What's behind Syngenta's move to open up its genome-editing and new breeding tech?

By Maria Fortunato

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/MicrovOne
Image: Getty/MicrovOne

Related tags Syngenta crispr gene editing

In a groundbreaking move, Syngenta Group has announced that it is expanding access to its genome-editing and breeding technologies to academic researchers globally.

This initiative, part of Syngenta's commitment to fostering innovation and enhancing sustainability in agriculture, is facilitated through the group’s collaborative platform Shoots by Syngenta, which aims to foster innovation and sustainability in the agricultural sector.

Unlocking CRISPR's potential

Syngenta's decision to provide rights to selected genome-editing technologies, particularly optimised CRISPR-Cas12a, marks a significant step in agricultural innovation. CRISPR technology enables precise genetic modifications, allowing for the rapid development of improved plant varieties without the need to introduce DNA from other species. This can result in more productive and resilient crops, thereby addressing some of the most pressing challenges in agriculture.

Gusui Wu, Head of Global Seeds Research at Syngenta, emphasised the transformative potential of CRISPR in agriculture, saying, “The increased use of CRISPR in agriculture can transform the way we approach plant breeding, accelerating the discovery and deployment of innovations that provide growers more productive and resilient crops. We are inviting universities and academic institutions from around the world to help us drive innovation to improve the sustainability of agriculture.”

Leading up to this announcement, Syngenta scientists had already been continuously innovating to improve CRISPR-Cas genome editing technologies. They had engineered CRISPR Cas12a to increase both its efficiency as well as utility, significantly optimising it as a tool for crop improvement.

Shoots by Syngenta: A hub for innovation

This is the latest development in Syngenta’s openness to sharing technology with both public and private entities, enabling quick, straightforward access to its proprietary technologies for academic and non-profit research use. This was preceded by the 2023 launch of Shoots by Syngenta, which aims to create partnerships to tackle complex agricultural challenges.

Since then, Syngenta has been leveraging the platform to enhance collaboration and integration of diverse technological solutions. Through Shoots, it aims to break down barriers and encourage a wide array of scientists and researchers to contribute to solving agricultural challenges.

Speaking to AgTechNavigator​, Syngenta’s Head of Global Seeds R&D Partnerships Stuart Harrison highlighted the platform’s collaborative nature, saying, “Syngenta, as its strategy was developed, realised it couldn’t solve all the problems we were trying to attack from an agricultural perspective on our own. We saw collaboration as a key component of what we do as an innovative organisation.

“But we only had a limited amount of resources that could reach outside of Syngenta, so we started a brainstorm around how we could connect our innovation ecosystem with the external innovation ecosystem. And that's where Shoots was born —it’s our mechanism to share what we do and what our areas of research focus are but also, to identify key research challenges we're currently unable to solve.

“We're actively looking for partners and beyond that, using this as a mechanism to share innovation success stories where we've worked with collaborators — whether they be universities, start-ups or other organizations — to solve some of the key problems growers are facing from an agricultural perspective.”

Syngenta aims to raise awareness of the Shoots platform and position it as a hub for collaborative innovation. Kendra Gittus, Open Innovation Lead for Seeds R&D Partnerships, told ATN​: “One of the things we want to do is broaden our reach beyond our current domain, so while engaging with academia and start-ups (will help us) gain diversity of knowledge, we also want to expand and broaden our reach.

“By sharing our research challenges and needs, we’re giving an understanding to those academics and start-ups of what we're looking for as Syngenta but also, through Shoots, we want to facilitate collaboration and make it easy for them to connect with the right people within Syngenta.

“By using the platform, they can very easily submit a research proposal or technology for evaluation and know that their idea has found the right people within Syngenta, which is a large organisation to navigate as an external person not knowing where to start.”

Harrison added that the Shoots portal was unique, in that Syngenta was “the only big agricultural company with a proprietary platform” that allowed its scientists to connect with external scientists. At the same time, he said that unlike their competitors, Syngenta had chosen not to use third-party platforms.

“By having the Shoots capability, we actually can do much more than just promote or identify collaborators — we can also promote success stories. We're using it as a mechanism for distributing open-source tools into the digital space as well,” he said.

Funding and investment: What, where and why?

