. The company’s Catalyst Fund program, for example, invites employees across 65 countries to learn and apply fast- experimentation to existing challenges by systematically testing new business ideas and creating pioneering solutions WITH and not only FOR customers – be they farmers, patients or consumers. One example faced by smallholder farmers in Thailand was that they did not have the appropriate tools to spray tall jasmine rice plants from above. While the obvious solution would be to provide drone sprayers to the farmers, the Catalyst Fund team applied their learnings in Lean Startup to work in close proximity with farmers and tune in to their real pain points. After conducting 50 field trials and working with 2,500 farmers in North-East Thailand, the team discovered that the farmers were on average 60 years old, with the majority suffering from tech-phobia and often not owning a mobile device. Even entertaining the thought of operating a drone was unthinkable. The farmers however were highly interested and intrigued by the benefits that the drones offered in terms of increased efficiency, yield and sustainable agricultural practices through precision-farming. Equipped with these new customer insights, the Bayer team pivoted their approach to offer farmers service teams of specialized drone agents (or so-called “spray-men”) who could operate the drones on behalf of the farmers.

At the end of my discussion with Krysia, I asked her what Bayer can learn from R&D.

She answered my inquiry with a thought-provoking question: “Isn’t it time to stop squeezing R&D together as a separate entity – especially because Research and Development are fundamentally very different from one another? In my opinion, innovation is an ongoing journey that comprises researching, iterating, testing and developing with customers. This should run through the whole organization like a gel that binds people together to collaborate and to innovate more. In this sense, we could actually coin a new acronym RID – Research, Innovate and Develop – as these three components form the entrepreneurial thread that makes up the ever-expanding fabric towards constantly beating customer expectations.”

What is your view of stop squeezing R&D together as a separate entity?




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