ESI Team

The Future of Agriculture and Biotech at Bayer

November 9, 2022
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On the 12th episode of Enterprise Software Innovators, Bijoy Sagar, Chief Information Technology and Digital Transformation Officer at Bayer joins the show to discuss exciting technological innovations in agriculture and biotechnology that are positively impacting billions of people across the globe. As one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, Bayer is regularly deploying technology at impressive scales, from drones picking up soil moisture data on farmland, to AI models optimizing drug trial processes. Bijoy’s perspective on AI highlights not only where the technology is today but offers our audience a glimpse into a brighter future. Bijoy also shares his insights on how startups and enterprise companies can form mutually beneficial partnerships.

Bayer’s operations span across farming, pharmaceuticals, and biotech, and Bijoy shares two examples in particular that highlight how technology plays a pivotal role in optimizing these areas. While farming might not seem like the place where next-generation technology is being regularly deployed, Bijoy describes Bayer’s fascinating efforts in helping farmers gather invaluable data about their land. A complex network of drones flies over nearly 73 million acres of farmland, picking up reams of data into soil moisture levels which then helps farmers predict how to best utilize seed supply. From there, more sustainable agriculture practices are possible, as farmers use the data to make important decisions around harvests throughout the year. As Bijoy puts it, “If you want to think about [digital farming] right now, this may not be the most critical digital topic someone would think about until you realize that this is the food you're eating every day.” 

As it relates to Bayer’s pharmaceutical practices, algorithms are helping Bayer optimize everything from clinical trials to properly designing molecules to create safe and effective medical treatments. What this allows for is quicker time to market, which can mean faster treatment options for cancer patients. Bijoy is quick to point out that the technology is simply a tool to the broader mission: “...the things where the technology is really exciting for me, it's not about the technology, it's really about people on the other side.” Bayer’s commitment to “Health for All. Hunger for None.” is the frame Bijoy uses with his team to keep them mission-driven. 

Like several previous guests, Bijoy is excited about AI and its possibilities for a range of applications while also sharing an important perspective about the infrastructure that is yet to be created to support the next generation of AI. As Bijoy describes it, for the algorithms of the future to truly make an impact, the computing power needs to catch up. As much as people might think it’s an algorithm problem, Bijoy sees infrastructure gaps as well. Bijoy likens the process of AI improving to the transition of trains from traditional tracks to Hyperloop, where not only are the trains (algorithms) improved but the tracks themselves (infrastructure) are modified to handle an entirely new type of train: “Making better wheels so that the trains go faster is different from going from trains to hyperloop…And that's sort of the journey we are on right now. The next evolution for me is, how do you go from those trains on wheels to Hyperloop where you don't have wheels anymore…We have to build the loop first, then we worry about how you have the vessel going through the loop, but that requires infrastructure commitment.” 

Bijoy identifies two areas where the future of AI could have massive implications for both medical and farming outcomes. With better models, Bijoy predicts that the protein folding and advanced visualizations required for curing diseases like Parkinson’s is possible within the next 10 years. For farming, Bijoy is confident that AI will play a critical role in helping identify new crops that are more drought-resistant, enabling plentiful harvests with less water as climate patterns change. For companies like Bayer, utilizing next-generation technology like AI is crucial to solving these mission-critical initiatives.

When it comes to partnering with startups, Bijoy lays out a mental model he’s honed through years of experience at Bayer and previous roles. While startups can sometimes fall victim to “finding a problem to solve,” he recognizes that the perspectives inherent at startups invariably provide new perspectives and solutions to larger companies like Bayer. As Bijoy describes it, startups can positively accelerate what he calls the ‘iPhone problem’: “...I get surprised by a new way of looking at a problem…So let's see if I can solve that problem because I didn't know I had it. This is your iPhone problem: Nobody was asking for an iPhone until it showed up and then they're like, ‘oh this is awesome, it solves a lot of issues for me.’” In particular, startup founders have high degrees of “job openness,” which he describes as the ability to see the connective tissue between multiple problems that on the surface seem unrelated. In larger organizations, job openness and what Bijoy calls “network thinking,” is not as common a trait, which is why partnering with startups can pay great dividends for large enterprises. 

Partnerships with startups are most successful when there’s some appetite for risk since startups are regularly working on new initiatives without much real-world application. On the other hand, startups should be mindful that customer trust is the most valuable asset a large organization has, whereas startups have not earned any since their products and services have not been out in the marketplace. Bijoy sums up the ideal balance: “What does trust mean? Trust means complying with rules and regulations, meeting customers' expectations, fulfilling promises that you make, and being accountable to governments in multiple geographies. And that I think is where the startups sometimes lose it…the disconnect between startups and large enterprises startups sometimes think ‘oh these guys are slow, these guys are not getting my vision. If only they would just sort of buy into it and give me a chance…’ go into it thinking, ‘I'm asking them to play with trust.’”

Listen to Bijoy's episode here and read the transcript here.