Life science giant Bayer is betting that fostering cooperation among research scientists across its three distinct divisions – pharmaceuticals, consumer health and crop science – will spur innovation.
Think of it as a cross-pollination effort by the Germany-based company, which employs roughly 1,000 workers at its crop science division in Research Triangle Park.
“The aim is, obviously, to look at opportunities whereby we can all work together,” said Kemal Malik, who heads Bayer’s company-wide innovation efforts around the globe. “That gives us a unique opportunity as a life science company because we are the only company that has human and plant health under the same umbrella.”
Cooperation between scientists who focus on developing drugs and those who develop pesticides and fungicides may sound far-fetched to the uninitiated, but Bayer R&D executives said in an interview this week that it’s grounded in science. The executives are in the Triangle this week for a gathering of 120 of the company’s crop science R&D leaders from around the world being held at the Washington Duke Inn in Durham.
Scientists in the human and crop science camps are focused on discovering new molecules, and the processes they follow are similar in the initial stages of research, said Malik.
A key advantage, said Adrian Percy, who heads R&D for the crop science division, would be sharing the massive libraries of chemical compounds that the divisions have compiled. Those compounds are screened in an effort to find the needle in the haystack that can produce the desired effect – whether it be fighting disease in humans or improving a plant’s ability to withstand drought.
Sharing those libraries of compounds “gives us a bigger starting point,” Percy said. “That’s a big advantage.”
It will require a cultural shift. But Percy believes that the company’s scientists are predisposed to making it work.
“If you take it down to the scientists’ level, this is about opening doors between different parts of the organization,” Percy said. “Scientists are curious by nature and they like to collaborate. Once you put them in the same space and take the shackles off and allow them to talk, good things happen.”
The new R&D approach comes on the heels of a major reorganization that Bayer initiated in September following the spinout of its nearly 17,000-employee plastics division into a separate company called Covestro. Following that spinout, Bayer had 102,700 employees worldwide and became what Malik calls “a pure play life science company.”
As part of that reorganization, the division previously known as Bayer CropScience simply became the crop science division.
That division has been steadily expanding its presence in the Triangle, including adding 67 new hires in 2015. Bayer also has invested about $150 million in new facilities locally since 2012, including renovating the division’s North American headquarters and building high-tech greenhouses. RTP is also the global headquarters of Bayer’s seeds business.
“RTP for us is really a key area,” Percy said. “This is one of the important hubs of agricultural science worldwide. For us, it is really critical to be here.”
In addition to Bayer’s crop science division, agricultural biotechnology giants BASF and Syngenta are major employers in the Triangle, which also is home to a growing number of agricultural technology startups.