According to Harrison, the focus of Shoots is primarily to serve Syngenta’s seeds and crop protection business units. As such, it has been looking at “everything from early-stage enabling technologies to cutting-edge technologies” associated with genome editing in the crop protection space, from formulation to sustainable chemistry.

He added that the Shoots team has discovered and tapped into its ability to access adjacent industries, which is important as innovation in the ag-tech space comes not only from within the agricultural innovation community.

“A lot of the cutting-edge technologies, such as genome editing, or some of the cutting-edge crop protection technologies, are also coming from the pharmaceutical side of the innovation ecosystem. So this is where Shoots is uniquely allowing us to collaborate with people we've never thought about collaborating with before,” said Harrison.

He went on to explain Shoots’ process and rationale for investment allocation: “We identify a challenge we're going after within Syngenta, post that challenge outside, then receive solutions from people externally. That then promotes a conversation and hopefully, a collaboration where we can take that technology forward.

“We pull together a technical team that does an evaluation, then decide on what we think is the best of the technologies to move forward with. So it's a technical deep-dive into what's been sent to us, which we evaluate within our R&D teams to decide which is the most promising technology.”

Gittus added that another priority for Shoots when making funding decisions was to ensure “broad diversity of thought” so that people outside Syngenta’s current domain would engage with them and give them the green light to drive potential collaborations in that space.

Navigating challenges and celebrating successes

Harrison also outlined the core challenges and successes the platform has faced. One primary challenge has been educating Syngenta’s scientists on formulating questions that invite broader scientific engagement. This effort ensures that the challenges posed are not only relevant to Syngenta but also solvable by a diverse scientific community, beyond just major players. This inclusive approach has required extensive internal learning and adaptation over the past six months.

“I think educating our scientists to ask a question in a way that makes it accessible to the maximum amount of the scientific community is important because if we're putting a challenge out there that can be solved only by Bayer, Corteva or Syngenta, it's not the right challenge or right question to be putting outside of Syngenta,” said Harrison.

“So one of the things we've been working with our science teams is how to ask the right questions in order to be able to access the technology they need. Similarly, broadcasting that need as broadly as possible is something we've been learning how to do over the last six months as well.”

On the success front, Shoots has excelled in promoting and celebrating collaborative innovations. By effectively communicating these successful partnerships, Syngenta has been able to highlight the real-world impacts of collaborative efforts on its R&D processes. Notably, Shoots has connected Syngenta with unexpected partners, bringing in fresh perspectives and solutions from industries and research spaces previously not considered.

Harrison said, “Collaborative innovation between us and third parties that's impacting Syngenta's R&D has been a great success story and it's something we haven't done as much in the past (but) Shoots enables the messages to get out there.

“We've actually identified partners we never thought of for some of the challenges — that means it's working. We've seen some solutions coming in from industries and research spaces we hadn't thought about reaching out to.”

Building Relationships with Diverse Partners

Kendra Gittus elaborated on the strategy behind building relationships through Shoots. The platform emphasises ease of connection between external parties and the right individuals within Syngenta. It starts with external researchers submitting non-confidential descriptions of their proposals, ensuring that these submissions receive acknowledgment and timely triage to assess their fit within Syngenta’s research strategy. This proactive engagement ensures that potential collaborators feel welcomed and are more likely to engage with Syngenta in the future.

Gittus also highlighted the importance of maintaining an active dialogue with potential partners. Rather than being a transactional tool, Shoots fosters ongoing relationships, allowing Syngenta to re-engage with promising researchers as their technologies mature.

Upcoming announcements and future directions

Syngenta has hinted at significant upcoming announcements related to Shoots, indicating continued progress and new partnerships. In fact it recently announced partnerships with IBM Research and US bio-tech firm Maxygen.

Syngenta and IBM Research have leveraged IBM-RXN, a language model-based software, to enhance chemical synthesis processes to enable faster, more efficient product development. This collaboration integrates predictive reactivity modelling with synthesis planning, improving synthetic workflows and environmental sustainability.

In its partnership with Maxygen, Syngenta Seeds is optimising molecular enabling technologies through the directed evolution of proteins. This collaboration has produced protein variants with significantly improved attributes, contributing to novel intellectual property.

Shoots by Syngenta is also seeking new collaborators for six specific challenges, ranging from creating chemical building blocks from biomass waste to developing diagnostic tools for crop growth indicators. The initiative invites proposals from academia, research institutes, start-ups and cross-industry sectors.

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