Digging into data to support the sustainable agriculture revolution

Elsevier’s analytical expertise is helping Syngenta develop cutting-edge agricultural technologies

Precision farming can help farmers manage large areas of land in a short time. (Photo © Syngenta)

Agriculture is undergoing a technological revolution with the emergence of precision farming. Crops can be managed closely with fewer resources. Automatic notifications warn when water or nutrients are needed. Drones with imaging technology can monitor large areas of land in a short time remotely.

These and other possibilities are transforming farming from a labor-intensive, manual job into a technological one.

New industry transformations are occurring through processes where genes can be used to improve crop productivity, new breeding techniques can accelerate the breeding cycle and novel chemicals or biologicals can help manage crop pests.

But how are these technologies developed and put into practice? This process relies on close collaboration between academia and industry – the researchers who come up with the technologies and the companies that can develop and take them to market.

For companies to keep their products cutting-edge, they must understand which technologies are being developed by whom and where in the world. One way they do this is through technology scouts – experts who look for the top researchers, institutions and countries working on tomorrow’s biggest innovations in their field.

Scouting for new technology helps companies like Syngenta direct their own research and development and integrate innovations into the solutions they provide to farmers.

Digging into data

Tong Zhu, PhDDr. Tong Zhu, a global expert on technology scouting for Syngenta’s department of External Collaboration and Adjacent Technologies (EXCAT), and his team had a rough idea of who was doing what around the world in terms of agricultural technology, from the country to the researcher level. But they wanted to make sure they had all the relevant information. He explained:

Essentially we identify technologies that meet our needs and identify those that can complement our capability. We need a global view; we like to position our research and development according to the strength of research capability around the world, as we’re global.

We also need to identify potential collaborators to work with. We are always concerned about potential blind spots, so we decided it was time to do a reassessment of the technological innovations being developed globally. We received 10 proposals and interviewed six, choosing Elsevier in the end.

Each proposal had a different flavor; it was Elsevier’s quantitative approach based on Scopus citation analysis that attracted Syngenta – they thought it would give them an unbiased view, Dr. Zhu said. He explained that others may have interviewed opinion leaders, for example, which could lead to bias. Based on the proposal, they saw that Elsevier has a strong text mining capability. Limiting searches to keywords introduces bias from the beginning, but using natural language processing (NLP) and text mining can expand this and reduce bias.

Elsevier’s Analytical Services team has a strong track record in helping companies realize the value potential in their knowledge base. (The Syngenta project was led by Dr. Thomas Gurney, Analytics Product Manager at Elsevier and co-author of this story, and Dr. Inga Kohlhof, a linguist for Elsevier’s Research Products division.) The team’s skills and expertise helped Syngenta understand and implement the results of an exploratory analysis of agricultural R&D.

In addition, the reporting provided by the team is based on understanding a set of metrics, which helps Dr. Zhu’s team present the results to their stakeholders in an internal report. Dr. Zhu described the process:

This project sounds very straightforward but in fact it is not. We didn’t want the standard ranking according to set subject areas; we wanted to be much more specific. Inga and the Elsevier team tried hard to understand our jargon and cutting-edge subjects and match the customized concept we envisioned into a more broadly used national library of agriculture terms.

When the project was completed, Dr. Zhu and the team carried out an internal assessment of the collaborative project. The team submitted many comments and gave high marks to Elsevier, especially in the last part of the analytics process. Dr. Zhu continued:

At Syngenta we believe that the best outcome always results from collaborative team work. We liked the interactivity with the Elsevier team, and through this collaborative process, everybody says they learned a lot from the research intelligence experts. An understanding of the process together with the relationship established during the course of the project gives us a common language for any future work.

Dr. Zhu and the team are now using the Elsevier report to generate their internal report, which will be used to help position the company’s R&D collaborative capabilities according to the global research capability landscape. The data for the ranking is useful in this context because it will help them identify the key institutions to partner with.

Sustainable agricultural development

Technology is changing the way crops are managed; specially designed roofs can harvest light more efficiently. (Photo courtesy of Syngenta)

Syngenta’s mission is “bringing plant potential to life.” The company takes different angles on the same challenge: to provide sustainable agricultural development around the world. As an R&D company, Syngenta has one of the most comprehensive technology platforms in the industry, providing integrated solutions to farmers – including smallholders in developing countries.

To do this, Syngenta partners with researchers and companies, supported by its R&D Partnerships Portal, thoughtseeders. People can submit ideas for agricultural technologies through the platform, potentially to be taken up by one of their 5,000 R&D scientists. This is valuable for Dr. Zhu:

This is the key – how can we access or connect to innovations being developed in other countries? Before we integrate, we need to know where they are. That’s where the Elsevier report comes in, as it gives us a robust basis on which to make decisions about where to pursue partnerships. We also use open innovation as a tool to help integrate external innovations into our products and solutions through collaborations.

The potential of this kind of collaboration is enormous. By opening the door to innovative ideas from external sources, companies can enter collaborations that could support sustainable development, boost research into agricultural technologies – both inside and outside Syngenta – and accelerate the technological revolution happening on farms worldwide.

Tracking technology

The methods and data employed by Elsevier’s Analytical Services team come from the fields of bibliometrics and natural language processing (NLP). Inga Kohlhof led the NLP aspect of the project and worked with Syngenta to identify key terms and phrases that described the research area Syngenta was interested in. Thomas Gurney led the analytics aspect of the project, using the results of Inga’s analyses and leveraging Scopus’ comprehensive coverage to provide the most appropriate indicators and metrics.


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